Consumer protection laws are government regulations, both state and federal, that protect consumers from fraud or abuse by salespersons, shopkeepers, or manufacturers. The purpose of consumer protection laws is to ensure that information about a product is truthfully disclosed to consumers.
In general, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is the foremost regulatory body that enforces consumer protection laws, and ensures that anyone who violates these laws are penalized. Importantly, at the state level, consumer protection laws vary. While each state has laws prohibiting deceptive practices, depending on the state you live in, consumer protection laws may include additional protections for consumers.
What Is Consumer Fraud?
Consumer fraud is a subsection of consumer protection laws that refers to a specific type of criminal fraud in which the victim is a consumer, and the perpetrator is either a seller or advertiser of merchandise. Generally speaking, as long as the fraudulent scheme or act involves some type of services or goods, it is considered to be consumer fraud.
Examples of a few of the most common consumer fraud scams include:
- Sellers not providing adequate merchandise, such as a car dealer selling lemon cars;
- Sending merchandise to people without their knowledge, and then attempting to force them to pay for it by threatening legal action or to ruin their credit ratings;
- Sweepstakes and lotteries in the form of offering a prize if the targeted individual pays a “fee,” and then failing to deliver the prize; and
- Charities pretending to be working for a good cause, and asking an individual for a donation.
Examples of specific types of consumer fraud include:
- False Advertising: This is a fraudulent scheme that involves intentionally misleading a consumer about some aspect of a product. The misleading factor must then be instrumental in the consumer’s decision to buy the product;
- Bait and Switch: This is a fraudulent scheme that involves luring the consumer in with an unbeatable deal that is no longer available. Afterwards, only different products are offered; and
- Pyramid Schemes: This is a fraudulent scheme that involves any sort of promotion or unrealistic return, when the only money made is the return on the funds of people newly recruited to the system. Pyramid schemes are also commonly referred to as multi level marketing, or “MLM.”
What Are Gifts in the Mail?
In simple terms, a gift in the mail is a product that is delivered to an individual’s home or addressed to an individual’s place of business that they did not pay for. Although it is relatively common to receive products via mail to one’s home, there are situations that arise when an individual receives something in the mail that they never actually ordered.
For example, an individual can receive a package containing various different gardening seeds along with an advertising brochure for the manufacturer of those seeds with information on how to purchase additional products. Another example is a package being delivered to the wrong person or address.
For packages that are delivered to the wrong address, the receiving party can often resolve the issue by leaving a note with the mail carrier, returning the package to their local post office, contacting the delivery service, or contacting the company that sent the package directly and informing them that the package arrived at the wrong address.
However, there are situations in which a package may be properly addressed to a person’s home, and that person may find something inside that they wish to keep. In these cases, the individual may ask themselves whether or not they can just keep the package that was addressed to them.
What Should an Individual Do if They Receive a Package They Did Not Order?
If you have received an item in the mail that you did not order, the first thing that you should understand is that you do not need to pay for it. As mentioned above, one of the most common forms of criminal fraud involves individuals receiving merchandise that they did not order, and then the person or company that sent the merchandise attempting to force them to pay for it by threatening legal action or to ruin their credit ratings. This is a type of mail fraud.
If you believe that you are being targeted by a fraudulent scheme such as the one above, you should first report the fraudulent activity to your local postmaster. Next, you may then seek to report the fraudulent scheme federally by submitting an online report with the United States Postal Service or by calling 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777).
If you fell victim to the scheme and have lost money, then you should also report the issue to your bank and/or credit companies to attempt to recover your funds. Finally, a private lawsuit may be brought against the party that defrauded you.
Once again, if a package is clearly and correctly addressed to you, you can treat the item as a gift. As such, if someone later sends you a bill, you may respond to them by stating your intention to treat the item as a gift. Then, if the fraudulent bills or collection letters persist, you may demand that the provider of the package send you documented proof of your order. If the sender denies your request for proof of purchase and continues to send you bills, you should contact the Consumer Protection Agency (“CPA”) in the state in which the seller purports to be located.
Next, if the sender of the package does provide you with documented proof of your order, you should also consider the possibility that you may have mistakenly or unknowingly signed up for the gift. For example, an individual may accidentally sign up for a gift by responding to an advertisement which promised a free gift, but contained fine print at the bottom or on the back of the form in which they then agreed to buy something in the future or even join a “premium” club.
If you fall into this specific scenario, you should contact the seller immediately and inform them that you do not wish to join their club, you would like to be removed from their mailing list, and will kindly return any items sent if they pay for return shipping. In some cases, the seller may successfully argue that the individual that received the package pays for return shipping in order to receive a refund.
Can You File A Lawsuit For Violations Of Consumer Protection Laws?
As mentioned above, many consumer protection laws, especially at the state level, encourage consumers to report any instances of consumer fraud or abuse. Many laws even encourage consumers to file a private lawsuit in order to help with protection of consumer rights. Additionally, a consumer may even be asked to participate in a class action lawsuit on behalf of a class of consumers who have been injured by the same company or fraudulent scheme.
In a consumer protection lawsuit, the following issues will generally be addressed:
- Whether consumer protection laws apply to the current issue;
- Whether or not the defendant engaged in the type of misconduct prohibited by the law; and
- Whether the plaintiff (i.e. the party that suffered some harm) actually qualifies as a consumer.
The consumer may then be able to recover damages for any injuries or lost profits caused by the violation of a consumer protection law. Alternatively, a judge may issue an injunction ordering the defendant to cease any dangerous and/or illegal activities that have occurred, such as making false credit reports.
Once again, the CPA is an agency that is responsible for the regulation of the consumer industry, including:
- Licensing and regulating professionals;
- Conducting investigations into consumer and financial scams; and
- Criminally prosecuting scammers who are found to be guilty.
Additionally, the CPA can help injured parties by bringing civil lawsuits against fraudulent businesses or professionals. The CPA will also conduct investigations into alleged fraudulent business misconduct. Then, once their investigation is complete, the Agency will make a determination regarding whether the business was fraudulent and punish the responsible party.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Gifts in the Mail?
If you received something in the mail that you never ordered, and you either wish to keep the item or believe that you are being targeted by a fraudulent mail scheme, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced consumer lawyer.
An experienced consumer lawyer will be able to provide you with your best course of legal action concerning the gift. Further, a consumer lawyer will also be able to assist you if you have been defrauded by initiating a private civil lawsuit against the responsible party. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.