Every time you step up to the checkout counter, you’re faced with a choice: shop smart or get cheated. But you don’t have to eat your losses if your car repair bill is more than you’d bargained for, or the stationer you hired to print your wedding invitations did a poor job.
"The first thing I tell people is look before you leap -- don't buy impulsively," says Gene DeSantis, a consumer law professor at Syracuse University. “Make sure you research both the product and the merchant. It's good preventative medicine. If you're smart enough to do that, you minimize the risks."
Want help with a purchase, or need to make a complaint to a merchant? Then keep reading for a quick course in consumer smarts--or just use the links at the top of this page to get where you want to go.
For beginners, DeSantis prescribes Consumer Reports and Mark Green's The Consumer Bible as essentials. Consumer Reports, published monthly by Consumers Union, provides product and service ratings and recommendations based on its tests.
The Consumer Bible written by former New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner and current NYC Public Advocate Mark Green, explores consumer legal rights and issues. From cars to life insurance to credit cards, Green's "bible" warns about tricks of the trade and problems that may arise in virtually every area of the market. "It literally is the bible," DeSantis says.
Once you've conquered the stepping stones, there’s still a laundry list of consumer advocacy groups, web sites and government agencies that offer help:
- U.S. Consumer Gateway links consumers to a broad range of federal information resources online, including food, health, product safety, money, and transportation. The site’s ScamAlert! feature provides current information about fraudulent and deceptive practices in the marketplace.
- Federal Consumer Information Center (FCIC) helps federal agencies and departments develop and distribute useful information to the public. The FCICs Consumer Action Handbook, published annually by the FCIC, offers advice and consumer tips on topics like car repair, purchase, and leasing, shopping from home and choosing and using credit cards wisely. You can order the Consumer Action Handbook online or by calling 1-800-688-9889.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces a variety of federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. The FTC ensures that markets function competitively and works to eliminate unfair or deceptive acts or practices. From cars to the environment to diet and fitness to shopping online, the FTC offers consumer tips and guides for a wide range of products and services. If you have a consumer problem or complaint, call the FTCs Consumer Response Center at (877) FTC-HELP.
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assures the safety of foods and cosmetics and efficacy of pharmaceuticals, biological products and medical devices. Contact the FDA for information about food and nutrition, prescription and non-prescription drugs, and cosmetics. To report problems with products regulated by the FDA or for general health information: (888) INFO-FDA.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCCs Consumer Information bureau helps with issues such as unsolicited telephone calls and faxes, unauthorized switching of telephone service and broadband access. (888) CALL-FCC.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for national housing policies and programs and enforcing fair housing laws. HUD regulates mortgage interest and fee overcharges, housing discrimination, public housing, and bad landlords. Contact HUD’s Housing Counseling Hotline at (800) 569-4287 and its Housing Discrimination Hotline at (800) 669-9777.
Finally, tap your state attorney general’s office for more information on state and local consumer issues and laws, as well as to file complaints.
From Ralph Nader to your local BBB, these are the people and organizations that fight the good fight for your rights.
The Better Business Bureau a non-profit that resolves consumers disputes with businesses and promotes ethical business standards. Contact your local BBB for access to business reports detailing a companys length of time in business, complaint history, and information obtained through special Bureau investigations.
For more consumer lobbying, including advice on healthcare, credit, energy, food and product recommendations and alerts, and more, check these out:
From banks to taxes and all in-between, consult one of these resources for guidance and help:
- Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System offers consumer information about the federal reserve system, credit cards, home mortgages, vehicle leasing, credit protection laws and complaints about banks.
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) offers tips on how to become a smarter, safer user of financial services and provides information about deposit insurance, banks, and consumer rights. Contact the FDICs Compliance and Consumer Affairs division at (800) 934-3342.
- BankSITE features a directory of banks by state and country, consumer guides, interactive calculation tools, self-tests, worksheets, message board forums and more.
- Bankrate.com provides timely rates for mortgages, new and used auto loans, credit cards, savings accounts and more.
- CardWeb.com provides tips and information pertaining to all types of payment cards, including credit cards, debit cards, smart cards, prepaid cards, ATM cards, loyalty cards and phone cards.
- Cardratings.org sponsored by Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms (CFCCT), provides news and information about credit card scams, cards with reward programs, debt relief, student credit, Internet security, low rates, and balance transfers.
- TaxWeb provides local, state and federal tax news and information, tax forms, links to federal tax resources, and information about refunds, where to file, and filing extensions.
- National Foundation for Credit Counseling a national non-profit network of neighborhood financial care centers offering money management education, confidential budget, credit and debt counseling, and homebuyer education. Consumers can call the NFCC crisis hotline at (800) 388-2227.
- Myvesta.org offers financial counseling and services online and by phone at (800) 680-3328 to people who need help with managing debt, saving money and improving their credit reports.
- AARPs Money and Work section provides useful advice and information about financial planning, retirement savings and income, debt, social security, fraud and scams, taxes, and more.
Protecting You and Your Family’s Health
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contact the EPA to report environmental violations and emergencies. Visit the EPAs web site for information about air quality, pesticides, pollutants, hazardous wastes, and drinking water standards.
- American Medical Association provides consumer health information and medical news; contact the AMA to check a doctors schooling, residencies, licensing and certification status.
- American Board of Medical Specialties to verify a doctors board certification status or to locate a board certified doctor, visit the ABMS web site or call (800) 776-CERT.
- American Dietetic Association provides nutrition guidelines, daily nutrition tips, dieting information, links to resources and registered dietitians.
- International Food and Information Council (IFIC) provides food safety, nutrition and health information, from food labeling to fats and fat replacers.
- ElderWeb provides information on eldercare, links to information on legal, financial, medical, and housing issues and other research and statistics.
- National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies provides information to parents seeking child care, professionals, and advocates.
- Telecommunications Research & Action Center offers rate comparisons among major carriers, wireless tips, advice on choosing a long-distance calling plan, and an area code lookup tool.
- Tele-Consumer Hotline visit the Tele-Consumer web site or call (800) 332-1124 to speak to a trained counselor about telephone concerns and for information about calling cards, handling bill disputes, telephone fraud, resources for people with disabilities and more.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises on building codes and flood plain management, teaches people how to get through a disaster, makes disaster assistance available to states, communities, businesses and individuals and administers national flood and crime insurance programs. To register for disaster assistance, call (800) 462-9029.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) call the NHTSAs Auto Safety Hotline at (800) 424-9393 or visit its web site for information on cars, child safety seats, tires, results of government crash tests, car safety recall history or to report safety problems.
- American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for information on top-rated energy efficient appliances, and guides to environmental cars and trucks and consumer home energy savings.
- National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association offers home security tips, tips on how to choose a home security company, and a list of NBFAA dealers, contractors, suppliers and manufacturers.
- Mortgage Bankers Association of America offers home-buying tips, planning tools, mortgage and market data, mortgage news, advice on choosing a mortgage lender, and a glossary of mortgage terms.
- Center for Auto Safety founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader, CAS offers lemon lawyer referrals, lists auto safety experts, and provides links to publications and resources that help consumers avoid lemons.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides vehicle safety ratings, safety facts, crash test results, and links to auto safety resources.
- The Lemon Book, by Ralph Nader and Clarence Ditlow this A to Z handbook for auto owners and buyers offers advice on how to avoid getting ripped off when buying a car and what to do if you wind up with a lemon in spite of all precautions. Available from Amazon.com for $11.65.
- Insurance Information Institute provides international insurance information and financial services industry through these web sites. Call III’s National Insurance Consumer Helpline at (800) 942-4242 for answers to your insurance questions.
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers information about international travel, and air travel safety. For questions or complaints about airline safety or security call the FAAs Aviation Safety Hotline at (800) 255-1111.
- American Society of Travel Agents provides travel news, a trip request service (for best price and value) and locates ASTA travel agents; you may also contact the ASTA to complain about a tour or travel agent.