Times are tough for folks in the consumer advocacy business.
Recently, ConsumerAffairs.com reported on a recent Consumer Federation of America survey showing consumer complaints are up, but agency resources are down. The Commonwealth of Virginia is a prime example of the strain some states are feeling.
Elaine Lindholm of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told ConsumerAffairs.com that since 2002, her agency has lost about 30 percent of its staff - going from 750 full-time employees to fewer than 500. And, she says, more cuts are in the works.
What it boils down to, Lindholm says, is "more work with fewer people."
And it isn't just the state level that's absorbing the hits. As of July 1, for example, the city of Alexandria's Office of Consumer Affairs stopped processing consumer complaints. Lindholm says those calls are now coming to her agency.
The Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's office in Indiana has found a way to handle the shortfall in both staff and funding. Abby Kuzma, the division's director and chief counsel, tells ConsumerAffairs.com she's turned to using volunteers from VISTA, the anti-poverty program created in the 1960s.
Kuzma says while the department has lost staff because of the recession and accompanying economic turmoil, it is not able to hire people to hire more people to handle what she says is "an increase in complaints" many of which are "financial in nature."
In particular, there's been an explosion of scamsters offering to help people stave off foreclosure and she says the VISTA volunteers are working to get out the word that pro bono attorneys are available to assist people who are in danger of losing their homes.
The situation in Utah appears to be a little different.
Jennifer Bolton, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Commerce, which houses the Division of Consumer Protection, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that the department "has had significant budget reductions." But she adds, "Attrition in other divisions in the department thus far has allowed Consumer Protection, which already operates on a net zero budget, to escape any budget reductions." Thus, she says staffing has not been affected - so far.
Nonetheless, the number of complaints received by the Division during the period of January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009 is 18 percent higher than the number of complaints received during the same months in 2008.
Bolton says the two most common types of scams that the Utah Division of Consumer Protection continues to receive from consumers involve fake check and phishing scams. She points out that while it's hard to say with certainty whether these scams are a reflection of the down economy, "what is apparent is that con artists seem to tailor their message to whatever is topical at the moment."
In the CFA survey of 34 state, county, and city agencies from 19 states across, 47 percent said they had budget cuts just prior to or during the 12-month survey period in 2008.
Overall complaints rose by 10 percent, it said, with all agencies surveyed saying they responded to 265,324 complaints.