When the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs found its state funding slashed by 72 percent over two years, its director was forced to let go dozens of staff members who help consumers who have been ripped off by shady businesses.
Among those was Bill Kadlowec, a 33-year veteran of the agency.
Known as “the car guy,” Kadlowec was South Carolina’s go-to guy when it came to odometer rollbacks and automobile title fraud.
Now, no one at the department works on these cases, said Danny Collins, deputy director for regulation and enforcement.
“We don’t have anyone here who knows how to develop cases like that,” Collins said. And, “we were the only ones in the state that did those.”
In three years, the state has cut its funding for Consumer Affairs to $623,117, down from $2,226,449, according to data from the Office of State Budget.
The state’s loss has been Richland County’s gain.
Sheriff Leon Lott hired Kadlowec as a part-time investigator in September. While Kadlowec will have a similar job at the Sheriff’s Department, his reach won’t be what it was at a statewide agency.
With odometer and title fraud, crooks selling a car are able to inflate its value by making the car seem to have less mileage than it actually does. Or they hide damage from collisions, floods and other incidents that cause a car to lose value. On average, ripped-off consumers lose about $2,600 on their car’s value through these types of fraud, Collins said.
“Any state that says they don’t have an odometer problem is not looking,” Kadlowec said.
Car fraud isn’t the only area that Consumer Affairs is struggling to cover.
Three agency investigators are responsible for regulating the state’s more than 200 mortgage brokers, 350 pawn shops, 500 fitness centers and 300 funeral homes that sell pre-need contracts. The agency once employed nine to oversee those businesses.
“We are trying to do it as best we can with what we’ve got,” Collins said.
The agency also acts as a mediator in disputes between consumers and businesses.
As a result of budget cuts, the agency is taking longer to process complaints and launch investigations. It also is returning less money to consumers.
Last year, the agency returned $668,884 to consumers, a 61 percent drop from three years ago.
Also last fiscal year, the number of complaints filed at the department dropped to 5,534, down from more than 8,000 the previous year. Even with a lighter caseload, the number of complaints left open at the end of last year increased by 35 percent from the previous year.
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips