If a seller of goods and services took advantage of you in order to profit, you be entitled to protections under consumer rights laws. Abusive business practices are more common than most people think. When a for-profit business uses a consumer’s lack of information for their own gains, the victim may be able to recover damages.
There is, however, a difference between treatment that is simply unfair and outright abuse or fraud. If you have been the victim of consumer fraud or abuse, multiple consumer protections exist at both the federal and state level. The Better Business Bureau offers resources for initial fact finding, but nothing compares to the legal advice of an experienced attorney.
Debt collection or harassment?
Consumer rights violations most often target individuals in vulnerable positions, such as those who have fallen behind on debt payments and bills. One way these violations occur is through debt collection. Debt collection is not a pleasant process: collectors are known to make early morning and late-night calls, and they may even contact the individual’s employer or friends and family. But when does such behavior constitute harassment, and when is it just annoying?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) exists to draw that line and enforce it, protecting against debt collection practices that cross over to harassment. Any such practice may result in a $1,000 statutory damage award for the victim. Debt collectors calling friends and family, to return to a previous example, is allowed in certain cases but is a highly regulated practice: Debt collectors can only call other people if they don’t know how to contact you, and they can only ask the individual for your location information. If they disclose that you owe a debt, they are in violation of the law. Further, a debt collector is only legally allowed to contact you between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
In some extreme cases, debt collectors might use outright threats to intimidate people into answering the phone or paying what they owe. A threat of any kind would be considered a consumer rights violation. If this or any other unscrupulous practice occurs, contact a consumer rights attorney.
According to the FCC, debt collectors are also in violation of the FDCPA if they do the following:
- Lie about the amount owed
- Make false claims, including impersonating a law enforcement officer or saying you will be arrested if you fail to pay the debt
- Supply false credit information about you
- Contact you at work
Independent of any debts, you can be confident your rights were violated if illegal tactics were used to sell you a product or service. These tactics may include deceptive advertising, loan flipping, pursuing collections accounts despite a bankruptcy stay or discharge, or resetting the odometer to sell a used car.
If these illegal tactics were perpetrated on a large scale to many consumers, you may have the opportunity to join a class action lawsuit. In 2014, Gibbs Law Group successfully settled a class action suit against Intel and Hewlett-Packard for their deceptive advertising practices regarding Intel’s first-generation Pentium 4 processor.
“There’s always something new that people are doing, whether it’s hidden finance charges, destructive labeling,” says consumer protections attorney Allan Kanner, founder of Kanner & Whiteley, L.L.C. “Really, working in partnership with an experienced consumer rights attorney, people who feel they have been victimized can try to parcel through alleged misconduct. This often involves a lot of independent research.”
Class action lawsuits
Consumer rights violations generally involve small economic damages. As such, bringing a lawsuit against the business may not make financial sense on the individual level. This is where class action lawsuits come into play. If your consumer rights have been violated, you may have the option of joining together with others who have experienced similar violations. A class action lawsuit is a perfect example of power in numbers. Whether or not a class action lawsuit is right for your particular situation, however, is dependent on many factors.
“Most of the worst frauds are for nickels and dimes,” says Kanner. “They can charge everybody an extra 10-cent service fee on say, your cable bill. Well that starts to add up. They make a lot of money, but who’s going to go to a lawyer for 10 cents a month? But as a class action, that may still be a very viable case and one that you can get repayment for. That’s the great thing about class actions, is that they were designed in part to deal with small claimant class actions.”
If you believe that other people may have experienced similar violations, consult with a local class action attorney. If there is an existing class action lawsuit against the business that caused you harm, an attorney can help you join it. If no class action lawsuit has been filed, you may be able to start one with the help of an attorney experienced in this area.
Once the class action lawsuit has been filed, the defendant will be served a summons and complaint, and notice of the lawsuit will be published and sent to all members of the class. Notice is typically given by publication in a major newspaper or by mail.
The reality is, if your rights have been violated, the likelihood that the rights of other consumers have been violated by the same business is relatively high.
“In general, corporations don’t do something unless they make money. So whatever they’re doing to you, very often, in a mass marketed product, they’re doing to everybody else,” says Kanner. “You can sort of rely on that when you look at what you feel aggrieved about, what type of problem it is, I think that’s a good way to start thinking about whether it’s a consumer fraud that has affected others.”
For this reason, there is a good chance that a class action lawsuit already exists, or that you will be successful in starting one. If your consumer rights have been violated, seek the help of an experienced lawyer today.