If this were an ideal world, there would be no shady business deals, no scams, no defective products or shabby service - and no need for consumer protection.
But it isn't, and there is.The state of Utah has a number of laws that are specifically aimed at protecting consumers. Nine of those laws are enforced by the Division of Consumer Protection, part of the Commerce Department (formerly the Department of Business Regulation), says Gary Hansen, recently appointed by the governor to head the consumer protection agency.
Hansen comes to the job after 10 years as a government specialist and business lobbyist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Why is a business advocate taking on a consumer role? Because the two are very much intertwined, says Hansen.
Bad business practices not only harm consumers but also rub off on legitimate businesses. When legitimate businesses or groups are hurt, consumers suffer as well.
Take charitable solicitations, for example. "There are already more worthy charities than our community can really support. People generally have a limited amount they can give to charity. So if you get people out there taking money under false pretenses, it steals from that pot. If people give money to a bad charity, they don't up the ante and give more to a good one. They take a loss and so does the legitimate, needy charity."
Hansen has also served on the Governor's Consumer Protection Advisory Council for the past five years and has a clear idea of the problems and issues facing the state's consumers.
"Things seem to go in cycles," he says. "Right now we are having a flurry of problems with charitable solicitations. In the summer we have more transient vendor problems. Consumers are becoming more aware of the provisions of the lemon law, and we have a lot of activity in that area."
The majority of complaints, however, fall under the Consumer Sales Practices Act, which prohibits a variety of deceptive business practices. "The Consumer Sales Practices Act is broad and comprehensive - and should be," says Hansen. It covers such things as bait-and-switch, deceptive claims, false advertising.
When complaints are received by his department, they go through a complain processer, who refers the problem to an in-house investigator - or to another agency, if appropriate.
The department has four investigators, "and they all have heavy caseloads," says Hansen. "But we try to resolve every complaint. Consumers need to understand that we can't go to court with every single complaint; and if we can't resolve some complaints through mediation, we are limited in what we can do." Cases that affect a number of consumers or that involve large amounts of money may end up in court.
Another important aspect of Hansen's work is consumer education. "Consumer education can't be over-emphasized," he says. "The more consumers learn about the marketplace and about the rules and regulations, the more they benefit."
And that's important to Hansen. "After all, I'm a consumer, too."
Q & A: Commonly-asked questions
Here are some of the Division of Consumer Protection's most-often asked questions:
Q. Is a store required to have an advertised item available?
A. There should be sufficient quantity to accommodate anticipated demand for each day of the advertised sale.
Q. What does "bait and switch" mean?
A. When a salesperson intentionally refuses to sell or intentionally encourages a consumer to buy a more expensive item than the one shown in the advertising.
Q. When does a store have to give me a raincheck?
A. If merchandise is not available and the ad did not clearly disclose a limited quantity, you are entitled to a raincheck.
Q. Can a store limit the quantity of advertised goods it will sell me?
A. Not unless the ad clearly states the number it will sell to any one customer.
Q. What if a product is new but defective?
A. If the product has a guarantee, a consumer is bound by the contents of that document. The guarantee should be carefully read before a purchase is made. If there is no guarantee, a consumer is entitled to a full refund, replacement or repair depending upon store policy.
Q. Am I bound by store policy?
A. If a store clearly defines the policy of the business - which includes refunds, lay-away, restocking, etc. - at all cash registers or at the location of the advertised merchandise, you are bound by that policy.
Q. Can I get out of a door-to-door sale?
A. If the sale is over $25, you are entitled to a 72-hour recision right. This time period is from midnight of the day the purchase was made to the third day at midnight following that time. You are responsible for notifying the salesperson or company. This does not apply to sales made at the regular place of business.
Q. Who is affected most by deceptive business practices?
A. The elderly, low-income, newly married and uninformed are those affected most by deceptive business practices.
Q. How do I file a complaint against a business that I feel has treated me unfairly?
A. You can file a complaint in person, by telephone or in writing with the Division of Consumer Protection, Heber Wells Building, 160 E. Third South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, 530-6601.