Q. What are your top contributions to consumer advocacy?
A. Along with the virus, the pandemic brought bad actors looking to profit from dire circumstances. My office devoted staff and resources to responding to reports of price gouging of necessities and COVID-19 scams regarding false treatments and remedies.
During the first months of the pandemic, the Department of Attorney General received thousands of consumer complaints, especially about price-gouging. Products were disappearing from store shelves, and people were scared. Unfortunately, some people and businesses tried to exploit that. I assigned a team of criminal investigators to police price-gouging. These special agents followed-up on consumer complaints by calling store owners and managers, making online purchases to document costs, and visiting stores to make purchases and ask questions. Our highly visible and immediate response was itself a deterrent. So too were the dozens of investigations and notices of intended action our attorneys initiated.
My department took on price-gougers who were using platforms like eBay and Amazon to try to make grossly excessive profits on products like face masks and hand sanitizers. We also took on stores that tried to take advantage of people by selling items like a case of bottled water for $20 that normally sold for $5.
We shut down scam artists like an individual who was selling a “Coronavirus Defender Patch.” The success of our early aggressive response, coupled with the effects of time and vaccinations, significantly reduced the ability of scam artists to take advantage of people during a vulnerable time. That same strong response put bad actors on notice and seemed to reduce the proliferation of scams allowing the Department to again broaden our consumer protection initiatives.
Two specific areas where I worked to focus our consumer protection efforts are the Robocall Crackdown Team and the Michigan Identity Theft Support initiative. The Robocall Crackdown Team launched in November of 2019 with a focus on federal, state, and industry cooperation; consumer education and reporting; revamped enforcement; and, legislative updates.
Since then, our office was one of the first states to develop robocall specific literature and a complaint form to inform the public as well as partner with the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Social Security Administration on this issue. Our office additionally sat on the Hospital Robocall Protection Group, an FCC advisory committee that issued best practices to protect hospital systems from robocalls.
Our office was also one of the first law enforcement agencies to target voice over internet protocol providers, which has become the roadmap for most enforcement agencies now. In its enforcement efforts, our office has shut a California company down, entered into a settlement with a major Texas provider memorializing the first set of “know your customer” practices, filed a multistate lawsuit to stop a major healthcare and auto warranty robocall operation, and shut down a Michigan charitable solicitation operation using illegal robocalls. Our office has also supported the efforts of other states and federal agencies in their efforts and has begun working with the legislature to review Michigan’s existing laws on the subject.
The Michigan Identity Theft Support (MITS) initiative was launched in April of this year to provide resources to victims as they navigate the challenges of identity theft. The signs of identity theft, the various types of identity theft, and the steps to combat it are among the many resources available on the MITS website. The website identifies steps for consumers to follow to determine if they have been a victim of identity theft, identify what specifically has been compromised, who to contact, and how to request further assistance.
Residents rely on our department for consumer protection information and I have made a concerted effort to deliver information in a creative and engaging way. Specifically, I have recorded a number of videos to promote consumer protection initiatives and educate the public on how to be on the look out for potential scammers. These videos are a useful tool of engagement with residents and deliver valuable information in a unique and memorable way.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing consumers currently or what is the most important consumer issue you would you like to take on?
A. Some of the biggest challenges we see are the extensive opportunities for exploitation on the online marketplace from the sale of defective or misrepresented products that are nearly impossible to return; outright scams where consumers pay money for products or services that don’t exist; the myriad of ways personal and financial information can be hacked or obtained under false pretenses; and, the threat now that consumer markets will be disrupted by large businesses we depend on having their networks held hostage by ransomware.
The department strives to meet this challenge with a combination of consumer education, enforcement actions, and cooperation with other agencies. Specific examples of online marketplace scams include pet scams. With new work-from-home measures, we saw a sharp increase in consumers complaints regarding pets purchased online that were never delivered. In these instances, scammers are exploiting the need for companionship. My department responded by working to educate the public through consumer alerts, social media, and videos. Department investigators shared information with web hosts to compel them to remove these scams from their platforms. These scams frequently originate from outside the United States, and we share information with the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate follow-up from that agency.
Another online marketplace scam is drop shipping. A drop shipper is a person or entity that operates an online storefront selling goods that someone else will ship to the consumer. For practical intents and purposes, the consumer is often just paying someone to order for them a product they could obtain at a lower price from whatever website the drop shipper is accessing. While drop shipping is not illegal, there are numerous instances where drop shippers use their websites to make false representations to consumers such as giving the illusion they are ordering from a large, specialty store; that a portion of the proceeds will go to benefit a charitable cause; and, by making guarantees of delivery time and product quality that are not met.
My department utilizes education tools, investigations, or the issuance of cease-and-desist letters to businesses engaged in illegal practices. We also continue to monitor consumer complaints for opportunities to do more in the future. As with any online scam, bad actors are often adept at concealing their identities and whereabouts. Vigilant monitoring and willingness to act on reports of suspect vendors and activities is crucial to beating back the multitude of scammers seeking to take advantage of the public under a variety of circumstances.
Join us on October 12, 2021, for NCL’s annual Trumpeter Awards Dinner, where we will honor Dana and other exceptional leaders with distinguished records advocating for consumer and worker rights.
Support NCL with a Trumpeter sponsorship today and help protect, educate, and advocate for tomorrow’s consumers and workers. Your generosity allows NCL to continue to take a stand for the everyday consumer.
For more information about sponsorship, contact NCL’s Karen Silberstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the conversation about Trumpeter on social media at #Trumpeter21