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Almost everyone has been in this situation at some point. You need to get something fixed and need to call a plumber, hire a contractor, pick a mechanic to work on your car, or make a similar choice while trying to avoid being ripped off or paying for shoddy work.
At those times, you need all the information you can find about the person or company you’re thinking of hiring.
So it’s good news that a recent study by a nonprofit consumer watchdog agency ranked Hawaii as one of three states doing the best job of informing the public about consumer complaints against businesses and licensed professionals.
Hawaii was one of just three “Gold Star” states, according to Connecticut-based Truth in Advertising Inc., which is “dedicated to empowering consumers to protect themselves and one another against false advertising and deceptive marketing.”
Only New Hampshire and Oregon joined Hawaii at the top of the pack, based on results of the group’s 50-state study, published in November.
I found the report, and Hawaii’s high ranking, a useful antidote to the cynicism promoted by another recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, which awarded Hawaii a depressingly low grade of D+ in its state-by-state assessment of public integrity. This group uses a complex and somewhat rigid set of questions covering 13 issue areas ranging from government accountability to procurement, auditing, and regulation of lobbyists and campaign spending, one I’m not confident yields reliable results.
But the Truth in Advertising report gave the state a high grade based on two readily accessible online databases of consumer complaints.
One database consists of complaints filed with the Office of Consumer Protection against companies operating in the state. According to its website, OCP is “the primary agency responsible for reviewing, investigating and prosecuting allegations of unfair or deceptive trade practices in consumer transactions.”
It investigates a wide variety of complaints involving advertising violations, door-to-door sales, solar energy devices, gift certificates, offers of gifts and prizes, going out of business sales, refunds and exchanges, collection practices, credit sales, health clubs, towing, fine prints and motor vehicle rentals.
The second Hawaii database is made up of complaints filed against individuals and companies holding professional and vocational licenses to operate in the state. There are nearly 90 different types of licenses, covering everything from employment agencies, real estate brokers, and travel agencies, to nurses, dentists, podiatrists, contractors, plumbers, and even mixed martial arts managers, promoters, contestants, and referees. Complaints are investigated by the Regulated Industries Complaints Office, or RICO.
Enter the name of a business, an individual or a license number and you’ll get the results, if any, in a few seconds. You can even enter a word that might appear in many different company names. For example, I entered the word “solar” and was presented a list of companies with “solar” in their names. You can then click to see additional details.
The Truth in Advertising report gave the state a high grade based on two readily accessible online databases of consumer complaints.
There is a separate database with further information about licenses. Enter the name of a company or person, and you’ll be shown the business address, type of license, and when the license expires. You can also click to see employers (in the case of an individual) or key company employees, insurance coverage, and different classes of licenses held.
The complaints databases are each described as a “neutral repository” of complaints.
“Users should judge a business’ complaints history on the outcome of the complaints and not on the number of complaints or on the fact that a complaint was filed,” the websites advises.
Despite the state’s high ranking for disclosure in the Truth in Advertising report, the complaints system is far from ideal, at least from the average consumer’s point of view. Apart from the fact that a complaint was filed and is pending, there is often no information at all about the nature of the complaint. Even when complaints are sustained and disciplinary action or fines reported, what actually happened that prompted the complaint often isn’t disclosed.
So while the state websites advise that users shouldn’t judge a business by the number of complaints, that tiny bit of information — a string of complaints about which nothing is disclosed — is often the only information publicly available when needed by consumers.
And since agency investigations of pending complaints can take months, at best, and often years, what initially appears to be a relatively robust system for disclosing information to the public can sometimes prove to be of little practical value.
I did have a small but encouraging brush with licensing regulators this past week after I blogged about a man who came to our door soliciting landscaping or tree trimming work. He left a business card which said his company is “bonded and insured,” and provided what appeared to be a contractor’s license number. But I quickly recognized the license number was not in a format used here in Hawaii, so the claim was questionable. On my blog, I wondered whether I should report the incident or just forget it.
There were several cynical responses predicting state regulators would do nothing in a case like this. But within hours, I was contacted by a supervisor at RICO urging me to file a complaint based on the apparently false claims made on the business card.
At this point, it’s unknown whether there really was any kind of violation, but his agency is the one that will make that determination.
He advised that in addition to possibly offering services for which a license is required, a new law passed in 2012 makes it a misdemeanor to “use … any word, title, or representation to induce the false belief that the person is licensed under chapter 444 to engage in contracting activity.” Using an apparently invalid license number could violate this relatively new provision in the law.
Every few years, lobbyists representing business and professional associations have returned to the Legislature arguing that even minimal public disclosure of consumer complaints is an unfair burden on them.
The new law also contains a “three strikes” provision for “habitual unlicensed contracting activity.” Anyone who has been convicted twice within the past 10 years for unlicensed contracting can be hit with felony charges on their next offense.
I was encouraged by RICO’s proactive stance in taking the initiative in this instance. And I am also well aware that in the past, it has been the Legislature which has yielded to pressure from businesses and choked off lots of information about complaints, reducing the flow of public information to a trickle, while the regulatory agencies are forced to do the best they can within those legislative constraints.
Every few years, lobbyists representing business and professional associations have returned to the Legislature arguing that even minimal public disclosure of consumer complaints is an unfair burden on them. Back in 2010, a bill carried over from the prior year that would have imposed strict secrecy on complaints was resuscitated at the last minute and passed by the legislature in the final days of the annual session. Only then-Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto prevented it from becoming law.
The bad news is that similar bills are introduced nearly every legislative session, and we have to stay alert if we want to protect our right to know as much as possible about the people and businesses we do business with.
So don’t be shy about screening the businesses you deal with by checking out whether their work has drawn complaints in the past, but also remember that we really should be pressing our elected representatives to do more to protect our rights as consumers.