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Office of Consumer Protection

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the Office of Consumer Protection and what does it do?
  2. What do I do if I have a consumer problem?
  3. What does the OCP do when I file a complaint?
  4. What if the merchant doesn't respond to the Investigator's letter?
  5. What if my complaint is urgent? Do I still have to wait for the merchant to respond to the OCP's letters?
  6. If the OCP's Investigator can't resolve my complaint, what can I do?
  7. Can I use private consumer help organizations?
  8. Can the OCP recommend reliable merchants?
  9. If I'm not satisfied with a purchase, can I stop payment on my check or charge back on my card?
  10. Is it true that you have a right to cancel any contract within three days after you sign it?
  11. If I purchase something that's defective, does the merchant have to replace it or give me money back?
  12. What if I want to return an item that's not defective? Do I have a right to a refund?
  13. If a store says there was a price mistake in an ad, do they still have to sell the advertised item at the advertised price?
  14. What if an advertised item is not in stock?
  15. How do I go about finding a reliable home improvement contractor?
  16. What if a warranty (on a house, a car, an appliance, etc.) expires before an existing defect is repaired?
  17. Does an auto repair shop have to give me a written estimate? What happens if the final bill exceeds the estimate?
  18. If an auto repair shop can't fix my car after repeated attempts, do I have to keep taking it back to them? What can I do?
  19. If I place a deposit on a new car and then change my mind about buying it, can I get my money back?
  20. If an auto dealer is taking a long time to repair my car, do they have to give me a loaner car?
  21. When I have my car repaired, do I have a right to get my old parts back?
  22. Generally, how can I protect myself when I have my car repaired?
  23. What do I do if there is a mistake on my monthly credit card statement?

1. What is the Office of Consumer Protection and what does it do?

The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP), is an agency of the Montgomery County Government. It was created by the County Council in 1971, and was given a number of jobs to do.

  • The OCP enforces the County's laws against unfair and deceptive trade practices. The Office is empowered to investigate such practices, and may issue subpoenas and hold investigative conferences if necessary. If it is determined that a merchant has engaged in a  practice that is deceptive or unconscionable,  The OCP may issue Civil Citation(s). The OCP will seek $500.00 civil fine and an Order for Abatement which may include restitution for the consumer. The OCP may also enter into cease and desist agreements whereby the merchant agrees in writing to stop the practice. Such agreements may also provide for restitution to consumers, civil penalties, and payment of investigative costs. If appropriate, the OCP may transmit cases to the County Attorney for legal action. The County may sue for civil penalties, restitution, injunctions against continued law violations, and any other relief which the Court deems appropriate.
  • The OCP investigates and conciliates individual consumer complaints. The function of the office is in this area is to uncover all facts relevant to the complaint, review the facts to see if the law has been violated, and attempt to work out a voluntary settlement between merchant and consumer. The OCP can't give legal advice or represent a consumer as an attorney would, nor can the OCP order a merchant to settle a case. If a voluntary conciliation can't be reached, the OCP can advise the consumer as to what other remedies may be available.
  • The OCP has jurisdiction to investigate complaints arising out of consumer transactions that take place in Montgomery County. it doesn't matter where you live or where the merchant's place of business is. The key factor is where the transaction occurs.
  • The OCP provides both consumers and merchants with information about its functions and powers. The office prepares publication, provides speakers for community groups, publicizes its enforcement actions, and has staff members on tap at all times to answer telephone inquiries. Public information is an important function, since it helps consumers protect themselves and helps merchants know what the law requires of them.
  • The OCP also administers the County's Domestic Worker Law.

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2. What do I do if I have a consumer problem?

If you are having a consumer problem, the first thing to do is to complain directly to the merchant. Talk to the manager or owner. Be polite but firm. Explain your problem and give the merchant a reasonable chance to resolve it.

If the merchant does not take care of your complaint, call the OCP. If you're not sure you have a legitimate complaint, or if you just want to talk about it, feel free to call between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. weekdays. An Investigator is generally available to talk to you.

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3. What does the OCP do when I file a complaint?

Each written complaint we receive is logged-in and checked to make sure the OCP has jurisdiction. Then, it is assigned to an Investigator who will review the case and contact the merchant.  The consumer's written complaint will be attached to our correspondence, and the merchant will be asked to respond to the complaint. When a response is received, the Investigator will contact the consumer and will take such other steps as may be appropriate to try and resolve the case.

4. What if the merchant doesn't respond to the Investigator's letter?

If no response is received, a second letter is usually sent, requesting a response within specific time period. If there is no response to the second letter, the OCP has the power to issue a subpoena requiring the merchant to appear and provide information on the case.

5. What if my complaint is urgent? Do I still have to wait for the merchant to respond to the OCP's letters?

We realize that some cases are genuine emergencies and the OCP's procedures are flexible enough to handle those. However, there will be times when the OCP will be unable to accommodate some requests due to staffing and time restraints.

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6. If the OCP's Investigator can't resolve my complaint, what can I do?

If the complaint does not involve a violation of law but a matter of dispute facts, the OCP can suggest submitting the dispute to binding arbitration. OCP, in conjunction with the Better Business Bureau, operates an Arbitration program. Under this program, both the merchant and the consumer agree to be bound by the decision of a trained Arbitrator. The Arbitrator is a private citizen who is selected jointly by both merchant and consumer. The two important things to remember about arbitration are:

  • The decision to arbitrate is completely voluntary, and
  • Once you have agreed to arbitration, it is binding.
  • If arbitration isn't the answer, the consumer may want to take legal action. If less than $5000 is involved, a lawsuit can be filed in the Small Claims Division of the District Court. Small Claims Court is relatively informal, and you don't need a lawyer.
  • If more than $5000 is involved, a regular lawsuit must be filed, and for that, you may want to talk to an attorney.  View the District Court's Guide on how to file a small claim at " How to File a Small Claim in the District Court of Maryland."

7. What about private consumer help organizations?

It doesn't hurt to seek help wherever you can get it, and some private organizations can be very effective.

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8. Can the OCP recommend reliable merchants?

As a government agency, we can't recommend one merchant over another.  The OCP staff members are not permitted to give opinions as to how "good" or "bad" particular merchants are. However, the complaints that are filed with the OCP are public records, and we can provide you with the number of complaints filed against a particular merchant, whether the complaint was resolved or unresolved, or if the OCP took legal action. If the consumer wants to review the actual complaints, they can do so by call the office and making an appointment. While the complaint information that we give out can be helpful, you should be aware that it does not take into account all the factors involved in how reliable a merchant is, nor does it take into account the volume of business a merchant does. Accordingly, it should be only one factor in your decision whether to deal with a particular merchant. To make this information more meaningful, it's a good idea to ask about the complaint records of 3 or 4 comparable businesses. This way, you can see where a particular business stands in relation to its competitors. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau and Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine.

9. If I'm not satisfied with a purchase, can I stop payment on my check?

We can't advise you as to whether or not you should stop payment on a check. You may want to consult with an attorney to find out what your rights are. You should be aware that in Maryland it is a criminal offense to write a check with the intention of stopping payment on it.

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10. Is it true that you have a right to cancel any contract within three days after you sign it?

Only if the cancellation is provided in the contract or by a specific law. Generally the three-day "cooling off" period applies only to certain types of contracts. If a contract involves $25.00 or more and is signed at your home or away from the merchant's place of business, you have a right to cancel it within three business days. The merchant is required to give you both oral and written notification of this right. Typical contracts to which this applies include door-to-door sales and home improvements. Recently Maryland law increased the cooling off period for home improvment contracts to five(5) days. 

11. If I purchase something that's defective, does the merchant have to replace it or give me money back?

Not always. Generally, the merchant is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect if possible. If it can't be repaired satisfactorily, you may be entitled to a replacement or refund, depending on the particular facts of your case.

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12. What if I want to return an item that's not defective? Do I have a right to a refund?

No. The merchant is entitled to have any policy he or she wants governing returns and exchanges, but this policy must be disclosed to you at the time of sale, either by a sign in the store or by some notation on the receipt or label.

If no return policy has been disclosed, then you can assume that you can receive a cash refund for a cash purchase, a credit for a charged purchase, or a merchandise credit for the return of a gift.

If you are concerned about the possibility of returning a purchase, be sure to ask about the return policy before you buy and get it in writing.

13. If a store says there was a price mistake in an ad, do they still have to sell the advertised item at the advertised price?

Not necessarily. Mistakes can happen, and advertisements have usually been viewed by the Courts as mere offers to deal, not creating any binding obligation on the part of the merchant. If there has been a mistake, the merchant should take prompt action to correct it, for instance, by placing a correction ad in the newspaper and posting a sign in the store.

However, it often pays to speak up and let the merchant know you're unhappy. Many merchants are sufficiently concerned about customer relations to make an adjustment for a customer who has been inconvenienced because of a mistake.

If a particular merchant makes repeated "mistakes" in advertising, it may be a matter for the OCP to investigate. Too many "mistakes" might add up to a deceptive trade practice.

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14. What if an advertised item is not in stock?

Under Montgomery County law, a merchant is required to have enough of an advertised item to meet reasonably expected public demand. Of course, sometimes demand can be unexpectedly high, and an item will sell out very quickly. If only limited quantities are available, the ad should say so.

15. How do I go about finding a reliable home improvement contractor?

You can never eliminate all the risk but there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. First, check to see if the contractor is licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. All home improvement contractors and salesmen in Maryland are required to be licensed, even for minor jobs. Then get several estimates. Compare proposals and prices. Remember that, in terms of quality of workmanship, the lowest price may not be the best deal. Call the OCP and the Better Business Bureau for complaint records and general information. Get references from the contractors you are considering. Check with previous customers to find out: 1) whether their work was done on time, 2) whether it was satisfactory, and 3) whether the contractor was responsive to the problems and complaints. Finally, when you do choose a contractor, insist on a written, detailed contract. A written contract is required by law, and details, such as brand names, completion dates, etc., may help if problems arise. You can also call the OCP and request a copy of the "Guide to Home Improvements" booklet.

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16. What if a warranty (on a house, a car, an appliance, etc.) expires before an existing defect is repaired?

If the defect has been reported during the warranty period, it's still covered under the warranty even though the warrantor hasn't gotten around to fixing it. To make sure that a defect is on record, it's a good idea to report it in writing (and keep a copy) during the warranty period. That way, the warrantor can't claim that the problem arose after the warranty expired. If you have difficulty getting warranty service performed, call OCP.

17. Does an auto repair shop have to give me a written estimate? What happens if the final bill exceeds the estimate?

Under County law, you are entitled to a written estimate if you ask for one and the repairs will cost more than $25. The repair shop must have a sign posted that advises you of this right. The shop is allowed to charge you for the time spent preparing a written estimate. The final repair bill may not exceed a written or oral estimate by more than 10% without your prior authorization. However, oral estimates are often hard to prove.

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18. If an auto repair shop can't fix my car after repeated attempts, do I have to keep taking it back to them? What can I do?

If possible, you may want to get an independent diagnosis of the problem at another shop. Should you decide to have the problem repaired by someone else, you should know that, in the OCP's experience, repair shops are usually more willing to correct their own mistakes than to pay for someone else to do it. So you may have trouble getting voluntary reimbursement when you take your car elsewhere to be fixed. If you feel that a repair shop has had a more than reasonable opportunity to fix a problem, you may want to call the OCP. We have automotive technical specialists on our staff who can help you find the problem and work with the repair shop to have it fixed.

19. If I place a deposit on a new car and then change my mind about buying it, can I get my money back?

It depends. Some dealers may be willing to refund a deposit if the purchase is cancelled promptly. If the dealer was to arrange for financing, and the financing agreement has not been signed, you have a right to cancel the purchase. However, before agreeing to the purchase, you should discuss this with the dealer. If they agree you can cancel, you need to get such agreement in writing. If you run into problems with this, call the OCP.

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20. If an auto dealer is taking a long time to repair my car, do they have to give me a loaner car?

Maybe. The answer depends on a number of factors. If you experience such a problem, call the OCP for advice.

21. When I have my car repaired, do I have a right to get my old parts back?

Generally yes.  Under Montgomery county law, the repair shop must affirmatively offer you the old parts. If you don't want them, you don't have to take them, but the shop must offer them to you. If a defective part is replaced under warranty, the old part may have to be returned to the manufacturer under a warranty agreement. In such cases, the repair shop does not have to return the old part to you. Also, some parts, such as starters and alternators, often carry what is called a "core charge."   This is a credit the shop receives for returning them to the supplier to be rebuilt. If you want such part, you may have to pay the core charge to get it, but this should be disclosed to you by the shop before the work begins.

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22. Generally, how can I protect myself when I have my car repaired?

Ask for a written estimate. Make sure your old parts are returned to you. Find out the names of the people you deal with at the repair shop, and find out if the technicians are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Insist on a detailed invoice, showing all work done and listing all parts replaced. Save all of your old repair invoices, and keep detailed records of the service your car receives. If you have problems, talk to the manager or owner. Finally, if all else fails, call the OCP.

23. What do I do if there is a mistake on my monthly credit card statement?

The first step is to read the directions on the back of the statement and follow the procedure set out there. If you are unable to get a problem resolved this way, call the OCP and ask to speak to the investigator on duty.

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