From Orange County Commissioner Bryan Nelson
There are more than 100 nationwide and statewide agencies, including the Orange County Consumer Fraud Office, that work with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to shut down scams, give consumers a better way to report and recover from identity theft, and expose and stop misleading business practices.
The Orange County Consumer Fraud Office investigates consumer complaints and works to resolve them through mediation. This Unit can also do the following: Issue citations; refer complaints to other appropriate agencies for handling, and press criminal charges against the offending party. Frauds that occur in Orange County within 2 years are investigated by the Unit to determine the best course of action.
Florida overall has a large number of tourists, with the Central Florida Region being an especially popular tourist area. This factor presents an ideal environment for scam artists to thrive, where families on vacation tend to let their guards down. According to the FTC, the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metropolitan statistical area ranked Number 32 and Number 22 for fraud and identity theft in 2016, respectively. In addition, Florida ranked Number 1 for fraud and Number 3 for identity theft consumer complaints in the United States.
Several top consumer complaint categories at the local level include the following: Real estate; merchandise sales; home improvement; consumer services; advance fees; auto sales; travel service; car rental agencies; non-consent towing; and landlord versus tenant mobile home issues. The Unit collected the following statistics regarding top consumer complaints in the fiscal year 2016-2017: The most complaints reported were for Real Estate at 283 total, primarily focusing on timeshares; 165 complaints were reported for Home Improvement; 127 complaints were reported for Consumer Services, and 123 complaints were reported for Merchandise Sales. All of the other categories reported (23 total) were in the double and single digits. $2,981,455 in non-litigated restitution (value of canceled contracts, restitution, and court-ordered restitution) was reported to have been recovered by the Unit.
An example of a recent case involving consumer fraud at the local level was a complaint filed by the Bradfordt Park Homeowners Association (HOA) in Orlando, which paid a total of $1,828.54 for the construction of its community bulletin board to a local sign and marketing company. Within the contracted price, there was a $495 fee for “permit and acquisition” that was not done by the company. The former HOA President reported this to the Consumer Fraud Unit and relayed that their experience in getting the County’s help in resolving the issue was positive.
The Internet has also been a contributing factor to the realm of consumer complaints by adding more opportunities to commit fraud. These opportunities have been identified through fancy websites and compelling offers on Craigslist designed to lure consumers. However, the Consumer Fraud Unit is also ready and available to provide assistance in scenarios such as these.
While it cannot provide specific information regarding the history of a business, the Consumer Fraud Unit’s closed files are public records and available for viewing. In addition, while consumer information and potential options for many situations can be offered, the Unit is prohibited from doing the following: Providing legal advice; representing customers in legal actions; forcing or ordering a business to provide a specific resolution and pursuing worthless check cases.
The best way for residents to file a complaint is to submit a complaint form along with any supporting documents; forms are available on the Office’s webpage through the following link: https://www.ocfl.net/FamiliesHealthSocialSvcs/ConsumerFraud.aspx. Other resources on the webpage include additional consumer tips for specific types of fraud, consumer tips on natural disasters, Florida Motor Vehicle repair, identity theft, towing information and a privacy fact sheet. Furthermore, the page features a comprehensive list of local, state and federal websites associated with consumer protection.
The Consumer Fraud Unit has the latest information on scams and fraudulent schemes. To help educate the community, unit investigators are willing to come to meetings or events to educate groups on the latest consumer fraud issues. During these free educational sessions, residents will learn about identity theft, telemarketing fraud, work-at-home schemes, Internet fraud and much more. Orange County’s Consumer Fraud Unit offers the following general tips to help residents avoid falling victim to consumer fraud: Know that work-from-home schemes are almost always scams; avoid “pay today” pressure tactics; get specifics; call the hotel to confirm payment if accommodations are included; ask about refund policies before buying; and read contracts before signing, and when in doubt, have someone you trust review it. “Our goal is to help those who live in or visit Orange County to learn to recognize fraud and avoid becoming victims,” said Consumer Fraud Office Administrator Carlos Morales. “We can provide the information and guidance residents and visitors need and deserve.”
For more information on the Consumer Fraud Office and how you can protect yourself from fraud, residents can go to the webpage previously mentioned, call (407) 836-2490 or email email@example.com.