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The Watchdog: Dear Mom, 2017 was a very bad year for consumers

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Dear Mom,

I always fret that you, up there in heaven, don't see my work as The Watchdog. So I hope you don't mind if I take a moment to fill you in on how Watchdog Nation fared in 2017.

We consumers had a rough year. We aimed high, but kept shooting low. I'll share three new tools I found that can make us stronger consumers, but first the bad news.

Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus, admitted that somebody stole the personal information of more than 140 million Americans. It's the mother of all data breaches, and a lot of folks freaked and learned how to put a security freeze on their credit accounts.

It's strange. There hasn't been a burst of resulting ID thefts. Not yet. Are the crooks laying low? Waiting to see.

Roofers' crime spree

Mom, sometimes my partner Marina Trahan Martinez and I feel like we're knocking our heads against a wall with nothing to show for it. (Sort of like calling AT&T customer service.)

We gathered a group of more than a thousand of our "citizens of Watchdog Nation" and tried to get a few state laws passed. We organized a Facebook group called "Dallas News Watchdog Posse" (ask to join and we'll approve) and also an email newsletter list (write to to be included).

We had shared goals. Many of us want a system to regulate roofers. Dishonest ones engage in a crime spree here in the Lone Scam State. Without rules, Texas is easy pickings.

A state legislator from Hill Country named John Kuempel made sure the roofing bill didn't get out of his committee. The Seguin Republican deceived us by telling us to limit testimony to several people, and then dropped the rules so opponents could testify as long as a roofer's ladder. We could have filled a bus with people, but he cheated us out of our moment to share at the Texas Capitol.

Note to earthlings: If you get cheated on a roof deal, send a thank-you note to state Rep. John Kuempel, 523 E. Donegan St., Seguin, TX 78155.

Still powerless

Mom, we tried to get improvements on shopping for electricity pushed through the Legislature. The marketplace is cluttered with confusing and sometimes deceptive offers that baffle even the brightest people. We're supposed to be helped by the Public Utility Commission, but I took the word "Public" out of their title because they don't care about us.

The UC told lawmakers the system works fine. Yeah, for the electric companies that create extra fees to cheat their way to profitability.

Property tax bombs

Same thing happened with our goal to reform the state's property tax system and make it less random. Now the system rests on the shoulders of overworked appraisers who've never seen your house. Property taxes are increasing at record levels. But they're based on guesses, not actual true value. If you don't protest, you probably pay more than your neighbor who does. I call it a sucker's game.

Mom, I get thousands of emails and letters a year from readers who let me know what's on their minds. Many want to stop annoying robocalls, but the more we try, the worse that problem gets.

What I'm saying is this: Someone who is shopping for a new electricity contract, needs a new roof, is paying higher property taxes and answers a lot of robocalls — well, I'm not helping them as much as I'd like.

New tools

Good news. I discovered terrific tools for consumers this year. All three are new and can make a positive difference in self-protection.

Google unveiled a new service called Local Services by Google. Google now awards a "Badge of Trust" to its home contractors who advertise and are deemed reliable. Those with the Google guarantee display a white check in a green circle.

Look for it in Google search results for contractors, plumbers, electricians, garage door techs (yes!), locksmiths, painters, home cleaners and heating and air-conditioning repair companies.

No roofers. Not yet. (Please, Google!)

The U.S. Postal Service released a great tool that sends you an email every morning with a picture of the outside of each of the envelopes you'll receive from a carrier later that day. It's called Informed Delivery, and it's free. It's cool to see your mail before you get it.

The third tool is a new state law called The Protection of Vulnerable Adults From Financial Exploitation Act. For the first time, bankers and financial advisers are given specific authority to intervene if they think an elderly or disabled person is being scammed. So if Grandma goes to her bank to withdraw $5,000 to wire to someone in Jamaica who promised her millions in lottery winnings, the banker can put a halt to the transaction for further investigation. Authorities are also supposed to be notified.

The bill comes from a local rep, Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound.

My favorite interview of the year was with former Irving Mayor Herb Gears. It took an hour, but in the end, he admitted he was behind an anonymous campaign mailing that I called "one of the most dishonest political hit pieces ever circulated."

The mailer was fake news, but our Watchdog stories aren't. Mom, we heard a lot of griping this year about a free press. We're right in the middle of the battle. Our fact-based journalism isn't cheap, and I wonder if public support will continue to allow us to continue as watchdogs.

Oh, Mom, the family sends their love and misses you. If you can fix any of these problems while you're up there, go for it. Get those angel wings.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.


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Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265