Consumer Law

Consumer Protection Laws

By Cara O'Neill, Attorney

It’s frustrating to fall victim to an unscrupulous scam or to be taken advantage of by a large corporation. Fortunately, you have recourse. Consumer laws protect the average citizen by requiring products and services purchased in the marketplace to be safe and transacted in a fair manner. Here, you’ll learn how to find the law that protects consumers from fraud, discrimination, and other types of illegal behavior.

Federal Consumer Laws

We’ve provided a sampling of significant consumer regulations to give you a flavor of the protections available to you. You should be aware that it would be impossible to provide a complete list—they’re simply too numerous to list. And not all consumer laws are neatly combined into one, descriptively-named federal act. For instance, general “bait and switch” laws serve as the basis for enforcing prohibitions against deceptive auto advertising practices.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for—or even if you do—it’s a good idea to supplement your research by visiting the website of one of the agencies responsible for enforcing these laws (discussed further below).

Credit, Debt, and Identity Theft Issues

  • Billing errors. The Fair Credit Billing Act requires a credit card company to promptly and appropriately handle billing mistakes.
  • Credit card interest. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act precludes credit card companies from issuing rate increases without prior notice.
  • Credit reporting issues. The Fair Credit Reporting Act and Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act ensure that reporting agencies give accurate information to lenders. Consumers have the right to know the contents of their report and to receive a free yearly credit report. Identity theft victims also have the right to an investigation and the placement of a fraud alert on the account.
  • Debt collectors. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits the use of deceptive and unfair techniques when collecting bills.
  • Lending disclosure requirements. The Truth in Lending Act requires a lender to provide details about your loan, such as the loan length and the costs you’ll pay.
  • Identity theft. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 created the federal crime of identity theft. For more information, read If You're a Victim of Identity Theft.)

Discrimination Issues

  • Credit discrimination. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act forbids a lender from refusing credit due to characteristics such as race, religion, national origin, sex, age, or the receipt of public aid.
  • Housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments prohibit landlords from discriminating against potential renters on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, sex, familial status, or a mental or physical disability. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces this law.)

Harmful Product Concerns

  • Unsafe products. The Consumer Product Safety Act protects consumers by regulating potentially dangerous products, such as toys painted with lead paint.
  • Unsafe drugs, cosmetics, or medical devices. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits legitimate and fraudulent drug and device manufacturers from selling mislabeled or adulterated products.

Vehicle Issues

  • Warranty issues. Under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, manufacturers and sellers must explain warranty coverage, terms, and exclusions. (For more information, read Disputes over Vehicle Warranties.)
  • Used car disclosures. Compliance with the Used Car Rule requires a dealer to display a “Buyer’s Guide” in the vehicle window.

(To find more articles discussing consumer protection issues, visit the Consumer Law topic page.)

Where to Find Help: Government Agencies

Federal and state agencies enforce consumer laws (although you might have the right to bring a private action). Another way to determine your rights is by visiting the informative websites listed below.

Federal Agencies

Created in 1914, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees a broad range of consumer marketplace issues ranging from antitrust actions to truth in advertising practices. If you have a consumer-related problem, you’ll likely find the information that you need on the FTC website. You can also file a complaint, although it’s unlikely that the FTC will resolve your particular issue through this forum.

If you have a problem with a loan or financial product, it will be worth visiting the website of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The federal government formed the CFPB after the 2008 financial crisis to protect people from unfair, deceptive, or abusive financial practices, such as predatory lending. On the site, you’ll be able to find information about (and report problems concerning) the following types of financial transactions:

  • mortgage, auto, student, payday, and personal loans
  • bank accounts
  • credit cards
  • money transfers
  • credit reports, and
  • problems with debt collectors.

CFPB provides more of a “hands-on” approach than the FTC. It will forward your complaint to the financial institution in question and help resolve your concern. Additionally, if it finds that the company broke the law, it will take action.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates consumer-related product safety issues, including those involving food, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, and tobacco products. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces many of the laws of these agencies both civilly and criminally.

State Agencies

Your state will also have a consumer protection division that you can use to seek help. If you have difficulty finding the right agency, visit USA.gov or contact your state’s attorney general office. The staff should be able to direct you to an office that can address your concern.

Speak With an Attorney

A local consumer attorney can also help you get the justice you seek. They’ll advise you as to whether you can take action directly against the wrongdoer or help you determine whether you’ll need to file an agency complaint first.

Understanding the proper procedure might be more important than you realize. While state laws might afford you recourse, if you must proceed under a regulation (law drafted by a federal or state agency), you might have to file a complaint in that forum before filing a lawsuit.

This requirement is called “exhausting your administrative remedies,” and if you skip this step, the judge will throw out your case and direct you back to the agency. You only have so much time to pursue your matter with the agency and to appeal the action by filing a lawsuit. If the allotted time passes (known as the statute of limitations) before you file the lawsuit, you’ll lose your right to proceed with the case.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is my concern covered by a particular consumer protection law?
  • How will I know whether I should proceed under federal or state law?
  • How much time do to I have to file a complaint with the proper agency, if necessary, and a lawsuit with the court?

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