July 26, 2005

Warranty Complaints:

Consumers with gripes about denied warranty claims are best advised to file a complaint with their local Attorney General, and not to bother with the federal watchdogs.

Not a day goes by without the arrival of an email in the editor's inbox that tells the story of a consumer whose most recent warranty claim was denied. We suspect they find us by typing a few brand names and the word warranty into a search engine, and out pops a link to Warranty Week.

In one instance, a message came from a gentleman in Australia's Outback who couldn't get any satisfaction from the retailers of a pair of work boots whose soles had separated from the rest of the shoe. We'd once written about that manufacturer's diesel engines, and had no idea they even made shoes, let alone backed them with warranties. Coincidentally, the warranty manager of that company is a longtime subscriber, so it was easy enough to forward him the message. Last we heard, the Outback farmer had a new pair of shoes.

Warranty Week, however, is a publication aimed at the warranty professional, not the consumer. For the most part, we steer clear of consumer protection issues, unless they might somehow be of interest to a warranty professional who needs to know about best (and worst) practices at other companies. When a complaint comes in from a consumer, the first place we send them is to publications such as ConsumerAffairs.com Inc., which are more than happy to publicize and categorize the complaints. The second place we send them is to their local Attorney General's office, which is usually also the in charge of the state's bureau of consumer protection.

In our eternal quest to automate everything, from now on we're going to cut out the middleman in these transactions, and run a list of consumer complaint resources for all 50 U.S. states plus a few outlying territories. From now on, when we get a gripe, they'll get a reply containing a pointer to this page. It won't help that farmer in the Outback, but it may just help reduce our daily email load by a fraction of a percent.

The Art of the Complaint

In any consumer transaction gone bad, the first step should always be to complain to the merchant. The next step depends on numerous factors, but can basically be reduced to:

  1. escalate within the merchant's company,
  2. escalate to the manufacturer, importer, or distributor,
  3. enlist the aid of a TV/print/online consumer advocate,
  4. complain to the local Better Business Bureau, or
  5. complain to a relevant government agency.

Those who impatiently jump right to Step 5 quickly discover that there's not much help to be found at the federal level for the individual consumer, but there's lots to be found at the state level. Specifically, most states operate a Department of Consumer Protection or some similarly-named agency, usually within the Office of the Attorney General.

Not all states are created equal, however. Some would do well to insert the words caveat emptor on their state flags amongst all the other Latin, because they seem far too busy to bother trying to resolve a mere individual's complaint. In fact, a few subliminally try to discourage complainants from proceeding by noting that all their personal information will become a public record searchable by anyone, or that their agency will intercede only when a dispute rises to the level of a widely-applicable public policy question. Some require the complainant to make sworn statements or other oaths, and most require at least a signature to get the ball rolling.

But then there are states that allow consumers to rather smoothly initiate a complaint online. None promise anonymity, but most provide some level of privacy (for instance, a few suggest that complainants not include Social Security numbers or financial account numbers). Some complaint forms may require a follow-up by mail, but it's not the least bit intimidating to begin by typing in a few facts and clicking the "Submit" button. In the list that follows, we leave it to you the reader to decide where on this ease of use spectrum your state lands.

In a few states in the list below, the complainant is first required to make a selection based upon their county of residence, the nearest regional office on a pull-down menu, or in at least one case, the location of the offending business. In addition, a few states ask complainants to first read a set of rules or a privacy policy disclosure and then click the "I agree" button before proceeding. The links we've selected bring you as close as possible to the actual complaint form, but in these handful of cases you must first make a menu selection.

Overlapping Duties

For each state, we have selected one or two of the most relevant links. The goal is to streamline the process of filing a warranty-related complaint by a consumer. It's likely that different states handle complaints differently depending upon whether they concern homes, cars, boats, appliances, or consumer electronics. For instance, in some states complaints about the business practices of auto dealers (including extended warranty matters) must first go through the local Department of Motor Vehicles. A few states have Departments of Insurance that oversee extended warranty matters. Other states have separate agencies to handle new and used items, especially in regards to automobiles and lemon laws. And in still others, complaints regarding extended warranties or purchased service contracts are handled differently than are complaints about returns, refunds, repairs, etc.

In most cases, all these consumer protectors ultimately report to the state's Attorney General. In a handful of states, the consumer protection role has been shunted off to the Department of Agriculture or some other non-intuitive destination. In all cases, we hope, agencies will forward a complaint to each other when necessary, either because it falls into two or more jurisdictions or because it was initially filed with the wrong agency. So readers shouldn't worry too much about filing the wrong form with the wrong agency. What would be more worrisome is failing to follow the required procedure, especially by failing to follow up with copies of contracts.

Most states that provide only printable forms do so because they require that all complaints be signed and dated. In most other instances, even states that provide for the online submission of complaints will require the consumer to follow up with a mailing of copies of all relevant documents. So readers should consider the use of one of these links to be merely the beginning of a process, not its end.

As far as we know, there is no other list of state resources for the filing of warranty-related complaints. There are, however, numerous Web sites that have lists of tax-related and insurance-related resources. And there are numerous lists of state Attorneys General, which in most cases would bring you within two or three clicks of a warranty-related complaint form. So we will not list the AGs' postal addresses and phone numbers here. The National Association of Attorneys General maintains a comprehensive directory at http://www.naag.org/ag/full_ag_table.php which we see no need to duplicate.

Alphabetical List

What follows is a simple alphabetical list of states and territories in bold, followed by the URL of each local agency's complaint page. Most of the online complaint forms are in an HTML format, making them readable by virtually any Web browser. Most of the printable complaint forms, however, are in a Portable Document Format that requires the download of additional software for viewing and printing. Readers who need to download this software in order to view PDF files in an Adobe Acrobat format should go to the http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html Web site.

In addition to all of the above state-based resources, there are several worthwhile non-governmental organizations that are willing and able to help. As mentioned, the local television news departments and newspapers frequently employ consumer advocates whose job it is to embarrass local merchants into doing the right thing. Below are a few additional options.

Finally, there are a few federal agencies whose job it is to look out for the interests of consumers. One looks out for instances of fraud or deceptive trade practices. Two look out for unsafe products -- one specifically for motor vehicles and the other for all other manufactured goods. And another looks out for pollutants, especially as they emanate from motor vehicles. The links below may be of some assistance to an individual consumer, but none approach the relevance of the Attorneys General listed above.

No doubt, some of the links in this document are inaccurate, perhaps because a certain state separates responsibilities by product lines and/or industry. Perhaps one agency handles automotive complaints while another handles complaints related to other types of manufactured goods. Perhaps new home builders have their own oversight agency not listed here. Or perhaps complaints related to extended warranties are handled by an insurance regulator while complaints related to basic product warranties are handled elsewhere. It's unlikely that this document has captured all those possible nuances in this first draft.

Expired Web Links

Also, it's likely that by the weekend at least one of these links will no longer work, because some state's Webmaster has decided to move all their pages. Some already make it as difficult as possible to "deep link" to specific pages or forms, because they use frames, session IDs, or incredibly and nonsensically long URLs. If the Dewey Decimal System were run like this, all the world's books would have been misplaced long ago.

Over time, and especially in the months following state elections, new Governors, Attorneys General, and their appointees are likely to make additional changes to specific forms and procedures, and probably some will also overhaul all their Web site addresses. Or perhaps a state that once insisted on print-and-mail forms will add an online submission option. We need your help to keep track of these changes.

Warranty Week readers can help us keep this document as up to date as possible by sending us an email when they notice an error. Readers who discover a link that is inaccurate or no longer working please contact: earnum@warrantyweek.com by email. Readers who know of an additional link, a better link, or one more specific to a given product than those listed here should click here to contact the editor.

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