Why the Attorney General Won’t Help You

The comments on Caveat Emptor are full of stories of consumers who complained to their attorney general, all to no avail. This is completely normal, and has to do with the powers granted to state attorneys general.

Attorneys represent clients, and in the case of a state attorney general, the client is the state. As a practical matter, that means elected officials and state agencies, when they wind up in court. The attorney general also protects “the public good.” That means the attorney general may bring a lawsuit on behalf of the state, but attorneys general do not represent individuals.

Most state attorneys general will write letters on behalf of individuals, and that is about it. For example, if you believe you have been harassed by a debt collector, and contact your attorney general with your concern, someone in the office may send a letter asking the debt collector for an explanation. They may follow up and send a few letters back and forth. This may get results, but in my experience, results from letters are rare. Letters from a lawyer—even an attorney general—aren’t all that scary to a business that is used to dealing with lawyers.

Individual matters are typically handled by private consumer rights lawyers, who are sometimes able to act as “private attorneys general” under state law. As a private attorney general, a consumer rights lawyer can sue in behalf of individuals and seek the same kinds of remedies—-including an injunction—-that the attorney general could.

If you are dealing with a debt collector, used car dealer, or other company, and you want help, definitely contact your attorney general, just don’t stop there. If a letter or two from the AG doesn’t sort out your problem, contact a consumer rights lawyer in your state for help.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/buttepubliclibrary/4251735509/)