Attorneys general are the primary enforcers of consumer laws within their state. Their activities and enforcement actions are of the utmost importance in protecting consumers across the country. They deal with a full range of issues that consumers encounter in the marketplace and at home, including health, safety, and privacy issues. Because consumer protection is uniquely “people law,” it is often the place where individuals have the closest contact with not only the attorney general’s office, but with any governmental entity.
Consumers have come to expect help from their attorney general in a variety of ways including consumer education, mediation of individual consumer complaints, and enforcement activities. Attorneys general also work together and collaborate with other enforcers when appropriate on consumer protection matters.
One important way that attorneys general protect consumers is by equipping consumers to protect themselves through education. Scam artists are experts at separating people from their money and once money is sent, it can be impossible to get it back. To prevent consumers from being scammed, attorneys general:
- Teach consumers the warning signs of scams and frauds so their chances of becoming a victim is greatly reduced.
- Provide information to consumers about their rights in many different areas of commerce, including personal finances, privacy, and travel. Educational information is provided through many different channels, such as speaking engagements with community groups, websites, press releases, public service announcements, mobile offices (where attorney general representatives meet with consumers throughout the jurisdiction), and social media.
- Alert consumers when scams start to become rampant by using social and other media.
Education is key in protecting consumers; it gives them the tools to protect themselves.
Attorney general offices receive consumer complaints regarding disputes consumers have with businesses. Many of the offices provide mediation of those complaints. After a complaint is filed, it is reviewed by an attorney general representative who determines whether:
- The complaint is appropriate for mediation by the office.
- If it should be referred to another governmental entity that may be more suited to assist with the consumer’s complaint.
- Or both depending on the situation.
While mediation can differ depending on the attorney general office, it generally relies on the voluntary cooperation of both the consumer and the business to resolve disputes. The independent neutral mediator acts as a “go between” for the consumer and the business. Disputes can often be resolved as a result of the mediation process, but if the parties do not reach a resolution through mediation, the consumer may choose to hire an attorney, and/or file a private legal action to have a court resolve the dispute.
Attorneys general receive much of their enforcement authority from state consumer laws, most of which give the attorney general primary enforcement responsibility within their state. State consumer laws are very broad in scope and provide protections for the myriad of transactions that consumers across the U.S. enter into every day. They also help to protect the ethical business entities operating within the law from losing business to unscrupulous or even fraudulent competitors.
Depending on the jurisdiction, these state laws broadly prohibit unfair, misleading, unconscionable, and deceptive acts and practices. Most are enforced civilly, but some also have criminal provisions. These laws are typically titled Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Acts (UDAP) or Consumer Protection Acts (CPA) (collectively general consumer laws).
Attorneys general also bring consumer protection actions pursuant to parens patriae authority as well as authority obtained through federal statutes (see below). Literally “father of the country” actions, parens patriae lawsuits are filed on behalf of natural persons, not corporations, who are citizens of the state.
Pursuant to general consumer laws, attorneys general have authority to investigate, settle with, and litigate against those who may be/are in violation of consumer laws on behalf of the state. This can include the authority to:
- Require through a formal notice a violator “cease and desist” from continuing violations.
- Enter into settlements pursuant to state consumer laws without first filing a corresponding complaint with a court.
- Enter into consent judgments, a settlement resolving complaints filed against alleged violators of consumer laws.
Remedies available can include:
- Specific performance
- Monetary civil penalties
- License/permit suspension or revocation
- Consumer restitution
- Attorneys’ fees
Although the attorneys general can seek consumer restitution, the attorney general does not represent and is not legal counsel for the individual consumers.