Get Gephardt: Utah consumers kept in the dark
(KUTV) When you have a problem with a company in Utah, you're encouraged to file a complaint with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection.
That's exactly what Richard Parks did.
Parks said he felt ripped off by a contractor he had hired to repair his basement following a small flood. He claims the company did not do the work he hired them to do and also did a bunch of extra work he did not request. Still, the company demanded he pay -- and in the process damaged many of his belongings.
When Parks could not resolve the issue with the contractor, he filed a complaint with Consumer Protection, which exists to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices. That official complaint didn't help him settle the matter with the contractor.
Instead, Richard says Consumer Protection told him his complaint was closed and offered little explanation.
Richard requested to see the investigator's file on his complaint through a public records request, but his request was denied.
"Oh it's privileged," Parks said he was told. "You can't see it."
Parks continued to pursue the matter, appealing the decision to release the case file all the way to the Utah State Records Committee. He was finally granted a partial approval, with some information redacted and no supplemental documents to the file provided.
Parks was not satisfied with the report and doubts a thorough investigation was completed.
Parks is not the average consumer: he has made a career as a discrimination investigator at the State and Federal levels. He said he knows what goes into an investigation and felt like Consumer Protection received a response from the business and did no further follow up. "How many rocks were turned over, so to speak?"
"It is my perception Consumer Protection did not investigate," he said after reviewing the partial file.
Parks is not alone in his frustration not being able to get information out of Consumer Protection.
The nonprofit organization Truth in Advertising, which uses investigative reporting to expose bad business practices, has labeled Utah as one of the worst states in the country for ease of access to consumer complaints.
By law in Utah, consumer complaints received by the Division of Consumer Protection are not public information. Complaints may only be seen if a company has: a) received more than 50 complaints in the last 4 years; b) the complaint cites more than $3,500 in consumer loss; or c) the Division has taken public action against the company.
Not long ago, it was even harder for a consumer to know. State senator Curtis Bramble introduced SB 157 in the 2015 legislative session. Before that, no consumer complaints were public unless, after an investigation, agency or legal action was taken.
"This bill was a compromise and was the end result of several meetings with stakeholders, including Consumer Protection, the business community, the AG's office, defense attorneys, and others, over an extended period of time during the 2014 interim," Bramble said.
When asked whether or not he believed more or fewer complaints should be made public, he did not answer directly, but emphasized that the new law has only been in place for "less than 10 months.''
"As with all laws, after they are passed and implemented, they are subject to future review and amendment if warranted," Bramble said. "Last year's bill, like any other, may or may not be modified in the future, after reviewing its effectiveness."
Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth in Advertising, takes credit for the softening of the law saying her group has been battling Utah for records for several years.
Still, she does not believe Bramble's bill goes nearly far enough and that Utah lags far behind other states.
"The vast majority of states will provide consumers with the complaints that their departments receive," she said.
Patten also says that not being able to access complaints filed with Consumer Protection leaves the public with no choice but to trust that the division is doing its job.
"Because it's secret, [Consumer Protection] can act or not act without the public even knowing," she said. "It's really hard to maintain public accountability with the department."
According to the Utah Office of Legislative Auditor General, no audit of Consumer Protection has been done in at least the past 20 years. If one was ever performed, it was so long ago the Office no longer has the records, the office said.
The Director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection is Daniel O'Bannon. He defended his department saying Consumer Protection reviews every complaint they receive and investigate most.
"If we have jurisdiction, we investigate that complaint," he said.
O'Bannon defended his department but also lamented his division's hands being tied when it comes to sharing more publicly. He spoke carefully about the rules being a legislative decision and that his division will do whatever the legislature orders, but indicated that the law which gags him from sharing more complaints might not be in the best interest of consumers.
"Do I want to make more information available to the public? Absolutely," he said. "The public needs information. They need to know. If the legislature were to pass a law that made all complaints public, that's exactly what we would do."The potential pitfalls of making complaints public
O'Bannon says that if the law were changed to make more complaints public, he hopes it would be done in a way that wouldn't make it harder or impossible for the division to do its job.
There is a legitimate concern many business owners have about making consumer complaints available to the public, especially if the complaints are false.
Take for example, Millcreek Electric. The company took a financial hit after a bad review was posted online. The review was a lie. It was posted by a disgruntled ex-employee pretending to be an unhappy customer.
Still, even having faced off against a liar with nothing more than an axe to grind, Millcreek Electric Sales Manager Trevor Tom says he thinks reviews and complaints are an important part of business. Millcreek tries to use critical reviews as an opportunity to improve their 30 year old business, he says.
What Information We Can See
The public doesn't get to know what Consumer Protection does with most complaints they receive. By statute, we get broad numbers given in Annual Reports released by the Department of Commerce.
Those reports show over the last 10 years, the Division has averaged 3,349 complaints per year. An average of 23% of complaints are referred to other agencies, or are not assigned for investigation.
From 2005 through 2012, the rate of cases being opened and closed was between 90% and 100%. But in 2013 and 2014, the closure rate of investigations dipped to 65% and 62% respectively. In a statement, Consumer Protection told us the reason for the dip can be attributed to "an increase of actions or complaints in the business opportunity, telemarketing, and alarm industries," and "a number of investigations and actions in these areas were time and labor intensive." in 2015, the closure rate spiked to 120%.
The Division took responsibility for recovering $23,436,481 in consumer benefit. But there is no breakdown of how this was achieved, if action was taken against the business, and how that consumer benefit was recovered.
The Division told us around 130 citations were issued against Utah businesses in calendar year 2015.
If you have a problem you'd like Matt to investigate, call us at 801-839-1250 or email email@example.com.If you have a problem you'd like Matt to investigate, call us at 801-839-1250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.