Consumer complaints in Montgomery County dropped in fiscal 2011 -- Gazette.Net


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Complaints to Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection dropped between fiscal 2009 and 2011, but the precentage of requested restitution received increased to 90 percent.

Tasked by the county in 1971 with working to eliminate consumer fraud and unfair and deceptive business practices, the OCP issued its annual report Monday, detailing its efforts in fiscal 2011.

Budgetary restrictions prevented the office — which has experienced a 35 percent reduction in staffing, from 23 in fiscal 2007 to 16 in fiscal 2011 — from producing a report in 2010. It combined data from 2010 with 2011 in the fiscal 2011 edition, which also marks the 40th anniversary of the office, said Director Eric Friedman.

Drawing conclusions from its annual data is difficult, Friedman said.

Although written complaints decreased from 1,840 in 2009 to 1,557 in fiscal 2011, knowing exactly why is challenging.

“We wonder whether that means that fewer people know about our office, or that we are doing a better job of making sure merchants are not in violation of consumer protection laws,” he said. “It is hard to know that.”

And although the office secured $594,710 in restitution in fiscal 2011 compared to $626,728 in 2009, the percentage of restitution asked for that was received jumped from 72 percent in 2009 to 90 percent in fiscal 2011, according to the report.

Qualifying the numbers is further challenged when considering that not all complaints are equal, he noted.

Many, like those involving “woodchucks” — unlicensed contractors who convince consumers to fork over thousands for minor repairs, shoddy work or incomplete jobs — end up in court with criminal charges, Friedman said.

In fiscal 2011, 61 civil citations and/or criminal charges were issued or brought by the Office of Consumer Protection or county State’s Attorney’s Office, compared to 2009 when only 36 were brought or issued, according to the report.

Woodchucks and complaints about towing are two of the most frequent issues handled by the office, Friedman said.

kalexander@gazette.net