As a consumer, you may not realize the risks of making purchases on a day-to-day basis, but in fact, every single exchange that you make is based on trust: You trust that the goods you are purchasing are, in fact, what you are told they are. A set of laws, regulations and guidelines exists around the consumption of products, goods and services to protect you as a consumer and establish your rights as a customer.
These protection laws ensure the consumer’s safety and gives them recourse when a purchase brings unexpected issues into their lives.
Consumer Protection Laws Definition
For example, consumers trust that their food products are safe to eat and don’t contain hazardous contaminants that could harm them. Customers trust that the appliances or equipment they purchase will operate safely and won’t burn, explode, or otherwise damage their property or cause injury. They expect the goods they purchase to last as long as promised and to meet their needs as advertised.
Consumers want to make educated choices about their purchases using valid, easily accessible information. This all falls within the general umbrella of consumer rights and the purpose of consumer protection laws.
What Are Consumer Rights?
Consumer protection laws define and enforce the consumer’s right to safe, accurate-as-described products. In the United States, a number of agencies and laws govern consumers’ rights, both at the federal and state level. Consumer rights described by the Consumer Protection Act (USA) are as follows:
- The right to safety: The consumer has the right to protection against hazards to their life, property and health.
- The right to be informed: Consumers have a right to receive accurate and comprehensive information about the products they are considering for purchase.
- The right to choose: Consumers may choose any goods or services on the market without being unduly influenced by any seller.
- The right to be heard: Consumers with complaints about products that violate their right to protection (as listed) have the right to express those complaints publicly to the supplier and to the government.
- The right to seek redress: The consumer has the right to compensation if a product does not meet the standards promised by the seller.
- The right to consumer education: The consumer shall be aware of their rights and protections when making purchase decisions.
In addition, the United Nations guidelines spell out two more important consumer rights:
- The right to basic needs: All consumers have the right to have their basic needs for survival met to attain a certain dignified standard of living.
- The right to a healthy environment: Consumers are protected against environmental pollution, as are future generations of consumers.
These consumer rights establish the expectations of customers in regard to the products they consume. When goods and services don’t meet these qualifications, the customer has the right to communicate it, and they can expect replacement, refund and other compensation.
Consumer Protection Laws and Acts
In the United States, there are a number of ways that consumer rights are enforced. Nationally, a collection of regulations is defined by industrial bodies such as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and many others.
These laws are enforced by a number of federal organizations, including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Justice. These regulations provide protections against fraud, anti-trust and monopolization, financial harassment, deceptive advertising, and a number of other actions that have been deemed harmful to a consumer’s rights.
State Consumer Protection Laws and Acts
Many states have adopted even stronger consumer protection laws. A number of states have passed a Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act (or something similar) into law to provide legal protections and recourse against unfair, untrue, and fraudulent business practices and advertising. These laws provide a pathway to enable a consumer to press charges against owners and businesses who knowingly deceive their customers and make it easier for consumers to obtain compensation and recompense for false advertising and deceptive business practices.
In addition, some states have laws requiring contracts written in plain, easily understandable language to be more accessible to the average consumer to further protect their rights. States that lead in these areas include California, Florida, Delaware and Minnesota.
Furthermore, states and agencies are beginning to include the right to protection of personal and private information along with the previously stated consumer rights. The FTC has, in fact, brought charges against companies who have violated their consumers’ rights to privacy. These violations can include anything from password leaks to unintentional third-party access to sensitive information, and they are quickly becoming a significant area in which consumers need legal protection.
Consumer Rights Violations
While most companies respect and agree with consumer rights, this isn’t always the case. Here are some examples of ways consumer rights have been violated and the actions that were taken against these companies and businesses:
- Misleading marketing: False advertising, misleading product naming and unsupported claims all fall into this category. For example, an “unlimited” phone plan that actually slows down user access after a certain amount of data has been used does not, in fact, qualify as unlimited. In the same manner, an educational program that claims its graduates all obtain jobs within a certain time period after graduation is misleading when it turns out that said graduates are often underemployed and working in fields unrelated to the degree or certificate they’ve received.
- Privacy Breach: Examples of this type of violation include third-party software included in an electronic purchase that, unbeknownst to the initial seller, can access personal information from the user. It can also include cases where the third party is an employee or contractor who takes personal information received on the job and either releases it or uses it for his or her own purposes.
- Telemarketing offenses: Protections against harassment exist for consumers as well. These violations can include “robo-calls” (automated dialing systems with automated messaging), automated text messages with no opt-out, and calls that ignore the National Do Not Call registry list.
- Business or franchise promises: These violations can include pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing initiatives that promise interested members high incomes and various levels of success for participation in their program. The attractive claims these types of schemes make are often incredibly misleading if not entirely false.
Dealing With a Rights Violation
If a consumer believes their rights have been violated, there are a few ways to approach the situation. Complaints can be submitted not only to the company in question, but also to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which exists to stop bad business practices by reviewing complaints and taking legal actions where required. The FTC collects all complaints and includes them in a database along with complaints filed through other agencies like Better Business Bureaus (BBB) or even the International Revenue Service (IRS). Law enforcement users at state and federal levels can access this database and take legal action as necessary.
The consumer can also resort to legal action themselves if a lawyer reviews the case and recommends pressing charges against the company in question. If the consumer rights violation is widespread, a class action case can be initiated in which a number of consumers are represented against a company or business with claims that their rights have been violated. In these cases, state or federal agencies may get involved if the case grows large enough.