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Emotions, complaints high in sour economy

Consumers calling state at record pace

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By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / September 27, 2010

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It is another side effect of the lagging economy: Consumers are complaining more.

The state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation received more than 54,000 complaints last year, and the number is on track to break that record this year. Since 2007, calls to the state’s consumer hot line have more than doubled.

The agency hears from people upset about all sorts of money matters, from the gas tax to credit card interest rates to finicky cellphone reception. No complaint is too small. One caller reported a moldy bagel. Twice.

“People are much more aware of how they spend their money,’’ said Barbara Anthony, the state’s director for consumer affairs, who oversees five agencies that regulate businesses.

High unemployment and low wages also make consumers susceptible to offers that are too good to be true, Anthony said. At the same, some businesses might be inclined to cut corners to save money.

In 2009, the top three categories of complaints received by the state hot line were used cars, construction or contractor problems, and concerns about shopping rights, such as advertised discounts, according to state records. So far this year, the most common complaints involve home improvement contractors, auto sales, and landlord/tenant disputes. The state does not track how many issues get resolved.

Kathleen Seiders, Boston College marketing professor, said the recession and a cultural obsession with satisfaction, reinforced by the Internet’s ability to help consumers comparison shop, have resulted in consumers evaluating and critiquing nearly every experience and purchase.

In fact, an online industry has grown up around bad consumer experiences. Websites — such as Gripe-It.com, and my3cents.com — showcase consumer rants (and the less-frequent compliments).

Some sites are dedicated to a particular company, like Verizonpathetic.com, which encourages users to “post your pain,’’ or Ihateatt.com, which says it was created by unhappy AT&T wireless customers.

“People are more entitled and we’ve helped make them more entitled’’ to complain, Seiders said. “This constant asking the consumer for input has, in some ways, created a monster.’’

Yet many consumers still prefer to turn to the government. In Massachusetts, they can call the state’s regulatory divisions directly or lodge complaints with the consumer affairs hot line. Housed in the fifth floor of a concrete slab building at 10 Park Plaza in Boston, four Northeastern University co-op students toil in cubicles at a generally thankless task: They field calls Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The students — who last year logged about 22,000 of the 54,000-plus complaints received by the state — also respond to e-mails and even the occasional handwritten gripe.

When possible, the students provide answers or refer problems to employees in one of the agency’s regulatory divisions. Those include divisions for banks, insurance, telecommunications, measuring standards, and professional licensing. Some of the complaints are also routinely forwarded to the attorney general’s office, which watches for patterns and trends.

The Division of Banks, for example, received 17,069 phone calls and 348 written complaints last year. The Division of Telecommunications’ staff of five received 6,849 phone calls and 3,142 complaints. The insurance division’s eight employees reported fielding 26,664 “consumer contacts.’’

Regulators in each division have the authority to act on complaints and levy fines if necessary. For example, the division in charge of construction fined 130 contractors for violating consumer laws between November 2009 and March 2010.

Michael Omiccioli, an IT professional at an area financial business, complained to the state five years ago about a contractor who walked off the job halfway through building an addition to his Natick home. The issue went to arbitration in the consumer affairs division, where an administrative judge found in favor of Omiccioli.

When the contractor didn’t pay, a civil court judge ordered the contractor to pay $60,000. By that time, however, he had filed for bankruptcy and was in jail after being prosecuted for similar crimes.

Omiccioli eventually was awarded $10,000 from a state fund set up to help distressed homeowners. The check finally arrived this month.

“Mentally the process was satisfying because somebody agreed’’ the complaint was warranted, said Omiccioli, “and I got $10,000.’’ But, he added, “it took a long time.’’

On a recent morning at the Park Plaza office, consumer requests ranged from someone who wanted to know whether a Marlborough contractor had a site building permit to a question about a 2004 Hyundai warranty. One caller who said he was in Pakistan wanted to file a complaint about a Gardner company that had not delivered goods as promised.

Co-op Liam Holland, 21, said the man was upset and frustrated during their 20-minute conversation. Holland said he lets callers complain — or yell — as much as they want. They eventually calm down, he said.

“Let them vent,’’ Holland said. “Many people comment on how nice it is to talk to a live human.’’

The 2009 database of hot line calls covers a wide array of problems, from someone angry about clothes missing from a dry cleaner, to a caller upset at a dentist who wanted to charge for copies of medical records, to a beef about a merchant who failed to honor an advertised discount. One staff member recalled an elderly man who called to file a complaint against a dating service whose match did not meet his expectations.

Nicole L. Saunders, director of the consumer division, who oversees the students, said the co-ops work on the hot line for a six-month stretch and undergo one week of training before starting. During their stints, there are also debriefing sessions to allow them to talk about on-the-job frustrations.

“It’s just a burn-out job,’’ Saunders said.

Psychologist Robin Kowalski, author of “Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors,’’ said the students’ stress can be acerbated by “help-rejecting complainers’’ — people who are never appeased, no matter what the response.

“In Western culture, our expectations are so high, we expect everything to be perfect,’’ Kowalski said.

Arielle Ortiz, a 20-year-old student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said she called the hot line last year about problems with her used 2003 Saturn Vue.

When the transmission malfunctioned shortly after she bought the car, Ortiz did not want to pay the $100 deductible for the warranty and the seller refused to make repairs.

Eventually, a state arbitrator ordered the dealer to give Ortiz her money back in exchange for the car.

Ortiz said she is now stuck driving her grandmother’s large 1988 Crown Victoria.

“But I’m not complaining,’’ she said.

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.