THE WHITE HOUSE|
September 17, 1996
Welcome to the 1997 Consumer's Resource Handbook. It is most
appropriate that this year's edition is dedicated to the memory of Secretary of
Commerce Ronald Brown, a man who ardently supported consumer rights and who
recognized the importance of this handbook in empowering American consumers
with the knowledge and resources to make prudent, informed choices.
Today's increasingly competitive marketplace offers us a broad and
diverse array of products and services. To select among them wisely, we must
understand our rights as consumers and the standards of quality we should
expect. The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, through publications such as this
one, plays a vital role in educating the public on key consumer issues,
protecting our rights, and enhancing our ability to make knowledgeable
I encourage you to use the valuable information in this handbook. By
learning to choose and buy carefully and responsibly, you are helping to build
a better and brighter future for all Americans.
Ronald H. Brown
It is appropriate and fitting that this edition of the Consumer's
Resource Handbook is dedicated to the late Secretary of Commerce Ronald H.
Brown. In many ways his life was dedicated to empowering people. From his
career as a New York City welfare caseworker to his tenure as Secretary of
Commerce, he inspired people to strive to do their very best. Whether he was
leading a business trade mission to a foreign land or meeting with his
employees in the office, he empowered us all through his example and
At the Commerce Department, he encouraged our employees to carry out
the "Right to Service," established by President Clinton in their every day
contacts with the public, our customers, to ensure that the Department delivers
exceptional service. He continually supported the Department's consumer affairs
efforts and last year held a special meeting with the winners of the Office of
Consumer Affairs' National Consumer Week consumer awareness contest. He spent
time online with STAT-USA customers answering questions on Customer Service Day
to highlight the importance of serving our customers. He also understood the
significance of consumers in the global marketplace.
Ron Brown was the first Secretary of Commerce to recognize the
importance of the Consumer's Resource Handbook through the Department's
financial support. The Handbook is an important educational tool for consumers
as they seek to resolve their complaints or to acquire information from
corporations and government offices.
On behalf of all the employees of the U.S. Department of Commerce, I
thank you for dedicating this Handbook in the memory of the late Secretary of
Commerce Ronald H. Brown.
Secretary of Commerce
OFFICE OF CONSUMER AFFAIRS
It is with pride and sadness that we dedicate this edition of the
Consumer's Resource Handhook to Ronald H. Brown, the late Secretary of
Commerce. Secretary Brown had a long history of consumer advocacy and was a
strong supporter of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. While we are saddened
by his sudden passing, we will always remember his devotion to country, his
untiring efforts on behalf of consumers and his support of a free and fair
marketplace. His legacy continues.
This ninth edition of the Consumer's Resource Handbook builds on the
tradition of being a strong and effective tool for consumers. In April 1996,
this Handbook received the prestigious "Mobius" award, presented by the Society
of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP). The award recognized the
Handbook's value in helping consumers make informed decisions. This honor
attests to the need and usefulness of the Handbook, which focuses on consumer
issues that affect us all.
The information presented is based on the premise that consumers need
to know their rights and how to make the right choices. Indeed, there are a
number of laws which protect your rights before and after purchasing a product
or service and many of those laws are referenced here. Today's marketplace,
which is expanding rapidly through electronic shopping, has a wide variety of
options for efficient, high quality goods and services to meet your needs and
your pocketbook. But there, too, are numerous scams and frauds which take
advantage of unsuspecting consumers.
This handbook offers information and advice to help you gain knowledge
about your rights and about how to make the right choices--and, yes, how to
protect yourself against unscrupulous dealers. Whether you are acquiring a
product such as a car or making an investment in securities or seeking a
service, you will find points to consider, questions to ask, and steps to take
before and after you purchase an item or sign a contract.
I believe this Handbook will serve as a handy reference for you. It
will help guide and protect you in the marketplace, so that whatever you buy,
your choice will be a good one. We are proud to be at your service.
Leslie L. Byrne
Special Assistant to the President and Director
The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs wishes to express its gratitude to
the contributors listed below who helped make possible the publication of the
1997 Consumer's Resource Handbook.
Department of Agriculture
The Honorable Daniel R. Glickman
The Honorable William J. Perry
Department of Energy
The Honorable Hazel R. O'Leary
Department of Justice
The Honorable Janet Reno
Department of Veterans Affairs
Honorable Jesse Brown
Agency for International
The Honorable J. Brian Atwood
Consumer Product Safety Commission
The Honorable Ann Brown
The Honorable Reed E. Hundt
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
The Honorable Ricki
Federal Trade Commission
Honorable Robert Pitofsky
Securities and Exchange
The Honorable Arthur Levitt, Jr.
Small Business Administration
The Honorable Philip Lader
General Motors Corporation
The information in this Consumer's Resource Handbook is presented
in two parts: (1) tips on buying products and services and (2) contacts for
information and assistance.
Part I of the Handbook, "Buying Smart," gives tips on getting
the most for your money, handling your own complaint and writing a complaint
letter. Part I also provides tips on a number of consumer issues such as
choosing and using credit, protecting personal privacy and avoiding many types
of frauds and scams.
Part II of the Handbook, "Consumer Assistance Directory," lists
offices you can contact for help with problems or questions. This section
provides individual names (where available), addresses, and telephone and fax
numbers for contacts ranging from consumer organizations to corporations to
government agencies at city, county, state and Federal levels. Some of these
consumer assistance groups are highlighted below; for a complete list of
agencies in Part II, see the "Contents."
Throughout the sections, a number of electronic addresses are listed
for access through the worldwide web. The websites listed here omit http:// and
begin with www (in the interest of space). Listed also are telephone numbers
which provide access for hearing and speech impaired consumers; they are in
bold type. A subject "Index" is at the end of the Handbook to
help you locate information about specific topics.
National Consumer Organizations
There are a number of national organizations whose missions are defined
as consumer assistance, protection and/or advocacy. Several of these
organizations assist consumers directly; others are interested in hearing from
consumers about problems and concerns; most, though not all, develop
educational materials for consumers. Addresses, telephone numbers and
30 of these organizations are listed in the "National
Consumer Organizations" section of this Handbook, beginning on page 31.
Better Business Bureaus
There are 162 Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) and branches in the United
States. These Bureaus are non-profit organizations supported primarily by local
businesses. BBB's offer a variety of services, including general consumer
information on products or services, business reliability reports, background
information on local businesses and organizations, and records of a company's
The Council of Better Business Bureaus, which is supported by national
companies and the nation's BBBs, also offers consumer education programs,
reports on charitable organizations, alternative dispute resolution services
and assistance with complaints about the truthfulness and accuracy of national
advertising, including children's advertising. A description of the Council is
on page 32 and a list of BBBs operating in the United States begins on page 34.
Corporate Consumer Contacts
Many companies have consumer affairs or customer relations departments
to answer questions or help resolve consumer complaints. The addresses and
telephone numbers of more than 650 companies are listed in the "Corporate
Consumer Contacts" section of this Handbook, beginning on page 39. If you write
to the company, you may use the sample letter on page 8 as a guide.
Most foreign and American car manufacturers have national or regional
offices which handle consumer complaints not resolved by your local car dealer.
The list of "Car Manufacturers" begins on page 64.
Trade Associations' and Other Dispute Resolution Programs
There are nearly 40,000 trade and professional associations in the
United States representing a variety of interests (for example, banking,
insurance, clothing manufacturing) and professions (for example, accountants,
lawyers, doctors, therapists).
Some of these associations and their members have established programs
to help consumers with complaints not resolved at the point of purchase.
Trade associations have various consumer functions, which are described
in National Trade & Professional Associations of the United States.
Check your local library for this book and related sources of help.
A list of "Trade Associations' and Other Dispute Resolution Programs"
begins on page 68.
State, County and City Government Consumer Offices
State and local consumer protection offices can help you resolve
consumer complaints and provide you with consumer education information. These
agencies might mediate complaints, conduct investigations, prosecute offenders
of consumer laws, license and regulate professions, promote strong consumer
protection legislation, provide educational materials and advocate in the
consumer interest. It is important to report complaints and suspected frauds
and misrepresentations to these governmental agencies. Consumer complaints form
the basis of most consumer protection law enforcement actions.
If you want to file a complaint, call your local consumer protection
office to learn what you need to do. A list of "State, County and City
Government Consumer Protection Offices" begins on page 71.
State Agencies and Commissions
In addition to state and local consumer offices, many states have
special agencies and commissions to handle consumer questions and complaints
about services for senior consumers and for disabled persons, as well as
services provided by financial institutions and insurance companies. Other
state agencies regulate securities, utilities and weights and measures. These
state agencies are listed separately, beginning on page 85.
In addition, a variety of other helpful community services might be
available in your area. For example, county and state Cooperative Extension
Services offer information about health, safety, product comparisons, financial
planning and nutritional needs. Information about these and other state and
local services can be found at your library and in the telephone directory in
the city/municipal, county or state government listings.
Military Commissary and Exchange Offices
Interested consumers will find a list of "Military Commissary and
Exchange Offices" on page 105. The list includes the regional offices and
headquarters for all the Armed Forces exchanges and commissaries.
Selected Federal Agencies
Many Federal Government agencies can help you with consumer questions
and complaints. A number of these agencies have enforcement authority and/or
complaint-handling responsibilities. The Federal agencies listed, beginning on
page 107, respond to consumer complaints and inquiries.
Consumer Credit Counseling Services
Counseling services provide assistance to individuals having difficulty
budgeting their money and/or meeting necessary monthly expenses. Many
organizations, including credit unions, family service centers and religious
organizations, offer some type of free or low-cost credit counseling.
The Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) is one non-profit
organization that provides money management techniques, debt payment plans and
educational programs. Counselors take into consideration the needs of the
client as well as the needs of the creditor when working out a debt repayment
plan. You can find the CCCS office nearest you by contacting the National
Foundation for Consumer Credit, Inc., 8611 Second Avenue, Suite 100, Silver
Spring, MD 209103372; Toll free: 800388CCCS.
Private and voluntary consumer organizations usually are created to
advocate specific consumer interests. In some communities, they will help
individual consumers with complaints. However, they have no enforcement
authority. To find out if such a group is in your community, contact your state
or local government consumer protection office. A list of the state and local
offices begins on page 71.
Federal Information Center
The Federal Information Center (FIC), administered by the General
Services Administration, can help you find information about the Federal
Government's agencies, services, and programs. The FIC can also tell you which
office to contact for help with problems.
You may call toll free from anywhere in the United States to
8006889889. Users of text telephones (TDD/TTY) may also call toll
free by dialing 8003262996.
The FIC is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time, except in Alaska (8
a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Hawaii (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Consumer Information Catalog
The Consumer Information Catalog lists approximately 200 free or
low-cost Federal booklets with helpful information for consumers. Topics
include careers and education, cars, child care, the environment, Federal
benefits, financial planning, food and nutrition, health, housing, small
business and more. This free Catalog is published quarterly by the
Consumer Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration. Single
copies of the Catalog only may be ordered by sending your name and
address to Catalog, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009 or by calling
7199484000. Non-profit groups that can distribute 25 copies or more
each quarter automatically can receive copies by writing for a bulk mail card.
You may visit the website at www.pueblo.gsa.gov or dial the bulletin
board system on 2022087679.
The local library can be a good source of help. Many of the
publications mentioned in this Handbook can be found in public
libraries. Some university and other private libraries also allow individuals
to use their reference materials. Check your local telephone directory for the
location of nearby libraries.
Local newspapers and radio and television stations often have "Action
Line" or "Hot Line" services. These programs might be able to help consumers
with their problems. Sometimes these programs, because of their influence in
the community, are successful in helping to resolve consumer complaints. Some
action lines select only the most severe problems or those that occur most
frequently. They might not be able to handle every complaint.
To find these services, check with your local newspapers, radio and
television stations, or local library.
Occupational and Professional Licensing Boards
Many state agencies license or register members of various professions,
including doctors, plumbers, electricians, car repair shops, employment
agencies, beauticians, and television and radio repair shops. In some states,
local consumer agencies license or register some professions.
In addition to setting licensing standards, these boards also issue
rules and regulations; prepare and give examinations; issue, deny or revoke
licenses; bring disciplinary actions; and handle consumer complaints.
Many boards have referral services or consumer education materials to
help you select a professional. If you contact a licensing agency about a
complaint, the agency will contact the professional on your behalf and, if
necessary, might conduct an investigation and take disciplinary action against
the professional. This action can include probation or license suspension or
To find the local office of an occupational or professional licensing
board, check your local telephone directory under the headings of "Licensing
Boards" or "Professional Associations," or look for the name of the individual
agency. If you need help locating the right office, contact your state or local
Please note that some of the sources of help listed in the
Consumer's Resource Handbook have a policy of declining complaints from
consumers who have sought prior legal counsel.
Small Claims Court
Small claims courts were established to resolve disputes involving
claims for small debts and accounts. While the maximum amounts that can be
claimed or awarded differ from state to state, court procedures generally are
simple, inexpensive, quick and informal. Court fees are minimal, and you often
get your filing fee back if you win your case. Generally, you will not need a
lawyer. In fact, in some states, lawyers are not permitted. If you live in a
state that allows lawyers and the party you are suing brings one, do not be
intimidated. The court is informal, and most judges make allowances for
consumers who appear without lawyers.
Remember, even though the court is informal, the ruling must be
followed, just like the ruling of any other court.
If the party bringing the suit wins the case, the party who lost often
will follow the court's decision without additional legal action. Sometimes,
however, losing parties will not obey the decision. In these cases, the winning
party can go back to court and ask for the order to be "enforced." Depending on
local laws, the court might, for example, order property to be taken by law
enforcement officials and sold. The winning party will get the money from the
sale, up to the amount owed. Alternatively, if the person who owes the money
receives a salary, the court might order the employer to garnish or deduct
money from each paycheck and give it to the winner of the lawsuit.
Check your local telephone book under the municipal, county or state
government headings for small claims court offices. When you contact the court,
ask the court clerk how to use the small claims court. Many state and local
consumer agencies have consumer educational material to prepare you for small
claims court (see page 71). To better understand the process, sit in on a small
claims court session before taking your case to court.
Many small claims courts have created dispute resolution programs to
help citizens resolve their disputes. These dispute resolution processes (e.g.,
mediation and conciliation) often simplify the process. For example, in
mediation, both people involved in the small claims dispute meet, sometimes in
the evenings or on weekends, and with the assistance of a neutral, third-party
mediator, discuss the situation and create their own agreement.
The rate of success is high for dispute resolution through small claims
court. Considering this, when you contact your small claims court, ask first
about its mediation or conciliation process.
For additional information about dispute resolution, contact the
American Bar Association, Section on Dispute Resolution, 740 15th Street, N.W.,
Washington, DC 20005, 2026621680.
Legal Aid offices help individuals who cannot afford to hire private
lawyers. There are more than 1,000 of these offices around the country staffed
by lawyers, paralegals and law students. All offer free legal services to those
who qualify. Funding is provided by a variety of sources, including Federal,
state and local governments and private donations. Many law schools nationwide
conduct clinics in which law students, as part of their training, assist
practicing lawyers with these cases.
Legal Aid offices generally offer legal assistance with such problems
as landlord-tenant relations, credit, utilities, family issues (e.g., divorce
and adoption), foreclosure and home equity fraud, social security, welfare,
unemployment and workers' compensation. Each Legal Aid office has its own board
of directors which determines the priorities of the office and the kinds of
cases handled. If the Legal Aid office in your area does not handle your type
of case, it should be able to refer you to other local, state or national
organizations that can provide advice or help. Check the telephone directory to
find the address and telephone number of the Legal Aid office near you. If you
would like a directory of Legal Aid offices around the country, contact the
National Legal Aid and Defender Association, 1625 K Street, N.W., 8th Floor,
Washington, DC 20006, 2024520620.
Legal Services Corporation
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was created by Congress in 1974.
There are LSC offices in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam
and Micronesia. To find the LSC office nearest you, check the telephone
directory, call the Federal Information Center (FIC) toll free on
8006889889 or call the LSC Public Affairs Office at
2023368800. For a directory of all LSC programs, write or call:
Legal Services Corporation
750 1st Street,
Washington, DC 20002
Finding a Lawyer
If you need help finding a lawyer, check with the Lawyer Referral
Service of your state, city or county bar association listed in local telephone
Complaints about a lawyer should be referred to your state, county or
city bar association.
I. Buying Smart