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Consumer Action INSIDER - September 2021

What people are saying

Consumer Action provides useful and timely consumer information on a range of pocketbook issues. And they do it in creative ways—newsletters, blogs, social media posts—and in many languages.

Cleo Stamatos, Consumer Mom, Baltimore, MD, via Consumer Action feedback survey

Did you know?

Appraisal bias is on the rise, including reports of Black-owned homes receiving lower-than-market-rate appraisals when family photos, African American books or Afrocentric artwork are on display when appraisers visit. If an appraisal comes in lower than expected during a home sale, lenders might decrease the amount the purchaser can borrow, leading to a higher out-of-pocket downpayment, or even an end to the deal. The HUD Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity has received a tenfold increase in appraisal-related discrimination reports since 2019, said Alanna McCargo, HUD’s senior advisor for housing finance, at a June roundtable on appraisal bias hosted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Homeowners and homebuyers who suspect they've been discriminated against in the appraisal process can fight back. Learn more at NerdWallet.

Spread the word: Nonprofits needed for financial health measurement study

By Audrey Perrott

Attune, a developer of tools that enable businesses and organizations to gather and analyze automated financial health data, is offering one or two nonprofits the opportunity to test its financial health measurement platform, for free, in exchange for providing its research and development team with insights on user experience. Attune’s parent organization, the Financial Health Network (FHN), pioneered the FinHealth Score®, a measurement framework used to assess the financial health of individuals, or groups of individuals, over time.

Why measure financial health? Because, in addition to helping consumers take account of their finances, gauging how consumers are doing financially during a given period can assist practitioners in designing programs around the specific needs of their clients, evaluating the effectiveness of programs and demonstrating impact. Because Attune’s measurement tools are digital (not paper surveys), they offer greater efficiency for organizations of all sizes.

Consumer Action has been using the FinHealth Score® Toolkit for more than three years, during which it has helped us and the CBOs that value our services to better understand the needs of consumers and design programs around what matters most to them. Automating the surveys allows agencies like Consumer Action to focus more on carrying out our mission and less on analyzing survey results. We believe this is a rare opportunity for a few organizations to employ a valuable financial health measurement tool at no cost, in exchange only for providing feedback.

Consumer Action is a member of the Financial Health Network and the Financial Solutions Lab Exchange, managed by the Financial Health Network.

To learn more about this opportunity, contact Attune.

Consumer Action board elects new officers, welcomes new members

By Ken McEldowney

The Consumer Action Board of Directors recently elected a new president and vice president and welcomed three new members.

The longtime president of Consumer Action's board, Patricia Sturdevant, resigned at the last board meeting, indicating that she wanted to spend more time working on police reform and public safety in Sacramento, where she lives. Ken McEldowney, Consumer Action’s executive director, thanked Sturdevant for her decades of service on the board and her excellent work on behalf of consumers.

The board elected Ben Lau as the new president, and Sue Rogan as vice president. Lau said, "It was my honor to be nominated and elected as the new president of the Consumer Action board. I am grateful for the support of my fellow board members, Executive Director Ken McEldowney and the staff of Consumer Action. I look forward to working constructively with them in the days ahead to do what is right for the growth of the organization."

The board also elected three new members: Joe Wynn, head of VETS Group; LaTesha Slappy, executive director of the Peace Financial Center; and Debbie Muramoto, CEO of California Capital Financial Development Corp.

Learn more about Consumer Action’s board members here.

Hotline Chronicles: Free speech, or dangerous misinformation?

By Linda Sherry

Dorinda* from Wisconsin submitted a complaint to Consumer Action’s hotline about the Fox Cable News Network. It “broadcasts dangerous false information that millions of Americans are led to believe is factual,” wrote Dorinda. “They have encouraged people to make life and death decisions that defy scientific evidence.”

Dorinda is not alone in her views. Critics have created petitions encouraging boycotts of Fox News advertisers to counter what they view as “fake news” on Fox.

Dorinda told us: “They are not required to back their false claims with facts, such as other news organizations are.” This, we let Dorinda know, is not completely accurate. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it prohibits broadcasting false information about a crime or a catastrophe (such as COVID) if the broadcaster knows the information is false and will cause substantial “public harm” if aired. FCC rules specifically say that the “public harm must begin immediately, and cause direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.” (Broadcasters can air disclaimers to clearly characterize programming as fiction or irony to avoid violating FCC rules about public harm.)

The FCC notes it receives a wide variety of comments and complaints about the accuracy or bias of news networks, stations, reporters and commentators. While the agency is prohibited from engaging in censorship or infringing on the First Amendment rights of the press, it is illegal for broadcasters to intentionally distort the news. (The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the right of newspapers, magazines, etc., to report news without being controlled by the government.)

The FCC may, however, act on complaints if there is documented evidence of misinformation or distortion of facts from persons with direct personal knowledge. You can submit such complaints and documentation here.

To get this evidence, set your cell phone to record segments that you believe are demonstrably false. If you miss your first opportunity to record, check if you can find program replay “on demand” or on the organization’s website. Or, just note the program, station location and time of day, including your time zone. Include this with links to, or PDFs of, reputable, expert sources to bolster your complaint.

Short of being able to cite evidence of false information, the FCC suggests you contact the news organization directly to complain about news and editorial content you object to. Reputable news outlets take viewer feedback seriously. (Click here to find contact information for Fox News.)

Consumer Action works to educate consumers about how to spot “fake news” and other disinformation. We offer a guide titled Fake News: Recognizing and stemming misinformation, as well as a timely new publication, Distinguishing between vaccine fact and fiction.

Remember, the best way to stay informed about current events is to read and watch a variety of mainstream news outlets. Sticking with any one source can lead you into a limited “echo chamber” in which you encounter one-sided information instead of a mix of alternative ideas and viewpoints to consider.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Consumer Action hosts webinar on Emergency Broadband Benefit

By Linda Williams

The COVID-19 pandemic upended classrooms and campuses across the country, forcing millions of students to transition to remote learning in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. For many students, this meant logging in to online classes and accessing assignments through their home internet service, but for an estimated 16.9 million of these students, it meant coming face-to-face with the reality of the digital divide. Many of these students were locked out of the educational system because their families lack two essential elements for online learning: high-speed home internet access and a computer. Many lower-income seniors and laid-off workers faced the same obstacle when they tried to access telemedicine and file for unemployment benefits online.

On May 12, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began accepting applications for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a temporary program designed to help close the digital divide by allocating $3.2 billion for eligible households to pay for internet service and internet-enabled devices.

2021 is presenting an unprecedented opportunity to close the digital divide, thanks in part to the federal stimulus package, which includes funds for broadband; actions by the FCC, like the EBB program and the connectivity fund (focused on schools and libraries); and actions by individual states, said Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy at Common Sense Media. Fazlullah joined David Savolaine, consumer education and outreach specialist for the FCC, at Consumer Action’s July 20 webinar on the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

Fazlullah told the audience that COVID-19 provoked a substantial change in society’s understanding of the digital divide and the need to close it. This need exists not only for vulnerable populations, but also for businesses and institutions, which are beginning to realize that if they want to serve their citizens and their communities efficiently and resiliently, they will need to rely on technology, and that means getting everyone connected to the internet.

Savolaine focused his presentation on the essence of the EBB program—the benefits, who’s eligible and how to apply. The temporary program provides a discount of up to $50 per month (up to $75 for households on qualifying Tribal Lands) on broadband service for households that meet income limits or participate in a range of public assistance or benefits programs, as well as a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, a desktop computer or a tablet from participating providers. Savolaine outlined the three ways an eligible household can apply for the EBB: by contacting a participating provider, visiting GetEmergencyBroadband.org, or mailing in an application with proof of eligibility.

The webinar was attended by 212 staff members of community agencies. “This was a great webinar, very informative,” noted one attendee. “It has provided much-needed information and resources that will help most if not all the clients we serve. Thank you for sharing these great opportunities as always.” You can view the webinar on Consumer Action’s YouTube channel.

Despite this and other efforts to get the word out to consumers about the EBB, the Universal Service Administrative Company, the agency that administers the Lifeline and EBB programs, reports that, as of Aug. 1, only 4.1 million of the 36 million eligible households are enrolled. Consumer Action has published a new fact sheet, Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit: Discounted phone and internet for low-income households, to help inform consumers of the assistance they may be eligible to receive. The publication is available for free download in English and Spanish, and can be freely reproduced for distribution by community-based organizations. Spread the word!

Education Department invites feedback on broken student loan forgiveness program

By Alegra Howard

The U.S. Department of Education is requesting feedback on its troubled Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program in order to make improvements to the initiative. PSLF, created in a 2007 bipartisan effort by Congress, was intended to cancel the federal student loans of the millions of nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters, public defenders and other similarly employed Americans after they had worked 10 years in public service and made 120 on-time payments. However, a recent report from ED shows that only 2% of the applications processed have met the requirements for a PSLF loan discharge. Needless to say, the program is not helping enough of those it is supposed to help.

Consumer Action urged borrowers who were impacted by the struggling program to share their thoughts on PSLF with the Department of Education. Hundreds responded, though several recurring themes were revealed. Over and over, we heard about communication breakdowns and loan servicer errors that caused countless borrowers to be derailed in loan repayment, through no fault of their own, adding years to their repayment timeline and sinking them deeper into debt.

We heard from a pro bono lawyer who is experienced in assisting struggling mortgage borrowers and is dismayed by the lack of student loan industry protections: “I used to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Mortgage loans have rules about servicing transfers. Student loans don't and it creates lots of problems and missing data leading to wrongful denials…If you can prove you've worked for a decade in public service, you should get forgiveness.”

Many respondents wondered why partial credit for years of public service couldn’t be applied toward the repayment of their loans—a credit for every month spent in public service, regardless of the type of federal student loan or current repayment plan. Other respondents noted being confused by the administrative requirements and suggested that automatic enrollment (perhaps through the IRS) would streamline the process, eliminating the administrative headaches of consolidating loans or choosing a particular repayment plan. A federal employee shared: “I have filed for Public Service Loan Forgiveness twice and have been denied both times…I recently learned that I [was] not eligible because I do not have any eligible loan types. I was advised to consolidate the loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan. I completed my undergraduate studies in 1999 and my graduate studies in 2002, so all the payments I have made to date will not count? I was not aware that my loans did not qualify. I have been a federal government employee for 12 years and [this] benefit that was shared for recruiting purposes is non-existent for me.”

Public service workers repeatedly explained that mounting student loan debt prevented them from buying homes and cars, or forced them to put off having children. We heard from numerous borrowers over 60 who are forced to put off their retirement, even though they spent decades working in public service. A 65-year-old teacher explained: “I have worked as a certified teacher and food service director for a small, rural, low-income school district...yes, at age 65, I am still paying for my student loans. I have had 25 cumulative years of service in public schools, and have spent 18 years in my current job. Because I split my job responsibilities between teaching and directing, I have not been considered a 'full-time' teacher…My life would be greatly enhanced if I were able to pay off the last $7,000 of student loan debt.“

The Department of Education has made some improvements to the PSLF program in the last year, such as offering a single application that certifies employment, counts payments and allows borrowers to check on their status toward forgiveness. A new PSLF Help Tool also simplifies the process for borrowers to determine their eligibility for the program.

You have until Sept. 24 to submit your own comments about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The Department of Education is looking for feedback on the elements of PSLF that are most difficult to navigate, the barriers preventing public service workers from pursuing PSLF, and the experiences that borrowers with loans outside the Direct Loan program are having when trying to participate in PSLF.

Coalition Efforts: Seeking marketplace fairness and choice for consumers

By Alegra Howard

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

Time to dig deeper into auto insurance unfairness. Consumer groups wrote to the Department of Treasury’s Federal Insurance Office (FIO) urging the FIO to prioritize an immediate update of its auto insurance affordability study using improved methods and to conduct additional research on uninsured drivers, socioeconomic factors in auto insurance pricing, and how these factors can have a disparate impact on people of color. With many families relying on automobiles to take them to school and work, it’s particularly important that auto insurance is available, affordable and fairly priced. Learn more.

Stop the proposed first-class mail slowdown! Advocates urged the U.S. Postal Service to abandon its plan (effective Oct. 1) to slow down some first-class mail deliveries as part of an effort to save money. Slowing down as much as 40% of first-class mail would not only leave the public’s needs and expectations unmet, it risks creating disparate impacts, hastening the public’s flight from the U.S. mail, and further jeopardizing the Postal Service’s already fragile finances. Learn more.

Broad support for payment choice. Both Republicans and Democrats are calling for the continued universal acceptance of U.S. currency as a payment option for all consumers. The bipartisan Payment Choice Act of 2021 would make it illegal (with some exceptions) for retail businesses to refuse to accept cash for in-person consumer transactions at stores nationwide. Consumer Action and many allies support this important legislation, explaining in a letter to the bill’s original sponsors that there are roughly 37 million adults in the United States who lack a bank account or credit card and need to use cash to pay for necessities. Learn more.

A call to end Big Pharma monopolies. Members of a fair drug pricing coalition wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra demanding that the White House take on Big Pharma in an effort to curb drugmakers’ monopoly power in the soon-to-be-released HHS drug pricing competition plan. Their letter called on President Biden to end the era of abusive drug pricing and treatment rationing by challenging patents and expanding generic-drug competition. As Americans face a new surge in the ongoing pandemic, consumer advocates said it’s time to break up Big Pharma monopolies. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Elders at risk of eviction, credit bureau lapses, and a big birthday

By Ruth Susswein

More than half a million renters over age 65 are behind on their rent as of July 2021, according to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) analysis of U.S. Census data, and are soon to be at risk of eviction. Nearly one-third (32%) of delinquent older renters believe that they are likely to be evicted. That figure jumps to 64% for older renters who have a mobility-related disability. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control's extended eviction moratorium (for those in counties with high concentrations of COVID) has recently been reversed. Yet renters may still be eligible for state or local protections. Click here for an incomplete list of local protections. The Bureau’s newest tool helps renters (and landlords) locate local emergency rental assistance programs for help repaying up to 18 months in back rent and utilities. For more renter protection resources—in seven languages—visit the CFPB’s “Help for homeowners and renters during the coronavirus national emergency” webpage and click on the appropriate link (for homeowners, renters or landlords).

10th anniversary

As part of the Consumer Bureau’s 10th anniversary celebration in July, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) noted that the CFPB was created to respond to the last great financial crisis (2008) and is now focused on doing its part to prevent the next national economic disaster, particularly for homeowners and renters. The CFPB was designed to be the country’s consumer financial watchdog and to rid the marketplace of risky and deceptive financial practices. Over the last decade, it has returned more than $14 billion in financial relief to consumers (plus fined corporations $1.7 billion in penalties), and helped more than 3 million consumers with complaints arising in the financial marketplace. It oversees nonbank mortgage and auto lenders, student loan servicers, credit bureaus, and other firms that previously were not regulated. The CFPB has written rules to make:

The CFPB survived the Trump/Mulvaney/Kraninger leadership intent on gutting the agency, and has since returned to its consumer protection mission under Acting Director Dave Uejio, whose tenure has emphasized the need for racial and economic equity and fair lending for all.

Senator Warren called the CFPB’s consumer complaint system the Bureau’s “crown jewel”—a powerful tool for consumers and the agency to hold companies accountable for their actions.

CFPB points to credit bureau lapses

Credit reporting problems accounted for more than half (58%) of the complaints the Bureau received in 2020. In a recent CFPB Consumer Response report, the Bureau accused national credit bureaus of not “providing complete and accurate responses” to many complaints and of failing to respond to the direct issues that consumers had disputed in their credit reports.

In its Summer 2021 Supervisory Highlights report, the Bureau faulted credit reporting agencies for not complying with Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements for providing “maximum possible accuracy” in credit reports in 2020. It said credit bureaus relied on company (“furnisher”) information that they should have known was not credible because companies did not respond or simply validated nearly all the information disputed by consumers. Credit bureaus also failed to block inaccurate data resultant from identity theft and failed to apply security freezes requested by consumers in a timely manner, according to the CFPB. The Bureau plans to further address incomplete and inaccurate credit bureau information later this year.

Class Action Database: What was brain supplement maker thinking with bogus claims?

By Rose Chan

A class action settlement involving Kroger and how it advertised bread crumbs was among nine new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during August.

Of note this month is the class action Williams, et al. v. Reckitt Benckiser LLC, et al.

Plaintiffs alleged that Reckitt Benckiser (RB) falsely labeled, marketed and advertised its Neuriva brain health supplement products as being “clinically proven” and “proven by science to fuel brain performance.” RB claimed on the Neuriva website, on packaging, in commercials and on social media that the supplement’s active ingredients were backed by science to improve the brain performance of all consumers. (Medicines must be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be sold or marketed. Supplements do not require this approval. Supplement companies are responsible for having evidence that their products are safe and that the label claims are truthful and not misleading.)

Neuriva De-Stress, for example, was advertised as having the active ingredient coffee cherry extract, which the company claimed was “clinically proven” to provide brain performance benefits, when studies don’t show that coffee cherry extract can improve brain performance. Plaintiffs claimed that the five studies cited on Neuriva’s website were intended to mislead consumers. In actuality, the five cited studies on the active ingredients could not prove that the ingredients would improve brain performance, and called for more scientific investigation.

The defendants denied the allegations but agreed to an $8 million settlement to end the lawsuit.

Consumers who bought Neuriva products between Jan. 1, 2019, and April 23, 2021, may be eligible for cash payment. Class members who provide proof of purchase may be eligible for up to $32.50 per valid claim, with a maximum of two valid claims ($65). Class members without proof of purchase may be eligible for $5 per valid claim, with a maximum of four valid claims ($20).

The claims deadline is estimated to be Oct. 1, 2021 (45 days after the court issues final approval of the settlement). Click here to view the Neuriva case.

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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