Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the Office of Consumer Protection and what does it do?
  2. What do I do if I have a consumer problem?
  3. What does the OCP do when I file a complaint?
  4. What if the merchant doesn't respond to the Investigator's letter?
  5. What if my complaint is urgent? Do I still have to wait for the merchant to respond to the OCP's letters?
  6. If the OCP's Investigator can't resolve my complaint, what can I do?
  7. Can I use private consumer help organizations?
  8. Can the OCP recommend reliable merchants?
  9. If I'm not satisfied with a purchase, can I stop payment on my check or charge back on my card?
  10. Is it true that you have a right to cancel any contract within three days after you sign it?
  11. If I purchase something that's defective, does the merchant have to replace it or give me money back?
  12. What if I want to return an item that's not defective? Do I have a right to a refund?
  13. If a store says there was a price mistake in an ad, do they still have to sell the advertised item at the advertised price?
  14. What if an advertised item is not in stock?
  15. How do I go about finding a reliable home improvement contractor?
  16. What if a warranty (on a house, a car, an appliance, etc.) expires before an existing defect is repaired?
  17. Does an auto repair shop have to give me a written estimate? What happens if the final bill exceeds the estimate?
  18. If an auto repair shop can't fix my car after repeated attempts, do I have to keep taking it back to them? What can I do?
  19. If I place a deposit on a new car and then change my mind about buying it, can I get my money back?
  20. If an auto dealer is taking a long time to repair my car, do they have to give me a loaner car?
  21. When I have my car repaired, do I have a right to get my old parts back?
  22. Generally, how can I protect myself when I have my car repaired?
  23. What do I do if there is a mistake on my monthly credit card statement?
  24. Can OCP help me if I ahve been treated unfairly by a merchant?

1. What is the Office of Consumer Protection and what does it do?

The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP), is a Montgomery County Government agency created by the County Council in 1971. OCP is responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws under Chapter 11 of the County code which prohibit unfair and deceptive business acts to ensure a fair marketplace for consumers and businesses..

What we do:

  • Enforce Laws: The Office is empowered to investigate such practices, and may issue subpoenas and hold investigative conferences if necessary. If it is determined that a merchant has engaged in a practice that is deceptive or unconscionable, the OCP may issue Civil Citations. The OCP may seek $500.00 civil fine and an Order for Abatement which may include restitution for the consumer. The OCP may also enter into cease and desist agreements whereby the merchant agrees in writing to stop the practice. Such agreements may also provide for restitution to consumers, civil penalties, and payment of investigative costs. In appropriate circumstances, and solely in its discretion, the OCP may request a complaint to be filed by the County Attorney, on behalf of the County, for legal action against a merchant. If accepted, the County may sue for civil penalties, restitution, injunctions against continued law violations, and any other relief which the Court deems appropriate.
  • Investigate Complaints & Resolve Disputes: The OCP has jurisdiction to investigate complaints arising out of consumer transactions that take place in Montgomery County. it doesn't matter where you live or where the merchant's place of business is. The key factor is where the transaction occur. The function of the office is in this area is to uncover facts relevant to the complaint, review the facts to see if the law has been violated, and attempt to work out a voluntary resolution between merchant and consumer. The OCP can't give legal advice or represent a consumer as an attorney would, nor can the OCP order a merchant to settle a case. If a voluntary conciliation can't be reached, the OCP can advise the consumer as to what other remedies may be available. 
  • License Businesses: The OCP Registers New Home Builders and Sellers, Radio, TV, and Appliance Installation & Repair firms, Commercial Parking Lots, and Auto Repair and Towing firms. It also licensed Secondhand Personal Property Dealers.
  • Educate Consumers & Businesses: The OCP provides both consumers and merchants with information about its functions and powers. The office prepares publication, provides speakers for community groups, publicizes its enforcement actions, and has staff members on tap at all times to answer telephone inquiries. Public information is an important function, since it helps consumers protect themselves and helps merchants know what the law requires of them.
  • Mediate Conflicts: When appropriate, the OCP can refer a complaint or dispute to free formal mediation administered by experienced professiona mediators
  • MIscellaneous: The OCP also administers the County's Domestic Worker Law and is tasked with adocating for consumers on issues related to Energy and Environment. OCP also provides the Patient Advocate under the EMS Insurance Reimbursement Program.

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2. What do I do if I have a consumer problem?

If you are having a consumer problem, the first thing to do is to complain directly to the merchant. Talk to the manager, owner, or corporate office. Be polite but firm. Explain your problem and give the merchant a reasonable chance to resolve it.

If the merchant does not resolve your complaint, call OCP. If you're not sure that you have a legitimate complaint, or if you just want to talk about it, feel free to call, email, or stop by between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. An investigator is on duty daily to provide advice.

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3. What does the OCP do when I file a complaint?

Each written complaint we receive is assigned a complaint number and checked to make sure OCP has jurisdiction. The function of the office is to uncover facts relevant to the complaint, review the facts to see if the law has been violated, and, if a violation is not found, attempt to work out a voluntary settlement between merchant and consumer. OCP cannot give legal advice or represent a consumer as an attorney would, nor can OCP order a merchant to settle a case. If a voluntary conciliation cannot be reached, OCP can advise the consumer as to what other remedies may be available.

Each investigation is assigned to an investigator who will review the case and contact the merchant about your complaint.  The consumer's written complaint will be attached to our correspondence, and the merchant will be asked to respond to the complaint. When a response is received, the investigator will contact the consumer and will take such other steps as may be appropriate to try and resolve the case.

4. What if the merchant doesn't respond to the Investigator's letter?

OCP will make all reasonable efforts to contact the merchant and obtain a written response.  If no response is received to the initial contact, a second contact is made, requesting a response within specific time period. If there is no response to the second letter, OCP has the power to issue a subpoena requiring the merchant to appear and provide information on the case.

5. What if my complaint is urgent? Do I still have to wait for the merchant to respond to the OCP's letters?

We realize that some cases are genuine emergencies and the OCP's procedures are flexible enough to handle those. However, there will be times when the OCP will be unable to accommodate some requests due to staffing, legal and time restraints.

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6. If the OCP's Investigator can't resolve my complaint, what can I do?

If the complaint does not involve a violation of law but a matter of disputed facts, OCP can suggest submitting the dispute to free formal mediation. OCP operates a mediation program with formal mediators who volunteer their time. This mediation program is voluntary requiring both parties to agree to mediation.  The goal for mediation is to reach a written settlement agreement resolving the complaint with the agreement of both parties.  Important things to remember about mediation are:

  • The decision to mediate is completely voluntary, and
  • Once you have agreed to a written settlement agreement, it is binding.

If mediation does not resolve the matter, the consumer may pursue legal action. OCP does not provide legal advice and cannot determine if a legal cause of action exists. If less than $5,000 is involved, a lawsuit may be filed in the Small Claims Division of the District Court. Small Claims Court is relatively informal, and you do not need a lawyer.  View the District Court's Guide on how to file a small claim at " How to File a Small Claim in the District Court of Maryland." If more than $5,000 is involved, a regular lawsuit must be filed, and for that, you may want to speak with an attorney.  

In some instances, a federal or state agency may have more paramount jurisdiction.  For example, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has direct jurisdiction over national banks it regulates, the Federal Communication Commission has direct authority over the wireless network and bandwidth issues, etc.  If a resolution cannot be reached through the OCP process, consumers can ask if another agency has concurrent or paramount jurisdiction over the dispute.  We are then able to provide the closed public investigation file under the Maryland Public Information Act to be used in submitting a subsequent complaint to the other agency.

7. What about private consumer help organizations?

It doesn't hurt to seek help wherever you can get it, and some private organizations can be very effective.  Make sure to vet the organization before submitting your personal information.

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8. Can the OCP recommend reliable merchants?

As a government agency, we cannot recommend one merchant over another.  OCP staff members are not permitted to give opinions as to how "good" or "bad" particular merchants are in providing service. However, the complaints that are filed with OCP are public records, and you can search our records to find out the number of complaints filed against a specific merchant, whether the complaint was resolved or unresolved, or if OCP took legal action. If the consumer wants to review the actual complaints, they can do so by submitting a Maryland Public Information Act Request. While the complaint information that we give out can be helpful, you should be aware that it does not take into account all the factors involved in how reliable a merchant is, nor does it take into account the volume of business a merchant does. Accordingly, it should be only one factor in your decision whether to deal with a particular merchant. To make this information more meaningful, it's a good idea to search the complaint records of several (3+) other comparable businesses. This way, you can see where a particular business stands in relation to its competitors. You can also check with the Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine available at local libraries.

9. If I'm not satisfied with a purchase, can I stop payment on my check or credit card?

We cannot advise you as to whether you should stop payment. You may want to consult with an attorney to learn about your rights. You should be aware that in Maryland it is a criminal offense to write a check with the intention of stopping payment on it.  Your credit card company has its own dispute resolution program if you dispute a charge due to a quality or delivery issue.

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10. Is it true that you have a right to cancel any contract within three days after you sign it?

No necessarily. You only have a three day right of cancellation if this right is provided in the contract or by a specific law. Generally, the three-day "cooling off" period applies only to certain types of contracts.

If a contract involves $25.00 or more and is signed at your home or away from the merchant's place of business, you have a right to cancel it within three (3) business days. The merchant is required to give you both oral and written notification of this right. Typical contracts to which this applies include door-to-door sales and home improvements. Recently, Maryland law increased the cooling off period for home improvement contracts to five (5) days generall, and seven (7) days if the consumer is a senior.

However, if a merchant promises certain finance terms, such as a certain interest rate or monthly payment, and cannot honor their agreement, you may cancel the contract and should not be forced into signing a new agreement.  We see this happen often with car purchases (yo-yo sales).

11. If I purchase something that's defective, does the merchant have to replace it or give me money back?

Not always. Generally, the merchant is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect if possible. If it can't be repaired satisfactorily, you may be entitled to a replacement or refund, depending on the particular facts of your case.

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12. What if I want to return an item that's not defective? Do I have a right to a refund?

No. The merchant is entitled to have any policy he or she wants governing returns and exchanges, but this policy must be disclosed to you at the time of sale, either by a sign in the store or by some notation on the receipt or label.

If no return policy has been disclosed, then you can assume that you can receive a cash refund for a cash purchase, a credit for a charged purchase, or a merchandise credit for the return of a gift.

If you are concerned about the possibility of returning a purchase, be sure to ask about the return policy before you buy and get it in writing.

13. If a store says there was a price mistake in an ad, do they still have to sell the advertised item at the advertised price?

Not necessarily. Mistakes can happen, and advertisements have usually been viewed by the courts as mere offers to deal, not creating any binding obligation on the part of the merchant. If there has been a mistake, the merchant should take prompt action to correct it, for instance, by placing a correction ad in the newspaper and posting a sign in the store.

However, it often pays to speak up and let the merchant know you're unhappy. Many merchants are sufficiently concerned about customer relations to make an adjustment for a customer who has been inconvenienced because of a mistake.

If a particular merchant makes repeated "mistakes" in advertising, it may be a matter for OCP to investigate. Too many "mistakes" might add up to a deceptive trade practice.

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14. What if an advertised item is not in stock?

Under Montgomery County law, a merchant is required to have enough of an advertised item to meet reasonably expected public demand. Of course, sometimes demand can be unexpectedly high, and an item will sell out very quickly. If only limited quantities are available, the ad should say so.  This applies to online or in-store promotions.  When shopping online, if the retailer no longer has inventory, the product should clearly be marked "out of stock" or similar.  Although not mandatory, the reason for the inventory shortfall (e.g, discontinued item, temporary unavailability, etc.) should also be noted. While there may be legitimate reasons for continuing to list an out-of stock-item, the more disclosure about the reasons for the stock outage helps consumer with their purchasing decisions.

15. How do I go about finding a reliable home improvement contractor?

You can never eliminate all the risk but there are several things you can do to protect yourself. First, review OCP’s “Choosing a Home Improvement Contractor” webpage for guidance on selecting a contractor.

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16. What if a warranty (on a house, a car, an appliance, etc.) expires before an existing defect is repaired?

If the defect has been reported during the warranty period, it is still covered under the warranty even though the warrantor hasn't fixed the item. To make sure that a defect is on record, it's a good idea to report it in writing (and keep a copy) during the warranty period. That way, the warrantor cannot claim that the problem arose after the warranty expired. If you have difficulty getting warranty service performed, call OCP.

17. Does an auto repair shop have to give me a written estimate? What happens if the final bill exceeds the estimate?

Under County law, you are entitled to a written estimate if you ask for one and the repairs will cost more than $25. The repair shop must have a sign posted that advises you of this right. The shop is allowed to charge you for the time spent preparing a written estimate. The final repair bill may not exceed a written or oral estimate by more than 10% without your prior authorization. However, oral estimates are often hard to prove.

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18. If an auto repair shop can't fix my car after repeated attempts, do I have to keep taking it back to them? What can I do?

If possible, you may want to get an independent diagnosis of the problem at another shop. Should you decide to have the problem repaired by someone else, you should know that, in the OCP's experience, repair shops are usually more willing to correct their own mistakes than to pay for someone else to do it. So you may have trouble getting voluntary reimbursement when you take your car elsewhere to be fixed. If you feel that a repair shop has had a more than reasonable opportunity to fix a problem, you may want to call the OCP. We have automotive specialists on our staff who can help you find the problem and work with the repair shop to have it fixed.

19. If I place a deposit on a new car and then change my mind about buying it, can I get my money back?

It depends. Some dealers may be willing to refund a deposit if the purchase is cancelled promptly. If the dealer was to arrange for financing, and the financing agreement has not been signed, you have a right to cancel the purchase. However, before agreeing to the purchase, you should discuss this with the dealer. If they agree you can cancel, you need to get such agreement in writing. If you run into problems with this, call the OCP.

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20. If an auto dealer is taking a long time to repair my car, do they have to give me a loaner car?

Maybe. The answer depends on a number of factors. If you experience such a problem, contact the OCP for advice.

21. When I have my car repaired, do I have a right to get my old parts back?

Generally yes.  Under Montgomery county law, the repair shop must affirmatively offer you the old parts. If you don't want them, you don't have to take them, but the shop must offer them to you. If a defective part is replaced under warranty, the old part may have to be returned to the manufacturer under a warranty agreement. In such cases, the repair shop does not have to return the old part to you. Also, some parts, such as starters and alternators, often carry what is called a "core charge."    This is a credit the shop receives for returning them to the supplier to be rebuilt. If you want such part, you may have to pay the core charge to get it, but this should be disclosed to you by the shop before the work begins.

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22. Generally, how can I protect myself when I have my car repaired?

Ask for a written estimate. Make sure your old parts are returned to you. Find out the names of the people you deal with at the repair shop, and find out if the technicians are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Insist on a detailed invoice, showing all work done and listing all parts replaced. Save all of your old repair invoices, and keep detailed records of the service your car receives. If you have problems, talk to the manager or owner. Finally, if all else fails, contact the OCP.

23. What do I do if there is a mistake on my monthly credit card statement?

The first step is to read the directions on the back of the statement and follow the procedure set out there. If you are unable to get a problem resolved this way, contact the OCP and ask to speak to the investigator on duty. 

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24. Can OCP help me if I have been treated unfairly by a merchant?

We often hear from consumers that a merchant has treated them rudely or unfairly.  OCP cannot regulate a merchant’s behavior, however, there are steps that you can take.  Begin by speaking to the manager, owner, or corporate office. Explain the behavior and, if possible, try to identify the employee by name or employee number.  You always have the right to take your business elsewhere. However, if you believe that you have been discriminated against, the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights investigates complaints of discrimination.  Please contact them directly for assistance.