Consumer Action INSIDER - May 2018

 

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

I'm not sure you all could top the valuable information that was provided [to my hotline] request. I'm not very ‘tech savvy’, so you helped tremendously! Thanks! — Hotline survey respondent

Did you know?

Auto recalls are issued for mechanical safety defects, but nearly a third of the vehicles on American roads have recalls that have not been repaired. This has led to tragic deaths. Don’t let this happen to you or your loved ones—recall repairs are free. Run your vehicle identification number (VIN) at Safercar.gov on a regular basis and make sure your auto’s registration is updated with your current mailing address. (Tip: Type your VIN into a saved document so you can copy it into the online form each time without errors.) In 2016 a federal law took effect that requires rental car companies to fix recalled cars before consumers rent them. Consider checking the VIN before you borrow a car as well.

Our spot check of optometrist signage leads to investigation

California regulations require signage to inform patients of their right to automatically receive a copy of their eyewear prescriptions, yet the requirement seems to be largely ignored by optometrists, according to a recent spot check of offices in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Jose by consumer education and advocacy organization Consumer Action.

A full 90 percent of 20 optometrists’ offices our staff visited in mid-March (March 8-15) did not have the required signs.

If you get a fitting for glasses or contact lenses anywhere in the United States, the federal Contact Lens Rule and the Eyeglass Rule require eye doctors to give you a copy of your prescription at the end of your eye exam or contact lens fitting—whether you ask for it or not. The doctor can’t require you to pay an extra fee for the prescription, sign a waiver or buy eyeglasses or contact lenses on site.

The state goes further than federal law by requiring that optometrists post a “Consumer Notice” informing patients that “Eye doctors are required to provide patients with a copy of their ophthalmic lens prescriptions.”

While Consumer Action did not publish the names and addresses of the shops, it documented its visits and made the findings available to the California State Board of Optometry, which has opened investigations into the missing signs at each place we visited.

“We were outraged to see how many optometrists’ offices were neglecting to post the required consumer notice,” said Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. “The law is designed to help consumers comparison shop if they prefer to buy their eyewear outside of the eye doctor’s place of business.”

Click here to learn more about Californians’ rights relating to prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses. To file an optometry complaint, visit the State of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs website.

The federal Eyeglass Rule and Contact Lens Rule require automatic prescriptions but not signage.

CBOs weigh in on Consumer Action publications

As Consumer Action expands its consumer education library with new publications and training modules, we like to check in with our “customers” every now and then to see that we’re on the right track. Fortunately, we’ve got a 7,000-member network of community-based organizations (CBOs) to tap for feedback and suggestions to guide our future work.

In February, we sent out a nine-question survey to a portion of our network (for manageability’s sake). A couple of those questions related to a module we’re currently working on (about insuring your home against losses suffered in a natural disaster and what assistance FEMA offers). The others asked respondents to weigh in on what length publications work best for them and their clients and whether our delivery of the information is on target.

We received 125 responses. In addition to getting confirmation that the vast majority of our partners (87%) still have a need for free, printed multilingual materials and that nearly all of them (96%) need consumer fact sheets for distribution to their clients, here’s what we learned:

  • The consensus among respondents was that shorter is better when it comes to publication length. The vast majority (81%) checked the box for four pages (their choices were “4-page,” “8-page,” “12-page” and “Other”). Some respondents expounded that one or two pages is even better, though a few allowed some leeway, saying “the shortest format to cover the topic adequately is best” and “depends on the subject matter and literacy levels.”
  • A number of respondents asked for more—and more descriptive—graphics (“graphics that speak a thousand words”). Anyone who has been using our publications for years has undoubtedly noticed the increased use of images and color; we’ll continue to incorporate the most effective visuals we can find.
  • There were a variety of suggestions that speak to the readability of our publications. Requests for larger font size, more bullet points and “8th grade reading level” or lower reflect the broad range of populations our CBO partners serve, from the elderly (who may have reduced vision) to those for whom English is not their first language.

Mixed in among the constructive comments were thanks:

  • “I am using many publications and all of them are GREAT and helpful. Thanks!”
  • “Everything is already user friendly for my clients, and I want to thank you.”
  • “The educational tools you create and provide at no charge are vital to our students in correctional education.”

Our appreciation goes to all the CBOs who took the time to respond and provide thoughtful feedback and practical suggestions. Your input is already being implemented (just look at the use of bullet points above!).

If you use Consumer Action publications in your work with consumers but you either didn't receive our survey or didn’t have the chance to respond, you can still chime in. And if you have any suggestions for future consumer publications and/or training module topics, we’d love to hear them!

Hotline Chronicles: Hasty repossession of deceased’s car

Judith* from North Carolina wrote to Consumer Action’s hotline to complain that she notified her late dad’s auto loan servicer of his death three days after his burial and faxed the death certificate to the company two days later. Just two days later the vehicle, which still contained personal items and paperwork, was repossessed from the family’s driveway without notice.

“I called the company and was connected to the repossession manager, who stated we had had ample time to get things out of the car. He was extremely rude, nasty and disrespectful,” said Judith.

Unfortunately, this seems to be common practice. Sometimes the repossession is triggered when a company is notified of a borrower’s death, but the more likely scenario is that the family neglected to make timely payments during a stressful time.

However, Judith should have the right to claim her dad’s personal property from the car. According to Nolo, the legal publisher, car lenders must keep and return items such as paperwork, clothing, CDs, tools, jewelry, cell phones and detachable media players like iPods. Nolo notes that in most states, creditors cannot charge you a fee for storing or returning your personal property.

When a person dies, their assets and liabilities make up their estate. If the vehicle loan and title were in the name of the deceased alone, heirs are not responsible for the payments, but the estate is. If there is sufficient money in the estate to pay off the car loan, then the heirs will own the car.

Family members or heirs who are not named on the loan or title have no legal responsibility for the car or loan payments. In the event no one in a family wants the deceased person's car, the family has the right to contact the lender and request a voluntary repossession. That’s what Judith was trying to do on her own schedule.

If Judith’s dad left a will, it probably named an executor to settle and distribute the estate. If her dad died without a will, the estate goes to probate court, which will assign an administrator. If Judith and other heirs had wanted to keep the car, it would have become part of the estate and, after any outstanding balance was paid, the title could be transferred to the legal heirs. (Just as with any car sale, heirs must register the vehicle with the motor vehicles department.) People in this situation should continue to make payments on the car while the estate is being settled.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Community event on job training and apprenticeship programs

Finding the right job training school was the topic of a March train-the-trainer event held by Consumer Action in San Diego. Organizations in attendance included those serving military veterans, servicemembers, immigrants and youth, among other vulnerable populations. A key objective of our job-training module, introduced at the event, is to help students and job seekers get the best vocational training without exposing themselves to for-profit school fraud and unmanageable debt.

The training opened with an interactive educational game created by Consumer Action’s Linda Williams. The game consists of a series of true/false and multiple-choice questions that participants answer while working in teams and competing for prizes. The activity not only serves to gauge participants’ pre-training knowledge and what they need to learn, it’s an icebreaker to engage learners and build enthusiasm. Several participants said they would use the game in their own client workshops.

Consumer Action’s Nelson Santiago introduced two guest speakers on apprenticeship programs: Arthur Page, apprenticeship and training representative with the Office of Apprenticeship of the U.S. Department of Labor, and Victor Rodriguez, senior apprenticeship consultant with the Division of Apprenticeship Standards of the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Page discussed several topics, including the advantages of apprenticeships (hands-on training, a paycheck, and more), things to consider when choosing an occupation, and the application and selection process for apprenticeships. He emphasized that it’s important to know that a registered apprenticeship is a proven and viable career pathway.

When discussing apprentice requirements in California, Rodriguez explained that no experience is necessary for most programs, though candidates do need to be 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, and have math and reading skills. Rodriguez shared the surprising fact that women hold only 3 percent of apprenticeship positions. He invited attendees to connect with his office to help spread the word about apprenticeships.

Williams and Santiago tag-teamed the module presentation. Williams told the audience that in selecting the right job training program it’s imperative for students and parents to “do their research, do their research and do even more research.”

During his presentation, Santiago discussed questions students should ask when vetting schools and programs and provided information about financial aid and repayment of student loans. He explained how, for example, the simple question, “What are the requirements for admission?” is not necessarily so simple, citing examples of schools investigated for illegally enrolling students without high school diplomas and signing them up for financial aid. He prepared a reference and resource sheet for participants to learn more about for-profit school scams, recent problems with student loan servicers, and new developments related to student loan forgiveness.

Williams unveiled a new slide deck about teaching adults. During a segment called “Mutiny,” she advised trainers on how to respond when the audience challenges their training strategies: “Gain time, bounce, reflect and empathy.” The “bounce” technique involves relaying the discussion back to the audience: “That’s a valid question. Class, what do you think about that?” This can help ensure that all voices are heard and that all participants feel their ideas are valued.

Williams and Santiago will take the training to Chicago this summer. Community network partners should watch their email inboxes for more details.

Consumer Action launches a financial health pilot

Consumer Action is partnering with Catholic Charities Dallas, Haven Neighborhood Services, HOPES CAP Inc. and VetsGroup to test financial technology apps and track the outcomes of consumers who use them over a six-month period. The groups will conduct the pilot in their volunteer income tax assistance (VITA), individual development account (IDA), housing counseling, financial counseling, credit counseling, community education or financial coaching programs.

Consumer Action is a member of the FinTech-Nonprofit Partnerships Working Group, managed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) with support from the JPMorgan Chase Financial Solutions Lab. As a working group member, Consumer Action applied for and was awarded a grant to distribute financial technology apps and tools to affiliates as part of a pilot.

“This is a very exciting project for Consumer Action,” said Audrey Perrott, associate director of outreach and training at Consumer Action. “We have introduced financial technologies to network partners at three national conferences. Now, we will be able to learn more about how FinTech tools improve the financial health of the diverse group of consumers that our network partners serve and whether the consumers need additional support from counselors, coaches or community educators to access and use the tools.”

Perrott said she looks forward to learning more about what motivates consumers to continue using the tools and how the tools improve financial health over time.

The groups that Consumer Action selected for the pilot are diverse and representative of the consumers that its network partners serve. The goal of the pilot is to assess the current financial health of 60-100 consumers, have them use a financial health tool developed by one of the JPMorgan Chase Financial Solutions Lab cohorts, use the Consumer Action FinTech fact sheet, and track changes in financial health over a six-month period. Staff of participating agencies will receive technical assistance and support from Consumer Action.

CFPB Watch: Acting director drains the Bureau

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is continuing to use his authority as interim CFPB director to cripple the consumer bureau from within by curbing its oversight of banks, dropping suits against predatory lenders, draining the Bureau’s emergency funds, defanging its fair lending office and delaying (and possibly killing) pending consumer protections.

At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Mulvaney took the extraordinary step of recommending that Congress:

  • Assume control of the consumer bureau’s budget;
  • Require Congressional approval for all major CFPB rules; and
  • Permit the president to fire the CFPB director at will (instead of for cause).

These actions would strip the consumer watchdog of its independence, diminish its consumer protection duties and neuter its oversight of financial services companies—the agency’s mission under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, created in response to financial lending abuses that led to the Great Recession. Mulvaney believes that the CFPB wields too much power and he is intent on bringing the watchdog agency to heel.

Nationally syndicated financial columnist Michelle Singletary recently wrote: “Mulvaney, despite his claims to the contrary, seems to want to destroy the bureau. Or rather, he would like it to be repurposed. Under his leadership, it should be renamed the Financial Services Protection Bureau.”

Consumer Action and its allies are working overtime to defend the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires the CFPB to hold companies accountable for customer abuses, protect consumer rights and root out predatory financial behavior.

It is especially striking that since Mulvaney took charge in November 2017, there have been no CFPB enforcement actions issued and no consumer refunds announced. Up until Mulvaney took the helm, the Bureau had returned $12 billion to 29 million consumers who suffered financial wrongs.

Now Mulvaney has asked the industry and public to justify the primary functions and “processes” of the Bureau in a seemingly endless stream of formal Requests for Information (RFIs). Most recently, he’s asked for feedback on the Bureau’s consumer education materials and on its consumer complaints and inquiries activities. If you support the Bureau’s consumer guides and tools, take a moment to write a simple statement of support. It’s important that individuals weigh in, as you can be sure the financial services industry will comment.

The budget director has spent Bureau funds on a new agency seal, privacy screening for executive office windows and substantial pay raises for political appointees he brought in.

Debt collection action

The CFPB announced a partnership with the Federal Trade Commission to combat illegal debt collection actions. Under former director Rich Cordray, the CFPB in 2017 handled 84,500 debt collection complaints, investigated debt collection companies for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, provided sample letters for consumers seeking details on debts owed, filed or resolved 10 debt collection cases and banned 13 entities from debt collection activities due to repeat violations.

Know your data

Your credit report is filled with key financial data that can mean the difference between getting a loan, mortgage, insurance—even a job—and having your application denied. The CFPB offers materials to help you better understand how your payment history determines your financial opportunities. These resources explain your credit rights, how to dispute inaccurate information, what to do if you’re credit “invisible,” and how to safely build a good credit history.

Class Action Database: Illegal cell phone calls and kids’ in-app purchases

Class action settlements involving alleged illegal cell phone calls by Venture Data and I.C. Systems were among eight new settlements added to Consumer Action’s Class Action Database during April.

Venture Data, a company that conducts surveys to learn consumer and voter opinions, is the subject of a class action charging that it failed to adhere to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). You may be eligible to claim settlement monies if Venture Data placed a call to your cellular telephone line as part of a “Public Opinion Strategies” survey on June 11, Aug. 19 or Sept. 9, 2014.

If you received automated calls from I.C. Systems, a debt collector and accounts “recovery” company, to your cell phone between Dec. 14, 2008 and Nov. 9, 2017, you may be eligible for a share of the settlement over allegations that the company violated the TCPA.

This month we highlight the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) v. Amazon.com case, Inc. The federal watchdog agency brought the action against Amazon under its authority to prohibit unfair or deceptive business practices. The agency charged that Amazon billed consumers for unauthorized charges for in-app purchases made by children between November 2011 and May 2016.

The FTC’s investigation found that the company received a high level of consumer complaints about in-app charges made by children as they played online games downloaded from Amazon’s app store. Amazon’s policy stated that all in-app charges are final and nonrefundable—and it kept 30 percent of the in-app charges. The FTC alleged that Amazon failed to get the parents’ permission for the charges and did not require a password before imposing them. Each click of an in-app purchase added a charge of between 99¢ and $99 to the parents’ Amazon account without the parents’ permission.

The FTC argued that Amazon had a duty to disclose how its payment system worked. Later actions taken by Amazon continued to allow children to make in-app purchases under $20 without a password. Even when Amazon implemented a password to authorize a single purchase, the system allowed an additional 15-minute period for children to make purchases without further parental authorization.

Consumers who had unauthorized in-app charges to their Amazon accounts made by children under 18 between November 2011 and May 2016 may be eligible for a refund. Click here to learn more about applying for the refund. The claims deadline is May 28.

Note: Here’s an article to help you manage your device settings so that kids cannot make in-app purchases.

Coalition Efforts: Auto loan discrimination, arbitration disclosures and online privacy

Last-ditch effort to prevent auto lending discrimination fails. Consumer Action and its allies wrote to Congress on April 16 to plead that it not interfere with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s efforts to prevent auto loan discrimination. The Bureau’s “guidance” to car lenders sought to end a common discriminatory practice to charge some borrowers more in interest and fees, regardless of their creditworthiness (“dealer mark-ups”). Even though these discriminatory violations still occur, the Senate on April 18 moved to eliminate the 2013 guidance document, allowing the practice to continue. These discretionary auto dealer mark-ups result, in some cases, in African Americans and Latinos paying more than similarly situated white borrowers. Learn more and read the letter.

Transparency lacking in California arbitration proceedings. More than 30 national and California-based consumer, labor and civil rights organizations—including Consumer Action—wrote to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on March 21 urging him to investigate private arbitration firms for violating state law. California requires these firms to periodically disclose basic information about claims they’ve heard so as to inform the public. The 2003 law requires that firms name the corporations and firms involved in the proceeding, the nature of the dispute, and whether the consumer or non-consumer party prevailed, among other information. Learn more and read the letter.

Facebook’s facial recognition violates consumers’ privacy. Consumer Action joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other consumer and privacy advocates in filing a complaint on April 6 with the Federal Trade Commission regarding Facebook’s use of facial recognition software. The Facebook feature identifies people uploaded in users’ photos by suggesting the names of “friends” it recognizes. The groups say this practice of scanning and collecting biometric facial matches is deceptive and ignores the explicit privacy preferences of many Facebook users. Learn more and read the letter.

Google and YouTube invading children's privacy. Consumer Action joined 23 consumer and privacy groups in taking a major step to protect children’s privacy by filing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint detailing how Google is collecting personal data from children on YouTube without parental consent. The coalition asked the FTC to hold Google accountable for violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The groups charge that the company collected and profited from the data of millions of children without parental permission. Learn more and read the letter.

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 nearly 7,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free 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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