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Progressive Voice: Arlington Must Do More to Protect Consumers

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Christian Dorsey

The state of Arlington’s economy as measured by job growth, unemployment and average wages is strong. Yet while average wages are high, wage growth has not been strong enough across many sectors of the economy to keep up with inflation. This dynamic can be seen most acutely in the service sector with leisure and hospitality jobs, but it also exists with higher earning professional services jobs.

Furthermore, public sector jobs, a significant component of Arlington’s economy, have seen sustained wage stagnation since the end of the Great Recession in 2009-10. And retirees — a fast growing age cohort — receive inflation adjustments to their fixed incomes that are insufficient to keep up with the costs of the goods and services they require.

So even in relatively well-off Arlington, many earners face a growing income insecurity. Combined with Arlington’s high housing and child care costs, this situation deepens the need for safety net services for some citizens, and protection of scarce dollars for all consumers.

Arlington County government alone cannot reverse these market forces, but we have not been doing all we can to support people facing growing income insecurity. So, in January 2018, I asked our County Manager to reinvigorate our county’s efforts to protect consumers who suffer income loss through unfair, deceptive, abusive and fraudulent practices (UDAFP).

While there are no comprehensive data on allegations of UDAFP, Arlington County government hears frequent complaints involving trespass towing, billing and service issues with cable and telecommunications companies, title and payday lenders, identity theft from credit card skimmers, hired transportation, rental housing and general contract enforcement.

A consumer seeking redress of an alleged violation was faced with navigating federal statutes with multiple agencies having jurisdiction, a state office with limited capacity and no clear point of contact at the local level. And, frustratingly, consumer protection laws leave the complaining parties to seek redress on their own. This can have a chilling effect on anyone who suffers an injury but does not have the time, English proficiency or resources to hire counsel to resolve the dispute.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has relatively weak protections against UDAFP, however, state law does allow for local jurisdictions to operate a consumer protection bureau. Arlington must fill the void by standing up a consumer protection bureau that consolidates our efforts at educating businesses and consumers about their rights and responsibilities; aggregating and investigating complaints about illegal and unfair practices; and providing guidance to those who seek redress of their complaints.

This spring, Arlington took an important step in utilizing this authority by creating a clearinghouse landing page for consumer protection resources.

It is here that people can learn more about their rights, how to prevent becoming a victim of UDAFP, how to connect with state and federal resources and, most important, file a complaint that will be investigated as necessary.

Over time and as warranted, I want these efforts to expand by having the bureau mediate disputes, sanction bad actors, provide outreach and education to Arlingtonians, and promote businesses that commit to fair practices. Properly organized, a consumer protection bureau will provide a clear benefit to consumers and also to businesses that value fair marketplaces.

My vision for this consumer protection office does not require an increase in bureaucracy or any substantial increases in funding. In fact, when we consolidate efforts that are currently spread across several departments, including the Arlington County Police Department, we may be able to deliver better services at lower costs.

If you or anyone you know have been the victim of an unfair, deceptive or fraudulent business practice, visit Arlington’s Consumer Protection Clearinghouse to see if help is available. If you have any suggestions for additional areas of focus, please contact [email protected]

All Arlingtonians can benefit from systems that encourage faith in businesses and promote engagement in commerce. Fair practices and consumer protection must be part of the essential toolkit in keeping Arlington’s local economy such a healthy one. 

Christian Dorsey is Vice-Chair of the Arlington County Board, a Member of the WMATA Board of Directors, a Commissioner on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a Member of the Transportation Planning Board, and Member of the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

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