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May 2008

Do Consumer Protection Laws Apply
to What Political Candidates Say?

One of the top questions I hear from electric co-op members around the state is whether the candidates for elective office have to follow federal or state consumer protection laws. In other words, is there any government agency like the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection looking at the accuracy of statements made by the candidates? The short answer is generally no. Candidates’ speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and rarely is a candidate successfully challenged in court for making campaign promises or statements. Furthermore, certain laws, like the Wisconsin “Do-Not-Call” Telemarketing Law, specifically exempt political candidates.

This is a tricky area to write about since one person’s view of the truth may not be someone else’s. However, no matter what side of the political fence you stand on, you may want to know that there is a very good website that reviews the statements and advertising of political candidates to determine whether or not their statements or advertising can be supported by facts in the record. This website, www.factcheck.org, is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and was created in 1994. The Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” and accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations, or individuals. Rather, it is primarily funded by the Annenberg Foundation. Factcheck.org states that its purpose is to “reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics and it “monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases.” The web site also states that its goal “is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship and to increase public knowledge and understanding.”

The site is regularly updated and you can even ask questions by going to: http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/.

WECN readers may not agree with all of the conclusions made on the site and some may think there is a bias. However, having worked in state government administrations of both political parties, I judge it to be as balanced as any I’ve found for checking facts of campaign statements and advertising. Factcheck.org often criticizes all of the major candidates.

Are You Frustrated With the Call Center Maze
When You have a Question or Complaint?

Electric cooperative members also frequently ask whether I can help them find a live person to talk to at large businesses because they often end up in an endless call center maze. I have good news. A website, http://www.gethuman.com/, provides contact information for a large number of companies that will help you get past the recorded information to a live customer-support staff member. 

Wisconsin Consumer Protection Returns
More than $9 Million to Consumers in 2007

As a follow-up to last month’s column on the top Wisconsin consumer complaints, the staff at the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection just released some additional interesting statistics. In 2007, they heard from, or provided information to, 377,857 consumers. Their efforts resulted in fines, fees, and forfeitures of $9,428,490, down from $15,132,677 in 2006 but up from $5,430,774 in 2005. Finally, the average caller to the Consumer Protection Hotline saved nearly $978. 

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