What can a wronged consumer do to make a situation right? What's a reasonable response? What counts as an overreaction?
Those are perennial questions with no simple answers facing anyone who deals with consumer problems. But two recent events highlight what you might call consumerism's Goldilocks problem - the risks of responses that are too hard or too soft.
Too hard comes illustrated by Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard business professor and Internet researcher who was flamed across the Web last week for complaining about a $4 overcharge by a Chinese restaurant outside Boston. Yes, you read that right. Four bucks.
Edelman's ire was fueled when restaurateur Ran Duan explained the discrepancy by saying the Sichuan Garden's online menu had been "out of date for quite some time." Calling that evidence of a business that "intentionally overcharges," Edelman sought a refund of $12 - "treble damages" in legal lingo - to compensate him for willful violations of Massachusetts consumer-protection law.
Edelman is a respected investigator of Internet abuses such as spyware, and it's hard to contest his underlying point: Businesses have a duty to post accurate prices. That's especially crucial on the Web, where consumers routinely go to comparison-shop.
On the other hand, they're probably not choosing Chinese restaurants by the price of shredded chicken with spicy garlic sauce. While we can hope this hoo-ha reminds companies to keep online prices up to date, it was also easy to agree with Edelman's eventual mea culpa - calling his own reaction "way out of line" - issued after his exchange with Duan went viral.
So if Edelman's reaction was too hard, what's too soft? That's a trickier question, but here's one nomination: laws that establish consumer rights but offer limited means of enforcing them.
For an example close to home, consider Gov. Christie's "conditional veto" of two bills the New Jersey Legislature recently passed. One would protect consumers from unwanted commercial texts. The other would bar businesses from sending unsolicited checks to lure consumers into enrolling in clubs or other services that generate recurring fees.
Christie's veto messages last month didn't challenge the aim of either bill, both cosponsored by Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty, the Turnersville Democrat who chairs the lower chamber's Consumer Affairs Committee. Instead, Christie objected to a potential means of enforcement - that violations of either law would trigger penalties starting at $10,000 and allow suits under the state's Consumer Fraud Act.
As I wrote earlier this fall, that law is under fire from business groups that say it gives consumer lawyers too much incentive to file lawsuits. If they succeed, violators can be forced to pay attorneys' fees as well as damages.
Christie suggested neither violation fit the purpose of the law, which he said was typically "reserved for fraudulent, deceptive, misleading, or other unconscionable business practices." In both cases, he suggested a $500 fine for an initial violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation - and with the only enforcement by the Attorney General's Office.
Moriarty told me Friday he planned to introduce compromise bills this week that would allow enforcement under the Consumer Fraud Act, but only for the third and subsequent violations.
Let's stipulate that Moriarty knows these aren't the biggest problems facing consumers. He considers the texts invasive - an aggressive new marketing tactic worth nipping in the bud. He calls the checks "a nefarious kind of marketing scheme" - that even tricked the wife of a lobbyist who opposed the bill at a hearing. Some seem to come from companies linked to credit-card issuers, so the recurrent charges may appear out of the blue - the business already has your card.
His chief difference with the governor is over enforcement - in particular, whether to empower consumers and private lawyers to "help monitor the bad actors."
Maybe $10,000 is too big a penalty for an illegal text. As Edelman (and Goldilocks) learned, hitting the right balance is key.
But allowing private suits under the Consumer Fraud Act? That sounds just right to me.