Financial Resource Center


Who You Gonna Call? Where to Go With Your Consumer Complaints

by Anna Thayer / July 21st, 2003

Here's the situation: You have a problem with a company, product, or professional and you want it resolved. We've all been there. But it's often hard to get someone to listen to your complaints, especially when dealing with a larger company. To make the process easier on yourself, and to get the results you want, make sure you contact the right agency at the right time.

Where to begin

The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals International, Alexandria, Va., a global organization of customer care professionals, suggests you try the following steps before requesting help from an outside agency:
  • Gather information. This includes the date and location of purchase, receipts, serial numbers or product codes, and manuals. If your complaint is with a service or professional, gather all related documents.
  • Write a letter or fax. The nice thing about writing or faxing is that you then have a hard copy of your contact with the company or organization. Keep records of all correspondence. If the company has a complaint department, direct your contact there. Clearly state your complaint and the expected outcome, and include copies of all related documents. Another option that connects you directly to the companies you have a complaint with is PlanetFeedback, a division of Intelliquest Inc., allows consumers to fill out complaint letters that are then sent directly to the company the complaint is about--for free. Registration on the site is not required, but does include additional benefits such as tracking letters, managing responses, and rating your satisfaction level. Registration is also free.
  • Be patient. If you have a serious request, you should receive an answer almost immediately. Any other request may take a week or more to get a response. If you talk to a customer service representative, ask for a "respond by" date and time.
  • Don't be afraid to go higher. If you believe your request is not getting the attention it deserves, don't hesitate to go to a higher level in the company.
    A broker could be shut down and ordered to pay restitution.
Most companies are willing to do whatever they can to make their clients happy--within reason. But if following the above steps doesn't resolve the problem, you should turn to an outside agency. There are different agencies for different complaints, so make sure you contact the right one. And please note that this information is by no means comprehensive--contact information gets more specific the more intricate your complaint is--but these are the places to start the complaint process.

Consumer issues

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is the best place to start with a complaint about a company, charity, or car manufacturer. After you name the company you would like to file a complaint against, it will refer you to the local BBB that will handle your complaint. The local BBB will then take your complaint to the business and report its side to you. If your problem can't be resolved during this process, the BBB does offer mediation and arbitration services. If you need more help than the BBB can provide, contact your state or local consumer protection agency. It can conduct investigations and prosecute offenders. Defective products should be reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC maintains a list of recalls from May 1973 to the present.

Credit problems

The Fair Credit Billing Act gives victims of credit card fraud, theft, or billing errors 60 days from receipt of an incorrect bill to send a certified letter (request a return receipt) to their creditor's "billing inquiries" address. The creditor then has 90 days to resolve the problem (it has only 30 days to let you know your complaint was received). If the creditor does not do this, you can sue or take your complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Keep records of all correspondence.
The rules are different for debit cards, so check those guidelines. A good resource is the article, "Debit or Credit: Which Card Is Safer?" A credit billing error can have a long-lasting effect if it ends up on your credit report. Notify the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) about any error on your credit report.


If you have a complaint against a registered investment adviser who manages less than $25 million in assets, contact the state securities regulatorSecurities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with your complaint. If the adviser also is a broker-dealer, you should contact the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) to file a complaint. But if you want repayment, you probably will need arbitration because the SEC and the NASD cannot force repayment. You may want to touch base with a securities lawyer early in the process. The Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association can help you locate one in your area. Not only can securities lawyers assist you with arbitration (if it comes to that), but it helps to have a professional review any complaint letters, and most securities attorneys offer free initial consultations. For more information, see the Home & Family Finance Resource Center article "Avenging Your Broker's Blunders."


Each state creates and enforces its own life, health, home, and auto insurance laws. Contact your state insurance regulator with any complaints about an insurer.
If your complaint is with a service or professional, gather all related documents.


Doctors. Direct any complaint about a medical professional to your state licensing board. If necessary, it can take legal action to revoke a medical license. Lawyers. Complaints about a lawyer should be directed to your state or local bar association. It can issue warnings to and fine or disbar anyone who is found to have violated a law or ethical code. Note, however, that state and local bar associations cannot recover lost money. Many states have a fund designed to reimburse some of the money lost to a dishonest lawyer, but you'll probably need to hire another lawyer and sue if you want to get all your money back. Realtors. Take any complaint about a real-estate agent to your local real-estate board. It will listen to both sides of the story and, if necessary, take action against the agent. If you think your real-estate agent is breaking any laws, you also should contact your state's real-estate regulatory agency. Contractors. Because state and local authorities license most contractors, architects, plumbers, and electricians, you can appeal to your state's licensing organization.

Internet scams

If you've been the victim of an Internet scam, report it to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center. The center is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center.

For more information

If you need contact information that is more in-depth than this (say you have a complaint against an airline, for example), the Consumer Action Web site, run by the Federal Citizen Information Center, offers extensive complaint directories.
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