Today Only: Ask A Consumer Lawyer

As long as we are here, we thought we might let the readers direct our posting. So, gentle readers, the ball is in your court. Ask questions in the comments about consumer rights, consumer law, or anything consumer-related that you might want to direct to a lawyer (debt collection, credit reporting, equity stripping, fair housing, predatory lending, auto fraud . . . you get the idea). A few of the best questions will be addressed in a post later today. It’s Dear Abby, Esq., today.

A few common-sense ground rules:

    (1) IANYL (I am not your lawyer). Don’t post personal information about a case you may have. This is a public forum, after all. We will not give personalized advice over the Internet.
    (2) IANALIYS (I am not a lawyer in your state). You can ask questions about anything consumer-related, but many consumer rights are regulated by state laws. We can talk about most federal consumer laws and generally about common law, but in the end, we will tell you to find a lawyer in your state.
    (3) This information is worth what you paid for it (nothing). Don’t go complaining that you got bad advice.

That said, bring on the questions. SAM GLOVER

(P.S. – We don’t know anything about bankruptcy, so don’t ask. Also, those sexy abbreviations came from Popken; I can’t take credit.)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Amy Alkon says:

    Consumerist gets better and better every day. Linked to your Ikea post from yesterday.

  2. tracilyns says:

    In October of 2006, I decided to rent a room in a house that was already occupied by a few friends of mine. I already knew that the landlord was less then fantastic (getting any repairs done on the house is an incredibly painful process, unless you mention that the repair could save them from getting sued), but the price I’m paying for the room is an incredibly good deal. Also, the house has a basement apartment that is on the same gas meter as the rest of the house.

    Soon after moving in, my roommates mentioned that they had not received the gas bill since May 2006. I believe what happens is every month the gas bill goes to the landlord, who apparently pays the bill (we have not had any notices from the gas company that the bill isn’t getting paid, nor has the gas been shut off). In theory, he then supplies his tenants with their portion of the bill. The main house should be billed 80%, the basement apartment 20%. None of this is in the contract. The contract merely states that the landlord will pay for water, sewer, and garbage, and that tenants are to responsible for the remaining utilities.

    Periodically, the manager will contact us and get upset because we haven’t paid for the gas. She insists that she has given us a bill, but we have never seen it. However, no one has seen a bill since May. Since it is now February, we are getting quite uneasy at the thought of paying a gas bill that has been accumulating for nearly a year. Also, I should not be responsible for any charges prior to October, but I am worried that the landlord might try to get me to pay for all of May-October.

    Someone did recommend that I ask for the bill in writing, and then state in the letter that if we do not receive the bill in 10 days, the tenants are no longer responsible for past charges. However, I don’t really want to start a major dispute with my landlord.

    If you have any thoughts on this matter, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!

  3. Pelagius says:

    In 1999 an 11 hour delay by Northwest resulted in a costly lawsuit. Based on that precedent, what sort of recourse would be available someone imprisoned by JetBlue last weekend? What about for shorter delays (4 hours, 5 hours)?

  4. mark14 says:

    I have a relatively simple contract question. For the sake of completeness, all the events took place in Massachusetts, but let’s assume that MA follows general common law contract law.

    When I was under 18 years old, my parents took out loans on my behalf to pay for secondary school. During my senior year, I turned 18, and was required to sign a document that purported to transfer responsibility of repaying the loans to me. The document stated that I understood that I received an education in return for agreeing to repay the loan.

    Now, my school is requesting that I repay the loan, but I’m unsure if I’m legally obligated (moral obligations aside).

    As I understand it, past consideration cannot be used for a new contract; there must be new consideration, however trivial. Further, even if the duties of my parents were transferred or assigned to me via this contract, there is still no new benefit to me (or detriment to my former school).

    I just want a clearer understanding of what my rights are here and whether I’m legally obligated to pay.


  5. Kornkob says:

    There was once an extended discussion as to the legal ramifications of a store’s ‘we need to check your reciepts before you leave the store’ policy as is commonly seen at stores like Best Buy.

    What are your legal responsibilities/options if ‘security’ asks or demands to see your reciepts after you’ve left the checkout area? Does this change if you used a self checkout station?

    On a related note: what about locations that insist that they be allowed to search your belongings (purses/backpacks)?

  6. swvaboy says:

    I am going to be greedy and ask a couple of questions.

    What are my remedies under the Can Spam act if a company continually sends email after opting out? I have proof of unsubscribing & I have a letter I sent to the company complaining.

    Does mental health (Bipolar/Anxiety) fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Must I report such disability to a new employer if I need special accommodations, such as a break every 1.5 hours or such?

    Is a no-compete agreement legal if it was required to be signed before as a condition of receiving your paycheck? I had been employed 4 years before this point.

    Thanks for the opportunity and I hope to see one or more of my questions answered latter.

  7. boozecan says:

    It’s widely known that Microsoft has had problems with their xbox 360 console. From it crapping out to not reading discs, there are too many problems to list. unfortunately I am one of the owners who has had a faulty console. A few actually. Now Microsoft has extended the warranty to one year for owners and offers free repairs in this within the one year. However, my question to you is:

    After numerous repairs and returns to Microsoft tech. support, can I ask for a refund of my money? It seems that since they offer to repair it I probably won’t get a refund, but after 3 or 3 repaired consoles it doesn’t seem like they are solving the problem. It seems that i spend more time packaging and shipping out my xbox than actually playing it. Do I have a right to demand a refund, and is there a chance that I would get it?

  8. robdew says:

    I would like to record telephone calls from companies. I live in a one-party consent state, which I understand to mean if the conversation is between myself and another party, and the converstation is intrastate, I don’t need consent of the other party to record the call nor do I need to inform them the call is being recorded.

    Am I safe recording telephone calls between myself and someone else if I don’t know where the other person is located?

    Corollary (if allowed): what is the expectation of privacy/recording of the other party if they know they are on a speakerphone, and consent to talking on a speakerphone?

  9. sporesdeezeez says:

    I second Kornkob’s question re: retailers’ search and seizure.

  10. Die_Fledermaus says:

    I third Kornkob’s question. A few weeks ago at a BJ’s, on my way out i was asked by the woman at the door to open my bag. I said “I do not consent to any search” and continued walking.

    The local police officer who was standing next to her ran after me and accused me of ignoring her. i told him what i had said to the clerk. Then he insisted i look at the store sign. i refused and told him the sign said “we ask that you let us search your bags”. Then i said “they asked and i do not consent to a search nor have i signed anything saying i would”. at this point he shouts at me “get out and never come back you f-ing wierdo”. then after i leave he runs to the door and shouts again “NEVER COME BACK”.

    During the whole conversation i was calm and quiet, while the local police officer was yelling.

    Was I in my right to refuse the search? Are police allowed to yell curses at you? Can the cop do anything if i go back?


  11. When I was a minor, I believe 16 or 17 I started college. The school financial aid woman talked me into signing up for student loans. I believe they made my guardian sign some kind of statement saying that she would not be responsible if I decided not to repay the loans. I do know that it is illegal for a minor to enter into a contract such as a loan contract so what I am asking is, if I wanted to be a rat can I or how would I go about pointing this out and getting around my student loans since I am an adult and started having to repay these loans which I believe were taken out 6 maybe 7 years ago?

  12. Kornkob says:

    @Die_Fledermaus: then after i leave he runs to the door and shouts again “NEVER COME BACK”.

    There’s a good question too: Can a retail outlet ‘ban’ you? What are the parameters of that? On a related note: we’ve all seen the ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone’ signs. Does a store have that ‘right’? Are there limitations to that ‘right’? Is it really a ‘right’?

  13. dotyoureyes says:

    This may be more criminal law than consumer law, but here goes:

    I’ve heard that if you’re in a jurisdiction without laws governing predatory towing practices, and you discover a tow company hitching your car up, your best bet is to simply get in your car and lock the doors — that way if the tow operator continues and drives off, it would be kidnapping.

    The theory here being that the tow truck’s time is literally money, and the truck can’t sit there waiting for you to get out of your car in order to tow you away. Any idea if this works in practice?

  14. kcskater says:

    @robdew: I’d like to tack onto this question since the one I had in mind was similar.

    Assume a call is placed to a CSR from a two party state with the intention of recording the call. Does the announcement from the company to caller that the call might be recorded PLUS the written/verbal consent given by the CSR to the company for recording count as consent for both parties to record?

  15. FunPaul says:

    I recently received a collection notice in the mail that said, contact us within 5 days or, um well, we’ll send you more letters.
    The debt isn’t mine. The last name on the letter is not my last name, it’s close though.
    My immediate reaction was to call them to try and straighten things out–it was on Sunday and they weren’t open.
    I called my dad instead–probably for the better. He’s not licensed in MN to give me legal advice so he gave me some fatherly advice, which was not to call the collection agency, but to send them a certified letter asking them to justify the debt.
    After reading the letter to him, he mentioned some things that I found to be interesting. He told me that unless the collection notice has a Miranda disclaimer stating that everything I say can be used against me to collect the debt that if they tried to go through the courts that they would be fighting an uphill battle.
    His take on the situation is that either the collectors are phishing or are just very unprofessional. He said that if anything were to happen to me that whatever lawyer I hired would have a lot of fun.
    Do you have any advice for people who receive collection notices? I assume that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to do when they receive a scary sounding letter and do things that could cost them money.

  16. lore says:

    @Kornkob: Yes, they can ban you from the store on grounds of trespassing alone. It is private property, and they are allowed to refuse you the right to pass (“shop”) there.

  17. writewords says:

    I’m a professional writer and I recently found that a major online corporation (major = everyone in the world knows the name) has posted one of my articles without my consent and without crediting me as the author. I informed them of the error (after all, someone else could have submitted my article to this company without telling them it was ripped off) and they sent me a form to fill out with all the pertinent info (article title, link to article on their site, etc.). I sent it back in December and their legal dept. refuses to respond to me now that they have my information.

    Now that they are aware the article was stolen, I want them to at least confirm their receipt of my report and investigate my claim, but the legal department won’t respond. When I go to their corporate press contacts page, I get a 404 error.

    Is there anything else I can do to get this article either a. removed or b. credited to me, besides sending e-mails to the company that don’t get any response?

  18. lore says:

    @writewords: I’m sure a nasty cease-and-desist-or-I’ll-sue-your-pants-off letter sent via certified mail from a local copyright lawyer will take care of this. You’re basically accusing them of copyright violation, and they have every need to respond to your claim.

  19. bgrigson says:

    I would echo FunPaul’s comment. We are in the process of getting our debt taken care of and had a couple of collection letters. Should we even deal with them or just go back to the original creditor and try to work something out instead?

  20. Kornkob says:

    @lore: Is that a legal opinion or just your accumulated knowledge?

  21. lore says:

    @Kornkob: A little of both. IANAL, but I’ve been involved with those trespassing situations before (and lawyers were part of those discussions).

  22. htmom says:

    If a store’s return policy is to give refunds in the form of payment, and if you pay partially by gift card and partially by credit card, is there a law that dictates how you get a partial refund (i.e., does it first go back to your credit card, and any balance gets re-issued as a gift card)? I am in refund hell with Toys R Us right now.

  23. JesseRPI says:

    My question for you is regarding my rights when exiting a store after paying for the items I obtained there. Some stores, such as Best Buy and Costco, stop their customers when they are exiting the store, demanding to see a receipt for the items purchased. I feel that this is somehow violating my rights, as I have already paid for the items and do not have any obligation to prove to a “bouncer” that I am not shoplifting. I also feel that it may be inappropriate, as I may not want someone at the door examining what I bought in front of other customers.

    What can I do, and do my concerns have merit?

  24. SangreDeThor says:

    In an earlier article it was stated that if your cell phone contract expires and do not want to sign a new one just yet you can continue on the terms of you old contract. How does one go about doing that?

  25. Sam Glover says:

    @SangreDeThor: That isn’t a legal question, but I’ll answer anyway. Check with your provider, but your plan probably just rolls into a month-to-month plan without you having to do anything at all.

  26. rockss65 says:

    What are the rights of stores to search your bags as you exit? Costco has started searching my diaper bag on the way in (which I have no problem with at all if that is a condition for entry) and also on my way out (I don’t like having a condition to EXIT anywhere unless I’m accused of something).


  27. Sam Glover says:

    For all the questions related to bag searching, see these posts, which pretty much answer your questions.

  28. Paul says:

    What can I do about a company that has not sent me my mail in rebate, despite numerous (25+) attempts over many months (18) to sort out the issue and get the money? Is this an issue for small claims, my state’s attorney general, or what? What should I do?

  29. TPK says:

    After using up the 12-15 months of 0% interest on one of those mail-order credit card offers, and the free loan…I mean full balance has been paid off, what’s the best thing to do, credit rating wise, with the account? Should I put it in a drawer and never use it, or cancel the account?

  30. TPK says:

    Oops, sorry posted on the wrong article! DOH!

  31. mochishiro says:

    Thanks in advance for your help.

    We bought a refrigerator from Sears. It was delivered and installed by a moving company that is contracted by Sears. The water line to the icemaker leaked, causing significant flooding, structural, and mold damage. We have been unable to live in our house for the last 2 months.

    Our homeowner’s policy is covering our repair costs but will not do anything about the mold. No one from Sears has come to the house to inspect the damage, despite biweekly phone calls and letters to their office. We have had to delay repair and clean-up because they have not yet come to the house to inspect the damage and the mold has spread.

    We need to find a lawyer to take care of our case – I’m sure Sears will be liable, and pay for the mold problems. Can we file for punitive damages because of their negligence in not responding to our claim?


  32. Sam Glover says:


    Home warranties are state-specific. However, I don’t believe you will be able to get punitive damages unless you can show something along the lines of “willful disregard” for your rights. Just negligence isn’t nearly enough.

  33. Punchbug193 says:

    I’d like to know what are my rights as a consumer about home improvement service not being a job-well-done? We just had our basement waterproofed and was guaranteed a great job. There are quite a few imperfections that need fixing. They had to jackhammer the perimeter of the basement in order to install their water guard. Now our basement steps are now not on solid ground as it was before. The seams where the new concete and the old concete are very visible. A very sloppy job. I’ve seen other jobs done elsewhere by other companies and you couldn’t even tell any concete was even disturbed. Can I protest in front of the company? Can I advertise poor workmanship about the company on my vehicle with a sign? Can I post something on “”? What are my legal rights?