Pro-Consumer Regulation Needs Real Teeth So You Can Sue The Jerks

If the recent economic meltdown has a bright spot, it is the possibility that smart regulation may return. There will always be those who will cheat if they can, putting both consumers and the market at risk. It cannot function properly without regulation to prevent cheating and ensure consumers are getting a fair deal. But without a private right of action and attorney fees, consumer protection regulations are nearly worthless. A “private right of action” means…

Sam Glover is a consumer rights lawyer, enemy of shady debt collectors, previous Consumerist contributor, and writes the Caveat Emptor blog. This is the first of his new column for Consumerist, appearing the first Monday of every month.

…that if a company violates the law, the consumer may sue them. A private right of action is so important because regulators charged with enforcing existing regulations rarely bother to do their jobs. Even Congress, in spite of abundant warnings, did nothing to prevent the economic meltdown. Therefore we need to…

GIVE CONSUMERS THE RIGHT TO ENFORCE REGULATIONS, AND THEY WILL
And consumers will enforce regulations long before slow-moving, ineffective government regulators and legislators get around to it. Consumers are the canaries in the coal mine, but a private right of action is the key to the birdcage.

ATTORNEY FEES MUST BE INCLUDED
A private right of action must include attorney fees if the consumer wins. Navigating the court system is difficult, and consumers often need the help of a knowledgeable lawyer to assert their rights and win. But without an attorney fee provision, they often will not have the financial means to do so.

“TRIAL-LAWYER” IS NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Companies use the phrase “trial lawyers” as if it were a four-letter word. But trial lawyers who do consumer rights work are just private regulators, keeping companies in compliance with the law one consumer at a time. It’s no wonder they don’t like us.

IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW SMART OR STUPID REGULATIONS ARE, COMPANIES WANT THEM WEAKER
Meanwhile, debt collectors, credit bureaus, credit card companies, mortgage lenders and brokers, and many others are trying to weaken consumer protections already in place, like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the bankruptcy code, and prevent new regulations, however smart.

TELL YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS YOU CARE ABOUT YOUR CONSUMER RIGHTS
Consumers must protect good regulations that are already on the books, and now is the time to push for better regulation of things like mortgage lending, credit cards, payday lending, and product safety. Call your senator, write to your representative, and make sure your consumer rights are on their minds.

(Photo: Getty)