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8 Years of Exposing Scams, Schemes and Scoundrels

AARP consumer crusader Ron Burley takes stock of customer service issues

What's Bugging You - Ron Burley sitting on the pile of paper on the phone

John Keatley

AARP The Magazine columnist Ron Burley has been working to resolve AARP members' customer service issues for eight years.

Eight years ago, AARP member Greg Williamson, from Kentucky, wrote me about a hotel room that had a door that didn't latch properly, a drippy faucet and a smell of urine.

"Hotel Hell" became the first of more than 100 On Your Side stories published in AARP The Magazine and on the AARP website. Since then, more than 41,000 AARP members have reached out to us with their consumer complaints. And over those eight years, we've helped our members recover almost $5 million.

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It's been an interesting and rewarding ride, personally and professionally. We're not a big team: It's just me and the occasional college intern to handle the more than 300 emails, 100 pieces of snail mail and countless phone calls we receive each month. From the case of the rental property that wasn't really for rent to an $800 toilet repair, we've helped members in their struggle against companies that are often unresponsive, uncaring or even corrupt.

We recently crunched the numbers to see what problems most often vex our members. Here's what we found.

Contract disputes: 32%

This includes unfair or illegal contract clauses, unilateral changes to terms, failure to disclose the entire agreement prior to a sale, misleading phrasing and other practices likely designed to take advantage of consumers. After more than 20 years as a consumer advocate, I'm convinced the playing field isn't level. Companies have unlimited time and access to skilled legal advice when drafting their agreements.

And consumers, often with no legal expertise and limited time, are expected to fully grasp all the nuances and implications of highly complex contracts. Such distortions leave customers without the product or service they expected, and the unsuspecting can even end up signing away many of their basic consumer rights.

My Best Advice: Bring in the big guns. You may not be the only victim. Check with your state attorney general's office. Its consumer department may already be working the case.

Be persistent. The old saying still applies: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." Call regularly, and keep climbing the ladder until you get a response. Many companies will soon realize you're costing them more in time and effort than your situation is worth.

Leverage publicity. Make the company a proposition it can't refuse: Either it takes care of you or it risks becoming your new "consumer hobby" and having to deal with countless more customers who've learned they've also signed their rights away. Remember, it's the promise of publicity that has the power. Once you've publicly shamed them, they have little reason to negotiate.

Poor service or installation: 25%

This category includes unsatisfactory or unprofessional after-the-sale customer service encounters. (We have filtered out situations where we considered the complaint to be unjustified or extreme.)

My Best Advice: Offer to send what I call a "Letter to the Competition." Rather than broadcasting the problem, just signal that you'll share your unhappy story with the company's top two competitors. Let the company do the math on how much business that might cost it when compared with your paltry problem.

Failure to rebate or refund: 17%

Even when consumers are able to successfully negotiate a refund, many companies fail to comply. We also see many situations where companies don't compensate customers for point-of-purchase or in-package rebates.

My Best Advice: Mention that your next phone call will be to the Federal Trade Commission, which has done great work in this area, slapping many companies with hefty fines in recent years.

Broken sales promises: 13%

This category includes misleading but undocumented statements made by a salesperson or other company representative. It excludes false or misleading advertising. One of our biggest successes falls into this category: Our 2013 negotiation with a national time-share company returned an estimated $180,000 to more than a dozen of our readers and also resulted in a corporate change of policy to prevent future occurrences.

My Best Advice: Before the sale, ask for consent to use your smartphone to record the pitch, and document anything important, including a reasonable return policy, in writing. After the sale, look on the Internet for similar stories that will show a pattern and to use as leverage when negotiating. Talk to the sales department rather than customer service; it's more affected by bad publicity.

Scams: 8%

My Best Advice: Take advantage of federal fraud protections by paying with a credit card, if possible (not a debit card, cash or a check). Before buying, look into a company's reputation online at ripoffreport.com and consumeraffairs.com. After the fact, file a complaint with your local district attorney and state attorney general. That way, you can get your share of a recovery if the scammers are ever brought to justice.

If you've got a consumer problem, reach out to us online. I look forward to hearing from you (or maybe not!).

Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of  Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at aarp.org/ronburley.

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