Faltering economy might aggravate consumer problems

Sunday, December 21, 2008 | 5:15 p.m. CST; updated 10:44 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Governor-elect Jay Nixon built a reputation as a consumer advocate during his years as the state's attorney general. If the consumer complaints that his office encountered in his tenure are any indication, identity theft will be a key issue for the new administration.

And Nixon, a Democrat, might find a willing ally from the other side of the aisle.

Top Ten Consumer Complaints in Missouri 2007

1. Financing, credit and debit collection: 5,324

2. Autosale, repair, odometer, title and towing: 2,375

3. Gasoline prices and storm-related price gouging: 2,102

4. Telephone slamming, cramming and billing: 1,980

5. Home repair and remodeling: 1,624

6. Lotteries and sweepstakes: 1,505

7. Identity Theft: 1,296

8. Travel clubs, timeshares and travel-related promotions: 1,108

9. Computer software, online services and Internet auctions: 1,018

10. Charitable organizations: 822

Source: Attorney General's Office

Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, and his wife became victims of identity theft when their names and Social Security numbers were stolen a bit more than one year ago.

With his usual mail, Hobbs said he began receiving bills addressed to a Steven C. Hobbs. Even though the middle initial was incorrect, Hobbs said he didn't consider the mistake suspicious until his wife got a phone call from a neighbor working at the State Farm Insurance Agency in Mexico.

A worker from the State Farm Bank in Texas reported an overdraft on an account billed to Steven C. Hobbs, but addressed to him.

Hobbs is not alone. In 2007, the Missouri Attorney General's office reported 1,296 cases of identity theft in Missouri, placing the problem seventh on the Attorney General's top 10 list of consumer complaints.

Hobbs said that although he had reported the incident to the Attorney General's office, along with credit bureaus and his bank, he still encounters credit problems and contacts relating to his stolen ID.

"We were fortunate we did not have our own money accessed by them, but it is a terrible problem," he said. "Even with the fraud watch and the credit bureaus, it affected my credit in a negative way."

While the individuals responsible for the identity theft were never found, Hobbs said he is charged extra interest because he was put on fraud alert.

"We still get calls periodically," Hobbs said. "It was a very traumatic experience."

While Hobbs said he will not be sponsoring any legislation concerning identity theft, his experience has changed his habits as a consumer.

"It has made us very cautious," he said. "If you call my house and want to confirm my Social Security number, you're not going to get it. We don't use credit cards very much."

The Attorney General's office reported that financing, credit and debt-collection agencies received the greatest number of complaints in 2006 and 2007.

Scott Thomas, trade practice consultant for the Better Business Bureau in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, said another growing problem are advanced-fee loans.

With this scam, customers pay a fee in anticipation of receiving a loan. But, after continued requests from the company for the consumer to pay additional fees, the loan never materializes.

"Once a consumer has sent money, it's very difficult for anybody to get the consumer's money back," he said. "If the deal seems too good, most of the time it ends up too good to be true."

The bureau received 24,748 complaints from eastern Missouri and southern Illinois in 2007, a six percent increase from 2006.

Television cable and satellite companies received the greatest number of complaints.

"For the phone and cable TV industry ... a lot of the complaints we receive are about customer service issues," Thomas said.

Neal Gilb, government relations manager for cable and telephone service provider Charter Communications, said he thinks the company does a good job resolving consumer complaints. He points to the success of his escalation team, which handles complaints from state offices.

"I'd say we're close to 99 to 100 percent on resolving those types of complaints because it's in our best interests to make sure the customer is happy," he said

Gilb said unsatisfied customers usually file complaints with the Attorney General's office after trying to work though the problem with the company. Most of the complaints revolve around billing issues.

Thomas said he believes the Better Business Bureau will receive a greater number of complaints this year.

"With times the way they are and consumers watching every dollar more than they have in the past, perhaps they're more likely to contact us," he said.

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