Kelly Lewis is worried.
With a controversial new administration in power, she's concerned that consumers like her will suffer. And for good reason. Corporate cheerleaders have been appointed to lead federal agencies dedicated to consumer protection. Much-needed regulations are about to be unceremoniously rolled back.
"I don't think anyone will serve their customers better," says Lewis, a guidebook publisher and entrepreneur.
Her misgivings are shared by many Americans, regardless of their political persuasion. A sense of dread seems to be sweeping the country—a well-founded premonition that essential consumer protections are on the verge of being abandoned. The feeling is being fueled by the heated rhetoric of newly elected politicians and their noisy surrogates who shout down any dissenters.
"There is a real reason to be concerned about how the government will protect consumer rights," says Chris Dore, a partner at the consumer class action law firm Edelson PC. "Taking the teeth away from agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, poses a significant risk to how corporations will treat consumers. The rollback of regulations combined with a lack of enforcement will create an environment that will encourage companies to not only cut corners but blatantly take advantage of consumers to pad the bottom line."
But while these may be trying times, they are not hopeless times. A strong net of consumer protection is beginning to unfold, comprised of advocates, attorneys and private groups. Together, they may not be able to replace a collection of soon-to-be neutered federal agencies, but they can help. So can you.
Watchdogs are Waking Up
There's a sense among traditional watchdog groups (including, ahem, traditional media organizations) that times are changing. And they are slowly waking from an eight-year slumber.
You don't have to work in a newsroom to feel the collective sense of urgency. Traditional service journalism is enjoying a resurgence the likes of which hasn't been seen in a generation. Consumer advocates feel energized by the thought that government may yield to corporate interests without a fight.
Part of the challenge, at least for now, is separating the talk in Washington from the real threat. Simply saying you'll get rid of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, doesn't make it so. Nor does it necessarily translate into a surge of financial service-related complaints. It's a long, drawn-out process that moves at the glacial pace of government.
The most effective watchdogs aren't waiting for the collapse of any federal agency. They're speaking up now, hoping to avoid a consumer apocalypse. But beyond sounding the alarms, there's not much more they can do than to wait for their first patient to arrive. That probably will happen soon.
Advocates for Hire
But some companies also see an opportunity. Take Copatient, a service that helps negotiate your medical bills.
"Most consumers do not even know their rights when it comes to medical bills," says Copatient CEO Thomas Torre. "Medical bills are big, complicated and expensive, and most people just pay them not realizing their rights as a consumer of healthcare."
In fact, eight in 10 bills reviewed by Copatient reviews contain savings opportunities related to errors or overcharges. Once errors are identified, the company helps consumers negotiate with the hospital or physician. On average, Copatient claims to save patients 40 percent—or $3,000 on their medical bills.
Of course, Copatient isn't free. It operates on a contingency basis, taking 35 percent of the money it saves its customers.
Another place where there's both money to be made—and consumers to be protected—is air travel. Companies such as AirHelp offer their services to passengers who have been delayed or had their flights canceled in Europe, where a consumer protection rule such as EU 261 applies.
EU 261 requires airlines to offer cash compensation to delayed passengers in many instances. The regulation can also apply to passengers flying to the United States. AirHelp charges a 25 percent service fee for most of the cases it advocates on behalf of travelers, although the costs may vary.
Consumers are not waiting for their worst fears to be realized. They're using all of the resources at their disposal to force companies to do what they promised and to protect their rights. But it's not an easy path.
"There’s no magic elixir you can swallow to protect your customer rights," says Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for Angie's List, a business referral site. "But it’s not as hard as you might think to become an empowered consumer. It will take some time and effort, though."
Marci Bloem decided to take matters into her own hands when she ran into trouble with DirecTV recently. AT&T, DirecTV's parent company, claimed she owed it $167 for a gateway device, "when in fact I returned it when we switched servers in 2015," she says.
Bloem appealed to AT&T in writing, but it stubbornly insisted that she pay her bill. The case dragged on for more than a year-and-a-half. Bill collectors began harassing her. Collections agencies got involved.
Finally, she decided to become her own advocate. She sent a brief, polite email to an AT&T executive whose name she found online. (I list the names, numbers and email addresses for AT&Ts execs on my consumer advocacy site.
"Within one hour, AT&T phoned me two times and said they had found the gateway and I didn't owe them anything," she says.
She's part of a trend. A more aggressive watchdog media, private companies and fed-up consumers are taking matters into their own hands. And sometimes, they're winning. Maybe that's what voters had in mind in the last presidential election—that no one can do a better job of protecting consumers than consumers and private companies. Indeed, that the government has no business protecting consumers.
But the message seems to be getting lost on people like Lewis, the guidebook publisher. She isn't sitting around to wait for the protections she's relied on to be removed. Like many consumers, she's discouraged by the direction the country has taken, if not also despondent.
"This is a loud signal for me to leave the United States," she says. "I am planning on moving abroad."
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott's latest book is How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.