ANNUAL MANUAL- TOUGH CUSTOMER- Got complaint? Call me, and I'll do my best

Consumer disputes are rarely cut and dried. 

Indeed, even after more than a year on this beat, I'm still surprised at the extent to which consumer disputes spring from simple miscommunications.

For example, back in May, Charles Marsh was angry with Eljo's, a local retailer, because of rapid deterioration of an expensive pair of shoes he purchased there after he had worn them only twice. The manufacturer, the Alden Shoe Company in Massachusetts, refused to fix them, claiming the problem stemmed from Marsh's gait, not a defect in the shoes. 

Eljo's owner, Trent Thurston, also claimed Marsh had a peculiar way of walking which caused the excessive wear, but he nonetheless offered to have the shoes repaired at Eljo's expense.

Marsh's recollection, however, was different. While he recalled Alden and Eljo's both telling him that his stride was to blame for the shoes' condition, he apparently did not realize Eljo's had offered to pay for the repair. 

Given the amount Marsh paid for the shoes, this misunderstanding set off a bitter conflict.

Another common thread among consumer complaints I hear is a lack of knowledge that leaves consumers vulnerable to scams and dangerously liable to make poor decisions. I've written quite a few columns trying to educate readers about such nefarious issues as predatory lending and the ubiquitous e-mail ploys known as "Nigerian 419 scams," as well as about such savvy consumer issues as medical discount plans and the upcoming transition to digital television.

And then there are some consumer problems almost defy common sense. Several recent columns concerned companies whose business practices seem to represent the triumph of process and procedure over consumer-comforting. Sometimes, the threat of adverse publicity– even in a small city like this one– gives these companies a chance to reconsider their positions. 

For example, when DirecTV charged Charlottesville's Shari Rood a $300 early disconnect charge for canceling her satellite television service– despite the fact that she had been a customer for many years– the company's customer service refused several times to cancel the fee.

After I sent the company's public relations department an email asking about the case, however, DirecTV resolved the matter in her favor quickly and completely.

Another case that used a lot of ink this year had a different result. Judy Adams broke her back in a car accident while on vacation in France, and despite her contention that she was medically ordered to remain flat on her back due to her injury, the University of Virginia health insurance plan refused to reimburse her the hefty costs she incurred in traveling home, and despite a significant amount of evidence that Adams was ordered to travel on her back, UVA stuck to its guns.

I'm thankful to everyone who gets in touch with me to discuss a problem. In many cases, my column is unfortunately too late to help people who are the targets of scams, schemes, and all-out poor business practices, but I've come to respect the courage of people who are willing to lend their names and stories to cautionary tales to help save others from similar consequences.

These situations invariably create feelings of frustration and powerlessness, and I've found that irrespective of whether my coverage ends up helping them, many of the people who contact me are grateful that someone will listen and take up their cause.

Not all, however. Charles Marsh, for one, was quite unhappy with my coverage of his dispute with Eljo's. I, of course, thought my coverage of his situation was fair, but my column, he wrote the Hook's editor after my story appeared, should more aptly be named "Tough on the Customer."

You can't please everyone. But if not here, where does an aggrieved consumer columnist go to complain?

Editor's note: Got a consumer complaint? E-mail the Tough Customer at