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WASHINGTON—Gripes about home-improvement contractors, car sellers and car repair shops top the list of consumer complaints, according to a nationwide survey of consumer agency officials released Thursday.

Complaints about cell-phone contracts and solicitations are rising fast, however, based on an analysis of more than 400,000 complaints that poured in from 2003 to 2004 to member agencies of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators and to the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based coalition of 300 consumer groups.

Surging cell-phone frustrations are part of a cluster of telecommunications complaints that includes cable and satellite TV and landline phones, the survey found.

"People are so confused by their billing," said Elizabeth Owen, executive director of the consumer administrators group.

With worst first, here's the top consumer headaches:

_Home improvements, mainly bad workmanship and not living up to contracts.

_Automobile sales of new and used cars, including problems with warranties, advertising, financing and undisclosed mechanical problems.

_Automobile repairs, mainly faulty repairs, cost overruns and "ghost" repairs.

_Credit, particularly excessive interest and fees and predatory lending.

_Telecommunications, mainly disputes about contracts, solicitations and undisclosed charges

_Collections and billing, especially unscrupulous debt collection tactics or inaccurate records.

_Identity theft and deceptive practices, especially those using phony e-mails and Web sites.

_Internet-related issues, mainly e-commerce and scams.

_Major purchases of household goods, especially defective goods and dishonored warranties.

_Telemarketing and advertising sales practices, mainly deceptive advertising, sales and promotions.

While the top five complaints have remained virtually unchanged in recent years, identity theft was among the fastest-growing problems. Small-scale Internet frauds were another.

"Scams that rip off just a little money from a lot of people can end up taking a lot of money," said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for Consumer Federation.

Credit and financial fraud and Internet-related complaints are growing, too.

Among Internet-related complaints, the largest number involved online auctions, troublesome service providers, spam e-mail and a number of scams including "get rich quick" schemes and lotteries, the survey found.

"I think we are just seeing the beginning of this," Owen said of the Internet complaints.

On a brighter note, complaints about telemarketing declined. Owen attributed this to widespread use of the new federal Do Not Call Registry and similar state lists. Complaints about major appliances dropped, too.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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