TRENTON — Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division of Consumer Affairs (“Division”) today provided a look back at the 2023 enforcement initiatives undertaken by the Division to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices in industries that historically generate a high volume of consumer complaints in New Jersey each year.
Employing a strategy of targeted crackdowns, taskforce sweeps, and undercover investigations carried out by its Office of Consumer Protection (“OCP”), the Division focused enforcement on some of the State’s most complained-about industries: home improvement, public movers, and motor vehicle sales. The Division also exercised its enforcement authority to halt predatory towing practices and safeguard vulnerable populations served by New Jersey’s health care service firms.
“The Division of Consumer Affairs takes its consumer protection mission seriously and works hard all year to root out unconscionable and deceptive business practices and hold violators accountable,” said Attorney General Platkin. “Today we’re highlighting some of the key enforcement efforts undertaken the last year to ensure businesses and merchants are complying with the laws requiring fairness and transparency in New Jersey’s marketplace.”
“The Division’s Office of Consumer Protection is on the front line of our enforcement efforts,” said Cari Fais, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “By strategically focusing enforcement in industries with widespread consumer dissatisfaction, the Division is working to improve the lives of all New Jersey residents.”
Home Improvement Contractors
Complaints involving home improvement contractors (“HICs”) always rank high on the list of complaints received by the Division each year.
Last year, the Division resolved 133 cases of alleged consumer protection violations by HICs through settlements and other final orders that assessed contractors a total of $2.36 million in civil penalties, consumer restitution, attorney’s fees, and investigative costs.
The orders resolve allegations that the HICs violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), Contractor Registration Act, and Regulations Governing Home Improvement Practices, through conduct that included: performing home improvements without being registered as a home improvement contractor with the Division; failing to provide consumers with detailed, written contracts; accepting consumer payments and then failing to begin or complete the home improvements; performing the contracted-for home improvement work in a substandard manner, and then failing to make the necessary corrective repairs; and failing to include on invoices, contracts, and correspondence the toll-free telephone numbers provided by the Division for consumers making inquiries concerning contractors.
State law requires HICs to display their registration number on commercial vehicles, in advertisements, on their websites, and on consumer contracts. HICs also are required to provide consumers with written contracts for work in excess of $500. Under State regulations, the contract must include specific information, such as start and completion dates, all work to be performed, and the specific products to be used.
The investigations were conducted by Investigators Raquel Davis-Williams, Matthew Reilley, Barby Menna, Brittany Crosta, Marilyn Rojas, and Thomas Golda, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator Joseph Iasso, within OCP’s Home Improvement Enforcement Unit.
Deputy Attorneys General from the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, under the supervision of Assistant Section Chief Chanel Van Dyke and Section Chief Jesse J. Sierant of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, within the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group of the Division of Law, represented the State in the settlements and orders resolving these matters.
The Division receives hundreds of consumer complaints against moving companies each year for alleged conduct ranging from lost, damaged, or delayed deliveries to refusing to release customers’ belongings unless they paid significantly more than the quoted price. To better protect consumers from rogue movers operating outside the Division’s regulatory authority, in August 2023, OCP’s Registered Business Enforcement Unit launched “Operation Safe Move,” an undercover enforcement initiative targeting companies that had a history of complaints.
As part of the four-day undercover initiative, movers advertising on various websites were booked for a “job” transporting personal possessions of investigators posing as consumers.
Operation Safe Move identified 34 unlicensed moving companies that were subsequently issued Notices of Violations (“NOVs”) for failing to register their businesses with the Division. The NOVs assessed $5,000 civil penalties against 33 of the companies, while one company was assessed a $10,000 civil penalty as a second-time violator.
Under the CFA, Public Movers and Warehousemen Licensing Act, and related regulations, companies transporting goods in moves that begin and end in New Jersey must be licensed by the Division. They are also required to maintain cargo liability insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, and bodily injury and property damage insurance. Additionally, they are required to provide consumers with a written estimate of the costs of the move, register each moving vehicle they use in New Jersey, and keep the vehicles properly marked and insured, in compliance with State regulations.
The investigations were carried out by Investigators Vincent Buonanno and Barby Menna, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator Murat Botas, within OCP’s Regulated Business Enforcement Section.
Deputy Attorneys General Deepta Janardhan and Christopher Meyer, under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General/Assistant Section Chief Chanel Van Dyke of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, within the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group of the Division of Law, represented the State in this taskforce.
Historically, grievances pertaining to motor vehicles have appeared high on the Division’s annual Top Ten list of consumer complaints, with a significant portion of them involving the advertising and sale of new and used automobiles.
In 2023, the Division wrapped up OCP investigations of 15 auto dealerships allegedly engaging in practices that violated the CFA, the Motor Vehicle Advertising Regulations, the Automotive Sales Practices Regulations, and/or the Used Car Lemon Law. The alleged violations include: failing to list prior accidents, damage, and repairs made to vehicles; failing to honor the advertised price of a used car; charging excessive vehicle preparation fees that were not itemized or properly disclosed to the consumer; failing to provide a written warranty; and failing to disclose the full sale price of a motor vehicle.
Thirteen dealerships settled the allegations against them by agreeing to consent orders totaling $478,308.59 in civil penalties, consumer restitution, and investigative costs. Individual settlement amounts ranged from $6,500 to $75,000 per dealership. Two dealerships were issued final orders of default seeking a combined $72,750.93 in penalties, restitution, and costs. In addition to making the required monetary payments, under the terms of the orders, dealerships must refrain from engaging in any unfair or deceptive acts or practices, comply with all applicable state and federal laws, and resolve consumer complaints.
The investigations were conducted by Investigators Kelly Fennell, Angela Medina, Kristen Reilley, and Gregory Zeichner, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator James Dobak, within OCP’s Commercial Fraud Unit.
Deputy Attorneys General Donna Dorgan, Andrew F. Esoldi, James M. Greenberg, Sara J. Koste, Jeffrey Koziar, Monisha Kumar, Cathleen O’Donnell, Leslie Prentice, Erica Salerno, and Bryan S. Sanchez, under the Supervision of Section Chief Jesse J. Sierant of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, within the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group of the Division of Law, represented the State in the settlements and orders resolving these matters.
In other auto-related enforcement efforts, the Division resolved investigations into 12 towing companies in 2023 through settlements and final orders totaling $84,818.32 in penalties, costs, and restitution.
Investigations conducted by OCP’s Towing Task Force revealed that the companies engaged in business practices that violated the CFA and New Jersey’s predatory towing prevention law, including: improper record retention; charging unauthorized or excessive fees; towing cars from lots lacking required signage; and failing to make reasonable accommodation for after-hours release of stored vehicles, as required by law.
New Jersey’s Predatory Towing Prevention Act, which became effective on April 15, 2009, regulates towing from private property and towing initiated by law enforcement that occur without the prior consent of the towed vehicle’s owner or operator.
The law prohibits towing companies from, among other things, charging an unreasonable or excessive fee; failing to release a vehicle hooked or lifted, but not actually removed from private property, upon request of the vehicle’s owner; and paying for information about vehicles parked without authorization.
Additionally, unattended cars cannot be towed from private parking lots unless there is a sign posted at the vehicular entrance of the property that states, among other things, the times when parking is permitted; that unauthorized parking is prohibited; the name and contact information for the towing company that is responsible for towing unauthorized vehicles; and the charges for towing and storage, along with the times that the vehicle can be retrieved. The business office of the facility where a vehicle is towed must be open to the public between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. at least five days a week, and the company must make reasonable accommodations for after-hours release of stored vehicles.
The investigations were conducted by Investigators Kristen Reilley and Angela Medina, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator James Dobak, within OCP’s Commercial Fraud Unit.
Deputy Attorneys General Renee Cadmus, Donna Dorgan, Monica E. Finke, Jeffrey Koziar, Yale A. Leber, Bryan Sanchez, under the Supervision of Assistant Section Chief Chanel Van Dyke and Section Chief Jesse J. Sierant of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, within the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group of the Division of Law, represented the State in the settlements and orders resolving these matters.
Health Care Service Firms
In 2023, OCP’s Health Care Service Firm Investigative Unit (“HCSFIU”) initiated a statewide enforcement sweep aimed at protecting the vulnerable individuals who rely on in-home health care services.
Over the course of several months, HCSFIU members conducted investigations and compliance inspections of registered Health Care Service Firms that place caregivers in the homes of seniors, individuals with disabilities, and others in need of in-home care.
The sweep resulted in NOVs assessing a total $173,500 in civil penalties against 24 firms for alleged violations of the State’s laws and regulations governing their operation. The violations include improper record keeping; failing to have an appropriately licensed person establish a patient Plan of Care (“POC”) prior to placing a health care practitioner in a home; failing to conduct required in-home evaluations of POCs; failing to make placements consistent with the level of care indicated in the POC; and/or sending uncertified or otherwise unqualified caregivers into patients’ homes.
Health Care Service Firms must be registered with the Division and are inspected and investigated by the Office of Consumer Protection’s HCSFIU. The Unit was formed in 2014 to ensure that a cadre of investigators with specialized knowledge could undertake meaningful investigations to protect vulnerable New Jerseyans receiving care in their homes.
The investigations were conducted by OCP Investigators Cicely Eadie and Kenya Mutyanda, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator Ronald Regen, within OCP’s Health Care Service Firm Investigative Unit.
Deputy Attorneys General from the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, under the supervision of Assistant Section Chief Chanel Van Dyke and Section Chief Jesse J. Sierant of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section, within the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group of the Division of Law, represented the State in these matters.
Consumers who believe that a business is in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act are encouraged to file an online complaint. Consumers can also call 1-800-242-5846 to receive a complaint form by mail.
The mission of the Division of Consumer Affairs, within the Department of Law and Public Safety, is to protect the public from fraud, deceit, misrepresentation and professional misconduct in the sale of goods and services in New Jersey through education, advocacy, regulation and enforcement. The Division pursues its mission through its 51 professional and occupational boards that oversee approximately 750,000 licensees in the state, its Regulated Business section that oversees 60,000 NJ registered businesses, as well as through its Office of Consumer Protection, Bureau of Securities, Charities Registration section, Office of Weights and Measures, and Legalized Games of Chance section.