Down memory lane
The death of a business is dismal for everyone involved, especially if the business began as a dream. Once you've weathered that kind of devastation yourself, it's not possible to watch someone else go through it and remain dispassionate. I should know: in 1989 I launched a business that failed, disastrously, two years later.
So when I heard the story of a UVA professor who was left with a useless $75 gift certificate when a local restaurant closed, I dreaded calling the former owners— especially since I knew they'd had a baby just as the business was going under.
But the phone call, when I steeled myself to make it, wasn't painful; the owners had put money aside to cover outstanding gift certificates, and all I had to do was tell the certificate's owner how to get a refund. But while some consumer dust-ups can be resolved that easily, most can't.
Again, I should know; from September 1996 to July 1999 I was the Fearless Consumer for C-Ville, and now I'm the Fearless Consumer for The Hook. Different paper, same job: to investigate consumer complaints and, where possible, find solutions. Here's an 80-mile-an-hour tour of my first three years as the Fearless Consumer: Sprint was a repeat offender. Local insurance scam artists Joe and Jeannie Selman bilked everyone they could, then landed in the federal pen. A couple of dry cleaners hung their customers out to dry. A dentist skipped town, leaving dozens of customers open-mouthed and enraged
An accountant faxed me a client's private financial information and had to answer to the IRS. Eugene Foster, the brains behind the Jefferson DNA study, saw his computer monitor disappear into a black hole when Clone Land went under— then saw it reappear after I had a heart-to-heart talk with the former owner.
A car dealership committed the moral equivalent of mugging on a Japanese couple, then coughed up a reparations check after I turned a strong light on their hijinks. A long-distance company that targets Chinese had some inscrutable— and very expensive— billing practices, but refused to discuss them with me.
A babysitting agency left a bride and groom scrambling for childcare minutes before their adults-only wedding dinner. Carpet-cleaners stood up a couple after they had cleared three rooms of furniture. Pet storeowners refused to take back the boa constrictor they'd sold a woman who'd really wanted a corn snake, and Domino's Pizza was passive-aggressive to a customer, then surly to me. Carmike Cinemas refused to bend their no-outside-food rule for a throat-cancer patient, almost ruined a child's birthday party, and treated Phantom Menace fans like a chain gang. W.W. Crickenberger and Sons Roofing refused to speak to me, then got their lawyer to write an intimidating letter— which, of course, had the opposite effect. L'Affiche banned me from their premises, Clearview Cleaners had me ejected, and Spencer's 206 made sport of me in an ad: Life as the Fearless Consumer was a thrill a minute.
It was also hectic. I retired the column in order to concentrate on a book I'm writing, but I never stopped missing it. "If you were still the Fearless Consumer," friends and co-workers would say— then go on to describe some intriguing consumer dilemma they'd fallen into. I would sigh and agree that yes, if I were still the Fearless Consumer . . .
Now I am again— and, even better, at this upstart start-up. So tell me about your adventures as a consumer, and I'll investigate and write about them. Ideally, along the way we'll learn such things as how to avoid scams, get the best deal, and assert your rights so that you get results.
And by the way, the customer isn't always right— so if any business owners out there have a story to tell, I want to hear it.
Do you have a consumer problem or concern? E-mail the Fearless Consumer at email@example.com or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.