Across the nation, the first week of March is celebrated as Consumer Protection Week. In New Jersey, the Attorney General’s office marks this occasion by warning consumers about the latest scams, and releasing data on consumer complaints that were filed with the office over the previous year. As in years past, this year’s data suggest that the Attorney General’s office, specifically the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, is the public’s most important protector against scam artists and fraudsters.
Complaints about home improvement contractors and motor vehicle-related sales and repairs once again topped the list of formal complaints the Division of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Consumer Protection received from consumers last year.
The formal complaints – 9,430 for the year – are separate from the 67,027 calls last year to the Division’s Consumer Service Center hotline, many of which are resolved through various forms of mediation or are referred to other appropriate agencies.
Keeping with longstanding trends, “Home Improvement” issues, and “Motor Vehicles” complaints (which includes auto sales, auto repairs, and related matters) were #1 and #2 respectively on the Division’s 2015 Top 10 complaints list. Coming in at #3 was the “Professional Services” category, which includes complaints about physicians, lawyers, accountants, medical labs, and other professions or businesses.
A category that saw an uptick in complaints last year was “Internet Sales,” reflecting the increasing trend of consumers reaching out to companies that advertise, buy, and sell goods and services online. The Division responded to the increased complaints by cracking down on some of the biggest generators of internet sales complaints.
The complete Top 10 consumer complaint categories list for 2015 is as follows:
1. Home Improvement Contractors
2. Motor Vehicles
3. Professional Services
4. Health Clubs
5. Internet Sales
6. Miscellaneous Scams
7. Banks/Financial Institutions
8. Internet Services
9. Cable TV/Subscriptions
10. Wireless Phones
NJCJI applauds the Attorney General’s robust fraud fighting program, and we encourage consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, to file an online complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504- 6200.
Reporting fraud to the Attorney General’s office is the quickest and easiest way to get relief, and it has the added benefit of alerting the authorities that a scam artist is on the loose, so they can work to protect everyone, not just you.
However, the Attorney General is not our state’s only consumer fraud enforcer. In 1971, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act was amended to allow private attorneys to bring lawsuits against fraudsters on a consumer’s behalf. Later on, the Act was expanded to allow attorneys to file class actions on behalf of groups of consumers.
Over this same period, the Act has been expanded to cover many technical regulations the legislature has deemed good policy. For example, if certain contracts are not printed in 10 point font, that is considered a CFA violation.
Over the past decade or so, enterprising attorneys have discovered that CFA lawsuits are a good way to turn a profit, and a litigation bonanza has ensued. Some of these private lawsuits are good, but some are abusive and bizarre.
The NJCJI thinks it is time to reexamine and reform the design of the CFA so that it is refocused on fighting actual fraud. As the data from the AG’s office show, there are enough bad actors out there that we need to spend our time and money going after actual fraud.