Solving Consumer Problems
- Whenever you have a problem with a product or a service, first discuss your complaint with the merchant.
- If necessary, write a letter to the company's consumer affairs office or its president. Your letter should be brief and to the point. See a sample letter below
- You might also contact organizations and agencies that provide consumer assistance. They include: your State Attorney General, other state and local consumer affairs offices, the Better Business Bureau, and the Federal Information Center. In addition, dispute resolution programs offer more substantive consumer assistance through mediation and arbitration. Bureau of Consumer Protection Office of Consumer & Business Education, (202) 326-3650.
As a consumer, you have the right to expect businesses to treat you fairly and honestly. However, there may be instances when you are not satisfied with a product or service and you need to know how to remedy the situation.
This information offers approaches to solving a consumer product or service problem. It helps you decide where and to whom you should direct your complaint and provides a sample complaint letter. Some organizations and agencies that provide consumer assistance also are listed.
How to Get Started
Whenever you have a problem with a product or service, first discuss your complaint with the merchant. If the first person you speak with cannot help, go to the manager and continue up the line of authority until you get satisfaction.
If necessary, write a letter to the company's consumer affairs office or its president. Management may be grateful when you bring a complaint to their attention. It can help them identify problems that could be bad for business. In some circumstances, it also may be necessary to contact the manufacturer.
An effective complaint letter should include certain essential pieces of information. It should be brief and to the point. List all important facts and include copies, NOT originals, of documentation regarding your complaint.
Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures. This will document what the company received.
If you cannot get satisfaction from the merchant or manufacturer, you may wish to try to get help elsewhere. The following organizations and agencies can be valuable resources:
State and Local Organizations
Look in your phone book for the complete names, addresses, and phone numbers for the following offices.
Attorney General or Consumer Affairs. Most offices are headquartered in your state capital, although many have local and regional offices.
Local or County Consumer Affairs
Better Business Bureau
Local media: television; radio; or newspaper consumer "Hotlines," such as Call For Action.
The Consumer's Resource Handbook, published by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, provides a listing of federal, state and local government agencies, and offices of private businesses and organizations that can help resolve consumer complaints. For a free copy of the Handbook, send a postcard to: Consumer's Resource Handbook, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colorado 81009. In addition, if you are not sure what federal agency has jurisdiction over your inquiry or complaint, you may contact the Federal Information Center (FIC). The FIC is listed in the U.S. government section of telephone directories in major cities around the country. For a complete listing of FIC telephone numbers, send a postcard to:Federal Information Center, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colorado 81009. Private Organizations
The National Fraud Information Center (NFIC), a project of the National Consumers League, operates a consumers' hotline at 1-800-876-7060. NFIC provides services and assistance in filing complaints and sends appropriate information to the Federal Trade Commission/National Association of Attorneys General Fraud Database for investigation and enforcement use.
Dispute Resolution Programs
Dispute resolution programs offer a substantive approach to settling disagreements. They can be quicker, less expensive, and more private than going to court. Many businesses and private organizations, as well as public agencies, offer dispute resolution programs. Some programs are free. Others charge a flat rate or one based on how much a consumer can afford.
Two common types of dispute resolution techniques are mediation and arbitration. Through mediation, you and the other party try to resolve the dispute with the help of a neutral third party — a mediator. In the course of informal meeting, the mediator tries to help resolve your differences. The mediator does not make a decision; it is up to you and the other party to reach an agreement. The mediator is there to help you find a solution.
In arbitration, you present your case before an arbitrator, who makes a decision about the case. Arbitration is less formal than court, though you and the other party may appear at hearings, present evidence, or call and question each other's witnesses. The decision may be binding and legally enforceable in court.
You may want to contact the following kinds of organizations to find out what dispute resolution options are available in your area: local or state consumer protection agencies, state attorneys general, small claims courts, some local court systems, Better Business Bureaus, bar associations, law school clinics, and nonprofit dispute resolution programs. The FTC publishes two publications that more fully describe dispute resolution programs: Road to Resolution: Settling Consumer Disputes, which includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of national dispute resolution programs and a brochure, How to Resolve Consumer Disputes. You can obtain free copies of these brochures by contacting Public Reference at the address or phone number listed at the end of this publication.
For More Information
The FTC publishes What's Going on at the FTC? This brochure describes the major activities for the five Consumer Protection Divisions: Advertising Practices; Credit Practices; Enforcement; Marketing Practices; and Service Industry Practices. The brochure is intended not only to inform you of the FTC's work, but also to encourage you to share with the agency your marketplace concerns when they fall under FTC Jurisdiction. Your letters often are the first indication of a problem in the marketplace. While the FTC cannot intervene in individual disputes, the information you provide may help to indicate a pattern of possible law violations requiring action by the Commission. Complaints should be sent to: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.
The FTC also has a series of publications on a variety of consumer topics including: cars, credit, health, homes and real estate, investments, products, services, telemarketing, and more. To obtain a free copy of Best Sellers, which lists the FTC's consumer publications, contact: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580; (202) 326-2222. TDD (202) 326-2502.
Sample Complaint Letter
(Name of Contact Person)(Title)
Dear (Contact Person)
On (Date), I purchased (or had repaired) a (name of the product with the serial or model number or service performed). I made this purchase at (location, date, and other important details of the transaction).
Unfortunately, your product (or service) has not performed well (or the service was inadequate) because (state the problem).
Therefore, to resolve the problem, I would appreciate your (state the specific action you want). Enclosed are copies (copies, NOT originals) of my records (receipts, guarantees, warranties, cancelled checks, contracts, model and serial numbers, and any other documents).
I look forward to your reply and a resolution to my problem and will wait (set a time limit) before seeking third-party assistance. Please contact me at the above address or by phone (home or office numbers with area codes).