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YOU OWE IT TO YOURSELF TO BE AN ACTIVIST CONSUMER

If you haven't paused to review your consumer habits for awhile, there's no time like the present -- Oct. 25-31, National Consumers Week.

View it as a once-a-year invitation to stop and consider how vigilant you've been in protecting yourself and your pocketbook from poor customer service, shoddy products and scam attempts.

For most of us, it's the little stuff that has tainted our transactions over the past year -- the entree that arrived stone cold at our restaurant table; the grocery item that was supposed to be on sale, but wasn't; the coat that came back from the dry cleaner missing two buttons, or the home computer you bought that was missing a cable.

While these are far from punishable offenses on the part of the store or shop, they are the bread and butter issues of our lives as consumers. If you failed to speak up, and (politely) complain, you reinforced the wrong and left the door open for a repeat performance.

Unfortunately, some of us faced worse problems. We were "phone slammed" by an unauthorized long-distance company, ripped off by unscrupulous home-improvement contractors or fell prey to a telemarketing scam because the deal sounded so good.

And, again, too many of us suffered in silence. We were too embarrassed to tell our family, friends or the authorities we'd been taken. We felt powerless to take action against the bad guys.

Timothy S. Carey, chairman and executive director of the state Consumer Protection Board, said his office is attempting to make it easier for New York residents to know their consumer rights and to know what to do when a transaction goes sour.

One of its newest tools is an Internet website (www.consumer.state.ny.us) that serves as a comprehensive source of information on a wide range of consumer issues, as well as a conduit to dozens of other consumer websites.

"We're really excited about the website," Carey said. "It's been up for a year now and has been continually expanded. Not only can consumers get information, they can file complaints online."

A recent visit to the award-winning website resulted in a mother lode of consumer information. One section contained updates on legislative and prosecutorial action on a variety of scams. Details of a prepaid phone card rip-off and a pyramid marketing scheme provided inside glimpses of these sophisticated deceptions.

Another click produced a long list of product recalls, complete with model numbers and manufacturer phone numbers and addresses.

Yet another click resulted in a laundry list of consumer-interest websites designed to save users the hassle of searching for Internet addresses for dozens of agencies, utilities and businesses located around the country.

The diverse list includes: the state Public Service Commission, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., Consumer Fraud Alert Network and Bank Rate Monitor.

Another super feature is the ability to download consumer brochures (a free installation of Adobe Acrobat is offered for PC users who don't have compatible software).

It is also possible to file a complaint online, by filling out an on-screen form. There is also the option of downloading and printing out a form, for later mailing.

"The idea is to make it easy and simple for consumers to get the information," Carey said, noting that consumers who don't have a PC and Internet connection at home or work can tap into the information source at public libraries or community centers.

Carey said that while consumers of the 1990s aren't the consumer activists of the 1970s, they are far from pushovers.

"One of the reasons consumerism is perceived to be dormant is that in excess of 90 percent of legitimate complaints are being settled," he said. "That's a very positive development. It shows that businesses feel consumer pressure to do the right thing, without having to go to arbitration or go to court."

The state consumer board also is taking steps to make sure that up-and-coming consumers have the "smarts" to make wise marketplace decisions. The board recently unveiled plans to participate in a new educational venture called the "LifeSmarts" program.

Through the program, high school students from around the state will be offered consumer education curriculum through schools, clubs and community organizations. They'll be introduced to such consumer issues as product safety, banking, warranties, contracts and consumer rights.

Teams of students then will face off against each other to test their consumer knowledge for an opportunity to represent New York State at a national LifeSmarts competition.

"Teens spend billions of dollars a year in stores and malls, making them a considerable consumer force," Carey said. "It makes sense to offer them the tools to be the best consumers they can be."

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