Consumer Advocacy: Local providers cautiously optimistic about state's enhanced collaboration


PITTSFIELD — Local providers expressed cautious optimism about a state initiative to centralize consumer advocacy services.

On the one hand, Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority officials saw opportunities to beef up advocacy, giving more people more access to state Attorney General resources, in part by enhanced collaboration between state and local players.

On the other, they hoped against centralization as it has come to be understood in the modern era: Synonymous with local cuts and regionalization of services.

Since the state recently announced it would create a new Consumer Advocacy and Response Division (CARD), combining staff and resources of its various consumer protection arms under one umbrella, local consumer protection workers said they have yet to be informed of what any changes may mean for them.

The jury's out, but so far, state communication concerning the matter has not been good.

"I'm sure there's going to be changes, but they haven't told us yet, so we don't know," said Kate Alexander, BCRHA's consumer services mediator. "What they've told us is they're hoping it will give consumers greater access to the AG's office. I'm sure their intentions are good."

She added, "I like that they're telling us we need to take a stronger advocacy role."

Alexander said in the past the state emphasized that mediators like her take a neutral pose on all issues — effective sometimes, limiting in others.

The new emphasis, she said, is not anti-business so much as anti-abuse.

AG Maura Healey explained the creation of CARD in a press release earlier this month.

"This new division will allow our office to better protect people from fraud, unfair business practices, and consumer abuse," Healey said. "We will enhance our approach to direct consumer assistance, expanding our reach across the Commonwealth, and re-doubling our efforts to make sure consumers are armed with the knowledge and information they need to avoid scams and other predatory practices."

The move coincided with National Consumer Protection Week. Alexander informed visitors of the latest on senior scams during a recent event at the Great Barrington Council on Aging.

The AG's office went to the mat on more than 2,600 consumer complaint cases in 2015, winning more than $6 million in relief for complainants.

Automobile purchasing and financing, data security and identity theft, debt collection, foreclosure prevention, retail transactions and utility bills comprise just some of the AG's main areas of consumer protection activity, and where CARD will concentrate its efforts.

BCRHA Executive Director Brad Gordon said he thought CARD represented a "wholistic approach" to consumer advocacy issues, and he's "taking [the AG] at their word" on its aims.

"We're hoping to continue to grow some nascent consumer protection programs, and we're hoping [CARD] is complimentary," Gordon said. "The idea of more comprehensive prevention efforts, counseling and educational program could be very beneficial."

Regarding structure, Gordon said, "In order for people to have meaningful access [to state resources], local programs have to be successful. It's not a zero-sum game — there can be some centralization of resources to Boston or Springfield, but local access remains an extremely important part of providing services for people."

Alexander recounted stories of getting companies to reimburse people for faulty automobiles as an illustration.

Lately, scams involving people impersonating members of the Internal Revenue Service have been recorded all over the county, in addition to other phone and Internet scams.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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