Back in February, 19-year-old Will Jones of Kennebunk bought a pair of tickets for a Lumineers concert scheduled for June 10 in Gilford, New Hampshire. It was a birthday gift for his girlfriend.

In seeking a refund for concert tickets, Will Jones of Kennebunk went through four states’ consumer protection websites – and found that only Maine’s had no complaint form. 2019 photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The concert was canceled, of course, because of restrictions on large public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Jones never received his tickets, or a refund of the $205.40 that had been whisked from his bank account, but over the past three weeks he has learned a lot about consumer protection and how various states handle such disputes.

More than half of consumer complaints accepted by the Maine 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, has 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.

Maine halted all mediation services in late March, when many state employees began working from home. The Consumer Protection Division is still taking complaints, but the mediation program has been suspended temporarily. The program relies entirely on volunteers, most of them of retirement age.

“When we were told to work from home as much as possible, we told the volunteers not to come in to do the mediation,” Conti said. “It takes a fair amount of supervision, and usually we have an attorney available if any questions come up.”

Conti said discussions are underway to bring people back to the office as early as June, perhaps in staggered shifts and with proper social distancing. Meanwhile, staffers continue to log complaints that come in by phone, email and postal mail and to direct consumers, when possible, to potential remedies.

When asked about the possibility of mediators working remotely, Conti said: “Some of them are probably very capable, but not all of them are. We feel like we need to be back in the office before (mediation) can happen.”

Since the pandemic hit and Gov. Janet Mills began issuing executive orders requiring some businesses to close, Conti’s office has been fielding more calls than usual. Price gouging, counterfeit masks and COVID-19 tests have generated complaints, as have booking fees for events unlikely to happen, such as summer weddings.

Conti said some of those issues are without precedent.

“It’s not that the business has breached the contract, and it’s not that the consumer has breached the contract,” she said. “It’s that the governor has said you can’t have a 200-person wedding.”

Conti said the department received 9,270 complaints via phone, email and postal mail in 2019. Generally, only about 10 percent of all initial contacts are accepted for mediation. In 2019, the department ended up mediating 851 complaints, and of those, 402 were resolved.

The department has been trying to recruit additional mediators to reduce the backlog, but Conti said recently it has gained a few new mediators and lost a few, “so it was pretty much a wash.”

“For a while, the backlog was reduced by a couple of weeks, and then (the coronavirus pandemic) happened,” she said. “We are working on a plan now to get the mediators back in the office.”

Jones, with help from his mother, Pam, spent hours trying to track down his ticket broker for the canceled concert, and their search took them through consumer protection websites for Virginia, Arizona and Illinois. All of them, unlike Maine, offer online complaint forms. Conti said she’s hopeful such a feature will be added to her division’s website in the foreseeable future.

As for the tickets, Jones discovered that instead of purchasing them through the concert venue’s box office, as he had assumed by going to its website, he had bought them through a reseller called TicketsOnSale, based in Chicago. He received an email informing him of the cancellation, but instead of a refund he would receive a credit of 120 percent toward a future purchase.

When he requested his money back instead, the company refused. Jones, 19, filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, pointing out the since-tweaked TicketsOnSale guarantee of a full refund when an event gets canceled. Illinois generated a complaint form, assigned him a reference number and asked TicketsOnSale to respond.

Within two weeks, the company did respond, although not to the satisfaction of Jones.

“If we were financially able to issue cash refunds to Mr. Will Jones and everyone else, we would so so,” read the letter to the Illinois Consumer Fraud Bureau, dated May 18, “but we simply do not have the resources nor the access to sources of funding for the large amount which would be needed for cash refunds.”

Industry behemoth Ticketmaster, after initially dragging its feet, agreed in late April after congressional pressure to refund its ticket-buying customers.

“They promised a refund and they have to keep their word,” said Pam Jones, Will’s mother. “If this was something they had spent money on, I might understand, but they didn’t produce anything. They took the money, there was no show and no tickets were issued. Where did the money go?”

Will Jones also had a smaller dispute, since rectified, with Charter Communications, which operates under the Spectrum brand, for its offer of 60 days of free internet service for students affected by the pandemic. A 2019 graduate of Kennebunk High, he has been taking online classes at the Landing School of Boat Building and Design in Arundel.

Mother and son would like to remove their Spectrum complaint with Maine’s Consumer Protection Division, but because they received neither mediation nor a reference number, they don’t know how to go about it.

“Maine was the most difficult,” Pam Jones said of their encounters with four state websites. “We do not live in Illinois and still got treated 100 percent better than we have been by Maine. I don’t want to be complaining about volunteers … but consumer mediation in Maine is on pause during a pandemic? How is that right?”

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