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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

Consumer Advocacy: Fighting the man

By David Henke
Variety Editor
and April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, March 7, 2008

In the post-Enron world, consumers are increasingly skeptical of large corporations. In an environment where corporate executives like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skillings can commit widespread corporate fraud -- an act which, in their case, cost shareholdings and employees billions of dollars when the company went bankrupt -- consumers are certainly justified for feeling a little wary.

Granted, very few, if any St. Olaf students were affected by Enron's collapse, but a larger problem remains: How can we, as future consumers and investors, protect ourselves from large, international corporations? The answer is consumer advocacy. Consumer advocacy occurs when organizations or individuals make an effort to protect the interests of consumers. Advocacy organizations have been around for a very long time. In the early part of the 20th century, many industries operated in near-monopoly conditions. As a result, companies were able to price gouge for poorly made or otherwise sub-standard goods. The earliest consumer advocacy groups publicized poor business practices, resulting in the creation of new government agencies and legislation to curb some activities.

Consumer advocacy is manifested in a number of forms; consumer advocates often organize boycotts of companies, arrange letter campaigns to corporate offices or write to legislative bodies for help. However, this sort of advocacy doesn't always involve large-scale, national or regional movements. Consumer advocacy can also involve more small-scale operations -- like helping people make the best purchases and reviewing products.

Kregg Hurlbert, a Northfield resident and long-time automotive technician and consultant, recognizes the need for consumer protection. For that reason, he is beginning a car repair estimate verification service. Estimate Verification Services, his business, helps car owners whose vehicles are in for repairs by providing an independent, or neutral, assessment of dealership repair estimates.

"As a consumer, there's no real way of verifying parts or labor pricing," Hurlbert said. Hurlbert also noted that car owners who frequently have little technical experience when it comes to their vehicles are vulnerable to overcharging and dishonest business practices.

"Unlike other industries, you have to take your vehicle somewhere to get an estimate, and they're charging you for the estimate. Once you've decided to take your vehicle somewhere, you're committed," Hurlbert said. "They keep raising prices; it's what the market can bear."

Hurlbert had 23 years of experience in the automotive industry -- he started working with vehicles when he got a job changing tires in Apple Valley when he was only 16 years old. He estimates that $150,000 to $250,000 are overspent by consumers every day in the Minneapolis area. That statistic makes him uneasy, and he thinks that many consumers feel the same way.

"Customers drop off their vehicles -- they have no control and they're kind of helpless. They're uncomfortable with it," he said. To help auto owners, Hurlbert began EVS. For $9.95, Hurlbert will conduct an independent estimate verification, which cross-references the customer's complaints to the service shop's diagnostic and repair charts. He looks for discrepancies: unnecessary or inadequate repair work or inflated service charges. Hurlbert can also track a vehicle's repair history to make sure mechanical problems are being properly addressed by service technicians on a long-term scale.

"I'm a neutral party, Hurlbert said. "I'm just making sure that the car is getting taken care of the way it should be and nothing more -- and that consumers are being sold items that they really don't need. I just try to hold them accountable for what they're doing."

Hurlbert began EVS in January but he already has ambitious plans for the service: "I'm hoping to grow to the point where we're covering not only Minnesota, but expanding out." Hurlbert is currently working out of his home, but eventually he wants to create his own call center so that EVS can handle more customers. He also started a membership program; for $39.95 per year, customers can request an unlimited number of estimate verifications for up to two vehicles. Hurlbert will also negotiate directly with dealerships and service technicians on the behalf of EVS members.

Services like EVS can be a helpful boon for college students, who represent a particularly vulnerable demographic. Students and recent graduates often have little experience with the corporate world and are unaware of the potential threat poor business practices represent. Fortunately, consumer advocacy organizations have diversified since their revival in the late 1960s as a result of public health concerns and worries over pollution and nuclear power. These days, you can find advocacy websites for just about every financial decision or dilemma you will ever be faced with. Concerns about mail fraud or identity theft? There are websites to help you prevent these things in the first place and, failing that, clean up the mess they cause.

The majority of consumer advocacy businesses remain devoted to health, insurance and product safety. Advocacy giant Consumers Union has a very large website and publishes Consumer Reports magazine which organizes massive letter-writing campaigns to contact government officials in support of consumer-friendly legislation, public health issues and concerns about the environment. The website also tests products for safety and quality.

Many consumer advocacy groups claim political neutrality. The American Association of Retired Persons, for example, offers health, financial and political information for Americans over 50 years of age. The organization strives to offer balanced information, though they have been criticized for political favoritism.

Other organizations embrace a political platform as a way to further their goals. Websites such as ConsumerAdvocacy.com, a California-based Republican consumer advocacy group, is working towards bringing the rights of consumers to the forefront in party politics.

College students have historically not been targeted actively by consumer groups. But with the rise of students having credit cards, banks and non-profit organizations have taken up the call. Groups such as Consumer Action offer advice to students and others to help maintain healthy credit scores and deal with creditors if the situation is already bad.

There are a lot of resources available to consumers, which is great since individuals usually lack the means to address dishonest business practices. As Ralph Nader has proved through his numerous successful consumer advocacy campaigns, strong organization and collective action can safeguard your rights as member of a capitalist economy.





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