NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The FOX 8 Defenders wrap up a sixth year working with WVUE, saving consumers more than $250,000 in 2016. From utility and IRS phone scams, to devastating changes to the state's solar tax credit program, we've covered a range of issues, trying to educate consumers along the way. Here's a brief look back at some of our top stories this year.
A group of squatters pleaded guilty in December to criminal trespassing after taking over a Bywater man's home earlier this year.
"It seems unfair that a property owner would have to go through something like this with someone who has no right to it," homeowner Frederick Hines told FOX 8 in February.
The FOX 8 Defenders were first to expose the group that removed Hines' "for sale" sign and posted their own signs, which read "no trespassing. Washitah Mu'ur." Before police raided the place, Hines showed us his $5,000 property tax receipt to prove the property was his. I tried knocking on the front door to talk to the group, but got no answer. Days later, all four were in handcuffs.
After more digging, the FOX 8 Defenders learned the four people police removed from that Bywater home were part of a larger group, claiming other nearby homes.
"I have seen the ones...they (are) on Independence and Marais and they been over...almost three years," one resident, who did not want to be identified, told us.
We found at least two more properties, both in the nearby Marigny, with similar no trespassing'notices posted. They read "Property claimed by Mu'ur Nation" and again, "Claimed by Washitaw Mu'ur."
"We got information from Homeland Security and FBI. We know that they are claiming to be part of a sovereign citizen society where they have no regard or respect for any local, state or federal laws," explained NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison.
In March, the state attorney general settled a lawsuit against a national resort rental company the FOX 8 Defenders have looked into for five years.
"We'd like to hand you with this check and get you money back," Attorney General Jeff Landry told one Metairie consumer.
Joe Genovese is one of several people who received a reimbursement check for thousands of dollars. Like consumers we've interviewed across the state over the last few years, Genovese says he dished out thousands of dollars to become a Festiva member. That membership he says came with a contract to finance a vacation plan. After recurring payments, many say Festiva never delivered on promises to book vacations in and out of the country.
Genovese said he couldn't book a single trip.
"I tried, and I always hit blockades - 'Oh that week is booked,' or 'That whole resort for that week is booked.' I'd say, 'Let me talk to your manager,' and I could never get to next level," Genovese told us.
In April, the FOX 8 Defenders explained how a Plaquemines Parish man lost nearly $12,000 to one of the biggest scams to hit the U.S. Troy Barron says that's how much money he lost to a scammer over the phone, claiming to be with the IRS.
"'They said you are in trouble with the IRS, you owe back taxes. You owe a lot of money, and your choice is you either pay it right now or we have no choice but to send you to jail,'" explained Barron.
He used a money transfer service at a convenience store to send the caller his money. The Better Business Bureau says the IRS phone scam has topped their list of scams.
"They're (callers) coming from out of the country because of such a thing that's called spoofing on the telephone. These people have a device that can make it look like your next door neighbor is calling you, and they're calling you from way overseas," the BBB's Cynthia Albert said.
In October, dozens were arrested in India for running fake call centers targeting Americans with the IRS phone scam. We can't stress enough, the IRS will never call you about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
In July, the FOX 8 Defenders uncovered that thousands of drivers in New Orleans got hit with hefty school zone tickets after schools were out for summer break.
"I really don't believe it to be fair because there's no school in session so why is the lights still on? and why are you (City) still issuing out tickets if there's no school at this time?" asked driver Annette Johnson. The city told the FOX 8 Defenders, a total of "3,232 traffic tickets were issued in error." A city spokesperson added that tickets were later dismissed and those already paid were to be refunded.
Also over the summer, the FOX 8 Defenders were first to explain how hundreds of families who invested in the state's solar tax credit program in 2015 would not receive tax credits as expected this year after all because legislators changed the law mid-year, putting a cap on the amount of money the state would refund. That cap ran out almost immediately.
Now a class action lawsuit has been filed against the Louisiana Department of Revenue, claiming the measure to cap the program was an unconstitutional taking of a vested property right.
Also in 2016, the FOX 8 Defenders celebrated it's 6th year working with WVUE-TV. The consumer advocacy program staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women reached an exciting milestone, saving consumers nearly $2.5 million
One phone call at a time, the volunteers who define the 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," Executive Dir. Susan Tramontana said.
The FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women also field consumer complaints at 1-877-670-6397 or you can fill out an online complaint form.