Consumer Action INSIDER - July 2020

 

What people are saying

It is so vital to have someone to support the consumer; businesses typically always win against a single individual. Thanks for being there and supporting us. —Consumer Action hotline user, via email

Did you know?

The “big three” credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—are now giving consumers access to free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. (The free reports used to be available only once per year.) Taking this opportunity to stay on top of ever-evolving credit reports can help you to effectively manage your personal finances, since doing so allows you to monitor your credit and payment history—information that lenders and creditors consult when reviewing your applications for loans and other forms of credit. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to access copies of your reports. Be careful when answering the authentication questions, however—if you choose an inaccurate response, you will have to request your reports by snail mail.

Inoculate yourself against the spread of COVID cons with SCAM GRAM

Consumer Action has been bringing you news of coronavirus cons since February, when we realized that an outbreak of opportunistic scammers meant danger for our SCAM GRAM readers, who stood to lose a lot as the government considered passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which would provide stimulus funds that criminals could (rather easily, it turns out) siphon off. In addition, we alerted readers early on that fraudsters would undoubtedly begin feeding off the public’s fears by promising personal protective equipment (like face masks), tests and “cures” of all kinds—products that were either no good, or that the criminals had no intention of delivering.

Around this time, reports of angry would-be travelers rolled in—travelers who, despite being owed refunds (due to what many would consider a natural “disaster”), couldn’t get cruise ships, airlines and other companies (including those they bought “travel insurance” from) to pay up for trips that they could no longer take during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, our instincts were correct. From Jan. 1 to June 23, the Federal Trade Commission received reports of almost $70 million in combined COVID-19-related losses, with the majority coming through online shopping scams (undoubtedly for coronavirus “medications,” masks and the like) and problems with travel/vacation refunds and cancellations. (The median fraud loss during this time? $286—nothing to shake a stick at!)

We’d like to think that SCAM GRAM readers have avoided contributing to the reported millions in losses, since not only did we warn them of fake products and stimulus payment thieves, but also government imposters pretending to be with agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and state health departments, calling or emailing with “updates” on the spread of the virus. As we stated in February, “the prognosis is grim when it comes to widespread paranoia and poor choices” (like opening an email from the “health department” with malware attachments designed to access the recipient’s bank and other accounts, or download ransomware to lock the devices). But we had hoped that featuring COVID scams as they evolved would inoculate consumers. By now we’ve called out numerous (false) claims, including that colloidal silver can cure the virus and that you can “train your body to deny infection.”

In May, we devoted an entire edition of SCAM GRAM to “Saving you from COVIDiocy." In it, we detailed exactly how con artists were not only logging in to the IRS’s “Get My Payment” portal to steal stimulus money directly, but also how they were applying for unemployment benefits under your name (for you to learn only if you got a letter from the state or you actually became unemployed and went to file for benefits yourself). We also detailed how crafty criminals were bilking billions from small business owners who were supposed to be the recipients of government loans (also meant to stimulate the economy—not scammers’ pocketbooks).

And just last month, we warned readers that they could be throwing away thousands if they mistook the (now) prepaid debit card stimulus payments for a scam. (To check the status of your stimulus payment or get answers to common payment questions, click here.) We also outlined how the government has allowed a plethora of alleged “antibody” tests of “dubious quality” onto the market and explained how to determine if your test is “total junk.” And we reviewed how states’ moves to send out contact tracers to, well, contact residents who’ve come into contact with the virus, have led to even more imposter scams, and how to ascertain if the tracer touching base with you is legit or not. Finally, we outlined how fraudsters were preying on the desperation of those worried about paying their next utility bill or getting their Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) payments by calling and making threats to turn off the lights or take back the benefits.

SCAM GRAM will be out again in mid-July, featuring the latest (and not-so-greatest) in current coronavirus cons. To sign up for the free monthly e-newsletter and stay one step ahead of the goons looking to game you, simply put your email address into the “Join Our Email List” signup on the right side of the Consumer Action homepage. And don’t worry, we won’t spam you or scam you!

Coronavirus concerns: Overcoming housing discrimination (and even despair)

On June 9, Consumer Action held a webinar on fair housing in the COVID-19 era. The webinar, attended by more than 300 community advocates from around the country, provided a broad overview of the Fair Housing Act, which protects consumers against housing discrimination. To help address some of the mental health issues impacting tenants, landlords, neighbors and others during the pandemic, the webinar included a bonus segment with practical tips and resources for handling what has, for most of us, been a stress-inducing time.

Consumer Action's outreach and training manager, Linda Williams, launched the webinar with a warm introduction to guest speaker Chancela Al-Mansour, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Housing Rights Center. While promoting Consumer Action’s new fact sheet “Fair housing rights for those affected by the pandemic,” Williams shared with participants that she has known and admired Al-Mansour for years, going back to when she advocated for the rights of low-income and marginalized populations as a staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

Among the timely issues Al-Mansour addressed during her presentation was whether COVID-19 can be considered a disability under the Fair Housing Act, how tenants are protected by COVID-19 eviction moratoriums, and how they can file discrimination complaints and assert their rights under the Fair Housing Act. Al-Mansour explained that the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and mental or physical disability. She also described how some states, such as California, protect tenants against discrimination based on additional characteristics—such as sexual orientation, source of income (e.g., Section 8 housing vouchers), gender identity/expression, military/veteran status, and more. Al-Mansour emphasized that fair housing laws don't only protect tenants; they also protect prospective home seekers, home buyers and home loan borrowers.

Al-Mansour went on to describe how COVID-19 can be considered a disability that requires protection from discrimination and, therefore, it is a landlord's duty to provide reasonable accommodations for tenants. Examples of reasonable accommodation requests might include: an elderly tenant, or one with a compromised immune system, requesting a “restriction of entry” into his or her unit (to keep people who are making repairs, etc. from “popping in”); a tenant requesting a waiver of an existing "no pets" rule in order to allow a service or companion/therapy animal in the building; or a request to end occupancy (i.e., “break” a lease agreement) early (made, for example, by an elderly person who must move in with family to receive care, or by a tenant who must move out early to care for a sick family member).

Noting that during the pandemic it is likely that most of us—or someone in our household—has experienced some type of mental health issue, Al-Mansour introduced a segment led by another guest speaker, Dr. Jessica Roberts, the Full Service Partnership Liaison for Homelessness with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Housing and Job Development Division.

Dr. Roberts discussed how existing mental health problems—including struggles with anxiety and depression—often worsen during stressful times. She also described how incidents of substance abuse and eating disorders tend to increase during these times, as do conflicts with family, friends and/or neighbors, and even occurrences of domestic violence.

Dr. Roberts emphasized the importance of recognizing the current stressors impacting not only us, but also those around us. During the pandemic, these could include being ill or caring for a sick loved one, and may even include the loss of a loved one. Even if not infected by COVID-19, people might still suffer from the impact of shelter-in-place orders, school and childcare closings, loss of employment and/or increased financial distress. Helpful coping mechanisms that one can use at any time include calming breathing exercises, meditation and speaking with supportive individuals. Some of the coping skills Dr. Roberts focused on were based on dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which she described as an evidence-based practice that provides users with the skills for practicing mindfulness, interacting with others effectively, regulating emotions and dealing with distress.

Click here to view the webinar and discover additional tips.

Consumer Action encourages readers to check out Dr. Roberts’ list of resources, which includes contact numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and the Friendship line (800-971-0016), a 24-hour hotline for older adults that is both a crisis intervention hotline and a provider of non-emergency emotional support. Dr. Roberts also recommends phone support lines geared toward helping teens and those struggling with substance abuse, eating disorders and other specific challenges. Finally, she links to the Coronavirus Anxiety Workbook, which offers advice on avoiding “catastrophizing”; limiting anxiety-provoking news media; challenging one’s seemingly automatic anxious and negative thoughts; and developing a do-able “stress-resilience action plan.” (For persistent or severe anxiety, Consumer Action recommends speaking with your doctor.)

“Fair Housing in the COVID-19 Era” is part of the webinar series that Consumer Action is offering under our COVID-19 Educational Project, which also features a growing list of fact sheets and regular updates to our COVID-19 Resource Guide to help improve the ongoing financial health of families and individuals during the pandemic. (Major funding for our COVID-19 Educational Project was provided by Wells Fargo. Additional support comes from AT&T, Bank of America, Capital One and Square.)

Mark your calendars for our July 15 webinar on "COVID-19 Scams and Healthcare Fraud" (register here), and our Aug. 5 webinar on “Estate Planning for Health Care, Finances and More During a Pandemic” (register here).

Hotline Chronicles: Crooked deals and shady sales abound on Craigslist

Luther* reached out to Consumer Action’s hotline with an example of a fraud he encountered on Craigslist, a popular online classified ads platform.

“I placed a for-sale item on Craigslist Minneapolis, and within a day I had two emails saying almost the same thing—both seeking personal information from me so that they [the senders] could send me a certified check.” According to Luther, the senders stated that they “would come later after the check went through to pick up the merchandise.” Luther noticed that the two emails were “uncommonly similar” in wording, even though they originated from different Gmail accounts.

Luther was right to be suspicious. Craigslist itself warns of the types of scams users may encounter when buying and selling items on its site. For instance, many scam attempts employ tried-and-true “fake check” fraud: In these scams, someone you don’t know (such as an “interested buyer”) instructs you to deposit their check—usually made out for more than you would be owed. They then ask you to send some portion of the amount back by wire or peer-to-peer payment platform, such as PayPal, Zelle or Venmo. The scammer always has a ready story to explain why they “overpaid” you.

The scam often works, however, because victims are typically sent a fake check that looks pretty much exactly like a real cashier’s or certified check. Often, even bank employees can’t tell the difference because fake checks may even feature the names and addresses of legitimate financial institutions. Because banks are obligated to make funds quickly available to depositors, usually within two days, the money will show up in the account, and will often remain there for a long time—it can take weeks for a bank to figure out that the check is a fake! By the time it does, the victim may have sent the “extra” check funds to the scammer. When the bank determines the check is fake, however, it removes the bogus funds from victim’s account, leaving them out-of-pocket for the money they sent to the scammer.

You may encounter fake check scams on any platform (not just Craigslist), including social media or local “swap” sites. Scammers troll for targets by posting especially tempting “deals” online; responding is often the first step potential victims take before falling for the trap. Unfortunately, once they have taken the bait, victims have little to no hope of recovering the money they send to scammers.

It pays to know that most scams feature one or more of these hallmarks:

  • An email or text containing a vague initial inquiry asking about “the item”—not your specific item
  • Poor grammar, strange phrases and misspellings
  • A story about why the buyer needs to send you more money than the item is being sold for
  • Reasons why the buyer or seller can’t meet to complete the transaction in person, or why the seller needs to delay delivery of the item
  • Requests to use Western Union, MoneyGram, cashier’s check, money order, PayPal, Zelle, etc. to pay for items or return “overages”

If you have fallen for a scam, report it to the:

* Not this consumer's real name

New publications put social media users on the path to privacy

Consumer Action’s two new publications outlining social media privacy controls are particularly timely. According to Forbes, since the start of the coronavirus crisis, social media engagement is up 61%, with messaging across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp increasing by 50% in those countries hit hardest by the virus. Meanwhile, Twitter is seeing 23% more daily users than a year ago.

With increased usage comes increased opportunities for user privacy mishaps. And while we can’t stop you from oversharing with your friends, social media platforms have, fortunately, evolved to enable you to adjust privacy controls to protect yourself.

The first of Consumer Action’s two eight-page fact sheets, Take control: Customizing your social media privacy settings, explains how to achieve your desired level of privacy on the most popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube) and provides useful general privacy tips, tools and resources. The “Privacy best practices” section of the fact sheet highlights eight practices that are key to protecting your privacy across all social media platforms, including: not posting personal details that criminals and others could use for nefarious purposes (e.g., your home address or photos of the interior of your house); deleting old, unused social media accounts; and setting strong passwords and enabling two-factor authentication for existing accounts.

The second fact sheet, Personalized privacy: Customizing your Facebook settings, focuses on the privacy management tools and options available on the Facebook platform. With more than 1.5 billion people logging in to their accounts on a daily basis, Facebook is the world’s largest social network; a prudent approach to privacy is critical. The publication provides detailed instructions for using the various Facebook privacy management tools—both basic and advanced (e.g., facial recognition settings). It also instructs you on how to customize everything from your visibility to others to the visibility of all past posts (en masse) to the types of ads you see. Like the other fact sheet, this one includes a “best practices” section that highlights some relatively simple but effective steps you can take to protect your privacy while on the platform (such as avoiding defaulting to a “public” post setting, or reviewing your activity log to ensure old posts reflect the privacy settings you want them to).

The publications were produced with funding from Facebook. Both are available in English now, for download from the Consumer Action website at the links above. Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean translations will be available later this summer.

Coalition Efforts: Opposing anti-consumer, industry-friendly moves

DOT’s proposed rules favor airlines over passengers Consumer groups called the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposal to alter its ability to protect passengers from unfair and deceptive practices in the air travel marketplace "fatally flawed” and urged the agency to abandon its rulemaking. The advocates argue that the proposed rules, formulated at the behest of the airline industry, would give airlines even greater incentives to engage in the kinds of notorious anti-passenger practices—like leaving passengers stuck on the tarmac for hours on end—that Congress intended the DOT to prevent. Learn more.

AbbVie-Allergan merger a bad deal for patients. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) signs off on a $63 billion deal between pharmaceutical manufacturers AbbVie and Allergan, advocates warn that the merger will reduce competition in a number of markets where the two companies directly overlap with each other. The deal will also worsen competition issues that already exist in the pharmaceutical drug industry, particularly those relating to drug rebate walls and patent abuses, which hamper consumer access to needed medications while also increasing their price. (Rebate walls are a contracting practice used to block new medicines from formulary access.) As the advocates point out in their letter, “AbbVie has [already] engaged in a number of anticompetitive practices to protect its blockbuster drug, Humira” and “the [FTC-allowed] merger increases AbbVie’s ability and incentive to engage in rebate wall strategies to inhibit the ability of rival drugs to get on a preferred position on drug formularies.” Learn more.

Democracy and privacy at risk as tech industry capitalizes off pandemic. Over 80 civil rights, civil liberties, labor and consumer protection organizations released needed principles to guide employers, policymakers, businesses and public health authorities as they consider novel strategies to deploy modern technologies to monitor, track and/or trace individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or have become ill. The groups noted the need to protect the civil rights and privacy of all people—with an emphasis on communities of color and other vulnerable populations—when considering the deployment of technological measures that can, for instance, track location data, share private health information or collect exposure notifications. Learn more.

100+ organizations join together to oppose Trump nominee. If confirmed, Nancy Beck, the Trump administration’s nominee to chair the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), would be likely to weaken product safety rules, said more than 100 consumer and environmental groups that, in a historic show of solidarity, joined together in opposition to Beck's nomination. The CPSC is responsible for protecting people from the hazards posed by toxic and unsafe consumer products. Throughout her career, Beck has opposed and weakened regulations that protect public health, safety and the environment, particularly with respect to products containing harmful chemicals ranging from lead to asbestos. If confirmed to lead the CPSC, she would be empowered to do even more damage to public health and consumer protection for many years to come, say the groups. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Limited student debt relief; new task ‘farce’ is no joke

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently ordered mortgage company Monster Loans to pay cheated consumers $18 million; unfortunately, Monster’s victims will receive only a tiny fraction of that amount.

The Bureau charged Monster Loans and a fake company it created called Lend Tech Loans with illegally obtaining 7 million consumer credit reports from 2015 to 2017. Monster Loans lied to a credit bureau to obtain the reports, claiming it would use them to market mortgages to student loan borrowers. Instead, according to the CFPB, Monster shared the reports with student loan debt relief companies to pitch services to consumers. With parent company Monster Loans’ assistance in obtaining additional credit reports, the sham company Lend Tech Loans was also able to target 12 million student loan borrowers from 2017 to 2019. Together, the “debt relief” companies illegally charged and netted at least $15 million in upfront fees in their less-than-helpful scheme.

The Bureau accused Chou Team Realty, LLC (doing business as Monster Loans) and its company Lend Tech Loans, as well as owners Thomas Chou and Sean Cowell, with violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (by accessing credit reports under false pretenses). The Bureau also charged the parties with violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule (for deceptively representing themselves and charging unlawful fees).

The Bureau’s proposed $18 million judgment would have compensated consumers for the fraud, but, since Monster Loans does not have that amount on hand, the Bureau ruled that the company will only be required to return $200,000 to cheated customers. According to a proposed settlement agreement, however, Chou would be required to personally pay a $350,000 civil penalty, and Cowell a $100,000 penalty, to the CFPB.

If accepted by the court, the CFPB settlement would permanently ban Monster Loans, Chou and Cowell from operating in the debt relief industry, and would also restrict their future access to consumer credit reports.

Mortgage and housing assistance extended

Struggling homeowners and renters have received another reprieve: The moratorium on foreclosures for Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed mortgages has been extended to Aug. 31. (The protections for people with these federally-backed mortgages were set to expire on June 30.) In addition, federal and state/local governments are offering eviction and non-payment protections for many renters until July 24.

Click here for information on the mortgage relief and housing assistance options that the CFPB has provided to homeowners and renters during the coronavirus crisis.

New task ‘farce’ is no laughing matter

Last October, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger created a taskforce on “federal consumer financial law” to re-evaluate consumer financial protection rules and to identify justifications to roll back—or gut—regulations that financially protect consumers.

The task “farce,” as consumer advocates are calling it, is made up of five members with a deregulatory bent and a history of representing payday lenders and large financial institutions (rather than consumers) in court cases. Some of its members have publicly and repeatedly opposed the independence of the CFPB—and even its very existence! (Unfortunately for them, the Supreme Court has ruled the CFPB "constitutional.")

Not one consumer advocate sits on the committee, and the taskforce blatantly fails to comply with transparency rules that statutory CFPB advisory boards are required to follow. Furthermore, taskforce members are paid exorbitantly, while other CFPB advisory boards members are unpaid volunteers.

Consumer Action and a number of other advocacy groups have formally opposed the taskforce and its deregulatory agenda. In mid-June, Democracy Forward, the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), and Suffolk University Research Professor of Law Kathleen Engle (who applied for a position on the taskforce and was rejected) sued the CFPB and its Trump administration-appointed director, alleging the parties had illegally created the advisory committee and will be operating it in violation of federal advisory committee law. The suit also asserts that the taskforce will “likely serve as a blueprint for unwinding consumer protections” and calls for its immediate demise.

“A group of hand-picked industry lawyers and consultants that meet behind closed doors—with no consumer advocates or disparate points of view—is more appropriately called a task farce,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the Federal Consumer Program at U.S. PIRG, who has blogged about the illegitimate committee. “But this task farce is no joke. Not only is the CFPB breaking the law, their actions continue to be dangerous for consumer protection.”

Class Action Database: Rainbow Light pays for heavy metals in its prenatals

A class action settlement involving GPS company Magellan’s lifetime map subscriptions for its hands-free RoadMate vehicle navigation products was included among 10 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during June.

Of note this month is the class action settlement People v. Rainbow Light, LLC, et al.

The plaintiffs filed the class action alleging that the dietary supplement company Nutranext (acquired by the Clorox company in 2018) deceptively manufactured and marketed its Rainbow Light prenatal vitamins as free of heavy metals. On its website (RainbowLight.com), Nutranext claimed that “all raw materials were tested to ensure they are free of heavy metals, pesticides and contaminants.” An investigation by the Los Angeles City Attorney, however, uncovered detectable amounts of lead, arsenic and cadmium in the company’s prenatal vitamins (which gave rise to another claim that these substances were in other Rainbow Light vitamins and supplements).

Nutranext denied the allegations but agreed to a $6.7 million settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit. (The Los Angeles City Attorney obtained a separate $1.5 million settlement specifically for California consumers who bought Rainbow Light’s pre- or postnatal vitamins between July 28, 2015 and Oct. 3, 2019—this class can submit their claims for refunds here by Aug. 3., 2020.)

All other class members must have purchased Rainbow Light products between Dec. 1, 2015 and April 16, 2020. Class members include all U.S. residents (except those living in California) who purchased Rainbow Light’s pre- or postnatal products during this time, along with all U.S. residents (including Californians) who purchased any of Rainbow Light’s non-prenatal or non-postnatal products (i.e., Rainbow Light vitamins, supplements, etc. not specified as being for pregnant or nursing mothers).

Eligible class members with proof of purchase may submit a claim for $7 per bottle for prenatal and postnatal products and $2 per bottle for non-prenatal and non-postnatal products, with a maximum of $18 per household. Class members without proof of purchase may submit a claim for $4 per bottle for prenatal and postnatal products and $1 per bottle for non-prenatal and non-postnatal products, with a maximum of $9.50 per household.

This claims deadline is July 29, 2020.

As part of the settlement, Rainbow Light will be required to regularly test their prenatal vitamins for lead over the next three years (and notify the public if the results reveal significant amounts). If you have taken Rainbow Light vitamins and are concerned about your health or the health of your child, please see the case FAQs, where it is stated: “The City Attorney did not allege that Rainbow Light Prenatal Vitamins had levels of heavy metals in excess of state or federal legal requirements.” Consult your own doctor about any health ramifications.

About Consumer Action

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

Consumer education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of educational resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth information on many topics related to personal money management, housing, insurance and privacy, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. At Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and seven 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 more than 6,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and bulk 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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