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Consumer Action INSIDER - August 2020

What people are saying

Thank you for your invitation to attend the COVID-19 Scams and Healthcare Fraud webinar. The webinar was outstanding and very much needed. I would [like to place] an electronic copy of the handouts…on our website for veterans, their family members and caregivers nationwide and overseas. —Constance A. Burns, National Association of American Veterans, Inc. CEO and Founder

Did you know?

Facebook users who have encountered situations where they’ve wanted to solve a problem or give feedback about an issue on the platform often find themselves mired in an incomprehensible web of “help” options. This is when they learn that they cannot pick up the phone and simply call Facebook. How frustrating! Fortunately, we’ve found a helpful guide titled “How to Contact Facebook and Get Support When You Need It,” with links to the myriad online forms one can use to contact the social media giant in various situations—from reporting imposter accounts to questions and complaints pertaining to lost logins, underage users, data use, memorializing a deceased person’s account, billing errors for boosted posts, and much more. Facebook users, bookmark this under “useful resources.”

You shared health info with a 'wellness' app. Now who has it?

Consumer Action’s Lauren Hall attended the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) annual PrivacyCon event in late July, eager to hear from academics, regulators and experts in the fields of health care and privacy. The FTC event focused on “the privacy of health data collected, stored and transmitted by mobile applications” (in other words, apps). The topic couldn’t have come at a better time: In an effort to track COVID-19, corporations have been flocking to collect the types of intimate health information that consumers once revealed only to hospitals and to doctors in office settings—information that in those cases would be protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Many of the panel presentations this year addressed the level of risk to consumers who share data with health, mental health and wellness apps, as well as the level of consumer awareness of the privacy and security laws (or lack thereof) governing this brave new world. Specifically, what data are the apps collecting, and which third parties are being given (or sold) the data?

As PrivacyCon presenter John Torous, M.D., director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), pointed out, most apps don’t even bother claiming to be HIPAA compliant. A full 80% of apps he studied shared customer health data with third parties. And only 50% of the apps shared data securely, meaning that half are open to data breaches by hackers and criminals who can weaponize consumers’ private health information.

“It’s not hard to imagine a world where a genuine and kind-sounding simulated ‘nurse’ in a mental health app asks in a conversational tone if you’ve been struggling with job-related anxiety,” said Hall. “You answer ‘yes,’ only to realize later that your answers to these and other very personal questions are being fed over to your employer. You’re fired shortly after, despite good performance. Of course, you can’t prove it was due to the app, but your boss and coworkers sure did start acting strange around you.”

Other examples of potential problems include wearable apps selling data on your exercise habits to health or life insurers (that end up raising your rates), or apps that collect COVID tracking data and, unbeknownst to you, begin alerting neighbors to the fact that you’ve recently reported you’re infected. Or—already happening—smoking and dementia apps selling your data to Facebook and Google (and who knows what they’re doing with it!).

“There’s loads of money in the selling of our personal health data,” said Hall. “This doesn't exactly incentivize good behavior when it comes to health and wellness apps ‘protecting’ your private information, which is why we need strong federal laws forcing the apps to be HIPAA compliant.”

Unfortunately, rather than emphasize strong data privacy rules, the solutions speakers proposed revolved around labeling internet-connected wearable devices and apps to inform consumers about the data being collected, where it’s being stored and who it is being given to, which puts the onus of data protection on consumers rather than on corporations, where it belongs.

Other speaker-led topics addressed at PrivacyCon 2020 included: consumer privacy as it relates to the internet of things (IoT) (smart TVs, smart homes, etc.); bias in artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, including discriminatory targeted advertising on social media platforms like Facebook; and the current privacy landscape/laws internationally, including assessments of the impact of the EU’s recently enforceable General Data Protection Regulation.

For more information on PrivacyCon and video of the event, click here.

Protecting yourself from cons in the age of COVID

A recent Consumer Action “Coping with COVID-19” webinar explained that fraud can impact your pocketbook and your health. As the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) moved to recall several brands of hand sanitizer containing toxic forms of alcohol, Consumer Action trainers Nelson Santiago and Linda Williams brought together frontline consumer advocates for a timely webinar on “COVID-19 Scams and Healthcare Fraud.”

Over 400 advocates from across the country registered to attend the online event to learn about the latest trending scams and frauds designed to exploit the vulnerable populations they serve, including seniors, disabled veterans, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, and low-income consumers.

“Unfortunately, widespread confusion and fear over the deadly coronavirus has caused many people to purchase counterfeit or dangerous products online, fall prey to healthcare scammers looking to obtain their insurance information, and much more,” said Consumer Action Community Outreach and Training Manager Linda Williams.

The webinar provided participants with the information, tools and resources to not only learn about, but also combat, the criminal activity flourishing during the pandemic, including schemes related to:

  • investments (in fake vaccines or drugs, companies selling “N95” masks, etc.);
  • charitable giving/charities (allegedly set up to “help victims”);
  • health care (especially identity theft targeting Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries);
  • government stimulus funds (e.g., check or debit card fraud); and
  • dangerous or fake products (often sold online), such as toxic hand sanitizers or “personal protective equipment” that doesn’t act as a barrier against COVID-19.

After Williams kicked off the webinar with a warm-up quiz to help audience members assess how much they know about current scams and frauds, she introduced Micki Nozaki, the featured speaker. Nozaki is the project director for California Health Advocates’ Senior Medicare Patrol project, which helps state Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries avoid, detect and report healthcare fraud.

Nozaki outlined how scammers use confusion, uncertainty and fear around the COVID-19 pandemic to target consumers, especially vulnerable, isolated seniors. She told the audience that trends include scammers offering seniors free COVID-19 test kits in exchange for their Medicare numbers. She added that this scam wouldn’t be possible, however, without complicit healthcare providers who bill Medicare for the false claims (using COVID-19 as a diagnosis).

“While all of the scams Nozaki discussed were egregious,” Williams said, “unscrupulous providers fraudulently enrolling non-terminal, vulnerable and scared seniors into hospice care with a COVID-19 diagnosis topped my list!”

Nozaki also clarified that, despite what scammers have been telling seniors, a recent ruling made clear that Medicare covers the costs of both COVID-19 tests, to determine if someone is sick and to determine the existence of antibodies (indicating past infection)—with no out-of-pocket costs to beneficiaries. Nozaki fervently implored the audience to warn their clients, families and friends to beware of anyone who attempts to:

  • charge for COVID-19 tests,
  • claim the government requires antibody tests,
  • offer money for taking the tests, and/or
  • contact you (unsolicited) and ask for personal information (names, birth dates, Medicare or Social Security numbers, etc.)

The result of all this valuable information? Empowered participants, who gave the webinar stellar reviews for increasing their knowledge of the scams being used by criminals to exploit consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants also reported that they plan on sharing the information they’ve learned to empower their clients, coworkers, family members and others.

Click here to view the webinar.

For ongoing, up-to-date info on the latest scams and frauds, check out our free, monthly SCAM GRAM e-newsletter and input your email under “Join Our Email List.”

And mark your calendar for our upcoming webinars: Aug. 5, on Estate Planning for Health Care, Finances and More During a Pandemic; Sept. 9, on Tracking COVID-19 Economic Devastation; and Oct. 6, on the Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence and Economic Abuse.

The COVID-19 Scams and Healthcare Fraud webinar is part of Consumer Action's COVID-19 Educational Project, made possible with major funding from Wells Fargo and additional support from AT&T, Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, and Square.

Hotline Chronicles: Timeshares lose luster during travel restrictions

Timeshares are essentially investments in a shared vacation property (or in a “points” system); timeshare owners pay a certain amount of money for the right to spend a week or two per year at a specific property, or to use their allotted points at other properties owned by the same company or trade them through a timeshare exchange network. Timeshare “investors” are guaranteed this lodging only after forking over an initial, one-time payment that may reach $20,000 or more, as well as agreeing to pay ongoing annual maintenance fees.

Consumers might conclude that purchasing a timeshare is less expensive than paying for a lifetime of annual vacation lodgings. Many people, however, take a dim view of timeshares because of the aggressive sales tactics used to court buyers, the difficulties associated with selling them, and the fact that they come with recurring annual fees that, if not paid, can lead to timeshare participants losing their initial investments! These critics point out that it often turns out to be cheaper (and more flexible) to stay at a hotel or rent a resort unit for a week.

Of course, some consumers may be considering investing in a timeshare during the pandemic-related travel restrictions in the hopes of scoring a bargain. But before you let a timeshare tempt you too much, it’s worth reading about Jerry and Sherry,* a South Carolina couple who wrote to Consumer Action’s hotline about how unhappy they’ve been with the policies of the timeshare they own.

With timeshares, many people book their vacations a year or more in advance. After the onset of the pandemic, Jerry and Sherry’s timeshare began allowing bookings made before April 6 (and the implementation of widespread shelter-in-place orders) to be rebooked for later stays that would have to take place by Aug. 31. It goes without saying that even if stays were available before that deadline, this was a short window of time in which to reschedule a vacation, and it did not take into account that travel restrictions may not have been lifted by then.

Many resorts have waived cancellation fees for those concerned about traveling during the pandemic, but there is no provision for getting reimbursed for a missed annual visit and/or skipping an annual payment.

Understandably, Jerry and Sherry wrote that the complicated situation was causing them a lot of stress!

Unfortunately, the couple are not the only people who have submitted complaints about the complexities of timeshares during the pandemic. And while there is no easy, one-size-fits-all response to them, here are a few options for timeshare owners to consider:

  • If you see no way to take advantage of your 2020 week(s), reach out to your timeshare sponsor and ask for a customized solution. You might inquire if you can have additional stays in 2021, or if there is a timeshare option within driving distance of your home that might work for you this summer or fall (without boarding a plane, due to concerns about COVID-19). Can you book outside any current extended booking windows?
  • If you have paid money to hold a reservation and you are being reimbursed, ask for a cash refund and not a voucher (unless you are sure the voucher terms will work for you). Vouchers may feature restrictive terms that limit your future options.
  • If you borrowed money to pay for your timeshare, recognize that skipping payments to your lender might result in loss of your initial investment and even legal action by the lender and/or the timeshare sponsor.
  • Investigate companies that allow you to trade your weeks with other timeshare owners or that help you rent them on the free market. Realize, however, that it may be unlikely that you will be able to swap your chosen location for the same location in a shorter booking timeframe (and that interest in travel may be low right now).

Looking to get out of your timeshare altogether? When sellers misrepresent or make misleading statements, a timeshare sale might be considered fraudulent and you may have legal options. In most states, timeshare sales fall under the purview of the attorneys general (AG) of the state in which the timeshare is located. If you suspect funny business with your timeshare, you can find and contact your AG by searching here. This fact sheet on protecting yourself from timeshare sales and resales, from the Florida attorney general’s office, also offers some advice.

For readers who are still considering a timeshare, it pays to know that these “investments” are not easy to sell, at least not at the price you paid for them. And they can cause an ongoing financial burden: You’ll need to pay the annual maintenance costs or risk being hounded by debt collectors (as well as potentially sued over any payments you didn’t make).

Do the math: Look into hotel or home rental costs in places you might want to stay and see how those costs compare to timeshares. As an example, for the equivalent of a $20,000 initial investment and a $750 annual fee for 10 years, you could spend seven days at a $300-per-night hotel every year for 13 years. Or, you could rent a vacation home costing up to $2,100 each year for 13 years. And, you’d be able to invest your $20,000 in a certificate of deposit or an index mutual fund in which you would likely earn interest, dividends and/or capital gains (whereas it’s unlikely you’d be able to make any money off the sale of your aging timeshare). Not to mention: No maintenance costs!

If your heart is set on a timeshare (and we are doing all we can to dissuade you), look on the secondary market, where current owners are looking to offload their timeshares—maybe for a song. Always seek advice from a trusted third party before entering into a timeshare deal—and it goes without saying, do not give in to pressure to hear a timeshare pitch while you are on vacation, even if the incentives (free dinner or a day-long jeep rental, for example) seem enticing. After all, you should be out enjoying your vacation, not sitting in some room for hours being sold a bill of (questionable) goods!

* Not this consumer's real name

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Your review helps us raise visibility for our work. And good reviews have a critical impact on the public’s volunteering and donating decisions, allowing Consumer Action to accomplish even more amazing work to defend consumer rights.

Thanks for helping us to continue the fight for fairness and prosperity for underrepresented consumers in an increasingly complex marketplace. (Looking for more ways to support us? Click here!)

Coalition Efforts: Big businesses doing bad things

Corporations should not be able to hide financial data, dodge paying taxes. A coalition of more than 100 non-profit groups called on the U.S. House Financial Services Committee to advance the Disclosure of Tax Havens and Offshoring Act (HR 5933) out of committee and on its way to becoming law. The bill would require large, publicly-traded corporations to disclose key financial information (i.e., profits, revenues, taxes paid, etc.) on a country-by-country basis. Many multinational corporations use provisions in the U.S. tax code to shift profits between countries and establish tax havens (in places like the Cayman Islands) in order to avoid paying taxes—taxes that fund health care, education, infrastructure and other vital public services. If passed, HR 5933 would help inform taxpayers, investors, policymakers, academics and other stakeholders about a corporation’s financials, in order to hold them accountable for paying their fair share of taxes. This, in turn, would provide funds to help the U.S. emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic on the path to a more sustainable and equitable economy. Learn more.

Millions of struggling families need housing counseling now! More than 20 million Americans are out of work due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while everyone is at risk of losing their jobs and, consequently, their homes, Black and Latino workers are experiencing disproportionate economic challenges, including an unemployment rate of 16.8% and 17.6%, respectively. American households are expected to face a wave of evictions and foreclosures even worse than they experienced during the 2008 financial crisis, which is why coalition advocates recently wrote to Congress in support of the Coronavirus Housing Counseling Improvement Act. The Act expands access to housing counseling so that individuals and families can get help finding affordable ways to stay in their homes. Learn more.

FDIC plan to preempt state lending protections earns advocates’ ire. Consumer Action joined with a broad coalition of advocacy organizations in warning the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that its proposed rule for chartering additional industrial loan companies (ILCs) would expand predatory, high-interest lending. ILCs, which may be owned by non-financial companies ,are able to lend money to consumers, but they operate in an under-regulated niche market. The FDIC’s plan would grant the predominantly online non-bank companies that are approved for ILC status with preemptory powers over state consumer protection laws, including state interest rate caps and usury limits. In this way, the ILCs will be able to set their own high interest rates on loans, leading to more consumers caught in abusive, never-ending debt traps. The FDIC is already turning a blind eye to rent-a-bank schemes, in which non-bank lenders piggyback off ILCs and bank charters to issue loans of 100+% APRs. With many consumers in a financial bind due to pandemic-related job loss, more predatory lending is the last thing we need! Learn more.

Feds should withdraw policy letting private equity loot retirement plans. Nineteen organizations and individuals that advocate on behalf of consumers, workers, investors and retirees have called on the Department of Labor (DOL) to withdraw a controversial policy statement that would open the door to risky private equity investments within 401(k) plans. These investments are likely to saddle middle-class retirement savers with high costs and lock them into unnecessarily complex funds that underperform publicly available alternatives. The coalition has called on the DOL to withdraw its policy statement until it can conduct a more careful and balanced analysis of the potential risks and benefits of including a private equity component among retirement plan investments. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: A decade of defense; hidden complaint details?

The law that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank)—celebrated its 10th anniversary on July 21. In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the law was crafted to protect consumers and help prevent the devastating effects of future financial crises by reducing risk and harm to consumers and taxpayers.

In honor of its 10th anniversary, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former CFPB Director Richard Cordray spoke at an Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) online forum about the many ways that the CFPB has made the financial marketplace safer and fairer for homebuyers, student borrowers, credit card holders and others. AFR is a leading non-profit coalition—of which Consumer Action is a founding member—working to help create a strong, stable and ethical financial system in the U.S.

“It’s hard to choose…but most important has been the Bureau’s enforcement actions [lawsuits], putting more than $12 billion back in the pockets of nearly 30 million consumers and putting industry on notice to fix their bad behavior,” the former CFPB director noted. He added that the Bureau has also played a critical role in creating “safeguards in the mortgage market and consumer complaint handling that gives individuals [an indication] that their problems have been heard and resolved.”

“I’d underscore the impact of the complaint hotline for those who got cheated and got a little justice from the federal government,” Senator Warren added. “Before [this law], there was no [single] place for consumers to go with their financial complaints.”

The Bureau’s accomplishments under Cordray were notable. Unfortunately, Trump’s appointees have largely reversed course, working to undermine the Bureau’s original mission by relaxing, and even gutting, rules created to protect consumers.

Video and a highlight thread of AFR’s 10th anniversary event can be found here.

The CFPB celebrates its anniversary

The Consumer Bureau celebrated its 10th anniversary by launching a new Consumer Financial Protection Week (July 14-17), featuring a revamp of its “Paying for College” tool (to help students understand financial aid and repayment options), providing a summary of its supervisory and enforcement work; and taking a look at the enhanced tools added to its Consumer Complaint Database.

Complaint map, trends and hidden narratives

The Bureau has announced that it is trying to make its Consumer Complaint Database more user-friendly by adding new tools and features. It has recently added a map feature that allows users to click on their state to learn how many complaints have been filed and in what categories (e.g., credit or prepaid cards, home mortgage lending companies). To use the map tool, click here here and make sure the “Map” tab on the top left of the tool is selected. (You can also access the database and map tool through the CFPB’s homepage, by clicking on the Consumer Complaint Database option under its Data & Research tab.)

Also added is a “Trends” tab (to the right of the “Map” tab at the top of the database) that offers more detailed complaint categories and allows users to filter a search, producing only results on a certain topic (e.g., credit reporting complaints) that occurred during a specific date range and/or were filed against a specific company. “Trends” also reveals the top complaint categories overall (nationally), or based on a user’s search criteria.

Unfortunately, the CFPB under its Trump-appointed director, Kathy Kraninger, has made it tougher to access the most useful portion of the Consumer Complaint database—the complaint details (called the “narratives”). These details (written by consumers) provide invaluable specifics as to why the consumer complained, and can help database users decide whether to do business with a particular company based on the reported problems.

“By burying the complaint narratives, making it difficult for consumers to access this essential information, Kraninger has given yet another gift to financial firms. Many companies have long fought public display of the consumer-provided descriptions that reveal shenanigans and unfair practices the companies would rather keep hidden,” said Consumer Action Deputy Director of National Priorities Ruth Susswein.

To find these buried, but crucial, complaint details before you apply for a big loan or financial purchase from a particular company, follow the same steps described above but scroll down toward the bottom of the page and click on the box (on the left) asking if you’d like to “Only show complaints with narratives?”

COVID complaints

Consumers have filed a record-breaking number of complaints with the CFPB each month for the last four months, and the numbers keep rising. Complaints are up 50% over the same time period last year, according to USPIRG’s latest CFPB complaint database analysis of March through June 2020. USPIRG calls the complaint database an “early warning system for emerging problems in the financial marketplace.”

The Bureau also released new complaint data related to the coronavirus. From January through May, more than 8,000 consumers filed COVID-related complaints. Mortgage complaints topped the list, with 55% of complainants reporting that they were struggling to pay their mortgages. Credit card purchase complaints came in second, and credit reporting problems were the third largest category, with more than half (55%) of the complaints being about incorrect information on a credit file. Prepaid card complaints increased the most during this period (105%), and student loan complaints dropped the most (24%).

The CFPB, intact

The Supreme Court recently ruled (in Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) that the CFPB will remain an independent federal financial regulator with an independent budget, but that the president will be able to hire and fire the agency’s director “at will,” rather than only “for cause.”

Consumer Action was part of a “friend of the court” filing that supported the mandate that the CFPB director could only be fired for cause, which was true prior to this ruling.

Kraninger had sided with the Seila Law firm against her own position and agency, supporting the director’s termination for any reason or no reason at all. She argued that the opportunity to fire the head of the CFPB only for cause should be considered “unconstitutional” because it places too much power in the hands of a single government agency or person.

While the director’s position will no longer be as independent as it was designed to be under the Dodd-Frank Act that created it, the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision mean that, should a new administration be elected in November, the new president will have the ability to replace the current CFPB director with one who can reclaim the Bureau’s purpose to protect and serve consumers. Sadly, this mission has gone astray under the Trump Administration.

Class Action Database: This will be on Experian’s public record

A class action settlement involving payday lending company MoneyMutual’s promotion of unlicensed lenders in California was among 17 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during July.

Of note this month are the consolidated lawsuits Clark v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc. and Brown v. Information Solutions, Inc. (collectively referred to as the “Experian Public Record Settlement”).

The plaintiffs filed a class action against the consumer credit reporting agency Experian, alleging it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by failing to disclose the source of its public information records, thereby making it difficult for plaintiffs to correct errors they discover in their Experian credit reports. After requesting copies of their reports, plaintiffs found inaccurate public record items, including court judgments, tax liens and bankruptcies.

Experian denied the allegations but agreed to a settlement nonetheless.

The settlement provides two years of Experian IdentityWorksSM Plus credit monitoring service for free to all class members. Members who “are able to provide certain types of documentation” showing harm due to Experian’s inaccurate tax lien and/or civil judgment reporting can use mediation services established by the settlement to determine whether they are eligible to receive payments (and how much) from Experian for their individual claims of harm (e.g., a bank did not issue the class member a home loan due to false information contained in the report). For more information on the mediation program, click here.

Experian also agreed to stop reporting state and federal tax liens and civil judgments through Feb. 22, 2019 (the date the settlement went into effect), and to disclose the names and addresses of any vendors supplying public records. For three years from this date, Experian may only report newly acquired civil judgments and state and federal tax liens after providing Class Counsel with the details of the new record collection process.

You are part of the class if Experian sent you a credit report containing tax lien, civil judgment or bankruptcy information but did not identify the identity of the vendor providing these public records (between Jan. 15, 2011 and Sept. 21, 2018) and/or if Experian gave your credit report (containing inaccurate information about tax liens or civil judgments) to a third party between Jan. 15, 2014 and Sept. 21, 2018.

The claims deadline is Aug. 22, 2020.

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 Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and seven 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 more than 6,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and bulk 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.

 

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