National Consumer Empowerment Conference tackles the tough issues

More than 120 financial education coaches from community-based organizations, advocates, policymakers and financial industry reps gathered for the 10th annual National Consumer Empowerment Conference. Top community educators and subject matter experts spoke on timely topics ranging from the life-threateningly high cost of prescription drugs to data privacy challenges (including those introduced by largely unregulated new technologies) to the harmful long-term impact arrest records can have on individuals’ ability to secure jobs or housing.
Published: Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Consumer Action held its 10th annual National Consumer Empowerment Conference last month at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare just outside of Chicago. More than 120 financial education coaches from community-based organizations, advocates, policymakers and financial industry reps gathered for the multiday, invitation-only event. Each year at its national conference, Consumer Action brings these parties together, including those working on behalf of vulnerable populations such as low-income and immigrant communities, veterans and seniors, for cutting-edge presentations, panel discussions and interactive sessions that address our increasingly complex marketplace and its impact on consumers.

At this year’s conference, top community educators and subject matter experts spoke on timely topics ranging from the life-threateningly high cost of prescription drugs to data privacy challenges (including those introduced by largely unregulated new technologies) to the harmful long-term impact arrest records can have on individuals’ ability to secure jobs or housing.

This year, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Kathy Kraninger spoke on the Bureau’s approach to financial industry regulation and consumer protection. During her prepared remarks, Kraninger announced—to the relief of the consumer advocates in the room—that the CFPB will continue to maintain and publish its valuable Consumer Complaint Database, which was launched in 2012. The public database allows individuals to alert the Bureau and other consumers about unfair or deceptive business practices and to get assistance from the Bureau in resolving their problems with the companies involved.

Shortly after Kraninger spoke, Jacob Wright, an associate attorney with Edelson PC, a law firm specializing in consumer privacy, and Abe Scarr, the director of Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), outlined new threats to consumers’ privacy online, specifically facial recognition and digital “fingerprinting,” which allows companies/government to identify and track users online and make sometimes harmful inferences about them based on their activities. Facial recognition, for instance, could have a major chilling effect on political demonstration and speech, and has already shown to wrongly identify certain demographics. Wright and Scarr spoke on how the government must establish rules reining in the use of individuals’ personal information and likenesses for the purpose of mass surveillance or discrimination (e.g., targeting certain races or a particular gender). Wright emphasized the importance of consumers contacting local elected officials to encourage strong biometric privacy laws in their states since these legislators rarely receive feedback from their constituents on privacy matters relating to emerging technologies.

Immediately after the session on “Today’s Privacy Frontier,” Consumer Action’s Lauren Hall gave a lively presentation on the latest scams and frauds impacting consumers. Hall pointed out, to the surprise of many in the audience, that millennials are actually the victims of scams much more than seniors (43% for those aged 20-29 versus 15% for those aged 70-79). Hall explained that this is likely due to younger people being more confident, in general, with making online purchases, including (unwittingly) from fraudulent parties.

“But baby boomers, you aren’t off the hook,” Hall said to the audience. “When you do lose money, you tend to suffer more costly losses through ‘big money’ criminal efforts like online romance scams, mortgage closing wire fraud, or bogus vacation home rentals.”

Hall went on to explain the dangers certain scams pose to the vulnerable populations many in the audience work with, including immigrants and limited-English speakers, who are often the targets of visa approval/renewal scams and deportation threats. In addition to instructing participants on how to identify scammers and avoid falling victim to scams, Hall encouraged attendees to sign up for Consumer Action’s free monthly SCAM GRAM e-newsletter and to report scams to the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general, and other appropriate agencies, such as the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (ic3.gov). “Share them with Consumer Action, too, so we can warn of new threats in SCAM GRAM,” she suggested.

Other timely panel topics included:

  • Emerging credit trends, such as the new types of alternative data being used to help underserved consumers establish good credit, presented by FICO Vice President of Scores and Analytics Joanne Gaskin, attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, and Credit Karma Chief Legal Officer Susannah Wright;
  • The problem of high-cost prescription drugs, the lack of transparency in drug company marketing, and the problematic middlemen known as “pharmacy benefit managers,” who are costing consumers big-time, presented by Michael DeLong, a community organizer from the Law Offices of David Balto, which specializes in antitrust law. (The fall 2019 edition of Consumer Action News covered the prescription drug cost crisis in depth.);
  • Innovative tools to help low-income consumers, with presenters from Upsolve, a non-profit that helps qualifying consumers file for bankruptcy for free, Code For America, which announced their free online service Clear My Record to help eligible consumers wipe their arrest records clean, and the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office;
  • Professional financial coaching, with an interactive session on how to save money to reach personal goals;
  • Retirement planning;
  • Home-buying for low-to-moderate-income consumers; and
  • Jumpstarting a micro business.

The conference also provided participants with the rare opportunity to network with other consumer literacy education providers from across the country during a pre-event dinner.

Consumer Action appreciates our conference supporters—underwriters Bank of America, Facebook, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Tracfone Wireless, as well as benefactors and sponsors Wells Fargo, FICO, Walmart, Comcast/NBC Universal, Credit Karma and Self Lender. Their donations enable scholarships for community-based organizations to attend the event. For a full list of sponsors and exhibitors, see the 2019 conference program booklet.

 

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