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Fearless Consumer Column Archive

Being the Tough Customer

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Consumer disputes are rarely cut and dried.
    Indeed, even after more than a year on this beat, I'm still surprised at the extent to which consumer disputes spring from simple miscommunications.
    For example, back in May, Charles Marsh was angry with Eljo’s, a local retailer, because of rapid deterioration of an expensive pair of shoes he purchased there after he had worn them only twice.         The manufacturer, the Alden Shoe Company in Massachusetts, refused to fix them, claiming the problem stemmed from Marsh’s gait, not a defect in the shoes.
    Eljo’s owner, Trent Thurston, also claimed Marsh’s peculiar way of walking caused the excessive wear, but he nonetheless offered to have the shoes repaired at Eljo’s expense.
    Marsh’s recollection, however, was different. While he recalled Alden and Eljo’s both telling him that his stride was to blame for the shoes’ condition, he apparently did not realize Eljo’s had offered to pay for the repair.
    Given the amount Marsh paid for the shoes, this misunderstanding set off a bitter conflict.
    Another common thread among consumer complaints I hear is a lack of knowledge that leaves consumers vulnerable to scams and dangerously liable to make poor decisions. I've written quite a few columns trying to educate readers about such nefarious issues as predatory lending and the ubiquitous e-mail ploys known as “Nigerian 419 scams," as well as about such savvy consumer issues as medical discount plans and the upcoming transition to digital television.
    And then there are some consumer problems almost defy common sense. Several columns this year concerned companies whose business practices seem to represent the triumph of process and procedure over logic. Sometimes, the threat of adverse publicity-- even in a small city like this one-- gives these companies a chance to reconsider their positions.
    For example, when DirecTV charged Charlottesville’s Shari Rood a $300 early disconnect fee for canceling her satellite television service-- despite the fact that she had been a customer for many years-- the company’s customer service refused several times to cancel the fee.
    After I sent the company’s public relations department an email asking about the case, however, DirecTV resolved the matter quickly and completely.
    Another case that used a lot of ink this year had a different result. Judy Adams broke her back in a car accident while on vacation in France, and despite her contention that she was medically ordered to remain flat on her back due to her injury, the University of Virginia health insurance plan refused to reimburse her for additional costs she incurred in traveling home, and despite a significant amount of evidence that Adams was entitled to coverage, UVA stuck to its guns.
    I'm thankful to everyone who gets in touch with me to discuss a problem. In many cases, my column is unfortunately too late to help people who are the targets of scams, schemes, and all-out poor business practices, but I've come to respect the courage of people who are willing to lend their names and stories to cautionary tales to help save others from similar consequences.
These situations invariably create feelings of frustration and powerlessness, and I've found that  whether my coverage ends up helping them, many of the people who contact me are grateful that someone will listen and take up their cause.
    Not all, however. Charles Marsh, for one, was quite unhappy with my coverage of his dispute with Eljo’s. I, of course, thought my coverage of his situation was fair, but my column, he wrote the Hook’s editor after my story appeared, should more aptly be named “Tough on the Customer.”
    You can’t please everyone. But if not here, where does an aggrieved consumer go to complain?


Consumer tips

State Office of Agriculture and Consumer Services- a wealth of info and complaint forms. 804-786-2373

Office of Attorney General- investigates major statewide scams. 804-786-2071. The office also runs a consumer hotline. 1-800-451-1525.

Better Business Bureau- closest one is in Richmond. (local line: 971-3707; long-distance: 804-648-0016)

Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation- the state body that yanks licenses of unscrupulous contractors. 804-367-8500

State Corporation Commission- not a big fan of regulated utilites being giving consumers the run-around. 804-371-9967.

Legal Aid Society- helps low-income citizens with housing, public benefits, employment, consumer protection, and problems concerning the rights of children and the elderly. 977-0553 or (clients only) 800-963-7323.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center- Lawyers there will fight for your rights. 804-782-9430

Certified mediators- There's at least one non-profit, and it's called the Mediation Center of Charlottesville 977-2926. Others can be found by asking or Googling around.

-->>See our Real estate section for more tips.

If all else fails: "small claims court"
In Virginia, small claims courts have jurisdiction over civil cases where a plaintiff is looking for a money judgement or recovery of personal property worth up to  $5,000. General District Court cases have a dollar limit of $4,500. Examples of civil cases are landlord/tenant disputes, contract disputes, and personal injury actions. The clerk can explain the procedures for filing.

Not sure who to sue? Find a company through the SCC by calling 804-371-9733.

-->>See our Courts rundown in the Government section

Quite often, problems start to disappear when the Hook's own Tough Customer looks into a story. Drop him a


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