Some disreputable businesses try anything to make a buck, even lying to their customers and blatantly breaking the law. Such was the case when a man triedand for more than a year succeededin selling magnetic mattress pads here that he told consumers were helpful in alleviating the pain of arthritis and other medical conditions.
Eventually, as many such schemes here do, this one fell into the hands of Jack Zurlini, who oversees consumer-protection efforts for the Washington state attorney generals Spokane office. He and the rest of the staff there work to seek out and bring justice to deceptive business practices for the sake of honest businesses, victimized consumers, and would-be victims.
Within the entire attorney generals Spokane office, located at 1116 W. Riverside, there are 26 attorneys and about 40 full-time-equivalent support staff workers. The consumer-protection division of the Spokane office, however, includes just one attorney, Zurlini, and a support staff consisting of a paralegal, an investigator, a legal assistant and volunteer law clerks.
The division is responsible for enforcing the states Consumer Protection Act east of the Cascades, and despite the Spokane units fairly small size, it probably does about 10 to 15 investigations per year in Spokane, and files between six and 10 court actions.
The division works closely with the offices consumer resource center, which fields 1,300 phone calls a month and up to 200 written complaints. Its one of six centers in the state. Consumers can call the center to file a complaint or inquire about a business. Spokanes center handles calls from most of Eastern Washington.
Were a great referral source for people, says Kathleen Kostelec, supervisor of the Spokane consumer resource center.
The center is staffed by Kostelec, a supervisor, an assistant, three volunteers, and three work-study students.
Together with the center, the consumer-protection division works to ensure a fair marketplace so commerce is free of fraudulent activity, Zurlini says. If a complaint about a business is substantiated, the division contacts that business and tries to guide it into compliance. Using its powers under the Consumer Protection Act, the division can send out civil investigative demands to determine whether a violation has taken place. Once that process has been completed, assuming violations of state law are found, either a settlement is reached or litigation is started in state or federal court. Zurlini says, however, that about 60 percent of the cases are worked out with open communication, and without litigation. Instead, the business in question usually pays for attorneys fees incurred during the investigation or makes restitution to its customers or both.
Zurlini, who stepped into his position just over a year ago, says he deals with everything from advertisements and telemarketers to medical devicesanything thats being sold.
Im just really enjoying this job, Zurlini says. I look forward to coming to work.
One of the more interesting cases that has come through the Spokane division office was the company that sold magnetic mattress pads for $1,000, claiming the magnetism in the pads would help ease the pain of arthritis and other medical conditions. Zurlini says in the 18 months the business operated, it earned about $6 million in sales.
A lot of people lost a lot of money, Zurlini says, as the magnetic pad had absolutely no health benefits.
Eventually, the attorney generals office settled with the business owner. The owner paid less than half of the divisions attorney fees and was required to pay some restitution. The owner is now in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, however, so some of the victims may never get any money back, Zurlini says.
He says businesses that pull off scams oftentimes use the same sales techniques. For instance, theyre not clear on what exactly a product is or how it works. They also usually offer a money-back guarantee, he says.
A more successful resolution in the case of a questionable business came just a few weeks ago, involving DSI Financial Inc., a Florida-based company that runs a call center in Spokane and has a Spokane-based affiliate company. Zurlini says the business was claiming it could save people $2,500 over the life of their debt. But when only making minimum payments, that life could last 20 to 40 years. The business is now in compliance after recently settling with the attorney generals office and agreeing to provide refunds to unhappy customers.
Thats an outstanding relief, Zurlini says.
The office currently is working on a case with Senior Asset Preservation Services Inc., a company that allegedly targeted senior citizens to sell insurance and financial products, living trusts, and estate-planning documents in a manner that the division contends was unfair and deceptive. Zurlini says the case now is being heard in Spokane County Superior Court. Although the company is based in Spokane, there may be victims all over Washington, he asserts.
Other cases have involved vacuum cleaner sales that targeted the elderly with high-pressure sales tactics, and security system sales.
Kostelec says the consumer resource center receives calls from senior citizens confused about contest offers.
One way the office is trying to curtail these practices is by educating the public. The attorney generals office, along with the AARP, Better Business Bureau, Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Federal Trade Commission, and other state and federal agencies, has created an outreach program called Fraud Fighters.
The group is trying to make Washington the toughest state in which to pull off a business scam, Zurlini says. The group holds seminars around the state to educate people about scams. People learn how to recognize scams and how to avoid them.
Kostelec says the effort has been very successful. So far, 700 people in Spokane and about 3,000 statewide have been trained.
Enacted in 1961, the Consumer Protection Act complements the body of federal law governing restraint of trade, unfair competition, and unfair, deceptive, and fraudulent acts or practices to protect the public and foster fair and honest competition, says the Revised Code of Washington.
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