Consumer Action INSIDER - April 2016

 

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

Just a word of thanks for an informative [IP telephone transition and Internet privacy] Train the Trainer session. The information Consumer Action provided was excellent both in content and in presentation. Thank you for being the considerate, conscientious, well informed and vibrant presenters you are. I truly enjoyed the training and plan to use the information both personally and professionally. — Andrea R. Brice, Senator Philip D. Lewis Center, West Palm Beach, FL

Did you know?

It's getting more expensive for drivers to file even one auto insurance claim where they were at fault, with their annual premiums spiking on average 44 percent nationally after they do so. Rates can remain higher for three to five years, depending on the severity of the claim. Thankfully, not all kinds of claims cause huge spikes. To learn more, read the findings of a recent study conducted by insuranceQuotes.com and Quadrant Information Services.

Out and About: CFPB director takes hot seat again

Consumer Action attended a lengthy hearing on March 17 at which members of the House Financial Services Committee grilled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray on the goals, management and progress of the Bureau. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is tasked with regulating banks, lenders and others in the financial marketplace under the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Dodd-Frank (and the CFPB it created) imposed new regulations and oversight on financial institutions in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Since its creation, the CFPB has recouped more than $11 billion dollars for upwards of 25 million consumers who lost money to banks and credit card companies, predatory lenders, debt collectors and auto lenders. In addition to its regulatory/enforcement work, the CFPB offers consumers advice and assistance, provides an online portal to submit complaints and publishes reports on emerging trends and threats relevant to the financial landscape.

“From a consumer advocacy and protection perspective, the Bureau is a godsend,” said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action. “Prior to its creation, banking regulators were mostly focused on the safety and soundness of the banking system, which is necessary, but they failed to pay enough attention to consumer protection as the market filled with abusive and predatory loans that brought the global financial industry to its knees. The Bureau has changed that—consumer protection is central to its mission.”

At the hearing, Consumer Action joined supporters of the Bureau, who donned green T-shirts declaring: “The CFPB has my back.”

It’s no secret that many Republicans in Congress have fought to weaken the CFPB’s ability to regulate the financial industry. This momentum was clear in the hearing as GOP members barraged Cordray with hostile questions, which he answered calmly for the most part. Occasionally, he appeared frustrated when some of the more contentious members repeatedly interrupted and cut off his attempts to answer questions.

In GOP members’ crosshairs were the Bureau’s plans to regulate payday lenders, the renovation of the Bureau’s DC headquarters, and its efforts to end unintentional auto loan discrimination.

Democratic committee members were largely supportive of the CFPB, particularly of its work to protect and educate low-income and minority populations. Many countered their Republican colleagues’ accusations that the CFPB was overreaching in its congressionally mandated charge to rein in bad business.

Cordray did not stray from the message that the Bureau exists to protect and educate consumers, help level the playing field for all participants and fulfill its obligations and mission under Dodd-Frank. He noted that the CFPB “strives to act in ways that are fair, reasonable and transparent.”

“Sadly, support for the CFPB, and even consumer protection, has become a party-line issue,” said Sherry. “Many of the most vitriolic opponents on the committee receive campaign contributions from banks and lenders with an ax to grind at the Bureau.”

Consumer Action (@consumeraction), along with a coalition of consumer advocacy groups called Americans for Financial Reform (@RealBankReform), live-tweeted the event (which garnered a good amount of media coverage) under the hashtag #DefendCFPB. We encourage readers to follow us on social media and sign up for our email alerts for ongoing updates and opportunities to support the CFPB.

Amicus Briefing: Generic acne drugs and iPhone privacy

In recent months, Consumer Action has submitted “friend of the court” (amicus) briefs in two important court cases that impact consumers. We also learned of a positive outcome in a case in which we previously submitted a brief.

College ‘gainful employment’ regulation upheld. On March 8 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected an appeal by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) for a review of its lawsuit to shut down the U.S. Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule. In order to be eligible for federal student loan dollars, the rule requires colleges to ensure that they give students adequate qualifications to find jobs in their degree field. Strong gainful employment rules are designed to help federal student aid borrowers avoid taking on debt to attend education programs that mislead them about future job eligibility and leave them jobless and saddled with student loan debt after graduation. Earlier this year, Consumer Action joined a wide range of groups in submitting an amicus brief to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the defendant, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Read the decision.

In support of Apple and consumers in FBI iPhone case. Last month eight consumer organizations, including Consumer Action, signed an amicus brief written by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) arguing that an order to compel Apple to undo encryption features on iPhones places millions of cell phone users at risk of criminal hackers, identity thieves and others. The brief was filed March 3 in the U.S District Court for the Central District of California (Eastern Division). Read the brief.

Drugmaker’s ‘product hopping’ scheme violates antitrust laws. Last fall, Consumer Action joined an amicus brief in the Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Warner Chilcott plc, et. al. case (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit) urging a reversal of a lower court’s ruling that stated it was not anticompetitive to tweak a drug coming off patent restrictions to make it seem new. The Warner Chilcott and Mylan Pharmaceuticals drugmakers are accused of actively discouraging use of generic versions of Doryx (doxycycline) acne medication by suppressing competition with insignificant reformulations. The Third Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision. Read the brief.

Hotline Chronicles: Kitchen stove becomes ‘hot’ issue

A Maine woman reached out to Consumer Action’s hotline last month to find out how to report what she suspected was a product defect. Nanny* from Maine specifically asked what she could do about her new Whirlpool gas range (stove). “[The outside] becomes too hot [to the touch] when the oven is on,” Nanny told us. “It heats up to 170 degrees!”

Nanny called a technician three times and was told it was safe. However, she said she “strongly disagreed” and felt that she was “at great risk of being burned” because she could not touch the outside handle without an oven mitt. Nanny also saw soot on the stove, which led her to believe the stove's insulation was breaking down. “The stove is unsafe and should be investigated,” Nanny wrote.

Nanny called Whirlpool and wrote a letter to the company’s board of directors, which has so far gone unanswered. At the time of this writing, she has not been able to get anyone to agree that the appliance is not operating properly.

Most consumer appliances for sale in North America feature a CSA mark, which demonstrates that a sample product has been certified to applicable standards. These standards are written or administered by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), CSA Group (CSA) or other applicable standard-setting entities.

The maximum temperature for a range set at 400°F for at least an hour is 172°F on oven glass, 160°F on porcelain enamel and 152°F on bare or painted metal. Higher temperatures are permitted on plastic surface parts and those that are more than three feet off the floor, apparently because small children can’t reach them easily. (No temperature limits apply on the cooktop, “lower console” or oven vent areas.)

Based on what Nanny described, we recommended she submit a complaint to both the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the CSA Group.

When we initially called the CSA and ANSI organizations looking for the most up-to-date standards, we were told that we’d have to purchase a guide to learn the “minimum surface temperature requirements.” One representative told us that consumers didn’t need to know the actual surface temperature standards, because if the product carries the standards brand it is safe for use. Eventually we were able to reach a helpful “mark integrity” investigator at CSA Group, who supplied us with the temperature standards mentioned above, but warned that testing the temperatures was not something a consumer could easily do at home.

An online search found that many consumers have posted questions about kitchen range surface temperatures on various Internet forums.

Finally, we expressed concern that Nanny received no response after writing to the Whirlpool board of directors and suggested she write again to Jeff M. Fettig, CEO, Whirlpool Corporation, 2000 N. M-63, Benton Harbor, MI, 49022-2692.

“Companies need to do a better job at responding to consumers,” said Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry. “Whirlpool could have easily assured this customer that the surface temperature was within the limits allowed, if that’s the case.”

*Not this consumer’s real name.

Celebrating National Consumer Protection Week 2016

For the last 18 years, during early March, National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) has served as a time to encourage consumers to learn about their rights, make informed buying decisions, and report scams, identity theft and unfair business practices.

NCPW began on March 6 this year and Consumer Action—working with more than 100 federal, state and local agencies, consumer groups and national organizations—highlighted efforts to protect consumers from fraud, identity theft and other consumer perils by curating a selection of pertinent publications and promoting the event on our Twitter feed via hashtag #NCPW2016 and on our Facebook page. Featured publications included guides on how to build credit, speak to debt collectors, file consumer complaints and avoid ID theft. (To see the full list, visit our NCPW website series.)

Our partners included the sponsor of NCPW, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), many state attorneys general, non-profit organizations including AARP and the National Cyber Security Alliance, and government agencies including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Together, the coalition partners work to keep the public safe by providing free educational materials and resources geared toward raising awareness and promoting safer business practices all year long.

The NCPW.gov site offers information on a wide range of topics, including credit and debt, online safety, imposter and other scams, identity theft and more. The site also features an informative blog that updates visitors on the latest consumer protection news, including legal actions, new resources and partner-sponsored NCPW events, like the FTC’s recent webinar for Capitol Hill staffers. This year, the Hill event provided Congressional staff with information on the latest consumer scams and access to helpful resources for constituents.

“The FTC and our NCPW partners are on the front lines of consumer protection every day,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We hope people will take advantage of the week to find resources that will help them fight scams and fraud in their communities all year long.”

President Obama echoed the importance of consumer empowerment through education in his official National Consumer Protection Week proclamation, saying: “Throughout this week, let us celebrate the core values of honesty and fair play by upholding the basic American bargain—that hard work should pay off and responsibility should be rewarded. Together, we can ensure nobody is financially taken advantage of and everybody has an equal opportunity to go as far as their dreams and talents will take them.”

To access free partner publications, for more information or for ideas on how you can get involved with next year’s National Consumer Protection Week, visit NCPW.gov.

Consumer Action publications address privacy for connected consumers

The ways we interact with others and how we view video have changed drastically from even a handful of years ago, but privacy awareness and protection have not necessarily kept up. While the Internet has given consumers far more choices, it has also raised new concerns. To heighten consumers’ awareness of the privacy issues around some of their daily activities, and to help them make wise choices when using technology, Consumer Action has created two new educational publications.

In “What’s not to “Like”? Protecting your privacy on social media,” users of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks learn about the potential consequences of oversharing—for example, having your home burglarized because you tweeted that you would be away on vacation all week or having your college application rejected because a shared photo shows you engaging in some questionable behavior. The publication explains what type of sharing is strictly off limits, provides a list of 16 effective social media privacy dos and don’ts, guides readers through personalizing their account and app privacy settings, and lists more than a dozen resources where consumers can learn more about staying safe online.

The second publication, “Watch out! Online video and your privacy,” focuses on video streaming/video sharing technology and pay-TV accounts. While consumers now have more viewing choices—video on demand, anywhere you want to watch—they also have more opportunities for their personal information to be misused or their viewing history to be monitored and even shared. The fact sheet points out, for each section—streaming services, pay-TV accounts, smart-TVs and livestreaming/video sharing—which middlemen are likely to have access to your personal information and how they might misuse it; which (rather limited) laws offer some privacy protections; and specific steps to take to increase your viewing and account privacy.

Both publications are currently available in English as PDF downloads. After the brochures have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, we will offer printed copies of all languages, in bulk, to community-based organizations (CBOs) at no charge. (Consumer Action plans to distribute 100,000-125,000 printed copies.) An announcement will be made on our website and via email to the nearly 7,000 community-based organizations in our network when we are ready to accept orders.

The publications are part of a full training module, which will include, in addition to the two fact sheets, a trainer’s manual (answers to frequently asked questions), a training curriculum (a lesson plan and learning activities for group presentations) and a companion PowerPoint presentation, which adds a visual element to the training. The full module will be available this summer. The newly created module will be posted on Consumer Action’s main [www.consumer-action.org] and privacy [www.privacy-information.org] websites for free download. We’ll promote the online module through our grassroots email alerts, on social media and in website posts.

The new materials are being developed with financial support from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, based in Oakland, California. “The Rose Foundation has been a stalwart champion of underserved communities and a crucial source of funding to Consumer Action in our work to empower low-to-moderate-income and multilingual consumers in the marketplace,” said Ken McEldowney, Consumer Action’s executive director. “We applaud the Rose Foundation’s commitment and are appreciative to have the support of such an esteemed organization.” Over the years, Consumer Action has received a number of Rose Foundation grants to help us educate consumers on financial and marketplace issues, most recently for projects related to medical privacy and accessible banking services.

Coalition Efforts: Student rights, GMO labeling and more

Senate bill threatens consumers’ right to know what they eat. A proposed bill in Congress (S 2609) would strip states’ rights to require genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling and instead makes all such labeling voluntary. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) Act (HR 1599) by a vote of 275-150 last July and sent it to the Senate, where it stalled in the Agriculture committee. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas introduced the Senate version of the DARK Act, and Consumer Action joined coalition advocates in expressing concern that if this legislation becomes law, consumers will lose their ability to make informed choices on the foods they purchase as they will be unaware of how the food is made and their ability to go to court to fight misleading labels. Learn more.

What is the Department of Education waiting for? Coalition advocates sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education urging the agency to quickly and efficiently discharge the federal loans of students who were scammed and defrauded under current regulations. The advocates also proposed regulations that would make it easier for such borrowers to get the relief they are entitled to under existing law. Learn more.

FCC must fill ‘void’ in Internet privacy protection. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), consumer and privacy groups urged the agency, which is expected to commence a broadband Internet privacy rulemaking, to protect consumers and succeed where other regulators have failed. The letter warns that under current rules, companies like Verizon and Comcast can leverage their position as Internet gatekeepers to harness and use private customer data without proper oversight. Learn more.

Education Department should protect students, not the schools that harm them. The for-profit college industry should not be able to profit from federal tax dollars while defrauding its students and, ultimately, escaping liability by hampering the exercise of those students’ legal rights through forced arbitration clauses which deny the students a fair day in court. A coalition of advocates including Consumer Action recently expressed serious concern about the impact of forced arbitration proceedings—including the secrecy surrounding them—on the department’s ability to identify and address fraud. Private arbitration shields critical information from public view and regulators, and has allowed corrupt for-profit schools like Corinthian Colleges to escape accountability. Learn more.

FTC Holder Rule strengthens consumer rights against fraud. Consumer Action, along with a coalition of advocates, has described the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) Holder Rule as the agency’s most effective tool against fraud. In a recent letter to the FTC, advocates urged the agency to preserve the Holder Rule to assist consumers in the ongoing struggle to curb unfair or abusive business practices. Advocates also asked the FTC to reiterate the rule’s key features and the remedies that it makes available to consumers. Finally, we asked the FTC to consider our recommendations to facilitate effective application of the rule. Learn more.

Class Action Database: Over-hyped identity theft ‘protection’

Consumer Action’s Class Action Database is now searchable by name of company being sued, an enhancement that makes it even easier to for potential class members to find cases they are eligible to join. The new search function is in addition to the calendar feature, which allows visitors to browse by claims deadline. To view upcoming claims deadlines, click on “View Large Calendar.”

Class action settlements involving snack food maker Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. and service provider Verizon Wireless were among 10 new cases added to the Class Action Database during March.

One notable class action added was Ebarle et al. v. LifeLock, Inc. The plaintiffs in the case filed a class action against the identity theft protection service LifeLock, alleging misrepresentations of both its identity theft protection plans and information security programs. LifeLock denied the allegations but agreed to settle the case to avoid the “burden, expense and risk” of continuing the lawsuit.

LifeLock had previously settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated a 2010 federal court order prohibiting deceptive advertising and requiring the company to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program.

The class action alleges that LifeLock misrepresented the following:

  1. Its “comprehensive” services in regard to fraud detection
  2. Its timely and continuous 24/7 fraud alerts
  3. Its information security program
  4. Its “$1 Million Total Service Guarantee”

The settlement provides a $68 million settlement fund. The class members are divided into two categories (class members can also be subclass members):

  1. Class members: consumers enrolled in a LifeLock identity theft protection plan at any time between Sept. 1, 2010 and Jan, 20, 2016
  2. Subclass members: consumers who enrolled in a LifeLock identity theft protection plan between Jan. 1, 2012 and April 30, 2015

Class members who submit a valid claim will receive approximately $20. Subclass members will automatically receive between $14 and $19 in cash payments. Subclass members who submit a valid claim will receive between $34 and $39 in cash payments.

The claims deadline is April 29, 2016.

CFPB Watch: Damaging debt collection and prepaid problems

In February, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took enforcement actions against Citibank for illegal debt sales and debt collection practices.

In one action, the CFPB ordered Citibank to provide nearly $5 million in consumer relief and pay a $3 million penalty for selling credit card debt with “inflated interest rates” and for “failing to forward consumer payments promptly to debt buyers.” (Banks often sell “charged off” debts that they can’t collect to third parties for pennies on the dollar. The third-party debt buyers keep what they can collect from consumers on the debts.)

Citibank was charged with overstating the interest rates on about 130,000 defaulted credit card accounts it sold to debt buyers, stating in some cases that the annual percentage rate (APR) was 29% when it was actually zero. From 2010 to 2013, Citibank also delayed forwarding debt payments to debt buyers, which prompted collection activity even after the debts were paid off.

Another action was against Citibank and two debt collection law firms it used. The CFPB charged them with filing “falsified court documents...in debt collection cases in New Jersey state courts.” The CFPB ordered Citibank and the law firms to comply with a court order to refund $11 million to consumers and to forgo collecting about $34 million from the almost 7,000 affected consumers.

The Bureau also required Citibank to stop selling debts it can’t verify to debt collectors (undocumented debts, debts incurred due to identity theft, debts that consumers have disputed in writing, etc.). When it sells a debt, Citibank must give consumers information about the debt, such as the name of the original creditor, the credit agreement and recent account statements.

Student loans

CFPB examiners found that some student loan servicers were automatically demanding payment in full (known as automatic default) when a co-borrower (whose name also appeared on the student loan) filed for bankruptcy—even when all loan payments were up to date.

The CFPB also revealed that some debt collectors were threatening garnishment of wages, even when that option did not apply on certain defaulted student loans. At least one collector was found to have violated consumer requests to halt debt collection communications, as is the consumer’s right under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

In other activities, CFPB examiners issued a bulletin to the banks and credit unions it oversees warning them that it expects accuracy in reports of consumer banking history. The Bureau found that these institutions had reported inaccurate account histories to checking account verification companies (databases of people who abandoned checking accounts with negative balances). CFPB examiners found that one or more banks or credit unions failed to update records when the consumers paid off outstanding balances. A bad mark in such databases prevents consumers from opening a new account.

Examiners also found instances of international money transfer companies violating the CFPB’s new remittance rule, banks providing inaccurate information to credit reporting companies about customer checking accounts, and debt collectors illegally contacting consumers. For these and other violations, the CFPB recovered $14.3 million for more than 200,000 consumers in the last quarter of 2015.

Complaint snapshot

Each month the CFPB releases a snapshot of the consumer complaints it receives. The snapshot features a particular financial problem. The Bureau’s latest report focuses on prepaid cards. Consumers complained about being unable to access funds on a prepaid card and bemoaned unreasonable fees, such as inactivity fees, PIN-change fees, balance inquiry fees and overdraft fees. Others complained that when they disputed a prepaid charge, their entire prepaid balances were frozen for lengthy periods while disputes were reviewed, which prevented accountholders from accessing their money. Many of the prepaid complaints centered on the prepaid RushCard, which prevented customers from accessing their funds for several days last October after the company switched processing service providers.

The CFPB is expected to release prepaid card consumer protection rules this spring.

Four and more

The CFPB defines its consumer protection activities using a catch phrase, the “Four Ds”:

  • Deception—where the costs and risks of a financial decision are hidden or unclear;
  • Debt traps—products or services that trigger a cycle of debt, causing consumers to rack up substantial costs over time;
  • Dead ends—situations where people cannot simply walk away when they are treated unfairly; and
  • Discrimination—unequal treatment based on race, gender or other illegal factors.

Now the CFPB has broadened its alphabet with a list of priorities for the next two years. In alphabetical order, these include:

  • Arbitration (and class action bans)
  • Consumer reporting
  • Debt collection
  • Financial capability and financial empowerment
  • Household balance sheets to benefit financial well being
  • Mortgages
  • Open-use credit (credit not intended for a specific purpose, like credit cards, payday loans, etc.)
  • Small business lending
  • Student lending (and loan servicing)

In coming months we’ll report the outcome of the CFPB’s focus on these areas.

Class Action Database: Keep out of my credit report

Class action settlements involving Federal Financial Group and Abercrombie & Fitch were among nine new cases added to our Class Action Database in February.

Another notable class action added was Duncan v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. The plaintiffs filed the class action against Chase, alleging that the bank had improperly accessed their information after they had ended their business relationships. Chase denied the allegations but agreed to a settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that Chase conducted account review inquiries with credit reporting bureaus after the consumers closed their Chase accounts.

You are eligible to join the class if you are a former Chase borrower whose credit reports showed an account review inquiry by Chase between Oct. 16, 2009 and Oct. 16, 2014, after the account was closed with a zero balance or discharged in bankruptcy or the property secured by the account was foreclosed on, sold or transferred to a third party.

The claims deadline is March 23, 2016.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial and consumer literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.

Consumer education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of educational resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth information on many topics related to personal money management, housing, insurance and privacy, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. At Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and nine topic-specific subsites. Consumer Action also publishes unbiased surveys of financial and consumer services that expose excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.

Community outreach. With a special focus on serving low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of nearly 7,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial and consumer education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Consumer Action’s network is the largest and most diverse of its kind.

Advocacy. Consumer Action is deeply committed to ensuring that underrepresented consumers are represented in the national media and in front of lawmakers. The organization promotes pro-consumer policy, regulation and legislation by taking positions on dozens of bills at the state and national levels and submitting comments and testimony on a host of consumer protection issues. Additionally, its diverse staff provides the media with expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data and victim testimony.

 

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