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February 2004
Do Not Call” Complaints Lead Consumer Protection’s Top 10

   Capturing the dubious honor of first place in the Wisconsin’s Bureau of Consumer Protection’s roster of the top 10 consumer protection issues for 2003 were complaints against telemarketers for violating the state’s new “Do Not Call” law—representing almost 30 percent of total complaints received.

   Coming in second were billing complaints against telecommunications companies, which had topped the list the previous two years. Moving up fast to number three were other complaints against telemarketers. Landlord complaints came in fourth (they ranked second in 2001 and 2002), and grabbing fifth place were fraud and billing complaints against travel companies, which in 2001–02 did not make the top 10.

   In sixth place were complaints against home-improvement contractors (fourth in 2002). Internet auction sales shot up into seventh place. Finally, sitting in eighth through tenth place were complaints about fraudulent business investment schemes, unnecessary motor vehicle repair, and credit card billing disputes.

   MCI Leads List. The top five companies consumers complained about in 2003 were: MCI Communications (telemarketing and telecommunications billing); Direct Reservation Center of Florida (travel billing); AT&T (telecommunications billing); Alyon Technologies of Norcross, Georgia (Internet pornography billing); and SBC Communications (telecommunications billing).

   Few Complaints Against Co-ops. Consumer Protection Administrator Jim Rabbitt reports that of the total 18,472 consumer complaints filed in 2003, fewer than 25 were against cooperatives. With more than 860 cooperatives doing business in Wisconsin and their membership at more than 2.5 million, this is an impressive record.

   Penalty Revenue Down, But So Is Bureau Staffing. The state collected just over $5.2 million in fines, penalties, and restitution in 2003, significantly lower than the average $10.7 million collected in 1998–2002. At the same time, according to consumer protection officials, investigator and specialist staffing has been reduced 30 percent and the program’s overall budget has been cut 40 percent from the prior year. Reduced staffing makes it more difficult for consumers to get individual assistance, and diminished financial resources hamper state efforts to put together effective consumer protection investigations and court cases. It’s unfortunate my prediction came true: When substantial cuts get made to the consumer protection program, Wisconsin consumers and the state treasury end up losing more than could have been “saved.” Hopefully, 2004 will not bring a similar result.

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