Mainers who seek help from the state Attorney General’s Office to resolve disputes with businesses are having to wait months for their cases to be taken up by mediators because the office has been getting more calls than it can handle.

The office division tasked with protecting Maine consumers from unscrupulous business practices has been facing an uphill climb, fielding as many as 50 calls a day and relying on volunteers to resolve consumer complaints under rules that don’t require businesses to participate.

More than half of consumer complaints to the Attorney General’s Office ultimately are resolved though a mediation process in which both the consumer and the business must agree to take part. Still, the Consumer Protection Division’s chief, Assistant Attorney General Linda Conti, said a sharp increase in calls over the past few years has created a backlog of complaints that forces some consumers to wait months for a resolution.

“What really is stressful is that once somebody’s case gets accepted for mediation, it sits in a queue for several weeks before someone has a chance to get to it,” Conti said. “We would like to recruit some more volunteer mediators to come in and pick up some of the slack to move the cases faster.”

Calls to the division nearly doubled from 2012 to 2015 and have remained consistently high since then, with only a slight decrease in 2018. In 2012, the office received about 6,800 calls, but the number of calls exceeded 10,000 in 2013 and grew to nearly 13,000 in 2015 before dropping back down to about 9,800 in 2018, the most recent year available. Conti said she doesn’t know why the call volume has increased so much, and that it may simply be a result of the division installing a newer phone system that can accommodate more calls.

Only about 10 percent of calls result in a formal complaint that is placed in the queue for mediation. For example, the division opened about 800 cases for mediation in 2012, 1,100 cases in 2015 and 850 cases in 2018.

The division has a staff of three lawyers and five supervisors, but it relies entirely on volunteers to mediate consumer complaints. Conti said it is actively recruiting more mediators to reduce the backlog.

The fact that businesses must agree to mediation gives Maine’s complaint resolution system less authority than in states where companies are required to participate. One Maine consumer who filed a complaint in the spring said the office was forced to close his case simply because the business in question refused to respond.

The Attorney General’s Office can and does prosecute businesses that it deems to have broken the law, but only a small percentage of cases end up in court, with mixed results. Even when the state wins a case, it doesn’t necessarily mean the victims get their money back, because businesses often file for bankruptcy or drag out the legal process for years.

For example, the office filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the now-defunct Castle Builders of Union, which is accused of taking money from nearly 150 homeowners for shoddy and incomplete construction work. But the chances of squeezing restitution out of the former company and its owners are slim, since they filed for both corporate and personal bankruptcy protection shortly after the office began its investigation.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

Major retail chains, satellite and cable TV providers, phone and internet companies, car dealerships, furniture showrooms and a mail-order fulfillment business top the list of companies in Maine that have received the greatest number of consumer complaints to the state Attorney General’s Office over the past decade.

The top five recipients of consumer complaints in Maine are all retailers or TV, internet and phone service providers, with Sears sitting in the No. 1 spot, followed by DirecTV and its parent company AT&T, Best Buy, Home Depot and Charter Communications/Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), according to data obtained from the Consumer Protection Division. The ranking is based on formal written complaints to the division received between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2018.

During the 10-year period, Sears received 384 formal complaints, DirecTV and AT&T received a total of 279, Best Buy received 234, Home Depot received 173 and Charter Communications/Spectrum and its predecessor Time Warner Cable received 165. Formal complaints are those accepted for mediation by the division and are one step beyond the initial complaint call.

Other companies that have received a relatively large volume of complaints over the past decade include Lowe’s, Walmart, Dish Network, Verizon and Ship-Right Solutions, a South Portland company that offers order fulfillment and other services to dozens of different online product sellers on a contract basis.

The most common consumer complaint against retailers in Maine is that a company failed to honor the state’s implied warranty law, which requires retailers to repair or replace products with major manufacturing defects discovered within four years of their purchase, Conti said.

Other common complaints involve billing disputes with service providers, undisclosed problems in used cars and deposits for construction or repair work that was performed incorrectly or not performed at all, she said. One problem the division faces is that changes in federal law have eroded consumer protections regarding terms-of-service agreements, making it harder for states to pursue complaints involving contractual disputes.

“The whole law of contracts has really changed for the worse for consumers, and for the better for big, national businesses,” Conti said. “We used to think that a contract was a meeting of the minds between two people, the buyer and the seller, but now these contracts are very one-sided. They’re drafted by the cellphone company or the credit card company, and they’re presented to the consumer on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”

Michael Pander volunteers his time as a consumer complaints mediator at the Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. The office is seeking more mediators to help with a backlog of complaints. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

Consumer Protection Division volunteer mediator Michael Pander, a retired police detective and licensed hostage negotiator, said it’s no coincidence that retailers and utilities – businesses with high rates of customer interaction – receive the greatest number of complaints. It’s inevitable that a small percentage of all business transactions will lead to customer dissatisfaction, he said.

Pander, who has mediated more than 400 consumer complaints, said it’s wrong to assume the business is always at fault. A common scenario he has witnessed involves a well-meaning business doing something that makes a customer unhappy, and then the customer reacting in a combative manner that causes the business owner or manager to become unable or unwilling to work out a resolution.

“Oftentimes, the consumer has muddied the waters by the style of their reaction to the business,” Pander said.

Therefore, part of a mediator’s job is to calm the parties down, bring them back to the facts of the complaint and get both sides thinking about a reasonable resolution, he said. Pander has been quite successful at it, having personally recovered more than $500,000 in voluntary settlements from businesses on behalf of consumers.

NO REPLY, NO CASE

Under Maine law, businesses are not required to participate in the mediation process offered through the state Attorney General’s Office. Still, Conti said roughly 60 percent of consumer complaints in Maine are resolved through mediation.

Several other states use volunteer mediators to resolve consumer complaints, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Kansas and Arizona. Most states don’t require businesses to participate in mediation.

Maine does have one strong consumer protection that most states don’t have. Under Maine law, customers have a statutory right to return or exchange products with serious manufacturing defects within a period of four years from their purchase. A serious defect is one that causes the product to no longer perform its intended function, such as a toaster that no longer makes toast.

The biggest problem facing Maine consumers right now is that they may have to wait months for a mediator to tackle their case, Pander said. Unlike in the past, there simply aren’t enough volunteers to keep up with the demand, he said – and that’s with each mediator juggling six or more cases at a time.

“We just added several new mediators, so we hope to eliminate some of that backlog,” Pander said. “It’s an anomaly.”

Part-time Swan’s Island resident David Shipler said he filed a complaint with the division last spring against a boat charter and rental business in Brooksville that Shipler said was operating unethically by failing to return security deposits to charter customers.

He said the division agreed to follow up on his complaint, but it later dropped the case because the business did not respond to a series of attempts to contact its owner regarding mediation.

“Their policy is to give it a good try with multiple approaches by mail, phone, etc., which they’ve done in this instance, and then to close the case if the other party is unresponsive,” Shipler said. “This, because their service is voluntary. That makes sense to me. They have a huge backlog of cases and, evidently, too small a budget to hire sufficient staff to handle them.”

Old Orchard Beach resident Valerie Philbrick filed a complaint recently against Spectrum that accuses the cable TV and internet service provider of false advertising for its alleged failure to disclose in advance that she would be charged for an extra month after canceling her service. She said the division has accepted her complaint for mediation and placed her in the queue.

Valerie Philbrick of Old Orchard Beach filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office’s Consumer Protection Division over a disputed bill with Spectrum. “I disconnected my service with Spectrum on Aug. 3, which was prior to the end of the billing month, so I really don’t think that I owe them for the month of September,” she said. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, Philbrick said she is being hounded by Spectrum’s collections department to pay a final bill she doesn’t rightfully owe.

Both Spectrum and AT&T announced in May that they would discontinue their longstanding policies of prorating customers’ bills for the month in which they cancel their service. For example, customers who canceled their service on the first day of the month prior to the policy change would only be charged for one day of service. Since the policy change, customers are now charged for the entire month regardless of which day they cancel.

The policy changes have garnered news headlines and widespread criticism from consumers.

Philbrick said that in her case Spectrum took it one step further by sending her an additional bill for the month of September despite her canceling the service in early August. She said she was not bound to any fixed-length contract with the provider and had paid all her bills in advance.

“I disconnected my service with Spectrum on Aug. 3, which was prior to the end of the billing month, so I really don’t think that I owe them for the month of September,” she said.

Conti said disputes between consumers and cable TV and internet service providers can be difficult to resolve at the state level, and that her office often has to refer such disputes to the Federal Communications Commission.

“We can do some things, but not everything, to cable companies, because a lot of that is regulated by the federal government,” she said. “I’ve tried to sue them before.”

MONEY NOT GUARANTEED

The state Attorney General’s Office, now led by Gov. Janet Mills’ successor, Aaron Frey, has been more successful at pursuing cases against other types of businesses, such as home builders, auto repair shops and heating oil providers, Conti said.

If a business is found to have engaged in illegal behavior, the Consumer Protection Division may file a civil complaint against the business seeking fines, an injunction to prohibit the behavior, or an order of restitution to force the company to repay affected customers, she said. But even in cases involving successful civil litigation, it often can be difficult to compel businesses to repay ripped-off customers the money they are owed.

One of the office’s relatively recent wins was a case concluded in 2014 that involved a former Bangor used car dealer who was banned from doing business for seven years after being successfully sued by the state for unfair and deceptive trade practices. That case, involving Glenn Geiser Jr. and his used car dealerships, My Maine Ride and Bumper2Bumper Inc., resulted in Geiser being barred from operating a business until 2021, along with some customers being eligible for partial restitution of repair costs for vehicles bought through the dealerships or forgiveness of loan balances on repossessed cars.

But things don’t always work out so well for consumers.

One ongoing case involves former midcoast contractor Castle Builders, which shut down without notice in early September with company owners Malcolm and Elizabeth Stewart filing for both corporate and personal bankruptcy. As of Oct. 11, roughly 140 people had filed complaints accusing the Union-based builder of owing them a total of $1.6 million for poor or incomplete work.

On Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the Stewarts. But because of the bankruptcy filings, it appears unlikely that consumers who complained about Castle Builders would ever receive restitution. Still, a win in court could bar the couple from repeating their alleged behavior.

Another case that has dragged on for more than a decade involves three former heating oil companies in York County operated by Nicholas Curro that sold prepaid oil plans in 2007 but never delivered the fuel to customers. Curro was found guilty of violating the state’s unfair-trading-practices law in 2009, and the state identified 313 customers who were owed money.

A year later, officials worked out a deal that called for Curro to pay $394,000 in restitution, plus a fine of $250,000 that would be cut to $25,000 if he paid the restitution within five years.

But as of 2018, Curro had only paid a total of $10,500, so the case was brought back into court. A new deal was reached that called for Curro to pay $2,500 a month until he pays only the fine amount of $250,000 – enough to pay restitution of about 60 cents on the dollar to his victims over a two-year period.

“We still are collecting the judgment – he’s paying us $2,500 a month,” Conti said.

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