NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Inside a small office at FOX 8, there's a lot of talking, a lot of listening and some brainstorming. Volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women who staff the FOX 8 Defenders fill the room. They tackle just about every kind of consumer concern you can imagine.
"We have had over 10,000 calls to us," Executive Director Susan Tramontana said. The volunteers' biggest cheerleader, she explained volunteers have answered 10,000 phone calls or online complaint forms over the last six years.
Stacks of blue cards fill the office. Each one represents a viewer, a local consumer, who needs help. It's hard to think about that much listening, that much advice given. The number of successes is huge as well, and that's what we thrive on," Tramontana said.
She says the FOX 8 Defenders have saved consumers nearly $2.5 million.
"Sometimes just listening, figuring out what their (consumer) problem is and sending them in the right direction - we call that a good response," explained one volunteer, Cindy.
If you call them over a weekend, it's likely you'll hear from her first thing on a Monday morning. "I usually come in and take all of the calls that we get over the weekend," she said.
Cindy is one of the many faces of the FOX 8 Defenders made up of 20 women and one man. They are former teachers, accountants, medical professionals and business owners to name a few careers, using their backgrounds to help people who may not know where to begin to look for answers. Along the way, they also educate people.
"Babs Isaacson was the creator, the founder of this program, and she insisted that we educate the people. Even though Babs passed on in 2015, everybody is committed to the program and continuing to educate the public," Tramontana said.
"I always ask what the problem is and how does the caller think we can help? Sometimes it's very easy for us to help with and sometimes it is really something that we can't do. If they need an attorney, we explain we aren't attorneys," Cindy explained.
In six years, the biggest case we've solved, in terms of money saved, comes from the North Shore in 2013. "I came in and our phone lines were dead," Sammy Gagliano said. Hackers tapped into his Covington business' toll-free phone line, racking up overseas calls, sending the company's monthly bill through the roof. "His bill for one day was $201,661.96," Tramontana said. The Defenders learned he needed a stronger password that didn't use remote access to voice mail. We helped the small business owner clear the line and that massive bill.
In Lafourche Parish, the FOX 8 Defenders exposed concerns of animal cruelty, animal noise violations and failure to vaccinate animals in our special "Hounded" report, which spanned months and months several years ago. Thibodaux property owner Chris Michot was convicted on several counts, and animal control officers seized more than 100 dogs from his property. The parish vet at the time, Lionel de la Houssaye, D.V.M., told us many of the dogs had heart worms, skin issues, and teeth and gum issues among other problems.
In Jefferson Parish, we uncovered a questionable limo company in 2014, advertising limos and limo buses. Instead of the fancy buses, drivers showed up for weddings and homecomings with old school buses. We also uncovered that business wasn't even registered with the state's Public Service Commission to transport passengers.
Earlier this year, some consumers across the state received reimbursement checks after the state attorney general settled with a national resort rental company we've exposed over the last five years. People financed vacation plans, yet they say Festiva never delivered on promises to book trips. Metairie consumer Joe Genovese received a $5,000 reimbursement check. He told us he didn't get to enjoy any benefit of his vacation plan and was never able to book a trip. "I tried, and I always hit blockades.. oh that week is booked or that whole resort for that week is booked," Genovese said. "The worst part of Festiva was our clients unknowingly signed a contract that committed them for 40 years worth of payments and special assessment fees every year," Tramontana said. There are dozens of other consumers who continue to fight Festiva after joining a class action lawsuit.
"If somebody really was wronged, and we call and we say we're the FOX 8 Defenders, most people listen up and will cooperate with us. I think a good reason that they cooperate with us is because of the support the station has invested in us," Cindy said.
They're taking action and getting results. One phone call at a time, the volunteers who define the FOX 8 Defenders are making a difference in our community. "We are a sounding board, a source of information, a source of help, and obviously a source of multiple successes," Tramontana said.