A Charlottesville consumer primer

Few things are more thrilling to me than listening to both sides of a dispute between a consumer and a business, then doing the legwork– whether it's showing up unannounced at the business to gauge customer-service skills, studying court records to see if there's a pattern of similar behavior, interviewing experts, or combing the results of a Google search– and finally, in 700 words or less, summarizing the situation for my readers.

If you're at a standstill in a consumer dispute and would like me to get involved, here are my ground rules. (1) I have to have permission to use your name in print; the only exceptions are when there's a threat of legal repercussions or humiliation, or when use of confidential information (e.g., a medical history) is necessary. (2) I reserve the right to publish the results of my investigation. That doesn't mean that every contretemps I look into ends up in the column, just that whether I'll write about your contretemps is up to me.

That also doesn't mean I'm not interested in hearing from you unless you agree to those conditions; I'm always eager to be in contact with readers, no matter what they have to say. Some of my most valuable information has come from consumers who either don't want their stories published or who prefer to remain anonymous and simply pass along information or tips. Also, readers often contact me after a column has run to point out an aspect they feel I overlooked or mishandled.

Finally, don't assume I'm biased against business, because I'm not; I used to own a business– which was a spectacular failure– and I have great respect for anyone who can do that job well. Besides, if there's anything that fascinates me more than a misbehaving merchant, it's a wacky, obnoxious, or dishonest consumer.

My preferred way to hear from readers is via email at fearless@readthehook.com, but you can also write me at 100 Second St. NW, 22901, or call me at 295-8700, ext. 460.

Suggestions for how to handle some common consumer situations follow, culled from my columns (and, in the case of title-washing, a cover story). To read the columns cited, go to our website at readthehook.com, click on "Archives from Previous Issues" and then on the appropriate issue date. The column is usually near the bottom of the table of contents– or you can go to the Fearless Consumer archives, below.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902– or call 295-8700 ext. 406.