Consumer Action INSIDER - March 2013

 

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

As a program manager directing a Homebuyer Assistance Program for a non-profit agency in Michigan, I use Consumer Action’s educational materials for my client counseling sessions as well as in my Homebuyer Education and Financial Literacy Classes. Because of our very tight budget for education and counseling, I greatly appreciate your free, high-quality materials. I find the material easy-to-read and a wonderful client resource. — Veronica Turien, NCCS Center for Nonprofit Housing (Newaygo County, MI)

Did you know?

March 3-9 is National Consumer Protection Week, a coordinated campaign that encourages consumers nationwide to take full advantage of their consumer rights and make better-informed decisions. Join Consumer Action and other partners to encourage your family and friends to participate. Learn more...

How’s your credit card doing?

Before the provisions of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act began to take effect in 2009, credit card problems were the number one complaint on Consumer Action’s hotline. Now credit card complaints don’t even make an appearance in our Top Ten list.

“The CARD Act banned the biggest and most blatantly unfair ‘gotchas,’ like retroactive interest rate hikes and exorbitant penalty fees. The CARD Act is a legislative success story,” said Linda Sherry, Consumer Action’s director of national priorities.

Improvements also were evident in the results of a January poll of cardholders conducted online by Consumer Action. Answering 22 questions designed to ferret out the impact of the CARD Act, respondents overall reported that credit card companies are treating them the same as or better than before the law and that the disclosures mandated by the law have helped them take action to avoid credit card debt. Click here to read about the poll results.

Consumer Action submitted the results of its poll to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in response to the federal watchdog’s request for feedback on the CARD Act’s impact. While credit card practices are less costly to consumers and more reasonable overall since the CARD Act, Consumer Action nonetheless has a couple of suggestions for the CFPB to strengthen the law:

  • Reasonable and proportional rates: Apply the same “reasonable and proportional” standard to credit card interest rates that the CARD Act requires of card fees.
  • Re-evaluation exams: Use the bureau’s examination authority to determine if card issuers are re-evaluating cardholders whose rates were raised (for market-based reasons), and to demand information from issuers as to how many customers have seen their interest rates drop since the requirement to review increased rates after six months went into effect.

Consumer advice hotline had a busy year

Last year, Consumer Action’s free referral and advice hotline responded to 9,668 complaints and other communications via phone and email. The top categories were Product/Retail (27%), Utility/Telephone (16%), Credit/Finance (14%) and Automotive (12%). About one-third of the complaints we received fall under a mix of other categories. In 2011, the hotline handled 8,111 complaints.

Consumers from all states and the District of Columbia reached out to our hotline in 2012. The largest number of complaints by state was received from California consumers (2,320). Other significant states were New York (910), Florida (870), Texas (501) and Pennsylvania (337).

Our multilingual hotline counselors served mostly English-speaking consumers (89%), with other languages spoken being Spanish (3%), Cantonese (4%) and Mandarin (1%). For approximately 3 percent of complaints, no language was noted.

Most people told us they had found Consumer Action on the Internet (62%).

Each month in the INSIDER, we feature the “Hotline Chronicles,” a series based on consumer complaints to our hotline. Click here for a collection of past articles.

If you’d like to contact our hotline team about a consumer complaint, click here to submit online [in English] [en español], or call 415-777-9635 and leave a voicemail message in English, Spanish or Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese dialects spoken).

Hotline Chronicles: A double-whammy for vulnerable homeowners

Trixie,* a Northern California resident, contacted our hotline for advice about her mortgage with a large national bank. She has had financial trouble for several years, and it was almost two years ago that she first sought a mortgage modification with the bank. While still working on her modification with a housing counselor and a bank employee, she received a form letter saying that her application for a loan modification had been denied. However, the housing counselor facilitating her modification told Trixie that her modification remained under consideration in the underwriting department of the bank.

A few months later, in 2012, Trixie found a foreclosure notice on her door. The bank representative she had been working with on the loan modification told her that he could no longer communicate with her, as the loan was in foreclosure. Trixie had become a victim of “dual-tracking,” an abusive practice in which the lender continues to pursue foreclosure even as the homeowner is seeking a loan modification. The practice is restricted—but not prohibited—since October 2012 under the National Mortgage Settlement, which provides specific time frames in which a borrower must apply for a loan modification in order to stop the foreclosure process. The National Mortgage Settlement includes five big banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial), including Trixie’s lender. (Click here to learn more.)

California, where Trixie lives, is the first state to pass a law to place limits on dual-track foreclosures. Under the state’s new Homeowner Bill of Rights, when a homeowner completes a loan modification application, the foreclosure process is paused while the application is being reviewed. (Click here to learn more about the California law.)

Consumer Action’s Ruth Susswein says that dual-tracking is, unfortunately, all too common. She recommends that Trixie complain “immediately” to the California Attorney General and to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Susswein advises complainants to state up front, “I am in imminent risk of foreclosure. A sale date has been scheduled for my home.”

Trixie is working with a reputable housing counseling organization to continue the fight for an affordable loan modification. Susswein suggests that seeking the advice of an attorney, legal aid service or HUD-approved housing counseling organization is the next best step. To find a legal aid site near you, visit the Legal Services Corporation website. To find a consumer attorney, visit the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Find a HUD-certified housing counseling organization using the directory at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Publications orders up 50 percent in 2012

Consumer Action’s education materials have always been popular with community-based organizations, which use the free, multilingual publications to augment and enhance their education services beyond what they could produce themselves or purchase on a limited budget. Each year, we receive orders for brochures, leader’s guides and lesson plans from agencies and organizations across the country, which we ship at no charge to the recipient. These agencies and organizations include libraries, immigrant/refugee services, credit counseling agencies, university extensions, government agencies, churches and social services—diverse groups that share a commitment to financial literacy and consumer protection.

In 2012, we received 2,625 orders for nearly a million copies (955,615) of publications in our library, up from 1,729 orders for 609,456 copies in 2011. These numbers include materials in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.

A major contributor to the greater-than-50 percent increase in orders for 2012 was Consumer Action’s HUD-sponsored fair housing module, consisting of two brochures and a training curriculum. Under a $1 million grant received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011, Consumer Action had the necessary funding to print and ship a greater quantity of project materials. At the same time, housing issues became a higher priority for many of the agencies and organizations we support. HUD also required agencies receiving HUD funding to use HUD-approved materials and affirmatively promote the Fair Housing Act. Housing coalitions, too, heavily promoted our materials to their member agencies. As a result, the “Know the Signs of Housing Discrimination” and “Filing a Housing Discrimination Complaint” brochures and companion materials accounted for a full one-third of our 2012 orders (901 out of 2,625).

Also in high demand, as always, were materials from Consumer Action’s MoneyWi$e library, developed and distributed through a partnership established with Capital One in 2001. These publications, on 12 topics ranging from saving money and buying a home to building good credit and avoiding identity theft, accounted for nearly a quarter (22.93%) of our 2012 orders.

These statistics do not include free downloads (in PDF format) from Consumer Action’s websites. Non-profit groups engaged in educational activities are encouraged to freely copy the downloaded publications as needed.

Also not included in the numbers is Consumer Action News, our quarterly newsletter covering timely consumer issues and surveys of consumer and financial products and services. Consumer Action News is available in print for paid Consumer Action members ($25 per year). The newsletter is free online, as is the Consumer Action INSIDER, our monthly publication that chronicles Consumer Action’s activities.

Non-profits, government agencies and community-based organizations may order free publications. Find bulk order forms at Consumer-Action.org, under “Publications,” then “How to Order.” Click here for instructions or call 415-777-9648 to place your order.

Groups call for a strong consumer agenda

With the President’s second term and a new session of Congress underway, Consumer Action joined seven other leading consumer groups urging the Administration and Congressional leaders to pursue a strong, robust agenda of consumer reforms. The groups outlined their agenda in a letter signed by Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, National Association of Consumer Advocates, National Consumers League, National Consumer Law Center, Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The groups called for measures to strengthen the consumer’s voice in Washington, to continue improvements in health care and financial services, and to ensure that Americans’ food and products are safe. They advocated for energy and telecommunications reforms, policies to strengthen regulations that protect the public from harm, consumer legal rights, and actions to ensure the marketplace is fair, open and competitive.

Under the heading “An Agenda to Ensure Consumers Are Heard,” the groups laid out nine major initiatives that the White House and Congress should adopt in the next Administration and in the new Congress:

  • Elevate the consumer voice in government by reinstating the key position of the White House Special Advisor on Consumer Affairs, holding regular meetings with consumer leaders and convening a White House conference on the state of the consumer today.
  • Continue to work to make health care affordable, accessible and safe through measures such as protecting funding for the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid by reducing wasteful and unnecessary spending, not by cutting services or shifting costs to consumers.
  • Continue to protect and expand upon the financial consumer protections secured in recent years, including the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  • Ensure our food and products are safe by moving forward on still-pending food safety rules and implementing tougher standards for products such as infant and toddler items.
  • Provide consumers with affordable and sustainable energy options by forcefully addressing climate change and promoting clean energy initiatives.
  • Ensure that the Internet and other telecommunications services remain affordable and accessible, and consumers’ privacy is protected.
  • Support regulations that improve our quality of life and protect our health and safety, as well as oppose efforts to undercut the regulatory rulemaking process.
  • Improve consumer access to justice by reinstating legal rights.
  • Protect consumers by ensuring open, competitive and fair markets through tough enforcement of antitrust prohibitions on anticompetitive mergers and cracking down on monopolistic practices that lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

Click here for a PDF copy of the consumer groups' letter and agenda.

Coalition Efforts roundup: From privacy to international remittances

Consumer Action has been busy with its coalition partners. Here’s an update of our recent activities with our colleagues at other consumer organizations, privacy rights groups and civil rights organizations. More information on these and other ongoing efforts conducted in concert with partner organizations can be found on our Coalition Efforts page.

Government ID system creates privacy risks. The focus on immigration reform this year by the President and Congress has reinvigorated a call for a mandatory ID system for all Americans, called E-Verify. The system, which would require every worker to be identified by a government database in order to become employed, is fraught with problems, among them: the likelihood of errors, possible identity theft and discrimination, the cost associated with implementing the system, and the huge demands it would place on small businesses and workers. Consumer Action joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to oppose this system

Maryland law would require a warrant for cell phone tracking information. Consumer Action supports a Maryland bill that would give consumers more control over when the government can access their cell phone records. HB 887 requires the government to obtain a search warrant before gaining access to cell phone location tracking information. Though there are exceptions, such as allowing cell phone tracking in the case of an emergency, overall it strengthens consumer privacy rights by requiring opt-in consent for the use of tracking records and requires that a copy of the search warrant be given to the consumer.

Driver privacy should be considered in mandatory "black box" regulations. The privacy rights of drivers must be upheld, said Consumer Action in coalition with other groups in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency recently recommended that “black box” recording devices be mandatory for all vehicles in the United States by 2014.

CFPB takes eye off the ball when it comes to remittances. Consumer Action continues to be active in working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the country's consumer watchdog. We recently submitted comments to oppose the agency's proposal to reduce several key consumer protections for remittance senders. The letter outlines how the eradication of these protections undermines newly created international remittance laws mandated in the Dodd-Frank Act.

Consumer Action News looks at mobile privacy

The newest issue of Consumer Action News was posted in mid-February. In it, our staff members assess what’s going on in the world of mobile privacy and consumer protections.

Michelle De Mooy explains how consumer privacy continues to be at the forefront of technology policy and proposed legislative action in Washington. De Mooy notes that all signs point to 2013 being as active as 2012, if not more so. She also provides an overview of mobile privacy and why it’s important, writing that: “If personal data is the currency, mobile devices and apps are the financial pipeline. An estimated 50 billion apps were downloaded in 2012, and a huge majority of them were free. That’s because developers and platforms (like Apple or Google) know consumers are used to free online content and don’t like to pay for it. So they “trade” free services for information about you—even though you probably don’t realize that you’re making such a swap.”

Linda Sherry addresses Do Not Track, an effort by consumer and privacy advocates pushing back against the rampant collection of personal information and profiling on the Web. Sherry writes that: “Data—especially, but not limited to, information that helps businesses predict who you are and what you’ll do and buy—is a “digital goldmine” used to build extensive profiles about your background and interests.”

Monica Steinisch provides overviews on what consumers need to know about today’s Internet-enabled mobile devices as well as mobile application-related privacy. Steinisch points out: “There are good reasons to be concerned about app privacy. While some apps depend on the ability to retrieve and share users’ personal information stored on their devices (such as contacts, calendars, emails, texts and location) in order to function, many use this information purely for advertising purposes.”

Ruth Susswein gathers predictions from key players in the fight for consumer privacy on what we can expect for 2013. Susswein finds: “Many predict that 2013, finally, may see some legislative and regulatory action on digital privacy.”

You can read the entire issue online or download a PDF here.

Helping our local community partners

Last month, Consumer Action held an in-service training on credit reporting for the staff attorneys and volunteers of the Eviction Defense Collaborative of San Francisco. Audrey Perrott, Consumer Action’s associate director of outreach and training, presented to the group. Close to 20 staff and volunteers from the Collaborative took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about credit reports, credit scores and specialty consumer reports.

The Eviction Defense Collaborative provides counseling and legal help to individuals going through the eviction process.

In the training, Perrott used the “Credit Reports, Credit Scores and Specialty Reports” module developed by Consumer Action in partnership with Experian, as well as other supplemental information provided by Experian and VantageScore Solutions. (Visit our Training Modules page to view all of our collections.)

Perrott spent the first half of the training on credit reports and scores. She answered questions about how and when evictions appear on credit reports, if evictions from one state appear on credit reports in another state and other related information. She then delved into specialty consumer reports, little-known sources of consumer data compiled by various data collection companies, data brokers and niche credit reporting companies.

Consumer Action provides in-service trainings for community partners to help them better educate their clients on how to assert their rights in the marketplace. In addition, Consumer Action provides free multilingual educational materials to community groups for their education programs. To learn more about our outreach and training activities, visit our Outreach & Training page.

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.

Tags/Keywords

credit cards, privacy, wireless, foreclosure, mobile, cell

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