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Consumer Action INSIDER - December 2021

What people are saying

"SCAM GRAM: Unhealthy hopes" [is] definitely one I will share with others. Especially during this time when so many are looking into financial help. The media, internet, postal mail and TV have reached an overwhelming daily barrage of questionable information. THANK YOU sincerely! --JM, Boston, MA, via Consumer Action feedback survey

Did you know?

The credit scoring giant FICO (originally Fair Isaac Corporation) works with more than 200 financial institutions to give their customers free access to FICO® scores. If your bank, credit card issuer, auto lender or mortgage servicer participates in the FICO Open Access program, you can see your score, along with the top factors affecting your score, for free any time by logging into your online account. It’s a good idea to check your score in advance if you plan to apply for a credit card, loan or mortgage. To view a list of the banks and lenders that participate, click here.

Next steps in consumer protection featured at Consumer Action’s Changemakers Convening

By Ruth Susswein

In observance of its 50th anniversary, Consumer Action in November celebrated five decades of consumer protection with a virtual Changemakers Convening that highlighted some of the greatest gains in consumer protection and explored where key advocates are focusing their attention today to achieve systemic change in the areas of housing, credit, health care and privacy. The theme of the convening was “50 Years: Shaping the Future, Honoring the Past.” The recorded version can be found here.

As the convening’s keynote speaker, Washington Post syndicated columnist Michelle Singletary recounted some of the most significant consumer advances in the last 50 years. She included the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination when renting or buying a home; the Truth in Lending Act, which requires that consumers receive information about the cost of a loan; the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which holds credit bureaus responsible for the accuracy and safety of consumers’ data; the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibits discrimination in lending based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability; and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which bans abusive and deceptive debt collection practices. She also cited the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank), which created a consumer watchdog agency: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Singletary told a personal story about the importance of the Fair Credit Reporting Act in allowing borrowers to know their credit histories. She explained she was shopping for a car loan. Before visiting a dealership, she and her husband got a firm interest rate offer from their credit union. At the dealership, she allowed the salesperson to run her credit to see what the interest rate would be. The offer? “Twice the interest rate” as the one the credit union approved! Singletary noted, “Had we not known how great our credit was and how high our credit scores were, we might have taken that man at his word,” paying way too much for a car loan.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D- MA), Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and CFPB Director Rohit Chopra also weighed in with recorded comments extolling the value of the Dodd-Frank Act and the dire need for the CFPB. Chopra noted the Bureau’s first-class complaint-handling process and thanked Consumer Action for helping strengthen that system.

Nikitra Bailey, of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), credited Dodd-Frank with curbing “a lot of predatory lending” that targeted communities of color with dangerous mortgage products and led to the foreclosure crisis of 2008.

Graciela Aponte-Diaz, from the Center for Responsible Lending, spoke of the “delicate balance” between making credit available but not allowing interest rates to become predatory. She explained that 18 states and the District of Columbia have interest rate caps and argued that consumers need a federal law that caps rates at 36%, and she urged reinstatement of a CFPB rule that would require payday lenders to evaluate a borrower’s ability to repay a high cost loan before lending them money.

Frederick Isasi, of Families USA, pointed to the Build Back Better (BBB) Act that the Biden administration and many Democrats in Congress support as a way to make healthcare coverage and prescription drugs more affordable.

“We need to ensure that our health does not depend on our wealth,” Isasi told the virtual audience. He explained the need to change our healthcare model to a fee-for-service model that “pays to maintain and preserve our health” by supporting primary care physicians and biomedical research.

Bailey also looked to the Build Back Better plan—yet to be passed—for the significant funding it promises for both housing repairs and first-time homebuyer downpayment assistance, which would help “rectify some of the exclusionary housing policies” that have caused disparities in homeownership in Black, Latino and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

Caitriona Fitzgerald, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), explained how companies’ constant tracking of our online behavior, especially, can impede marginalized communities’ access to housing or credit. She spoke of the need to create a “strong, comprehensive national privacy law” for data collection and protection, and a data protection agency that can focus on artificial intelligence and algorithmic fairness.

Attendees asked how much alternative data—information not traditionally available in a credit report, such as rental and utility payments and monthly cash flow information from bank accounts—would help consumers access credit. The advocates cautiously supported using alternative data to make credit more accessible to immigrants, people of color, and others with little or no credit history. They strongly recommended that consumers rely on nonprofit housing and credit counselors to help ensure that they are using their payment history to the best advantage.

On the evening of the convening, Consumer Action held an in-person reception in Washington, D.C., to present its Consumer Excellence Awards to Senator Sherrod Brown, National CAPACD, and Popcorn Finance (podcast). The event was attended by close to a hundred guests, who all attested to being vaccinated and went through health screenings and temperature checks before entering. The awards reception was hosted by AT&T at its Forum for Technology, Entertainment & Policy. Stay tuned for our January edition of the INSIDER for more coverage, including photos of the awards and funder credits.

Hotline Chronicles: Call blocking devices can screen landline robocalls

By Linda Sherry

Consumer Action’s East Coast office recently received a call from a woman who said that, although it was only noon, her landline had received six robocalls. “I’m ready to throw the phone out the window,” she claimed, echoing a thought many of us have probably had, too.

We told the caller about a well-regarded service called Nomorobo for internet phones (VoIP) and cell phones, but she told us her phone is a traditional landline that doesn’t use the internet.

Instead, we suggested, she could buy a call blocking device to screen calls on her traditional landline. These are small gadgets you attach to your phone.

According to the Best Reviews Guide website in mid-November, call blocking devices cost between $56 and $95 new; used or rebuilt boxes may be found for less. (Find more devices reviewed on MSN.) Some of these devices access databases of known scam numbers to block calls. With others, you add the phone numbers of unwelcome callers to create a list of numbers to block. Depending on the device, you may be able to divert calls to voicemail, establish “do not disturb” times, or connect callers to a recording with options that let calls you welcome get through.

Many mobile applications (apps) exist to block calls on cell phones. You also can block specific numbers on mobile devices. However, since many scammers “spoof” Caller ID so that the display reflects an incorrect source number, you may end up with an enormous blocked list and still receive calls.

In recent months, many callers might have seen “Potential Spam” notices on their cell phones, and some phones will automatically silence such calls if you wish. “Potential Spam” calls are being identified by your phone company or phone manufacturer’s system. However, we’ve heard from people that some silenced calls have been ones they wanted to receive (so check your recent call log and voicemail to make sure you don’t miss an important call).

Don’t forget to add your home and cell numbers to the free National Do Not Call Registry at DoNotCall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222 from the phone you want to register. It won’t stop all the scam and spam calls, but it will stop calls from legitimate telemarketers who honor the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. (Calls from political campaigns are allowed, but subject to some rules. Learn more here.)

You can report robocalls and spam text messages by filing an online complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and/or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). File a complaint via phone with the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) or with the FCC at 888-CALL-FCC (888-225-5322). You can forward spam text messages from mobile phones to 7726 (or SPAM).

*Not this consumer’s real name

Presenting to a live group after months of pandemic distancing

By Monica Steinisch

After nearly two years of conducting only virtual trainings and presentations due to the pandemic, Consumer Action’s Outreach staff has been eager for the day they could add in-person events back into their calendar. A first foray came in October for Community Outreach Manager Jamie Woo, who gave a presentation to Chinese-speaking seniors living at San Francisco’s 257-unit Silvercrest Residence, an affordable apartment community managed by the Salvation Army.

With so many pandemic-related scams being perpetrated—many of them targeting seniors—Woo focused her presentation on recognizing the tell-tale signs of a scam (things like an urgent demand, a request for personal information, or a demand for payment in gift cards or other untraceable, irreversible payment methods) and knowing how to avoid becoming a scam victim (like hanging up the phone, not clicking on links in texts and emails, and walking away from a deal that’s too good to be true).

Community Outreach Manager Jamie Woo talks to Chinese-speaking seniors at Salvation Army’s Silvercrest Residence, in San Francisco, about scams.

During the presentation, many of the approximately 40 participants chimed in, revealing scams they had encountered or that they had heard about from friends and neighbors. These scams ranged from offers of a free or “$1” iPad or iPhone (in exchange for your personal information and/or a credit card number to cover “shipping”) to the sale of vitamins promising to turn your gray hair to black. Woo, who handles many of the Chinese-language messages that come in to Consumer Action’s complaint hotline had, sadly, heard of many of them before.

This was not Woo’s first time at the residence; the Salvation Army has invited her to present there before. In addition to her expertise in providing culturally sensitive education on a wide range of personal finance and consumer protection topics, her ability to speak two Chinese dialects—Cantonese and Mandarin—means she can engage a greater number of Silvercrest residents than if she could present in only one dialect.

“Despite the challenges of communicating with all of us wearing masks, doing the presentation in person was definitely worth the effort,” said Woo. “It gave people a chance to share firsthand accounts of scams and scam attempts—stories that are likely to stick with listeners and help them avoid scams themselves—and, having been isolated for most of 2020 and much of 2021, it was clear that the residents were happy to be together again—even to learn about such a serious topic!”

(Want to avoid scams? Read our monthly SCAM GRAM email newsletter.)

Webinar explores how inaccurate private data leads to loss of SSI benefits

By Linda Williams

Last month, my colleague Nelson Santiago and I developed and presented a new Consumer Action webinar in our series addressing topics of particular utility for the staff of community-based organizations working with low- and moderate-income consumers and underserved communities. This webinar, “How Inaccurate Data Leads to Loss of SSI Benefits: What advocates should know,” alerted participants to a critical flaw in the eligibility verification process that is causing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) applicants and recipients to be denied benefits.

As a single mother of a disabled child who had his SSI benefits terminated for two years as he went through the appeals process, I know firsthand the pain and financial strain as I struggled to pay his rent to keep him off the street. That’s why I am especially proud to present this vital information in our new webinar. While the Social Security Administration (SSA) appeals process is a slow one, I am confident that other families with a disabled loved one who have had their benefits suspended can find help from trusted community-based organizations well situated to provide help navigating the SSA bureaucracy.

The SSI program, created by Congress in 1972 and administered by the SSA, is a strictly need-based, means-tested program that provides cash payments to disabled children, disabled or blind adults ages 18 to 64, and individuals who are 65 or older without a disability who meet the financial qualifications. The 2021 monthly maximum federal SSI payment is $794 for individuals or $1,191 for a couple, although some states may supplement this amount.

Kate Lang, an attorney on Justice in Aging’s economic security team, joined Sarah Bolling Mancini, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), as the featured speakers at Consumer Action’s webinar, during which they discussed Justice in Aging and NCLC’s joint report “Mismatched and Mistaken: How the Use of an Inaccurate Private Database Results in SSI Recipients Unjustly Losing Benefits.”

In addition to providing the more than 450 attendees with an overview of the SSI program, including the individual income and assets that could limit program eligibility, Lang and Mancini explained that the SSA routinely uses a number of data-matching programs to help them find applicants and recipients who are ineligible for benefits. In 2018, the SSA started using a data set from LexisNexis, called Accurint for Government, to determine whether SSI recipients had unreported real property that could disqualify them. The problem with using this database, the team noted, is that it is filled with inaccuracies. As a result, SSI recipients have had their benefits unjustifiably suspended. Further, the suspension notices sent by the SSA do not give recipients sufficient information to allow them to present a meaningful defense. In some instances, SSI recipients’ benefits were cut off even though they filed a timely appeal.

During the presentation, the speakers offered numerous recommendations for ways the SSA should address the problem. The webinar has been posted to Consumer Action’s YouTube channel, garnering over 400 views since Nov. 3. Subscribe to our channel so you don’t miss any of our webinars and videos.

Webinar: Advice for safeguarding financial data

By Nelson Santiago

As consumers began checking their budgeting apps to plan for holiday expenses, Consumer Action ramped up its financial data privacy education efforts. The organization offered two webinars—"Share Financial Data with Care" and "The Role of Data Networks in the FinTech Ecosystem."

FinTech tools (apps and platforms) can help consumers make payments, invest, budget, save money, and view their financial “big picture” at a glance. However, as Consumer Action points out in its educational materials, it’s important to understand how the tools work before starting to use them. Depending on the app, financial institution, and other players in the FinTech ecosystem, consumers may not be aware of the amount of data they're sharing, the potential risks to their privacy, and how current and future regulations might (or might not) protect them.

INSIDER readers who missed the webinars can tune in to our YouTube channel to view the recordings.

The October “Share Financial Data with Care” webinar was a virtual policy briefing geared toward consumer advocates and legislative staff. Sponsored by The Clearing House (TCH) and moderated by Consumer Action's director of national priorities, Linda Sherry, the briefing featured three dynamic presenters. Rob Hunter, deputy general counsel at The Clearing House, presented TCH's research on consumer attitudes on data sharing. Hunter described how the research shows that, while consumers feel confident and secure when using financial apps, they actually don't know very much about what's happening behind the scenes and may lack understanding of the terms and conditions they’ve agreed to.

Stuart Rubinstein, CEO of Akoya, focused his remarks on what the financial services industry is doing to ensure the safety and security of financial data access. He described how data aggregators, FinTechs and financial institutions can integrate with the Akoya data access network to securely exchange financial data without Akoya obtaining or storing consumer banking credentials.

The presentations were rounded out by Dan Murphy, policy manager with the Financial Health Network (FHN), who discussed FHN's research report “Financial Data: The Consumer Perspective.” One interesting finding Murphy shared was that approximately 90% of consumers are in favor of an opt-in standard for data sharing, whether it's from banks, tech companies or FinTech apps. To view the recording of the webinar, click here.

The November webinar—“The Role of Data Networks in the FinTech Ecosystem”—was designed for community educators and advocates, to help them understand the role of data networks in the FinTech ecosystem. Sponsored by Plaid, it, too, featured three expert speakers, with FHN’s Murphy making an encore appearance and focusing a portion of his presentation on federal consumer protections. Murphy discussed a proposed rulemaking by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) under Section 1033 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. He explained how the law interacts with pre-existing statutes and regulations, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA).

Plaid's Ben White, who works in research and advocacy, shared data from a recent Plaid survey about FinTech use by U.S. consumers and discussed how Plaid and other data networks help ensure financial data privacy and security. Survey results shared by White showed that 81% of consumers said that FinTech apps give them more control over their finances; nearly 8 in 10 said that FinTech seamlessly integrates into their everyday lives; and 73% said FinTech makes them feel more empowered.

A key theme running through the presentation by Sean Creehan, senior FinTech risk and policy advisor with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, was that data use creates both opportunities and risks for financial services providers and necessitates new ways of informing and protecting consumers. Creehan's talk focused on transparency, business responsibility, consumer control, where we are in terms of policy and regulation and where we may need to go, and the challenges and complexity around these issues.

To view the recording of the “The Role of Data Networks in the FinTech Ecosystem” webinar on Consumer Action’s YouTube channel, click here.

Coalition Efforts: Advocates rally for Build Back Better Act provisions and urge FHFA to remove barriers to homeownership

By Alegra Howard

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

Boosting FTC oversight ability through the Build Back Better Act. Consumer Action and 34 civil rights, civil liberties and consumer protection organizations joined in urging Congress to pass key provisions of the Build Back Better Act that would strengthen the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) power to halt discriminatory and abusive data practices. The bill provides $1 billion in funding for the Commission’s privacy and antitrust work and establishes an FTC bureau to address privacy, civil rights and data security issues. Learn more.

The FTC must act now against data abuses and discrimination. Abusive data practices are prevalent across the digital economy, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the authority to protect consumers right now. Through a rulemaking process, the FTC can establish guardrails against discriminatory and dangerous data practices that prevent companies from weaponizing our data and putting profits over public safety. Consumer Action joined 45 ally organizations to urge the FTC to exercise its statutory rulemaking authority and protect consumer data through the entire data life cycle—collection, use, management, retention and deletion. Learn more.

A new goal in promoting equity in homeownership. Long-standing discriminatory policies and practices in the credit and housing markets have resulted in significant racial and ethnic disparities in homeownership and the accumulation of wealth. Housing advocates submitted comments to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) on policies that promote equity and expand opportunity for low-income borrowers. The FHFA should require Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to remove barriers and advance equity in housing markets to better serve consumers, especially those in underserved populations. Learn more.

Americans need drug pricing reform now. Consumer Action joined more than 60 national, state and local groups in urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to resist demands from some caucus members seeking to weaken the Medicare drug price negotiation policies in the Build Back Better Act. The bill aims to lower drug prices for millions of Americans by allowing Medicare to negotiate certain drug prices, penalizing drug companies that increase their prices faster than inflation, and adding an out-of-pocket cap to Medicare Part D. Advocates warn that failing to do so would allow Big Pharma to continue to gouge Americans and profit from exorbitantly high drug prices. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Agency digs into Big Tech data, tackles today’s redlining, and offers housing resources

By Ruth Susswein

In his first public action as CFPB director, Rohit Chopra announced that the Bureau is requiring six Big Tech companies that operate online payment systems to provide the agency with information about how they use consumers’ payment data.

The Bureau has ordered Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, PayPal and Square to supply payment practices information. Next up are the Chinese tech giants Alipay and WeChat Pay. The new director is seeking to better understand how Big Tech uses our personal payment data and manages data access. The Bureau wants to know if these companies are:

  • Sharing your payment data with data brokers and other third parties
  • Using your payment data for behavioral targeting (to create user profiles)
  • Limiting consumer access to choice of online merchants
  • Prioritizing consumer protections when paying through their networks, such as protections from fraud, billing errors and data sharing without consent

Expressing some of his concerns, Chopra has asked: “Will [Big Tech] operators engage in invasive financial surveillance and combine the data they collect on consumers with their geolocation and browsing data?...Will these companies operate their payment platforms in a manner that interferes with fair, transparent, and competitive markets? Will the payment platforms be truly neutral, or will they use their scale to extract rents from market participants? Will small businesses feel coerced into participating in the payment platform out of fear of being suppressed or hidden in search or product listings?”

If you would like to share your position on how Big Tech platforms are managing your data, you can submit a comment to the Bureau here by Dec. 6.

Help for the homeless

From directing consumers to emergency rental assistance to establishing a COVID-era rule mandating meaningful consideration for a mortgage modification, the Bureau has been providing numerous resources to help consumers avert evictions and foreclosures. The CFPB put mortgage servicers on notice that it will closely monitor how these firms deal with borrowers to prevent avoidable foreclosures. The Bureau warns it will “not hesitate” to take action if it finds abuses.

Notwithstanding the Bureau’s attention to foreclosure prevention, as we emerge from this pandemic many people will lose their homes, and the Bureau has designed a resource guide to help them find assistance. This includes help finding a shelter, showers or a parking haven. Please share these links with those who are most in need.

Redlining replaced with new home loan opportunities

While redlining has been outlawed for decades, the Consumer Bureau, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) have accused Trustmark National Bank of deliberately discriminating against Black and Hispanic families in Memphis, Tennessee.

The agencies alleged that the bank was purposefully “not marketing, offering, or originating home loans to consumers in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.” The bank also discouraged minority consumers from applying for credit, according to the CFPB.

The CFPB, DOJ and OCC said Trustmark avoided locating branches in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and did not assign even one loan officer to any of its Memphis branches in minority neighborhoods.

In a consent decree, the agencies ordered Trustmark to invest $3.85 million in a loan-subsidy program to make mortgages more affordable to minority applicants in the Memphis region. The subsidies can be used to cover closing costs, mortgage insurance or downpayment assistance. Trustmark also was directed to open a new lending office in a majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood, and to market their home loans to minority consumers in Memphis. The CFPB also imposed a $5 million penalty on the bank.

Class Action Database: Equifax agrees to clean up its sloppy public records reporting

By Rose Chan

A class action settlement involving McCormick and its advertising of seasoning products was among 10 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during November. The company is charged with making “false and misleading claims” regarding the labeling of certain products as “Natural” or “All Natural.”

Of note this month is the class action Thomas et al. v. Equifax Information Services, LLC.

Plaintiffs alleged that the consumer reporting agency Equifax Information Services, LLC violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by reporting inaccurate public record items, such as court judgments and tax liens. It was charged that Equifax purchased public record information from third parties instead of retrieving the information directly from the government offices and failed to verify the accuracy of the information provided. Equifax denies the allegations but agreed to a settlement to end the lawsuit.

Class members who are able to provide documentation showing harm due to Equifax’s inaccurate tax lien and/or civil judgment reporting may receive an automatic payment of $1,500 through an expedited claims eligibility process (ADR Program). For more information on the Equifax settlement, click here.

Also, for five years after the settlement effective date (Sept. 13, 2019), Equifax may only report newly acquired civil judgments and state and federal tax liens after providing the attorneys that represented the plaintiffs in the case (class counsel) with the details of its new record collection process.

You are part of the class if Equifax gave your credit report (containing inaccurate information about tax liens or civil judgments) to a third party between June 28, 2015, and May 14, 2019.

The claims deadline is Dec. 31, 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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