Consumer Ed Café... Food for Thought Transcript (Thursday, June 26, 2014)
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. As a Public Safety office, OCP collaborates with other law enforcement offices to protect the quality of life in Montgomery County. Our staff of 18 includes 4 attorneys, a certified automotive technician, and various consumer experts with years of consumer protection experience. Our office is supported by the talents of many volunteers that commit hundreds of hours as consumer advocates for our community. Our office handles thousands of individual consumer complaints each year. We remain committed to our original mission, ensuring integrity in our marketplace. I am looking forward to your questions. Let's get started with a question from our first consumer.
June from Rockville
A man came to my house and said he could fix my driveway with left over material from another job. He didn't charge much but did very bad work. It is all cracked now and breaking apart. I do not have any contact information for him. What should I do?
Eric S. Friedman: June, thanks for your participation. Unfortunately, if you do not have any contact information for the individual, it will be difficult to do anything in this situation. You did not say how you paid, but if you used a check, it is possible that there is information that our office could use in the endorsement on the back of the check. People doing driveway work are considered home improvement contractors and are required to have a license from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. In the future, always ask to see a contractor's home improvement license and write it down before you allow them to do any work in, on or around your home. Please call our office, my investigators may be able to find some recourse.
Rita from Up County
I submitted my telephone number to the Do Not Call registry last year. But, I am still receiving annoying telephone calls from people trying to sell me things and charities asking for contributions. They call from early morning until late at night. Is there anything else I can do to stop these phone calls?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Rita, charities are not covered by the National Do Not Call Registry. Unfortunately, there are still many other callers that are not in compliance with the law on this issue. If the calls are from a common number, you may try to have that number blocked. You will be happy to know that you can also file a complaint against the phone number on the FTC's National Do Not Call Registry website. I hope this action gets you some peace.
Elizabeth from Not from Montgomery County
I went in to cancel my gym membership that was an auto renewal. When canceling the membership the gym charged me to cancel because of the auto renewal. Is this legitimate?
Eric S. Friedman: Elizabeth, the first thing that we would look at in this case would be the terms of the contract that you originally signed. Those are the terms that you agreed to when you began your membership, and which would usually govern in this situation. Why don't you send us a copy of your contract and my investigators would be happy to review it. You just reminded me that I need to step up my exercise routine. Thank you for your question.
Eric S. Friedman: Today, we will dispel some common consumer myths, our first myth is: ""After you sign a contract, you have three days to cancel if you change your mind."
TRUTH: Most contracts are binding when you sign them. The often-repeated myth that you can cancel a signed contract has given many consumers a false sense of security when making an expensive purchasing decision, like buying a new car. This myth is repeated by sales people, lawyers and many, many consumers. But the cold, hard truth is that you must be sure about your decision before you sign the contract. After you sign, it is usually too late to change your mind.
Chuck from Silver Spring
I ordered wood flooring for my home and it has been more than 2 weeks and I have not heard from the contractor. They also told me that once the wood has been delivered, it has to sit in my home for 3 days before they can install it. Is this correct? I wanted to have the work completed within 10 days.
Eric S. Friedman: Chuck, our home improvement investigator, John Lewis, advised me that three days of acclimation is the minimum for thin engineered wood flooring, and there is no maximum. Thicker hard wood flooring planks usually need at least 5 days or more to acclimate. The cartons should be opened, and the planks stacked to allow air flow to help with acclimation. So, we are glad to hear that the contractor is not just trying to rush through your job. Humidity should be 30-50% and the temperature should be 60-80F inside. Just bringing in the boxes and installing the floor in three days may create problems after the install. Please remember that you should always make sure that the contractor has the required license from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. If not, the contractor should not be doing any home improvement work in the state of Maryland.
Eric S. Friedman: We have already had a few questions in reference to home improvement. Recently, County Excecutive Leggett, representatives from other county agencies and I held a press conference on unlicensed home improvement contractors. You may be interested in viewing a news clip covering this story. http://youtu.be/LbhHSm0APJ4
Sharon from Silver Spring
I purchased a cell phone plan and did not like the way the company did its billing…too many fees. I called and canceled the plan. Several months later I found out that I was still being charged because I did not cancel the plan in writing, although they have a record of me calling to cancel. In fine print the contract does say that the cancellation has to be done in writing. The phone company sent my account to collection for not paying. Do I have to pay this bill?
Eric S. Friedman: Sharon, thank you for the question. The contract terms will generally govern in a situation like this. You should send your cancellation in writing as specified in your contract, and contact the cell phone company to see if you can work out a resolution. Please contact our office, we may be able to assist you with this.
Karen from Silver Spring
I need to replace my roof but have no idea where to start. Can you recommend a company or tell me how to find one?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Karen, I'm glad your considering have this work completed now, just in case we have as much snow as we did last winter. The first thing that you need to know is that any company that you hire to replace your roof is required to have a license from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC). So, check with the MHIC to make sure that you are dealing with a licensed contractor. A starting point may be to get names of companies from friends or neighbors who have had satisfactory experiences with contractors, and then check their license status and whether any complaints have been filed against them with the MHIC and our office.
Eric S. Friedman: Consumer myth #2, "If the contractor says that he is licensed, it must be true."
TRUTH: A contractor may be trying to deceive you or may simply be making a mistake. Many contractors only have a license to conduct business in Montgomery County but as we advised Karen, all contractors in the home improvement, repair and remodeling business need a specific license from the MHIC.
Victoria from Up County
I live in a HOA near a bus stop. People keep leaving their cars in our reserve parking spaces and catching the bus. The HOA said that we can have them towed. But when we call Tow Company they will not tow. They say we do not have proper signs. What can we do so that we have parking spaces when we come home from work?
Eric S. Friedman: Victoria, this must be a major inconvenience for you and your neighbors. Any towing from private property without the vehicle owner's consent must be in compliance with the County's tow laws. You should let your HOA know what the tow company is telling you. If you or your HOA needs more information about the County's tow laws, you can contact our office for assistance. Investigator Numbers is our towing expert and he will be happy to assist you.
Dominic from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
We purchased a slightly used play pen from a consignment shop. We later found out that it had been recalled last year for safety. We had it too long to return but we think we are due a refund because it should not have been sold after being recalled. Can consignment shops continue to sale merchandise after it has been recalled?
Eric S. Friedman: Good question Dominic. It is illegal for consignment shops to sell products that have been recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission unless the product has been repaired in accordance with the recall. If the shop is unwilling to refund your money, please contact our office for assistance. My investigators will know exactly how to handle this complaint for you.
Anantha from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
The water and sewer rates have gone up significantly for large families using more than the minimum water. The rate should be based on the number of family members living in household, not by the quantity of water used. It is a simple commonsence approach for setting rates.I would appreciate a response.
I have been involved in water management and conservaiton studies for a long time, and can provide you guidance.
Eric S. Friedman: Anantha, thank you for your question. The Montgomery County Council currently does have some control over the water and sewer rates charged by WSSC. You should speak to your local Council Member to discuss these concerns. The main number for the Montgomery County Council Office is 240.777-7900. I'm sure your Council Member will appreciate your experience and insight.
Eric S. Friedman: We received many questions about the recent spike in water and sewer charges. We are going to post a sampling of these questions. To learn more about this issue, please visit our press page at http://bit.ly/OCPpress. You can also view our WSSC Water Bills Inquiry Report on that page.
kim from Up County
My old anti virus company has charged me with a renewal and I don't even have that program anymore. How can they charge me for something that I did not request? How can I get my money back?
Eric S. Friedman: Kim, you do not say how you were charged for this renewal, but don't panic. You may be able to be reimbursed. If the renewal fee was charged to your credit card, you can contact your credit card company to dispute the charge. Your credit
card statement will have the information about how to do this. If you need assistance, please contact our office. Investigator Rosado frequently investigates consumer credit issues.
Amendo from Silver Spring
I moved from my apartment because the landlord did not remove trash regularly and it would pile up for days at a time. He will not give my security deposit back to me. He said I broke the lease. Can you get my security deposit back?
Eric S. Friedman: Amendo, people often make this mistake. Our office does not handle landlord and tenant complaints. However, Montgomery County has a separate Landlord Tenant Office that handles these kinds of disputes. That office can be reached by calling 240-777-0311.
Eric S. Friedman: I'm really enjoying responding to all of your questions. I would like to take this time to extend an invitation to all of our savvy consumers to follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mococonsumerprotection and Twitter at www.twitter.com/ConsumerWise for up-to-date information on consumer scams, alerts, and more. Let's take a few more questions.
Walter from Silver Spring
My mechanic has had my car for 3 weeks now. He originally told me it would be done in a week. I have paid him a lot of money so far, about half of the total estimate. Should I have my car towed to another mechanic? Would I be able to get my money refunded from my current mechanic?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Walter, the Office of Consumer Protection has investigators on staff who are experts in motor vehicle repair, including an ASE certified automotive expert. I encourage you to contact our office and discuss this matter further. Together we may be able to resolve the issue. We're here for you.
Jonna from Not from Montgomery County
I took my car to a mechanic in Montgomery County to fix my brakes and change my oil. When I got my car back it started making loud noises and is worse than when I brought it in. A second mechanic said the oil was extremely dirty and could not have been changed. Can your office help me with this if I don't live in Montgomery County?
Eric S. Friedman: No problem! We have you covered as long as the mechanic is operating in Montgomery County. All auto repair shops are required to be registered with our office. In addition, we may be the only county government in the country that has a certified Master Automotive Technician on staff. Does that make you want to move to Montgomery County? I suggest that you file a complaint with us as soon as possible. Thanks, Jonna.
Madeline from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I know towing is a big problem in Montgomery County. I Constantly look for towing signs when I park now, but always have the fear my car will be gone (again) when I come out of a store. Is there anything being done to stop these out of control tow companies?
Eric S. Friedman: Madeline, please don't be afraid. Montgomery County does have a law with regard to towing vehicles off of private property without the vehicle owner's consent. The Office of Consumer Protection enforces the County's tow law. Any towing that is done must be in compliance with the law, and we do investigate complaints to make sure that tow companies are acting pursuant to this law. We don't want consumers to park in fear in Montgomery County...just be careful where you park.
Eric S. Friedman: Consumer myth #3, "I can park here because the parking lot is empty, most stores are closed and I am not preventing customers from parking." TRUTH: Property owners have a right to restrict access to their property. As long as a lot has proper signage and the owner follows towing regulations, you CAN be towed. Just think, if your driveway was available and you were not home, could your neighbors just park in your driveway?
BERTHA A LOPEZ from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I called requesting information about our HIGEST
amount, they told me will send someone to read back, informed there was not running water break my bill was almost $500, WSSC run high because the snow and was calculated for more than 3 months. In our house there only 3 person leaving one is dissable have nurse give her a bath only one per week, she is 84(suffering Dimencia Sennil). How can we pay almost $500.oo? We have never pay high amount for last 20 yrs. on same place.
Eric S. Friedman: Bertha, thank you for your participation. Problems with WSSC bills can be tricky; however I commend you for monitoring your billing and usage. First of all, using dollar amounts from different bills may not be the most accurate way to make a comparison. There is something called "Average Daily Consumption" (ADC) listed on your bill which is a more helpful number to know. WSSC does provide some alternatives for determining if there is a leak on your property or if the meter is defective. It also provides some internal options for disputing a high water bill. If you have been unsuccessful in getting this information from WSSC, please contact our office and we will try to assist you.
S. Harvey from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I was contacted by Secret Shopper’s and given an assignment along with a check for $2294. I was told to deposit the ckeck keep $250 for the assignment; take the remainder of the money and purchase Green Dot Money Pak Refill Cards. After the cards email the 14 digit number along with the amount of the card and the fee to the person who signed the check. Then destroy the cards and email a report to complete the Secret Shopper assignment. Have you received complaints against Secret Shopper’s?
Eric S. Friedman: We searched our Merchant Disclosure system, http://bit.ly/OCPlookup, and found no complaints filed with us within the past three years. But, don't cash the check yet. The situation you described appears to follow a traditional fake check scam. In these scams, thieves send what appears to be a legitimate check that may even be paid by your bank. You are then instructed to keep a small portion of the money and send the thieves the rest by way of a money transfer or products such as Green Dot Money Paks or prepaid credit cards. By the time a bank informs you that the check was fraudulent, you may have already distributed the money. Please visit our website at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/ocp/a_z/fake_check.html to learn more about this type of scam. Thank you for being a cautious consumer.
Eric S. Friedman: Consumer myth #4, "You actually have won a free prize."
TRUTH: Think about it. How would a business survive if it were really giving its merchandise away? If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Say that to yourself every time you get something in the mail that says you've won a fabulous prize - absolutely free!
Shannon from Mid County
How long does it take to resolve a complaint?
Eric S. Friedman: We review complaints as soon as they are received in our office. When the complaint is assigned to an investigator, a confirmation letter is sent to the consumer and the investigation begins. The length of time to resolve a complaint depends greatly on the nature of the complaint. We do our best to regularly communicate with the complainant but you can always call our office for the status of a case. Our office prides itself on conducting a thorough investigation. We encourage feedback from our consumers because we like to know how you think we are doing.
Lori LS from Rockville
I would like to know who regulates and what recourse I might have against a local moving company. I just moved on the 13th of June, and was very cautious about hiring a moving company. Weeks before, I researched eight companies and picked one I thought was reputable. The estimate given was for $544, but once the job was complete they tried to charge me $1680. Being a single women and alone, with four big guys standing there, I stood my ground as best as possible. After speaking with the office manager, and the owner, I ended up paying $1300 for this job. Although I'm aware I won't be reimbursed for any of the overage paid, but what recourse might I have to have them put on notice about these unscrupulous practices. Thank you.
Eric S. Friedman: Laura, this looks very interesting. First, let me advise you of a few things. If the move was an intrastate move within Maryland, then Maryland law would apply. Maryland requires that a mover must provide a written estimate before a move and clearly state if it is a binding or non-binding estimate. A mover cannot exceed a binding estimate. If you received a non-binding estimate, the most you should have been required to pay is 125% of the estimated total price of the move plus any “excess charges,” which are defined as circumstances that are beyond the control of the mover and could not have been reasonably anticipated by the mover. If this was an intrastate move within Montgomery County, you should file a complaint and let us investigate. I know that my investigators would love to look into this one.
Gabriel from Mid County
My car was recently towed from a Wheaton shopping center. I called the tow people for 4 hours before I was able to reach someone to get my car back. When I went to the tow lot there was nobody there. I waited another hour and a half until someone came to help me. Does the tow lot have to be open for business if their trucks are out towing people?
Eric S. Friedman: Hello Gabriel, sounds like this incident was not only a headache for you; but, a violation of the State towing law. This law requires towing companies to provide vehicle owners the opportunity to reclaim their vehicles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I encourage you to file a complaint with our office so that we can further investigate this matter and put a stop to this way of conducting business.
Donald from Eastern Montgomery
My neighbor repairs cars from his home. I believe that this is illegal but my association doesn't do anything about it. Are there any consumer protections to prevent this?
Eric S. Friedman: Donald, we would really like to investigate this matter for you and your community. Did you know that auto repair shops are required to be licensed with our office? If your neighbor is working on other people's cars and getting paid for the work, you should contact our office so that we can investigate. We look forward to hearing from you.
Lexie from Not from Montgomery County
I thought that gift certificates could not have an expiration date. Why are groupon certificates treated differently? The fine print on a spa coupon I purchased has a 150 day expiration time. Is this legal?
Eric S. Friedman: Lexie, first let me commend you for being a smart consumer and reading the fine print. There are a few caveats to this law. Under Maryland law, store specific gift cards can't expire for at least 4 years from date of purchase. Federal legislation extends this to five years. However, the issue that usually comes up with Groupon certificates is whether this restriction on expiration applies to the special deal itself. The amount that was spent on the Groupon may not be lost; but, the discount that was offered may not be covered by this expiration restriction. No worries though, we would be happy to look at your certificate to see if it is in compliance with the law.
Michael from Silver Spring
My father is almost 92 and lives in Leisure World in Wheaton. Recently he has started getting many, many magazine subscriptions. He cannot recall how he got enrolled in any of these, but I would estimate he is suddenly getting 20 or more magazine subscriptions a month. These include Esquire, Popular Science, Discover, Motor Trend, Mens' Health, Women's Health, Fitness, Cosmopolitan, Entrepreneur, Mens' Journal, Family Circle, Latina, and many more. He just piles them up on a chair to be thrown away. He says he responded to something he can't remember and now is stuck getting all of these. We would love to cancel all of them but cannot tell who he bought the subscriptions from. How can be find out who has his name and payment information and cancel these subscriptions?
Eric S. Friedman: Michael, do you know that seniors continue to be one of our most vulnerable consumers? So it's great that you continue to assist your Dad. My suggestion is to review his credit card and/or bank statements to locate the charge. Once you have done that, you can dispute the charge on the credit card and possibly with your bank. If your father wrote a check, you should contact the company directly. If they are unwilling to issue a refund, please contact our office right away or visit our webpage at visit http://bit.ly/OCPcomplaint to file a complaint.
Eric S. Friedman: This has been an excellent discussion. Unfortunately, we have run out of time before we could answer all of your questions. We will respond to you directly if we were unable to post an answer. I hope that the information provided is beneficial to our participants; our goal is to help you become a wiser consumer. Our office plans to start a new series of “Consumer Ed Café…Food for Thought” discussions soon. We will revisit some of our more popular topics and introduce a few new discussion topics. Until we have the opportunity for another discussion, please visit our website (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP) 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. You may also follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mococonsumerprotection and Twitter at https://twitter.com/ConsumerWise. To subscribe to our electronic newsletters, please visit http://bit.ly/w7XFdM and select Consumer Protection and Common Ownership Communities. Thank you all for your participation!