By Mitch Lipka
July 31 (Reuters) - U.S. consumers always complain about pushy car salesmen and debt collectors, but in 2012 they also faced an array of new and sometimes surprising challenges - like getting hit with fees just for questioning their bills, according to a recent survey.
The most common complaints filed with state and local consumer protection agencies once again focused on automotive sales and service, home improvement contractors and credit-related problems, according to the annual survey published by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators, a professional group of government investigators.
But some new, more-creative problems were also reported: Virginia consumer officials said they dealt with dentists and optometrists assessing fees for customers who complained about their bills to third parties and Massachusetts officials fielded a complaint about an online merchant doing the same.
The fastest-growing complaints, according to the survey, involved towing disputes, landlord/tenant problems, debt collection, telephone service billing and unlicensed contractors.
Other complaints fell into a category the state and local officials viewed as the "worst," based on the dollars involved, the volume of complaints or how extreme the problems were. That list included home foreclosures, post-disaster home repairs, elderly-focused scams (another perennial problem) and work-at- home offers.
One Massachusetts customer filled out what she thought was a payday loan application that actually was for a credit line on an online shopping site. The consumer did not draw any money from the line but was billed for having it - at a rate that equaled an annual interest rate of 1,000 percent.
In Maryland, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection dealt with a swell of complaints about parking issues in shopping centers, where stores controlled certain parking spaces - confusing consumers and leading to vehicles being towed without warning. In other cases, shoppers were fined when they failed to pay parking meters installed by merchants in privately controlled spaces, a move the consumer groups called "questionable."
Other new or surging consumer issues included fake fronts called skimmers on gas pumps and automated teller machines. The skimmers collect users' financial information, which can later be used to gain access to the victim's credit or bank accounts.
Another common complaint was about phony property rentals advertised on websites. In those cases, would-be vacationers end up paying deposits - usually via Western Union, a tip off - to a scam artist who has no property to rent.
The report surveyed more than 360,000 complaints collected last year by state and local consumer agencies.
The following are the 10 most-complained-about areas for consumers in 2012, according to the report:
Autos: misleading advertising, problems with repairs, lemons and towing.
Home improvement and construction: poorly done jobs and contractors not doing the work at all or abandoning it.
Credit and debt: disputes involving everything from fees to mortgage scams and illegal debt collection tactics.
Utilities: Phone, cable, electric or gas company billing problems.
Retail sales: Advertising, gift cards, rebates and coupons, defective merchandise.
Services: This catch-all category covers misrepresentations about what would be provided, non-performance of the service and failure to have proper licenses or registration.
Home solicitations: Whether it's door-to-door sales, phone calls or mailings, the common thread in this category is that what was offered was not delivered.
Landlord and tenant disputes: Disagreements ranged from rent costs to limiting the amount of heat to not making promised repairs.
Internet sales: Similar to the issues with home solicitations, this category includes deals made online that did not live up to their billing, whether through deceptive advertising or just failure to deliver the goods.
Household goods: This category includes problems delivering or repairing furniture and appliances.