Consumer Watchdog: I’m here to give you a voice and empower you

June 18th, 2015 10:29 am

First Posted: 4/14/2015

It’s your money, and nobody has the right to take it from you unfairly. So you plead with the store manager, who offers a patronizing smile, apologizes and says, unfortunately, there is nothing anyone can do.

You can dial 800, press 1 for this, press 2 for that — press 0 to go back to the main menu, and you might never get a human who will hear your voice. You feel powerless.

That’s when you need your Consumer Watchdog.

When I started my first consumer watchdog column about 10 years ago in New York’s Hudson Valley, I received 1,000 letters within the first two months from readers who felt they’d been scammed, cheated, ripped off or ignored by businesses to which they’d forked over their hard-earned money.

Among that first batch of complaints was a letter from a 78-year-old woman named Sylvia, who had paid a contractor $5,000 to remodel her kitchen. He took the loot and ran, never to be heard from again — until I called to let him know that he and his business would be featured in the Sunday paper.

Sylvia got a refund — every nickel — lickety-split.

Another woman, Arlene, paid a major retail store $700 for a TV-DVD and $170 for a service agreement. When the DVD player immediately went on the fritz, she sent it to the retailer’s service center and was promised it would be returned within 10 days. After three weeks of phone calls, being shuffled from person to person, and listening to “hold” music, Arlene contacted me.

“I would rather set my head on fire than call (them) for anything again,” she wrote.

I contacted the store’s headquarters in Chicago. Within days I heard from Arlene, who was on her way back to the store to pick up a new TV.

One of my most memorable complaints came from a farmer named Carol, who had enrolled her business account in online banking at a major U.S. bank.

She soon became the victim of a $55,000 online heist.

That’s right: an online bank robbery.

A couple of days before Christmas 2007, Carol received letters confirming $55,000 in wire transfers from her business account — transfers she had never authorized, and which left her account balance at zero.

Carol immediately reported the theft to her bank, who said they were very sorry, and then proceeded to remind her of a disclosure she had signed upon her enrollment in online banking. They told her identity theft wasn’t covered by FDIC insurance. Online banking had “its own set of rules.”

Carol filed reports with the police and the FBI, who confirmed that her account had been hacked. But they couldn’t promise she’d get her money back.

I called the bank’s headquarters on a Friday morning. Within six hours Carol got a phone call. The bank was reopening her case. By midnight Friday, $55,000 was back in Carol’s account.

Whether its $700 or $55,000 — or even $5 — when nobody will hear you, you feel insignificant and powerless. I can’t promise I’ll always get you a new TV or a $55,000 refund. But I can promise your voice will be heard.

I’m here to empower you.