COLUMBIA — As South Carolina’s thousand-year flood in October attacked life, limb and property, those who prey on people during emergencies seem to have largely stayed away.
Or perhaps state residents had become wise to potential scammers.
The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, which mediates consumer complaints against businesses, received 50 complaints from October through December. After eliminating the ones that came from counties that were not affected by the flood, there were only 38 complaints from affected counties in that time period.
“We’ve also been on the lookout for complaints related to the flood and have been surprised at how little have been reported,” said Juliana Harris, communications director for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, on Thursday.
On Oct. 6 the agency issued an alert, warning the public of home repair con artists who show up unsolicited, force residents to pay up front for repairs, and make high-pressure sales pitches.
The agency received 3,903 consumer complaints from Jan. 1, 2015 - Dec. 31, 2015, resulting in consumers’ recovery of $1.1 million in the form of credits, refunds, and adjustments. The No. 1 category in 2015 was vehicle complaints, totaling 16 percent of the complaints the agency received. It was closely followed by utilities complaints at 14 percent, debt collection companies at 10 percent, contractors at 6 percent, and finance companies at 5 percent. The year’s data isn’t very different from the prior year. Although, in 2015, contractors accounted for slightly more than credit-related complaints in the top five categories.
“I don’t think the flood had much to do with the contractor category edging out credit,” said Harris.
Last year the agency updated its Auto Guide for Consumers and issued a joint brochure with tips to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle.
The watchdog agency also took part in a nationwide and cross-border crackdown to protect people when they shop for an automobile. SCDCA issued 78 enforcement letters as a result, addressing 105 violations of state and federal motor vehicle advertising laws. Four fines were issued.
Seven enforcement action letters were sent to businesses across Jasper and Beaufort counties.
“As the economy continues to rebound, more consumers are becoming active in the marketplace, especially purchasing vehicles,” said SCDCA administrator Carri Grube Lybarker.
“As complaint data reflects, providing consumer guidance and ensuring industry compliance with applicable laws related to vehicles is as important as ever.”