Government and Citizens

Consumer Protection

State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia

Consumer Protection

Like most Americans, Virginians face growing threats from fraudulent, deceptive, and illegal practices.

Why is This Important?

Consumers are potentially prey to all sorts of risks from the products they buy and the services they use. In response, governments around the world, particularly the developed world, have established a large body of safety standards (truth in advertising, bodily safety, truth in lending, etc.) and punishments (fines, civil actions, etc.) to ensure manufacturers and providers offer products that are safe for consumption and that are in fact what they say they are.

A classic example of consumer protection in action are the rules requiring safety measures in automotive vehicles. Thanks to the post-war explosion in car ownership and the development of the highway system, by 1960 automobile accidents had become the leading cause of death among all Americans under age 44 (with total fatalities nearly three times higher than current rates). Despite resistance from the auto industry, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed in 1966, requiring a number of new safety highway and automobile standards, like front shoulder seat belts. The success of this legislation served as an example for other consumer protection legislation going forward. As a result, Americans now enjoy protections for most of the products they consume.

However, important new problems with consumer fraud and identity theft have surfaced -- mushroomed, in fact -- with the near-universal use of computers and the Internet. It is difficult to compare consumer protection statistics across states, due to the great variation in relevant state laws, definitions, standards of evidence, and record keeping. However, the Consumer Sentinel, a database set up by the Federal Trade Commission, does provide a limited view of consumer protection issues and trends, with a strong focus on fraud perpetrated via the Internet and telemarketing.

How is Virginia Doing?


Consumer Fraud

Rate of Consumer Fraud Complaints. See text for explanation.In 2015 alone, the Consumer Sentinel received over 3.0 million consumer fraud, identity theft, and related complaints, with victims reporting losses of $765 million. Nearly every state in the country saw an increase in consumer fraud complaints in 2015; Virginians reported a total of 54,093 fraud and other cases.

The top fraud categories, regardless of location, were:

  • Debt collection
  • Identity theft
  • Imposter scams
  • Telephone and mobile services
  • Prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries
  • Banks and lenders

Virginia had the 13th highest rate of consumer fraud and other related problems: 645 per 100,000 population, but below the national average of 713. Among peer states, North Carolina (550) had a lower consumer fraud rate than Virginia, while Tennessee (670) and Maryland (749) were higher. Nationally, the lowest rate of fraud and other complaints in 2015 occurred in North Dakota, with 279 complaints per 100,000 population.

Identity Theft

Rate of Identity Theft Complaints. See text for explanation.Virginia had the nation’s 22nd highest identity theft rate in 2015 at 123.3 per 100,000 population. The national average for identity theft was 137.6. Peer state Maryland topped that 183.2, while both North Carolina (106.0) and Tennessee (107.9) were lower than Virginia. Hawaii had the lowest rate of identity theft at 62.6.

In 2015, 10,329 Virginians reported some form of identity theft -- nearly double the amount reported in 2014. The top types of identity theft include:

  • Government documents or benefits fraud
  • Credit card fraud
  • Phone or utilities fraud
  • Bank fraud
  • Loan fraud
  • Employment-related fraud


Physician Disciplinary Actions

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) tracks disciplinary actions taken against doctors -- revocations, surrenders, and probations / restrictions for medical licenses. During 2011 (the most recent year data is available), state medical boards took a total of 6,034 disciplinary actions against doctors nationwide, an increase of 382 actions from 2010.

Rate of Physician Disciplinary Actions, by State. See text for explanation.Data on the number of serious disciplinary actions taken by state medical boards against physicians shows that Virginia's rate in 2011 -- 3.11 per 1,000 doctors -- was 22nd highest in the nation. The national rate was 3.06 per 1,000 physicians. Among peer states, North Carolina was higher (3.56),while Tennessee (2.72) and Maryland (2.91) were lower. South Carolina had the lowest rate of disciplinary actions at 1.33.

Mediation and Enforcement Action

When there is a pattern of deception or other wrongdoing, the attorney general is authorized to take action to stop the illegal conduct, and, where appropriate, seek refunds for affected consumers. The Consumer Protection section of the Attorney General's (AG) Office serves as a central clearinghouse for the receipt, evaluation, investigation, and referral of consumer complaints. Complaints are either handled by the office or referred to the proper local, state, or federal agency with jurisdiction. The section also offers alternative dispute resolution services. 

In 2015, the AG's Office handled 31,900 telephone calls through its consumer hotline, a drop from the 34,790 calls it received in 2014. 4,366 complaints were entered and 3,992 complaints (including those from previous years) were closed. In addition, 743 referrals were made to other agencies which had jurisdiction over the complaint type. The number of complaints has increased in recent years -- in line with the increased number of commercial transactions due to improved economic conditions and the transfer of consumer protection functions to the more prominent Office of Attorney General. (See Data Notes).

The AG's Office also undertook 14 major law enforcement actions in FY 2015 that resulted in financial recoveries totaling $9.5 million. The number and amount of recoveries can vary widely from year to year, depending on specific cases. Many of the largest awards are the result of multi-state protection settlements, such as a $66.5 million settlement in 2012 against the nation's five largest mortgage servicers (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, CitiGroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Ally Financial/GMIC). In that case, charges for mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuses -- brought by joint action of 49 states and the federal government -- were related to the recent subprime mortgage crisis and housing market meltdown.

What Influences Consumer Protection?

The number of consumer complaints nationwide has generally continued to rise since 2008: Fraud complaints rose from 620,832 in 2008 to 1,246,849 in 2015; identity theft complaints went from 314,587 to 490,220 over the same period. Education (particularly with older Americans), legislation, timely warnings and alerts, and effective administrative regulations and law enforcement are all needed if we are to have a meaningful impact on fraud and to better protect consumers of health care and other services.

One hopeful sign is that the rate of increase for fraud complaints has slowed in recent years and actually declined in 2015 from 2014's numbers (although identity theft cases rose to their highest level ever). Serious efforts at improving cyber security overall -- in both the private and public sectors -- can also help reduce certain kinds of common, computer-related fraud and identity theft crimes.

What is the State's Role?

The state fights consumer violations in several ways by:

  • educating residents to recognize scams and establish personal security protections
  • enacting appropriate legislation
  • enforcing regulations, and
  • investigating and prosecuting offenders.

Within Virginia, responsibilities for protecting consumers are largely organized as follows:

  • The Attorney General's Office enforces state and federal consumer laws, handles general consumer complaints, and prosecutes offenders.
  • The Virginia Department of Agriculture's Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs regulates charitable gaming and certain other industries not covered elsewhere.
  • The Department of Health Professions issues licenses and regulates health care practitioners.
  • The Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation licenses more than 40 occupations and professions. They range from architects and contractors to cosmetologists and professional wrestlers.
  • The Department of Labor and Industry and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy enforce worker safety laws and regulations.
Page last modified January 26, 2017
Rate of Identity Theft by State. Rate of Physician Disciplinary Actions by State.

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Sentinel, "Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book” (2008-2015)
www.ftc.gov/sentinel/reports.shtml

Note: In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission expanded the types of consumer complaints that it tracks to include complaints filed about debt collection, credit issues, and financial matters. In addition, state level reporting included a new category, “fraud and other complaints,” which consists of complaints about consumer fraud, financial products, and other complaints alleging misleading and deceptive practices, fake merchandise, and defective products. For these reasons, consumer fraud complaints reported in years previous to 2008 are not directly comparable to those reported as “consumer fraud and other” here.

Attorney General Counseling, Intake and Referral Unit and Consumer Recoveries Statistics
Special Request to Virginia Office of the Attorney General

Notes: In FY2012, complaint clearinghouse, dispute resolution and general consumer protection investigative functions were transferred to the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Section. They had been handled previously by the Office of Consumer Affairs within the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The amount in recoveries reported for any specific year may be adjusted upwards in the future because collection and post-judgment efforts are ongoing.

Federation of State Medical Boards. Summary of Board Actions. library.fsmb.org/fpdc_basummaryarchive.html

Public Citizen. Ranking of State Medical Boards’ Serious Disciplinary Actions: (2008-2011, 2007-2009, 2006-2008, 2005-2007, 2004-2006, 2003-2005, 2002-2004)
www.citizen.org/statemedicalboardsdisciplinaryactions

Public Citizen computes the rate of serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 doctors using 3-year moving averages of state disciplinary rates to smooth out large fluctuations that can be caused by relatively small increases in the number of actions for small states. Information on the number of disciplinary actions is obtained from the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), and data on total medical doctors is obtained from the American Medical Association.

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
Consumer Protection in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is worsening.
State Influence:
significant

National Ranking: Although Virginia saw both fraud and identity theft complaints rise in 2015, the state's rankings actually improved slightly: 37th for fraud and 28th for identity theft. The Commonwealth also had the 22nd highest rate of disciplinary actions taken against physicians for 2011.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

In April 2015, Virginia established the first state-level organization intended to boost the sharing of information related to cybersecurity threats and attacks; the move is in response to both President Obama's call for states to work with the federal government on this type of information-sharing, and to Governor McAuliffe's own Cyber Virginia initiative (pdf).

The Virginia Office of Consumer Services no longer handles most general consumer complaints. These functions have been transferred to the Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General also enforces state and federal consumer protection laws and issues consumer alerts and educational materials designed to increase consumer awareness.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) handles complaints regarding insurance companies, financial institutions, securities and retail franchising, utilities, and telephone companies.

The Department of Health Professions offers a doctor lookup feature that provides background information on certain licensed doctors (of medicine, osteopathy and podiatry) in Virginia, including any paid or pending claims and investigations.

Virginia's Motor Vehicle Dealer Board handles complaints involving automobile dealers.

The Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) enforces standards of professional conduct by investigating reports against licensees, and by ensuring regulated professions are in compliance with state law and regulations. See their Consumer Resources page for more info.

Additional Information

The Federal Trade Commission has helpful guidance for Americans struggling with identity theft issues. The agency also investigates consumer complaints, which users can file online.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau logo

Established largely in response to the mortgage and securities crises of recent years, the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's stated goal is to make markets for certain financial products and services -- mortgages, credit cards, etc. -- oriented toward, and responsive to, the American consumer.

The Better Business Bureau maintains a national database of consumer complaints against businesses that users can research before dealing with a company; the BBB also allows for online complaint filing and actively works to mediate consumer problems with businesses large and small.

For-profit identity theft protection services have mushroomed in recent years. Most offer a range of fraud monitoring and identity recovery services for a monthly fee -- but consumers would be wise to first consult an unbiased source, such as the Consumer Federation of America or Consumer Reports, before contracting for ID theft services.