Should you hire a consumer advocate? 3 questions to ask

Here’s a familiar come-on: If you have an intractable problem with a business, you can “utilize our years of experience fighting fraud” to get a fast refund.

The catch? If these for-hire consumer advocates succeed, you’ll pay them a commission based on the amount of money they recover. Think of them as personal-injury lawyers “light.”

I’m waiting for the inevitable email from a reader, asking me if contacting one of these professional advocates is a good idea.

The answer: maybe.

This particular company — the actual name is unimportant — navigates some waters that are well-known to readers of this feature. They include government grant scams, foreclosure rescue scams, debt-collector scams and timeshare scams.

“We understand that the experience of getting ripped off by a company, whether over the phone, the Internet or in person, can be a traumatizing one,” the company says. “We have been victims, too.”

Here’s why the company’s name doesn’t matter: For the last 20-some years, I’ve seen for-hire advocates come and go. They use more or less the same business model. They pursue the bad guys, for a price.

Should you consider hiring one of these advocates? Here are a few questions to ask before contacting one:

Do I have a strong case?
No two ways about it: As with personal-injury lawyers, for-profit advocates are in it to make money. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that they may go after a business even when the business doesn’t deserve to be gone after. If you care about right and wrong, then this may bother you. It’s a little bit like hiring the best lawyer in order to win at all costs. A for-hire advocate may not care about how strong your case is. It’s more a question of whether the case is winnable.

What’s the commission?
Many of these companies are intentionally vague about the amount of money you’ll have to pay if they’re successful. A thorough search of the company website finds no mention of the commission size. A recent press release, however, brags about it having “passed” the $15 million mark, in terms of money recovered for customers. But how much of that money actually went to the customers?

Can I do it myself for free?
Most customer-service problems can be quickly and easily resolved by going through the proper channels. Most angry consumers try to circumvent the process by calling the company for help, which unfortunately doesn’t create a paper trail. They also forget the basic rules of being your own advocate: being polite, asking for a reasonable resolution, and making sure you’re entitled to a resolution under the terms of a purchase. I repeat this advice almost every day on my consumer advocacy website, and with good reason: It’s easy to forget the basics when you’re mad. But if you don’t, you can resolve almost any problem yourself.

When should you consider hiring an outside advocate? When you’ve tried everything within your power to fix a problem, have a strong case and don’t mind paying for it. Think of it as an intermediary step between DIY and hiring an attorney.

Personally, I think the world needs more consumer advocates, and I don’t mind a little competition. I’d prefer them to work “pro bono,” which literally means, “for the public good” (and not necessarily without compensation). But hiring someone who does this for profit sure beats allowing a company to pocket your money.

Would you pay for the services of a consumer advocate?

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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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  • EdB

    “The answer: maybe.”

    Where’s the “maybe” poll option? *grin*

  • TonyA_says

    Absolutely. Pay up folks. You ain’t entitled to a free lunch. The donate button should be more visible.

  • BillCCC

    I voted yes although I feel that any case I thought was worth paying someone to advocate for me I might be more tempted to hire a lawyer.


    I am a maybe on this one. Chris is right that many problems can be solved by going through the proper channels. I would (and have) followed that rule when I run into problems. I write via email these days and if the company calls I insist that they respond in writing. I am polite and often mention a number of things done well before discussing my problem. I can only remember 2 times in my adult life that writing and discussing a problem has not worked. One time was with a major retailer that for some reason credited my payment to another person’s account even though I paid the bill in person with a check and the account number written on it. (This was in 1980.) Even with copies of cancelled check it took a legal friend to straighten out. And in the over 30 years since that incident I have never again purchased anything from that store. The other, I decided, was not worth the effort after receiving too many form letters.
    Maybe, if the situation called for it, I would hire an advocate, but only after having exhausted all other possibilities.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My concern is that they may be running afoul of state legal licensing requirements by accepting money. If so, I’d be wary of anyone running an illegal operation. We see people preying on poor folks, particularly in the non-English speaking immigrating communities.

    If they are properly licensed and regulated then why not. I’m guessing they’d be a lot cheaper than an attorney

  • MarkKelling

    If it gets to the point I need paid help on an issue, I am using a lawyer. Luckily so far in my life I have not needed to use an advocate or lawyer for anything.

    I am glad there are advocates out there that are willing to help and not charge. There are many issues people encounter daily that can be resolved with just a firm prodding in the right place with the company involved. The advocates know how and when to do this. Should they be compensated for doing this? I’m sure that somewhere something they do covers their expenses.

  • Nikki

    If there is anything, ANYTHING I have learned from the last few years of reading this column and interacting with the regulars – – – it’s to do your own legwork as much as possible for your OWN sake, before getting an advocate involved. I’m told that “knowledge is power”… well, we can’t justify ignorance as long as there is so much information to be had on just about anything. We’re all supposed to be our own best advocate… but then again, some of these letters coming in to this column… *whew*, think I’ll just do my usual and plead the Fifth before drinking it.

    Knowing this – if I have to pay someone to advocate on my behalf, it will be my absolute last resort because that decision will come after not being able to find what I need to know.

    Chris – I’m not knocking what you do… not by a long shot. But you and the regulars here arm us with so much information, that there’s just no excuse why we can’t be our own advocate.

    Agree with TonyA, though… make that donate button more visible!

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What specific areas would a consumer advocate need licensing for? (Other than the general licensing requirements you see many places that apply to all businesses, like the paperwork to do business under the business name, etc.) There’s a fairly narrow window of businesses where special licensing is a legal requirement. For example, it wasn’t until 2011 that the IRS required paid tax preparers to be licensed.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I’m waiting for the inevitable email from a reader, asking me if . . . they can get a refund from one of these for-hire consumer advocates. :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Love the “plead the Fifth before drinking it.” Brightened up *my* day!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It’s a good question. Unless there is a statutory or other regulatory scheme, anyone gives legal advice and counsel or prepare legal documents…is practicing law. That’s generally the stardard since 1927. So anyone involved in representing an aggrieved party, eg contract disputes, injuries, etc, where the aggrieved party seeks compensation or other restoration of legal rights is practicing law. However as a practical matter if the advocate is not being compensated by any of the parties for the advcacy, then no one cares, or if its a matter of public interest, eg Reporters.

    The LA district attorney has a manual on this because scammers pretend to be attorneys or “advocates” purloin millions. Loan modifications is a big example. The state bar forced attorneys out of that field because of the sheer number of scammers.

  • Miami510

    If one has a really solid case, I’d recommend an attorney IF the amount was significant and involved points of law. If the amount is small, I’d go to a small claims court. Knowing whom to call and how to get to a “decision maker,” to resolve a dispute is something at which consumer advocates are clever. The advantage a consumer advocate has is the threat of a wide audience learning about missdeads of a company.

  • emanon256

    I voted no. In my opinion, if someone someone is doing it for pay, they are not there to help the consumer, they are only there to help themselves. I am glad we have people like Chris who have do it for the common good, and have found other ways to make money as a writer/author. I don’t question Chris ethics ever, but I would question the ethics of anyone who charged just to help without even being a licensed attorney.

    If someone has a legitimate grievance where they are truly owed and the company won’t do the right thing, if someone like Chris can’t get them to do it, then go to small claims court and do it yourself or if even bigger higher a lawyer. A real lawyer, hopefully, will tell you whether or not to drop it or peruse it.

    Of course if its a bigger problem, and you live in Miami, you can hire Michael Westen.

  • emanon256

    Good call. I actually hear all the time about people who setup shop as an advocate to help a consumer modify their loan, and all they do is take a bunch of money from the consumer and tell them they couldn’t help them. I have a friend who’s job is to help people modify their mortgages, only he works for a non-profit, and he says so many of the people he helps found the bad people fist. He does not collect one cent from the people ever. The banks pay him voluntarily, and he gets grants and donations.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I see what you’re saying, but that’s an extremely broad interpretation. I’ve never seen anyone else ever suggest that if not for the public interest angle a reporter might be construed as practicing law. If you’re going to paint with that broad a brush, employees couldn’t argue on their employer’s behalf over any dispute and virtually every business consultant would need to be an attorney since knowledge of regulations is typically a large part of what they bring to the table.

    Using Chris’ efforts here as an example, he never gives direct legal advice, offers to file any legal forms, or in any way treads into areas where anyone would become confused and think he’s an attorney. I doubt he’d have any issues at all if he decided to charge for his services.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I tried to talk Chris into requiring a mandatory “tip” with each post, but he wouldn’t do it. Said “Tony’d go broke.” :-)

  • emanon256

    “I’m sure that somewhere something they do covers their expenses.”

    How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler – Pre Order Now:

    Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals – Available now:

    Scammed already helped me once.

  • Jennifer Finger

    I kind of wonder what would happen if someone was scammed by a consumer advocate for pay. Do they go to another one?

  • TonyA_says

    Ha ha. I luv your post :)

  • TonyA_says

    ROFL. That wouldn’t take long.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You misunderstand. Not saying a reporter is practicing law. I’m saying that they have greater privileges. For example, many tv stations have consumer advocates. They don’t charge and they have the authority of the fourth estate.

    At least one recent OP acted as if Chris was his personal attorney.

    Any advocate would be well advised to seek legal counsel if he charged for services to ensure he isn’t criminally label for violating unauthorized practice of law statutes.

  • BMG4ME

    Yes – especially if his name is Chris Elliott!