Autos, imposter scams top list of complaints to AG’s office

DES MOINES — For the second year in a row, auto-related problems topped all categories of complaints reported to the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division in 2019.

Other top categories were imposter scams and complaints over media services, home improvement projects and home goods and services.

Overall complaints totaled 3,225, a 7.7 percent decrease from 2018. That’s the first decrease since at least 2014.

Attorney General Tom Miller attributed the decrease, in part, to improved efforts to help consumers before they file a formal written complaint.

“We have a strong intake team, and if we cannot help consumers through the Consumer Fraud Act or other laws, we’ll guide them to other resources or educate them on how to avoid further problems,” Miller said.

Despite last year’s dip, complaints to the Consumer Protection Division are up 17.5 percent over the last five years.

Auto complaints grow – The auto category had 565 complaints, up 14.6 percent over 2018. Auto parts and repairs made up about 30 percent of those complaints. The category also includes complaints over financing; title issues; repossession; advertising; and RVs, motorcycles and other vehicles.

“We advise consumers to research auto repair shops by checking the Better Business Bureau or other review sites, and to get recommendations from friends,” Miller said.
He also recommends that Iowans understand their insurance coverage and get estimates in writing. For more tips on avoiding problems, see the Attorney General’s Consumer Focus newsletter.

Helping drive the increase were complaints over auto warranty plans and services, which increased from 58 in 2018 to 83 in 2019. Miller warns consumers to watch out for mailers that dupe them into calling a number to “activate your vehicle protection program.” Such scams can leave consumers vulnerable to losing money or personal information.

Imposter scams rise again – Imposter scams were again the second-highest complaint category, increasing 11 percent over a year ago to 375 complaints. That number is probably low, as many more consumers contacted the Consumer Protection Division to report the scams but did not file formal complaints.

Imposter scams, which generally occur through phone calls, emails, or social media, involve a scammer who pretends to be someone they’re not, poses an urgent problem and seeks immediate payment to resolve that problem. Imposters engage in a variety of ruses, such as pretending to be a company with whom you’ve done business, an IRS agent collecting overdue tax payments, or relatives who need money for an emergency.

“Don’t respond to messages without verifying phone numbers or social media accounts,” Miller said. He urged Iowans not to wire money or provide money card or gift card numbers to anyone over the phone who wants payment now.

Proposed law changes – Miller said his office could use the Legislature’s help in strengthening Iowa laws to provide justice to consumers.

For example, Miller has advocated strengthening Iowa’s manufactured-home laws after consumers have complained about high increases in rents and fees and other problems.

In addition, the AG’s office urges lawmakers to strengthen the law involving home improvement contracts, which are among the office’s top complaints.

Too often, homeowners are left in the lurch if they make a down payment on a project and a contractor fails to finish the job. Under the Attorney General’s bill, a contractor must file with the state a $75,000 surety bond, and consumers damaged by a fraud or breach of contract can recover costs from the bond. Contractors who violate the requirement would be guilty of a simple misdemeanor.

Attorney General Miller has also proposed bills that would:
• require education loan debt management companies to obtain a license from the Iowa Division of Banking and provide disclosures and other protections for borrowers.
• add motorcycles to Iowa’s Lemon Law, which protects buyers of new or used vehicles.
• increase penalties for elder abuse, including financial exploitation

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