Ned Barnett

Barnett: A council of Davids fighting for consumers in North Carolina

ehyman@newsobserver.com

The North Carolina Consumers Council is a group of 10 employees working out of an office off Glenwood Avenue near the Beltline in Raleigh. Until last week, I’d never heard of them, but then the low-profile council saw its name go up in lights. Headlights, actually.

The council – a nonprofit supported by grants, donations and dues from its 22,000 members – got the Ford Motor Co. to issue a recall it had been trying to avoid for years. The council provided information to federal regulators that led to Ford recalling 313,000 older Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis sedans because their headlights may fail.

“It’s always great to help people out and get them what they are rightfully owed,” said Brian Reitter, the council’s public affairs director.

The recall covers the 2003 to 2005 model years. No one is sure how many of the bulky Crown Vics once widely used by police and the Grand Marquis favored by seniors are still on the road. But they are likely being driven by low-income and elderly people, two groups that may either don’t know their rights or lack the wherewithal to assert them. That makes this big hit by the small Raleigh group as impressive as it was unlikely.

Years ago, Ford agreed to replace a faulty soldering that caused the headlights to go out but only for the sedans that were in heavy use as police cars and taxis. Loss of lights was not considered a likely failure in regular vehicles. But the consumer council disagreed. It requested a new investigation, noting that there were more than 600 complaints about lost lights on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.

Reitter said the council got involved after a woman’s complaint to a Greensboro TV station. The lights no longer worked on the woman’s car. When she went to a Ford dealer to get them fixed, she was told the necessary part was no longer available.

“We started looking through computer data and found a lot of people were having the same problem as the woman in Greensboro,” Reitter said. “They were going without headlights for months.”

The Ford recall is likely the largest ever brought about by the council that formed in 1968 “to promote consumer awareness and stand up for the little guy,” said Matthew Oliver, the council’s executive director.

Last year, the consumer organization pushed Ford to address problems with its Escape model because the electronic throttle was failing. In 2004, the council forced the recall of just over 300,000 Saturn L series vehicles that were prone to melting taillights. It now has a petition pending with regulators that seeks the recall of 800,000 Nissan trucks and SUVs because a radiator flaw can cause the transmission to overheat.

In other areas, the council helped pass a “do not call registry” in North Carolina that shields people from unwanted marketing calls. It helped ban pay day lending in North Carolina and is pushing to keep it out. However, since changing its IRS status last year, the council no longer engages in lobbying.

In an era when corporations have gained political power and seem immune from accountability, it’s refreshing to see a group of Davids who will take on the Goliaths. It’s important work that’s under attack at the federal level. Congressional Republicans are trying to strip powers from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency estimates that it has brought more than $10 billion in relief to consumers in the form of refunds and lower fees since it began operating in 2011. It seeks to eliminate the abuses by banks and other financial institutions that helped cause the financial crisis of 2007-08.

But these days the threat to the consumer also comes from a different direction – stealthy, nimble thieves who use technology to steal the consumer’s identity. “The consumer marketplace in general is ever evolving,” Reitter said. “With all the technology we have, it’s becoming harder and harder for everyday consumers to protect themselves.”

A consumer’s credit card information can be stolen by scanners set up by ATMs or gas pumps, he said. Some sophisticated technology can enable a thief to read a person’s credit card just by standing next to him.

To fight back, the council works with the consumer protection division of the state attorney general’s office, which the council helped to form in 1969. It also works with other state and national consumer groups. Most of its members are from North Carolina, but it will handle or forward complaints from anywhere.

In the end, though, the best consumer protection must come from the consumer, Reitter said. He urges people to be vigilant when using credit cards and to check their credit card statements and credit reports regularly.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the individual consumer to do everything he or she can to protect themselves,” he said.

One step consumers can take is to join the council. An annual membership is $19.99 and $15 to renew. There are not a lot of direct benefits for members, but there is the satisfaction of supporting consumer advocacy against indifferent corporations, predatory lenders and slick scammers.

Barnett:919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com

Consumers Council

If you want to join or need help with a consumer issue, call 800-887-5620 or go to the council’s website at www.ncconsumer.org

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