March 6, 2013
Debt issues top list of consumer complaints in Illinois
For the fifth year, consumer debt complaints topped the list of concerns reported to the Illinois attorney general's office, according to a 2012 Top 10 list released Tuesday.
Complaints "ranged from problems with mortgages, debt collection agencies to credit card companies," Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. "Even the most commonplace consumer transactions have become more complex and fraught with risk, and nowhere has that been more obvious than in the mortgage market, where toxic loans have destroyed our economy."
New on the list this year were consumer complaints about schools, including for-profit colleges that have come under increased national and state scrutiny in the past few years for recruitment techniques, falsifying job placement rates and downplaying the ultimate cost of attending.
Madigan's office said it received more than 1,300 school complaints last year, many stemming from its 2012 lawsuit against Westwood College. The suit alleged that students were left with up to $70,000 in debt for degrees that failed to qualify them for careers in fields including criminal justice. It further said students were not given enough information about their loans.
"At a community college they could have gotten an accredited degree for about one-tenth the price," Madigan said.
Westwood College said in a statement Tuesday that it was "proud of our legacy of helping students reach their educational and career goals. We look forward to addressing the Attorney General's claims regarding our criminal justice program in a legal forum where both sides of the evidence can be heard."
Other complaints that ranked in the attorney general's Top 10 dealt with identity theft; telecommunications fraud; construction and home improvement; motor vehicles and used auto sales; sweepstakes and work-at-home scams; consulting and directory fraud against businesses; mail order issues; and nonwarranty repairs on motor vehicles.
Officials from several other agencies Tuesday detailed additional consumer complaints.
Steve Bernas of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois said the No. 1 complaint seen by his office involved work-at-home schemes, accounting for 30 percent of the complaints.
Others that made the local BBB's list included advance-fee brokers promising immediate loans with little or no background check; credit repair services with advance fees; messages congratulating consumers for winning foreign lotteries or other prizes that require payment in advance; office supply telemarketers; debt relief services; pyramid companies; paving; and home improvement by traveling workers.
Tom Brady, inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Chicago division and host of a weekly consumer fraud radio show, warned against foreign sweepstakes schemes, saying Jamaican lottery scams were on the rise this year in the area.
"You should never have to pay for something if you are a winner," he said, "and you can't win a lottery you never entered."
Steven Baker, director of the Midwest Office of the Federal Trade Commission, underscored another common scam in Illinois — the "granny scam," in which the perpetrator calls pretending to be a grandchild stranded in jail in a foreign country and needs bail.
"It's very successful," he said. "We think that they are often armed with information about the names of grandchildren that they found on social media pages or obituaries or public records. So it is a really big problem. One of my neighbors got one of these calls last month."
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