Consumer Action INSIDER - November 2012

 

Table of Contents

What people are saying

Thank you so much for your consumer education brochures, especially all the languages you provide. I use them during our clinics and for folks who need referrals around consumer rights or fraud issues. — Christina Dang, Asian Law Caucus

Did you know?

The word “password” is one of the most commonly used Internet passwords. The software company SplashData compiles a list of “Worst Passwords of 2012” to show how people put themselves at risk with weak, easily guessable log-ins. For the whole list of worst passwords and advice on how to create strong ones, click here.

Consumer Action and Google collaborate on technology events

Consumer Action has joined Google to educate local leaders of community-based organizations about technology tools to help nonprofits increase the impact of their work and how they can educate members of their communities about being smart and safe online.

The partners held an Oct. 10 briefing at Google’s Washington, DC offices, attended by 40 representatives of non-profit and community based organizations from the Metro DC area.

At the briefing, Consumer Action’s Michelle De Mooy discussed emerging privacy issues of interest to non-profit agencies that provide consumer education and assistance. Linda Sherry of Consumer Action reviewed the organization’s train-the-trainer resources and free multilingual consumer education materials. Each group received a copy of Consumer Action’s newly updated “How to Complain” guide.

Google staff members spoke about the company’s free technology tools for nonprofits. Paul Lee, Senior Product Manager, Google for Nonprofits (G4NP), provided an overview of Google’s AdWords Grants, which provide eligible nonprofits with $10,000 per month in free online advertising. Hector Mujica, Social Responsibility Associate at Google, explained how non-profits could use free Google Docs for collaboration and efficiency. David Lieber, Google Policy Counsel and Erica Swanson, Policy Outreach Manager at Google reviewed the company’s Good To Know campaign and resources, designed to help Google product users choose how to control personal information.

DeMooy told participants about the work she has been doing with “software engineers and developers, the people behind a lot of the cool apps and websites we’re seeing now. For me, it’s important to talk directly to the people who are making the products we policy wonks are talking about all the time.”

After one meeting, De Mooy said she was asked by a mobile app developer, “What do you think is the single most effective way for consumers to protect their personal information on a mobile device?”

De Mooy asked participants at the briefing, “Anyone want to take a guess what the answer was?” Only a few called out the right answer: Protect your phone with a password lock. “My point is that sometimes privacy solutions are complicated but sometimes they are very simple,” said De Mooy.

Sue Rogan of the Maryland CASH Campaign attended the briefing. Rogan said she had expanded her knowledge of Consumer Action's free education tools and training services for community-based organizations. “Your tools and training services are awesome! I use them all the time,” said Rogan.

In 2013, Consumer Action will collaborate with Google on two Web-based briefings for its community partners. The briefings will be presented via Google’s Hangouts on Air. The briefings will be held live and saved to YouTube, where they can be watched anytime.

National conference brings community educators together

For the third year, Consumer Action will hold its Annual National Consumer Empowerment Conference near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. An offshoot of our longtime train-the-trainer events for community-based organizations (CBOs), the invitation-only conference brings together up to 75 representatives of our most effective community group partners—from cooperative extension offices and social service agencies to veterans advocates and credit and housing counselors—to learn from others engaged in financial literacy and consumer outreach work in underserved communities.

During this two-day event, educators, advocates, regulatory and industry representatives and other key stakeholders address critical consumer issues and share best practices in community-based consumer education and empowerment. The conference takes community outreach and training to the next level by providing the rare opportunity to learn from some of the country’s top community educators and subject matter experts and to network with other adult consumer literacy education providers.

This year’s conference agenda consists of presentations, panel discussions and interactive sessions, including:

  • Thin credit files and alternative reporting, presented by Sarah Davies, senior vice president of analytics for VantageScore Solutions
  • Asset development and accumulation resources for LMI consumers, presented by Me’Shae Brooks-Rolling of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University
  • An update on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s complaint database from Scott Pluta, assistant director of the Consumer Complaints Division of the CFPB
  • A discussion of mobile banking and payments issues, including those related to consumer privacy
  • Insurance discrimination in the LMI community, presented by Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog
  • Prepaid cards, including how to educate consumers and advocate for additional protections, presented by Romy Parzick, manager of innovation and research for the Center for Financial Services Innovation and Ruth Susswein, Consumer Action’s deputy director of national priorities
  • Student loan protections and resources, presented by Rich Williams, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s advocate for higher education
  • Evaluating financial education programs, presented Dr. Billy J. Hensley, the director of education for the National Endowment for Financial Education

The Consumer Action Outreach team will present new educational materials and tools we’ve created over the past year, and will conduct a tour of our family of websites, highlighting new content and features.

Underwriters of the 2012 conference are Capital One and Visa. AT&T, Bank of America, VantageScore Solutions, Citi, RushCard and Consumer Action’s housing and managing money projects are conference supporters.

For more information, visit our conference webpage, where you can download the full event schedule and learn about sponsorship opportunities.

Hotline Chronicles: Hey, didn’t I ‘opt out’ of that email?

Delaney,* an Ohio woman, contacted our hotline to ask what she could do about a company that continued to send her emails even though she had submitted three opt-out requests.

Delaney says, “I receive a promotional email each month from this company on my company email. There’s an “Opt out” button to remove your name from the list and I have asked three times to be taken off the list through this link, but nothing happens.”

The company is a well-known nationwide chain of independently owned hardware stores. She doesn’t remember specifically asking for the emails, but admits she may have neglected to un-check a box when she purchased something online from the company.

We informed Delaney that if the emails don’t stop in 10 business days of her opt-out request, she should report the company to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces the CAN-SPAM Act. (“Spam” is unsolicited or unwanted commercial email.)

The CAN-SPAM Act sets rules for emails that advertise or promote a commercial product or service. The law gives recipients the right to ask that the emails be stopped and sets penalties for violations. It specifically states that commercial emailers must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days.

The CAN-SPAM Act does not apply to emails that contain confirmation or updates about your purchases or other specific transactions.

To submit a complaint to the FTC, call 877-382-4357 or go online to: www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Junk emails

Consumer Action suggests that you use the “opt out” feature only for emails from a company you know well or have a business relationship with. Opting out of fraudulent emails only serves to alert scammers that your email is valid.

Spam can range from annoying and time consuming to delete, to a vehicle for scams and fraud. Don’t respond to emails from a company you never heard of. Even if you have heard of the company or do business with it, don’t click links in the email but go directly to its website to make contact.

Many people have lost money by replying to bogus email offers and “phishing” scams that seek to steal bank passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive financial information. Never provide financial information, such as credit card or bank account numbers, to accept an email offer or in response to a message from entities you are not familiar with. Financial institutions don’t ask you for login information, such as usernames and passwords, via email. To communicate with a company you do business with, go to its website and follow the prompts on the Contact Us page.

If you receive junk emails from companies you never heard of, forward a copy of the messages to the FTC at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The FTC uses the unsolicited emails stored in this database to pursue law enforcement actions against people who send deceptive spam email. Include the full email (including the “header” section with “To,” “From,” etc.) so that consumer protection agencies can follow up on your complaint.

Managing emails

Even reputable businesses seem to have a difficult time managing email opt-outs, so document the fact you sent an opt-out request by saving a copy of the “sent” email.

To manage commercial email from companies you have an account with, go to the company’s website, log in and change your email preferences on the “My Account” page.

To avoid getting on commercial lists in the first place, be careful when buying things online to “uncheck” (or not to check) any boxes that ask you if you would like to receive promotional emails with news about sales, new products, etc.

*Not this consumer’s real name.

A consumer perspective on self-regulation

Representatives of state attorney general offices across the country attended the Public Policy Conference on Consumer Protection at the George Mason University School of Law last month. Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry joined a panel on “The Role of Self-Regulatory Organizations in Protecting Consumers." The panel also featured C. Lee Peeler, executive vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Lydia Parnes, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection who is now a partner at the law firm of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati, moderated the panel.

Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, offered an overview of why consumer advocates generally prefer substantive regulation to self-regulatory programs and industry codes of conduct. She pointed out that self-regulatory organizations (SROs) are useful when they assist in monitoring compliance with existing laws and regulations, but that absent such formal consumer protections SROs may suffer from partiality to industry or members and lack of legal responsibility.

“The letter of the law is a strong enticement for industry to avoid consumer abuse, solve unfair and deceptive practices issues efficiently and to think carefully before implementing programs and practices that might prove to have anti-consumer consequences,” said Sherry.

Peeler, who also serves as the president and CEO of the Advertising Self Regulatory Council of the CBBB, said that it is possible to “build a better mousetrap” by ensuring that SROs are administered by an objective third party, outcomes of every case are publicly reported and that companies that refuse to comply are publicly identified and referred to the appropriate government agency.

The ongoing Mason Attorneys General Education Program held the two-day event.

[Click here to download a PDF of Sherry’s presentation.]

Preparing for the 2013 Health Privacy Summit

Consumer Action's Michelle De Mooy traveled deep in the heart of Texas to help begin planning for the 2013 Health Privacy Summit, a DC-based conference that focuses on emerging issues in health privacy and encouraging collaboration between the government, federal agencies, industry, academics and advocates in order to improve patient control over health information. De Mooy is chair of a working group to create modern health privacy principles to be unveiled at the Summit.

Launched by long-standing privacy advocate and Consumer Action coalition partner, Patient Privacy Rights, the summit has been an enormous success. Last year's summit, with the theme “Is There an American Health Privacy Crisis?,” was widely attended. At that event, the group awarded its first annual Louis D. Brandeis Privacy Awards. Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) and Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) were recognized for their roles as leading congressional privacy advocates and Alan Westin, professor emeritus of public law and government at Columbia University's Department of Political Science, and Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, also were recognized for their groundbreaking work in the field of consumer data privacy and security.

"Health privacy continues to be a focus for us, and the Summit is a great platform for discussion about the latest issues," said De Mooy.

Time to update the children’s online privacy rules

Consumer Action has joined a campaign launched by the Center for Digital Democracy and Common Sense Media to urge the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make parents or caregivers of children in charge of crucial privacy decisions, including the decision to prevent marketers from collecting their kids’ personal information. Click here to visit the campaign.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was enacted in 1998, requires a commercial website, before it can collect any personal information from a child under 13, to first obtain verifiable parental consent. But the Internet has changed since that law went into effect. Children now use mobile phones, tablets, gaming devices and social networks to access the Internet. New technology, in turn, now makes invasive “behavioral” tracking of a young person possible—including techniques that invisibly leave “cookies” and other identifiers so they can be targeted wherever they go.

Under new rules to update COPPA, there’s a chance to change this. The FTC can give parents new ways to control how their children’s information can be collected and used, whether they are on a mobile phone, playing an online game, using social media or simply browsing the Web. But powerful industry lobbyists from the data collection industry are opposed to the FTC’s proposed new policies. Their opposition stands to weaken COPPA and the ability of parents to use all the tools available to protect their children’s personal data when they are online.

The FTC is expected to vote on its COPPA proposal before Thanksgiving. Please consider signing the petition to send the commission a strong message declaring that we want kids’ privacy protected and parents empowered to ensure those protections.

Click here to sign the petition.

Working together to protect consumers

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” said John Donne. Consumer Action extends that notion to its participation in numerous coalitions, where collaborative efforts often have more effect than would one group working on its own. Here are some of our most recent coalition efforts:

Avoiding automatic cuts to domestic programs.

Consumer Action signed onto a letter sent by Strengthening America’s Values and Economy (SAVE) and other advocates to urge Congress to consider basic principles when addressing upcoming budgeting decisions: to protect low-income and vulnerable people; promote job creation to strengthen the economy; increase revenues from fair sources; and seek responsible savings by targeting wasteful spending in the Pentagon and in other areas that do not serve the public interest. Click here to read the letter.

Automatic cuts to domestic programs that are scheduled to take effect in January 2013 under the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act will inflict devastating harm. Estimated conservatively, a year of sequestration cuts would, among other untenable outcomes, deny WIC nutrition aid to 750,000 mothers and young children; prevent more than 413,000 adults and youth from getting job training and deny education and training to more than 51,000 veterans; eliminate reading and math help to more than 1.8 million low-income public school children and deny child care to the low- and moderate-income families of 80,000 children.

Children’s Medicaid recipient households should be Lifeline eligible.

Consumer Action worked with the Lifeline Consumers Coalition to ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to add CHIP as a Lifeline-qualifying assistance program. CHIP is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, also called Children’s Medicaid. CHIP is a state and federal partnership program that works closely with Medicaid. It is not currently a qualifying federal assistance program except in states where CHIP is administered as part of Medicaid.

The coalition argued that this would lower the economic barrier to telephone service for working poor families, a group the federal and state governments have identified as unable to afford health coverage for their children. Click here to read the letter.

Social Security’s electronic payment mandate.

Consumer Action has been working with Consumers for Paper Options, a coalition of paper-related businesses advocating to retain paper-based communications, in pointing out critical problems with the Social Security Administration’s mandate that benefits be received electronically. (This mandate will take full effect in March 2013.) Consumer Action believes that the Social Security Administration’s ill-conceived policy poses hardships for vulnerable Americans. The mandate takes for granted that Americans have bank accounts, when one in 12 households is unbanked, with an even higher percentage among the elderly.

Linda Sherry of Consumer Action notes, “Paper checks should be the default with the option to use direct deposit to a bank account or Direct Express prepaid debit cards.” Giving beneficiaries the option to continue receiving paper Social Security checks will make their lives easier and protect them from fraud and identity theft as well as a variety of discriminatory fees. Click here to learn more about the coalition’s efforts.

If you are a Social Security beneficiary who wants to keep your paper check and you would like to share your story, you can contact Consumer Action at 202-670-3601, or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

No restrictions for live entertainment tickets

Consumer Action has been working closely to reform restrictive paperless ticketing in the live entertainment industry. Paperless ticketing can, in principle, be convenient. For example, you can swipe your smartphone to access a concert or sports arena. But when tickets are both paperless and restrictive (i.e., no paper option is available), consumer problems multiply.

For one, these tickets require the buyer to present a photo ID and the credit card used to purchase the tickets at the entrance to the venue. At a minimum, this creates longer lines and greater inconvenience for fans. If a group of friends are meeting to attend a show, they all have to stand outside until everyone in the group has arrived. Worse, if you (the restrictive paperless ticket buyer) can't attend the show because you are sick or out of town, you can't give or sell your ticket to a friend or co-worker, because these special tickets often prohibit transfer to another person. Or, if your aunt from Ohio gives you the gift of a ticket to an event in New York, you could not attend the show unless your aunt was present at the venue, since the buyer’s ID and credit card are required for entry.

Ticketmaster is the entity behind restrictive paperless ticketing. Ticketmaster also is the company that infuriates millions of consumers with its ticket surcharges and fees that drastically increase the cost of attending live events. The company argues that restrictive paperless tickets can reduce scalping, but Consumer Action believes that the company’s real motivation is to corner the live ticket buying industry and establish more opportunities to charge fees to consumers. For example, Ticketmaster allows transfer or resale of restrictive paperless ticket only through its subsidiary TicketExchange, where more fees are collected from buyer and seller.

To promote industry change, Consumer Action works closely with coalition partner Fan Freedom Project, a project dedicated to preserving consumer choice when people buy tickets for their favorite concerts, plays, sporting events and other entertainment. (StubHub, a ticket exchange subsidiary of eBay, provides funding for the Fan Freedom Project.)

Along with the Fan Freedom Project and its more than 104,000 Facebook friends, Consumer Action believes that fans should always have the option to buy tickets that are not restricted in their use and that consumers own and control the tickets once they purchase them. In addition to Consumer Action, Fan Freedom Project organization supporters include the National Consumers League, Michigan Citizen Action, the Florida Consumer Action Network and Consumers League of New Jersey.

In New York, legislation already has addressed the restrictive paperless ticketing problem by requiring a paper ticket option at checkout. We call on other states to adopt similar measures.

Hanging out with the National Consumers League

In late September, Linda Sherry of Consumer Action joined the National Consumers League (NCL) for an online panel discussion of the opportunities and challenges for consumers presented by online personal financial management tools (PFMs). NCL’s John Breyault moderated the panel, which also included Sophie Raseman of the U.S. Treasury Department; Ken Sun of Mint.com, the Intuit-owned PFM site; Phil Christian of Chase; Mark Schwanhausser of Javelin Strategy & Research, and Ron Shevlin of the Aite Group.

NCL, the nation’s oldest consumer advocacy organization, hosted the live expert chat sponsored by Chase Blueprint using Google Hangout on Air, a free conference tool. Hangouts on Air are taped and saved to YouTube.

Far too many consumers face aggressive financial fees, inadequate savings and piles of debt. One way that consumers are addressing this is by adopting online tools to help them manage their personal finances. It is estimated that 26 million consumers will be using PFMs by 2015.

“Free personal financial management tools and apps from banks or other financial Web sites are a great way to set financial goals, track spending and measure progress,” said Sherry.

“PFMs have the potential to change consumer behavior by giving consumers aggregated, real-time information to gain better control of their finances.” “PFM tools give consumers a powerful way to keep track of multiple credit cards, bank and retirement accounts,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director. “However, with the amount of sensitive personal financial data that consumers are sharing with these tools, we wanted to examine what value they are getting in return. We are pleased that we were able to bring together such an all-star group of experts to examine the issues these tools create.”

Watch the Hangout on the NCL YouTube channel.

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 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.

Financial Education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of education resources. The organization's extensive library of free publications offers in-depth financial information, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. Consumer Action also publishes unbiased surveys of financial and consumer services to expose excessive prices and anti-consumer practices, 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 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 per legislative session and testifying at least three times per year. Additionally, its diverse staff provides the media with expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data and victim testimony.

Click here to learn more about our staff.

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