Consumer Action INSIDER – November 2011


Save the Date


What people are saying

The Empower U training in Oakland was great and I look forward to attending many more. I will definitely share your website with my member agencies as well as community partners. — Malika Alim, Program Manager, HomeownershipSF

This month's consumer tip: How to get a fresh start

Bankruptcy is a federal court process that can help consumers eliminate overwhelming debts or establish a plan to repay them. Depending on your income and circumstances, bankruptcy laws may give you a way to erase many financial obligations and start afresh. Click here for our personal bankruptcy fact sheet.

Celebrating 40 years of service

Supporters from consumer groups, government, community and corporations turned out in honor of Consumer Action’s 40th anniversary at the group’s first-ever DC fundraiser on Oct. 18. More than 140 supporters, staff and friends gathered in the Naval Heritage Center in downtown DC for a cocktail reception and our annual Consumer Excellence Awards ceremony, in which we recognize individuals and groups for their outstanding contributions to the education and welfare of consumers nationwide. Click here to view photos of the event.

Consumer Action’s story began in 1971 with a small group of volunteers who admired Ralph Nader’s consumer movement. Camped out in the basement of a San Francisco church, they set up a telephone hotline and a mimeograph machine to print their newsletters and broadsides. Early on, the group attracted attention with its feisty exposes and cheeky protests.

Just a few short years after its inception, Consumer Action led its memorable “lemonstration” protest against the sale of defective cars at a San Francisco dealership, helping focus attention on the need for the federal statute that governs warranties on consumer products. Defeating a $6 million counter lawsuit, Consumer Action won the right for aggrieved individuals to picket businesses, and the seeds were sown for the local group to grow into a national force in the consumer movement.

40 years later, Consumer Action has evolved into one of the most recognized and effective consumer organizations in the nation, with a growing multilingual and multicultural staff and offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The organization’s portfolio of issues has expanded along with its advocacy for economic empowerment and consumer rights in credit and financial services, privacy, housing, insurance and utilities. Through multilingual financial education materials, community outreach and ‘make your voice heard’ grassroots advocacy, Consumer Action empowers underrepresented consumers nationwide to assert their rights in the marketplace and financially prosper.

“Consumer Action’s milestones have been many,” said Trish Butler of Consumer Action’s board of directors. “But what impresses me most about Consumer Action is that despite its growth and daunting challenges, the still-feisty organization has never lost sight of its fundamental mission, to help individuals understand and preserve their consumer rights.”

The Washington, DC event raised $147,460 to date, with contributions that included major gifts from underwriters Capital One, Microsoft, TracFone and Google. The new fundraising benchmark was achieved with the active support of the event planning committee, chaired by Jason Alderman of Visa, Inc.

“Consumer Action’s mandate to empower underrepresented consumers nationwide to assert their rights in the marketplace and financially prosper has never been more urgent,” said the group’s longtime executive director, Ken McEldowney. “We believe your participation in our cause will help us both answer this need and celebrate 40 more years of hard work.”

The evening also highlighted the accomplishments of three leading advocates in the media, Congress and the community:

Consumer Action opened its DC office in 2004. Today the DC team works with dozens of coalitions to promote strong consumer protection policy and a fair marketplace. “Since we arrived in the nation’s capital six years ago, our impact and our staff here have grown,” said Linda Sherry, head of the DC office. “We were welcomed to join coalitions large and small fighting for consumer justice and economic empowerment. It truly ‘takes a village’ to enact pro-consumer policy when faced with deep-pocketed lobbyists, and we could not have been as effective without coalition support.”

Though our event is past, we continue our 40th anniversary fundraising drive through the end of the year. Click here to donate or to learn about other ways you can help.

Protecting consumer privacy in a digital world

Consumer Action, along with other advocacy organizations including coalition leader Center for Digital Democracy, co-sponsored an event on Oct. 11 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on the issue of protecting consumer privacy in a digital world.

The event, titled ”Yes, They Really Know It’s You: How the Digital Collection of Personal Information Harms Consumers and Citizens,” presented the results of a study by Stanford University’s Jonathan Mayer debunking the myth that digital data collection is anonymous. "The web is suffused with identity,” Mayer said. “And it’s a fact of life that that identity will get sent to third parties at some point.”

According to the study, data about individuals sent to third parties - normally ad networks - include personally identifiable information such as username, gender, age and ZIP code.

“There’s clearly a disconnect between what’s happening online in terms of data tracking and collection, and what most people think is happening,” says Michelle De Mooy, Consumer Action’s senior associate for national priorities. “Even those in industry are probably shocked by how much data leakage is occurring. And even more problematically, consumers are often unaware of the extent to which their personal data is being passed on to other entities.”

She continued, “We think it’s imperative that people have an easy and persistent way to make a choice about whether or not they want to be tracked while they are online.”

Panelists at the event discussed how data collection, and the resulting loss of privacy online, directly harms consumers offline, often hitting them squarely in the pocketbooks. Some of the harms detailed include “dynamic pricing”—individuals receiving quotes of different prices for the same items based on profiling—as well as identity theft, harassment and “cyberstalking.”

De Mooy introduced Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz, keynote speaker at the event. Leibowitz called digital data trackers ”cyber-azzi,” comparing them to celebrity photographers (paparazzi), who follow and record our every move. In the coming months, the FTC plans to unveil its long-awaited white paper on a new online privacy framework for industry.

Other groups represented at the event included the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Federation of America, US Public Interest Research Group, World Privacy Forum, Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Empower U trainings in California

Under a grant from the California Consumer Protection Foundation, Consumer Action held Empower U trainings in California this past summer. Empower U—”Telecommunication Services: Learn How to Get Results”—is a project designed to help consumers get the best deal and avoid trouble when using phone and TV services. The Empower U curriculum includes: four fact sheets, PowerPoint slides, a PowerPoint companion guide and class activities. Click here to view the Empower U module materials.

In Southern California, Consumer Action joined Temple Community Outreach Center in San Bernardino to hold a train-the-trainer event in July. The training was attended by 24 staffers from community-based organizations (CBOs) from Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The groups include representatives from faith-based, social services, legal services, credit counseling, community action, women’s, youth, health services and deaf-serving agencies.

In August, Consumer Action, in league with Lao Family Community Development, Inc. in Oakland, trained 20 CBO staff members from San Francisco Bay Area organizations. The training drew agencies that provide housing services, credit counseling, childcare, legal services, workforce development, small business development and student services.

Consumer Action’s community outreach managers Nelson Santiago and Linda Williams taught and led discussions at both trainings. Williams got the ball rolling with the “Test Your Knowledge About Wireless Communications Quiz.” The quiz is designed to jumpstart the conversation about wireless service and to provide an overview for the topic.

Santiago led the discussion on managing the costs of wireless phone service, Internet and television and cable service. Oftentimes, he said, consumers think that they have to eliminate necessities to trim their budgets, when a check-up is all that’s needed. He provided cost saving tips that groups can use to educate their clients on how to determine wireless phone service usage, select appropriate plans, cut costs and protect privacy. He elaborated on the various options for accessing the Internet (dial-up, DSL, cable broadband and fiber optic) and gave cost estimates for each service.

Santiago also discussed how the ways in which people view television have changed. Not only are consumers able to watch television on cable and satellite, they can now stream television from their computers, gaming systems, DVR, mp3 players, tablets and smartphones. Santiago also stressed the importance of educating clients about privacy rights, fraud prevention and how to solve problems with service. Following his presentation, Santiago led an activity to test the group on the information he had covered, and showed the leaders how to adapt the materials for a small group.

Williams trained participants on accessible wireless phone features. As technology has evolved, so has the equipment for the disabled. Some of the accessible features include: audio and visual vibrating, closed captioning and video conferencing. She discussed how to select a hearing aid compatible device and resources for the hearing-impaired community.

Williams also discussed fixing leaks in one's personal budget by disputing bill overages, monitoring service usage and making informed decisions by reading all of the fine print. She trained attendees on how to teach their clients to identify different types of telecommunications fraud, deal with “bill shock” and dispute erroneous charges. Williams also talked about the rules that govern telemarketers, how to stop unwanted marketing calls and how to handle complaints against telemarketers.

Hotline Chronicles: Dad’s death triggers collection calls

Saskia* contacted Consumer Action to find out who was responsible for paying her late father’s credit card bill. Her father, who left less than $1,000 and no other assets when he died several months ago, had a credit card with a $22,000 balance.

Typically, the deceased person’s estate pays his or her debts before any money is distributed to the heirs. Saskia said that the credit card was in her dad’s name, and although she is her father’s executor, she had not paid the bill because he left no money.

Following her father’s death, Saskia began to receive collection calls from the credit card company. When she told the bank that her father left no money, the calls stopped for a while. Recently she began to receive calls from a collector who had purchased the debt from the credit card company. Saskia said that the debt collectors were rude and aggressive, and they upset her by implying that her father had left money and that she was responsible to pay what was owed.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), family members typically are not obligated to pay the debts of a deceased relative from their own assets.

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt. Collectors are allowed to contact the deceased person’s spouse, executor, administrator or other person authorized to pay the deceased person’s debts but must stop contact when asked to do so. Click here for a run-down on FDCPA protections.

Consumer Action told Saskia that she has the right to tell the collector to stop calling. To invoke this right, however, she must send a letter stating that she does not want to be contacted again about her father’s debt. She was advised to make a copy of the letter and send the original by certified mail, return receipt requested, to document her request. Collectors can’t contact her again after they receive the letter except to confirm that there will be no further contact or to notify her that they intend to take further definitive action, such as filing a lawsuit to collect the debt.

Saskia is not responsible for her father’s credit card debt. However, in certain situations you could be held responsible for a deceased relative’s debts, if:

  • you co-signed the debt;
  • you live in a community property state, such as California, and the deceased person is your spouse;
  • you are the deceased person’s spouse and state law requires you to pay a particular type of debt, such as some health care expenses; or
  • you are the executor legally responsible for resolving the estate and the deceased person had sufficient money and assets when he or she died.

If you believe one of these situations applies, contact a lawyer to determine whether you are legally obligated to pay the deceased person’s debts. * Not this consumer’s real name

DC office director joins several panels

In recent weeks, National Priorities Director Linda Sherry, who heads Consumer Action’s DC office, has been a panelist at several conferences and events.

On Sept. 21, Sherry joined a panel at the Advance 2011: “Rediscovering the Consumer” conference sponsored by the ID Analytics, a San Diego-based company. ID Analytics offers services and products to help companies manage customer risk. The company offers a free public service website,, to let consumers quickly assess whether or not they are at risk of identity theft.

Sherry participated in a credit risk breakout session titled “Future of the Credit Risk Waterfall,” making the point that financial institutions must create products to serve consumers who suffered damage to their credit in the economic fallout from 2008. Her suggestion that more—and improved—secured credit cards be developed and offered prompted a lively discussion of the pros and cons of secured credit cards. Sherry said that secured credit cards, which require a cash deposit in return for an equal or slightly higher line of credit, are one of the few ways consumers can rebuild their credit. After a year or so of card use and on-time payments, cardholders can be in line to “graduate” to an unsecured credit card. If the cardholder defaults on the card, the bank can keep the deposit, making secured cards relatively low risk for banks.

Fellow panelists included Mark Birkhead, chief decision management officer at CitiCard’s retail private label division; Glenn Canner, senior advisor at the Federal Reserve’s division of research and statistics; and Sean O’Malley, co-founder of BillFloat. Patrick Reemts, director of credit risk solutions at ID Analytics, moderated the panel.

On Oct. 3, Sherry joined a panel at the Fourth Annual Financial Literacy Leadership Conference. The conference titled “Financial Literacy in Practice,” took place in Arlington, VA. Sherry was part of the panel discussing “Financial Literacy Programs for Immigrant Populations,” along with fellow panelists José Quinonez, executive director of the Mission Asset Fund (MAP) in San Francisco, and Jinhee Kim, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland. The panel was moderated by Variny Paladino, regional director of Western states for the Jump$tart Coalition.

In her presentation on the panel, Sherry discussed:

  • helping immigrants identify trusted entities with which to execute financial transactions;
  • building capacity by working with community-based organizations;
  • developing multilingual materials that are culturally appropriate;
  • using the in-language media to reach immigrant populations; and
  • helping immigrants protect themselves from intra-cultural (“affinity”) fraud.

The Society for Financial Education and Professional Development (SFEPD) of Arlington sponsored the conference. Theodore “Ted” Daniels, its founder and CEO, welcomed the participants and introduced keynote speaker Gail Hillebrand, associate director of consumer education and engagement at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Daniels, in a letter, thanked Consumer Action for its participation: “Thanks for your diligence in preparing for the conference as you shared important knowledge and insight into key subject areas that each person or organization should be aware of in the development and implementation of financial literacy programs.”

On Oct. 27, Sherry joined a panel during a breakfast event co-sponsored with Chase Card Services at the University of Chicago Booth School Of Business. At “The Pulse of the Chicago Consumer,” Consumer Action and Chase unveiled the results of new joint research, conducted nationally and among Chicago residents, that focused on consumer sentiment about the economy and personal finances, attitudes toward spending and borrowing, and credit card usage trends.

The event was well attended, filling the small theater-style room at the Booth School. Among attendees were several representatives of Chicago credit unions and community based organizations that use Consumer Action’s multilingual educational materials.

Sherry’s fellow panelists included Dr. Erik Hurst of the Booth School and Caryn Kaiser, general manager of Chase Blueprint. Gail MarksJarvis, personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune, served as moderator, and made insightful remarks about looming economic disaster the nation faces because of inadequate retirement savings.

The research conducted by Chase and Consumer Action found that although consumers continue to be strongly pessimistic about the economy, they are more likely to consider their personal finances to be in better shape and have changed their borrowing and spending habits in response to the “new normal” of the economic climate.

“It’s striking to see how consumers have changed their personal financial behaviors,” said Sherry. “Perhaps because of these changes, they are reporting more confidence and optimism in managing their finances.”

Sherry pointed out that despite the bright spot of personal control, there is just so much consumers can do by themselves. “We need strong consumer protection and jobs creation incentives to help consumers build wealth and achieve economic security.”

The survey examined “money-life balance” and the positive emotional benefits that can accompany financial responsibility. The majority of those surveyed said that having a borrowing and spending plan in place and sticking to it helped them maintain a good money-life balance but about a third (34 percent) said that this describes them only “somewhat well.” Responses among this group showed that they feel less in control, less confident and less optimistic about their personal finances and were open to financial empowerment resources and tools to help increase their confidence.

“While many people feel stressed when it comes time to manage their finances, consumers with plans in place experience emotional relief knowing that their finances are under control,” said Sherry. “Consumers should seek out tools and services - such as the many guides and tip sheets offered by Consumer Action - that may help simplify the process and make it easier to achieve financial balance.”

Consumer Action created a tip sheet for consumers based on the findings of the “Pulse” research. Click here to download an easy-to-print copy of the tips.

Web spotlight: Daily news digests

In an era of information overload, how can you find top consumer news stories at a glance? Consumer Action has taken it upon itself to do the homework. Every morning our editorial team identifies the top consumer news stories and links to them from our homepage at

The headlines section, which can be found across our family of websites, compiles links to the day’s key consumer news from a diverse selection of regional and national newspapers, from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times. Stories we highlight range from changes in public policy to changes in Facebook’s privacy settings.

During the week of Oct. 24, for example, we brought you:

  • tips on using online college costs calculators;
  • things to know about buying or selling a home;
  • reports on the FBI’s growing scrutiny of people’s activities on the Web; and
  • news of a pending Department of Labor rule that could better equip employees to make wiser choices about workplace investment plans.

Article references are retained on our site for two years, where links can be accessed as long as the original source is still live. The information is organized according to a growing database of keywords so you can check out other news on the same topics. Relevant the stories appear on our subsites on housing, privacy, wireless service, financial literacy and insurance. By navigating to, for example, you would find articles on the latest cell phone scams and social network predators. (All subsites can be accessed by using the pull-down menu on our home page at

These daily digests appear on our homepage under “Headlines & Press Releases” and on our subsites under "News." To read past articles, click on “View More Headlines” at the bottom of the homepage list. You can also do a search for keywords.

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.

Click here to learn more about our staff.



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