Consumer Complaint Center Sees Spike in CallsArea Homeowners, Businesses Seek Guidance as They Navigate Storm-Related Disputes and Rebuilding Process
January 8, 2009-Houston-Ever since Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast on Sept. 12, the Texas Consumer Complaint Center at the University of Houston has been inundated by calls from area residents seeking to resolve storm-related disputes.
Most of the 350 complaints logged in October - more than double the number for that month in 2007 - stemmed from landlord-tenant disagreements, tree damage, price gouging and insurance claims, according to Robert B. Johnson, associate director for UH's Center for Consumer Law.
"A lot of people don't know what their rights are," Johnson said. "If you can arm consumers with their rights, more often than not they can resolve the issue without litigation."
The Texas Consumer Complaint Center, founded in 2006 when the state attorney general's office gave the UH Law Center more than $360,000 to support its consumer law program, typically provides assistance to area residents who encounter defective goods or services, debt collectors and/or bankruptcy, and identity theft. But many times callers just need someone to listen.
"Consumers are at a disadvantage," said law student Justin Hayes, who staffs the complaint line. "Sometimes they don't know their rights. They don't know what agency to call."
The students who work at the center for credit or pay do not legally represent the consumers and can't take their complaints to court. But they can advise callers of their legal rights, walk them through the necessary steps and, in some cases, act as an informal mediator between parties.
As a last resort, Hayes said, "We give them a bargaining chip to put in their pocket if they do go to court."
Hayes said some complaints can be resolved in minutes, while others may require a series of back-and-forth phone calls. If all else fails, students will help the consumer find a lawyer.
Helping people level the playing field is its own reward, Hayes said.
In one Ike-related case, Hayes helped a single mother with young children whose broken apartment windows went unfixed for more than two weeks. He advised her to draft a certified letter to the landlord pointing out habitability and safety issues. The broken glass was soon replaced.
Another woman was furious about being "overcharged" for batteries. It turns out, Hayes said, that she previously purchased generic batteries at a dollar store and later purchased name-brand batteries at a major retailer. Hayes listened, pointed out the difference, and listened some more until the caller calmed down.
Johnson said the center didn't ramp up its staffing after the storm, so the seven students have had to go above and beyond to serve callers. The holidays, he said, offered a much-needed respite for his team, but the new year likely will bring a continued need as residents and business owners navigate the rebuilding process.
"There are plenty of great contractors out there, but the most common rebuilding complaint we've received by far is that contractors get started, something changes, and they stop," he said.
Since its founding in 2006 by Associate Dean Richard M. Alderman under the direction of the late John Ventura, the center has dealt with thousands of complaints, some from across the globe, and saved consumers an estimated $1.55 million, according to Johnson.
Consumers in need of assistance should call 877-839-8422 or visit www.texasccc.com.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 36,000 students.