A Message from Consumer Action

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Consumer Action INSIDER - September 2020

You are invited!

As the COVID-19 crisis ravages the country, the need to create effective policies to address health care and financial inequities is more pressing than ever! That is why Consumer Action is inviting you to join us for our timely Health and Wealth convening on Sept. 29-30.

The two-day virtual event will feature expert panels on: surprise medical billing, medical debt collection, telemedicine, protection of our medical data, and innovative solutions for access to health care for underrepresented consumers. We will also incorporate our 2020 Consumer Excellence Awards to honor the individuals and organizations working tirelessly on the frontlines to improve the physical and financial health of those living in the U.S. Don't hesitate; register now!

What people are saying

We were able to watch and listen to this very enlightening and useful ‘Estate Planning for Healthcare, Finances and More During a Pandemic’ webinar…Thanks to Consumer Action for events such as these, and we look forward to more of them. —Florida Silver Haired Legislature, Inc.

Did you know

Most U.S. citizens aged 18 or older have the right to vote—although states may have laws that restrict residents’ rights (particularly for those convicted of or incarcerated for felonies), or that demand those interested in voting meet rigid requirements to do so. If you’re able to vote, you should make your voice heard, and the first step to doing so is to make sure you’re registered. If you’re still sheltering in place because of COVID-19, request an absentee ballot to cast your vote in November. You can find most of the information you need to vote in the presidential election at Vote.org, including how to register, ways to request an absentee ballot, where to vote in person (if this is an option for you), and more.

Out & About: Online advocacy to break through the noise

Consumer Action Policy Advocate Lauren Hall attended this year’s annual Netroots Nation conference (held digitally for the first time) to brush up on online grassroots advocacy, social media outreach, “action” alerts and email blasts, and the latest digital strategies employed by leading nonprofits, labor organizations and other issues-based groups to break through the cluttered news cycle and promote a larger vision of economic/social justice. Held for a decade, Netroots Nation represents the largest conference for progressive organizers, drawing thousands of attendees from around the world each year.

Netroots Nation panels and trainings included such topics as “How to launch a campaign that pops on day one,” “Race and gender in the fight against disinformation,” and “Digital tactics for direct organizing.” The event also provided organizers a chance to network with one another in online “withdrawing rooms” throughout the two-day conference.

“Netroots Nation really pulled off the feel of being at a huge conference with multiple sessions occurring in various rooms all at once, and people meeting up in the halls to chat and share stories—and all online!” observed Hall. “What’s more, the amazing speakers featured at the event—experts in the field of nonprofit advocacy—helped to not only educate event participants on best practices for everything from beefing up search engine results to influencer engagement, but also trained folks on how to think like incredible organizers themselves by creating genuine and active online communities together, building power for the long haul, engaging in peer-to-peer relationships with allies, and more.”

Hall said she particularly enjoyed a session called “The power of Facebook groups: how to hack the algorithm and organize your people.” She learned that that despite the rising popularity of apps like TikTok, Facebook is still “where people are. It’s the most used social media platform and the best one to connect with folks in their spaces.” One excellent way to organize people to take action on the issues your nonprofit is organizing around—including “off-line” action? By joining Facebook “groups” rather than simply posting through your organization’s official page and connecting with people where they are, based on their interests, careers/jobs, concerns, etc. Another suggestion? Learn how the Facebook algorithm works—this is the way to create content that the social media giant can’t help but bump up in followers’ news feeds. The algorithm ranks posts in the order it has determined viewers are likely to enjoy them, based on what it calls “ranking signals,” which include (among other factors) how often the viewer has interacted with your posts in the past. Engagement leads to more engagement and viewership!

While the panels were eye-opening, this year’s keynote speaker, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, stole the show upon delivering a poignant and intimate speech calling for “accountability” for those in the current administration who had not only failed to contain the coronavirus, but failed her family. It was clear from her speech that winning in November is now incredibly personal for Warren; her older brother was forced to die alone in a hospital in April, isolated from visitors (including Warren), after he caught COVID-19—a tragedy that Warren spoke about candidly.

Warren also had stern words for the current administration for placing unqualified people in positions of power (she mentioned Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos as an example)—people who have helped to deregulate corporations, embolden bad lenders, and enable predatory for-profit schools, harming consumers and students. Warren called for “big, structural change”—the kind that would require those with progressive agendas to “win not only the White House” but also “in states all around this country.”

Estate Planning: Getting your affairs in order in the age of COVID

Estate planning requires us to look at our own mortality and ask ourselves some very difficult questions: What if I become seriously ill, disabled or incapacitated? Who will make medical decisions for me? What if my partner becomes disabled? What will happen to my children, my dog, Nana’s valuable cookbook, mom’s wedding ring, and even my body, if I die?

On Aug. 15, Consumer Action answered these and other questions during a timely “Coping with COVID-19” webinar we hosted titled “Estate Planning for Healthcare, Finances and More During a Pandemic.” Over 275 community-based organizations across the U.S. attended the webinar, which featured guest speaker David Godfrey, senior attorney for the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging. (You can view the webinar online in its entirety here.)

In addition to promoting Consumer Action's new fact sheet “Estate planning: Critical decisions for uncertain times,” Consumer Action Outreach and Training Manager Linda Williams kicked off the presentation by engaging participants with a true/false game that tested their knowledge of estate planning and revealed facts such as how the number of Americans with wills or other types of estate planning documents is steadily decreasing, with only 1 in 5 having prepared advance healthcare directives!

Godfrey opened his presentation by reminding the audience that bad things—illness, injuries and disasters—can and do happen, and that planning for unfortunate events is particularly critical in the era of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Godfrey explained, even when bad things befall us and our loved ones, decisions must be still be made about health care, how bills will be paid, and, in the event of death, how our estate will be distributed and what will be done with our body.

During the presentation, Godfrey stressed the importance of basic legal planning for incapacity or death and encouraged the audience to develop, talk about and document their healthcare values. “Healthcare decisions are very personal,” Godfrey said. He added that the health care a person receives should be what’s important to them, not others. Godfrey also shared with the audience several resources he referred to as “value tools,” such as the “Go Wish Cards End of Life Game,” which is an entertaining way to discuss a difficult subject, and the Conversation Project, which offers a “conversation starter kit” to help people have what can be an admittedly awkward dialogue with loved ones.

Godfrey also outlined the basics of estate planning that everyone should have in writing. First, it’s critical to name a healthcare “proxy” so that your doctor can “focus on practicing medicine” and not on “tracking down” family members or others who could possibly make healthcare decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. You should specifically give this person “power of attorney,” which ensures they can make healthcare decisions on your behalf. Living wills that address your wishes on everything from feeding tubes to life-prolonging care are important as well.

Advance care planning is not just about old age, Godfrey reminded the audience. At any age, a medical crisis could leave you too ill to make your own healthcare decisions. Even if you are not now sick, planning for health care in the future is an important step toward making sure you get the medical care you would want—specifically if you are unable to speak for yourself (e.g., sedated or intubated) and doctors and family members are making decisions for you.

Godfrey then took the audience on a deep dive into the specifics of estate planning, discussing the benefits of direct deposit in continuing to receive income during worst-case scenarios away from work; the importance of setting up automatic payments on utility bills, and of ensuring your loved ones have a list of your emails and passwords to manage your bank and other accounts; and how to choose whether a will, trust or probate is best for you. He used compelling personal stories—both from his experience as an attorney and as a son assisting his own parents through the process of estate planning—in order to give the audience a clear picture of the process.

The webinar garnered rave review and ratings: When asked if the training was helpful in increasing their knowledge of estate planning, a full 100% of respondents answered that it was!

Mark your calendar for Consumer Action’s upcoming webinars: Sept. 9, on Tracking COVID-19 Economic Devastation; and Oct. 6, on the Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence and Economic Abuse.

The Estate Planning for Healthcare, Finances and More During a Pandemic 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: Don't pay a middleman to register your car

Vonda* from Colorado contacted Consumer Action’s hotline to complain about a website that had “somehow intercepted” her attempt to register her trailer online with the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Motor Vehicle Division. Unfortunately, Vonda had stumbled onto a third-party registration site—unaffiliated with the state—that ended up doubling the cost of the transaction. (We don’t want to link to the site for obvious reasons, but it was Colorado Car Registration dot com.)

“They charged me the cost of my plates ($40.67) plus another ($40) for their fee. And, they put an unreasonable $249.99 temporary hold on my credit card,” Vonda wrote. “I called them about this matter and they stalled about giving me a refund, but after several minutes of arguing, they finally sent me an email saying they were going to refund the fee and remove the hold.”

Despite the stalling tactic, the company’s website said it would refund its fee, which it calls a “concierge fee,” adding that the offer is applicable “if you are not satisfied with our services”—as long as the customer makes the refund request within 30 days of the transaction.

Vonda did a great job of advocating for herself, and we thank her for reaching out with a valuable reminder for other consumers about non-governmental vendors who charge a higher price for the same service provided by states’ motor vehicle departments/websites. The mistake Vonda made can happen anywhere; the lesson is not limited to residents of her home state of Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website features a comprehensive warning about these third-party vendors, stating:

  • Please be aware of websites that are not affiliated with the Colorado DMV but do provide service to consumers.
  • Always use the direct website—www(dot)colorado(dot)gov/dmv—when conducting DMV business [in Colorado].
  • Always look for a required disclaimer at the top or bottom of the site that says a website is not affiliated with any government agency. (The site Vonda visited did carry such a disclaimer under its name.)

Fraudulent websites

In addition to suspect third-party sites like the one Vonda visited, the Colorado DMV noted that there are completely “fraudulent websites providing DMV services. They could be trying to steal your personal identifying information.”

These lookalike websites are a problem all over the country, say the Better Business Bureau and AARP.

If you have provided your information to a suspected fraudulent site, contact your state motor vehicle department and state attorney general, and carefully monitor your payment and credit card statements, as well as your credit reports, for signs of unauthorized transactions.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Coalition Efforts: Now is not the time to gut consumer protections!

Proposed Senate bill fails to protect student borrowers during pandemic. Consumer Action joined 55 other organizations in submitting a letter to Senate leadership in opposition to the Safely Back to School and Back to Work Act. This proposed legislation falls far short of what young Americans need and should expect from their elected leaders, particularly during a dual public health and economic crisis. Rather than extend vital support to student loan borrowers, the bill would leave millions without repayment protections while failing to extend and expand needed loan suspension put in place by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In some cases, borrowers even would be told to pay more each month than they would on their standard existing repayment plan! Despite its name, the Safely Back to School/Work Act makes the burden of student debt even more dangerous for the many young Americans looking to achieve financially security. Learn more.

Advocates call foul as CFPB hides consumer complaint narratives from public view. Consumer Action spearheaded a letter signed by nearly three dozen consumer, civil rights, community, housing, and privacy groups urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to reconsider its decision to bury the narratives of consumer complaints, making it much harder to find this essential material in its important public online consumer complaint database (created under the Obama administration). Access to the complaint narratives helps to educate and empower consumers to make wise financial decisions and meets the Bureau’s mandate to inform and protect consumers. Public access to this critical information also helps to hold companies accountable for their behavior in the financial marketplace. Learn more.

Online retailers, do more to protect customers from harmful/fake products! Consumer Action joined consumer advocates in California in supporting Assembly Bill AB 3262. This bill helps protect consumers by ensuring that online retailers are held strictly liable for defective products—to the same extent as brick-and-mortar stores—incentivizing the online vendors to vet the sellers operating on their sites, axe scammers and remove harmful products. Currently, platforms like Amazon do not have the same product safety responsibilities as retailers, like Target or Walmart, that have websites and sell products at brick-and-mortar stores. If a retailer sells a defective product that causes injury to a consumer, under well-established case law, that retailer is strictly liable for the damages. But, despite the fact that sites like Amazon sell, or benefit from the sale of, products on their platforms, Amazon has argued that they are not retailers, and therefore not liable for the defective products sold on their site. Learn more.

COVID-19 relief package must incorporate fundamental consumer protections. Millions of people and small businesses in the U.S. are experiencing tremendous financial distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment is skyrocketing and families are struggling to put food on the table. Consumer Action has been imploring Congress and the administration to act quickly to enact broad-based, efficient and effective relief that goes far beyond the CARES Act to protect the basics: people’s homes, cars, bank accounts, income and benefits, so that they can weather this crisis. As part of the effort, we recently joined nearly 100 consumer, civil rights, community and other public interest groups to weigh in on recommendations to Congress for its next desperately-needed stimulus package bill. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Flagrant redlining, fake foreclosures, and stimulus funds

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is suing non-bank mortgage lender Townstone Financial Inc. for redlining. The Bureau has accused Chicago-based Townstone of discouraging applicants from Black neighborhoods from applying for a mortgage, and of discouraging potential homeowners from applying for home loans in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

The suit represents the CFPB’s first fair lending case under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) since CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger took charge of the Bureau in 2018.

In its complaint, the CFPB accuses Townstone of repeatedly making insulting remarks about Black people and Black neighborhoods on its weekly radio shows and podcasts, seemingly in order to dissuade them from turning to the lender for mortgages. The Bureau alleges that Townstone “engaged in unlawful redlining” and other practices “that would discourage prospective applicants, on the basis of race, from applying for credit in the Chicago” metropolitan area. Despite over 90% of its mortgage lending being in the Chicago area—and close to 20% of Chicago’s neighborhoods being predominantly Black—Townstone “drew about 2,700 applications, of which only 37 (1.4%) came from African-Americans in the Chicago” area from 2014 and 2017.

The Bureau is seeking to prevent future possible redlining by Townstone, as well as to obtain penalties for the discrimination and harm it found, and to receive some recourse for consumers.

Little returned for fake foreclosure relief

Although intended to provide consumers with $3 million in relief, a CFPB case against a foreclosure relief company will likely result in a mere $40,000 fine for the company.

The CFPB charged the Texas-based company Certified Forensic Loan Auditors, LLC and its CEO, Andrew Lehman, with deceiving homeowners about the firm’s abilities to help them avoid foreclosures and negotiate mortgage modifications. According to the Bureau, the foreclosure relief firm also illegally charged homeowners upfront fees, made false claims about the services it could provide, and falsified its employees’ qualifications. The CFPB charged Certified Forensic Loan Auditors with deception and abuse before winning the $3 million judgment against the company.

In addition to the monetary judgment, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California permanently banned the company and its president from providing mortgage relief or financial assistance services to consumers.

However, the CFPB suspended the $3 million in monetary relief owed to homeowners because of the company’s inability to pay. The Bureau says it plans to provide refunds to eligible consumers deceived by Townstone through its Civil Penalty Fund (although no details have been provided).

Don't leave pandemic money on the table

According to estimates, 12 million lower-income people who do not normally file income tax returns still are eligible to receive $1,200 in government stimulus payments and $500 per qualifying child thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The CFPB advised those who didn’t file federal tax returns to submit their information before the Oct. 15 deadline via this IRS portal to ensure they get their Economic Impact Payments (EIPs). (Payments have already been sent to most eligible individuals who filed a federal return for tax year 2018 and/or 2019.)

Many of the consumers who have not yet applied for EIP funds—and who may not realize that they are eligible to receive them—have limited English proficiency, receive Medicaid or SNAP benefits, work part-time, and/or are unbanked or underbanked. The Bureau has released a resource guide to assist intermediaries/frontline staff in helping these clients understand their eligibility for EIPs and to help with troubleshooting common issues that may be keeping their clients from claiming the funds. The guide, “Helping Consumers Claim Their Economic Impact Payment,” can be found here.

The CFPB will also be offering two webinars to walk frontline staff through the guide and answer any questions they may have:

• The first webinar is Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, from 3:00 PM–4:30 PM EST. Register here.

• The second webinar is Thursday, Sept. 8, 2020, from 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM EST. Register here.

If you work within a community-based organization that supports consumers from any of these communities, please alert them to these opportunities (and to the approaching Oct. 15 deadline).

Class Action Database: DeVry University gets fried for its lies

A class action settlement involving unauthorized telemarketing calls by furniture store Aaron’s was among 12 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during August.

Of note this month is the class action McCormick, et al. v. Adtalem Global Education Inc., et al.

Plaintiffs alleged that Adtalem and DeVry University, Inc.—collectively, “DeVry”—deceptively advertised its graduates’ employment rate as being 90% within six months of graduation, and falsely boasted that one year after graduation its graduates enjoyed an income 15% higher than that of other college graduates. DeVry had previously settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges, in 2016, for deceptively advertising, you guessed it…inflated graduate employment rates and incomes! Unfortunately, it seems this may not have deterred the scandal-plagued for-profit “university” from engaging in similar behavior again, although DeVry has denied the allegations and agreed to a $44 million settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

You are part of the class if, between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 15, 2016, you purchased or paid and enrolled in a DeVry or Keller education program based specifically on DeVry’s advertisements.

Class members are eligible for a cash payment based on the number of credits they paid for; graduates who did not obtain a job in their chosen field within six months of graduation may be eligible for an additional:

  • $500 cash payment if they earned an associate’s degree
  • $1,000 cash payment if they earned a bachelor’s degree
  • $500 cash payment if they earned a master’s degree

The settlement also provides for career counseling services for graduates who did not obtain a job in their chosen field within six months of graduation and the removal of any negative credit events (associated with loans or accounts receivable) that DeVry reported to the credit agencies between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 15, 2016.

The claims deadline is Sept. 7, 2020.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a nonprofit 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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