The official name of the agency I lead is the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, also called VDACS. Agriculture is listed first in our name, but the consumer services section is by no means an afterthought. At VDACS, we take our obligation to consumers very seriously.
The Office of Consumer Affairs is at the forefront of our efforts for consumers, protecting and assisting them in numerous ways. The public is probably most familiar with the opportunity to receive consumer information and advice from OCA’s staff of five experienced telephone counselors via the statewide, toll-free Consumer Protection Hotline. Counselors have offered advice on subjects ranging from auto repair and debt collection to refund policies and catalog sales. Last year almost 45,000 people took advantage of this free service. The numbers for the Hotline are 800.552.9963 throughout the state, and 786.2042 in the Richmond area. The Hotline is staffed from 8:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. during business days.
Another of OCA’s major functions is serving as the clearinghouse for collecting, investigating or referring consumer complaints. In 2007, OCA received 4,278 complaints, most of which concerned electronics, credit, auto repair, home improvement, auto sales, mail order, furniture, retail stores, direct sales and health spas. By the end of May, 2008, OCA had received 1,475 complaints addressing most of the same topics.
Many of the complaints sent to OCA involve a consumer’s dissatisfaction with a business, product or service rather than a violation of law. Whenever possible, OCA offers the dissenting parties the opportunity for dispute resolution such as early neutral case evaluation, conciliation, mediation or arbitration. OCA has access to a professional network of dispute resolution specialists who conduct hearings at ten community mediation centers throughout Virginia. There is no cost to either party and both sides avoid the expense, delay and hassle of going to court. I view it as a solid vote of confidence when 85 percent of participants view OCA’s dispute resolution efforts as a good, impartial mechanism and are satisfied with the process.
OCA also administers regulatory programs in several areas, including charitable solicitations. With more than 18,000 Virginia organizations soliciting contributions and with generous Virginians donating approximately $13 million daily to non-religiously based charities, OCA’s charitable solicitation section has its hands full. Virginia law requires that charities register with OCA. The information charities provide in the registration process lets the public know if the organization is tax-exempt, how much of a contribution will go to the charity’s actual purpose, if the group uses a professional solicitor and if the way donated funds are used matches the donor’s own charitable goals.
At VDACS, OCA is not alone in its efforts to safeguard consumers. The Office of Product and Industry Standards also works hard to protect and serve the public. With gas prices skyrocketing and food prices on the upswing, consumers need to be sure they are getting what they pay for. OPIS weights and measures inspectors are on the case, checking and testing all commercially used weighing and measuring equipment such as liquefied petroleum gas meters, deli scales and supermarket price scanners, as required under the Virginia Weights and Measures Law. OPIS also tests and inspects gasoline dispensers and investigates consumer complaints.
Recently OPIS staff have reported an increase in the number of complaints resulting from faulty anti-drain valves in gasoline pump nozzles. They have been quick to investigate and take action on the situation which occurs when a faulty valve allows fuel to drain from the delivery hose back into the dispensing system. When a consumer purchases fuel, the pump refills the delivery hose first, and the consumer is charged as much as 30 cents before any fuel is actually delivered to the customer’s tank.
OPIS also realized there was a problem looming as gas prices headed toward $4.00 per gallon. Virginia is still home to approximately 1,800 analog display gas pumps which are technically unable to register a price above $3.99 per gallon. To provide a temporary solution while retailers update or retrofit these older pumps, the governor issued an Executive Order to grant a waiver through September 30, 2008 allowing gasoline retailers to use the practice called half-pricing. Stations using half-pricing will register the cost of a half-gallon at the pump but will post an explanation that the total sale price will be double the amount shown on the register head. Other signs or marquees at the station must show the price of a full gallon of gas to avoid confusion.
Although my comments here address many of VDACS’ areas of consumer protection, I have not touched on one that affects every Virginian. Food safety is one of the most prominent consumer protections that VDACS provides. It’s an important story to tell, but because of its scope, I will leave it for another column.
It’s true that in the name Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the word agriculture appears before consumer services. At VDACS we are well aware that not all of us are farmers, but all of us are consumers. So while the Offices of Consumer Affairs and Product and Industry Standards take the lead in consumer protection, be assured that this entire agency takes consumers into consideration as an integral part of the work we do every day.
Todd Haymore is the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.