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Consumer Beat

Consumers' plaints, droll to grave

Over 12 years, issues ranged from comfort of thongs to threat of identity theft

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / December 23, 2007

My wife says I'm the worst consumer she's ever known, but that didn't stop me from writing the Consumer Beat column for the last 12 years.

It's the one job I've had at the Globe where real people called me all the time. Like inmates at a prison, they all had stories about how they had been wronged. They wanted me to help them by telling their tale. Sometimes their stories checked out. Sometimes they didn't.

The trick for me was separating fact from fiction and finding stories that would resonate with all consumers. Some were irresistible, like the two sisters from Newton who were banned from all Filene's Basement stores for making excessive returns and complaining too much.

Or Paul English of Arlington, who got so fed up dealing with computerized voice systems when he called company customer-service lines that he developed a cheat sheet on how to reach a human. It's now big time at gethuman.com.

Or Alexander Gessen of Falmouth, who persuad ed me to drive to his home twice to hear the story of his Home Depot furnace that spewed soot. (He eventually got a new one.) Or Elizabeth Gould of Winchester, who had a GE refrigerator that kept freezing her vegetables. (She got a new refrigerator, but it hasn't ever worked properly.)

There also are consumers who fight for broader issues, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. They include Edgar Dworsky of Somerville, an expert on consumer law and consumer rights; Colman Herman of Dorchester, who has focused on item pricing and ticket scalping; Byron Blanchard of Lexington, who watch-dogged the funeral home industry; and Stephen D'Amato of Cambridge, who tries to keep insurance companies honest. I've often disagreed with them, but I've always admired their willingness to play the role of David battling corporate Goliaths.

Where consumer activism has changed over the years is at the state level. The attorney general's office and the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation used to perform all their regulatory and licensing functions and still find time to speak out on bread-and-butter consumer issues such as misleading air fares, unfair bank fees, and deceptive advertising.

You don't see that type of consumer advocacy at the state level anymore. State officials still fulfill their important regulatory roles, but they rarely use their positions as bully pulpits anymore. The little stuff, the nitty gritty of consumer advocacy, no longer seems to be a high priority at the state level.

Here are a few other thoughts:

Some laws make no sense. Massachusetts has an antiscalping law that no one enforces. It also has laws setting minimum prices for cigarettes and barring retailers from selling milk below cost, both of which do get enforced. The laws may have made sense when they were passed years ago, but no more. They should be scrapped.

Auto insurance competition is a question mark. After 30 years under a system where regulators set rates for all auto insurers, the state - at the prodding of insurers, not consumers - is moving to a system in which each company will set its own rates. I've covered auto insurance a long time, and I'm still not sure whether competition will be good or bad for consumers. It's a tough thing to measure. My instinct is to say competition will be good, but why would auto insurers push for competition if they thought it would result in lower profits?

Home insurance crisis brewing. The cost of home insurance is rising, and not just for homes close to the ocean. The average statewide premium has jumped 80 percent since 2000, rising from $529 to $954. In coastal areas, the increase has been even greater and insurance options have become much fewer. The Massachusetts Fair Plan, the state's insurer of last resort, now covers more than 40 percent of the homes on the Cape.

No one seems to know what to do. A legislative commission recently completed several months of study on home insurance and was so hopelessly divided that its report ended up being drivel. If history is any guide, the state will muddle along until home insurance becomes a real crisis.

Dr. Ruth, move over. Look at the questions Consumer Beat answered over the years. Were thongs comfortable or just nonstop wedgies? What's up with all the sexual enhancement products at the corner drugstore, everything from lubricants that warm, tingle, and come in sugar-free flavors, to arousal oils, pleasure-enhancing creams and vibrating rings that fit male genitalia? What's the difference between the R version of the movie "Showgirls" and the NC-17 version? The answer: Not much. The movie was terrible either way, but the NC-17 version had five scenes where the female lead, Elizabeth Berkley, wore no clothes. The R version had just two.

Size counts. Product makers have become very skillful at hiding price increases. Instead of just raising the price of their product, they often keep the price the same while reducing the amount of product being sold. Downsizing has worked for such products as laundry detergent, potato chips, tuna fish, and bottled water, but the most glaring example has been ice cream. It used to be sold in half-gallon packages, but now every manufacturer has moved to 1.75-quart packages that look and cost the same as the old half-gallon containers.

Personal privacy is endangered. Four years ago, I bought Mitt Romney's credit report online and also purchased the bank records of an employee of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. It's much tougher to get that kind of information now, but identity theft remains rampant. Can anyone say TJX or Average Joe's?

Death is expensive. My first Consumer Beat column 12 years ago was about the high cost of funerals. Nothing has changed. The fee for a basic cremation at J.S. Waterman & Sons in Boston was $1,100 in 1995. Today, after several name changes precipitated by corporate acquisitions, the funeral home is called the Boston Harborside Home of J.S. Waterman & Sons-Waring-Langone and its price for a basic cremation is more than $4,500.

That's about it. Thanks for reading all these years, and thanks most of all for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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