Pandemic fueled a spike in DC consumer complaints in 2020

While COVID-19 cases surged in the city, the consumer protection division at D.C.’s attorney general’s office saw a surge in complaints from consumers.

The office said in its Consumer Complaint Report for 2020 that it saw 2,264 complaints come in — an increase of more than 700 complaints over 2019.

“Everyone felt the surge of consumer complaints,” said Ben Wiseman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection at the DC’s attorney general’s office.

A majority of the emails, online submissions and letters from unhappy customers of businesses came in right after an emergency was declared in the nation’s capital, with April seeing the most complaints of any month.

“What we found is that the surge was really driven by consumers feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis,” Wiseman said.

Most were from people who realized a business made the decision to continue to charge them for goods and services while public health officials told them to stay at home.

Complaints against gyms, ticket sellers and travel companies topped the list for billing and cancellation complaints. Wiseman said there were even complaints from people with parking contracts in the city.

“We worked with businesses and consumers to try and reach resolutions with those consumers, to try and get some of their money back, try to cancel memberships,” Wiseman said.

A lawsuit against Washington Sports Clubs was among the actions against businesses, after Attorney General Karl Racine accused its parent company of refusing to freeze memberships and process customer cancellations.

During the first two months of the pandemic, the consumer protection division also received an average of 17 price-gouging complaints a week. Most of those complaints came from Wards 2, 4 and 6, with Ward 2 seeing the most price-gouging complaints.

The attorney general’s office said that in cases where inflated prices were verified, cease-and-desist orders were sent to offending businesses. Two price-gouging lawsuits were also filed: One against a gas retailer accused of overcharging drivers; the other against a retailer in Ward 7 accused of marking up Clorox Bleach prices by 200%.

“What we saw is the price gouging complaints really tracked throughout the entire city,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman said the price gouging complaints fell dramatically by the end of the summer.

“We think that our enforcement effort and the task force work played a role in hopefully reducing the incidence of price gouging throughout the city,” Wiseman said.

The attorney general’s office credits its mediation program for helping to recover around $412,500 for consumers by helping them work through disputes with retailers.

Wiseman said the pandemic was challenging for consumers and businesses, but he said he’s proud of the mediation program’s ability to help resolve many of the cases.

“We had a really good working relationship with the businesses community, where we were able to work out resolutions, to make sure that consumers were made whole, understanding the impact on businesses as well,” Wiseman said.

To report scams, fraud, or unfair business practices, contact OAG’s Office of Consumer Protection:

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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