The Fairfax County Consumer Affairs Office said this week that it is eyeing several businesses for investigation and possible prosecution under the new Virginia Consumer Protection Act that became law July 1.
The new law is "really a major step, we think, in consumer protection," said Fred K. Kramer, director of the office of consumer affairs in Fairfax County. "The county attorney's office is very willing to work with us."
Kramer said that his office will be collecting data on eight to 10 businesses to see if they should be prosecuted under the powers of the new act. Kramer would say little about the specific bunsinesses involved except that "they run the gamut."
One of the significant powers provided by the new law, consumer advocates in Northern Virginia say, will be an improved ability to take to court businesses that are unfair in their dealings with consumers.
The improved access would come from a provision that allows consumer complaints to be prosecuted in civil courts, where the standard of proof is less stringent than in criminal courts. The theory is that county and commonwealth's attorneys who must prosecute the cases will be more willing to do so now.
Under the law, the consumer officers also gain a second-hand subpoena power. This is the law's authorization for the attorney general, the commonwealth's attorney or the attorney for a county or city to go to circuit court and request an order for a business owner to produce information.
"It can be very significant to see how they use (the powers granted under the new law)," said William F. Blocher, president of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. "Power for something like that is not easily given and it's easily taken away," he said.
The first cases likely to come up under the act will probably be practices specifically prohibited by it, including such practices as misrepresenting the source, sponsorship, approval or certification of goods or service or saying that services have been performed or parts installed when they haven't. But Kramer and others are excited about a catch-all phrase included in the act that might be used to move against other shoddy practices. Depending on how the courts react, it could be used to get at "failure to complete work, unnecessary delays and shoddy workmanship," said Kramer.
"One problem has been that those things related to consumer law were all criminal offenses," said Arlington Consumer Affairs director Charles E. Hammond. "People are not willing to say that a businessman is criminal for selling one more auto part than necessary. But those things are now made civil offenses," he said.
"I'm hopeful of using it, but it's going to take more manpower to develop cases to refer to the county or the commonwealth attorney," said Hammond.
Manpower and money are common problems to all of Northern Virginia's consumer affairs offices, at least from the standpoint of people who run them. In part, the problem stems from the fact that the function is viewed, even by some supporters of consumer affairs offices, as optional.
In Prince William County, one member of the Board of Supervisors, arguing that it was time to start cutting county services, recently tried to do away with the office of consumer affairs. That effort failed in 5-2 vote June 28, after a four hour hearing.
Other offices have not been so threatened, but they all feel pinched by budgetary pressures.
In Arlington, Hammond has three investigators besides himself, and no clerical help, compared to a former staff of eight. "I'm the chief cook and bottle-washer and typist," said Hammond. He also has three summer interns. His budget is about $105,000, he said, down from a previous high of $135,000.
In Fairfax, in a large modern office, Kramer oversees a staff of 14 professionals and six clerical people, plus assorted volunteers, where he once had a staff of about 25. His budget, too, is down from a high of $413,387 to about $345,000 in fiscal 1978.
In Alexandria, Judith Chavkin, the director, is the only full-time staff person paid by the city. She has two investigators funded by the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) and is expecting a half-time secretary. She also has two VISTA volunteers, another full-time volunteer, "and then some little kids and a couple of dogs," she said.
The effect of smaller staffs and smaller budgets generally is to limit the ability of the local offices to deal with larger problems in addition to individual complaints. "You can't ignore people who come in," said Chavkin. But Chavkin, like Hammond, said she still finds time to keep an eye on legislation.
For instance, Hammond gives his office credit for an Arlington ordinance that requires home improvement contractors to be licensed if they accept any money before the job is complete.
Fairfax, with the largest staff, is perhaps able to do the most. The office is currently working on a "homebuyer's bill of particulars" - a list, which Kramer hopes real estate agents will make available to customers. It contains pertinent questions a buyer should ask when deciding on a house.
Where individual complaints are concerned, all three offices are generally dependent on the good will of the parties to reach a solution. All three require that the customers first make an effort himself to resolve a complaint by talking to the business.
"We're trying to reestablish communication lines. Communication is the real problem," said Hammond. "We try to get as many facts as we can, not opinion. We reject almost out of hand expressions that so-and-so is a liar or a crook," he said. "That's a visceral reaction," that doesn't help solve the complaint, he said.
Basically, the offices have no powers to force anyone to do anything. They cannot order restitution to a customer who has been bilked or demand that a business cease and desist an unfair practice. In the breach, however, the offices have worked out strategies to make themselves more effective.
Arlington and Fairfax countries have recently turned toward binding arbitration in some consumer cases. If both parties agree to a contract for such arbitration, the results can be enforced through the courts. Arlington has used arbitration in 18 cases.
In Fairfax, Kramer said his office is talking to major businesses about signing forms committing in advance to arbitration in cases where the office finds it an appropriate recourse.
Both Alexandria and Fairfax have used hearings and publicity as a tool, with mixed results. With the cooperation of the Chamber of Commerce, Fairfax recently developed a process for putting businesses on a "uncooperative" merchants list, if the businesses have been targets of frequent complaints and have shown little inclination to help resolve complaints. The process involves a public hearing and airing of complaints.