At first it seemed like any other grand opening. A health spa called Ultimate Woman was setting up shop in Independence Mall on South Broad Street in Trenton. The new business generated a lot of buzz, and before long more than 500 people signed up for lifetime memberships.
The lifetime members waited for the spa to open its doors . . . and waited . . . and waited. Soon the customers realized they had been duped: the club was never opening, and maybe the owners never actually planned to.
That 1980s case landed several of the owners in jail and prompted lawmakers to create the health club regulations that exist today, which require any health club owner who sells three-month memberships or longer to be insured.
Donna Giovannetti, director of the Mercer County Department of Consumer Affairs, says that was her biggest case ever due to the sheer magnitude of the number of people duped by the same business. Since that day, companies and individuals have not stopped ripping off consumers, and Giovannetti stays busy investigating businesses to make sure they are doing right by their customers.
Giovannetti will discuss how you can avoid being victimized by a shady business in a free talk Tuesday, December 10, at 1:30 p.m. at the RWJ Fitness and Wellness Center at 3100 Quakerbridge Road in Mercerville. Giovannetti will discuss identity theft, telemarketing fraud, charity scams, and others.
Giovannetti’s office handles the complaints of individual customers against businesses. They are the ones you should call — at 609-989-6671 — if you have a problem with a contractor, a mechanic, a store, or any other company in Mercer County.
While it’s always important to stay on guard against fraud, there are several things to watch out for during the holidays.
Gift cards. Know your rights. Giovannetti says her office gets many complaints around the holidays about gift cards not being honored. Many customers don’t realize that gift cards are valid for the life of the business, not the life of the consumer. If someone gets you a gift card to your favorite local restaurant, which suddenly goes out of business, you’re out of luck. However, if you try to redeem a gift card and the merchant says it’s expired, you may have recourse: Giovannetti says that by state law, all non bank-issued gift cards have to be valid for at least two years.
Don’t fear the refund. “After January 1st we are going to start getting refund policy complaints,” Giovannetti says. You might be one of them. Store won’t give you a refund? There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that stores can have whatever refund policies they like. They could decide not to take back any merchandise ever, or they could offer only store credit for returned purchases. The good news is that if a store’s policy is strict, it must be posted clearly at the point of sale.
When Giovannetti’s office receives a complaint about a refund, they go to the store to check if the policy is posted near the register. If it’s not, the business has to give the customer their money back. However, if it is posted, the buyer is out of luck. Caveat emptor. “Make sure you look to see what the store’s return policy is before you buy something,” Giovannetti says. “The store has the right to have its own policy.”
Know your contractor. Whether during the holidays or any other season, Giovannetti says the number one subject of consumer complaints is home repair or renovation. Shady contractors have dozens of ways to rip off homeowners, everything from collecting money up front and then disappearing to starting a job and not finishing it to doing a job with substandard materials. Giovannetti says you should always ask your contractor for their state registration number before giving them any money. Then, check the website of the state Department of Consumer Affairs at newjersey.mylicense.com/verification to see if they are registered.
But if it turns out the contractor is legit, it is still up to the customer to make sure there is a clear contract. “It is important you verify starting dates, completion dates, legal addresses, and a complete description of the work to be performed,” Giovannetti says. “If a contractor fails to provide these things, it is a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.”
Businesses are not immune. Although most fraud is perpetrated against individuals, it’s not unheard of for a business to be the target of a scam. Giovannetti says the most common con is for someone to call a business pretending to be an office supply salesman, or the company’s usual office supply vendor (especially printer toner cartridges). The scammer takes an order and sends an invoice, but never sends the supplies. In many cases, companies pay the bill because the person paying it is a different person from the one who ordered it, and has no idea the shipment never came.
Check that date. Giovannetti says her office is currently cracking down on sellers of baby products who don’t put expiration dates on their merchandise. She says any food item you buy ought to have an expiration date printed on it and must have the price clearly marked.
Reputation is key. Giovannetti says if you are unsure about a local business, you can call the County Department of Consumer Affairs to see if they have any complaints against them. These complaints are public record.
For Giovannetti, protecting consumers has been a career-long mission. She grew up in Hamilton, where her mother was a teacher and her father was a business owner and state worker. She graduated from Steinert High School and majored in criminal justice at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), graduating in 1983 and going to work for the county right away, starting as an investigator. She quickly worked her way up through the ranks to become division chief in 1987, a post she has held ever since.
She is also vice president of a statewide consumer protection organization called County and Municipal Consumer Agencies of New Jersey, which has lobbied for laws protecting consumers.
That group pushed for stricter laws governing home contracting services. In 2006, Giovannetti testified before the legislature’s consumer affairs committee, argued for stricter regulations for contractors, and got them. The group has also pushed through the state’s lemon law, and tightened laws about pet sales.
It’s a line of work that Giovannetti finds very rewarding. “I’m actually able to help people every day,” she says. “People feel that they have been taken advantage of, and I feel like we actually make a difference here. We get their car fixed if they need a vehicle to travel to work. We try to help every single person who comes into this office.”