"Consumer Ed Café...Food for Thought" Featuring Director Eric Friedman Transcript (Wednesday, March 07, 2012)
Eric S. Friedman from Rockville
Eric S. Friedman: Good afternoon, I am Eric Friedman, the director of the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP). I have worked in Montgomery County's consumer protection office for 30 years. While working as an investigator here, I received my law degree from George Mason University School of Law. As an Investigator I handled thousands of individual consumer complaints and participated in litigation with respect to unfair and deceptive practices in retail sales, home construction and repairs, automotive sales, future service contracts, lending practices, and credit counseling. As director of OCP, I am committed to ensuring integrity in our marketplace with a dedicated staff of 15 employees and 14 volunteers.
I am looking forward to your questions. Let's get started with a question from our first consumer.
Mary from Up County
Eric, can anything be done about frequent phone calls from telemarketers? I receive 4-5 calls each week and would appreciate any advice on how to eliminate these calls. Thank you.
Eric S. Friedman: Mary, that is an excellent question that we receive weekly. One of the first things that you can do to minimize telemarketing calls is to register with the Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov). It will take a few weeks before you begin to see a drop in calls. Beware that not all calls are prohibited. For example, a company that you do business with may contact you and charities or political organizations may also contact you. Try to always obtain the company name and telephone number when you receive a call; after they have provided you this information, ask the company to remove you from their calling list. Keep a log of your request in case they call again. If a company continues calling, file a complaint with the FTC and our office.
Derek from Silver Spring
Does Montgomery County require towing signs in shopping centers with size of letters on the sign so the customers can read them and not be towed as soon as you walk away?
Eric S. Friedman: Derek, thank you for your question. We understand that towing is a problem particularly in the Wheaton and Silver Spring area and my staff is working with merchants in the area. Montgomery County does require that parking lots have adequate signs that are clearly readable from each parking area. If you believe that a sign was not readable and that you were towed illegally, I encourage you to file a complaint with our office using this link http://1.usa.gov/ocpform.
Aleeko from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Someone stole my identity and tried to steal my tax refund. What can I do to fix this? Can I find out who did this?
Eric S. Friedman: Thank you for your question Aleeko. I understand your concern because this is a serious problem. You should report the theft to the police as you may need a police report at a later date. Another thing that you should do immediately is to contact one of the three credit reporting bureaus and place a fraud alert on your credit history. A fraud alert will help prevent the thief from opening accounts in your name. The reporting company that you call is required to contact the other two companies. To assist you further, the phone numbers to call are Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742), and TransUnion(800-680-7289). Please also give us a call at 240-777-3636 for additional help.
Kendra from Up County
Recently I purchased $40 worth of gas and used my debit card to pay. The next day when I went to pick up my dry cleaning, my card was declined. I called my bank and discovered that the gas station had placed a $100 “hold” on my account, reducing my account balance to nearly zero. Are they allowed to do that?
Eric S. Friedman: Kendra, thank you for your question. This must have been quite an inconvenience to you. Yes, at the time of purchase merchants can immediately place a temporary hold on funds for the transaction as protection against fraud, errors, or other losses. If the final purchase price is unknown at the time the card is swiped, the hold may be for more than you actually spend. The hold will be removed when the final transaction is actually processed, which could take a day or two, and until then you will not have access to that amount in your account.
If you must use a debit card, pay inside where the cashier can verify the amount of your purchase. This should prevent the temporary hold. As an alternative, use a credit card or an oil company credit card; holds usually do not impact your credit line. Lastly, pay with cash; some gas stations give a discount if you pay with cash.
Patrick from Up County
I just learned that my homeowner’s association fees are going up yet again. The board members say it’s because other homeowners are not paying their fees. Their even considering stopping the use of collection agencies to collect the unpaid fees because their efforts have been unsuccessful and quite expensive. It doesn’t seem fair that I should have to pay more because others can’t or won’t pay. Do I have any recourse in this situation?
Eric S. Friedman: Thank you for your question Patrick. Your question is, unfortunately, a common one these days. Your association has no choice but to pay its bills even when other owners are unable to pay their assessment due to foreclosure our other hardship.
The association’s board of directors must make wise decisions about how far to pursue collection from those who don’t pay. In some cases, it may simply be a waste of money to try to collect a debt from someone with no job, or who has left the County, or who barely makes minimum wage, etc. This does not mean the board can do nothing. The board can easily and cheaply file a lien on the unit. This means that anyone who wants to buy that unit has to pay off the lien. It also means that the board can later sue the owner and ask for court permission to foreclose on the unit and put it up for sale. Thereby allowing the association to bring in a new owner who can start paying the assessments. To learn more about assessments, please visit our website at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/ocp/ccoc/pdf/brochure_assessments_print.pdf.
You should know that some bills have been proposed in the Maryland General Assembly that will encourage mortgage companies to act faster to foreclose and put vacant properties up for sale. You may want to write to your State representatives to describe your association’s problems and to express your support for any measures that will assist your condominium association in these difficult economic times.
Felipe from Up County
Mr. Friedman, a contractor came to my house last week and told me he could he could remove my trees for half the price of any one else. I asked if he was licensed and he told me that he didn’t need one. Is this true?
Eric S. Friedman: Felipe, thank you for your question. I too, am concerned with doing business with door-to-door salesmen. That is often a red flag. In fact, tree cutters need to be licensed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. You can view a list of licensed treecutters on their website at www.dnr.state.md.us/forests/.
We have sad stories of people who have paid the money and the scammers never returned. Thank you for being a wise consumer.
Reese from Eastern Montgomery
Comcast keeps rasing their price every month. The service is not getting any better. How can they keep raising their prices?
Eric S. Friedman: Reese, I feel your pain. There is a special office that is dedicated to handling cable complaints. We work closely with Montgomery County's Cable Office and Investigator Keith Watkins does a great job. You can reach him at 240.777.3793.
Tracy from Up County
My brother had an accident in Montgomery County and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. His car ran off the road into a fence on privately owned property and was towed by a company that the police called. The tow company charged over $400 to tow the vehicle less than 10 miles. Are there limits to what a towing company can charge?
Eric S. Friedman: Tracy, I hope no one was seriously injured. Thank you for your question. If the Montgomery County Police called for the tow truck, the rates that can be charged are regulated by the police. If you have questions about the charges, you should contact the Montgomery County Police Abandoned Vehicle Section by contacting MC311 (311 from within Montgomery County or 240.777.0311) and ask to speak to the police towing supervisor.
Thank you again for your question.
John from Silver Spring
Recently a collection agency has been calling me at work. Are they allowed to call me at my job? Can I stop them from contacting me?
Eric S. Friedman: John, thank you for your question. That must be very annoying. You will be happy to know that you can stop a debt collector from calling you at work by telling them, preferably in writing, that you are not allowed to receive calls at work. You can also tell them not to call you at all. Send any written correspondence to them by certified mail and keep a copy for your records. If you continue receiving calls after they have received notice to stop, you can file a complaint with our office.
Jordan from Eastern Montgomery
I moved to silver Spring from Wheaton. When the movers got to my house they raised the price $200 from the origianll estimate. They refused to give me my furniture until I paid them. How is this legal? Can I get my money back?
Eric S. Friedman: Jordan, thank you for your question. First and foremost, if this is happening to you right now, you should call the police and file a complaint with our office. This is a situation we see frequently; we call it holding goods hostage. Since this is an intra-state move, our state law would apply and they cannot hold the goods hostage. They can increase the estimate by up to 25%. If you pay the original bill, they have to release the goods and can sue you later. The technicque of holding the goods hostage is illegal. These are exactly the type of complaints that we handle daily.
Rosanna from Silver Spring
I purchased a diamond ring from a jewelery store in Wheaton. A friend told me that it was overpriced so I went back to the store. THey don't want to return my money and just want to exchange it but there is nothing that I want from them. Can they do that?
Eric S. Friedman: Rosanna, questions about refund policies are probably the most common question that we receive. Whenever you buy something at a store, you should make sure that you know the store's refund policy not just the price of the item. Stores are rquired to post their refund policy in the store. If there is no policy posted, you should be allowed to return the item. However, if there is a defect in merchandise, the return policy would not apply. Thank you for your question.
Steve from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I am in the process of renovating my kitchen. We have made some changes to the plans after the contract was signed. The contractor is adamant about not rewriting the contract; he insists that a verbal agreement is enough. Should we trust the verbal agreement or stop the work if he is not willing to put the changes in writing?
Eric S. Friedman: Thank you for your question. I am sure that you are looking forward to using your beautiful newly remodeled kitchen. Since you already have a binding contract, you should get the changes in writing otherwise you would be limited to the contract as it was originally written. You can suggest that, instead of rewriting the entire contract, an addendum to the contract be signed by you and the contractor. If you need assistance, please contact our office (T: 240.777.3636) to speak to one of my investigators.
Delorace from Up County
Hi Eric, I read your recent news release about gas appliances not being inspected after they have been installed. It floors me that something so important like that can go unnoticed. I myself have recently had a gas stove installed and thanks to your press release I made sure it was inspected! I was wondering how an investigation such as this one materializes. Thank you.
Eric S. Friedman: Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to hear that you now have the peace of mind knowing that your appliance was properly installed. We initially received a complaint from a consumer just like you who questioned a permit fee charge on his invoice. Our staff of volunteers under the direction of my investigators helped us to bring this information to the residents of Montgomery County. Delorace, here's a thought, if you are interested in volunteering to work at our office, please visit our website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer.
Anonymous from Up County
Can I file a complaint anonymously?
Eric S. Friedman: Our office understands that sometimes you may not want to identify yourself when making a complaint. We have an Anonymous Tip Line (240.777.3681) where you can leave a message reporting consumer fraud. Thank you for your concern.
Kathy from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
My uncle recently died and we felt that we were kind of ripped off at the funeral home. Are there any laws to protect us from this?
Eric S. Friedman: Kathy, people are reluctant to talk about death and funerals but it is very important for consumers to know that they should not be scammed during this difficult time. We are actually doing a cable TV show, Consumer Compass, on this topic. The funeral law allows funeral providers to charge a basic services fee that customers cannot decline to pay. The basic services fee includes services that are common to all funerals regardless of specific arrangements. You should have received an itemized statement from the funeral provider when you make the arrangements. If you believe that you were overcharged, you can file a complaint with the Maryland State Board of Morticians (410.764.4792).
Thank you for your question and be sure to watch our show.
Eric S. Friedman from Rockville
Eric S. Friedman: These are excellent questions. Thank you for your participation; I think we have time for a few more.
Sam from Not from Montgomery County
Your Office has been a great help to me on two seperate complaints that I had. I have recently moved out of Montgomery County and have found that there is not a local consumer protection agency. Although I am no longer a county resident, if I shop in Montgomery County and have issues with a store, can I still file a complaint with your Office?
Eric S. Friedman: Sam, I am pleased that we were able to be of assistance to you. Montgomery County prides itself on its services. Anyone shopping or doing business in Montgomery County can file a complaint with our office. Our general categories of consumer complaints are automotive, retail sales, services, new home, and home improvement. Thank you for your question.
Bruce from Eastern Montgomery
I found a car that I'm thinking about buying at a dealership in Rockville. Is it true that after I buy the car I have 3 days to return it if I change my mind?
Eric S. Friedman: Bruce, thank you for your question. It is one that we frequently receive. Unfortunately, consumers do not normally have a right to change their mind when purchasing a car. There are a limited number of contracts that do provide a three day right of cancellation, such as home improvement contracts, health club memberships, and door-to-door sales. However, car sales do not unless expressly included in your contract. My suggestion is that you compare prices, research car models, and test drive the car before you sign a contract. I hope that this information is helpful.
Sean from Rockville
About 10 months ago I had some work done to my bathroom. The contractor has been paid in full but the work is not completely finished and I have not been able to contact them to finish the work. Can I still file a complaint? Is there a statute of limitations?
Eric S. Friedman: Sean, thank you for your question. Home improvement is our number one category of complaints. You can file a complaint with our office but I encourage you to do so quickly. We have a one year statute of limitation from the time of contract in which to file enforcement action. We look forward to being of service to you.
Russ from Rockville
Can you ask Montgomery County Public Libraries to restore online access to ConsumerReports.org? It was a very helpful resource to determine highly rated and reliable products to purchase.
Eric S. Friedman: Russ, due to budget constraints all Montgomery County offices have had to make budget cuts to services. Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention. I will inform the director of Public Libraries of your concern at our next leadership meeting.
Charles from Silver Spring
I was approached by a man at a local shopping center asking if I wanted a dent on my car fixed. The price was alot less than what the body shop told me. They left me a phone number to call but wasn't sure. Any suggestion?
Eric S. Friedman: Charles, the best advice is to get back in your car and drive away. These scam artists are generally not registered with our office as body repair merchants. They typically do shoddy work and are never to be seen again. One of our investigators is currently working on such a complaint from an 89 year old man who paid $500 for work that was poorly done. It will be difficult for our office to find the scam artist and get his money back. If you are looking for a good body shop, Consumers' Checkbook magazine (www.checkbook.org)is a non-profit organization that rates services including repair/body shops.
Marcus from Silver Spring
I’m really tired of paying these high gas prices. Now it appears that some gas stations are charging as much as they can get away with. Isn’t this price gouging? And if it isn’t, what do people like me do to be able to afford gas? Can your office at least tell us which gas stations have the most affordable gas in Montgomery County so that we are not patronizing stations that are trying to take advantage of us.
Eric S. Friedman: Marcus, thank you for your question. There are several websites that monitor gas prices on a daily basis. With the volatiliity in the market, some gas stations change the price daily. Each tank may be priced differently and that is how it can be changed every day. Unfortunately, Maryland does not have a price-gouging law, but agencies like the Attorney General's Office can question distributors under consumer protection and antitrust law. There are many websites and mobile applications that you can use to find out the prices of gas at stations in your area so you can make an informed decision on what stations to patronize. Some examples are FuelMeUp.com, GasBuddy.com, and GasPriceWatch.com. Drive safely!
Robert from Silver Spring
I desperately need to get my car repaired but I have had a lot of bad experiences with repair shops in the past. Is there a way to tell if a company is reputable before it's too late?
Eric S. Friedman: Robert, I can understand why you feel the need to be cautious. Before you do business with an automotive repair shop in Montgomery County you should take the following precautions:
Search OCP’s Merchant Complaint Disclosure Reports (http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/ocptmpl.asp?url=/content/ocp/lookup/disclosure_records.asp) This will show a record of complaints that we have received in the past 3 years.
Call us (240.777.3636) to find out if the business is registered to perform automotive repair in Montgomery County.
Ask the repair shop for references, it is always good to talk to consumers that have previously used their services.
Thank you for your question.
Gail from Silver Spring
If I purchased something from the internet, should I be charged sales tax?
Eric S. Friedman: Gail, thank you for your question. Internet shopping is very convenient and on the rise. Businesses are required to charge Maryland sales tax anytime you make a purchase, whether in person, over the phone, or on the Internet if the item will be shipped/used in Maryland. If the item is shipped somewhere else, Maryland tax would not be applicable.
Chitra from Silver Spring
I think Pepco’s new technology of “smart-grids” will just allow Pepco to control my energy usage. How will “smart-grids” benefit me and save me money?
Eric S. Friedman: Chitra, the "smart-grid" will be the implementation of new technology so we all have a lot to learn. "The grid," refers to the electric grid, a network of transmission lines, substations, transformers and more that deliver electricity from the power plant to your home or business. It’s what you plug into when you flip on your light switch or power up your computer. The Smart Grid will consist of controls, computers, automation, and new technologies and equipment working together; these technologies will work with the electrical grid to respond digitally to our quickly changing electric demand. As you may be aware, Smart Meters, which are digital meters that are part of this new technology, are currently being installed in Montgomery County by Pepco and BGE will begin installing them shortly.
The benefits associated with the Smart Grid include more efficient transmission of electricity, quicker restoration of electricity after power disturbances, reduced operations and management costs, reduced peak demand which will also help lower electricity rates, increased integration of large-scale renewable energy systems, better integration of customer-owner power generation systems, and improved security.
For additional information about the Smart Grid go to SmartGrid.gov and for more information about the installation of Smart Meters in Maryland go to Pepco.com or BGE.com.
Thank you for your question.
Leborg from Up County
Hi Eric, I have an unlimited data plan with AT&T, recently they have been throttling my cell phone and now it’s basically useless. Is this legal? Is there anything I can do about this?
Eric S. Friedman: Throttling, for others who may not have heard of it, is when carriers slow down (or “throttle”) a heavy data user’s Internet speed. According to AT&T (http://www.att.com/esupport/datausage.jsp?source=IZDUel1160000000U) for users of a 3G or 4G smartphone, each time you use 3GB or more in a billing cycle (or 5GB if you have a 4G LTE smartphone), your data speeds will be reduced for the rest of the billing cycle and then go back to normal. They claim 95% of smartphone users won’t be affected and that you will still be able to use as much data as you want, only the data throughput speed will change.
You may want to check your contract because there may be a clause that allows AT&T to limit the throughput or amount of data transferred. If you are unsure, please file a complaint with our office.
Eric S. Friedman from Rockville
Eric S. Friedman: Unfortunately, we have run out of time. I have enjoyed this conversation with you and hope that the information provided will assist you in becoming a wiser consumer. Until we have the opportunity for another live discussion, please visit our website (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer)to file a complaint or get additional information about our services. For consumer questions or to speak to an investigator, please contact us at 240.777.3636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to our electronic newsletters, please visit http://bit.ly/w7XFdM and select Consumer Protection and Common Ownership Communities.