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FTC -- Friendly to Consumers

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 1997;
Page D05

When your agency is named the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it's a challenge sometimes to convince ordinary consumers that they're a part of the mix in your mission. But recent changes at the FTC are sending that message loud and clear.

The commission's Consumer Response Center, which opened it's doors at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW just last summer, now is handling everyday consumer complaints and problems faster and more efficiently than before. Consumers who telephone the Center (202-326-3128; TTY for hearing impaired 202-326-2502) choose from four options via a recorded menu: speak to a consumer counselor; get credit-related information; find out how to file a consumer complaint; and learn how to receive free FTC brochures on consumer topics.

"The center is open, it's here, and it's covering stuff that used to take weeks and weeks for responses," says Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection who masterminded many of the consumer-friendly innovations at the commission in recent years.

"As well as being increasingly responsive to individual consumers, it's a very helpful data base for us," adds Bernstein, explaining that using the latest technology the Center crunches the data it receives from consumer complaints and calls, enabling it to categorize wide-spread and new problems in the marketplace quickly and recognize trends affecting consumers.

On Monday, the FTC announced the newest source of consumer information and news. The Web site called the U.S. Consumer Gateway, unofficially "consumer dot gov" [http://www.consumer.gov], consolidates into a single cyberaddress the consumer information and online services of five federal agencies -- the FTC, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Web site provides information in several categories: health, home, food, transportation, children, smart buying, product safety, money and education.

"It was a little like negotiating a treaty," Bernstein says of creating the site with the other federal agencies. But now, she adds, consumers looking for answers or help "don't have to know which agency does what; they can just go to this one place."

One last item from the FTC: If you ever wanted to track down the address of the manufacturer of that favorite winter coat, or verify that that mink stole really is mink as its label claims, the commission has now made its Registered Identification Number (RN) databank available to anyone online.

All textile, wool, and fur products are required to have a label identifying the fiber or fur content, the name of the manufacturer, importer, distributor or seller, and the country of origin. U.S. businesses, however, are allowed by federal law to use RN numbers on the label instead of their names. The corporate and content information connected to those RN numbers is frequently requested, but until now it has been cumbersome to provide and keep current.

"This is really a breakthrough," says Bernstein of the 40-year-old system whose data bank has about 100,000 entries. Some of those entries are outdated, some of the businesses have gone out of business or changed their names, adds Bernstein. Yet she believes that going online serves the public, retailers, and businesses wanting to update their listing. The RN look-up service now can be found on the Business Guidance Page at the FTC's Web site [http://www.ftc.gov].

Got a consumer gripe? E-mail the details to oldenburgd@washpost.com or send to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, D.C. 20071.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company



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