On a typical spring day, Vermont’s statewide consumer assistance hotline is staffed with a team of UVM students helping Vermonters resolve conflicts with businesses, protect themselves from fraud and navigate a host of other consumer protection issues. While the calls continue, many of the issues have shifted since the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re getting questions from consumers concerned about price gouging on household items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, convenience stores not accepting cash, landlord – tenant issues, and from small businesses,” explained Lisa Jensen ’89 G ‘96, assistant director of the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP). Based in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, the program operates the hotline and provides mediation services to consumers.
Jensen is leading a four-member team of program staff who are responding to roughly 30 calls per day from Vermonters in need. Without students on campus, the staff have stepped in to manage and respond to calls and continue complaint mediation services. Operating remotely, the team checks voicemails every two hours and takes the time to research new issues that are arising and refer consumers as needed.
“We really want to make sure people have their questions answered,” said Jensen. “If we don’t have the answer, we will refer the caller to the appropriate agency or organization.”
Earlier this week, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, along with 32 attorneys generals from across the U.S., issued a letter to five major online retailers urging them to rigorously monitor price-gouging practices by online sellers using their services. The letter cited examples of an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer being sold for $40 on Facebook Marketplace and a two-liter bottle going for $250 on Craigslist.
While there has been an increase in calls related to price-gouging, Jensen says, “We’re making sure that aside from COVID-19, we are providing a timely response to the wide variety of issues that come through the hotline.”
In addition, Jensen has been making sure students in the program are continuing to gain experience virtually. The lecture component of the program has moved online and students are staying connected to their work at CAP through case study scenarios and tracking complaints they helped mediate earlier in the semester. Despite the new format, things appear to be going well, says Jensen, who recently received an email from a student noting the course remains “one of their favorites” in their college career.