The Top 10 Consumer Complaints of 2012

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The top complaints in America
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If you're fed up with hearing people complain, imagine being the Consumer Sentinel Network. This online database for law enforcement compiled and categorized more than 2 million complaints in 2012 -- instances of fraud, scams, schemes, and violations consumers reported to everyone from the FTC to the Better Business Bureau to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

So which industries or groups of people cause us the most grief? Here are the CSN's findings for the top 10 complaint categories and the percentage of the total complaints that each represents:

1. Identity theft (18 percent)
2. Debt collection (10 percent)
3. Banks and lenders (6 percent)
4. Shop-at-home and catalog sales (6 percent)
5. Prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries (5 percent)
6. Impostor scams (4 percent)
7. Internet services (4 percent)
8. Auto-related complaints (4 percent)
9. Telephone and mobile services (4 percent)
10. Credit cards (3 percent)

Stolen identities
It makes sense that identity theft tops the list. Detecting, uncovering and correcting the fallout from identity theft is a long, labyrinthine process. Sure, it's terrible if you lose, say, $500 or $1,000. But with identity theft, some people have not only lost a lot of money but have spent years trying to undo the damage done, encountering many frustrations along the way.

Most of us know to shred documents containing personal information before discarding them, and to be careful to whom we divulge personal information. It can be easy to imagine that identity theft won't happen to us. But according to the CSN, nearly one-fifth of all complaints -- a whopping 369,132 -- were about identity theft.

Military variations
The distribution of complaints was different among military personnel than other Americans. For example, while their top two complaints were the same as the overall results, their No. 6 complaint category was mortgage foreclosure relief and debt management, while it was just 15th for the overall nation.

Foreclosures and debt problems have been major issues for many service members. That's because they often receive orders to pick up and move to a new location and assignment, but with our economy struggling and home prices depressed, they can end up owing more than their homes are worth. Worse still, hundreds have had their homes illegally foreclosed upon by big banks -- JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), and Citigroup (C) -- as has been reported by The New York Times. Military members should know that settlements have been struck with big banks to address these and other wrongs, and that entities such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are looking out for their interests.

Fraud
This wonderful digital age has ushered in new ways for scammers to scam us. The most common method of contact for fraudsters was email, beating the telephone 38 percent versus 34 percent. The median reported loss of victims of fraudsters was $535.

The highest per-capita rate of fraud reports and other complaint types is found in Florida (followed by Georgia and Maryland). This makes sense, since Florida is home to many retirees, and the elderly are common targets of scammers.

The most common type of fraud, by far, involves government documents and benefits (at 46 percent of reported incidents of identity theft). These include the growing problems of tax fraud and wage-related fraud.

Minor complaints
Some complaint categories fall surprisingly low on the list. While many people, for example, may be wary of conducting transactions on online auction sites such as eBay (EBAY), complaints related to this realm accounted for only 1 percent of the total, and ranked 18th out of 30.

Investment-related problems were also less common -- ranking at 26, and making up less than 1 percent of total complaints. It may be that people have been learning to be wary of big, promised returns, get-rich-quick schemes, and other results that seem too good to be true.

While debt collection ranked second overall, credit cards appear in only 10th place -- a bit surprising given the many ways that the credit card industry is finding to shake more dollars out of our pockets.

Complaints have been growing in recent years, so stay alert and don't let yourself get hoodwinked or treated poorly.

Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of JPMorgan Chase and eBay. The Motley Fool recommends eBay and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Citigroup Inc , eBay, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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