Consumer Protection

In former times, the first rule of shopping was “caveat emptor,” meaning “let the buyer beware.” In other words, the buyer was responsible for checking out a product’s safety and suitability. Nowadays, we depend on government regulations, laws, and consumer protection groups to help us make informed choices and protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Consumer Safety and the Law

Consumer safety laws are based on the idea that a company offering a service or product for sale is responsible for ensuring that it will not harm the buyer. A company that knowingly sells defective merchandise or cheats customers risks being held liable in the event a consumer is harmed by a product. If and when harm does fall upon a consumer because of their product, the company could be strictly liable for such harm.

Federal and state laws have been put in place to oversee business, bring violators to justice and make sure that people who have been harmed are compensated.

Consumer safety is important to business as well. Most companies want to establish their brands as reliable and trustworthy, so that consumers will keep coming back for more. Defective or inferior products tarnish a brand and keep consumers away.

The Federal Trade Commission

Founded in 1914, the FTC’s main objective is to prevent fraud and deceptive practices. It makes sure businesses and industries compete fairly and can take a company or an entire industry to court. Violation of the laws is punishable by heavy fines and financial compensation to consumers who were harmed by dishonest practices. The FTC may even decide that a business needs to be shut down.

The FTC also oversees businesses to ensure fair competition in an open marketplace. This way, no one company gains a monopoly on products or services. The FTC’s website has a number of free downloadable consumer guides.

In Illinois and Chicago

The Illinois Attorney General’s office runs a Consumer Protection Division. Several bureaus have been established to hear customer complaints about business fraud, illegal foreclosure and debt collection practices, identity theft and much more. They offer free online publications and several phone numbers for reporting complaints. Although they cannot represent individuals in civil actions, they provide a list of legal aid referrals.

The city of Chicago has programs that provide consumers with information and brings dishonest companies to public attention. People who have been victims of fraud can complain to the proper authorities. The city provides mediation for consumers to work out their differences with a business they feel has cheated them. If mediation does not work, the city may bring charges against the company. In addition to community and civic resources, consumers may always turn to a local consumer protection attorney for advice or legal help with a particular case. Attorneys regularly handle cases dealing with defective products, fraudulent advertising, and the like.

Consumer Protection Groups

Ordinary citizens have organized many protection and advocacy groups. Their task is to bring public attention to harmful business practices. They expose misleading advertising, defective and unsafe products, dishonest businesses, and unsafe actions such as toxic waste dumping and pollution. Probably the best known citizens’ group is the Better Business Bureau. Publications like Consumer Reports help people to make informed choices on purchases.

If you wish to make a difference, you can join a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization such as Public Citizen or the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.