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Consumer Action INSIDER - January 2020

Table of Contents

What people are saying

Thank you for educating us about consumer rights and associated concerns. I’ll be sure to read each and every article published by you. INSIDER reader K. Bali

Did you know?

It has not become any easier for parents and their children to sit together when flying, even though it’s been three years since Congress asked the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to review airline family seating policies as part of the 2016 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act. Congress added the measure to ensure that young children could sit with their families on airplanes without having to pay extra for reserved seats. The problem has ballooned with the increasing sale of low “economy” airfares. Passengers flying on these tickets don’t have the option to choose seat numbers until they check in at the airport—unless they pay extra in advance for reserved seating. If you’ve experienced issues with seating when flying with young children (regardless of the type of ticket purchased), make sure to submit a complaint to the DOT. (Despite passenger testimonials to the contrary, the DOT has stated it doesn’t believe it is challenging for children and their guardians to sit together.)

Low-income workers eligible for up to $6,557 with Earned Income Tax Credit

Consumer Action has completed its annual update of its perennial Get Credit for Your Hard Work, a concise guide to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This year’s changes reflect increases in income limits (meaning workers who haven’t qualified in the past might be eligible now) and credit amounts for the 2019 tax year.

The resource, published in five languages—English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean—is available in plenty of time for earners to learn more about the available credit and make sure that they take advantage of it, if eligible. Widely considered the federal government’s most effective antipoverty program, the EITC puts money back into the pockets of qualifying low- and moderate-income workers when they file a tax return. Qualifying workers can get the money even if they don’t owe any taxes—but they must file in order to claim the credit (even if their income is so low that they normally would not file a tax return). This year, qualifying workers and families can get as much as $6,557 just by filing a tax return and claiming the EITC! Unfortunately, approximately 20% of eligible workers miss out on the EITC they’re entitled to because they neglect to file and claim it.

IRS statistics for 2019 reveal that 25 million eligible workers and families received about $61 billion in EITC last year, with an average credit of $2,504—enough to have a real impact on a low-income household’s financial wellbeing.

Nearly 30 states and the District of Columbia also provide an Earned Income Tax Credit to state taxpayers who qualify, as do some local governments.

Consumer Action will join hundreds of other organizations in promoting the credit on EITC Awareness Day, which this year falls on Jan. 31 (it’s always the last Friday in January). The event is a national effort to increase awareness of the EITC, motivate workers to find out if they qualify, and steer low-income filers to free tax prep assistance. (Click here if your organization would like to participate in EITC Awareness Day—the IRS offers a number of free outreach tools for your use.)

Consumer Action’s Get Credit for Your Hard Work is available for online reading or free PDF download.

San Francisco’s Chinese community warned of scams, marketplace challenges

Each year, the San Francisco District Attorney’s (DA) office hosts the popular Chinatown Community Resource Fair to address issues that affect the region’s Chinese-American population. In the event’s 15th year, approximately 20 local government and community-based agencies attended to enhance safety, build goodwill, and provide actionable education and assistance with issues such as immigration and citizenship, financial health, housing, healthcare, and avoiding scams and fraud. The outreach included warnings about scams that disproportionately impact the Chinese community, such as the “Chinese Consulate” and “blessing” scams.

Suzy Loftus, interim District Attorney of San Francisco, was there to emphasize that the safety of San Francisco is a matter of great importance to her. She added that one of her goals is to ensure that every resident of Chinatown is living in a safe environment. She mentioned that the elderly residents of Chinatown, in particular, are often preyed upon by scammers employing so-called blessing scams (which she said DA staff are committed to combatting).

Woo and Xie estimated that more than 300 people attended the resource fair; most were Chinese-American seniors and Chinese-speaking immigrants.

“We took 130 sets of Consumer Action’s educational brochures in Chinese and 10 sets in English, for a total of more than 1,000 pieces, and all were quickly distributed to event attendees,” Woo said. The brochures covered topics including avoiding scams, ID theft and account fraud; how to complain effectively about bad or deceptive products or services; keeping your home in the face of foreclosure; finding low-cost auto, homeowners and renters insurance; and how to manage debt and understand your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Hotline Chronicles: Help! The emails just won’t stop coming!

Promotional and junk emails can come from a variety of places, but most result from online purchases. Many companies take it as a given that customers want to receive their promotional emails. And it’s easy for customers to miss the often pre-checked box by which they “agree” to receive these emails at checkout.

Miley* from Seattle wrote to Consumer Action’s hotline after spending some time questioning the source of a new barrage of emails he began receiving. “I suspect that the U.S. Postal Service sold my email address to spam mailers,” Miley said. “I have had the same email address for eight years with no issues, until I applied for a change of address and started receiving junk snail mail and emails simultaneously. The snail mail is not of huge concern as it comes from actual companies and I am able to reach out to remove myself from the mailing lists. The emails are the issue.”

The U.S. Postal Service does sell your physical change-of-address data to companies that already know your former address (in an effort to be helpful, under the assumption that you want this mail). While we haven’t found that this data includes email addresses, relatively unregulated entities called data brokers routinely combine all kinds of information about consumers from different sources, such as companies that share and sell email lists. For example, the data broker may buy one list with your address information and another with your email, and combine the two into one list to sell to marketers.

Regardless of the source, an overloaded inbox can be a major source of stress. Here are some tips to keep yours under control:

  • When submitting your email address to a website or making an online purchase, look carefully for pre-checked boxes that sign you up for email updates from the company and its partners. Most reputable websites allow you to opt out of receiving these mass emails.
  • “Unsubscribe” from all emails you do not want to receive. A link to do so is usually at the bottom of the email. (Be careful not to click on links in suspicious emails.) If you do not see one, reply with “unsubscribe” in the body of the email. Keep a copy of any unsubscribe requests or confirmation emails in a folder in your inbox as evidence that you opted out.
  • Prioritize, group, sort and file messages so that your inbox remains organized. Many email programs allow you to set a filter (or “rule”) that automatically collects emails from one or more senders (or topics) in a folder, where they may be easier to deal with.
  • For emails you are sure you never want to see, make a filter that sends them directly into your spam or trash folder. Some email services include buttons you can click to mark messages as “junk mail” or to “report spam,” but be careful not to label well-known companies or non-profits as spammers before trying to unsubscribe.
  • Establish a regular routine for reviewing and answering emails. Leaving your email service (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) open and/or allowing it to notify you every time a new email arrives is distracting and unnecessary.
  • Delete unwanted emails immediately so they don’t clutter your inbox.
  • Consider using “alias” or “disposable” email addresses when shopping online.
  • Be careful about “replying all” if it’s not necessary; doing so can add even more clutter to your and others’ inboxes.

The above advice may help with reputable companies. However, be on your guard against “phishing” emails—those sent by crooks who are looking to gain access to your personal information or financial accounts or mess with your computer by downloading malware. Some fraudulent emails are relatively easy to spot—misspellings and generic greetings are often giveaways. But others are quite sophisticated, with lookalike logos, matching corporate slogans and branding, etc. Be aware that fraudulent emails often attempt to disguise themselves as communications from large banks and other well-known companies (PayPal, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) because you are more likely to be fooled if you already have an account with a company.

While unsubscribing can work when dealing with reputable organizations, it is not recommended for suspicious emails. Immediately delete suspicious emails without opening them, and never be tempted to engage with or threaten potentially fraudulent spammers.

Antispam programs

Consider using a spam filter. Here are two lists of available programs for individuals and small businesses:

- Best Spam Filters of 2019 (Top Ten Reviews)

- Anti-spam Software, 2019 Reviews (Capterra)

Reporting spam

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also recommends that you forward unwanted or deceptive messages directly to your email provider. At the top of the message (in the body of the email), state that you're sending a complaint about being spammed.

In the past, the FTC asked consumers to forward spam emails to a special email address it had created. That has changed. Now, the FTC collects mass market spam and scam emails automatically (without any assistance from the recipients) by using a “honeypot,” or online trap, in an attempt to determine when emails are deceptive or illegal.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Coalition Efforts: Advocates oppose Amtrak’s awful arbitration clause

Non-profit organizations concerned after sale of ‘dot org’ domain. Millions of organizations around the world rely on the .org domain name extension to identify themselves as non-profits. Unfortunately, this may soon change. The Internet Society, a non-profit founded in 1992 to provide leadership in internet-related standards, had managed the “ dot org” name until recently, when a private equity firm purchased the organization. Non-profits are concerned that the fees to renew their domain names will increase dramatically if the for-profit raises registration and yearly renewal prices to recoup its billion-dollar investment. Proponents of the deal argue that increased competition for the domain names will keep renewal prices in check, but non-profit associations with established web addresses are wary of having to change their web address and losing their online identity: Clients and donors may not be able to find the organizations under new web addresses. Learn more.

Congress tackles Americans’ desire for more online privacy. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the Western world without a comprehensive law providing safeguards around how corporations collect personal data about their users. Yet, poll after poll reveals that Americans overwhelmingly support Congress in enacting new regulations reining in companies' use of their personal data. Last month, privacy coalition members called on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to enact new data privacy protections. The letter explains that out of three privacy bills recently introduced in the committee, Senator Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) “Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act” (COPRA) is one of the strongest in that it largely satisfies what are known as the Public Interest Privacy Legislation Principles (which Consumer Action and a number of other consumer privacy advocates co-wrote and signed on to last November). COPRA would address these principles by protecting civil rights with strong anti-discrimination provisions covering protected classes in key contexts such as online housing and employment advertisements/offers. It would also give states and individuals the ability to enforce new privacy laws, and would preempt state laws only when they directly conflict with federal provisions. Learn more.

Congress attempts to overturn bad student borrower defense rule. In September, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) under Betsy DeVos released a new version of the Borrower Defense to Repayment rule. The harmful proposal would make it virtually impossible for students cheated by their college to cancel their student loans. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Susie Lee (D-NV) have since introduced a Congressional Review Act challenge to repeal the rule and restore stronger student protections that had been put in place in a 2016 version of the rule. Consumer Action joined over 50 organizations in releasing a letter supporting the Durbin-Lee effort to help students who were fraudulently deceived (or whose schools engaged in other illegal conduct) to access relief from their student debts. Learn more.

Advocates call on Amtrak to end forced arbitration policy. A coalition of more than 30 groups urged the federally controlled and federally subsidized Amtrak passenger railroad service to remove an arbitration clause it had implemented earlier this year. Under the clause, passengers and their families have been stripped of their constitutional right to take Amtrak to court to settle disputes ranging from common complaints to those pertaining to train crashes/mass casualties. Instead, Amtrak disputes must be resolved in a secret, privatized system (arbitration) that replaces a judge and jury with arbitrators (typically hired by the company forcing the arbitration on the consumer). Arbitrators do not have to follow any existing law or precedent, and consumer rights to appeal their decisions are severely limited. Finally, all proceedings and outcomes are behind a veil of secrecy, hidden from public scrutiny. The safety and accountability implications of such a closed-door system are enormous, advocates argue. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Bureau sued by student loan advocates; director champions own ‘no cause’ termination

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has failed in its obligation to protect student loan borrowers, according to the advocacy group Student Debt Crisis. The non-profit is suing the CFPB and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for shirking their oversight responsibilities.

More than 80% of today’s student loans are federal government loans (administered via the ED). The lawsuit argues that under Trump-appointed Director Kathy Kraninger, the CFPB has abandoned its legal mandate to supervise the federal student loan servicing market, and that ED Secretary Betsy DeVos has sided with loan servicers instead of borrowers by refusing to turn over servicer-related documents to law enforcement and the CFPB, thereby obstructing the Bureau’s oversight role. The lawsuit also accuses DeVos of directing federal loan servicers not to comply with CFPB requests for information.

“We speak with student loan borrowers who dedicate their lives to public service, yet they lose access to federal loan forgiveness due to bad behavior by their loan servicer,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis. “The Trump Administration is breaking the law and our supporters can no longer trust the government to work in their best interests.”

The plaintiffs compare the government’s lax oversight of student loan servicers to what was happening in the mortgage market before the devastating financial crisis 10 years ago. Loan servicers are responsible for collecting payments and providing resources to help students manage their loan obligations. For years now, borrowers have bitterly complained that servicers have misled them into applying for the wrong repayment plans (particularly those who are or should be enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program). Borrowers also have accused servicers of misapplying their loan payments and giving them bad advice, causing them to miss opportunities to repay loans under far more affordable terms than the ones they were instructed to accept.

The suit asks the court to order both government agencies to live up to their oversight duties and resolve the problems they’ve enabled, for the sake of 41 million student loan borrowers across the U.S.

An “early out” for wrongdoers

CFPB Director Kraninger is planning to offer an “early out” to companies that have violated consumer laws or rules. Without admitting wrongdoing, those firms that the Bureau accuses of illegal practices often have been allowed to sign a consent decree that requires them to change their business practices, compensate consumers and/or pay a penalty. These consent orders are typically in effect for five years. Consent decrees that are not honored can be cause for further legal action. However, Kraninger told industry leaders that she is willing to reduce the time under which some businesses operate under a consent order if they can show they’ve “corrected” their behavior.

“We are currently identifying ways to improve this process to promote consistency, and we are also committed to ensuring consent orders remain in effect only as long as needed to achieve their desired effects," Kraninger said at a bank payments conference in November.

First National Bank of Omaha’s consent order with the CFPB was recently voided two years early, according to the trade paper American Banker. The bank had settled with the CFPB in 2016 over allegations that it deceptively marketed its optional credit card add-on products.

Kraninger and her predecessor at the Bureau, acting director Mick Mulvaney, appear to be carrying water for conservatives who are laser-focused on reducing the impact of regulations (even consumer protections) on U.S. firms. Granting companies the chance to apply for an early out would reduce the cost of government regulation and reward companies that swiftly fix their violations, but at what cost to consumer protection laws?

Consumer Bureau’s structure challenged

In a few months, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case as to whether the director of the CFPB can be fired “at will.” Currently, the head of the Bureau can only be fired “for cause.” But the status quo is being challenged in the case Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The outcome of Seila Law will determine if the president can fire the head of an independent agency (such as the CFPB) for reasons other than “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.”

Kraninger has taken the puzzling step of siding 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 is arguing 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.

Some financial firms argue that if the structure of the CFPB is considered unconstitutional, previous Bureau rulings, rules and enforcement actions could be considered moot because the structure of the leadership would be found unconstitutional. However, Kraninger has told Consumer Action that her position about her role does not go so far as to threaten past actions by the Bureau.

The outcome of the Seila case could also affect the structure of the leadership at other independent government agencies, such as the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Class Action Database: Transmission defects lead to extended warranties for Nissan owners

A class action settlement involving Bank of America’s recurring overdraft fees was among 11 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during December.

Of note this month are two class action settlements involving Nissan vehicles equipped with continuously variable transmissions (CVT).

The first case pertains to a variety of Nissan Sentra and Versa automobiles (listed below). Plaintiffs alleged that the vehicles were prone to poor transmission performance due to defective CVTs.

Consumers who purchased or leased the following Sentra and Versa vehicles equipped with CVTs are part of the first class:

  • 2013-2017 Nissan Sentra
  • 2014-2017 Nissan Versa Note
  • 2012-2017 Nissan Versa

The second case pertains specifically to 2013-2016 Nissan Altimas. Plaintiffs alleged that the CVTs in the Altimas were defective, leading to transmission failures and poor performance. In both cases, Nissan denied the allegations but agreed to a settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

The Sentra/Versa settlement extends warranties on the cars’ transmission assemblies and automatic transmission control units (ATCU) by 24 months or 24,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Those who purchased or leased the Altimas may be eligible for warranty extensions and reimbursement for qualifying repairs/replacement of the transmission.

In addition, in both the Sentra/Versa and Altima cases, former owners who had two or more repairs or replacements of the transmission during Nissan’s original warranty period may be eligible for a $1,000 voucher toward the purchase or lease of a new Nissan or Infiniti vehicle.

Both claims deadlines are on Jan. 30, 2020. Click here for more info on the Sentra/Versa case, and here for more info on the Altima case.

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 nearly 7,000 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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