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The Goods

In Search of Satisfaction

If You Have a Complaint About a Product or Service, This List Might Lead You to a Happy Ending

July 16, 1996|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jim and Mary were married just a few years when their credit rating reached the disaster zone because they had charged too much and their income had decreased. When they heard about a service that could repair their credit, they willingly paid $1,500 upfront. Unfortunately, their credit was never repaired and the people who took their money disappeared.

When Molly received a phone call telling her she had won a prize of $10,000, she was thrilled. She was willing to pay the $400 handling fee the pleasant-sounding man asked for and waited expectantly for her check. It never came.

Charlie went to a car dealer and traded in his truck to buy a van for the family. He was told the deal would be financed by a particular bank, but he was called two days later and told the bank had refused and he had to fill out new papers. Charlie trusted the salesperson but soon discovered he was leasing the van he thought he was buying. He would have been paying $600 a month for four years to purchase the van, but the lease was $700 a month for five years. There was nothing he could do after signing.

According to Pastor Herrera Jr., director of the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs, these are among the most common sort of the 12,000 complaints his office handles a month. He advises reading contracts carefully and never hesitating to call government departments for help.

Dealing successfully with consumer complaints requires patience and persistence, but you can win. When a problem arises, go to the source first; if you don't receive immediate satisfaction there, go right to the top. Top executives appreciate discovering where the lines of communications with their customers have broken down, and you're likely to get speedy service.

Another suggestion: When it comes to warranties, hope for the best and expect the worst. Keep all guarantees and warranties in a safe place. You might need them later to prove a point. Get promises and guarantees in writing, and read everything before you sign it.

The following are some key numbers to keep handy.

* California Department of Consumer Affairs: (800) 952-5210. This can be a good source of information and referral when you can't find a solution elsewhere. The department licenses and regulates many services.

* California State Office of Information: (213) 897-9900 or (916) 322-9900. This office will help guide you through the maze of state offices. Just describe what you're looking for; you don't even have to have the name of an agency.

* Consumer Protection Section, Office of the City Attorney: (213) 485-4515. You can call here when you believe that laws have been intentionally violated in the city of Los Angeles. The city attorney can prosecute civil as well as criminal matters. Some typical complaints concern auto sales frauds, advertising and credit schemes.

This office includes a Dispute Resolution Program, which uses mediation to reduce civil court actions. You are urged to call if one of the parties involved in the dispute lives in the city of Los Angeles: (213) 485-8324.

For Orange County, call the Office of the District Attorney, (714) 568-1200.

In San Diego, call the Office of the City Attorney (619) 533-5600.

For Ventura County, call the Office of the District Attorney, (805) 654-3110.

* California Department of Real Estate: (213) 897-3399. This is the place to take problems with agents and brokers. The agency serves all of Southern California.

* Disabled American Veterans: (310) 477-2539. If you're having difficulties with red tape concerning the Veterans Administration, you can call upon the DAV even if you're not disabled or a member of this organization. This office also serves Ventura County. For Orange County, call (714) 547-1886. For Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, call (619) 299-6916.

* Federal Information Center: (800) 688-9889. An information specialist at this Maryland office will unravel the red tape of federal agencies. You will be told the function and location of the agency you need.

* Federal Trade Commission: (310) 235-4000. This agency protects the consumer when merchandise has crossed state lines. Investigations of infractions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act also originate here. If you're faced with telemarketing fraud or if you're a victim of deceptive advertising or marketing, you can call this office.

* Food and Drug Administration: (714) 798-7600. This Irvine number serves all of Southern California. When you find something unusual in a can of food or something wrong with a drug, bring your complaints here. It's a good idea to contact your doctor first when a food or drug has made you ill. This agency also handles complaints about cosmetics.

* Los Angeles City Office Information: (213) 485-2121. This 24-hour number can be a lifesaver when you must make your way through the maze of city offices.

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