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Consumer Action INSIDER - November 2021

What people are saying

Consumer Action gives me access to information that I might not otherwise have access to. Explaining what's happening in the world with scams, hackers, etc. makes it easier to navigate, if a problem occurs. Thank you for providing [the SCAM GRAM] newsletter. —MJ, Kansas City, MO, via Consumer Action feedback survey

Did you know?

Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about for-profit colleges surged roughly 70% between 2018 and 2020. Under federal law, the FTC can put companies on notice that it has found some of their practices to be unfair or deceptive. The FTC sent notices to the largest 70 for-profit colleges warning them that it will not stand for prohibited unfair or deceptive claims, which include unsubstantiated assertions about the career or earning prospects of their graduates, the percentage of graduates that get jobs in their chosen field, and whether the school can help a graduate get a job. Often, for-profit schools, including career colleges, encourage students to take out federal and private school loans that students will still owe despite not having been adequately prepared to seek related jobs. These colleges received notices.

Consumer Action salutes 10 with Special Recognition Certificates

By Linda Sherry

Over the years, Consumer Action has celebrated its birthday with an awards ceremony at which many deserving people and groups have been honored with our Consumer Excellence Awards. On the momentous occasion of our 50th anniversary, to be celebrated on Nov. 16, we wanted to also recognize some our most dedicated supporters and consumer protection allies.

“It was tough to whittle down the list to 10,” said Ken McEldowney, Consumer Action’s executive director. “So many people have helped Consumer Action in one capacity or another over the past five decades. We wish we could mention every last one.”

Here is more about the individuals we will recognize:

We met communications expert Jason Alderman when he worked at Visa Inc. Together we have worked on educational projects including Know Your Card, a website designed to educate consumers about payment cards. Alderman has changed jobs a few times since we met him—now he’s with Fast a secure shopping and payments startup—but he’s stayed by our side as a member of our corporate advisory board and anniversary event planning committee. With our certificate, Consumer Action recognizes Alderman’s tireless dedication to helping Consumer Action further its mission to achieve fairness and financial prosperity for underrepresented consumers nationwide.

Our Southern California outreach team has found in Chancela Al-Mansour a staunch ally for human rights and an expert resource for our community work. Al-Mansour is the executive director of the Housing Rights Center, the nation’s largest and oldest private fair housing advocacy organization. A graduate of Vassar College and UC Davis School of Law, she is no stranger to awards and accolades—all well deserved. We are proud to recognize Al-Mansour’s impressive achievements as a champion of fair housing, civil rights and access to justice for underserved and disadvantaged Californians.

Our D.C. office first met Jenny Backus when she was head of strategic engagement at Google, where she helped us with funding to create educational materials about staying safe on the internet and protecting your online privacy. In 2015, Backus struck out on her own as president of Backus Consulting, where she helps companies and nonprofits with public affairs outreach. Her upbringing, as the daughter of Jan Backus, a former Vermont state senator, and her political experience on the Hill and with federal regulatory agencies make Backus a good friend to have. We are honored she finds the time in her busy consulting practice and her role as an activist mom to help Consumer Action out as a member of our 50th anniversary planning committee.

With 15 years of government antitrust experience as a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and in several senior level positions at the Federal Trade Commission, David Balto is an expert in antitrust, consumer protection and healthcare policy. He’s also a good friend to Consumer Action, who has, as a member of our corporate advisory board, helped Executive Director Ken McEldowney with engagement and fundraising strategies to further our mission to enact and protect strong consumer rights. Balto is an invaluable resource to our advocacy work around prescription drug pricing and antitrust issues and has written compelling regulatory briefs on behalf of Consumer Action.

As executive director (and a founder of) Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) of Oakland, California, Maeve Elise Brown works in support of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families and fair treatment of mom-and-pop landlords, whom she recognizes serve an important role as affordable housing providers. A core community partner for Consumer Action’s outreach and training work, Brown is also a familiar face to San Francisco Bay Area TV news viewers, as she is often interviewed about housing issues. Kudos to Brown for her impressive achievements as a champion of fair housing for tenants, homeowners and small landlords, and for her work to improve the lives of underserved Californians.

As director of consumer protection and privacy for the Consumer Federation of America, Susan Grant is a longtime consumer advocate who has influenced policy in the areas of privacy, identity theft, online safety and security, telemarketing, electronic and mobile commerce, deceptive marketing, fraud, and airline passenger rights, as well as a slew of general consumer protection issues. A staunch ally, Grant is generous with her time in preparing documents and “herding cats” in many of the coalitions we work in and is not afraid to mete out pointed criticism of corporate practices when warranted. We have nothing but plaudits for her impressive achievements as a leading privacy advocate, a champion of consumer rights, and a faithful ally in Consumer Action’s work to empower consumers.

When he isn’t being interviewed by the media, testifying on the Hill and writing his influential consumer protection-focused blog for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Ed Mierzwinski might be seen getting around DC on his bicycle. As a revered éminence grise of the consumer movement, Mierzwinski knows the shortest route to all the most important Hill offices and the names and phone numbers of aides high and low, earning him numerous “Top Lobbyist” awards from The Hill and other outlets. Mierzwinski’s role in the development of strong legislation and regulations that promote access to credit and fair financial services, protect consumer privacy and ensure the safety of consumer goods earns him our accolades.

Our former board chair, public interest lawyer and community activist Patricia Sturdevant, served Consumer Action for many years before recently stepping down from our board to focus on community policing issues in California’s capital, Sacramento. A successful litigator who recovered more than $100 million in damage awards in lawsuits challenging unlawful business practices, she pioneered the concept of distributing unclaimed class action settlement dollars to nonprofit organizations. We are grateful for Sturdevant’s service as a board member and for her dedication to consumer justice and access to the courts.

Born and raised in a small town outside Mexico City, Erika Toriz-Kurkjian is the founder and executive director of Haven Neighborhood Services, a nonprofit financial and housing counseling organization in Los Angeles. A loyal community-based partner, she has helped with numerous Consumer Action-produced trainings and has served as an expert resource to our community outreach employees. We applaud her tireless efforts to improve financial opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals and families, design effective financial and housing programs, and advance economic opportunities for underserved communities.

Consumer Action’s staff of lay advocates relies on the expertise of many of the talented attorneys at the National Consumer Law Center. We have Boston-based Chi Chi Wu on speed dial, given her deep expertise on fair credit reporting, credit cards, refund anticipation loans and medical debt. Wu, a graduate of Harvard Law School and Johns Hopkins University, shows tireless dedication to reforming the credit reporting system, expanding access to credit, and protecting low-income consumers from predatory financial services and debt collectors—and for that we salute her.

We hope that those in the Washington, D.C., area can join our Nov. 16 in-person awards ceremony (6-8 p.m. ET). We'd love to see you! Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) if you are interested in a complimentary ticket.

Hotline Chronicles: Credit reports and identity fraud

By Linda Sherry

Shaneeka* from Connecticut wrote to Consumer Action’s hotline about bank accounts and three store accounts opened in her name, without her knowledge. She learned of them when she checked her Experian credit report in 2017. She immediately disputed the accounts, but they keep reappearing, even though she activated a fraud alert on her credit reports when she first noticed the items.

“My information was used to open the accounts, so they’re saying they’re valid, but the accounts were opened at an address I never lived at,” she said. “I never received any statements for these accounts. Now they are showing up as collections even though I flagged them as fraud several years ago.”

We advised Shaneeka to immediately “freeze” her credit files. Here is how to do that.

One of the most unfair things about the crime of identity theft is that it leaves the victim to clean up the damage. It can take a lot of perseverance to successfully dispute accounts that were opened by identity thieves.

First, dispute the collection accounts with all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Start by ordering a current copy of your credit report by mail from each. (Attorneys suggest that while consumers can get their credit reports online, it’s better to request the reports by mail to document the request, and because credit reporting agencies might require consumers to agree to arbitration before giving access to a credit report online. That might leave you without the right to take your case to court.) Use this form to order your reports by mail. When you get your reports, each will include instructions for disputing fraudulent items and a phone number where you can get live help. (You also can file disputes online.)

Then, write to the collection agencies asking for information that the agencies are required to provide identity theft victims when a victim asks for it. This includes the following documents related to the collection account: application records or screen prints of internet/phone applications; overdue statements or invoices; delivery addresses of the fraudulent accounts; records of phone numbers used to activate or access the account; signatures used on applications; and a full report of any investigations into the legitimacy of the debt.

If the credit bureau refuses to correct the information in your report, but you have documentation that supports your claim that the accounts are not yours, write or call the company(ies) that provided the information to the bureau (in Shaneeka’s case, it would be the bank(s) and the three retail stores’ credit departments) and demand that they tell the credit bureaus to remove the data from your reports. These “furnishers” (lenders that supply customer data to the credit reporting bureaus) are, along with the bureaus, responsible under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report.

Follow up on your requests and keep all documents related to your case. Make and retain notes about every call and the names of people you speak with, as well as the contact numbers and the time and date of each call. The companies you deal with must follow the law—if they fail to do so, you might have a strong legal case.

The FCRA gives consumers the right to sue credit bureaus when they do not remove inaccurate or false information. Many of the consumer attorneys who do this work, often on contingency (for no upfront fees), can be found in the National Association of Consumer Advocate’s “Find an Attorney” directory. If the credit reporting agency doesn’t remove the information when asked to do so in writing, Shaneeka could win a settlement to force it to do so.

Identity theft resources

*Not this consumer’s real name

Webinar panelists dispel COVID vaccine misinformation

By Nelson Santiago

Building on our work to stem misinformation, Consumer Action was ready to participate in the effort to educate consumers on distinguishing between COVID-19 vaccine fact and fiction. In addition to developing two related fact sheets, Consumer Action held a highly successful train-the-trainer webinar, The truth about COVID-19 vaccines: Distinguishing between vaccine fact and fiction, in September. Nearly 200 people attended the webinar live, and close to 700 had viewed the recording on our YouTube channel as of mid-October.

“It's remarkable that we were able to bring so many doctors together under one virtual roof,” reflected Community Outreach and Training Manager Linda Williams. “We are so thankful to the participating doctors who hailed from different parts of the country and generously spent part of their day helping to inform our community partners.”

The lineup of speakers was indeed impressive: medical doctors and Ph.D.s from UCLA, Mary's Center (D.C.), Morehouse School of Medicine (Atlanta), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Not only generous with their time, the experts went to great lengths to answer every last question during the Q&A, even addressing wacky beliefs like how the vaccine shots inserted “nano chips” into recipients. (Hint: They don’t!)

The team from UCLA presented the results of their research on the factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy, the process of vaccine deliberation, and acceptability of the COVID-19 vaccines among high-risk multiethnic groups within Los Angeles County. UCLA's Dr. Lisa Mansfield, Ph.D., RN, said the research helped them learn about the need to collaborate, invest in and empower trusted community leaders, resulting in UCLA's effective Get Out the Vaccine campaign.

Two other UCLA team members, Keith C. Norris, MD, Ph.D. and Arleen Brown, MD, Ph.D., focused their presentations on dispelling common COVID-19 myths.

During her presentation, Maria L. Marquez, MD and American Academy of Pediatrics fellow, of Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C., quickly revealed that she is a serious member of the vaccine cheering squad, explaining that pediatricians like herself believe in prevention and “use these marvelous tools” to make sure the children they serve have wonderful adult lives and maximize their capacities, health and well-being. (In Washington D.C., children 12 and older can provide their own consent to get the COVID-19 vaccine.)

In a final “rapid fire” segment of the webinar, speakers delivered key information about how COVID-19 has impacted the states of Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. All are active in their state's Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities coalition.

Pebbles Fagan, Ph.D., M.P.H., from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences explained that outreach efforts in Arkansas are focused on people who are on the fence about the vaccine and who may not have enough information to make an informed decision.

Caroline E. Compretta, Ph.D., with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, spent some time discussing how high rates of food insecurity and chronic disease have exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 in Mississippi. The Mississippi Community Engagement Alliance, which Dr. Compretta leads, is working hard to increase vaccinations in the state.

Tabia Henry Akintobi, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Morehouse School of Medicine, explained that the Georgia Community Engagement Alliance, which she leads, is working with community-based organizations, clinicians, researchers, public health departments, and other stakeholders to leverage their networks to increase vaccine confidence and uptake.

Coalition Efforts: Pushing back against attempts to circumvent protections

By Alegra Howard

Consumer Action and its allies recently called on policymakers and regulators about these important issues:

CFPB urged to reverse actions that could create dangerous FinTech payday lending loopholes. We joined a coalition of 96 consumer, labor, civil rights, legal services, faith, community and financial organizations and academics in urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to revoke or significantly revise two actions taken in late 2020 regarding earned wage access (EWA) products—payday advance apps. The group argued that the CFPB’s EWA advisory opinion and PayActiv approval order, which declared that certain EWA programs are not deemed “credit,” threaten to create loopholes in federal credit and fair lending laws and are being misused to promote FinTech exemptions in state laws that regulate predatory payday lending products. Learn more.

Free community college is the boost the post-COVID-19 economy needs. Coalition members penned a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer announcing their support for President Joe Biden’s plans for free college tuition. Advocates are urging Congress to act because they recognize that the President’s plans for free college tuition are vital to their states’ economic recovery and workforce competitiveness. President Biden’s plans would help nearly 2 million more students attend college, generate $169 billion in additional gross domestic product value and strengthen our nation’s recovery from COVID-19. Learn more.

FCC should protect Americans from sneaky ‘ringless’ voicemails. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a request to allow the use of “ringless” voicemail technology by exempting it from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits most unwanted calls and texts. The new technology enables telemarketers and debt collectors to send potentially unwanted, prerecorded messages directly to the subscriber’s cell phone voicemail without ever giving the consumer the opportunity to answer—or to block—the incoming call. Consumer Action joined allied consumer groups in urging the FCC to deny the request to omit ringless voicemails from TCPA enforcement. Bottom line: Ringless direct-to-voicemail messages are just as invasive, expensive and annoying as unwanted calls and texts to cell phones. Learn more.

Support for proposal to expand homeownership for people of color. A broad group of consumer, housing and financial services advocates wrote to the U.S. Senate to express support for the homeownership components in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, including first-generation (someone whose parents never owned a home) buyers, downpayment assistance, support for fair housing enforcement, and investment in low-income assistance housing programs. Advocates noted that Biden’s Build Back Better Act funds important resources needed to address the decline of affordability and accessibility of homeownership in underserved communities. The housing market needs substantial investment to help increase the supply of affordable housing, improve access to homeownership, and address the troubling homeownership gap for Black and Brown people. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: A new director, complaint data deep dive, and fee relief for former inmates

By Ruth Susswein

Rohit Chopra, who has taken the helm at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), is expected to put the bite back into the Consumer watchdog agency after years of the Trump administration’s more industry-friendly focus. Most recently, as a Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC), Chopra made a name for himself as a consumer champion, demanding that companies be more accountable with consumer data and that the FTC use all of its authority to deter wrongdoing and impose meaningful penalties. Before that, as a CFPB assistant director and the student loan ombudsman, he helped define students’ rights and exposed student loan servicers’ mistreatment of borrowers.

Chopra has said he is committed to ensuring that creditors, collectors and credit bureaus do not take advantage of tenants and homeowners who are hoping to avoid eviction and foreclosure as the nation works to recover from the ongoing COVID crisis. He also is expected to scrutinize lenders’ data collection practices and prioritize broad review of the credit reporting industry.

In 2019, Consumer Action awarded then-FTC Commissioner Chopra its Consumer Excellence Award in recognition of his stalwart attention to consumer fairness.

Complaint data broken down

The Bureau recently released its first deep dive into complaint patterns based on census tract. Here’s what they found:

  • Complaints from Black and Latino communities and lower-income areas were more regularly about credit reporting, identity theft and delinquent servicing (which we take to mean the handling of late payments on debt).
  • Complaints from wealthier, more white communities were more often about getting a loan (usually a mortgage) or loan servicing.
  • Census tracts with the highest share of Black consumers submit the most complaints per resident.

The most concentrated Asian American or Pacific Islander census tracts have high rates of complaints about credit reporting. (The biggest type of credit reporting complaint, for all consumers, continues to be that information reported in their record is not theirs.)

These findings are based on nearly a million complaints submitted to the CFPB between 2018 and 2020.

The Bureau notes that the report’s complaint analysis should be “interpreted with caution,” bearing in mind that the availability of different financial products varies by community, as do the terms on which they’re offered and the patterns of use of these products by different groups of consumers.

CFPB crackdown on hidden prepaid card fees for former inmates

The Consumer Bureau has ordered JPay, the prison financial services company, to refund debit card fees to former inmates and pay a penalty for violating the law.

JPay is a leading provider of debit release cards—a prepaid card loaded with state funds that is dispensed to inmates upon release from jail or prison. (Sometimes the card also contains prisoner earnings and money that was confiscated before incarceration.)

According to the Bureau, JPay charged inmates unavoidable fees for receiving money owed to them. In several states (CA, CO, GA), JPay illegally required consumers to establish prepaid card accounts with certain banks to receive their release funds (“gate money”), charged fees before the card was even loaded, and misrepresented the card fees.

“JPay siphoned off taxpayer supported benefits intended to help people transitioning out of the corrections system,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra.

The CFPB has ordered JPay to return $4 million to former inmates, stop charging any fees (except for an inactivity fee after 90 days), and pay a $2 million penalty to the Bureau for its unfair and abusive acts. JPay LLC operates in more than a thousand facilities in dozens of states.

Class Action Database: BofA settles over confusing eBill AutoPay options

By Rose Chan

A class action settlement involving Coppertone and its advertising of sunscreen was among 10 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during October.

Of note this month is the class action Jette v. Bank of America. In it, plaintiffs filed a class action against Bank of America (BofA) claiming that the bank breached its credit card agreements. According to the suit, BofA’s confusing autopay options for credit cards led to plaintiffs’ overpayment of interest. BofA listed four payment options for cardholders who set up autopay on the bank’s website: “Minimum Amount Due,” “Account Balance,” “Fixed Amount” and “Amount Due.” Plaintiffs did not know that the option “Amount Due” meant that the bank would withdraw only the minimum amount due—the same as the option of “Minimum Amount Due.” Plaintiffs claimed they intended to pay off the full balance when they chose the option “Amount Due,” so that they would not accrue interest charges.

BofA denied the allegations but agreed to a $5.95 million settlement to end the lawsuit.

You are part of the class if, between June 4, 2014, and March 7, 2021, you enrolled in BofA’s eBill AutoPay for your BofA credit card and selected the “Amount Due” payment option, and as of May 21, 2021, you switched your payment option to “Account Balance” after unexpectedly incurring interest charges.

If the settlement is approved, class members will automatically receive payment. The final approval hearing is Nov. 7, 2021.

About Consumer Action

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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 and consumer literacy and advocating for consumer rights both in 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 more. 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. Our in-language media outreach allows us to share scam alerts and other timely consumer news with a wide non-English-speaking audience.

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 in-person and web-based 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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