7 lessons consumers learned in 2011

2011 was quite a year, wasn’t it?

As the economy struggled to recover from the Great Recession, consumers felt as if they had great big targets painted on their backs whenever they went to the store. That frustration led to the “Occupy” protests that took root in many American cities this fall.

What did we learn from 2011 and what does it mean for this year?

You’re not paranoid; they are coming for you.
When you’re down, unscrupulous businesses see an opportunity to enrich themselves. In March, the Federal Trade Commission stepped up efforts against scammers who promised jobs and “be your own boss” schemes to Americans who were looking for something – anything – to get them through their economic malaise. “Operation Empty Promises” resulted in 90 enforcement actions in 10 states, which represented a good start. More scammers are still out there though, so beware!

Protests bring your problems into focus, but …
The Occupy Wall Street protests that erupted in 2011 certainly brought the problems of ordinary consumers into sharp focus. As a consumer advocate, I have some sympathy for both the protesters and their cause, but consumers’ problems remain. Maybe now that they are in plain view, we can do something about those issues.

Your identity is your most valuable asset.
ID theft ran rampant in 2011, with new horror stories of phishing, hacking and other cyber-mischief hitting my “in” box at predictable intervals. It was such a problem that fellow journalists, who ought to know better, were having their identities stolen. If I were a betting man, I’d say it will be the most complained about category of the year over at the FTC. (It was last year, so it’s a safe bet.) The takeaway? Other than to protect your password, it’s that your identity is valuable to the bad guys, so safeguard it.

You’re best at protecting yourself.
If you followed the disastrous demotion and subsequent politicization of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – or any other consumer legislation, for that matter – then you may be forgiven for thinking that the government is unwilling or unable to protect you from a predatory company. That’s partially correct. Although the government can help, the best defense is to be an informed consumer (that would be you). Your elected representatives can only do so much.

No matter how bad you think you’ve got it, someone’s got it worse.
Just look at Europe, which spent most of 2011 on the brink of an economic meltdown. There are lessons to be learned from their mistakes, the most important of which is: Don’t spend what you don’t have.

You hold all the cards.
That’s the hopeful conclusion of my book on scams, which I spent most of 2011 writing. It was the happy ending for the entire year, too, as retail spending surged. Consumers have the power to change the direction of a business, and even the economy, through their spending. They don’t have to be victims and neither do you.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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