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A Better Title for National Consumer Protection Week: National Consumer EMPOWERMENT Week

Posted in Consumer Protection

This week, March 3rd – 9th, is the fifteenth annual National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW).  Yes, it is an important time to spread awareness of common scams and problems that consumers encounter.  But more importantly, it is an opportunity for us to reflect on what exactly “consumer protection” means.

The White House issued a Presidential Proclamation for 2013’s NCPW last Friday.  President Obama offers us one view of what NCPW stands for:

Over 4 years ago, widespread abuses in America’s financial system nearly brought our economy to its knees.  Millions saw their life savings erode, businesses shuttered their doors, and families were devastated by job loss and foreclosure.  This crisis cast a harsh light on the breakdown in oversight that led to an epidemic of irresponsibility, and it highlighted the need for common-sense regulations to protect the vast majority of Americans from the reckless actions of a few.  During National Consumer Protection Week, we remember those lessons, and we recognize that our shared prosperity depends on empowering all Americans to make sound decisions for themselves and their families.

I think the key word here is “empowering.”  When talking about consumer protection it’s easy to get lost in the “protection” part.  Warning people of scams, making sure companies follow certain rules – these are important.  But it’s more important to make sure consumers know that they have the power to make changes (and, of course, to protect themselves).  A single consumer voice might get lost in the shuffle, but when thousands of consumers join voices to protest a particular practice, things change.

It seems many consumer protection organizations are beginning to realize this, and they are encouraging consumers to speak out, to complain.  “Complain” is an unfortunate word choice – it ends up sounding whiney.  “Speak up” or “tell your story,” might be a better way to describe it.  Any way you put it the underlying truth is that future consumers benefit whenever someone speaks up about their experiences.  Ever bought something on Amazon after reading the reviews posted at the bottom of the page?  Consumer complaints are like those reviews – letting other consumers know what to expect and notifying government regulators when there might be a problem.

Aside from general awareness-raising, there are a lot of NCPW activities scheduled across the country.  It is a “coordinated” campaign – which means you have a whole slew of organizations and government agencies that are each supporting the week in their own way.  The NCPW website has a list posted here of all the groups participating – participants range from the “Consumers Union,” to various state Attorney Generals’ offices, to the FBI (who has a webpage addressing white-collar frauds and e-scams).

Many of these organizations have both online tips and in-person events.  For example, Virginia’s Fairfax County is hosting an unclaimed property search and a workshop titled “What You Need To now Before You Hire A Contractor.”  More details about individual workshops in Fairfax County can be found here.

So take a look at the CFPB’s website “Highlighting Your Rights as a Consumer” and find out what you can do – to protect consumers and to EMPOWER consumers.