Most businesses are operated by honest people, but there are also some unscrupulous people who prey on trusting consumers. This Web Page contains tips about scams and frauds, what to watch for, and what to do if you are a victim.
If you are a victim of consumer fraud, the State's Attorney's Office, Consumer Fraud Unit, may be able to help you recover your losses, prosecute the person or business responsible for the fraud, and prevent other members of the public from falling victim to the scheme.
Overview of the Consumer Fraud Unit
The Cook County State's Attorney maintains a Consumer Fraud Unit for the benefit of consumers who are victimized by unscrupulous persons and businesses. The Unit handles a variety of civil and criminal consumer law cases including: home repair fraud, travel scams, immigration fraud, advance fee loan scams, identity theft, dishonest auto sales, mortgage rescue fraud, and work at home scams. The Unit also maintains a Consumer Fraud Line to handle inquires from the public concerning consumer matters. The Consumer Fraud Line is staffed by Consumer Fraud Unit Intake Specialists, who are available to answer consumer-related questions, provide appropriate referrals, and offer assistance in filing consumer complaints.
To speak to an Intake Specialist, consumers may call (312) 603-8700 during regular business hours from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Consumer Fraud Unit is part of the Special Prosecutions Bureau of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. The offices of the Consumer Fraud Unit are located at 50 W. Washington St., Suite 2700, Chicago, Illinois, 60602 (312) 603-8600.
Tips for Consumers About Con Artists and Scams
BE AWARE that the goal of con artists is to separate you from your money. Con artists are often well dressed, talkative, intelligent, and persistent. They frequently target the elderly and persons of their own ethnic heritage.
BE AWARE of unsolicited and hurried sales opportunities. Take time to shop around for goods and services and don't be pressured into making on-the-spot decisions. Don’t make decisions based solely on price. Don't trust anyone who says, "This price is available only if you sign today." Remember that good deals are like buses—there will always be another.
DON'T BE AFRAID to say “no!”, close your door, hang up the telephone, or throw away solicitations.
DON'T BELIEVE anyone who claims that you have won a contest that you did not enter, especially from an out-of-state company. Remember, that if you have to pay fees, taxes, or order merchandise to receive your "prize," it's probably a scam.
BE SKEPTICAL about a company that only uses a post office box with no street address or telephone number. If you are given a telephone number, it's a good idea to check whether it is listed in the company's name. You may do this by calling 411.
BE CAUTIOUS about doing business with a new or troubled company. Take time to investigate a company. Don't hesitate to ask for references, identification, and licenses. Call the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois to obtain a reliability report about a company [(312) 832-0500).]
READ A CONTRACT carefully before signing. Make sure that all of the important promises and representations made to you by the salesperson are also incorporated in the contract. If it is not in writing, it will be difficult to prove what was said after the fact.
DON'T SIGN a contract that contains blank spaces and get a copy of the contract upon signing. Keep in mind that the three-day "cooling off" period generally applies only to contracts created at your residence. Consider all other contracts to be final.
About Avoiding Home Repair Fraud:
FIND A REPUTABLE CONTRACTOR through referrals from satisfied customers or through recommendations from local utility companies, local building inspectors or your insurance company. Ask the contractor for references and a written estimate.
DON’T PAY IN ADVANCE for the entire job before the work has started and don’t make a final payment until you are satisfied. Realize, however, that advance payment of a small deposit or for building materials is customary and fair.
BE SKEPTICAL of anyone who claims to have just completed a nearby home repair job and offers you a great price because there are leftover materials or because they “are in the neighborhood” already.
Be skeptical of anyone posing as an employee of a utility company. Typically, these transient con artists target elderly victims and appear at their door pretending to check on a gas leak or power problem. Once inside they lure the elderly victim to the basement to check the meter, but first unlock the front door so an accomplice can come and loot the home while the victim is distracted. Ask the person for a photo identification card to verify their status as a utility employee or check with the utility company first before allowing anyone posing as an employee to gain entry to your home.
INVESTIGATE to determine if the contractor is properly licensed, and insured. Contact your local building inspector and the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois at (312) 832-0500, or www.chicago.bbb.org, to obtain a reliability report about the contractor.
OBTAIN LIEN WAIVERS from the general contractor. Suppliers and subcontractors have a right to file a lien against you if the general contractor fails to pay them.
EXERCISE GREAT CARE in taking out a home equity loan for home repair work—you risk losing your home if you default. Pay attention to the “Total of Payments” or the ”Total Sale Price” shown in the loan documents. Often the total amount you’ll owe for the loan will be double or even triple the amount you initially sought to borrow once all the fees and interest payments are factored in. That’s not a good deal.
READ THE PAMPHLET: “Home Repair: Know Your Consumer Rights.” For all home repair contracts over $500, the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act requires that home repair contractors provide this pamphlet to you before starting repairs.
Filing A Complaint With The Consumer Fraud Unit
The Consumer Fraud Unit relies on complaints from members of the public to prosecute individuals and businesses engaged in fraudulent practices. Please note that the failure of a person or company to provide you with an entirely satisfactory product or service is not consumer fraud. Rather, this type of complaint is a private contract dispute, which the Consumer Fraud Unit is not empowered to investigate or prosecute.
To File a Complaint, Contact the Consumer Fraud Unit by Telephone:
To file a complaint with the Consumer Fraud Unit, call (312) 603-8700 during regular business hours from 8:30 a.m. 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. An Intake Specialist will speak to you about your complaint and answer your initial consumer fraud questions. The Consumer Fraud Unit uses two types of complaint forms: a general "Consumer Complaint Form" and a "Home Repair Fraud Complaint Form." Should your complaint fall within our jurisdiction, the Intake Specialist will send the appropriate complaint form to you by regular mail or, if you prefer, by e-mail.
Once you have completed the appropriate complaint form, you may submit the form by regular mail to the Consumer Fraud Unit, 69 W. Washington St., Suite 3130, Chicago, Illinois, 60602. Your written complaint should explain all of the facts of your dispute, and include copies of all important documents that relate to your complaint. Please do not send any original documents.
What Happens After a Complaint is Filed?
After a completed complaint form and supporting documents are returned to the Consumer Fraud Unit, the complaint will be given a file number and will be screened by an attorney. At this screening level, some cases are declined for prosecution, some cases are referred to other government or law enforcement agencies, and other cases are retained by the Consumer Fraud Unit for investigation. A person who files a written complaint with our Unit will be notified by letter of the decision of the screening attorney.
Even if a case is referred to an attorney for an investigation, a prosecution cannot be guaranteed. A consumer may have to resort to self-help methods, such as obtaining a private attorney or filing a claim in Pro Se/Small Claims Court, to resolve the dispute. (see below).
Managing a Home Repair Dispute On Your Own
In some situations, the Consumer Fraud Unit will not be able to prosecute your particular case. The mere failure of a person or a company to furnish you with an entirely satisfactory product or service is not consumer fraud, and in these cases the Consumer Fraud Unit is not empowered to investigate or prosecute. In addition, the performance of partial work at your home usually precludes a successful criminal prosecution for theft or home repair fraud. However, a decision by the State’s Attorney’s Office to refrain from prosecuting your case does not mean that you have no legal recourse.
As a first step in resolving your consumer dispute, you should notify, in writing, the business and/or individual of the exact nature of your dispute. Your letter should request a refund and/or completion of the work within a reasonable time period of at least 10 days. You should send your letter by regular and certified mail, return receipt requested. Please retain a copy of this letter for your own records along with your other important documents.
Better Business Bureau
You may also file a written complaint with the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois at (312) 832-0500, or www.chicago.bbb.org.
Pro-Se Court /Small Claims Court
You may also consider filing your own lawsuit in Pro-Se or Small Claims Court to resolve your dispute in a quick and economical fashion. A lawyer is not required to litigate a claim in Pro-Se or Small Claims Court, and the procedural rules are less formal than in other courts. Pro-Se Court handles claims of $1,500 or less, and Small Claims Court specializes in claims of $1,000 to $5,000. There is a fee for filing a complaint in these courts, but the cost of filing may be recovered in a judgment award. The current fee schedule and information about filing an action in Pro-Se Court may be found at the website of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County: http://www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org
Every court district in Cook County maintains a Pro-Se and Small Claims Court.
You may wish to contact a private attorney to evaluate your claim. Find an attorney through referrals from local bar associations or satisfied friends and family. The Chicago Bar Association [(312) 554-2001; (312) 554-2055 TDD] as well as other bar associations, maintain attorney referral services. You should know that most referral services charge a small fee.
Consumer Fraud Unit News
News media seeking additional information may contact the Press Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, 69 W. Washington St., Suite 3130, Chicago, Illinois 60602; phone: (312) 603-1851.
Your feedback is important to us, please feel free to let us know how we are doing.
You can contact the Consumer Fraud Unit at (312) 603-8700.