- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

More than a decade after the District shut down a consumer affairs office with 50 employees, city officials have resurrected the agency and sicced it on crooked building contractors and shady auto-repair shops.

The new Office of Consumer Protection went online Monday with eight employees. It will focus on contractors and automobile-repair shops — the two types of business that generate the most complaints.

In a report issued last year, the Federal Trade Commission identified the District as having one of the highest per capita rates of consumer fraud in the nation, D.C. officials said.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, reappropriated funds for the office after taking over as chairman of the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs last year.

Officials said that in 2005, the Department of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) received 301 complaints about home-improvement contractors and 44 complaints about automobile repairs. In 2004, they received 44 automobile complaints and 268 home-improvement complaints.

Because DCRA had no consumer affairs office, residents have been forced to use small claims court and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to take care of their complaints.

But these have been only mildly effective because they do not have the same power a government-run consumer protection office has, Mr. Graham said, noting that the government can force a business to change or pull its license to operate.

“It has considerably more muscle,” he said. “We put the consumer office in the business licensing division because ultimately the best thing we have is to take away [company’s] privilege of doing business in the District.”

In 2005, BBB fielded 1,495 automobile complaints and 3,940 home-improvement complaints. As soon as the public is made aware of the new DCRA consumer office, most of those calls will likely be shifted to that agency, District officials said.

Judy Kopff, 59, a Cleveland Park resident since 1974, turned to the Better Business Bureau and D.C. small-claims court in 2001 when a local contractor promised to do work on her home, accepted a several thousand dollar deposit, then disappeared, she said.

“Part of the problem was that the contractor was unlicensed, and he fraudulently had an incorrect address on his contract,” Mrs. Kopff said.

Mrs. Kopff, who works in the deputy secretary of defense’s office, won a settlement against the contractor in small-claims court but has been unable to collect her almost $5,000 award because the court system cannot locate the contractor, she said.

“It’s worse than watching ‘The Sopranos’ because this guy is so good at hiding where he lived,” she said.

Mrs. Kopff said she did not think the claim would have been handled better if the District had a consumer protection office at the time because the contractor was unlicensed.

But Mr. Graham said the office will protect residents against fraud regardless of whether the contractor or repair person is licensed.

“What this is meant to address is unfair trade practices and consumer fraud — you can have that whether the person is licensed or not,” he said. “This office is intended to help consumers when they have been ripped off and that’s what this is really about.”

A second part of the new consumer protection initiative is an interactive Web page where consumers can research the status of companies’ business licenses, officials said.

That service can be found at www.rplv.dcra.dc.gov.

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