Consumer Law

Finding Legal Help for Consumer Issues

By Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney
Consumers often have problems with a product or service they purchased. Learn where to find legal help for consumer issues.

If you aren’t happy with a product or service you received, you might be wondering where to find help in handling the problem. You can resolve your issue in one or more ways, by:

  • filing a complaint with the appropriate government agency or consumer organization
  • going to small claims court, or
  • hiring a lawyer to file a lawsuit.

Read on to learn about these options and then begin with the best solution for your situation.

Government Agencies and Other Organizations

Many government agencies and other organizations help consumers handle disputes. Here are some of the major ones.

Your State’s Attorney General's Office

You can file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General's office. These offices investigate consumer complaints. They also take appropriate disciplinary or legal action against companies and individuals that violate consumer protection laws.

In most cases, you can file your complaint online, through the mail, or by calling the office.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

If you’re having an issue with a company about a financial product or service, you can go online and submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). For example, if you took out a payday loan and you were charged fees or interest you didn’t expect, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.

The CFPB will facilitate a resolution to your complaint, but it won’t advocate for you. Here’s how the process works: The CFPB will forward the complaint to the company. The company reviews the complaint and reports to the CFPB on what steps it has taken, or will take, to settle the issue you raised. The CFPB then notifies you about the company’s response, and you can report back to the CFPB whether you’re satisfied with the outcome. During the process, which usually takes about two weeks, you will receive email updates from the CFPB. You can also log in to the CFPB website to track the status of your complaint.

While a company isn’t obligated to resolve your issue if you use this process, most will at least try to fix the problem because the CFPB publishes all complaints and results online.

Federal Trade Commission

To report an unfair or deceptive business practice, such as a telemarketing scam, you can file an online complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC won’t work out your particular complaint, but it might use the information to help law enforcement officials detect patterns of fraud and abuse after it evaluates the complaint.

Better Business Bureau

You can also file a complaint with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB), a private, nonprofit organization. The BBB helps settle disputes that involve products or services, whether or not the business is accredited with the BBB.

The BBB forwards your complaint to the business and gives it a chance to respond. Because the BBB rates businesses from A+ (best) to F (worst), the Bureau might lower the business’ grade if it doesn’t sort out your issue quickly. Most complaints are resolved within 30 business days.

Small Claims Court (for Small Disputes)

If you are still unable to settle your dispute after filing a complaint with the appropriate entity—and your problem doesn’t involve a lot of money—filing a suit in small claims court might be a good option.

Each state has small claims courts that handle cases when the amount at stake is relatively small, involving between $2,500 to $15,000. (Nolo’s article, 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits, lists the dispute limits in each state.) Many states do not allow litigants to bring a lawyer to court to argue for them, but that is permitted in some. Understand, though, that even where it's allowed, hiring a lawyer typically isn’t cost effective. Lawyers usually charge too much compared to the relatively small amount of money involved in a small claims dispute.

Hiring a Lawyer (for Big Disputes)

If your dispute is complicated and there's a lot of money involved, you might want to hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit for you. To find a lawyer, ask people you trust for recommendations or check with your local bar association for a referral. You can also search for an attorney on Lawyers.com or Nolo.com.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If my complaint with the Better Business Bureau is still in progress, can I file a lawsuit?
  • My state's small claims court allows me to hire a lawyer to represent me during the process—should I?
  • Should I ask the business that I have a dispute with to participate in mediation or arbitration?
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