Consumer Action Insider - April 2011

 
Save the Date

What people are saying

You all are to be commended for the conference you put on in Chicago. I attended and speak at multiple conferences each year and this one was by far the best I have attended. The educational information, networking, and problem solving opportunities were outstanding! The conference was extremely beneficial and I have taught the updated ‘Adult Learning’ presentation multiple times since returning. I returned home with a wealth of tools that I use on a daily basis. I conducted an in-session with my staff immediately upon returning. My staff has in turn provided outreach to hundreds of additional clientele. Thanks again for your continued support and amazing opportunities that you provide to educators. — Valerie Vincent, Louisiana State University AgCenter

Tip of the month: Credit reports and credit scores

Your credit history has a significant impact on your ability to achieve important financial goals. Click here to learn what information is collected about you, how to interpret and improve it, and what your rights are.

National wireless education initiative

In March Consumer Action announced a new multilingual program to educate consumers on how best to navigate the evolving world of wireless devices and services. With support from AT&T, Consumer Action created the national consumer education initiative WirelessED to provide carrier-neutral tools and resources to empower consumers on buying and using wireless data-ready phones.

"As we all rely on our wireless devices more and more every day, none of us wants to be surprised by unexpected charges in our monthly bills," said Consumer Action Executive Director Ken McEldowney. "WirelessED will promote the use of interactive tools and materials to project monthly data usage; educate consumers about selecting new wireless services and devices; and explain how pricing works nationwide and internationally."

Consumer Action is creating an educational module that contains three multilingual brochures and a training packet to assist community based organizations (CBOs) in educating their members both one-on-one and through group presentations. Informational brochures and trainings will be provided throughout the country via Consumer Action's network of more than 8,000 CBOs, helping educate and assist more than 200,000 hard-to-reach consumers.

These materials will also be available on the program's website, WirelessEd.org. The new site features interactive tools to calculate and track data use, as well as non-commercial wireless materials and resources and direct links to major carriers.

Initial "train-the-trainer" sessions will be held in Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco beginning in June. The workshops will offer hands-on training for CBO staff on how best to use the project's materials to assist their clients. The three brochures will cover wireless data and mobile applications, international roaming and how to select wireless devices. Program materials will be available in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Consumer Action's multilingual hotline (415-777-9635) will provide advice and referrals as well.

"Our customers benefit from knowing as much as possible about their wireless devices and services, and we're continually working to ensure they have access to the information that will help them," said AT&T Senior Vice President of Public Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer Charlene Lake. "We're delighted to support Consumer Action and the WirelessED project because it will further extend knowledge about the many valuable bill management tools available today in the industry."

To access the WirelessED initiative online, visit www.wirelessED.org. To receive updates through Twitter, follow @KnowUrWireless. Find the campaign on Facebook at facebook.com/wirelesseducation.

Amicus brief: Protect prescription privacy

Consumer Action recently signed onto an amicus brief in a Vermont case that could have a huge impact on prescription privacy. Sorrell v. IMS Health is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, after the Second Circuit Court of Appeal's ruled against Vermont's prescription confidentiality law. IMS Health, a company that says it offers "pharmaceutical intelligence, information and consulting services to the healthcare market," charged that the state law violates the First Amendment rights of its industry.

Vermont prescription confidentiality law regulates companies that buy, sell or use doctors' prescribing records. Many people do not know that pharmacies collect data about the drugs doctors prescribe to patients, and make that data publicly available (with patient identifying information redacted) for various uses. Consumer groups counter that today's sophisticated "re-identification" techniques used by data miners make it impossible to fully anonymize personal information and that the sale of such data is a slippery slope. Many doctors also object to such data being used to sell them specific drugs.

Pharmacies in Vermont sell information about prescriptions to data miners such as IMS Health and associates, who in turn sell the data to drug companies for use in targeting sales to individual physicians. In 2007, with the strong support of doctors, Vermont passed the Prescription Confidentiality Law to regulate the sale and use of prescription records containing the names of individual prescribing doctors who have not consented to release the information. The industry challenged the law in district court, where the court concluded that the law did not, as marketers charged, violate the First Amendment. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed the ruling, holding that Vermont’s restriction of access to this data was an unconstitutional restriction on commercial speech because it “affect[ed] manufacturers’ ability to promote brand-name drugs to doctors.”

Consumer Action has joined Public Citizen, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Public Good, and U.S. PIRG in an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of the petitioner, Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell.

According to the brief: “If adopted by this Court, the Second Circuit’s decision would jeopardize a wide range of federal and state privacy laws that protect the confidentiality of consumers’ private information, but would advance no interests the First Amendment is understood to protect. [...] The First Amendment does not provide pharmaceutical companies a right to use records about doctors’ prescriptions for marketing purposes. Such information is confidential under [Vermont] state law, and drug companies have no more right to access it than they have to access a doctor’s private bank records.”

Hotline Chronicles: Movers hold couple’s goods for ransom

A couple contacted Consumer Action’s complaints hotline about a moving company that had provided them with a “binding” written estimate to move goods from a storage facility in California to their new home in New York. The goods were promised to arrive in New York within two weeks of the day they signed the contract.

Instead, they learned that their goods had been removed from the storage unit by the movers and taken to another storage site. The couple’s belongings had been taken “hostage”. They were told that their goods wouldn’t be delivered until they paid more money than they had agreed to in the contract.

Unfortunately, this couple’s complaint is not uncommon. Numerous consumers report falling prey to the same scam in online posts on complaint websites, including RipoffReport.com, ComplaintsBoard.com and TheSqueakyWheel.com.

Since the move was across state lines, Consumer Action hotline counselors advised the couple to complain to the U.S. Department of Transportation and pointed them to a site started by a person who also had been ripped off by movers. Movingscam.com has an informative article on how to take a mover to small claims court.

“The awful thing about this scam is that consumers often have to pay more money, or spend money on a private attorney, in order to get their things back,” said Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. “In the meantime, these companies keep piling on storage fees while consumers try to fight back. If they do get their things back, often they are broken or damaged.”

Before you sign a contract:

  • Get at least three estimates for your move. Ask each company to provide a “written binding estimate” and its claims ratio—how many claims they’ve received versus how many moves they’ve made. Find out in advance about anything that might affect the final cost (how many flights of stairs, parking, etc).
  • Make sure the movers are licensed in your state and by the DOT. Never sign a contract unless the moving company is specified by name in the contract—and they have a good record with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Google the company’s name with the word “complaints” before it to see what appears online.

Here are some helpful resources:

  • MovingScam ([url=http://www.movingscam.com]http://www.movingscam.com[/url]). A wealth of information about how to check on movers, address complaints and get recommendations for companies that have good track records.
  • The U.S. DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is part of the Department of Transportation ([url=http://www.protectyourmove.gov]http://www.protectyourmove.gov[/url]). Check out its publication, Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move.

Click here to submit a complaint to Consumer Action’s hotline.

The legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Consumer Action joined leading consumer and workers’ rights organizations as sponsors of a job safety and health symposium on March 21 in Washington, DC. The symposium was held in recognition of the 100 year anniversary of the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This disastrous inferno in a New York City sweatshop, widely commemorated in March, took the lives of 146 garment workers. In the aftermath of the fire, public sentiment about workers’ rights and safety shifted, and a movement was born that improved the working conditions of Americans for generations.

Victims of the recent Deepwater Horizon, Upper Big Branch Mine, and relatives of other workplace disasters were featured along with safety and labor experts, historians and academics at the Capitol Hill symposium.

Coal miner Stanley “Goose” Stewart was working at the Upper Big Branch mine operated by the non-union Massey Energy Company when it exploded a year ago, killing 29 of his colleagues. Addressing the packed symposium, held in a basement meeting room in the Rayburn Congressional office building, Stewart brought tears to the eyes of many as he talked about the fateful day when he lost so many friends.

Even before the April 5, 2010 disaster, Stewart was worried about safety. He repeated what he had told a Congressional committee a month after the disaster. “I knew firsthand how bad conditions were at the mine and want everyone to know. Last July, I told my wife, Mindi, ‘If anything happens to me, get a lawyer and sue the hell out of them! That place is a ticking time bomb.’”

Stewart, who no longer works for the mine, has made it his mission to improve safety standards for miners.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy was examined in the context of recent disasters and state and federal efforts to roll back worker protections. These include efforts by lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and 37 other states to pass anti-labor legislation, including repealing minimum wage laws, banning prevailing wage standards, repealing child labor laws, passing “right-to-work-for-less” laws and abolishing collective bargaining rights.

Sponsoring organizations included the AFL-CIO, Alliance for Justice, American Rights at Work, BlueGreen Alliance, Change to Win Coalition of Labor Union Women, Consumer Action, Communications Workers of America (CWA), International Labor Rights Forum, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University, National Consumers League, Public Citizen, Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, SEIU, UFCW and UNITE HERE!

The coalition of labor, consumer and environmental groups called on Congress and the White House to take steps to preserve, protect and bolster labor laws in the United States.

The five-point call to action urged Congress and the Obama Administration to:

  • Update and reform workplace and mine safety and health laws.
  • Preserve, protect and enhance minimum wage and child labor laws.
  • Pass federal legislation to protect child farm workers.
  • Preserve and protect existing worker protection programs, and support the Administration’s request to increase the Labor Department’s budget.
  • Uphold the right of collective bargaining for public and private workers that include protections for worker health and safety.

“The Triangle fire reminds us that the welfare and protection of workers – their wages, benefits and their safety and health – must be high on our agenda,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “Roughly five thousand workers die on the job every year – that’s far too many. We can and we must do better.”

The National Consumers League, the oldest consumer rights organization, was instrumental in the reforms following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Francis Perkins, appointed head of the League in 1910, witnessed the fire and it became a pivotal event in her life. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Perkins Secretary of the Department of Labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet level position. She served for 12 years.

Take Action: Important California bills

Consumer Action needs your help in getting four pro-consumer bills passed by the California Legislature. Using our free CapWiz service, you can contact your representatives and express to them in your own words why these issues are important to you. In recent times, Consumer Action has noted a sharp increase in the number of consumers who have used our resources to educate themselves and voice their concerns to policymakers. Please join the effort by adding your support to the measures below.

AB 88 (Huffman), which would require labeling of genetically modified salmon entering and sold within the state.

Opinion polls have shown that 95% of Americans want labeling of genetically modified food, and 50% would not eat genetically modified seafood. Some consumers are concerned that eating genetically modified food may carry future health consequences that may be unknown at the present time. Others are concerned less with the impact on their own health than with the impact on the health of the wild salmon stocks should genetically engineered fish escape and outcompete the state’s endangered wild salmon population for resources. (For this reason, genetically modified salmon farms have been banned in California waters since 2004). In either case, consumers deserve the right to know what they are eating, and private companies should not be allowed to take away an individual’s right to be informed.

Click here to learn more and act.

SB 24 (Simitian) would improve data breach notifications

Currently, Californians receive notifications when their personal information housed in a company’s database is hacked into or stolen. But anyone who has received one of these advisories knows that the notifications are often empty and confusing form letters, only rarely mentioning the specific data that were compromised during the breach.

Although California passed the nation’s first state-level security breach notification law back in 2003, it has since fallen behind 14 other states in terms of what information companies must provide in the notices to affected consumers. SB 24 would improve upon existing law by requiring breach notification letters to include the types of personal information at risk, a range of dates for the breach, and contact information for the three credit bureaus.

Click here to learn more and act.

SB 458 would protect consumers from mortgage deficiencies

Normally under California law, a borrower who defaults on a mortgage is liable only for the property itself and faced no additional financial penalty beyond the loss of the home. If the loan has been refinanced, however, the homeowner loses this protection and can be sued by their lender for the “deficiency,” or the difference between the property’s value and the value of the loan. In other words, a borrower who was “underwater” by $150,000 when he completed a short sale (or lost his home to foreclosure) could be sued years later for $150,000, by either his lender or by a collection agency. Current law allows lenders up to 10 years to collect deficiency debt.

Click here to learn more and act.

SB 708 would stop debt settlement rip-offs

Sen. Corbett has introduced the Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act (SB 708), which would license and regulate debt settlement companies in California. The bill would set clear rules and maximum fees for an industry that has built a reputation for not playing fair with their customers, and for charging outrageously large fees. SB 708 would require debt settlement businesses to be licensed by the Department of Corporations, and would establish a maximum fee that debt settlers could charge—15% of the amount that they successfully settle.

Click here to learn more and act.

About Consumer Action

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 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 an unbiased Annual Credit Card Survey that exposes 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 to moderate income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of more than 8,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Consumer Action’s rapidly expanding 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, regulations, and legislation by taking positions on almost 200 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.

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