Consumer Action INSIDER - July 2013

 

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What people are saying

[Your recent Digital Dollars event] was one of the most informative trainings I have been to since I’ve been here at VCE. — Katrina Kirby, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), Petersburg, VA

Did you know?

You’ve probably heard about the new Obamacare “health insurance exchanges”—marketplaces where insurance companies will offer individual health care coverage. But did you know they will be rolling out this fall? Open enrollment starts Oct. 1, 2013. Coverage starts as soon as Jan. 1, 2014. Learn more Health Care.gov.

Consumer Action hops aboard Wellness Bus Tour

Helping people help themselves to consumer education along with health screenings, Consumer Action in May joined the Walgreens “Way to Well” Health Tour with AARP in Oakland for a ride around the Bay Area aboard a bus offering “wellness on wheels.”

The Walgreens-AARP project is dedicated to providing free prevention and early detection health services to the nation’s underserved communities via a fleet of co-branded buses that visit underserved urban areas. The tour bus offers free tests, assessment, education and consulting services to communities with the highest prevalence of common diseases and uninsured and unemployed community members. Trained health testers have administered more than three million screenings since the tour began.

Consumer Action’s associate director of outreach and training, Audrey Perrott, met up with the tour in East Oakland and distributed financial education brochures, including the MoneyWi$e publications offered by Consumer Action and Capital One. Perrott, showered with questions from multicultural consumers aged 50 and older, found a very appreciative audience hungry to receive information about senior scams, identity theft, managing money and other topics. “We are pleased to join Walgreens and AARP to promote overall health and wellness for adults 50-plus,” said Perrott.

The bus stopped at six Walgreens stores in East Oakland along with other stops in downtown San Francisco, Richmond and other nearby Bay Area cities. AARP enlisted the help of local community partners, volunteers and the media to get the word out about the bus tour. Consumer Action distributed 350 financial education publications.

Consumers received cholesterol and glucose screenings, blood pressure checks and comprehensive weight assessments. The free screenings were valued at more than $140. Consumers were not required to have health insurance to participate. AARP provided free one-year memberships to new participants and one-year extensions to existing AARP members.

Other community partners provided various health and wellness products and services. Some of the participating partners included the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the Social Security Administration, the American Diabetes Association, and Everest College, whose students provided complimentary massages.

New book chronicles the ‘people’s campaign' for financial justice

“When comparing the resources of those who were for and against creating the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], consumer advocates like Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. PIRG likened the struggle to the original Star Wars movie. They had reason to feel that they were attacking the Galactic Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, with water pistols. Nevertheless, advocates were armed with a vision of a new federal agency with the independence and authority to protect consumers in financial transactions.”

So opens chapter six of the new book “Financial Justice: The People’s Campaign to Stop Lender Abuse” by Robert Nathan Mayer, a professor in Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, and his co-author, economist Larry Kirsch.

Consumer Action’s Ruth Susswein, a frontliner in the CFPB struggle, tells us that the new book is far from “the dull tome you might expect on the topic of the creation of a new federal regulator.”

Instead, it tells the gripping inside story of how a group of committed consumer, civil rights, labor, fair lending and other advocates battled Wall Street and its supporters to win substantial new consumer financial reforms for the nation.

“Financial Justice” chronicles the battle to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, from conception to the struggles to ensure its independence.

The authors tell the tale about average citizens who overcame financial giants through determined advocacy, congressional support and appropriate timing—just as the financial crisis devastated millions of working-class individuals and families, many of whom have not rebounded and who are still fighting to save their homes from foreclosure and to find jobs.

Incredibly, over three months in 2009, there were nine Congressional hearings about the need to create a regulator solely charged with financial consumer protection. Advocates argued that the consumer bureau was the right remedy for the nation’s financial crisis and that it was essential that the new agency be independent, in funding, powers and governance.

Describing (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren’s vision for the CFPB, the authors write: “Warren explained that the job of the new agency would be to “set up basic rules so that no one gets tricked or trapped again.”

Out of Warren’s concept was born a powerful coalition, Americans for Financial Reform (AFR). The coalition’s key thrust was that the agency was needed to ban unfair, deceptive and abusive financial products, services and practices—something that the current financial regulators had failed to do. (In her role as Consumer Action’s representative to AFR, Susswein was interviewed by the authors.)

The book is packed with interviews with advocates and lawmakers on the frontlines, and features a foreword by former Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), co-author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, through which the CFPB was born.

Frank said the book provides evidence of democracy in action. “It is simply not the case that politicians will ignore strongly expressed public opinion because big money has captured us all…. As [this book] shows, when individual voters and advocacy groups such as Americans for Financial Reform do express themselves in significant numbers, members of Congress listen.”

Unfortunately, despite the stirring story of its birth, the fight for the survival of the CFPB persists to this day. Opponents of financial reform and the CFPB continue to smear the agency’s effectiveness and diminish its influence. As a path to weaken the CFPB’s independence and authority, a group of Congressional Republicans has worked overtime to prevent the Senate from confirming Richard Cordray as the Bureau’s director. (President Obama appointed Cordray in a recess appointment that is hotly contested and has become the subject of legal battles brought by opponents.)

“Financial Justice” reminds us that a small, committed band ultimately did defeat the Galactic Empire. Whatever the outcome for the CFPB—and we sincerely hope it survives further attacks—“Financial Justice” is an interesting and inspiring read. Visit Consumer Booknotes for more about the book.

 

Hotline Chronicles: No freebies when it comes to credit scores

Jason* from Baltimore, MD contacted the Consumer Action hotline to protest that he had responded to an offer for a free credit score in return for a “$1 refundable charge” to his credit card. Then he noticed that the company charged him $29.25.

“I called their customer service number and told them I did not agree to be charged $29.95, but they would not refund my money,” said Jason. “They said they sent me a welcome email that allowed me a short time to opt out, but this was not the case.”

“I cancelled the subscription, which they said would prevent any further charges. Not true! The following month I was billed again.”

The Web is full of complaints about this company and others that offer “free” credit scores but actually enroll people in identity protection plans and credit monitoring services for which they charge monthly fees.

Our hotline counselors advised Jason to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. (Click here or call 877-382-4357.)

“Free trial” marketing almost always requires you to provide a debit or credit card number—this in itself should serve as a tip-off that you will be charged. But with the free trial comes fine print that authorizes the company to enroll you in its service and bill you until you cancel. Many times, cancellation can be a hassle, and consumers report that they have had to call in several times to stop the billing.

This case is decidedly sneaky, because Jason authorized a $1 charge—probably just a ruse to get his card number so that the company could charge him monthly.

Everyone in the U.S. is entitled to get free copies of their credit reports each year from the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. But these do not include free credit scores—your credit scores cost money. You can order all three credit scores from myFICO.com, which just started offering the Experian credit score again late last month. (The Experian score had not been available from myFICO since 2009.)

To get your free credit reports, go to the official annual credit report site (annualcreditreport.com). You will have to accurately answer “challenge” questions about your existing credit obligations in order to get your reports online. If you fail a challenge question, you’ll be prompted to call in and unlock your files.

Consumer Action advises that unless you are planning to apply for new credit in the near future, just get your free credit reports. All the information in your scores is derived from your credit reports, so make sure your reports are accurate. If not, follow the directions to dispute inaccurate information.

If you need to purchase your credit scores, go to myFICO.com, which at this writing in mid-June was selling a three-score package for $47.85. (Be aware that myFICO as well as Experian and TransUnion, listed as sources of the VantageScore in the next paragraph, also feature similar "special offers" for low-cost or free scores, and by accepting the deals you'll be signing up for subscription services. You can skip these and just buy your scores.)

While the FICO score is used by most lenders, a competitor, VantageScore, says that many different types of lenders, from large banking institutions to regional banks and credit unions, are using its model. You can buy your VantageScore directly from Experian (www.experian.com) and TransUnion (www.transunion.com).

For more information about obtaining credit reports and scores, visit the FTC’s webpage titled “Free Credit Reports.”

*Not this consumer’s real name.

Financial watchdog now ‘barks’ in Spanish

Consumer Action’s Nelson Santiago, who attended the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s field hearing in Los Angeles in May, reports that participants were introduced to the CFPB’s newly launched Spanish language website.

Although the agency had already been handling phone calls from consumers in Spanish and other languages, online information in Spanish had not been available on the CFPB's site until the unveiling of CFPB en Español. Santiago strolled a few short blocks from Consumer Action's downtown Los Angeles office to learn more about the new resource for Spanish-speaking consumers.

Peter Jackson, the CFPB’s assistant director for consumer engagement, talked about the Bureau’s role in engaging and educating the American public to enable consumers to make smart financial decisions for themselves and for their families. Jackson stressed that the CFPB is committed to serving all consumers, but chose to begin its specialized outreach to immigrant communities with the Latino community. Jackson cited statistics showing that one in six U.S. consumers is Latino and 37 million people in the U.S. primarily speak Spanish at home.

During the development of CFPB en Español, Bureau staff interviewed Spanish-speaking consumers, Latino community advocates and companies experienced in reaching and engaging Spanish speakers. Jackson noted that this approach allowed the agency to prioritize the information and content that would be most relevant to Spanish-speaking consumers. According to Jackson, the Bureau employed and consulted with native speakers to create the content and design of “CFPB en Español.”

During a tour of the website’s features, Jackson said the Spanish site was designed to be mobile compatible because U.S. mobile broadband adoption is growing fastest among Latinos. On the CFPB website, it says that two-thirds of Latinos who go online tend to access the Internet from a mobile device.

Santiago spent some time getting to know the new CFPB en Español site. “It’s quite easy to navigate,” he says.

From the home page, visitors can access frequently asked questions, information about complaint handling, and an “About Us” area featuring a video by Assistant Director for Community Affairs Zixta Martinez, who describes the work of the Bureau in Spanish.

The Q&A section contains nine topics: buying a home, buying a car, managing a bank account, choosing a prepaid card, managing debt, paying for college, remittances, building credit and getting a credit card. Clicking on building credit (“Adquirir crédito”) yields 72 questions with answers. These can be further filtered down by subtopic.

The page for filing complaints ("Presentar una queja") very clearly tells consumers the specific types of complaints the CFPB handles: credit cards, mortgages, student loans, remittances, credit reports and scores, bank accounts and bank services, auto loans and consumer loans. In six easy-to-read and illustrated steps, the page explains what happens after a complaint is filed, including steps taken by the Bureau to secure a response.

At the moment, there is no Spanish complaint form, however the complaints page offers a toll-free number (855-411-2372) and reassures consumers that complaints can be handled in Spanish. (Clicking on the link for complaining online currently leads to the English online complaint section.)

“Until the online complaint form is available in Spanish, Consumer Action recommends that monolingual Spanish speakers, and those who don't read English well, call the CFPB to file their complaints or find help with the online form,” notes Santiago.

Santiago, who frequently helps respond to Spanish complaints at Consumer Action, says that he often refers consumers to the CFPB. “Consumers often need information about their rights before they file complaints,” he explained. “I'm pleased that the Bureau has posted current information on a variety of topics, especially areas where it’s made recent regulatory changes, such as remittances.”

The CFPB says the Spanish site is “just the beginning—we want to continue to expand to include more resources and tools in languages other than English so that we can reach as many people as effectively as possible.”

New and improved: Consumer Action’s ‘Take Action Center’

In early May, Consumer Action unveiled its revamped “Take Action Center,” designed to help consumers make their voices heard by those in power. The free Take Action Center helps you to play an active role in the political process by providing contact information for your federal and state elected officials and enabling you to write to Congress, send a “letter to the editor,” respond to key legislation and more. The Take Action Center is powered by Salsa Labs.

While anyone can use the Take Action Center (and its sister page, the California Action Center), we also maintain an email list for consumers who want to hear from us when a new action is posted. When you sign up for Consumer Action’s email list, you can choose the topics and issues that interest you most.

Here are some of the things you can do at our Take Action Center:

Weigh in on important issues. We post action alerts to encourage you to send personalized messages to elected officials. All our pre-written alerts are editable—we encourage you to personalize your messages. While we take organizational positions on certain issues, we do not want to put words in your mouth.

Compose your own messages to Congress. The topic is up to you, but generally, you can only write to your own elected officials. Please note that many Congressional Web forms, which our system is designed to send mail through, require certain information. If you choose not to provide all the required information, your message may not be delivered to the intended recipient. Most Congressional offices will respond to constituent messages—if you don’t get an answer within a week or two, follow up by phone to make sure your messages are getting delivered.

Email your letters. After you compose your letters, you can send them immediately, an advantage since “snail mail” to Congressional offices can be delayed by several weeks due to screening.

Find your elected officials. Enter your ZIP code to learn who your elected officials are. You'll have to know your ZIP+4 to find all your state and local officials, but right on the page we offer a look-up link provided by the U.S. Postal Service.

Send letters to the editor. You can send letters to the editors of local and national newspapers by entering your ZIP code. You’ll be presented with a list of papers, and you can select the ones you want to write to.

Drum up grassroots support. Use our Tell-A-Friend tool to let your family, friends and acquaintances know about Consumer Action's free Take Action Center. This is the way that movements are born!

Sign up for our email list. You will receive Consumer Action’s Take Action Alerts as well as our newsletters and press releases. Click here to sign up, or simply use the quick link on the Action Center page.

Consumer Action examines consumer attitudes about online tracking

Consumers do not want to be tracked online even if it means being shown more relevant advertising, according to the results of a new survey released June 18 by Consumer Action. The survey, which examined consumer attitudes about behavioral tracking online by advertisers, also found widespread confusion as to the extent of online tracking and the existence of consumer privacy protections.

The nationwide “Do Not Track” telephone survey of 1,000 people was conducted from May 2 through May 5, 2013, as part of a larger Do Not Track public education campaign launched by Consumer Action and funded by a grant from Microsoft.

As part of the campaign, Consumer Action will add a new website, RespectMyDNT.org, to its family of nine topic-specific sites. RespectMyDNT.org will inform consumers about the ways they are tracked online and give them the opportunity to have an active voice on this issue by sending emails to elected officials and policymakers and signing onto petitions and other grassroots actions.

The nationwide survey found that consumers in general are using mobile phones at nearly the same rate as desktops and laptops to access the Internet. Hispanics and other minorities are using mobile phones to access the Internet at a higher rate. Despite the efforts of some mobile providers, many consumers are confused by privacy settings on wireless devices.

An overwhelming majority of those surveyed believe they should have the right to control the collection of their personal information. Consumers are seeking tools that allow them to make a choice about tracking and they want to be able to rely on their chosen preferences.

More than half of those surveyed want browsers to be set to Do Not Track automatically (by default) and prefer to be able to adjust the settings on a case-by-case basis when and if they choose.

The survey found much confusion about online tracking. For example, half of all consumers falsely believe that the law prohibits online tracking. More than a third of consumers surveyed are unaware that when they are online, detailed financial information about them is collected and used to create profiles of them, even when they aren’t sharing financial information but simply making a purchase or joining an email list.

About a fifth of those surveyed are unaware that individuals can be specifically linked to a mobile device. More than a quarter of consumers (29%) don’t realize that when a mobile phone is turned on, and on or near your person, your location can be determined.

One-third of those surveyed are unaware of the true scope of online tracking and data collection and they don’t realize they can be followed from website to website. More than a third of those surveyed are unaware that highly sensitive information, such as health conditions, is collected and shared.

About 43% don’t bother to read or don’t understand their browser’s privacy settings, and therefore are uninformed and potentially vulnerable to privacy incursions.

The survey shows that consumers know that online tracking goes on—and that companies aren’t transparent about it. The majority of individuals surveyed recognize that their personal data is often the price of using the Internet, but they don’t like the arrangement. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said they would not be willing to allow companies to track them in exchange for a free service or product. Contrary to what many advertisers may say, consumers do not see being tracked as a fair trade for more relevant ads.

More than half of consumers don’t believe that marketers care about consumers’ privacy online. And, more than half don’t buy the oft-repeated argument by advertisers that consumers want more relevant ads and are willing to trade their personal information to get it.

Read a PDF summary of our poll findings here.

How Consumer Action banned 30,000 fakers in 30 days

In February, Consumer Action stepped up its online security and protection efforts to jump ahead of an issue of growing importance—our sender reputation and sender scores. Consumer Action’s online presence and email communications are essential components of its continued growth and effectiveness.

"Sender scores and sender reputation are of growing importance in the fight against spam," says Alnisa Allgood of Nonprofit Tech, a nonprofit-to-nonprofit technology consultancy that provides IT services to Consumer Action. Allgood says the largest ISPs, like Gmail, Yahoo and AOL, can measure the amount of email organizations and individuals send, as well as their open, read and click rates. “ISPs are now starting to use this data in their anti-spam efforts,” notes Allgood.

Protecting an organization's reputation requires many steps and due diligence. One of those many steps for Consumer Action was to focus on the traditional black hole of transactional email. (Transactional email consists of the routine auto-responses sent from an organization’s website to visitors—member registrations, activation, order confirmations and donor thank yous.)

Most organizations know little about what happens with these messages, says Allgood. To “poke under the hood,” Nonprofit Tech used Mandrill, an analytic email service that helped her team assess Consumer Action’s emails. According to Allgood, Mandrill measured over 28,000 outgoing transactional emails sent by Consumer Action, knowledge that came with a slap to the face in the form of a low sender reputation.

“The low sender reputation was startling,” said Allgood, “but Mandrill allowed us to easily determine the problem areas. Confirmations for online publication orders and hotline complaints had outstanding deliverability rates of more than 95%. Unfortunately, email sign-ups and member registrations had very low scores.”

Mandrill indicated the email sign-up issue was fake email addresses, while the member registration problem was dummy account creation. This is how Consumer Action banned 30,000 fake members in 30 days.

Fake emails will bounce, and they affect your sender reputation immediately. Dummy accounts, on the other hand, due to two-step activation, tend to have usable email but throw-away addresses, Allgood explained. These slowly affect the sender’s reputation. In aggregate, they tell ISPs that users don't want your emails, which causes the sender’s reputation to fall.

Nonprofit Tech connected Consumer Action's member registration with the Anti-Forum Spam database. The process checks newly registered email addresses against the database. If an address is listed, the new member is “banned,” said Allgood.

On implementation, approximately 1,000 members per day were banned, totaling about 30,000 banned accounts in April.

Banning the emails removes them from future transactional and bulk communications, but this was just step one in a multi-stage process for Consumer Action. “There is always more to be done to prevent abuse,” says Allgood. She pointed out that spamming is a lucrative business model, and that combatting “bots” (computer programs that perform repetitive operations) and spammers is an ongoing effort, along with other security measures.

“But we can't let the focus on security make us lose sight of what’s most important. And for nonprofits like Consumer Action, reputation is crucial.”

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a non-profit 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 7,500 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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