Consumer Action INSIDER - August 2021

What people are saying

[Consumer Action’s] small, professional staff is a bedrock of information and encouragement…The friendliness and willingness to help have never let me down in the decades they've been around. Highly recommended site for all questions consumerish.” —Donald Scott, Carson City, Nevada, via Consumer Action feedback survey

Did you know?

A new report by the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Consumer Federation of America found that most state funeral service regulators provide poor or no information to consumers about consumer protections regarding funeral purchases, how to file complaints, how to learn about disciplinary actions, and how to best shop for funeral services. Consumer information can make a huge difference in the lives of the bereaved, who must often quickly choose among funeral services where costs can range from under $2,000 to more than $20,000. Read the report.

New fact sheets cover Emergency Broadband Benefit and vaccine hesitancy

By Monica Steinisch

Consumer Action has been busy producing new fact sheets that help our pandemic-battered communities transition from “survive” to “thrive.”

The first publication, Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit: Discounted phone and internet for low-income households, introduces consumers to the federal Lifeline program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). Lifeline has been around since 1985; the EBB is brand new, and just began taking applications in May. Both these Federal Communications Commission (FCC) programs are aimed at helping low-income households afford high-speed internet service by providing a discount on monthly service. (Lifeline used to be dedicated to reducing the cost of phone service, but the voice-only discount will be discontinued at the end of this year.) The EBB discount (up to $50 per month for eligible households; up to $75 for qualifying residents of Tribal Lands) is much higher than the Lifeline discount (up to $9.25 per month; up to $34.25 for residents of Tribal Lands), but the EBB program is temporary; it will end when the program runs out of money, or six months after the government declares an end to the COVID-19 crisis, whichever comes first.

While you’re learning more about the federal Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit programs in our new publication, check out our updated Getting Up to Speed: Broadband internet for low-income households fact sheet and the companion Low-income Broadband Plans. In addition to covering Lifeline and the EBB, these publications provide details about the handful of discounted broadband programs offered by telecommunications companies and nonprofits. Using these three publications, consumers can compare the costs, service features, availability, and eligibility requirements of the various options and choose the program that best meets their needs.

Vaccine hesitancy

The other two new publications, produced under our COVID-19 Educational Project, address the critical issue of vaccine hesitancy. The single most promising route back to normal life, and recovery for our communities, is the COVID-19 vaccine. While many millions of Americans have been safely vaccinated, millions of others have not, with many basing their decision not to get the vaccine on inaccurate or misleading information.

The Coping with COVID: Distinguishing between vaccine fact and fiction fact sheet counters specific vaccination objections (like that the vaccine can give you the coronavirus, alter your DNA, or is not necessary if you’ve already had COVID-19) with facts; explains why someone should get vaccinated; gives tips for recognizing and stemming vaccine misinformation/disinformation; and directs readers to resources that can help them get a vaccination.

Because community-based organizations (CBOs) are crucial allies in the national effort to get as many people in the U.S. vaccinated as soon as possible, we created a guide to free resources and toolkits from trustworthy sources that are designed to be used by CBOs to encourage and communicate about COVID-19 vaccination within their communities. Coping with COVID: Coronavirus vaccination outreach resources for community-based organizations lists tools ranging from the CDC’s Educating Communities on the Importance of COVID-19 Vaccines toolkit to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Greater Than COVID: The Conversation/La Conversación social media messaging campaign targeting Latino and Black communities, all of which attempt to dispel misinformation and disinformation and impress upon unvaccinated individuals how crucial it is that they help the U.S. achieve herd immunity.

All three of our new fact sheets were funded by AT&T.

The resources are available for free download in English now, and can be freely reproduced by community-based organizations to distribute to their individual clients and throughout their communities. The fact sheets will be made available in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean downloads in August and September, as translations are completed.

Hotline Chronicles: My RV is a lemon

By Linda Sherry

Recreational vehicle (RV) sales have soared during the coronavirus pandemic, as consumers look for ways to travel without staying in hotels or vacation rentals. Purchasing a recreational vehicle or motorhome is a huge investment. Carlita,* a South Carolina consumer, purchased a $70,000 “camper.” But when problems immediately cropped up (the heater didn’t work and the slide-out sides malfunctioned), she called about warranty service and was told to bring her RV to a certain repair shop. While she found the first person she interacted with to be helpful, he left the shop, and she kept getting the runaround from other employees. After four months, she said, her RV is still sitting in the shop.

Most of us have heard about laws that protect us when we buy defective vehicles (aka “lemons”). A car is presumed to be a lemon if it has to be returned repeatedly to the dealer for the same repair. However, lemon laws—and what they cover—vary by state. (Check this site for your state’s law.) Certain state lemon laws only cover defects in the chassis of the motorhome, while others exclude coverage of the living areas of the vehicle, such as kitchens and bathrooms. For example, depending on your state, the chassis, the propulsion system and the cab might be covered, but the habitable areas and functions may not be.

According to the website of Michigan-based lemon law attorney Ken Stern, many state lemon laws completely exclude motorhomes from coverage. Instead, making a claim under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act may be a potential option for protecting your rights as a buyer. But making a Magnuson-Moss warranty claim is complex.

In a situation like this, it can make sense to seek the help of an attorney. Cases involving recreational vehicles are challenging, since these vehicles often are treated differently under the law than cars, trucks and vans.

We suggested that Carlita consult an attorney associated with the National Association of Consumer Advocates. You can use its “Find an Attorney” tool to search by your location and the attorney’s area of expertise.

Thinking of buying an RV? The website RV Nerds suggests that before you agree to buy a new motorhome or towable RV, get to know the lemon laws in the state where you live, the state where you intend to purchase, and the state where you might need to have repair work done. See the RV Nerds pages on “motorhome” and “towable RV” lemon laws by state.

Since Carlita bought her RV new and the problems appeared soon after purchase, she was covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. But many RV consumers, including Carlita, buy an extended warranty at the time of the original purchase. Extended warranties typically kick in after the manufacturer’s warranty runs out. We generally do not recommend extended warranties. Watch this video to learn about one man’s experience with the RV extended warranty he purchased from the same place as Carlita, as well as his good advice about RV extended warranties.

More information

*Not this consumer’s real name

Consumer Action reaches Spanish-speakers through print and TV coverage during COVID

By Nelson Santiago

Consumer Action's diverse, multilingual staff regularly works with local, national and ethnic media to bring attention to key consumer issues, expose anti-consumer practices and warn consumers about the newest scams to look out for.

Since the pandemic began, I have, in my role as community outreach manager, taken extra steps to get the word out to media about the organization’s Spanish scam alerts and other resources. La Voz, a bilingual paper in Northern California, started publishing our articles regularly. I’ve also responded to newspaper and television reporters' requests for interviews on emerging consumer problems.

Scammers have been unrelenting during the pandemic. The tips in the news articles can help keep consumers safe through the end of the crisis, and beyond.

Our Spanish media coverage linked to below can be shared with Spanish-speaking consumers you know or serve. We regularly post press releases and stories in Spanish on our website.

Early in 2021, Northern California's La Voz invited me to regularly submit bilingual articles for publication. Recent articles include:

For regularly updated COVID resource information, visit our multilingual online guide Resources for consumers impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Learn more about Consumer Action's outreach to the Spanish-speaking community here.

Coalition Efforts: Looking out for prescription drug users, bank customers, student loan and mortgage borrowers

By Alegra Howard

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

Watchdog agency should monitor pharmaceutical mergers more stringently. The pharmaceutical industry has become increasingly concentrated in recent years, often resulting in higher prices and reduced choice for consumers. Increasing evidence shows that consumers are paying higher prices for prescription drugs and losing out on access and choice because of less innovation by drug companies. Advocates argue that the Federal Trade Commission’s current approach to monitoring pharmaceutical mergers, and its historically pro-merger policy, fails to fully protect American consumers and patients. Learn more.

Time to eliminate predatory practices by for-profit colleges. Student loan advocates wrote a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) sharing their priorities for its negotiated rulemaking process. Coalition members emphasized the need to protect student loan borrowers. Advocates specifically asked ED to include a lot more student and borrower representation among its negotiators, and to strengthen safeguards against predatory practices by for-profit institutions by reinstating strong borrower protection regulations, like the gainful employment and borrower defense rules. Learn more.

Support for legislation targeting excessive overdraft fees. Consumer advocates joined forces to support the Overdraft Protection Act of 2021. Banks earn billions every year from so-called overdraft protection programs—this legislation would set important limits on how often fees can be charged, improve transparency and disclosure of fees, and stop banks from automatically enrolling customers. Learn more.

Federally backed mortgage borrowers deserve full 12 months of forbearance. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), coalition advocates urged HUD to give Federal Housing Administration-backed borrowers who start forbearance plans after July 1, 2021, access to a full 12 months of forbearance, in line with policies from government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). In doing so, HUD would rightfully recognize the continued economic turmoil from the global pandemic. HUD’s current decision unnecessarily limits forbearance for borrowers accessing plans after June 30, 2021, to only six months of relief instead of the standard 12 months pursuant to the CARES Act. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: New rule to help prevent foreclosures, and refunds on no-consent loans

By Ruth Susswein

Shortly before its 10th anniversary, on July 21, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a new rule to help prevent unnecessary foreclosures, just as federal protections against foreclosure expire.

The 2021 COVID-19 Mortgage Servicing Rule’s primary purpose is to ensure that homeowners experiencing financial difficulty receive a timely and meaningful evaluation for a loan modification.

This temporary protection for those who have a pandemic-related hardship allows mortgage servicers to modify a home loan using an abbreviated (“incomplete”) application, and offer a “streamlined” loan modification that, among other things:

  • Does not increase the borrower’s monthly mortgage payment,
  • Does not extend the loan to more than 40 years, and
  • Does not charge loan modification fees.

Mortgage servicers must reach out to borrowers at least 30 days before their forbearance (mortgage payment pause) expires to discuss options. The rule also prevents servicers from filing for foreclosure until after Dec. 31, 2021. (There are limited exceptions.) The rule takes effect Aug. 31, 2021. Dowload an "Executive Summary" of the rule here.

CFPB puts landlords and credit bureaus on notice

In an effort to protect renters (since the federal eviction moratorium ended on July 31), the Consumer Bureau is warning landlords, property managers and consumer reporting agencies to report rent and eviction information accurately. The CFPB plans to closely scrutinize the reporting of arrearages to ensure that erroneous information does not worsen tenants’ financial problems and prevent them from obtaining future housing.

CFPB responds to language access request for LEP homeowners

As part of the Bureau’s efforts to help borrowers and renters remain in their homes, Consumer Action and allies have called on the CFPB to press mortgage servicers to make loss mitigation information available to limited-English-proficient (LEP) consumers who, since COVID, are struggling to meet their mortgage obligations.

The Bureau heard our request and promptly responded by making a sample early intervention notice available in Spanish. The in-language model notice encourages borrowers to contact their servicer to learn what refinancing options may be available to them.

The effort also encourages mortgage servicers to be responsive to LEP consumers’ needs. We hope the CFPB will continue to translate key messages into many more languages during this taxing time, when many are still coping with the financial fallout of the pandemic.

CFPB puts money back in consumers’ pockets for unapproved loans

The CFPB is requiring GreenSky, LLC, a nonbank lender, to refund—or cancel—$9 million in loans that consumers never authorized. GreenSky primarily financed home improvement projects on-the-spot, and disbursed the funds directly to the home improvement or healthcare merchant, leaving consumers unaware of a related loan until the bills arrived. In some cases, unbeknownst to the consumer, merchants applied for loans in the consumers’ names and entered its own email address on the application.

“GreenSky’s careless business and customer service practices enabled its merchants to take advantage of vulnerable consumers who needed financial help to repair their homes and to pay for other critical retail services by setting up loans without consumers’ consent,” said CFPB Acting Director Dave Uejio.

In addition to canceling and refunding loans, the Atlanta-based lender will pay a $2.5 million penalty and will retain evidence that they have received borrowers’ consent prior to releasing funds on any future loans.

As the Bureau makes multiple efforts to help borrowers and renters remain in their homes, and works to return ill-gotten gains to consumers, Consumer Action welcomes the CFPB’s return to its consumer protection roots, after its deviation to anti-consumer priorities under the past administration. Happy 10th anniversary, CFPB!

Class Action Database: Vivid Seats ticket resale marketplace changes rules of game

By Rose Chan

A class action settlement involving Kellogg’s and its advertising of Raisin Bran and Frosted Mini-Wheats cereals was among 17 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during July.

Of note this month is the class action Nellis, et al. v. Vivid Seats LLC.

Plaintiffs alleged that Vivid Seats breached its contract with its users by refusing to honor its 100% Buyer Guarantee. Vivid Seats is a secondary market where sellers can list tickets for sale on its website for events such as sports games and concerts. Both buyers and sellers pay fees to Vivid Seats after the purchase of a ticket. The 100% Buyer Guarantee promised Vivid Seats buyers that if the event was cancelled, the buyer would receive a full refund of the purchase price, including fees.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, in March 2020, Vivid Seats updated its website and promised that if the event were cancelled with no rescheduled date, Vivid Seats buyers would be “entitled to a full refund of the purchase price, including delivery charges, per Vivid Seats’ 100% Buyer Guarantee.” Vivid Seats also offered an option for buyers to choose a 120% Vivid Seats credit instead of a cash refund. Plaintiffs claim that Vivid Seats suddenly, and without notice, changed the 100% Buyer Guarantee from refund to compensation. Before the change, buyers would automatically receive cash refunds. Now buyers would need to contact Vivid Seats customer service within seven days of the event cancellation to receive a cash refund. Plaintiffs charged that Vivid Seats refused to provide cash refunds for the cancelled events as promised by the 100% Buyer Guarantee.

The defendant, which denies the allegations, nonetheless agreed to a $7.5 million settlement.

You are part of the class if, on or before April 1, 2021, you purchased tickets from Vivid Seats for events between Sept. 29, 2016, and April 1, 2021, that were cancelled or postponed or rescheduled and have not yet occurred.

Class members who want to receive cash payments instead of account credits must submit a claim form by the deadline.

The claims deadline is Aug. 30, 2021.

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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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