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Originally published Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 6:38 PM

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Vehicle-related complaints top the nation's list

Car repairs can be a headache, and so can buying a new or used car. In fact, auto-related complaints of all types topped the list of consumer complaints in 2011, the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators said recently. A survey of 38 consumer agencies from across the U.S. highlighted the most common, fastest-growing and worst complaints received.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Car repairs can be a headache, and so can buying a new or used car. In fact, auto-related complaints of all types topped the list of consumer complaints in 2011, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators said recently.

A survey of 38 consumer agencies from across the U.S. highlighted the most common, fastest-growing and worst complaints received.

Susan Grant, CFA's director of consumer protection, said the top five fastest-growing complaints were about fraud, debt-collection abuses, do-not-call violations, mortgage-related problems and home improvement.

Some agencies also noted that scammers are exploiting a new form of payment, prepaid-card products, to get cash from consumers.

Western Union money orders and prepaid cards are difficult to track, and if someone asks to be paid with those, it's a danger sign that they are a scammer.

"No legitimate business is going to ask you to send money to pay for something using a money-transfer service or by physically sending them a prepaid card," Grant said.

Here are the top 10 consumer complaints:

1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes.

2. Credit/Debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt-relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt-collection tactics.

3. Home improvement/construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job.

4. Retail sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.

5. Utilities: Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service.

6. Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform.

7. (Tie) Internet sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practice, failure to deliver online purchases.

Landlord/tenant: Unhealthful or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics.

8. Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, the grandparent scam and other common frauds.

9. Real estate: Timeshare sales and resales, retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, real-estate fraud.

10. (Tie) Household goods: Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances;

Home solicitations: Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations.

What can you do to keep from becoming a victim? Think before you act, and go slowly. Be suspicious.

Here's what the Consumer Federation of America advises:

• Check the track record. Before you buy from unfamiliar companies, check with your state or local consumer agency, the Better Business Bureau, and online complaint forums to see if other people have reported serious problems.

• Hire licensed professionals. When hiring home-improvement contractors or other professionals, ask your state or local consumer agency if they must be licensed or registered and how you can confirm that they are.

• Pay the safest way. When you buy goods or services that will be delivered later, pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if you don't get what you were promised.

• Use gift cards, gift certificates and coupons promptly.

• Don't pay in full upfront. If you are asked for a deposit for home-improvement or other services, pay a small amount, never the full price upfront.

• Recognize the danger signs of fraud. Be suspicious of any requests to wire money; scare tactics or pressure to act immediately; promises that you can borrow, win or make money easily if you pay a fee in advance; unexpected requests for your personal information; and offers to recover money that you've lost to scammers, for a fee.

• Get all promises in writing. Verbal agreements are hard to prove. Carefully read contracts or finance agreements and make sure you understand them before you sign.

• Seek help for financial problems from legitimate sources. To find a consumer credit-counseling service near you, contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, www.nfcc.org or 800-388-2227. For help with mortgage problems, talk to a counselor certified by the U.S. government at 888-995-4673.

• Know your debt-collection rights. Under federal law, you have the right to dispute debts that you don't owe, and many states prohibit action to collect debts after a certain number of years.

When in doubt, check it out. If you're not sure what your rights are or you think that something might be fishy, ask your state or local consumer agency for advice.

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