Do you get what you pay for?
Maybe not, if you live in the District of Columbia and have a consumer complaint.
It's not often that anyone gets a chance to comparison shop among consumer affairs offices in different jurisdictions, but I did.
Last year I had a consumer complaint. I live in--and pay taxes in--the District of Columbia. The business that provoked the complaint was located in Montgomery County.
In February, I had sent a check for $59.10 to a firm called Trails East (now defunct) for equipment rental on a cross-country ski weekend. When I had called Trails East as a result of an item in The Washington Post, I was told to send the money to reserve my place.
The weather turned bad the weekend we were scheduled to go skiing. When I called the firm I was told that the weekend lessons were canceled. I was also told--for the first time--that the company planned to keep $9 as a "deposit" on some future outing. I protested that I wanted my money returned in full and was told--since the check had not yet arrived--that I would probably get the total amount back.
On March 8, I received a check from Trails East, minus the $9. That, in itself, was enough to provoke a complaint, but when the check bounced twice, I was determined to do something.
I called Trails East repeatedly only to get a message that "the staff was in the field." Leaving my number on the answering machine produced no response. On April 8, I called the Montgomery County consumer affairs office to complain.
Investigator John Creel, who answered my call, said that the office had no jurisdiction, since the transaction occurred through the mails rather than in the county. But he offered to send me a form, anyway, in case the office might be able to do something. And he urged me to call the D.C. consumer office.
I called the D.C. office and the D.C. office sent me a form. I filed a complaint with both jurisdictions. Montgomery County received the completed form on April 16.
On the same day, Creel went to work. I was the third person to complain about Trails East. Creel made a field trip to the company's offices, interviewed former employes, contacted the state police, postal authorities and checked the federal bankruptcy court.
As a result of his preliminary investigation, he came up with the name and home telephone number of the owner and the name of his lawyer. I tried contacting the owner in vain.
Meanwhile, I heard nothing from the District.
On June 2, I got a call from Creel asking whether I had succeeded in getting my money back. He had an appointment the next day with the owner of Trails East. On the day of that appointment, he checked one more time to find out if I had received a check, which I hadn't. That day, the owner of Trails East signed an agreement to make refunds to the 13 individuals who had complained by then. In exchange, no civil penalties were assessed against him. It was a case of a business getting overextended, not a case of willful wrongdoing, Creel said.
Shortly thereafter, I got my money.
Still no word from the District.
In all, the Montgomery County office recovered more than $9,000 in the case, with refunds going to Northern Virginia Community College and the State Department's Foreign Affairs Recreation Association, among others.
In the meantime, I heard nothing from the District.
Approximately two weeks ago, more than a year after I sought assistance, I heard from the city where I pay taxes:
"Dear Ms. Hamilton:
This is in response to your complaint filed against Trails East in Rockville, Maryland. In our investigation we were unable to contact the company or the owner."
The investigation apparently did not include calling the consumer office in the jurisdiction where the business was located to find out if that office had any record of Trails East.
"As a result," the letter continued, "we have closed your case against Trails East. If you have any questions regarding this case, please feel free to contact this office between 8:15 a.m-4:45 p.m."
There was no telephone number on the letter.