2007-10-12 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER Did you know that there are nearly one hundred state agencies? Most people are only familiar with a few high-profile agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation or the Department of Transportation. Surprisingly, the state agency that is arguably of most importance to citizens' wallets is still largely unknown. If you have not done so already, it is time to familiarize yourself with the State's "consumer watchdog," the Consumer Protection Board.

The Consumer Protection Board (CPB) was established in 1970. It is the mission of the CPB to protect, educate and represent consumers. The Board is headed by a Chairperson and Executive Director and is organized into three bureaus: the Outreach and Program Development Bureau; the Counsel, Policy and Research Bureau; and the Utility, Telecommunications and New Technologies Bureau. The Bureau of Outreach and Program Development is of most interest to consumers, as it houses the Consumer Assistance Unit, which takes consumer complaints and attempts to mediate and resolve over 20,000 complaints a year. The Unit's toll free helpline (1-800-697-1220) is staffed five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Unit also accepts complaints twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week via the Internet at: www.nysconsumer- .gov. The Counsel, Policy and Research Bureau enforces several consumer laws, conducts investigations and develops policy, while the Utility, Telecommunications and New Technologies Bureau intervenes of behalf of consumers in utility rate cases before the Public Service Commission.

The CPB saves New York consumers thousands of dollars every year by helping consumers resolve complaints, fix credit report errors, and fight erroneous debt collection efforts. Oftentimes, the Board is able to assist consumers with grievances in obtaining some form of restitution, including securing refunds, rebates, or replacement merchandise. In cases involving credit report errors and debt collection, the Board's involvement often saves consumers money by preventing expenses that would have been incurred or the lost opportunity the consumer would have experienced in the absence of CPB participation and resolution of the complaint.

Under the leadership of newlyappointed Chairperson and Executive Director Mindy Bockstein, the Board has undertaken several exciting new initiatives in 2007. The Board has established two online surveys available on its website for consumers and other interested parties to answer questions and submit comments on two pressing consumer issues; home improvement contracting and credit card practices.

By enlisting the help of consumers, the Board is hoping to use the information obtained from the surveys to increase its understanding of the issues in order to assist in their efforts to protect consumers in these areas. The Board also recently launched two newsletters, "The Consumer Watchdog" and "KIDSUMERS," both of which are available on the Board's website. Consumers can sign up to receive these informative newsletters free of charge by sending an e-mail to: webmaster@ consumer.state.ny.us. Lastly, the Board is currently in the process of updating the Consumer Law Help Manual to make it more user-friendly. Once the update is completed, this important consumer resource will once again be available on the Board's website.

While I encourage consumers to contact my office with any consumer complaints or inquiries, the CPB is also available to handle complaints, and I often refer constituents to the Board for assistance. If you have a consumer complaint or question for the Board, you can call 1-800-697- 1220, visit http://www.consumer.- state.ny.us/complaint.htm, or write: New York State Consumer Protection Board, 5 Empire State Plaza, Suite 2101, Albany, New York 12223.

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