A guide to Maryland's consumer protection laws has been published by the Consumer Protection Division of the state attorney general's office. The booklet details consumer rights and responsibilities when shopping for auto repairs, home improvements and by mail, among other topics, and in landlord-tenant disputes and home purchases. The following article is taken from the guide and is the first of several excerpts The Maryland Weekly will publish.

The Consumer Protection Division is headed by an assistant attorney general and has several other assistant attorneys general working in it. It also has a staff of investigators and a Complaint Handling Unit. The lawyers in the division cannot act as personal attorneys for you, but they'll do all they can to help you individually and go to court on behalf of a group of consumers if the division discovers through the investigation of complaints that many people have been the victims of unlawful trade practices. In the past two years the division has handled over 100,000 questions and complaints from consumers and recovered over $1 million in refunds for them. The division handles cases involving businesses that have been unfair or deceptive when dealing with consumers.

Over the past 12 years the General Assembly has passed laws dealing with automobile repair shops, credit card issuers, door-to-door sales, landlord-tenant agreements, deceptive advertising, unit pricing, merchandise mailed to consumers who didn't order it, sales promotions, consumer debt collection, home appliance repair and telephone solicitations. The Consumer Protection Division handles cases involving all these laws.

The division does not enforce laws dealing with the services offered by accountants, architects, engineers, lawyers, veterinarians, insurance companies or brokers, land surveyors, real estate brokers, optometrists, podiatrists, physical therapists, physicians or dentists. Except for the legal profession, which has an Attorney Grievance Commission, the work of these professionals is regulated by licensing boards in the State Health Department and the State Office of Licensing and Regulation.

The attorney general's Consumer Protection Division has offices in Baltimore, College Park, Hagerstown and Salisbury. The College Park office is located at 5112 Berwyn Rd., College Park, Md. 20740. The phone number is 474-3500; TTY for the deaf, 565-0451.

Although the Consumer Protection Division covers the entire state, some counties have their own consumer protection offices with their own directors. These offices are not operated by the attorney general.

Montgomery County's consumer protection office is at 611 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. 20852, 279-1776. The Prince George's County office is located in the County Administration Building, Room 1142, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772, 952-4700.

The Consumer Protection Division can investigate complaints it receives from consumers, but it can also conduct its own investigations. The division cooperates with state licensing agencies to seek license suspension in the cases of merchants who refuse to stop engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices.

Through the courts, the division can ask for fines against merchants and ensure that money owed to consumers is returned if a violation has occurred. The division has the power, after holding public hearings, to make rules and regulations. However, any consumer, consumer group or trade association has the right to challenge proposed rules.

The Consumer Protection Division suggests that consumers first try to resolve complaints directly with the merchants before appealing to the state agency, and proposes that you follow these steps:

* Contact the merchant and explain your problem. If the merchant can't or won't help you, ask to speak to a supervisor, if there is one.

* If a phone call or personal visit does not resolve your problem, send a certified letter to the merchant outlining your complaint. A person who receives a certified letter must sign a card, which then is mailed back to you, proving that the person received the letter.

* Do not send original copies of your receipt to the merchant or business. You can make copies on a copying machine available in most post offices and libraries.

* Keep copies of all your receipts and make notes about any phone calls between you and the merchant. You want a written record should you end up sending a complaint to the division or taking some action.

* Give the company or store a reasonable amount of time to respond to your problem. About two weeks would be reasonable in most instances, although some problems might require more immediate action. Disputes with out-of-state companies might take a little longer.

If, after following these steps, you still can't reach an agreement with the merchant, you may wish to contact the Consumer Protection Division.

The division has three basic ways of dealing with consumer complaints: mediation, arbitration and litigation, or going to court.

The division will contact the business by letter or phone and attempt to work out an agreement between you and the merchant. This mediation may take several weeks. In most instances, the division cannot get you money for time lost from work or for any inconvenience you may have suffered. It can only help you get back money owed you or help to see that some service or repair work is performed properly.

Sometimes, even when the complaint handler tries very hard, the problem cannot be resolved by mediation. If both you and the company agree, the case can be referred to the Arbitration Unit.

Arbitration is a free service offered by the Consumer Protection Division and over 500 cases have been handled by its Arbitration Unit. Both the consumer and merchant must agree to an arbitration hearing and the decision of the hearing officer is binding on both parties, no matter what the outcome.

At an arbitration hearing, both parties get to give their side of the dispute. The arbitrator hears the facts and then sends a written decision to both parties in about 30 days. Through an ongoing recruitment process by the division, many Maryland companies have agreed in advance to use the division's arbitration service in the case of a dispute.

If the division finds that your complaint is like many others, indicating a widespread and illegal practice that affects a large number of consumers, it may decide to investigate it further and go to court against the company or merchant. If your complaint becomes part of a major case, one of the division's investigators or attorneys will be in touch with you. Although court cases often are time-consuming the division makes every effort to get money back for you and all other consumers who have been injured.

If you don't wish to arbitrate, and the division is unable to go to court, you may want to sue the business or company on your own. The division's attorneys cannot act as your personal lawyer. If you decide to sue, there are several ways to go about it.

If a consumer dispute concerns $1,000 or less, you can file a claim in the small claims division of the District Court in the county or city where the business is located. Small claims courts are listed in the phone book under "Maryland State Government Court--District Courts."

There are no juries in these courts, only judges, and the legal procedures are less formal, so it is possible to represent yourself without a lawyer. However, if your problem concerns more than $1,000 and is very complicated, you may want to seek legal help. If you qualify, you may consult with the Legal Aid Bureau. If not, contact the Lawyer Referral Service sponsored in your area by the Maryland State Bar Association.

Copies of the Maryland Consumer Protection Guide can be obtained from the division's Baltimore office, 26 S. Calvert St., Baltimore, 21202. Phone 659-4300; TTY for the deaf, 383-7555. The guide is free to individuals and costs 65 cents each for orders of 10 or more.