Should you hire a consumer advocate? 3 questions to ask

Here’s a familiar come-on: If you have an intractable problem with a business, you can “utilize our years of experience fighting fraud” to get a fast refund.

The catch? If these for-hire consumer advocates succeed, you’ll pay them a commission based on the amount of money they recover. Think of them as personal-injury lawyers “light.”

I’m waiting for the inevitable email from a reader, asking me if contacting one of these professional advocates is a good idea.

The answer: maybe.

This particular company — the actual name is unimportant — navigates some waters that are well-known to readers of this feature. They include government grant scams, foreclosure rescue scams, debt-collector scams and timeshare scams.

“We understand that the experience of getting ripped off by a company, whether over the phone, the Internet or in person, can be a traumatizing one,” the company says. “We have been victims, too.”

Here’s why the company’s name doesn’t matter: For the last 20-some years, I’ve seen for-hire advocates come and go. They use more or less the same business model. They pursue the bad guys, for a price.

Should you consider hiring one of these advocates? Here are a few questions to ask before contacting one:

Do I have a strong case?
No two ways about it: As with personal-injury lawyers, for-profit advocates are in it to make money. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that they may go after a business even when the business doesn’t deserve to be gone after. If you care about right and wrong, then this may bother you. It’s a little bit like hiring the best lawyer in order to win at all costs. A for-hire advocate may not care about how strong your case is. It’s more a question of whether the case is winnable.

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What’s the commission?
Many of these companies are intentionally vague about the amount of money you’ll have to pay if they’re successful. A thorough search of the company website finds no mention of the commission size. A recent press release, however, brags about it having “passed” the $15 million mark, in terms of money recovered for customers. But how much of that money actually went to the customers?

Can I do it myself for free?
Most customer-service problems can be quickly and easily resolved by going through the proper channels. Most angry consumers try to circumvent the process by calling the company for help, which unfortunately doesn’t create a paper trail. They also forget the basic rules of being your own advocate: being polite, asking for a reasonable resolution, and making sure you’re entitled to a resolution under the terms of a purchase. I repeat this advice almost every day on my consumer advocacy website, and with good reason: It’s easy to forget the basics when you’re mad. But if you don’t, you can resolve almost any problem yourself.

When should you consider hiring an outside advocate? When you’ve tried everything within your power to fix a problem, have a strong case and don’t mind paying for it. Think of it as an intermediary step between DIY and hiring an attorney.

Personally, I think the world needs more consumer advocates, and I don’t mind a little competition. I’d prefer them to work “pro bono,” which literally means, “for the public good” (and not necessarily without compensation). But hiring someone who does this for profit sure beats allowing a company to pocket your money.

Would you pay for the services of a consumer advocate?

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