TINA.org report finds states in the US should do more to give consumers access to complaints filed against businesses
As a non-profit focused on educating and empowering consumers to protect themselves from false and deceptive advertising, truthinadvertising.org (TINA.org) routinely files requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with state and federal officials for consumer complaints lodged against companies it is investigating. These complaints provide valuable information about experiences consumers have had with a business. While consumer complaints filed with key federal consumer protection agencies are available to the public, states differ drastically as to whether and how they disclose these same types of complaints.
Importance of Complaints
Consumers who take the time to file a complaint with state officials can provide valuable information on how a business operates in practice. While consumers may turn to online reviews and ratings sites to evaluate a business, those sources can be murky. Fake reviews
are a troublesome issue and some businesses are trying to tamp down negative reviews with terms and conditions that impose gag orders
and fines. Thus, complaints filed with state officials become an important resource for consumers. States that lock complaints behind closed doors are limiting access to useful information about experiences fellow consumers have had with a company.
Equally important is the ability to keep government officials accountable. States that keep consumer records from the public are severely limiting the public’s ability to monitor whether government officials are doing enough to protect them from unscrupulous enterprises by taking action against a company.
In order to gauge the level of access consumers have in different states to these important records, TINA.org launched a Freedom of Information (FOIA) project, sending pubic records requests to all 50 states and analyzing the pertinent public records laws.
Specifically, TINA.org sent requests to attorneys general offices in all 50 states for consumer complaints against Wake Up Now
. The requests asked for copies of all consumer complaints filed against the company with any of the consumers’ personal identifying information — such as names, phone numbers, and addresses — redacted. The requests indicated the time frame that the states had to respond as outlined in their open records laws. For a sample FOIA letter click here.
TINA.org also sent letters to additional state consumer protection departments if the departments were separate from the attorney general office in that state or if a state official upon receipt of the FOI request indicated that there was another department where the request should be sent. TINA.org sent the letters in a variety of ways, including via email, online form, fax or through the mail – it all depended on the process outlined by the state. TINA.org did not appeal any of the decisions other than a denial in Utah.
If a state replied that it did not find any records “responsive” to TINA.org’s request, TINA.org categorized those states as ones that would disclose the complaints if there were any after it reviewed the laws in those states.
(Note: States differ greatly on their FOIA procedures and ease of filing requests. To some degree, the responses TINA.org received may have been dependent upon the state officials who reviewed the requests. The time frame for the response was also dependent on getting requests to the appropriate official.)
Results: Best and Worst States
The good news is that more than 85 percent of states disclose some amount of information regarding consumer complaints they receive about businesses, ranging from posting the information online to just providing the number of complaints filed. But 12 percent refuse to release any information with regard to consumer complaints.
The three most open states are Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Oregon, all of which provide an online searchable database
for consumers. South Carolina’s Department of Consumer Affairs is also commendable; it posts a buyer’s beware list of businesses that have not responded to complaints filed against it or businesses that did not provide the promised resolution.
However, consumers seeking complaint information from Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Rhode Island, face a drastically different response. These states denied access to the complaints.
In between the givers and the deniers are numerous states that disclosed some amount of information. Arkansas and Tennessee will only let residents of the state review its public documents. (Despite the law, Tennessee’s Department of Consumer Affairs did respond that no complaints had been filed against the company, even though TINA.org is not a resident of the state.) Utah only discloses complaints that meet certain criteria. And although the offices of the attorney general in California and Nevada would not disclose consumer complaints, other consumer protection departments in these states did indicate they would release the complaints received by their offices. Click here
for a list of states best to worst.
Timely vs. Untimely Responses
In analyzing the FOIA responses, TINA.org also reviewed how long it took states to respond to its requests. Six states — Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Ohio– responded… Continue Reading…