Internet gives consumers more voice and options

Monday, March 3, 2008 | 7:43 p.m. CST; updated 11:38 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A week ago, Nancy Holman sent an angry e-mail to other Columbia residents about her experiences at the Factory Card Outlet. She described an incident in which she had tried to get discounted or free Valentine’s for veterans at Truman Veterans Hospital and was treated rudely by store employees.

Within days, hundreds of residents had read and responded to it, some calling for a boycott of the company.

How to spot a scam e-mail:

- Look for excessive capitalization and punctuation.

- Check if it is addressed “valued customer” or other vague terms. - Be suspicious of e-mails from people you don’t know. - Most companies will not ask for personal information via e-mail; if a message does ask, do not provide it. - Make sure the e-mail address matches the name in the text of the ne-mail. - If it appears too good to be true, it almost always is.

Consumer advocacy blogs:

- The Consumer Advocate’s Blog — - The Brockovich Report — - Jeremy Duffy, consumer advocate — - The Blog of Consumer Advocacy and Customer Experience — - Mercinary’s Consumer Advocate Blog — - Missouri Attorney General’s Consumer Blog —

Public response to the e-mail was such that Gary Rada, president of the Illinois-based chain, personally apologized to Holman, and the company set up a meeting with the hospital to discuss a possible donation and a discount on cards for veterans and hospital staff.

With the ubiquitousness of e-mail, similar results are no longer isolated; as a means of consumer advocacy, the Internet is a powerful and immediate force. Consumers everywhere are using the Internet to make themselves heard and to take action.

Trond Andresen, a lecturer in the department of engineering cybernetics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology and author of a 1999 paper, “Consumer Power via the Internet,” said the Internet has changed the relationship between consumers and companies.

“The important difference now is that you can make your personal conflict with a company public,” Andresen said in an interview conducted online from Oslo. “There is an arena to communicate with others where it used to be a private matter.”

The Internet, he said, is extremely important in giving consumers voice.

“Without voice, consumers’ only option is to exit,” Andresen said. However, he continued, when “a company gets too big, exiting is no longer going to affect it.”

“Voice” and “exit” are terms coined by American economist Albert Hirschman in 1970 to describe an person’s influence verses that of an organization. A person’s voice is his or her power to change something by speaking out. Exiting refers to a person leaving an organization. For consumers, voice is their power to file a complaint and exiting occurs when a consumer refuses to patronize a company.

State reaches out

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office tapped into the power of the Internet in 2006, when it started allowing consumers to file complaints online via its Web site. Since then the number of complaints and the amount of detail included has increased.

Travis Ford, consumer education coordinator for the attorney general’s office, said the site received 1,800 complaints in January from state residents about businesses in Missouri.

Ford described his job as “consumer outreach,” which he said includes educating consumers on ways to protect themselves from identity theft, fraud and scams. Part of his job is to write the consumer blog on the attorney general’s office’s Web site,

“The blog was started to make education more visible,” Ford said. “We think that’s happening.”

The blog had 200,000 page views in January, and Ford said traffic increases every month.

It also serves as a forum for consumers who want to connect with other consumers over the issues Ford discusses in his blogs. Readers post their personal stories regarding scams, fraud, tax rebates, payday loans and “everything under the sun,” he said. “Most people seem truly interested in the issues and helping each other.”

While the attorney general’s office works to protect Missouri consumers, others are working nationally to advocate for individual consumers.

After her experience with a puppy scam, Katie Partyka of Adrian, Mich., found her way to Ford’s blog and other advocacy Web sites. Partyka said she lost almost $1,000 when a man claiming to be U.S. Congressman, who had just moved to Nigeria, offered to send her a bulldog puppy in exchange for Partyka paying for shipping.

She posted her experience with the scam because “the American public needs to know about this and learn more.”

She said her sister has also been involved, sending letters to shows such as the nationally syndicated “Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Dateline NBC” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” So far, they have received no responses.

“If it happened to me, that’s fine. I can learn from it and move on,” Partyka said. “I don’t want this to happen to other people.”

Andresen said public disclosure of abuse by companies is the key to change.

“In Norway, we have a saying: When the sun shines on the troll, it bursts,” he said. “Companies can do bad things because people are silent.”

Columbia businesses are affected by this national trend. Erik Loyland, a manager at C.C.’s City Broiler in downtown Columbia, said he hopes to address complaints when they happen, but uses comments customers post on city restaurant blogs such as to fix what went wrong.

“If there’s a complaint I see online that is valid, I will try to fix it,” Loyland said. “I am concerned with what every guest has to say.”

Sharing with others

Nationally, consumers are starting their own blogs. Jeremy Duffy of Baltimore started his consumer advocacy blog in November 2006 because he thinks practical knowledge is the key to protecting consumers.

“I started my blog because I had a lot of information I wanted to share with people,” said Duffy, a security systems architect with the U.S. Department of Defense. “I have always been depressed by the rampant abuse of the general public based on their ignorance of computer and technology issues.”

His blog focuses mostly on teaching consumers how to safeguard their personal information on their personal computers. Duffy said he wants to boil his information down so people can understand it quickly and easily.

“Only someone who genuinely likes technology could possibly spend this much time on it,” Duffy said. “Therefore, my primary goal is to share the ultra-summarized version of computer and Internet security.”

His philosophy is “you shouldn’t have to study and learn as much about computers as I know to be safe.”

Although bloggers such as Duffy and individual consumers such as Partyka exemplify what Andresen thinks the Internet has done for consumers, it has not yet reached its full potential.

“The real impact hasn’t come yet because you need legislation,” Andresen said.

In his “Consumer Power” paper, Andresen outlined a plan to increase consumer voice by requiring, by law, that companies put a prominent visible link on their main Web sites to a government-run consumer forum.

He said this sort of legislation is needed to centralize consumer forums.

Right now, he said, consumers’ voices are diluted. There are a lot of bloggers, but they are spread out across the Internet with no central organization or authority.

“This is a problem,” Andresen said, “because all these small arenas have too little impact.”

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nomadc cow March 4, 2008 | 1:31 p.m.
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