Hassles related to buying new or used vehicles top the annual list of most frequent consumer complaints, according to a survey released Monday.
The National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, which represents government agencies that protect American shoppers, and the Consumer Federation of America, a citizens advocacy group, compiled the top 10 list for 2002 from complaints reported to state and local consumer-protection agencies.
Those agencies said they were able to get $130 million returned to wronged consumers last year, an 18 percent increase over 2001.
Complaints about automobile purchases moved up from the No. 2 spot on 2001 list to top the current list. It replaced home repairs, which fell to second place. Those categories have occupied the top two spots for the last five years.
Among the most frequent complaints about buying autos were false sales promotions, misleading advertising, financing problems, undisclosed damage and title and registration problems.
Jean Ann Fox, the Consumer Federation’s protection director, attributed the increase in car complaints to increased purchases of motor vehicles over the last two years.
“When more of something is being sold, there are more opportunities for transactions to go wrong,” she said.
Home repair slights included companies going out of business and reopening under other names, failure to complete work and not complying with local codes.
Complaints about cell phones were among the fastest-growing areas of consumer angst. Some wireless providers in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Maryland, for example, added taxes to customers’ bills that the localities never enacted, and the businesses were forced to repay $250,000. The businesses said that the computer billing program automatically added the tax.
“The computer made them do it,” said Stephen Hannan, administrator of the consumer affairs office for Howard County, Md., located midway between Washington and Baltimore, and one of the counties whose customers were charged nonexistent taxes. “When the computer makes you do it, the computer can make you refund all the money.”
Internet and e-commerce complaints also are on the rise, as more consumers buy products online and scams like the phony Nigerian bank transfers are sent to millions of people with a single click.
“The best scheme is to take one penny from everybody in the world,” Hannan said. “The Internet now allows people to do this.”
The consumer agencies said they are not getting enough money from financially strapped state and local governments to handle the increasing level of complaints. In 2002, for example, consumer protection agency budgets rose an average of 4 percent, while the number of complaints rose by 23 percent.
The 43 consumer agencies surveyed handled 300,000 complaints in 2002.
The top 10 categories of consumer complaints: auto sales; home repairs; automotive repairs; credit; advertising/telemarketing; bill collecting/practices; household goods; Internet/e-commerce; telecommunications/cable and satellite TV; real estate/landlord-tenant relationships. The final four categories all tied for seventh place on the list.