Consumers are being put at risk because of a threat to the long-term viability of trading standards services, according to public spending experts.
Economic hardship means people need protection and help at a time when public finances are being squeezed across Scotland's 32 councils, the Accounts Commission said.
Trading Standards are there to protect the public in areas ranging from food poisoning to doorstep cons and internet fraud. About 1.3 million people a year in Scotland think they have reason to complain about goods or services but more than 500,000 of them do nothing to take unresolved complaints further.
John Baillie, chairman of the commission, said the problem is being tackled through councils group the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) but warned of a long-term threat. "We're currently living in a period of economic hardship, the very time consumers most need protection and help," he said.
"The longer-term threat to these vital services is worrying. I am pleased that councils through Cosla are considering the issues raised in this report. Councils are having to cope with severe financial pressures on all fronts and so they need to work together to find radical new ways of delivering these services and establish national standards. They should do this as a matter of urgency before it's too late and they can no longer prevent risks to consumers."
The warning was made in response to the findings of a report by public spending scrutiny body Audit Scotland. Spending on trading standards services is small at about £21 million a year, or less than 0.2% of councils' budgets, the report said.
Colin Borland, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the approach to local regulation in Scotland is not working. "This report backs our case, pointing out that a lack of national priorities, standards and reporting means that consumers aren't protected, while businesses are getting an inconsistent and confusing service," he said.
Stephen Hagan, chair of Cosla's consumer protection task group, said trading standards officers' work is provided for the equivalent of £7 per council taxpayer each year. "There is no doubt, and all the evidence confirms, that trading standards services in Scotland are providing consumers not only with excellent value for money but also have the potential to grow stronger over the next few years," he said. "Sadly, in these tough times, experience suggests that we are all, more than ever, at risk from scammers of various types."
Councils should not be complacent about the challenges ahead, he said. "Despite the undoubted challenges, Scotland remains a safe place and our trading standards professionals have had a leading role to play in achieving this," he said.
Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said: "Across Scotland, trading standards departments are quite an unrecognised resource among members of the public. Perhaps if there was more awareness about what they do, more people would be encouraged to get in touch to protect the reputable businesses and weed out the rogues. It's up to local authorities to protect these departments and make sure they are in a position to make sure they can properly monitor the businesses in their areas."