Consumer Action INSIDER - January 2023


What people are saying

“Words cannot express our gratitude to [Consumer Action] and the PG&E representatives. Your dedication and willingness to help are second to none…I am looking forward to a future event, for it is sorely needed. There are so many more veterans out there that can use the help with utility bills but also learning about scams and more.”—Michelle Lewis, Swords to Plowshares, San Francisco (read about how our outreach staffers are helping promote energy-related savings programs in last month’s INSIDER)

Consumer Action and FTC warn of holiday scams in new video

By Linda Williams

As consumers scrambled to find the best online holiday bargains, anticipated holiday travel and contributed to favored charities, Consumer Action teamed up with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on a video reminding consumers that while the holiday season is a time for giving, it can, unfortunately, also be a time for being taken.

In the ’Tis the season to be scammed presentation, presenter Carol Kando-Pineda, counsel in the FTC’s Consumer and Business Education division, provides tips on how to protect yourself from scams. She highlights scams that are particularly prevalent this time of year: online shopping scams, imposter scams (including those alarming text and email messages purportedly from UPS, FedEx and other shippers notifying you of a supposed delivery problem), charity scams and job scams.

Already been scammed? Kando-Pineda explains what next steps to take, depending on what the scammer got from you (money, personal information, or access to your phone or computer). You can also find the information on the FTC website.

If you think the advice in the video won’t be useful with the holiday season in the rearview mirror, think again. Scammers never take a break, and many of the same tactics they use during the holidays are employed in scams year-round. The FTC reports that consumers lost more than $5.8 billion to fraud in 2021—an increase of more than 70% over the previous year.

Consumer Action’s monthly SCAM GRAM newsletter is a must-read to help you protect yourself from fraud and tricksters. Read each new month’s issue here. Or, add your name to our email list on our homepage to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

View ’Tis the season to be scammed here. And while you’re there, please subscribe to Consumer Action’s YouTube channel.

Publication helps new investors get started

By Monica Steinisch

Consumer Action has just published the first of three guides on investing. The Investing Basics project, created with funding from the Nasdaq Foundation, aims to encourage consumers to become investors, and gives them the knowledge to start and manage an investment portfolio confidently, while avoiding unnecessary risk, scams and fraud.

Investing is a crucial element of any long-term financial plan. While the thought of losing money is scary, historical performance data shows that the longer you invest (buy and hold), the more likely it is your money will grow. And not investing comes with its own, very real, risk: Money not invested typically loses purchasing power because the interest rate on savings accounts is lower than the rate of inflation. Stocks and bonds, on the other hand, have the potential to gain purchasing power over time.

Investing Basics: Get started putting your money to work for you covers the fundamentals of smart investing (such as diversification); types of investments; how to manage investing costs and reduce taxes; how to open an account, choose investments and manage your portfolio over time; where to find investing help if you need it; how to avoid scams and fraud; and where to learn more.

Investing Basics, in English, is available now for free download on the Consumer Action website. The guide will be available in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean later this month.

Companion guides on investing for women and investing for BIPOC are in the works, and will be posted here as soon as they are published. Look for an announcement in an upcoming INSIDER.

Read our story about the Investing Basics project in the September 2022 issue of the INSIDER.

Webinar covers ACP broadband benefits and CBO grant opportunities

By Nelson Santiago

Consumer Action continues to get the word out about the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which offers long-term discounts on home broadband internet service. Our Dec. 6 webinar provided a great opportunity to review the benefits of the ACP for eligible low-income households (up to $30/month—or up to $75 on Tribal lands—plus up to $100 for a computer or tablet with a $10-$50 "co-pay") and remind our network of community-based organizations about the FCC's ACP Outreach Grant Program and the fast-approaching Jan. 9 application deadline.

Even though we've been educating consumers and community service providers about the ACP program throughout the year (download our publications and view our webinars), there is a lot of outreach work still to be done. Millions of eligible families still have not taken advantage of the savings, and up to 75% of eligible households, especially in low-income communities and communities of color, don't even know that the program exists.

To help address the anticipated need for outreach, Congress included a provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 for the FCC to conduct and fund ACP outreach, including providing grants to outreach partners. On hand to discuss the ACP Outreach Program during the webinar were Alma Hughes, consumer education and outreach specialist at the FCC, and E.J. John, policy and research analyst with the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University. Hughes provided key dates and links related to the grant application process. She pointed to an FCC webinar recording that focuses on the grant program; offered a link to FAQs; and invited our webinar attendees to participate in “office hours” if they want assistance preparing the grant applications. (If you are interested in the Jan. 4 office hours, you can register here. Find application information here and here. Email your questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).)

John focused his remarks on the Tribal Competitive Outreach Program (TCOP), which funds outreach activities to increase awareness of and encourage participation in the ACP for households on Tribal lands. John described the variety of organizations that can apply for a grant, from government to faith-based. He explained that, as with the national program discussed by Hughes, nonprofits aren't required to have 501(c)(3) status. (Find more information in the FCC's Notice of Funding Opportunity here and in the previously mentioned FAQs, here.)

John and Hughes also offered tips to prevent delays in enrollment. For example, after application approval, consumers still must contact their preferred provider to inform them of the approval and select a plan. Applicants on Tribal lands must be sure they click the “Confirm Tribal Qualification” button in the online application or check the “Tribal Lands” box on the paper application. Consumers on Tribal lands who don’t have a traditional street address can use the pin-drop system in the online application or provide an address description that references a local landmark, such as a school or other main building.

The webinar also offered viewers an eye-opening discussion of the digital divide and the struggle for digital equity on Tribal lands. John shared statistics from the AIPI's 2019 Tribal Technology Assessment, which studied availability, access and use of the internet on Indian reservations. Among the key findings: 18% of survey respondents had no internet connection at home and another 33% of respondents rely on cell phone service for home internet connection. Click here to view a recording of the webinar.

Coalition Efforts: Data privacy, foreclosure prevention and Pell Grant taxation

By Monica Steinisch

Consumer Action and its allies recently called on policymakers and regulators about these important issues:

Surveillance advertising and data protections. Consumer Action joined Consumer Federation of America (CFA) in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission regarding the agency’s Advance Notice of Rulemaking on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security. The organizations urged the FTC to prohibit surveillance advertising, in which individual consumers are shown advertisements based on inferences about their interests, demographics and other characteristics drawn from tracking their activities. The practice is inherently unfair and deceptive, using invisible and invasive techniques to manipulate consumers and rob them of real choice in the marketplace. The organizations added that it is crucial for the FTC to set rules for data minimization to protect consumers from excessive collection, use and sale of their data (including sharing their data in exchange for something of value). The FTC should limit the collection, use and sale of data that can be linked to individual consumers to what is necessary to provide them with the products or services they have requested and for other specific permissible purposes. Lastly, the organizations pointed out that, while notice about surveillance advertising can be useful to consumers and others, the FTC should not over-rely on disclosures about a company’s data practices. In the case of surveillance advertising, notice and consent cannot substitute for limitations and requirements that protect consumers from unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the collection, use and sale/sharing of their personal information. Read the letter here.

Taxation of Pell Grant funds. Consumer Action was among 27 organizations urging Congressional leaders to adopt the bipartisan Tax-Free Pell Grant Act, which would repeal the tax on Federal Pell Grant funds. The change would make higher education more affordable, and also would simplify the tax code for low- and moderate-income students and families. Non-tuition higher education expenses now account for up to 80% of the cost of attending college, yet Pell Grant funds used for non-tuition college expenses are taxable. Repealing the taxability of Pell Grants would permit grantees—among the students with the lowest incomes in higher education—to retain more of the critical financial aid they need to succeed and graduate. The change would also help hundreds of thousands of low-income Pell Grant recipients access the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)—currently underutilized because of the Pell Grant taxability rules, which force many students to apply more of their Pell Grant to tuition, to avoid being taxed on the funds, thereby reducing the amount of education expenses they can claim toward the AOTC. Read the letter here.

House vote on the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA). Consumer Action was one of 23 public interest, labor, consumer advocacy and civil rights groups signed on to a letter urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to move the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) to a vote by the full House of Representatives. Among other things, the law would result in stronger protections for kids’ and teens’ data, including a ban on targeted advertising to anyone under 17 years old. It also includes comprehensive data broker regulations and global opt-outs for consumers, and would limit the collection, use and sharing of information with strong anti-discrimination provisions. The signers strongly believe that the expiring 117th Congress presents the best opportunity to pass comprehensive privacy legislation. Read the letter here.

Access to streamlined loss mitigation options for homeowners. Nearly two dozen advocacy organizations, including Consumer Action, wrote to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) urging the agency to address certain policies that would reduce unnecessary foreclosures, stabilize neighborhoods and reduce the racial wealth gap. Specifically, the groups urged the CFPB to update the mortgage servicing regulations in Regulation X to explicitly permit servicers to offer streamlined loss mitigation options; address the need for streamlined loss mitigation options in areas impacted by natural disasters; publicly reaffirm that the existing Regulation X provisions allow for streamlined offers to borrowers who have not experienced a COVID-related hardship (in addition to those who have); and allow for increased access to streamlined refinancing products, as long as consumer protections are in place to ensure that the refinancing benefits the borrower and that fair lending laws are followed. Read the letter here.

CFPB Watch: Troops pay unnecessary interest; borrowers see debt relief refunds

By Ruth Susswein

Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), American military members on active duty are entitled to have their interest rates reduced to 6% on credit card balances, auto loans and mortgages. As rates continue to rise, this benefit becomes increasingly valuable.

However, “only small fractions” of active National Guard and Reserve members are benefiting from rate reductions, according to recent research by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The SCRA can save servicemembers thousands of dollars in interest. Yet, says the CFPB, only 10% of eligible auto loans and 6% of personal loans received a rate reduction from 2007 to 2018. This amounted to $100 million in lost benefits for National Guard and Reserve servicemembers.

The Consumer Bureau recommends that lenders:

  • Automatically apply interest rate reductions for active duty servicemembers;
  • Apply reduced rates to all of a servicemember’s accounts; and
  • Regularly evaluate if military members are benefitting from rate reductions on their loans.

Currently, the onus is on servicemembers to contact their creditors to request a rate reduction.

Database to detect repeat offenders

The Consumer Bureau is proposing to create a registry of nonbank wrongs, to more easily identify violations of consumer financial protection laws and repeat offenders.

Nonbanks would have to report to the CFPB financial harms and unfair and deceptive practices that result in court judgments and state or federal agency orders against the firms. Nonbanks include, among other businesses, mortgage servicers, auto finance companies, FinTechs and payday lenders.

The Bureau believes that a nonbank database would help state and federal law enforcers monitor violators and detect repeat offenders. It has also proposed making some registry information available to the public.

Consumer advocates support the creation of a nonbank registry but want the Bureau to go further and develop formal rules to oversee and regulate all nonbank lenders.

Student debt relief refunds in the mail

Nearly $20 million in refund checks began hitting mailboxes in December for the 23,000 student loan borrowers who were misled and charged illegal upfront fees by five student loan debt relief companies: Docu Prep Center (d/b/a Certified Document Center), Certified Doc Prep Services, Assure Direct Services, Direct Document Solutions, and Secure Preparation Services. The CFPB alleged that the companies misrepresented to consumers that their interest rates would be reduced, their credit scores would improve, and that the U.S. Department of Education would become their servicer. The lawsuit also alleged that the five companies violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by unlawfully collecting advance fees for debt relief services.

In addition, the five debt relief firms and two associated mortgage companies—Monster Loans and Lend Tech Loans—were charged with illegally obtaining student loan borrowers’ credit reports.

Refunds will arrive from Epiq Systems. For questions regarding debt relief refunds, contact the CFPB at 877-899-2926 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to learn how to tell if the refund check you received is legitimate.

Another $95 million in restitution is headed to 87,000 consumers who were harmed by a company appallingly named Consumer Advocacy Center Inc. (d/b/a Premier Student Loan Center), and related companies True Count Staffing Inc. (d/b/a SL Account Management) and Prime Consulting LLC (d/b/a Financial Preparation Services).

The CFPB, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and the states of Minnesota and North Carolina sued Premier and related companies for misleading borrowers about their student debt relief services and illegally charging upfront fees.

Refunds in this case will be distributed by Rust Consulting. Any questions should go to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 833-539-2839.

Class Action Database: Experian settlement addresses incorrect residential information

By Monica Steinisch

Two different settlements—one in a case against Idelle Labs, maker of Brut and Sure antiperspirant, and the other against Procter & Gamble, maker of Secret, Old Spice, Pantene and other body and hair care products—alleging that the products contained benzene, a known carcinogen, were among the new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during December.

Of note this month is a class action settlement in a case against Experian, one of the three largest national credit reporting companies. The suit alleged that Experian violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when it incorrectly reported some consumers' residential addresses as high-risk or non-residential to third parties who use the reported information in their decision-making process. The plaintiffs contend that the company failed to properly verify the information it reported on consumers. According to the suit, the result of the inaccurate information was that many consumers were wrongfully denied credit opportunities they otherwise would have been offered if all the information in their reports were correct.

As part of the settlement, Experian agreed to pay $22.45 million to consumers whose home addresses the company incorrectly reported as high-risk or non-residential from July 1, 2018, through July 31, 2021, or who contacted Experian during that period to inquire about and/or dispute a non-residential or high-risk address indicator (report).

Class Members are estimated to receive between $300 and $900, depending on the number of valid claims submitted and final costs of the suit.

The claims deadline is Jan. 30, 2023.

About Consumer Action

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Consumer Action is a nonprofit 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 both in 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. At, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database, and more. Our in-language media outreach allows us to share scam alerts and other timely consumer news with a wide non-English-speaking audience.

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 more than 6,500 community-based organizations. Outreach services include in-person and web-based training and dissemination 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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