Speaking truth to power at Consumer Action’s national conference

Our National Consumer Empowerment Conference was a success
Published: Tuesday, December 04, 2018
Nerdwallet award photo
Attendees and staff at the 9th National Consumer Empowerment Conference in Chicago, IL, last month

Our ninth annual National Consumer Empowerment Conference was held in mid-November at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O'Hare. The two-day event brought together educators, consumer advocates, regulatory and industry representatives and other key stakeholders to address critical consumer issues and share best practices in community-based consumer education and empowerment.

“Consumer Action’s National Consumer Empowerment Conference offers our allies and community group partners a unique opportunity to network with one another and learn from and converse with some of the country’s top consumer rights subject matter experts,” said Ken McEldowney, Consumer Action’s executive director.

Panelists representing the non-profit and government sectors presented viewpoints at the conference. Keynote speakers such as the number-two official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), acting deputy director Brian Johnson, shared the Bureau’s current vision of consumer financial protection and fielded questions from community groups about their concerns for consumers.

Attendees asked Johnson about the Bureau’s plans to gut an upcoming payday loan rule, the result of which would be the elimination of requirements for payday lenders to determine if a borrower has the ability to repay high-cost loans. Community-based organizations (CBOs) and advocates have been particularly worried about this since the Bureau recently rolled back oversight of predatory lenders that target the military and communities of color. Bureau leadership under the Trump administration also changed the agency’s mission statement to be less focused on protecting consumers and threatened to cut public access to its complaint database (which allows consumers to file and view complaints against financial companies, such as banks, that behave badly).

Johnson explained that under new leadership this year, the Bureau is following what is mandated by law, but has chosen to make changes in areas they consider “discretionary.” Johnson said he and his boss, acting Bureau head Mick Mulvaney, decided to focus on “consumer choice” and “smart disclosure.” Interest in changes in policy at the CFPB was so great that conference attendees followed Johnson into the lobby to continue asking questions regarding reductions in enforcement actions, fair lending duties and student loan investigations, among other concerns.

Community-based organizations participating in the invitation-only conference were treated to timely educational sessions, including how to prepare for and protect consumers after disasters such as floods and fires. Consumer insurance advocate Emily Rogan of United Policyholders offered participants tips on how to conduct their own insurance checkup and shared sample letters to ensure that consumers are using the correct language when filing a natural disaster claim.

Attendees also received the latest privacy tips from Consumer Reports’ Katie McGinnis and Facebook’s Claire Gartland on how to improve control over the use of their personal data online, and learned more from McGinnis about the need for a national data protection law in the U.S.

After a brief film on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., attendees heard about cases of continued housing discrimination on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. During the session, the National Fair Housing Alliance’s Lisa Rice and Hope Fair Housing of Chicago’s Anne Houghtaling outlined how they have investigated, documented and sued to protect victims of redlining, a discriminatory practice in which minorities and/or people of color are excluded or steered away from renting or buying in certain neighborhoods.

Other timely panels included:

  • Protecting your family and assets in an era of detention and deportation threats (during which the non-profit Appleseed’s Annette LoVoi presented an instructional manual to help immigrants protect their children and possessions);
  • Warning signs when purchasing short-term health insurance plans that typically contain wide gaps in coverage;
  • Lobbying tips for consumer advocates (presented by Rose Eichelberger of Ready, Aim, Advocate; Mark Hamm of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas; and John Paul Soto of Lutheran Social Services of Northern California—all advocates who participated in Consumer Lobby Day 2018 in the nation’s capital);
  • The latest on dangerous payday loans and affordable payday alternatives; and
  • Updates on mobile apps and FinTech tools that help consumers build wealth or borrow affordable small-dollar loans.

Consumer Action appreciates the conference supporters—underwriters Bank of America, Comcast NBCUniversal, Facebook and JPMorgan Chase & Co., and benefactors 1-800 Contacts, Amazon, American Express, DraftKings, Enterprise, VISA, Walmart and Wells Fargo. Their donations, along with those from other sponsors, allow CBOs to attend the National Consumer Empowerment Conference at no cost. For a full list of sponsors and exhibitors, see the 2018 conference program booklet.




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