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Hotel/Motel Complaints Top List of Consumer Fraud in ’20

Internet

By Karen Knight

COURT HOUSE – Although every day seems to bring a new scam to the limelight, complaints against hotels/motels and contractors topped the list of consumer fraud, in 2020, in Cape May County. 

According to Dolores Rambo, senior investigator, Cape May County Office of Consumer Affairs, people trying to get their money back from local hotels and motels due to the Covid pandemic causing them to cancel vacation plans, was the top category of complaints received by the office last year. 

That was followed by home improvement complaints – everything from poor workmanship, contractors not showing up for work, or not having the correct license – as the second-largest category last year.  

The office usually handles about 100-150 complaints a year; last year, about 70 fell into the hotel/motel category and another 25-30 fell under home improvements, according to Rambo. 

“Call it scams, call them fraud, it doesn’t matter,” Rambo said. “I use them interchangeably because it’s all about getting free money, which is sad. 

“The pandemic really affected all parts of our lives last year,” she said. “Normally, we have just a few complaints about local hotels and motels, and most of our complaints are about contractors, but the pandemic caused people to cancel their plans to vacation, and while some hotels and motels refunded their money, not everyone did,” she pointed out, noting that hotels and motels are not regulated in the state. 

“It was really up to the individual businesses how they handled cancellations,” she said. “Most of the time, we help mediate the complaints, but in some cases, we were not able to help the consumer, as we are not attorneys or judges, and we can’t force a hotel or motel to refund monies. We then tell the consumer they have to go to court if they want to pursue it.” 

Mediation is how most complaints are handled, according to Rambo. “Sometimes, it can be criminal and then we contact the local police or Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office for help,” she said. 

Last year, the office saved consumers about $50,000 through their efforts.  

In a “regular” year, complaints against contractors is the top category across the county, according to Rambo. However, many homeowners used their free time during the pandemic to do home improvements themselves, so there were fewer last year 

Many of those who relied on local contractors to perform work had issues, and called the office, which consists of Director John Rechner and Rambo, to investigate many questions. 

“I encourage people to contact us first,” Rambo said, noting the phone number is 609-886-2903 and her email is dolores.rambo@co.cape-may.nj.us. “It may take us a day or two to get you an answer, but we will find you an answer.” 

Because there seems to be a “new scam every day,” Rambo and Rechner use a network of agencies and organizations  to stay on top of current scams and as sources to help consumers. The type of scams also vary with the time of the year, she noted. 

“We’re into tax season,” Rambo said, “so people have to be really careful about identity theft. Don’t give out personal information. Get your taxes done quickly. I don’t give out my Social Security number to anyone; I may give out my last four-digits, but that’s all.” 

Identity theft was the top fraud category of reports from consumers in New Jersey last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That was followed by imposter scams, credit bureaus, information furnishers and report users, online shopping and negative reviews, and banks and lenders. 

The FTC received 78,412 reports from consumers across the state last year, with 46,512 related to fraud reports. New Jersey consumers reported losing a total of $71,095,338 to fraud, with a median loss of $320. 

The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network is a database that receives reports directly from consumers, as well as from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the Better Business Bureau, industry members, and non-profit organizations. 

This year, the FTC welcomed the data contributions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. Twenty-five states contribute to the Consumer Sentinel Network. 

Reports from around the nation about consumer protection issues – including identity theft, fraud, and other categories – are a key resource for FTC investigations that stop illegal activities and, when possible, provide refunds to consumers. 

The Consumer Sentinel Network received more than 4.7 million reports in 2020.  

Of those, nearly 1.4 million were identity theft reports received through the FTC’s website, http://bit.ly/2OBnuPb. 

“The FTC has a really great website that walks you through step-by-step what to do if you think your identity has been stolen,” Rambo noted. 

Rambo said their office also gets calls about neighbors with unkempt yards or feuds.  

“We know seniors are the most susceptible to scams, so I encourage people to call us locally first, so we can direct them to the right place. If it is not a scam, they might have to call their local code enforcement officer, but we can help.” 

The state Consumer Affairs Division has the “Anti-Fraud Toolkit,” designed to provide senior citizens with the information they need to recognize and avoid scams. It can be found at https://bit.ly/2OyWEaj. 

Nationally, consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020, up from $1.8 billion in 2019. Nearly $1.2 billion of losses reported last year were due to imposter scams, while online shopping accounted for about $246 million in reported losses from consumers. 

The FTC received 2.2 million fraud reports from consumers in 2020, with imposter scams remaining the most common type of fraud reported to the agency.  

Online shopping was the second-most common fraud category reported by consumers, elevated by a surge of reports in the early days of the Covid pandemic. 

Internet services; prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries; and telephone and mobile services rounded out the top five fraud categories nationally. 

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com. 

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