By Joseph S. Enoch

Auto sales misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes topped a list of the most common consumer gripes, according to a report released today by consumer advocates.

"The great majority of our auto sales complaints comes from the used car market," said Bob Harris, manager of the Office of Consumer Protection in Washington, D.C. "In particular, vehicles which were sold under misrepresentation as to their condition. We've seen ... several examples of what we've started to term in our office as Frankenstein cars. These are salvaged vehicles where one vehicle is made of two or three salvaged vehicles."

Consumers should get used vehicles inspected before purchasing, said Shawn Conroy, a spokesman from the Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.

The report, which compiled data from 39 state and local consumer protection authorities, revealed the top 10 most common consumer gripes for the year 2007. Auto-related complaints are followed by:

2. Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work and failure to start or complete the job.

3. Credit/Debt Collection: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage fraud, predatory lending and illegal or abusive collection tactics.

4. Retail Sales: False advertising, defective merchandise, rebates, coupons and nondelivery.

5. Utilities: Service problems, billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas services.

6. Household Goods: Major appliances and furniture, problems with nondelivery, misrepresentations and faulty repairs.

7. Internet Sales: Misrepresentations and nondelivery in connection with online purchases.

8. Home Solicitations: Nondelivery, misrepresentations in door-to-door, telemarketing and mail solicitations and do-not-call violations.

9. Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work and failure to have required licenses.

10. Landlord/Tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities and deposit and rent disputes.

"State and local agencies save and recover billions for consumers every year, but it's difficult for them to keep up with the demand to stop marketplace abuses, resolve individual complaints and educate people to avoid rip-offs," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the not-for-profit consumer advocacy group Consumer Federation of America. "In economic hard times, consumers are even more vulnerable to phony promises to help them financially or money-making schemes."

Grant said the fastest growing number of complaints in 2007 were for:

1. Mortgage fraud and foreclosure scams

2. Home improvement contractor misrepresentations

3. Questionable Internet sales

4. Credit/debt collection practices

5. Fake check scams

The report included these tips for consumers to protect themselves:

1. Check the track record. Before buying, check the complaint records of unfamiliar companies. Consult state or local consumer agencies, the Better Business Bureau and online complaint forums.

2. Hire licensed professionals. When hiring professionals such as home improvement contractors, ask state or local consumer protection agencies if they must be licensed or registered and how to confirm they are.

3. Pay the safest way. Pay with a credit card when buying goods or services that will be delivered later so you'll be able to exercise your right to dispute the charges if the seller doesn't provide the promised goods.

4. Don't pay in full upfront. Pay only a small deposit, if requested, for home improvement or other services, never the full amount upfront.

5. Recognize the danger signs of fraud. Watch out for any request to wire money; scare tactics or pressure to act immediately; promises that one can borrow, win or make money easily as long as he or she pays a fee in advance; or any situation in which someone wants to give a check or money order and asks to send money somewhere in return.

6. Get all promises in writing. Verbal agreements are hard to prove. Carefully read contracts or finance agreements and ensure full understanding before signing.

7. Get financial advice from legitimate sources. If having trouble paying bills, consult a local nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. A state or local consumer agency may be able to help consumers find other legitimate sources of assistance.