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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, August 19, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesUndercurrents: Consumers Get a Little Help from DLCA

Undercurrents: Consumers Get a Little Help from DLCA

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Psst … Wanna get rich quick?

If you’re planning to do it with a pyramid scheme, or operating the ol’ bait ‘n switch, or maybe selling outdated food, you might want to think twice, because the “CA” part of DLCA – the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs – is watching.

Among its many responsibilities, Consumer Affairs acts as a sort of Better Business Bureau, receiving, tracking, and often resolving complaints against island businesses.

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Exact numbers are hard to come by at present because the department’s computerized tracking is in transition from one system to another, and some things – including the complaint log – are back to manual entries in an actual, hard-bound log book. It’s a public document, and anyone can peruse it, but given its layout, counting types of cases or complaints against a particular business is prohibitively time-consuming.

However, department staff can give an idea of the scope of the work. Frederick Norford, a 12-year employee who runs the department’s legal division, estimated that Consumer Affairs receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 600 complaints per year.

Pyramid schemes are illegal, and Norford said, “We have a lot of complaints about those.” Some scams are really beyond DLCA’s scope, however, as they originate on the internet and there is no V.I. presence for the company or people responsible.

Count among those the email you get that purports to be from a friend or acquaintance who is “stranded in London” and in need of cash, and the email from the guy in Nigeria who can get you a cool million if you’ll just send him your bank account info.

“Those are difficult to deal with. We have to refer them to the attorney general,” Norford said.

Closer to home, some of the most common complaints come from customers at grocery stores who spot a discrepancy between a shelf price and a register price, or between the sticker price and the advertised price. There are also a lot of cases involving car sales and car repairs, and many related to the construction industry, Norford said.

One type of complaint seems to have tapered off in recent years. Beatrice Gumbs, DLCA assistant director for Consumer Affairs, said in the past three years there have been “nil to zero” complaints against furniture stores, whereas at one point they were near the top of the list.

Gumbs said the department should complete its computer system upgrade “within the year” and then it will be possible for people to log onto the DLCA website and look up a business and see how many – if any – complaints have been filed against it in a given time period.

The territory has a pretty effective lemon law which includes the fact that even when a car has run past its warranty, mechanics and body repair shops “have to guarantee repairs for 30 days” after completion, Norford said.

The text of the lemon law should be on the website soon; in the meantime, Gumbs said Consumer Affairs provides hard copies on request, free of charge. The booklet spells out consumers’ rights and remedies.

When there are complaints, department staff, including Gumbs and Norford, try to negotiate between the parties, sometimes very informally and often effectively.

Sometimes it’s a matter of miscommunication between the buyer and seller, or sometimes a refusal to communicate, Gumbs said. “Sometimes it’s easy to resolve,” she said.

Similarly, when a business is not complying with a law or regulation, “the whole idea is to get them in compliance, not to be punitive,” Norford said. The department can and occasionally does impose fines, but it generally saves that for the more egregious violations.

A few years ago, for instance, it fined a wholesaler for changing the expiration date on bread it was bringing into the territory. Typically, fines are $1,000 or $2,000, he said. Rarely does the department impose the maximum, $5,000.

“A good 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases are settled,” Norford said.

Bigger ticket items, like construction disputes and vehicle purchases, are more likely to find their way into the court system, after they go through administrative proceedings at Consumer Affairs.

Not all complaints have merit, of course.

“When you have $35,000 or $40,000 invested in a car, you don’t see (an issue) in logic, you see it with your heart,” Norford said. He added that most of the car dealers currently operating in the territory are “pretty good.” They don’t want a bad reputation and so tend to be reasonable when a customer complains.

Right now the division is gearing up for hurricane season. From June 1 to Nov. 1, any business selling any item on the government’s “hurricane” list must provide Consumer Affairs with the prices for each item monthly.

Prices may change from month to month, but they must not vary at all within a month. The idea is to prevent price-gouging in the event that a major storm hits, or even approaches, the islands.

Failure to provide an updated list one month puts a business at risk of a $250 fine. Perhaps more importantly, it ties the business to the last price it listed for any of its hurricane items.

Most of the items on the list are easy to understand: canned foods, candles, charcoal, batteries, flashlights, construction materials, generators, and the like. The full list is available at DLCA.

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A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. Psst … Wanna get rich quick? If you’re planning to do it with a pyramid scheme, or operating the ol’ bait ‘n switch, or maybe selling outdated food, you might want to think twice, because the “CA” part of DLCA – the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs – is watching. Among its many responsibilities, Consumer Affairs acts as a sort of Better Business Bureau, receiving, tracking, and often resolving complaints against island businesses. Exact numbers are hard to come by at present because the department’s computerized tracking is in transition from one system to another, and some things – including the complaint log – are back to manual entries in an actual, hard-bound log book. It’s a public document, and anyone can peruse it, but given its layout, counting types of cases or complaints against a particular business is prohibitively time-consuming. However, department staff can give an idea of the scope of the work. Frederick Norford, a 12-year employee who runs the department’s legal division, estimated that Consumer Affairs receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 600 complaints per year. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and Norford said, “We have a lot of complaints about those.” Some scams are really beyond DLCA’s scope, however, as they originate on the internet and there is no V.I. presence for the company or people responsible. Count among those the email you get that purports to be from a friend or acquaintance who is “stranded in London” and in need of cash, and the email from the guy in Nigeria who can get you a cool million if you’ll just send him your bank account info. “Those are difficult to deal with. We have to refer them to the attorney general,” Norford said. Closer to home, some of the most common complaints come from customers at grocery stores who spot a discrepancy between a shelf price and a register price, or between the sticker price and the advertised price. There are also a lot of cases involving car sales and car repairs, and many related to the construction industry, Norford said. One type of complaint seems to have tapered off in recent years. Beatrice Gumbs, DLCA assistant director for Consumer Affairs, said in the past three years there have been “nil to zero” complaints against furniture stores, whereas at one point they were near the top of the list. Gumbs said the department should complete its computer system upgrade “within the year” and then it will be possible for people to log onto the DLCA website and look up a business and see how many – if any – complaints have been filed against it in a given time period. The territory has a pretty effective lemon law which includes the fact that even when a car has run past its warranty, mechanics and body repair shops “have to guarantee repairs for 30 days” after completion, Norford said. The text of the lemon law should be on the website soon; in the meantime, Gumbs said Consumer Affairs provides hard copies on request, free of charge. The booklet spells out consumers’ rights and remedies. When there are complaints, department staff, including Gumbs and Norford, try to negotiate between the parties, sometimes very informally and often effectively. Sometimes it’s a matter of miscommunication between the buyer and seller, or sometimes a refusal to communicate, Gumbs said. “Sometimes it’s easy to resolve,” she said. Similarly, when a business is not complying with a law or regulation, “the whole idea is to get them in compliance, not to be punitive,” Norford said. The department can and occasionally does impose fines, but it generally saves that for the more egregious violations. A few years ago, for instance, it fined a wholesaler for changing the expiration date on bread it was bringing into the territory. Typically, fines are $1,000 or $2,000, he said. Rarely does the department impose the maximum, $5,000. “A good 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases are settled,” Norford said. Bigger ticket items, like construction disputes and vehicle purchases, are more likely to find their way into the court system, after they go through administrative proceedings at Consumer Affairs. Not all complaints have merit, of course. “When you have $35,000 or $40,000 invested in a car, you don’t see (an issue) in logic, you see it with your heart,” Norford said. He added that most of the car dealers currently operating in the territory are “pretty good.” They don’t want a bad reputation and so tend to be reasonable when a customer complains. Right now the division is gearing up for hurricane season. From June 1 to Nov. 1, any business selling any item on the government’s “hurricane” list must provide Consumer Affairs with the prices for each item monthly. Prices may change from month to month, but they must not vary at all within a month. The idea is to prevent price-gouging in the event that a major storm hits, or even approaches, the islands. Failure to provide an updated list one month puts a business at risk of a $250 fine. Perhaps more importantly, it ties the business to the last price it listed for any of its hurricane items. Most of the items on the list are easy to understand: canned foods, candles, charcoal, batteries, flashlights, construction materials, generators, and the like. The full list is available at DLCA.