Originally created 07/01/00

Laws offer consumer benefits



ATLANTA - Georgia consumers will gain protection from paid fund-raisers and prize scams as hundreds of laws take effect today, the first day of the state's fiscal year.

Among the new laws is one helping consumers who buy wheelchairs and other specialized medical equipment. Those purchases no longer will be subject to sales taxes.

Also, it is now illegal for companies that send advertisements informing recipients that they have won a prize to charge money to claim it. Consumer-protection agencies long have criticized attempts to cloak a sales pitch as a giveaway.

New regulations also will kick in governing businesses that solicit donations for charities. For the first time, they will have to register with the state in addition to risk losing their license if they break the law. Also, they will be prohibited from hiring workers with criminal records.

"I think people were shocked at how much was going into the telemarketers' pockets and not into good causes in Georgia," said Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who championed the law and will oversee the fund-raisers.

Another law proposed by Ms. Cox will begin affecting the funeral and cemetery industries today. The law drafted by Ms. Cox, a mortician's daughter, will require cemeteries that sell reserved plots to hold more of their customer's payment in escrow for future maintenance of graves. It also will raise the amount of advanced payments cemeteries put in escrow on the sale of vaults and grave markers.

During debate on the provisions of the law, legislators weakened some of the protections Ms. Cox had recommended. Lawmakers bowed to the pressure of lobbyists, said Robert Pregulman, Atlanta-based director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Southern field office.

Stronger consumer protection legislation is unlikely, he said, until Georgia passes stricter controls on the influence of lobbyists who contribute to political campaigns. The only ethics legislation becoming law this year raises the maximum allowable contributions from a single source.

"I think anything that increases their ability to give more money to the people who are supposed to regulate them is bad because the average person doesn't have that kind of money to give to a candidate," Mr. Pregulman said. "Time and time has shown that those who have the greatest access to the politicians are the ones who get their way."

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.