Should you hire a consumer advocate? 3 questions to ask

Lancelee/Shutterstock
Lancelee/Shutterstock
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.
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Government set record for airline fines in 2012 — is that good news for passengers?

vapor trailA more activist Transportation Department, which set a record in 2011 for the number of fines it issued against airlines for violating aviation consumer protection rules, appears to have maintained its momentum this past year.

In 2012, the Department issued 49 fines for consumer rule violations and assessed $3,610,000 in penalties, exceeding the previous record of 47 fines and $3,264,000 in penalties issued in 2011.

Among its most significant actions: policing new rules that require airlines and travel agencies to quote a full fare and disclose baggage fees, and fining the first foreign airline for a tarmac delay.

“Consumers deserve to be treated fairly when they fly,” says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called protecting air travelers’ rights “a high priority.”
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You call this consumer advocacy?

Is it about you -- or them? / Photo by Give away boy - Flickr
Do you ever strike out?” readers of my syndicated newspaper column often ask me. They see my Q&A feature in their travel section, and every week the good guys win.

To which I reply: “All the time.” Just read my site.

Case-in-point is the email I received from Susan Mintz a few days ago. She’d been trying to secure a refund from Continental Airlines after being rushed to the hospital with a cardiac condition before her scheduled flight.

“I need advice please,” she wrote. “I’ve sent all my documentation to Continental and received a request ID on Feb. 15. Its refund policy states 20 business days. We’re way, way past this. I have sent five letters and three faxes. Nothing!”

I get hundreds of emails like this in a week, and I usually try to get to a resolution by asking and short series of questions.

Me: I’m sorry to hear about this. Could you send me some of the correspondence? I’d like to review it.

Mintz: Attached is the original letter.

Me: (After reading the email). Did they agree to a refund? Normally they only issue a ticket credit for these situations.

Mintz: I have only received a “request number” and nothing else since February.

Me: You might want to get United to clarify. Have you tried calling?

Mintz: Are you serious! Of course, I tried calling. Have you read the refund policy? There is no need for clarity. It is very simple. I am entitled to refund.

A ticket credit is acceptable as well. Anything. But my request is being ignored.

I contacted you because your web site states to do such when reaching a dead end. I sent you a copy of my letter asking for advice and you ask if I called them. This is advocacy for travelers?

Ouch.

I tried to explain that Continental (now United) would probably only issue a ticket credit, but that a refund would be unlikely – and yes, I am trying to help.

I haven’t heard back from her.

Something tells me I’m not going to make her holiday card list this year.

My exchange with Mintz is a useful exercise, and it comes at an interesting time.

Earlier this week, I learned that a well-known investigative reporter is working on a story about the “best” consumer advocate in travel. Several commenters who belong to a certain newspaper’s reader panel forwarded the email questionnaire.

My first thought was that ranking consumer advocates makes about as much sense as rating your priest or rabbi.

How can you assign a value to someone who is there to help?

And my second thought was, who cares? I haven’t been a pure-play travel advocate since 2010, although I did help start a nonprofit called the Consumer Travel Alliance, which advocates for travelers (I currently serve as its volunteer ombudsman).

Some of my readers suggested that the results of the survey are a foregone conclusion. They say the writer has a special relationship with one popular advocate for air travelers, and wants to give her a boost by discrediting the competition.

Nonsense, I said. I know this guy’s work – he’s always seemed honest. Besides, if he really cares about helping consumers, he’d understand that having more people advocating for travelers is better than fewer. Or just one.

But the Mintz letter and the leading questionnaire made me wonder: What makes a good consumer advocate?

Mintz probably thinks I’m a fraud.

I think she wanted me to contact United on her behalf immediately and demand a quick payment, even if technically she wasn’t entitled to one. I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t. My United contact will call me and ask if I’m familiar with the airline’s refund rules.

I’ll say “yes.” And then he’ll say he can’t help Mintz.

Should United help her? Absolutely. The passenger was in the hospital. How about a little compassion? But I’m pretty sure I know what United’s final answer will be.

My job isn’t to get customers what they want every time. It’s to get them what they paid for — and indeed, what they deserve.

If Mintz notified United of her hospitalization before her travel date, she’s entitled to a ticket credit. I can help her with that.

If she waited until after her flight, it would be up to the airline to decide what to do, but actually, it’s allowed to keep her money. Those are the rules.

I suspect she waited until after her flight to tell Continental of her condition.

Who’s the real advocate?

Here’s the thing: There’s no bar or certification agency for consumer advocates. Anyone can call themselves one, and a lot of people do.

So what separates a real advocate from a poser?

I think it all comes down to motives. If you’re in it to help consumers, then everything you do will reflect that desire.

You’ll respond immediately when someone asks for help. You’ll work tirelessly at educating buyers. You’ll push for them to get what they paid for. And you’ll have the integrity to tell them when a company is right, and they are asking for too much, which can happen from time to time.

Above all, it’ll always be about the customer – not the advocate.

Posers use consumer advocacy to build their personal brands. Right and wrong don’t really matter as much as the next travel scandal that will score them a soundbite on CNN, helping increase their visibility.

For them, victims of incompetent travel companies are nothing more than props that can be leveraged to raise their profile, so you’ll find these fakes pushing for folks who don’t deserve any advocacy. Like thieves.

For posers, it’s always about them, not you.

That kind of behavior may be a big turn-off to consumers who truly need help, but I think even posers have a place. They may not be able to do much for you, but they often shine a light on some of the more unsavory practices in the travel industry.

(It could be worse: The clueless producers booking them could ask company representatives to offer their spin on the evening news. How enlightening would that be?)

Losing “Miss Consumer Advocacy” 2012

I re-read the reporter’s questions and considered who he’s sending them to. They’re mostly business travelers. You know, the kind on folks you’d encounter on a certain online forum for frequent travelers that I’m fond of criticizing and that shall remain nameless in this post.

And yeah, a lot of these people hate me because I’ve referred to them as entitled elites, criminals, and crybabies in numerous online commentaries. Because some of them are.

Soliciting nominations for “Miss Consumer Advocacy 2012″ is like like asking the College of Cardinals to vote on the one true religion.

My frequent-flying friends will happily denounce me as a heretic. They’ll say I’m in the latter category, that I’m nothing more than a media-savvy poser.

Thanks, guys. I love you, too.

It doesn’t take much to close the loop. Any cub reporter can Google me and find enough dirt for a juicy hit piece. He can track down more unhappy travelers like Mintz, of which I can assure you, there are more than plenty.

If that doesn’t turn up enough, just read my book. Maybe throw in a conflict of interest accusation or two while you’re at it.

Bring it.

When the dust settles from this silly popularity contest, it will be my email exchange with Mintz that troubles me the most.

I think I could have helped her. I’m sorry she wouldn’t let me.

Update (May 7): The story is out. Can’t bring myself to link to it. Just not gonna go there …

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The smarter consumer: 7 qualities of a winning customer

I spend a lot of time harping on customers who screw up. Sometimes I can’t help myself. Not only are the cases interesting, but they’re also instructive.

For example, one reader who will remain nameless recently visited an airline website with a “best fare” guarantee. She assumed she wouldn’t have to shop around, because if she found a cheaper fare elsewhere, she could just invoke the guarantee.

She made her purchase, but later found a better fare. The airline denied her claim.

If you’re wondering why, just check out the fine print on your average “best price” guarantee. They are maddeningly complicated, and ultimately worthless. All you have to do is read them to know why.
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Ridiculous or not? Travel is going to the dogs — and it’s our fault

From the “gotcha” fees that can double the price of your trip to being roughed up by airport screeners, there’s no shortage of issues to get mad about in the travel business.

So why do we allow the little things to set us off?

Case in point: My last article on pets and travel, which set off a firestorm when it appeared here a few weeks ago. I wrote that pets were better off at home and had no business joining you on vacation.

My “in” box promptly filled up with email from angry animal companions – yes, that’s what they call themselves, because it’s apparently species-centric to say that you “own” a cat or dog – criticizing me for my insensitivity.
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Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals

It’s official: I’ve just finished the final edits on my new book, Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.

I just have to tell you about it.

Last summer, a literary agent I’d known for a few years asked me if I had a book in me. I didn’t want to write anything on travel, because I felt there were already several great guides on being a smart traveler.

But how about something about the relationship between consumers and businesses?
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