Consumer Action INSIDER - May 2021

Tell us how we’re doing!

Can you believe Consumer Action has been around for 50 years, fighting hard for your right to a fair marketplace and educating you and your loved ones on financial practices to help you prosper? We have! And we’d love your feedback on how we’ve been doing and which of our services have been most important to you. Please fill out our (very) brief three-question survey here!

What people are saying

Your webinar on the adoption of contactless payments during the pandemic is the VERY best webinar I've attended since COVID hit. The host's enthusiasm and professional presentation style were both fun and engaging. Best. Host. EVER! Each panelist's content was very clear and helpful; they also…provided specific tips on how financial coaches could use the info! 10 out of 10 for content and presentation!—Jennifer Quillin, Desert Mission Living Well Program Financial Coach

Did you know?

Companies and headhunters are using personality tests in the hiring process more frequently. If you are job hunting, know that laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibit the use of pre-employment screening tests if they are used to discriminate against prospective—and current—employees. Pre-employment testing can violate federal anti-discrimination laws if it purposefully discriminates against or excludes people based only on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age (40 or older). “Disparate impact” is what occurs if the test unfairly and negatively impacts protected groups by disproportionately screening them out of a job, particularly if the questions/tasks in the test or procedure are not relevant to the ability to perform the job and the employer cannot prove they are under the law.

Making sense of pandemic-related aid and assistance

In March, Consumer Action teamed up with the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) at Maryland’s Prince George's Community College to discuss federal stimulus packages and pandemic-related consumer protections. The FEC hosts weekly webinars to enhance financial knowledge among students and community members. It also offers financial and small business coaching, information on best practices in financial and business operations, and free tax preparation.

Attendees from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia heard Consumer Action’s director of strategic partnerships, Audrey Perrott, give an overview of the trillions of dollars in aid available through the complex and massive Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act (signed into law a few days after Perrott’s presentation), and explain the other key housing protections available for renters and homeowners. All three stimulus packages have provided a huge amount of aid and relief to individuals, families and small businesses impacted by the pandemic. Click here to learn more about the financial and other aid that may be available to you (or your clients).

Perrott reviewed the amounts available to households under the legislation—including the economic stimulus payments and child tax credit, unemployment compensation extensions, student financial aid, and even internet credits for low-income families.

She went on to highlight critical information about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) national eviction moratorium, which was, fortunately, extended through June 2021 shortly after Perrott’s presentation. Perrott also shared information on state-specific moratoriums, including Maryland’s protections for tenants who could show, through documentation or other evidence, that they had suffered a substantial loss of income related to COVID. Perrott shared the important fact that even those tenants living in states where eviction moratoriums have ended may have more options than they realize. For instance, in Virginia, tenants can still opt to pay rent in full, enter a repayment arrangement of up to six months, or obtain rent relief.

Perrott then shared information about protections specific to homeowners. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) are allowing up to one year of forbearance, particularly for those with federally backed mortgages. (A forbearance allows a homeowner to take a break from making payments.) Homeowners with mortgages issued by private corporations (i.e., banks) may also be eligible for forbearance. Both populations must know to ask their lender for it! Perrott emphasized that homeowners looking for advice should get it from a HUD-approved housing counseling agency—the only way to ensure it’s trustworthy and free!

She stressed that, if they have the ability to pay, consumers should pay their mortgage; homeowners who opt for forbearance will eventually have to do one of the following to catch up on their payments: make a lump sum payment, add extra funds to their regular monthly payments until the amount due is repaid, add additional payments to the end of the loan, or modify the loan altogether. She further noted that it is important to get the terms of any loan modification plan, including interest rates, in writing. She also provided information about government-sponsored enterprise forbearance programs (i.e., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)

For more information on the pandemic-related housing crisis, including the link to a recent Consumer Action webinar on the subject and a wealth of resources to prevent state and federal evictions, click here. Finally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers an informative guide, “Help for homeowners and renters during the coronavirus national emergency.”

“As always, it has been a pleasure to collaborate with Prince George's Community College’s Financial Empowerment Center,” Perrott said. “The FEC is a long-term Consumer Action partner, and its staff are not only committed to educating consumers, but also to providing stakeholders with sound financial coaching, powerful tools for success, and a plethora of resources to set consumers on a path to financial health.”

Hotline Chronicles: Real estate seminar is all costs, no returns

Real estate investing seminars—both in-person and online—reel in consumers looking to find financial freedom with promises of big returns. Not all real estate investment trainings are outright scams (as in, “take your money and run”), but even legitimate programs can fail to deliver on their promises. Moira* is a widow from the East Coast who thought she was doing a wise thing when she spent funds she inherited from her late husband on a nationally advertised program promising big rewards from “flipping” houses.

Buoyed by the popularity of home renovation shows, the interest in buying low-priced real estate, fixing it up and reselling at a profit, aka flipping, is at a high point.

Moira first attended a free event about the program. Such free classes often come with an invitation to attend additional—and expensive—training “opportunities.” Moira took the bait and, last fall, paid approximately $15,000 for a seminar, flying from her East Coast home to California to take part. Once she realized the program was a waste of her money, she contacted Consumer Action’s hotline looking for information about any class action lawsuits she could join against the promoter. While our counselors couldn’t find a pending class action, we did find dozens of complaints about the course Moira had attended, and how worthless it was to many attendees.

Our counselors suggested that Moira consider making a complaint about the promoter’s failure to provide promised assistance after the course. While we advised Moira that it was virtually impossible to get her money back, her story could be helpful to consumers who might be considering such a course if she added it to popular online complaint sites, such as Yelp, and filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the California State Attorney General’s office (the state in which the seminars are based).

The FTC has brought cases against purveyors of such seminars before. The federal agency, which provides solid information to protect consumers from all manner of scams, notes: “For most people who invest in these real estate investment seminars—some of which cost thousands of dollars to buy into—the pay-off doesn’t match the promise. In fact, most people never get back the money they invested.”

If you have stars in your eyes about making big bucks flipping houses—or any other get-rich-quick scheme—realize that these programs, even if legitimate, often make over-the-top claims, and look for these red flags:

  • Promises you can earn big money fast, regardless of your experience or training;
  • Statements about how you’ll be coached to success each step of the way;
  • Ads with reviews or testimonials touting success stories by people who’ve made lots of money with little time, effort and risk; or
  • Guarantees of big returns with no mention of potential risks.

Tips:

  • Don’t be pressured. Make sure that you research the investment opportunity carefully before you pay any money or sign any documents.
  • Search online for the name of the company and words like “review,” “scam” or “complaint.” Others’ experiences can tip you off to possible problems.
  • Be suspicious of promoters who play down risk, make vague promises or tell you that you don’t need to read contract documents. Contracts are legally binding documents that often contain “fine print” that disavows any liability by promoters if the program doesn’t pay off. They also can block your right to seek justice by including language that mandates how disputes will be handled—for example, through forced arbitration (which we also oppose).
  • Never invest based solely on what you have read on social media or in a newsletter, website or blog. Discuss the so-called opportunity with a trusted friend, family member or financial planner.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Coalition Efforts: Opposing Instagram for kids and drugstore data demands

Create a fair pathway to citizenship for our nation’s essential workers. Consumer Action and other economic justice and human rights groups wrote to the Biden administration in early April urging it to support a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, “Dreamers” and those with temporary protected statuses (i.e., those who have been forced to flee countries rife with war, economic devastation, gang violence and other terrible conditions). As we have witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, these immigrants are a vital part of our essential workforce, constituting much of our healthcare and childcare infrastructure. Close to 23 million immigrants have been putting their lives on the line in essential roles that keep our children and families healthy and our food supply chain and general economy running! A commonsense, reliable and fair pathway to citizenship is an essential part of supporting the investments we need to uplift our nation's infrastructure and create millions of taxpaying jobs, which in turn will boost the economic recovery and security for all Americans. Learn more.

Pharmacies must stop demanding customers’ personal data for vaccinations! Pharmacies should not require individuals to submit to systems that broadly collect and use the personal information of patients as a prerequisite for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or joining a waiting list. Unfortunately, they have been—en masse. In response, a variety of consumer and privacy groups signed on to letters that went to a number of states (including California and New York), as well as Washington, D.C., urging lawmakers and attorneys general to investigate and put a stop to the cumbersome and invasive process by which Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and others are requiring consumers to “sign up” through their existing online portals simply to get the vaccine. The sign-up fiasco is an underhanded way for pharmacies to obtain data for marketing purposes. Learn more.

Time to finally fulfill the promise of student debt relief for public servants! A total of 97 student, consumer, public interest, civil rights, higher education and other organizations representing millions of public service workers and student loan borrowers sent a powerful letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calling on the Department of Education (ED) to conduct a 90-day review of its scandal-plagued Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program before immediately canceling the student loan debt of all public service workers who had completed 10 or more years of service, as promised. Over a decade ago, Congress told aspiring nurses, teachers, and millions of others that they would not be precluded from pursuing these lower-paying public service careers, as their debts would be discharged after a decade under the then-new PSLF. Shamefully, however, 98% of these PSLF program applicants have been rejected since they first became eligible, in 2017, to have their debts cancelled, due in large part to egregious ED program mismanagement. The letter urges the ED under President Biden to, in no uncertain terms, use the full scope of its legal authority to quickly deliver on the promised relief. Learn more.

A ‘kids’ version’ of Instagram!? Keep scrolling, Facebook. In what could be considered one of the worst ideas we’ve heard in a while, Facebook announced that it might soon create an “Instagram for children.” The New York Times reported on the ill-advised plan and its many detractors, including Consumer Action, Common Sense Media and the Center for Digital Democracy. The article describes a letter advocates sent to the social media giant urging it to “scrap its plans to develop a version of the popular photo-sharing app for users under age 13.” In addition to the obvious safety and privacy concerns, the letter pointed out that a growing body of research has demonstrated that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful and addictive to young people, as it exploits their fear of missing out and their desire for peer approval. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Preventing future foreclosures, curbing debt collection deception

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is putting mortgage servicers on notice that a “surge” of help will be needed for the wave of homeowners with mortgages who will likely be exiting forbearance in the months ahead. (Forbearance is a lender-authorized pause in a borrower’s mortgage payments—in this case, in response to the pandemic and widespread job loss). The Bureau is warning servicers to increase help to homeowners now—to avert a massive mortgage crisis. Without the unprecedented protection that’s been offered to homeowners, millions would have been foreclosed on or evicted and will soon be at risk of losing their homes. Nearly 3 million homeowners are already behind on their mortgage payments.

The CFPB is looking to prevent homeowners from having to transition directly from forbearance to foreclosure, and is warning mortgage servicers that being “unprepared [to help homeowners] is unacceptable.” The Bureau says it will be paying special attention to how promptly servicers assist borrowers, how well they communicate with homeowners who have limited English proficiency, and how well they comply with the rules designed to prevent foreclosures.

The Consumer Bureau has also proposed some changes to its mortgage servicing rules to help deter avoidable foreclosures, including:

  • Banning mortgage servicers from beginning a foreclosure before Dec. 31, 2021. (The Bureau would require a pre-foreclosure review, to allow homeowners and servicers time to find a workable modification to the home loan.)
  • Giving mortgage servicers more flexibility to offer streamlined loan modifications to borrowers with ongoing COVID-related hardships.
  • Requiring servicers to provide timely information to mortgage borrowers about how to be considered for modifications or sanctioned pauses in payments.

To achieve the Bureau’s goals, national advocacy groups such as the National Consumer Law Center have urged the Bureau to focus on mandating that mortgage servicers evaluate borrowers for all the home retention options for which they may qualify. In January, Consumer Action joined other advocates in a letter to the CFPB proposing ways to protect borrowers (often concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color) from foreclosure, such as banning the servicer practice of foreclosing on homeowners while the servicer is considering them for a loan modification. (Yes, this actually happens!)

The Bureau is seeking public input on its current proposals to increase homeowner protection. Your feedback can be brief and informal, so take a minute to share your opinion here.

Punishment for debt collection deception

Debt collector Yorba Capital Management is the latest bad actor to be permanently banned from the debt collection business for harassing thousands of consumers, threatening them with lawsuits and/or falsely claiming that they had been sued.

The CFPB took similar action against other collectors in 2018 and 2019 for pressuring borrowers to repay their debts by illegally exaggerating the penalties of not paying. It is a violation of law for a collector to claim that a debtor will be arrested or sued when the collector never intends to do that.

While the CFPB consent order with Yorba mandates that the collection agency return $860,000 to consumers, this payment has been suspended—ironically, because of the collector’s inability to pay.

Debt collection rule delayed

Indebted consumers’ email inboxes will get a temporary reprieve from unlimited electronic debt collection notices.

Under a new CFPB rule, debt collectors would have been allowed to expand their channels of communication with borrowers beginning this November. Under the rule, collectors have new permission to contact consumers by email, text and social media direct messaging (DM). While consumers can opt out of certain types of messages (for example, by choosing to be contacted via email but never by text message), the rule places no limits on the number of electronic contacts a collector can make. Consumer advocates, including Consumer Action, strongly opposed this portion of the rule, finalized by a CFPB led by Trump appointee Kathy Kraninger. Now, under new leadership, the Bureau has proposed that the new federal debt collection rule be put off until Jan. 29, 2022. In the interim, consumer advocates are pressing the CFPB to severely limit the scope of electronic communications allowed.

For more on the new rule, see the Debt Collection issue of Consumer Action News.

Class Action Database: Post cereal serves up bowls of ‘nutritious’ nonsense

A class action settlement involving Veridian Credit Union’s overdraft fees was among 11 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during April. Visit the page often, as we add new cases on a regular basis.

A new class action settlement over popular Post cereal products is Krommenhock v. Post Foods, LLC. Lead plaintiffs Debbie Krommenhock and Stephen Hadley filed a class action against cereal manufacturer Post Foods alleging that Post deceptively labeled and marketed its breakfast cereal as “nutritious” and containing “no high fructose corn syrup,” when its products do have added sugars, including evaporated cane juice and glycerin.

Post issued several press releases where it claimed that its cereal products would boost metabolism and constitute a “heart healthy way to start the day.” Post featured each cereal product on its own website, highlighting its nutritional benefits.

Post Great Grains Protein Blend: Honey, Oats & Seeds, for example, was advertised as containing “nutritious ingredients in every bite” and as “help[ing] support a healthy metabolism,” when the nutrition facts listed on the packaging reveal nine grams of added sugar per each suggested 55-gram (quarter-cup) serving—or 16% of the cereal’s calories—which exceeds the maximum government recommendation of 5% of calories from added sugar.

Post denied the allegations but agreed to a $15 million settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

Consumers who bought cereal listed on the class action website (under “Eligible Products”) between Aug. 29, 2012, and Nov. 2, 2020, may be eligible for payment. (And there are many eligible products, including Honeycomb, Raisin Bran and Honey Bunches of Oats.)

The claims deadline is May 19, 2021. In making a claim, you will be asked to voluntarily certify how many boxes of the individual cereal products that you bought in a typical three-month period, and beginning in what year you began purchasing the products.

About Consumer Action

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 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 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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