Consumer Action INSIDER – April 2012


41st Anniversary Announcement

What people are saying

"Consumer Action has been a tremendous resource in helping to elevate the level of [credit] awareness among veterans. Through Consumer Action's financial literacy seminars and pamphlets, more and more veterans … are learning how to monitor and repair their credit history." -- Joe Wynn, President, Vets Group Washington, DC

This month's consumer tip

The need to provide long-term care for elderly parents catches millions of Baby Boomers off guard. Start planning now-don't wait for a crisis. A good place to start is at the Family Caregiver Alliance.

New Fair Housing educational module unveiled at Oakland community training

Consumer Action's outreach team visited Oakland, California, to train 35 community-based organization (CBO) staffers, housing advocates and community leaders on a new fair housing module developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As a HUD Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) partner, Consumer Action helps people recognize housing discrimination and learn how to file fair housing complaints with government agencies.

The new fair housing module includes two multilingual brochures, a lesson plan with class activities and a set of PowerPoint slides. The brochures are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese and can be ordered in bulk for free by community agencies and non-profit organizations. The training materials are available for free download from Consumer Action's website: Click here.

The half-day training at Oakland's Preservation Park included information on housing discrimination, fair housing laws and the agencies that protect consumers against housing discrimination. Also covered was how consumers can file complaints with HUD and other agencies.

Consumer Action Executive Director Ken McEldowney and HUD Region IX Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) Regional Director Chuck Hauptman welcomed participants to the training and explained the educational partnership between Consumer Action and HUD.

Paul Smith, intake branch chief of HUD-FHEO Region IX, provided information on federal housing discrimination protections, the complaint process, substantial equivalency and recent HUD settlements.

Substantial equivalence certification takes place when a state or local agency applies for certification and HUD determines that the agency enforces a law that provides substantive rights, procedures, remedies and judicial review provisions that are substantially equivalent to the federal Fair Housing Act. Typically, after certification, HUD will refer complaints of housing discrimination that it receives to the certified state or local agency for investigation.

Selena Wong, regional administrator for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), spoke about state housing discrimination protections, the state complaint process, some recent settlements reached by her agency, and other topics.

After lunch, Consumer Action outreach team members Nelson Santiago and Linda Williams trained the group on how to use the new fair housing module. They covered the material contained in the module, including the kinds of actions that are discriminatory under the federal Fair Housing Act, described how to file a housing discrimination complaint and explained the complaint resolution process.

Maeve Elise Brown, executive director of Housing Economic Rights Advocates, and Jessica Sparks, staff attorney for Fair Housing of Marin, talked about the role of fair housing agencies in counseling clients, investigating allegations of discrimination, referring cases to enforcement agencies or private attorneys, training landlords, community groups and other fair housing practitioners, and conducting educational audits.

Our program got high marks in participant evaluations. One big takeaway for many was that there is a lot of support for victims of housing discrimination, and, as one participant put it, filing a complaint "can be fairly easy and there is nothing to be afraid of."

Consumer Action and HUD will host fair housing trainings for CBO staff in Atlanta in March and in Chicago in April. For more details about those trainings, please email the Consumer Action .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (outreach AT consumer-action DOT org).

Consumer Action holds a MoneyWi$e training in Arizona

Consumer Action outreach team members Audrey Perrott and Jamie Woo traveled to Phoenix, AZ in late February to give a MoneyWi$e training at the invitation of our longtime CBO partner Desert Schools Federal Credit Union. Community agency staff members were trained on using the multilingual MoneyWi$e financial literacy materials created by Consumer Action and Capital One.

MoneyWi$e modules on money management, rebuilding good credit and ID theft/account fraud took center stage at the training. Approximately 40 attendees from local social service, housing, youth and government agencies learned about the resources and best practices for using them. This is the fourth time Consumer Action has trained the Desert Schools Federal Credit Union's CBO clients.

Kicking off the event with the MoneyWi$e Tracking Your Money module, Perrott and Woo engaged participants in an icebreaker activity in which they were asked to draw an image of "money management" and share their thoughts on budgeting with the group. During a lively discussion, the groups exchanged viewpoints on the best ways to educate clients about money management. Topics ranged from how clients can save more and spend less, reach long- and short-term goals and overcome resistance to setting a "budget" or spending plan. At individual tables, people explained how they help clients to track spending and suggested tools to help clients establish a spending plan. Click here to go to the Tracking Your Money module.

Perrott told the groups about a variety of resources for electronic and online budgeting. Non-profit staff exchanged information about local resources ranging from frequent shopper discount programs at local grocery stores to free wireless phone service for income-eligible individuals.

Moving onto credit, Perrott explained, among other things, the importance of having good credit and how to dispute credit report errors. The group engaged in the "classified ad" activity from the MoneyWi$e Improve Your Credit module to evaluate whether sample ads are deceptive. Click on the titles to go to the Good Credit and Rebuilding Good Credit modules.

The ID Theft and Account Fraud session was conducted in an interactive format. Perrott discussed what identity theft is, steps to take to prevent it and what victims can do to clean up the problems and lessen the impact on their lives. During the session, attendees shared personal experiences and stories about how they worked to clear up problems created by ID theft. Perrott also provided participants with a sample of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ID Theft Affidavit and the Phoenix Police Department's Identity Theft Victim's Packet. Click here to go to the ID Theft and Account Fraud module.

Participants were grateful for the training and many of them submitted publication orders-MoneyWi$e materials are available for free to non-profit agencies-on the spot. Consumer Action also received requests to come back to Phoenix to train additional community partners.

Our trainers got high marks in the evaluations. In response to the statement I have a better understanding of the various topics covered today, 65.7% answered "strongly agree" while 34.3% said they "agree." Individual comments on the evaluation forms were glowing, too. Here's a sampling:

  • Materials are excellent. I can tell you really care.
  • I truly enjoyed this training. I feel the materials provided were very helpful. The power points especially helped us to follow again and reflect very important points.
  • Love it! Keep doing what you're doing. I feel that I will be a "1" with practice.

Hotline Chronicles: Killing "card services" robocalls is a challenge

Have you had a pre-recorded call from "Rachel" or "Stacy" from "card services" offering to reduce your credit card loans-even though your phone number is on the National Do Not Call Registry? Millions of consumers have received these "robocalls."

On March 27, a Texas woman called Consumer Action's hotline to vent her frustration with the calls and ask what she could do about them.

Consumer Action's Linda Sherry says the consumer received her most recent call from "Rachel" in card services on her home phone (registered with Do Not Call) on March 28.

"I was a little surprised to read an email from the Federal Trade Commission that same day that said the agency had shut this operation down," said Sherry. "We appreciate the FTC's efforts on robocallers, but I get the impression that this is a classic game of 'whack a mole'-you smack one down and it pops up somewhere else."

Sherry and many others who have complained to the FTC about the pre-recorded calls say the calls have been coming for years. If you follow the prompt to learn more, you are routed to people with exceedingly limited English skills who hang up on you when it becomes clear to them that you're not going to take the bait. "These people read from a script. The goal is to sell you a worthless $1,000 debt reduction service," said Sherry. "Sadly, the Federal Trade Commission says that many people have fallen for it and sent the company millions in ill-gotten gains."

The FTC is conducting an ongoing crackdown on deceptive robocallers. On March 28, it announced the most recent of its settlements, targeting SBN Peripherals. In February, the FTC reached a reached a settlement with a company called F&F Payment Processing. The final settlement order against SBN Peripherals, based near Los Angeles, which did business as Asia Pacific Telecom Inc., bans the defendants from telemarketing and requires them to give up roughly $3 million in assets.

The "urgent" calls from "card services" are simply a cover for telemarketers who trick people into buying worthless debt-reduction services or extended auto service contracts. (They even call people who don't own cars about the warranties.) The defendants violated the law by using robocalls to contact consumers without their written permission, as required by law, and called telephones listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. The FTC also alleged that the defendants' robocalls often transmitted caller ID information vaguely identifying the caller as "SALES DEPT" and displaying telephone numbers registered to an offshore company it controlled called Asia Pacific Telecom.

Businesses need your written permission before they can call you with prerecorded telemarketing messages - also known as robocalls - regardless of whether you already have a relationship with the business. If a business wants to call you to deliver prerecorded messages, it must tell you clearly that it is asking for your written permission to call you with these kinds of messages.

If you are receiving these calls, report them to the FTC at or by phone at 888-382-1222. While most of the calls manipulate caller ID, it's a good idea to make a note of what is shown if you have Caller ID. You should also contact your state's attorney general. Find contact information in the government section of your phone directory or online at the National Association of Attorneys General.

Publication spotlight: Help Your Savings Grow Leader's Guide

Consumer Action's "Help Your Savings Grow" is a question-and-answer format backgrounder guide covering the ways individuals can start to save successfully. This 20-page web publication and PDF booklet includes information on savings accounts, individual development accounts (IDAs), money market deposit accounts, certificates of deposit (CDs), U.S. Treasury investments, retirement and education savings accounts and how to figure one's net worth. More than 22,000 people have viewed this publication on our website.

Planning for unforeseen emergencies and life changes is a central theme of the guide. The publication suggests steps such as building a liquid emergency fund to cover six months' income in case of job loss. It offers advice on setting short- and long-term financial goals and on setting up savings plans to meet them. It also explains in simple terms the concept of "risk vs. reward" and how individuals need to know their personal risk tolerance when choosing how to invest their savings.

This publication is part of the Saving to Build Wealth module, which is part of the MoneyWi$e series, a financial literacy partnership of Consumer Action and Capital One. Click here to go to the materials.

Preserving the California Office of Privacy Protection

With a modest staff and a budget that has been more than halved in recent years, the California Office of Privacy Protection (COPP) is still there to provide direct assistance to more 5,000 Californians each year on issues including identity theft, medical privacy, online privacy and data security. This year, COPP, the nation's first state agency dedicated to advancing consumer privacy, has been again targeted for elimination.

Consumer Action wrote this month to urge California Governor Jerry Brown to preserve COPP in the state budget. To view a copy of our letter, click here.

Consumer Action pointed out that closing the office would be "penny wise and pound foolish," as COPP has, through its education and advocacy efforts, probably saved government, taxpayers and small businesses more money in fraud losses and privacy litigation costs than the amount it has cost state residents over 10 years. We are confident the need for the office will only increase as we move wholesale to new mobile financial services, smart grid power, and health IT technologies with vast privacy implications.

In other California legislative news, Consumer Action is opposing SB 990 (Vargas), which threatens to eliminate key consumer disclosures on whether a used car is a refurbished salvage or junk vehicle.

Under current state law, dealers can't offer a used car for sale unless they first obtain a vehicle history report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). If the report indicates the car is a refurbished salvage or junk vehicle, the dealer has to post a disclosure on the car and give prospective buyers a copy of the report before the sale. Not doing so is a crime. SB 990 seeks to allow dealers to provide alternative, more limited, commercial reports (such as CARFAX) and to remove criminal liability for failing to inform car buyers.

Consumer Action opposes SB 990. "Existing law protects consumers well," said Joe Ridout of Consumer Action. "NMVTIS is the only vehicle history database that obtains junk and salvage title reports from all 50 states and updates them at least every 30 days." To view a copy of our letter, click here.

Senate plan threatens to hike stamp prices

After Easter recess, the Senate is expected to consider S. 1789, postal reform legislation to address the U.S. Postal Service's faltering finances. Unfortunately, the Postal Service and some senators are proposing a huge increase in the price of a stamp while leaving all other rates untouched. Under their amendment, the price of a stamp would skyrocket to 50¢, a nearly 12 percent increase, while all other rates would stay the same.

Citizen mailers have already borne the brunt of cost saving proposals, from lost mail boxes to closed post offices, and they still face losing Saturday and overnight delivery for local single piece mail. Now consumers face the prospect of a huge rate increase while business and advertising mailers will receive better service and continued preferential rates.

While consumers would be forced to pay 50 cents to mail a one-ounce letter, big banks (the same ones Congress bailed out with billions in taxpayer dollars) would still pay only 35 cents to send a letter up to two ounces. Ad mailers (responsible for a lot of junk mail) only pay 27 cents for up to 3 ounces! Meanwhile, periodical rates don't even cover the cost to deliver them.

The rate preferences for business mail are bad enough but there is no justification for Congress to make them even worse. The Postal Service's financial problems are not individual consumers' fault and they should not have to pay a huge increase when no one else will.

Consumer Action urges INSIDER readers to contact your senators and tell them to oppose this new "stamp tax" on consumers. It's easy to send an email or print out a letter at the Consumer Action Take Action Center. To write on this topic, click here.

Consumer Action also wrote last month to Senator Susan Collins and other key senators on the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs committee objecting to the proposal to raise stamp prices. To view a copy of our letter, click here.

Update on our coalition efforts

In coalition with other organizations, Consumer Action works on many critical consumer protection issues. Here are a few of our recent efforts.

Confirm appointees to privacy and civil liberties oversight board. Consumer Action joined 21 consumer, privacy and human rights groups in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging it to promptly hold confirmation hearings on President Obama's nominees to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an entity that will play a vital, independent role in oversight of privacy and civil liberties for national security programs and policies. President Obama nominated a full bipartisan slate of five nominees to serve on the Board: Rachel Brand, Elizabeth Cook, James Dempsey, David Medine and Patricia Wald. Urging the appointees' timely confirmation, the groups noted that it is critical that the confirmation process move forward to allow the PCLOB to begin its important work as a "watchdog for the American public in assuring that national security programs, including data collection capabilities and cybersecurity measures, do not infringe on their privacy rights and civil liberties."

Provide foreclosure assistance. Consumer Action, along with 96 other organizations, signed a letter in March urging the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to drop its refusal to prevent foreclosures with mortgage principal reductions. The FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy mortgage loans from lenders, pool them, and sell them with a guarantee that investors will be paid even if borrowers default. Frequently blamed for creating the housing crisis, Fannie and Freddie were taken over by the government in 2008. Since then they have come under attack for not doing enough to save homes from foreclosure. Advocacy groups pushed the FHFA to allow Fannie and Freddie to:

  • reduce principal balances in loan modifications for some homes that have lost much value (underwater),
  • prevent foreclosures while servicers are negotiating a loan modification, and
  • offer tenants housing stability, such as two-year leases during the foreclosure process.

In a letter, advocates asked FHFA Acting Director Ed DeMarco to resign his position if he is unwilling to change these policies. To read the letter, click here.

Streamline regulations. In March, Consumer Action joined fellow members of Americans for Financial Reform and ten additional organizations in comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommending ways to streamline government regulations. Among the suggestions:

  • Create a simple process for clearing bank transactions to minimize costly overdraft fees.
  • Require payday loans, and any other single-payment loans, to disclose an APR (annual percentage rate) and follow rules for closed-end credit.
  • Require consumer consent before allowing electronic statements to replace paper disclosures on financial matters.

To read the full letter, click here.

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 and Vietnamese. 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.

Click here to learn more about our staff.



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