NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2009
Online Consumer Help from the Federal Government
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)


I recently received an email from someone asking about how to contact real people at the major corporations who have the authority to resolve consumer problems. Until the late 1990’s I used to order a free book from the Government Printing Office (GPO) titled “Consumers’ Resource Handbook” which was a directory of methods of consumer problem resolution, complete with real person corporate contacts. When I received the email I immediately went to the GPO website and while the book was still available, it was over a decade old, and probably obsolete. Being cognizant that in recent years many federal agencies shifted much of their informational resources to the internet, that seemed a logical place to find similar contemporary information, which I did.

It turns out that the book has been revised and updated and distributed under a new title, “2009 Consumer Action Handbook”. The free book may be ordered online at http://www.consumeraction.gov/caw_orderhandbook.shtml, but as I type this, the book is out of stock, and back-orders are being accepted. Despite the fact that the “real” book is currently unavailable, its virtual copy is available online as a large PDF file, 14.8 MB in size, (182 pages), at consumeraction.gov/pdfs/2009_Handbook_Web_Version.pdf. Parts of the book are available as smaller downloads from consumeraction.gov/viewpdf.shtml.

While different sections of the book provide guidance and tips on resolving consumer problems, the part that I find most useful is the Corporate Consumer Offices, available for download as a PDF file from consumeraction.gov/pdfs/Corporate.pdf. This 38 page tome lists the proper contacts for hundreds of corporations and is an excellent resource for resolving problems. All too often the problem can be resolved by simply getting to the proper person in the corporate office, and this resource lists those offices along with physical addresses for snail mail, websites, phone numbers (mostly toll free), websites, and in some cases email addresses.

Other useful sections of the book, either in paper format or electronic format, include information necessary before buying a car or a home, tools for preventing identity theft, how to understand credit, and how to file a complaint. This section is available directly at consumeraction.gov/pdfs/Consumer_Topics.pdf.

Sadly, some of us will have problems with car dealers and manufacturers that are frustrating, and that we just cannot seem to resolve locally. Almost all of the manufacturers have an established dispute resolution system in place, and like any other consumer complaint, the key to a successful resolution is getting to the right person in the organization. A small 4 page PDF file, which provides the appropriate contact information for the car makers, as well as their respective dispute resolution programs, is available for download at consumeraction.gov/pdfs/Cars.pdf.

Last year I had a personal situation with a licensed professional which could not be resolved locally. This issue was not of a scale that would justify any legal action, but I felt that some form of regulatory disciplinary action would be appropriate. I knew enough to locate the proper state agency online, and file a complaint, which was subsequently acted on by the state agency. Sometimes we may need help in determining which agency in this state, or any other state, has appropriate jurisdiction over such problems. Fortunately, there is an online directory which we can freely download that lists all of the primary state (and many local or county) consumer protection offices that may provide assistance, this document (17 pages) being available at consumeraction.gov/pdfs/State_Offices.pdf.

Other state, federal, and private agencies and associations deal with specific areas of commerce, such as banking, insurance, securities, and utilities. I have been a volunteer for the Better Business Bureau for almost 37 years, and have learned first hand how it can be a most valuable resource for consumer information and complaint resolution. There are also dozens of private national associations that deal with specific consumer issues, and these organizations may also be a valuable resource for both information and problem resolution. Many trade and professional associations have codes of conduct, and provide information to consumers as well as a method of investigation and enforcement of consumer problems. A compilation of the individual directories that cover all of these agencies, organizations, and associations is available online at consumeraction.gov/viewpdf.shtml. From this website the appropriate individual directories can be located and downloaded in PDF format.

Consumeraction.gov also has specialized information for specific groups such as the military (consumeraction.gov/military.shtml), teachers (consumeraction.gov/caw_teachers.shtml), and persons with disabilities (consumeraction.gov/caw_disabilities.shtml). The military section includes information on public and private consumer assistance explicitly available to members of the military and their families. The teachers’ section includes lesson plans for secondary and middle school classes. Persons with disabilities may find useful information in their specialized resource section.

Consumeraction.gov may prove to be a very valuable and useful website as it offers a wealth of information to the consumer on many important topics. Although it is a large download, the 2009 Consumer Action Handbook is a valuable and comprehensive resource. At a minimum, I suggest that people download whatever individual sections of the handbook that they personally find appropriate and become familiar with the available resources.

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