Consumer complaints sites not all created equal

Wading through consumer complaint after consumer complaint can frustrate even the most diligent consumer. But a report just released by the Consumer Federation of America says not all consumer complaint sites are created equal, and that a good place to start searching complaints is My3Cents.com.

Although consumer complaint sites may not help frustrated consumers settle grievances with merchants, the report found, they provide a satisfying outlet for users to share their negative experiences with other shoppers, companies, consumer protection agencies and the media. Complaint sites also offer consumers a rare source of detailed information about problems other shoppers have experienced with a product or service, especially those sold by national retailers.

"The complaint websites provide a unique opportunity for consumers both to make their complaints heard and to learn about frequent problems experienced by other consumers," CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck, the report's author, said at a news conference. "We commend those who have created and maintain these websites."

CFA assembled a team of consumer information and complaint experts to work with Brobeck on the report, which was researched by law student Spencer Baldwin: Peggy Haney Ingalls, retired corporate consumer affairs executive; Paul Schlaver, state consumer advocate and former consumer protection agency official; Susan Grant, CFA's Director of Consumer Protection; Jack Gillis, CFA's Director of Public Affairs; and his associate Julia Redmon.

The team identified six free sites it said were especially popular and useful: These six sites receive tens of thousands of complaints a year and typically post them all as they are submitted, except for consumeraffairs.com, which publishes a representative sample. All the sites are user-friendly in terms of posting a complaint, the report found, including the ability to search databases for the past several years. Although some sites, such as My3cents.com, allow consumers to report positive reviews about retailers, few bothered. All six sites also accept advertising.

The report singled out My3cents.com as the first site consumers should visit when they want to research a complaint. Besides containing the largest amount of recent complaints, the site lists the number of comments per company and is well-organized. Also, unlike any of the other complaint sites, My3cents.com offers a "my consumer tools" drop-down menu with links to the Better Business Bureau, state attorneys general and federal agencies.

The impartiality of some of these sites, however, has been called into question. RipoffReport.com, for instance, has been criticized for for its "Corporate Advocacy Program," which allows companies slammed by its users to repair their reputations for a fee. The report also noted Pissedconsumer.com allows merchants to "address the complaints received from consumers," for $5,000 a year.

Brobeck acknowledged a "small concern" with this practice during the conference call, but said he doesn't believe many companies are willing to pay the $5,000, and added if consumers suspected complaints were being watered down, they would surely raise a stink on that site and others.

Although the report said complaint sites provide a useful service, there's also no evidence any of these sites are particularly effective at helping consumers resolve their grievances. So those interested in more than just venting their spleens should contact their local or state consumer protection agency, as well as the Federal Trade Commission.

Or contact Help Me Walletpop! and see if Today Show personal finance editor Jean Chatzky can help solve your problem.

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