• WisBusiness

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ben Brancel: DATCP's Trade and Consumer Protection Division helps keep Wisconsin open for business

By Ben Brancel
Consumer confidence is a key to a strong economy. So is a fair and open marketplace where reputable business owners can thrive without unfair or illegal competition. Confidence, fairness and knowledge are what we provide at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Governor Scott Walker has made it clear, we should do everything we can to protect the public while making sure businesses can survive, grow and create jobs. DATCP’s Consumer Protection Division will continue to be aggressive when it comes to investigating scammers and businesses that continually use unfair or deceptive practices but we will also work equally as hard at helping well-meaning business owners maintain compliance.

Our Trade and Consumer Protection division has the authority to investigate consumer complaints and enforce violations of consumer laws. In 2011, Consumer Protection recovered more than $7 million in restitution and forfeitures. In a highly publicized case this year, we reached a $250,000 settlement with a mobile phone company. We were able to set up a restitution process for customers who experienced billing and credit problems without having to spend the time or tax payer money on lengthy court action.

Sometimes, however, we turn over our investigative results to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Last year, a joint effort by the two agencies led to a $144,000 settlement with a No-Call telemarketer violator. It could have meant a lengthy court battle but again a settlement was reached, the largest No Call settlement in the program’s history.

We have steadily strengthened the Trade and Consumer Protection Division from where we found it in January 2011. We’ve updated our hotline and other systems to make them more user-friendly. We’re updating our rules to make them more relevant and effective.

The laws the legislature has put in place and the rules we have to enforce those laws not only protect consumers but they also work to prevent unfair competition that could hurt the reputable business owners who are trying to do things right. The department investigates complaints covering a variety of areas most people may not even realize such as identity theft, hazardous toys and other product safety concerns, plus landlord/tenant issues.

Our Weights and Measures staff is continuously checking gasoline pumps, retail store scanners and other scales around the state to make sure the consumer or buyer is getting what they’re paying for when they purchase an item or product. Nearly 197,000 inspections were made in 2011 saving the Wisconsin family an average $600 dollars a year. Just this month we announced a $36,908 settlement with a national food processor for selling a product that weighed less than the label claimed.

Producers of agricultural related products are buyers and sellers too. While DATCP’s Food Safety Division makes sure the food produced and sold here is safe for us to eat, the Trade Practices team inspects fruits and vegetables for quality. DATCP inspectors in Superior make sure every grain shipment that leaves that Wisconsin port meets USDA certified standards and is the high quality product our international trade partners expect and demand. They test samples from every trainload of grain that is delivered to the port and every ship leaving the port for other parts of the world, which amounts to millions of bushels a year.

The Agricultural Producer Security (APS) section monitors the financial condition and business practices of Wisconsin processors to provide reasonable assurance that agricultural producers and producer agents will be paid for milk, grain or vegetables delivered to licensed contractors. It oversees more than $6-billion dollars of payments to producers for the agricultural goods that they sell and also monitors more than 100-million bushels of storage space. If there is a legal violation in a business transaction with a producer, the APS section works to bring the buyer into compliance so it can continue doing business in the state. If a buyer defaults on its obligation or payment to producers, there is an industry funded security account in place to help compensate farmers for the loss that is suffered.

Knowledge is power and DATCP’s Trade & Consumer Protection Division’s mission is to make sure consumers, buyers, sellers and businesses have the knowledge they need to identify, stop and avoid fraud and unfair business practices. One way we do that is through our Consumer Information Hotline which handles an average 150,000 calls and contacts a year.

Our goal is to supply honest, truthful information so consumers and business owners can make good decisions with confidence. Consumer confidence will translate into consumer spending which in turn means more business opportunities and more Wisconsin jobs. And that’s what it’s all about.

-- Brancel is the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

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