There are a number of state and federal laws that protect consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practice. Yet, when most people find themselves on the receiving end of a raw deal, they don’t know where to turn.
Fortunately, most businesses take their reputation seriously and are willing to work with consumers to fix a mistake and correct a problem. The best thing you can do is contact the company first and see what they are willing to do for you. You’ll be often be surprised by how accommodating a business can be, if you just make them aware of the problem. (In fact, in order to bring certain legal actions for breach of warranty [for products delivered in a defective condition or not as ordered], giving the seller notice of the defect is a condition precedent to making the claim. In other words, if you never told the company there was a problem, you can’t sue them for not fixing it.)
For example, I recently ordered some cosmetics online, patiently waited the 4-7 business days for shipping, received a notice that my package had been “delivered, left at front door,” and when I got home, there was not package in sight. What to do? This could be an error by the business (gave wrong address to the shipper), by the shipping company (delivered to wrong address or not delivered at all), or a simple matter of theft. What to start?
After some quick googling, I learned that the proper procedure for a missing package is to contact the sender first, then the sender contacts the shipping company to initiate a missing package investigation. So that’s what I did. And, not only did the sender facilitate the investigation, but they assured me that if my package did not turn up, they would either refund my purchase or resend the products. (A surprise and delight, considering that company is probably not even the one who did anything wrong.)
Of course, not every interaction with a company is as pleasant and direct. We’ve all met people and businesses who seem to spend their whole lives trying to get away with something.
There are some things you can do for the greater good of every consumer. Report the activity to the Better Business Bureau and/or the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection Agency (or their state equivalent—in Florida it’s the Attorney General’s office)—which will result in an investigation of the company and their practices and may result in sanctions to the business and greater protections for future consumers.
But in order to get your money back or otherwise make yourself whole in a situation where the other party is unwilling to be reasonable, you’re going to have to take legal action.
Small, local disputes can be handled in county small claims court. With reduced court costs and less complicated procedures, this may be a good option for simple disputes valued at less than $5000. (This is much like what you may have seen on The People’s Court or other daytime court shows—interestingly, though, those shows are actually a form of binding arbitration whereby the parties have agreed to take their claim outside of the court system and allow the TV judge to make a binding decision for them.)
There are often issues you might not have anticipated, though, even in small claims, that mean you would be wise to consult a consumer protection lawyer before proceeding. For example, what if you win in court but aren’t actually able to receive any compensation from the other party because they have no assets, no insurance, or exhibit a complete willingness to skip town to avoid judgment? A consumer protection lawyer can help guide you through these possibilities and decrease their likelihood. One thing about lawyers is, we are very good at finding the money if there is any.
So whether it’s false or deceptive advertising, breach of warranty, breach of contract, unconscionable contract, or some other unfair trade practice, you rights are probably protected in more ways than you realize.