Consumer Action INSIDER - November 2014


Table of Contents


What people are saying

I find the materials provided in your Building and Keeping Good Credit webinar to be invaluable when educating the community on financial literacy. I greatly enjoyed the webinar. — Heather Hicks, education and marketing specialist, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Southern Oregon

Did you know?

Investors are skeptical that investment professionals will act in their clients’ best interests, yet many of today’s investors are ill-equipped to enter the market without professional advice. To help consumers get the information they need and demand the service they deserve, the CFA Institute, created by investment professionals who hold the Chartered Financial Analyst® credential, has developed Ten rights that any investor should expect from financial service providers. The guidance is available in many languages.

Anniversary event sets new record for annual fundraising

Last month, Consumer Action supporters gathered at Google’s new DC digs to celebrate the organization’s 43rd anniversary. This is the fourth year that we’ve held our annual fundraising event and Consumer Excellence Awards ceremony in Washington, DC.

This year’s honorees were the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), which provides financial education and practical information to people at all financial stages; Michelle Singletary, Washington Post “Color of Money” columnist, whose writings empower consumers to make wise money management choices; and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Consumer Education and Engagement Division, which creates opportunities for consumers to make better choices about money so that they can reach their life goals.

Each year, Consumer Action’s executive director and staff receive invaluable assistance from the event committee. The 2014 committee was co-chaired by Jenny Backus of Google and Scott Sapperstein of AT&T. Backus gave a warm welcome to the crowd and Sapperstein closed out the program with an announcement that the event had raised $240,000, a new record.

Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE, was on hand to accept the Endowment’s Consumer Excellence Award. Dirck Hargraves, Esq., senior vice president of VOX Global and a member of Consumer Action’s corporate advisory board, presented the NEFE award.

Gail Hillebrand, associate director for consumer education and engagement, accepted the CFPB award, presented by Anna Flores, executive director of VALOR and a member of Consumer Action’s board of directors. (VALOR, or “Veterans Assistance for Learning, Opportunity and Readiness,” is a financial empowerment program.)

Hillebrand brought with her six members of the division, who joined her on the podium in honor of the team award: James Minor, Patricia Avery, Ashley Gordon, William Sealy, Dan Rutherford and Nichole Chamberlain. The Consumer Education and Engagement Division contains six sections: the Office of Financial Education, the Consumer Engagement Office, Financial Empowerment (for special populations), the Office for Students, Servicemember Affairs and Older Americans.

Jason Alderman, a vice president at Visa Inc. who runs the company’s global financial literacy program, presented the award to Washington Post columnist Singletary. Alderman said that even when Singletary was criticizing his industry he enjoyed her direct, sensible style. The author of three personal finance books, Singletary stepped up to the podium and entranced the audience with a folksy speech about balancing the demands of her writing, home and family, and her church, where she founded the Prosperity Partners Ministry, a financial literacy program. Her speech included references to a much-loved financial role model, her late grandmother “Big Mama.”

Michelle Singletary, a recipient of the 2014 Consumer Excellence Award at Consumer Action’s 43rd anniversary event in late October, wowed the crowd with her plain-spoken advice on managing one’s finances. (Stephen Baranovics photo)


The anniversary theme was “Training the Trainer,” to commemorate the outreach and training work Consumer Action does among community-based organizations (CBOs) and to honor the organizations who in turn carry the consumer literacy message far and wide in their own communities. In this way, Consumer Action “teaches one to reach thousands”—the slogan for this year’s event and our guide to selecting the 2014 honorees.

Throughout the year, Consumer Action’s train-the-trainer meetings bring together community group representatives to be trained by Consumer Action staff on how to use the organization’s extensive educational modules to teach community residents.

Consumer Action provides the materials and support to enable a grassroots network of close to 7,500 CBOs to deliver in-language consumer and personal finance education to low-income and underserved individuals and families across the country.

Ken McEldowney, Consumer Action’s executive director, pointed out, “By training these key stakeholders, Consumer Action reaches hundreds of thousands of consumers with the latest findings, news and solutions to issues that affect their finances, their work and their lives.”

Our staff has deep roots in low- and moderate-income communities from the East to West coasts, appearing regularly at local presentations and in the media outlets that serve these communities. The staff provides training and technical advice to our large network of community-based organizations and ensures that we provide them with up-to-date information on consumer rights and resources.

In addition to Backus and Sapperstein, members of the 2014 event committee included Visa Inc.’s Alderman, Dusty Brighton of Stateside Associates, Angie Garcia Lathrop of Bank of America, Carlye Greene of Capital One, Brian Huseman of, Chris Merida of American Express, Jennifer Openshaw of Family Financial Network, Robert Shrum of, James Sturdevant of The Sturdevant Law Firm and Frank Torres of Microsoft.

Virtual engagement offers real opportunity to learn

In August and September, Consumer Action held two webinars for community-based organizations to learn how to use our free educational and training materials. The first, Building and Keeping Good Credit, covered why consumers need good credit, steps for establishing a credit history, tips for using credit responsibly, credit reports and credit scores, information and resources for consumers with credit problems, and more. The webinar also included tips on avoiding credit repair scams.

A recorded version of the “Building and Keeping Good Credit” webinar is available on Consumer Action’s YouTube channel.

The second webinar covered concepts in the MoneyWi$e Tracking Your Money module and included information on how to order and download training materials and supplemental resources. Topics included how to set financial goals, why credit is an asset, how to check specialty consumer reports and tips for creating a budget. This webinar will be posted on the YouTube channel in the near future.

Consumer Action’s executive director, Ken McEldowney, said, “We are excited to bring people together to share our knowledge and insights in a new way. Funding prevents us from holding as many in-person trainings as we’d like around the country. Hopefully this will allow more community-based trainers to learn about the free multilingual materials and training expertise we offer.”

MoneyWi$e was developed by Consumer Action in partnership with Capital One.

Hotline Chronicles: Cable TV companies’ leasing fees

Jaffa* called our hotline to complain that he had to pay his cable TV company extra in order to also be able to view the channels he pays for on a second, older TV he keeps in his den. “Absolutely no choice for the consumer—I am forced to pay to lease the digital converter box in order to view cable channels. How does this make sense?” asked the Indiana man.

Jaffa is not alone in his frustration. Cable is a major part of many consumers’ monthly bills. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that the average monthly price of expanded basic cable service increased overall by 5.1 percent between January 2012 and January 2013.

Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format. But, notably, cable TV companies were not required to convert to all-digital; most did anyway. In the past five years, when cable companies dropped analog signals and went “all digital,” most provided digital converter boxes for free to customers. The set-top converter and digital boxes are not just for displaying digital content (something most older TVs can’t do anyway) but also to “unscramble” the digital signal to deter piracy.

Problem is—these digital converters are no longer free and customers have to pay $1.50-$3.95 per month for them. To add insult to injury, cable companies are asking these lease payments for older equipment that was once free. “It’s maddening to pay up to $36 per year for electronic equipment that should be worth next to nothing given its depreciation,” says Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. “And the equipment is helping the companies block attempts to steal their content—why should customers pay for that?”

Consumer Action believes cable customers should be able to purchase equipment to allow them to watch the cable programs they subscribe to (and pay huge monthly fees for) without additional fees to lease mandatory access devices. This was the plan when the Federal Communications Commission called for cable companies to integrate their services with “cable ready” set-top boxes or modern TVs so consumers could use their own equipment with a cable company-linked CableCARD to access the programming and other features they pay for.

The FCC’s attempts to protect consumers from being forced to lease equipment have fallen short. Even with an open market device, such as cable-ready TV, consumers are forced to obtain CableCARDs from their service providers to make all their devices compatible with the provider’s signals. While the first CableCARD may be free, consumers are usually charged if they need more than one. In addition, using a CableCARD instead of leased equipment blocks users from accessing the cable company’s digital guides and other interactive features. (TiVo is about the only success story in offering retail devices with the ability to receive a CableCARD and access cable programming.)

Even though the FCC rules haven’t really had an impact on the market, they are a strong signal of consumer rights. Now special interests in Congress are attempting to undermine the FCC integration rules with an amendment that is holding up passage of an unrelated bill, the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA). The particular rule STAVRA would get rid of is called the “integration ban.” Under the integration rule, cable operators are required to use the same security technology that third parties do in their set-top boxes. This creates an incentive for cable to avoid “accidentally” breaking third-party devices with software updates or network changes.

Big cable lobbyists are fighting hard to get around the FCC integration rules. To learn more about this issue and what consumers can do, read John Bergmayer’s blog at Public Knowledge, a Consumer Action ally.

In addition, Consumer Action urges consumers to complain to their cable companies about these added fees for de-scrambling devices that benefit the companies more than consumers.

*Not this consumer’s real name.

Energy-wasting AB 2581 deserved its gubernatorial veto

Consumer Action has been working with our allies at the Consumer Federation of America to push for energy efficiency standards in California. Part of our efforts took the form of an op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee on Oct. 6 that analyzed AB 2581, a bill by Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) designed to weaken the California Energy Commission (CEC) and limit its ability to promote energy efficiency for plugged-in digital devices.

Governor Jerry Brown vetoed AB 2581 on Sept. 30.

It’s important to mandate energy efficiency for ubiquitous plugged-in electronic devices, which now consume half as much energy as all air conditioners and two-thirds of the energy used by refrigerators.

Among its most troubling features, AB 2581 would have encouraged the CEC to use voluntary agreements by industry in lieu of regulation. As is so often the case, voluntary agreements on the part of industry prevent, rather than encourage, progress, which is why the continued ability of the CEC to regulate is so important.

Regulation—not voluntary agreements—created an environment where seat belts, stability control and air bags became standard is all U.S. passenger cars. Consumer Action believes it’s essential that the CEC maintain its rule-making ability to establish strong energy efficiency standards for plugged-in digital devices.

The Consumer Electronics Association was behind AB 2581. This industry group faithfully lobbies for measures that will increase profits for electronics corporations, even when these changes harm the environment and cost consumers more money. We call that shortsighted behavior. Governor Jerry Brown has earned a rousing “thank you” from consumers for his veto of this legislative “waste” of time and energy.

Click here to read the Oct. 6 op-ed piece in the Sacramento Bee.

Pro-consumer bills

On the same day he vetoed AB 2581, Governor Brown signed two pro-consumer bills that Consumer Action has been working hard to help pass.

Mobile phone kill switch. SB 962, authored by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), will require any smartphone or tablet sold in California after July 1, 2015, to include a “kill switch” allowing users to remotely disable their devices. Once implemented, the feature should both save consumers money and leave them less exposed to physical danger.

This legislation is timely because the global market in stolen smartphones has exploded, and now amounts to about $30 billion a year—1.6 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft in 2012. Californians are victimized in even more alarming fashion: In San Francisco, 60 percent of all robberies involve the theft of a cell phone. In Oakland, the figure is 75 percent.

Consumer Action expects that SB 962 will save consumers money and improve public safety. In the past, once automakers deployed technology that would disable stolen car stereos, car stereo thefts plummeted. In the same way, once consumers are given the option to remotely disable a stolen phone, the value of stolen phones on the black market will torpedo, leading to fewer crimes involving smartphone robberies.

Pet insurance. Also on Sept. 30, the Governor signed another bill supported by Consumer Action. AB 2056 will provide basic consumer protections and disclosures for buyers of pet insurance policies. While it is now illegal for insurers to discriminate against humans with preexisting conditions, this type of discrimination is commonplace with pet insurance. Pet insurance policies can be very difficult for consumers to navigate and understand as covered treatments, deductibles, lifetime/per illness maximums and other terms vary widely.

Senate Legislative Analyst used Consumer Action's support letter as the basis for its “arguments in support” section.

Almost five years after a similar bill, AB 2411 (whose author was current Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones), was vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger, consumers who choose to buy pet insurance will benefit from greater clarity about the pros and cons of the product.

CFPB Watch: ‘Driven to default’ and account screening checklists

Students who have borrowed from private lenders—not the U.S. government—to pay for their education complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that they are “driven to default” because of limited options for repaying their private student loans. Federal student loan borrowers have a number of ways to cure defaults, move into “income-based” repayment programs and, in limited cases, seek loan forgiveness. These opportunities are not mandated for private student loan borrowers. Borrowers can negotiate with lenders, but CFPB complaints show that call center staff provided little or no help when borrowers attempted to seek help with payments when they were facing financial difficulties.

The CFPB analyzed 5,300 student loan complaints submitted between October 2013 and September 2014. The most frequent complaint was the lack of repayment options and flexibility in times of financial distress.

Private student loan borrowers who are having trouble repaying their loans told the CFPB that they found no affordable loan modification opportunities—only temporary fixes such as a few months of loan forbearance (postponement) during which they face enrollment fees, processing delays and accruing interest. Defaulting on a private student loan may trigger required payment of the entire loan balance. Student loans are difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.

The CFPB developed some advice for borrowers who want accurate information on alternative repayment plans and loan modification options, including instructions that can be mailed to private student loan servicers (the companies that send the monthly bills). The CFPB also recommended that private student loan lenders permit longer repayment periods, interest rate reductions and principal balance reductions where appropriate.

The CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman offered new resources for troubled borrowers:

Account screening practices

Many banks and credit unions rely on reports provided by “account screening” agencies—similar to credit bureaus—to determine whether to open a checking account for new customers. These reports typically include a record of a consumer’s history of accounts that were closed with an outstanding balance, returned (bounced) checks and overdrafts. Some accounts may be flagged for fraud.

Last month, representatives from account screening companies, banks and credit unions, government agencies and consumer advocates joined the CFPB at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC for an all-day forum to discuss how to improve account-screening practices. Since checking accounts are an important step towards financial stability and economic mobility, particularly for low-income and economically vulnerable households, small mistakes from the past can keep people out of the mainstream financial system for many years.

“We want to move from screening practices that are safe from consumers to practices that are safe for consumers,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray told the crowd.

Consumers whose names appear on “specialty” reports such as ChexSystems often are denied a bank account. Some smaller banks and credit unions offer more flexibility in allowing those who pay off old outstanding balances to open an account. A few will open accounts if the negative information is several years old or with another bank. But most financial institutions will not do business with customers who are “blacklisted” in account screening reports.

Unfortunately, some victims of fraud are listed in screening reports as suspects of fraud, which shuts them out of the banking system, forcing them to pay much higher fees to cash a check or pay a bill.

Both industry and consumer representatives spoke of the need to clearly define what “account abuse” or “suspected fraud” is so that the financial services professionals who review screening reports can assess which applicants may pose a genuine risk to safety and soundness at their institutions.

Advocates explained that many consumers don’t realize that walking away from (even undeserved) overdraft fees can land them on an account-screening blacklist. Others are mistakenly blacklisted and face difficulty correcting the errors.

While many opinions were voiced at the forum, participants seemed to agree that the whole screening process needs to be more transparent, predictable, communicative and understandable.

MoneyWi$e helps local Girl Scouts earn their badges

The Girl Scout motto is “Be prepared”—an apt mantra for many of life’s challenges, including managing your money. Through the Girl Scouts financial education programming, girls learn to handle money and be self-reliant. Consumer Action’s Audrey Perrott recently helped a San Leandro-based troop by giving a MoneyWi$e training for the Girl Scouts and their parents. (MoneyWi$e is a financial literacy partnership of Consumer Action and Capital One.)

Perrott notes that the Girl Scouts have a long history of working on financial literacy initiatives, including a past partnership with the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a 2014 Consumer Action Consumer Excellence Award honoree.

Girl Scout Leader Yvonne Nunn asked Perrott to provide a training on budgeting and money management for her Cadette scouts (grades six through eight) and their families. At this level, Scouts can earn three proficiency badges in financial literacy, including budgeting, comparison shopping and “financing my dreams.”

As a former Girl Scout, Perrott said she welcomed the opportunity to support the scouts in their efforts to earn their budgeting and comparison shopping badges. Perrott used Consumer Action’s MoneyWi$e Teens and Money module. The training included tracking spending, budgeting, identifying wants vs. needs, selecting a financial institution, saving, understanding the deductions on a paycheck and learning how to write checks and manage a checking account.

Perrott asked the Scouts and parents to work in teams on the “wants vs. needs” activity from the module. The group agreed that insurance, eyeglasses, backpacks and shoes were necessities, while piercings, designer shoes and video games were wants.

The Scouts expressed surprise when they learned about all of the deductions taken from one’s pay, as revealed in another activity, “Jamal’s First Paycheck.” Perrott said they caught on quickly and were able to correctly answer the questions in the activity in a relatively short period of time.

Years of direct exposure to financial literacy through product and cookie sales enabled the Scouts to discuss another activity called “Monica and Sarah” and to offer money-saving alternatives for the fictional characters. A general observation about Monica was that she was overspending and living extravagantly. The group recommended that Monica purchase fewer shoes and magazines, eat out less frequently, purchase less expensive nail polish, and either take public transportation or have friends pitch in for gas. Although Sarah saves more and spends less, the Scouts recommended she cut her expenses even further by returning library books on time to avoid fines and reading newspapers online rather than paying for printed versions.

During the Cody Sampson Check Writing and Ledger Balancing activities, Perrott made clear to the girls that this was the only time they’d be able to sign someone else’s name on a check. With speed and accuracy, the young women balanced the ledger and filled in the blanks on the activity sheet.

“Our girls enjoyed the information on money management,” said Troop Leader Nunn. “I look forward to working with you again in helping to develop smart, strong young ladies.”

Coalition Efforts: Targeting title insurance and student loans

In recent weeks, Consumer Action has signed on to comments in opposition of the Mortgage Choice Act of 2014 and in favor of additions to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s complaint form that would empower student loan borrowers.

Mortgage Choice Act of 2014 would undermine basic homebuyer safeguards. The Mortgage Choice Act of 2014 (HR 3211) contains exemptions for title insurers that would undermine the new mortgage rules, making mortgages more expensive and reducing the protections put in place earlier this year to protect consumers against the kind of mortgage loans that sparked the economic crisis. HR 3211 would increase fees for homebuyers and carve out a niche for lenders who make riskier loans. In October, Consumer Action joined a host of advocacy and civil rights organizations in signing a letter created by the Center for Responsible Lending stating that the passage of this bill could harm consumers seeking to purchase a home or refinance their current mortgage. The letter points out that “the title insurance market is a broken market.” Studies have shown that 70 percent of the premiums are for commissions to brokers and only 5 percent to 11 percent are paid out in claims—in contrast to health insurance companies, which are required to pay at least 85 percent in claims or refund premiums to consumers. Learn more and read the letter.

CFPB complaint database can do more to help student loan borrowers. In September, Consumer Action joined student loan advocates in a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) asking for the publication of more detail about complaints submitted to the Bureau. Currently, only general information is released to the public about these submissions—advocates want to see “narratives,” to help students and their families successfully manage and repay their student loans and strengthen the CFPB’s and other regulators’ ability to monitor the student loan industry and enforce the law.

Specifically, the student loan letter asked for adjustments to the complaint form and public data to ensure that federal servicer and collector complaints are collected, addressed and made public, since no other government entity currently provides this information to the public. Advocates asked for additional complaint form fields to gather information about problems unique to student loan debt collection, such as the inability to access repayment plans and rehabilitation. They also asked for a place to include the name of the school because, as the Bureau’s recent complaints filed against ITT and Corinthian demonstrate, a student’s loan problem may be attributable at least in part to the institution of higher education attended. Learn more and read the letter.

Financial literacy trainers hit the East Coast

Consumer Action’s Southern California-based MoneyWi$e training team escaped the heat last month to conduct financial education roundtables in Jersey City, NJ and Richmond, VA, where they were welcomed by crisp air, a few rain drops and eager learners.

The trainings were designed to introduce community-based organizations to the MoneyWi$e financial education curriculum created by Consumer Action in partnership with Capital One, a national bank and credit card issuer. Since its inception over a decade ago, MoneyWi$e has grown to include 12 educational modules that cover topics ranging from banking, bankruptcy and homeownership to senior scams and talking to teens about money.

The day-long trainings included a session on adult learning. Community outreach and training manager Linda Williams delivered the session, which included tips on keeping learners engaged and the effective use of games and class activities in adult education. Among several recommendations, Williams suggested that community educators include videos, stories, case studies and games and activities in their workshops.

Participants not only got to hear these training recommendations, they experienced them throughout the day. Following an interactive group introduction session, attendees participated in a competitive pre-training learning game with prizes handed out to the team that got the most correct answers.

Williams peppered her adult learning session with engaging stories and video clips as well as eye-catching images in the slide presentation. She facilitated a session on money management that prepared participants to work in groups on the “Sally Walker” case study. (Sally Walker is a comprehensive case file for a fictional individual developed by Consumer Action’s training team.) Participants poured over Sally’s finances and offered suggestions to put her financial house in order.

Nelson Santiago, a Consumer Action trainer, facilitated a session on building and keeping good credit. He said his goal was to model for participants how they might create their own sessions covering the concepts in the MoneyWi$e modules Good Credit and Improve Your Credit. He reminded participants that Consumer Action encourages community organizations to tailor slide presentations to fit their particular audience and to fit the amount of time they have available for a particular presentation.

During Santiago’s session, participants reviewed classroom activities related to secured credit cards and credit repair from the Improve Your Credit lesson plan. At the conclusion of the credit session, teams of participants raced to complete a poster-sized fill-in-the-blank activity, with prizes going to the team that finished first and got the most answers right.

The training team rounded out the session with a “Lights, Camera, Action!” role-playing session in which participants had a chance to delve into several MoneyWi$e modules. Working in groups, participants selected hypothetical scenarios that served as prompts for educational skits they performed for fellow participants. This “teachback” session allowed participants to learn about the MoneyWi$e materials and to use their own creativity to teach fellow participants.

Before adjourning, Santiago presented a short segment on Consumer Action’s website and resources. His presentation included several screen shots of Consumer Action’s website describing how to find and order the MoneyWi$e materials, and he showcased some of Consumer Action’s other key resources, including the Consumer Help Desk, Consumer Action newsletters and several of our subsites, including those focusing on privacy, housing and insurance. At the Richmond training, a short video clip about online tracking created by Consumer Action’s DC office helped stimulate a discussion about how protecting privacy online can, among other things, protect the consumer’s pocketbook.

The long-running financial literacy partnership with Capital One, started in 2003, continues to experience heavy demand for training and publications. So far in 2014, Consumer Action has distributed close to 300,000 pieces of free, multilingual MoneyWi$e literature.

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, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and nine 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 7,500 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.



Quick Menu

Facebook FTwitter T