Consumer Action INSIDER – September 2011


Save the Date


What people are saying

Thank you again for such a wonderful and relevant training [at Empower U in Oakland, California] for our court program and customers. - Judy B. Louie Director, ACCESS Center

Tip of the month: Make financial transactions safely on the go

Mobile text payments, direct mobile billing and mobile peer-to-peer billing are just a few ways you can use your mobile technology to conduct financial transactions. Learn the advantages and risks by visiting our Digital Dollars project.

Consumer Action supports California Clean Cars Campaign

Consumer Action is working to champion a new suite of regulations designed to put cleaner cars on California roads. The state Air Resources Board (ARB) will vote on the proposal in November.

Executive Director Ken McEldowney is one of the chairs of the California Clean Cars Campaign, which launched in June 2011. The campaign is made up of public health leaders, consumer groups, businesses, local governments, elected officials, organized labor, faith groups, environmental organizations and other constituencies that support the strongest possible standards for California’s Clean Cars Program.

“Dirty vehicles harm consumers twofold by hitting their pocketbooks and damaging their health,” says McEldowney. “In particular, low income families are disproportionately affected by pollution because they often live in close proximity to roadways in urban areas. California has a chance to help these people by reducing the pollution spewed from vehicle tailpipes.”

The “Clean Cars Program” is aimed at several existing California vehicle standards being considered for updates this fall. California is strengthening its vehicle standards for carbon and smog pollution through model years 2025. The state also has plans to extend its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program through 2025, requiring automakers to make available increasing numbers of the cleanest, advanced technology plug-in and hydrogen cars.

California’s carbon pollution standards are expected to harmonize with national vehicle standards announced in late July by President Obama. The federal government, after working closely with California, proposed national fuel economy and carbon pollution regulations for vehicles. The federal rules will be completed over the next year.

For decades, California has served as a model for air pollution and vehicle standards and over the last year it has worked collaboratively with the federal regulators to develop the strongest possible rules. “Thanks to California taking the lead, the federal government is now acting,” McEldowney said. “This means consumers across the country also will benefit from cleaner cars.”

While California will adopt its own carbon pollution regulation this fall, many expect it to accept the final national standard next year. In addition, California will update its smog and ZEV standards and take steps to ensure fueling stations exist for advanced clean cars. (These issues will be considered at the November ARB board hearing.)

Bringing the next generation of advanced, clean cars into the driveways of California families will save consumers money, reduce air pollution, help to reduce our dependence on oil, support new jobs and foster investment in the state’s clean energy economy.

On behalf of the California Clean Cars Campaign, McEldowney has spoken with California reporters and penned editorials about the consumer benefits of clean cars. He and Nelson Santiago, a Consumer Action community outreach manager, recently participated in two California Air Resources Board-hosted community meetings about the clean cars standards in Oakland and Pacoima, respectively.

Click here for a complete list of supporters of the California Clean Cars Campaign. Click here to learn more about how consumers and society benefit from clean cars.

Fighting for the home front

Consumer Action’s staff has been very active in helping to protect homeowners facing foreclosure. Our efforts have included:

Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program (EHLP). Unemployed and underemployed homeowners struggling to stay in their homes this summer were given an unprecedented opportunity to save their homes from foreclosure. This month, Consumer Action campaigned to alert consumers and community groups to the government’s Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program (EHLP). This program provides a forgivable “bridge loan” of up to $50,000 to pay mortgage, property tax and homeowners insurance bills for up to two years.

Consumer Action has worked to alert unemployed homeowners in non-English speaking communities to the time sensitive opportunity. Community Outreach Manager Nelson Santiago and Hotline Manager Joe Ridout translated EHLP materials into Spanish, while Community Outreach Manager Jamie Woo and Kathy Li , director of Consumer Action’s San Francisco office, translated the alerts into Chinese. Staff members gave interviews to in-language media outlets to help notify hard-to-reach homeowners. National Priorities Deputy Director Ruth Susswein spread the word through action alerts designed to reach as many troubled homeowners as possible with news of the EHLP loans.

Consumer Action and its partners brought homeowners’ struggles to the government at consumer coalition meetings with officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Coalition members encouraged HUD to make the bridge loan program more accessible and extend application deadlines in order to reach more consumers who could benefit from the loans.

Refunds for homeowners with subprime loans. Consumer Action alerted homeowners with Well Fargo mortgages to refunds for customers steered into high cost, subprime home loans instead of the lower interest rate loans (“prime loans”) for which they qualified. Homeowners who were steered into the wrong mortgages are expected to receive between $1,000 and $20,000 in compensation from Wells. Homeowners who refinanced their homes and received cash back from their home equity (“cash-out” mortgages) between January 2006 and June 2008 will be reevaluated by the bank to see if they were steered into inappropriate loans. Wells Fargo was fined $85 million by the Federal Reserve. For more information call the bank at 877-546-0090.

Fifty state settlement talks. Consumer Action is staying on top of developments in the Attorneys General (AGs) negotiations to settle allegations that the nation’s largest mortgage lenders participated in “robo-signing.” This is the legally questionable practice in which mortgage servicing company employees sign foreclosure documents without reviewing them. In 2010, banks halted thousands of foreclosures throughout the country when the paperwork was called into question because the signers hadn’t properly reviewed the files. It appears that in the years leading up to the housing crisis, many mortgage officers had signed documents automatically (like robots) just to close more mortgages and satisfy Wall Street’s growing demand for securitized home loans.

A settlement between lenders and the state AGs could include benefits for consumers, including reduced mortgage payments for homeowners and compensation for those who’ve already lost their homes. We’ll continue to keep you posted.

Know Before You Owe. Consumer Action has helped the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau connect with consumers so that they can provide feedback to the CFPB’s proposal for a clear and simple mortgage disclosure form. The “Know Before You Owe” initiative sought consumer input into draft mortgage lending documents. The form would be useful for those who are buying or refinancing a home. Borrowers would be clearly informed about the costs of a loan before they sign on the dotted line. For more information visit and click on “Time to simplify mortgage disclosure.”

Help for troubled homeowners

Consumer Action’s “Housing Help: Foreclosure Prevention Guide” lists the variety of government and private programs and websites where homeowners can learn if they are eligible for help in preventing foreclosure. The free guide describes each program’s features, explains who is eligible for assistance and lists contact information.

Families across the country remain in danger of losing their homes. Estimates are that 11 million homeowners are still at risk as the foreclosure crisis enters its fifth year. For those who don’t know where to turn for help, Consumer Action’s one-stop resource guide contains valuable and detailed information, all in one place.

“There are many efforts underway, at varying levels of effectiveness, to help homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes. But there are few places to find the information under one roof,” said Ruth Susswein, Consumer Action’s deputy director of national priorities. “We believe that this guide will help make the long, difficult process of saving your home easier.”

Seven months in the making, the free resource guide is designed to help homeowners (wherever they are in the foreclosure process) to modify their mortgages and remain in their homes.

Consumers can visit the Consumer Action website to access the free guide or download a PDF copy.

Writer joins Consumer Action’s editorial team

Monica Steinisch, a seasoned personal finance writer and one-time director of communications at Consumer Credit Counseling Service, has worked with Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry since 2006 to write and edit our free, multilingual educational publications. Now Sherry is proud to announce that Steinisch has joined Consumer Action’s editorial team full time.

Steinisch, whose new title is “senior associate, editorial,” joined the staff in mid-August and reports to Sherry, who is based in DC in the organization’s National Priorities office. “We are exceptionally fortunate to have Monica on staff,” said Sherry. “I’ve worked with a lot of writers in my day, and her competence is unmatched.”

Steinisch has deep experience in the areas of consumer services and communications. In 1995 she joined Consumer Credit Counseling Service in San Francisco, where she worked as a counselor before becoming the organization’s director of communications. After spending a little more than a year as a writer for the corporate communications department of Providian Financial, she went on to become staff editor for Financial Finesse, a start-up employee financial education company. Since 2003 Monica has been a freelance personal finance writer for a variety of companies including Nolo Press, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), Suze Orman and Consumer Action.

At Consumer Action, Steinisch will draft consumer education publications as well as the myriad of written materials that Sherry’s team is responsible for, including media releases, legislative testimony, pricing surveys, website content and our newsletters, Consumer Action News and Consumer Action INSIDER.

Steinisch, a native San Franciscan, received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of California at Davis. She lives in San Francisco’s Noe Valley with her husband.

Insurance Activities Report 2010

Being adequately and wisely insured is a cornerstone of sound money management. Consumer Action’s Insurance Education Project was founded to help consumers make the best use of the ever-increasing portion of their incomes spent on insurance to protect health, autos, homes, assets and the future of loved ones.

Making decisions about insurance so often involves making choices between what is critical and what is optional, and our trainings and literature help consumers make well-informed choices.

To keep you up to date on Consumer Action’s various activities, we offer an annual report of our insurance efforts.

The California Department of Insurance’s low cost auto insurance program is key to the financial wellbeing of the state’s low-income consumers who need vehicles to get to work, school and shopping. Consumer Action promotes a multilingual pamphlet about the program created by the state insurance department, sending order forms to our community-based network of 3,500 agencies in California and filling the orders from our San Francisco mail room. Last year, we distributed more than 30,000 brochures in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian, Japanese, Armenian, Tagalog and Russian.

In 2010 we created a special edition of our newsletter, Consumer Action News, focusing on travel insurance. The issue looked at travel insurance providers, the various kinds of insurance one can buy, and travel-related services and protections on credit cards.

The Insurance Education Project website, a central repository for insurance content, features related articles and press releases, consumer alerts, insurance-related publications and book reviews. Broken down into topic areas including home insurance, auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance, insurance fraud and account insurance, the website attracted close to 2,000 new visitors last year.

Last year, our multilingual consumer hotline staff counseled consumers on a wide array of insurance issues. Our counselors handled increased numbers of insurance-related calls and emails during the year with close to 12% handled in Spanish or Chinese. The top concerns consumers contacted us about were home insurance, medical insurance and auto insurance.

At our online Help Desk, we added “frequently asked questions” (FAQs) on bank account insurance, evaluating HMOs and insurance fraud.

“Insurance protects us in so many ways,” says Executive Director Ken McEldowney. “You need adequate coverage to protect yourself from illness, disasters, catastrophe and personal liability, and to provide for your dependents should something happen to you. Our project was founded because we want to make sure that consumers get the best deal and don’t ‘overbuy’ just because they are not well informed.”

Visit the Insurance Education Project at

Web Spotlight: What's in the toolbox?

Learning doesn’t have to be a chore. Consumer Action’s training and outreach team puts the fun into learning with its clever and creative bag of training tools. Open the toolkit and help yourself to some engaging resources to make your trainings more fun.

How long has it been since you last had a financial check-up? The popular Sally Walker activity helps participants learn about making wise decisions while following the plight of a fictional character with real world challenges. Helping Sally address her problems gives learners a hands-on understanding of the important role that credit reports and consumer specialty reports play in our lives.

Another training favorite is the Reports and Scores Quiz. Fashioned after a popular TV game show, the game sweeps participants into an enthusiastic competition for the right answers while the clock ticks away. The editable PowerPoint presentation allows community trainers the flexibility to update the information to keep the game relevant to their own communities.

Other free-of-charge training tools developed by Consumer Action include “Credit Card Shuffle,” “Rebuilding Credit Crossword Game,” “Why Adults Learn,” and “ID Theft Quiz.”

“We’re always looking for creative ways to make our financial literacy information stick with folks,” says Consumer Action’s Linda Williams, one of our ace trainers.

Hotline Chronicles: Hurricane Irene mucks up travel plans

As Hurricane Irene crawled up the East Coast late last month, Johnny,* a New Jersey man, called our hotline to inquire about his rights to cancel a hotel reservation without penalty. Johnny had a paid-in-advance reservation at a hotel in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which was directly in the path of Irene. The hotel’s manager told Johnny that despite a mandatory evacuation of the area, he would be given a credit for a future visit but not a refund.

Since Johnny had only wanted to visit the Outer Banks in late August, he was not happy with this outcome. Unfortunately, the onus is on the consumer to ask about cancellation policies before you book a hotel room and such policies vary widely. Some hotels require a deposit or full upfront payment and you may lose some or all of it if you don’t cancel or otherwise change your reservation by the hotel’s deadline.

Consumer Action did some research and found that most hotels in the path of weather disasters, especially in areas that are under mandatory evacuation, waive any fees or penalties that might come with failing to keep a reservation. But no law requires a refund in this case, although some hotels voluntarily offer to refund the cost of the stay when weather-related calamity strikes.

Many large chain hotels allow you to cancel your reservation right up until a certain time, say 6 p.m., on the night of your stay and still avoid all penalties. But at other hotels, a change of plans may require cancelling a few days or a week in advance, and even then it may be impossible to avoid a penalty. If you miss the deadline, you may face a penalty, such as 25% or 50% of the payment, or get no refund at all.

Trip cancellation insurance is another way to protect yourself from weather-related eventualities that might affect your travel plans. Consumer Action recommends that travelers check the weather possibilities in the area they plan to visit. It’s well known that the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for example, is subject to hurricanes in August and September, as are many other shore areas on the East Coast, the Caribbean and Mexico. If this is the case, purchase trip cancellation insurance when you buy your tickets and book your hotel because you can’t buy travel insurance once a hurricane is a named threat.

With more and more people booking hotel stays online at sites that require full payment in advance, it is important to read the cancellation agreements, which may differ on the travel website and at the lodging.

To submit a complaint or question to our hotline, call 415-777-9635 or go online.

* Not this consumer’s real name.

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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