A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 6, 1998
CONTACT: Erica Quigley (617) 722-2230
PUTTING AN END TO "CAVEAT EMPTOR"
I recall reading about the huge monopolies that dominated the market at the turn of the century during my American History classes. Few corporate "monsters" dominated their fields, the economy and their workers like octopi. The theory of "caveat emptor" ("let the buyer beware") prevailed and consumers were left to deal with price fixing and other unscrupulous behavior. Fortunately, the winds of change swept across the nation and the government took an active role in protecting both consumers and workers. Fortunately, we can look back on those years as history long since past, living in an era where consumers have adequate protection from such practices. . ., or can we?
Even in today's consumer oriented world, it is not uncommon to find consumers being "slammed", "scammed", or "crammed" by one company or another. For years, big companies have preyed upon and manipulated unsuspecting consumers. Unfortunately, some of these schemes go unnoticed or largely unpublished until it is too late. Recently, however, the legislature has once again taken the initiative to pass legislation specifically targeting the many ways in which citizens of the Commonwealth are being scammed.
Policy makers have made significant head-way in the last decade in favor of the innocent shopper. For example, this past session, we enacted the Consumer and Merchant Protection Act, S.2195 to fight the practice of inconsistent pricing due to faulty or inaccurate scanning machines. This piece of legislation implements a comprehensive reform of the Weights and Measures laws and regulations in order to achieve a uniform, effective system which protects both consumers and merchants who buy goods.
One aspect of this new law requires the inspection of price-scanning devices every two years. This ensures that consumers will not be overcharged when picking up a gallon of milk at the supermarket. With fines of up to $100, food retailers are given the incentive to become more conscientious (if they are not already) about price discrepancies. When it goes into effect on November 8, Massachusetts will become the first state in the nation to require regular scanner inspections.
While price accuracy is one of many issues affecting people, other instances in which consumers have really been taken for a ride are telephone "cramming" and "scamming" schemes. Cramming occurs when a consumer is charged on his or her phone bill for optional services that were never ordered, authorized, or used. The most common "cramming" scams are initiated through fraudulent 800 or 900 numbers, and misleading contest and sweepstakes entry forms. Unscrupulous companies can obtain phone numbers and other information through consumers' participation in date lines, psychic lines and the like, and then charge consumers unfairly.
"Slamming," on the other hand, is another scam affecting customers who have their long distance services switched without their approval. This illegal practice produces huge profits for telephone companies at the expense of customers. Massachusetts legislators are pushing for stiffer penalties against long distance servers who violate consumer rights. (Long distance services are only required by law to switch carriers once receiving written permission, but they technically do not have to prove the customer asked for transfer.) In the meantime, customers can reduce their chances of being "slammed" by putting a freeze on their long distance carrier.
The key to protecting yourself from such scams is by taking a few simple precautions. Being careful when calling unfamiliar 800 and 900 numbers, carefully checking every monthly bill for unfamiliar charges, and reading the fine print on any contest or sweepstakes forms can save one the grief of becoming a victim of phone "cramming." Since Massachusetts is one of the top three states to be "cramming" targets, officials at Bell Atlantic and other local carriers and the Massachusetts' Attorney General's Office are considering plans to allow customers to request a block on any monthly charges that are unrelated to their long-distance carriers. The Massachusetts' legislature has also been pushing reforms, such as prohibiting sweepstakes entries as an endorsement of new phone services, as well as easy-to-read phone bills.
Although the above examples address relatively new schemes, protecting the interests of the consumer has been a cause for legislators and activists alike for a number of years. In the early 1980's, consumer activists and the legislature were successful in passing the "Lemon Law" to protect consumers from being swindled by new and used car dealerships. For most of us, buying a motor vehicle is the second largest purchase we make in our lifetime. The Lemon Law ensures that the warranties covering new, used and leased vehicles are more than just a slip of paper. In short, the law protects consumer purchases of both new and used cars, and as of July, 1997, leased vehicles, by requiring new vehicles to be free from substantial defects that cannot reasonably be repaired, and mandating full disclosure of any such defects when selling a used car. As seen by the recent amendments covering leased vehicles, the Lemon Law is not a static piece and will be altered when necessary to protect buyers.
As information age progresses, and more and more records become easily accessible, one thing is certain -- consumer advocacy is still a cause which is in need of great support. Through the synergistic efforts of the legislature, the Office of Consumer Affairs and interested activists, consumers will be assured continued protection from corporate scams. Only by continuing this concerted effort to inform consumers and strictly enforcing these laws will we send the message "To the Buyers, We Care."