Consumer Action INSIDER - October 2017

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

Thank you for the opportunity to attend Consumer Action’s debt collection training. The presenters and guest speakers were knowledgeable and provided great information. I was able to return to work with tools to help my clients. — Rolanda Wilson, NID Housing Counseling Agency, Oakland, CA

Did you know?

The big airlines are pushing legislation that would remove the responsibility for our air traffic control system (ATC) from the federal government and give it to a private entity representing the interests of the airline industry over consumers. Under this scheme, there would be no ability to appeal to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or Congress if the entity mistreated consumers, instituted new fees or cut resources to community airports. A wide range of stakeholders and industry experts, including Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, strongly oppose the airlines’ plan. In July, the U.S. Senate committee overseeing the FAA rejected ATC privatization. However, big airline allies in the House of Representatives are planning a floor vote in the next few weeks, hoping to include the scheme in its FAA funding package. Please join us in contacting your elected representatives to demand that they oppose H.R. 2997.

Out and About: New credit building toolkit and certification program

In August, Consumer Action’s Audrey Perrott attended the Credit Builders Alliance’s (CBA) Credit as an Asset training, cohosted by Credit Builders Alliance and the National Asian American Coalition (NAAC). Both agencies are champions in the fight to provide mainstream financial services to low-income consumers.

CBA is no stranger to the asset building game. The agency provides non-profits with both the ability and the critical technical assistance to report loan data to credit reporting agencies and to pull low-cost client credit reports for the purposes of financial education, outcome tracking and underwriting.

CBA launched its new training institute website over the summer. With the launch of the site, CBA unveiled its Credit as an Asset master training program, a Credit Builders Toolkit, a Credit Building Consulting service and a CBA Members’ Corner. The aim of the CBA Training Institute is to help organizations move consumers from poverty to prosperity by delivering training taught by experienced credit practitioners and by helping staff of member organizations become credentialed in order to deliver trainings to the communities they serve.

CBA Deputy Director Sarah Chenven facilitated the Credit as an Asset training that Perrott attended. Perrott found that the training “included a good mix of lecture, interactive activities, sharing of best practices and a content-rich participant’s guide. Chenven did a stellar job of introducing the content and weaving the best practices of local CBA members into the training. She also allowed featured members to share vignettes about their asset building work with the larger group.”

The Credit as an Asset training is part of the CBA master training program, which includes two days on asset building and meeting facilitation, full access to CBA’s licensed curriculum, ongoing education, technical assistance, and updates on credit industry changes. For more information on hosting a Credit as an Asset training for your agency, contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Credit Builders Alliance is a national non-profit social enterprise dedicated to building the capacity of non-profits (CBA members) to help low- and moderate-income households build strong credit and other financial assets. CBA was created by and for non-profit members in response to a serious gap in the modern credit reporting system that locks millions of individuals with poor or thin credit files out of the mainstream financial system.

The NAAC is a HUD-approved housing counseling agency that focuses on sustainable homeownership and workforce, small business and economic development.

Real help for recognizing and combatting fake news

Fake news” is big news these days. While not entirely new, misleading and flat-out false information being presented as fact has become far more widespread over the last few years, and the repercussions have been serious. In 2016, a fake news story about Hillary Clinton leading a child-trafficking ring headquartered in a Washington, DC, pizzeria led a man to fire an assault rifle inside the restaurant.

Other fake news stories have impacted U.S. elections, our healthcare policies, the national economy ($130 billion in stock value temporarily vanished when nervous investors sold securities because of a hacker’s false Associated Press tweet claiming that an “explosion” had injured President Obama), individual finances (58 percent of Americans believe that fake news is a serious threat to their financial decision-making) and even personal health.

Consumer Action’s recently published Fake news: Recognizing and stemming misinformation is written to help consumers evaluate the accuracy of what they read or hear and refrain from spreading false stories. Thanks to the internet and social media, misinformation that decades ago might have been heard or read by relatively few can now reach millions of people around the world in a matter of minutes. While companies such as Facebook and Google have made efforts to prevent fake news from “going viral,” informed consumers are the best gatekeepers when it comes to stopping its proliferation.

To help consumers fulfill their critical role in stemming fake news, the new publication covers:

  • The different forms fake news can take, from propaganda and hyper-partisan stories to factual misstatements and misidentified satire;
  • How to vet a story, from looking for telltale signs of fakery to using the internet and tech tools to verify sources, facts and photos;
  • The “dos and don’ts” of dealing with fake news; and
  • A dozen resources—articles, websites and tech tools—that further empower individuals to avoid, spot, vet and stop fake news.

Fake news: Recognizing and stemming misinformation is available as a free PDF download from the Consumer Action website. The publication, which was created with a grant from Google, will also be available in Spanish by the end of November.

Hotline Chronicles: Equifax breach prompts credit file freeze questions

As reported widely, a major breach at the credit bureau Equifax, one of the “big three” companies (along with TransUnion and Experian) that compile consumer credit histories and furnish reports to lenders considering credit applications, has exposed the sensitive personal information of 143 million people. This information includes Social Security numbers, birthdates and addresses. The breach has led consumers, like Jackie* from New Jersey, to call Consumer Action’s hotline asking, “How do I place a freeze on my credit file?”

A credit, or security, freeze is a preventive tool to help you to stop impostors from using your personal information to establish credit, a crime known as “identity theft.” Freezing your credit file means that new credit cannot be established in your name until you lift the freeze. Unless you are a documented victim of identity theft, you may have to pay a fee to place the freeze and another fee to lift the freeze temporarily when you need to apply for credit, though a handful of states mandate that freezes be free for all residents.

Equifax has offered free credit file freezes until Nov. 21, 2017. If you want a free credit file freeze from Equifax, you can call 800-349-9960 or visit the company’s website.

To be effective, one should place a freeze with all three credit bureaus. However, TransUnion and Experian, not affected by breaches, are not offering free freezes. To learn the cost of freezes in your state, see this page on the TransUnion site.

So how do you place a freeze on your credit file? Contact the bureaus. Each one will have a different procedure for activating and lifting a freeze. Remember, the freeze remains on your credit file until you remove it; you should contact the credit bureaus where you placed freezes before applying for new credit. Here’s the contact information for the three major credit reporting bureaus.

Equifax

Call 800 349-9960 or visit the company’s website. For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s “Free credit freezes from Equifax.”

Experian

Call 888 397-3742 and follow the prompts for placing a security freeze, or visit the company’s website.

TransUnion

Call 888 909-8872 and follow the prompts for placing a security freeze by mail, or visit the company’s website, where you can establish an account and freeze your credit file. We’ve noticed that TransUnion is pushing its TrueIdentity “credit monitoring”—a paid product—on some of its freeze information pages, but you can request a freeze, for a fee, without enrolling in the paid product.

Pros and cons

Consider both the benefits and drawbacks of locking your credit file before you decide whether or not to place a security freeze.

Pros:

  • A security freeze can stop imposters from opening new accounts in your name.
  • A freeze does not stop you from getting new credit or other services.
  • The freeze does not expire—it remains in effect until you remove it.
  • Freezing provides much greater protection and typically costs much less than a monthly credit monitoring service.
  • A freeze does not affect your credit score.
  • In most cases, placing a security freeze—and lifting it—is free for victims of ID theft. However, just being a victim of the Equifax breach does not make you an ID theft victim.

Cons:

  • A security freeze only is effective if you activate it at all three credit reporting agencies.
  • Depending where you live, non-victims may pay up to $30 to place the freeze with all three agencies.
  • In most states, non-victims must pay a fee whenever they ask to temporarily lift the freeze. However, it is free in many states to permanently remove the freeze.
  • A security freeze can take up to three business days to be lifted, delaying your credit application or other transaction and preventing you from accessing “instant credit” offers at stores and retailers. (A number of states have passed laws, however, that require the freeze be lifted within 15 minutes of the request.)
  • A freeze does not prevent fraud involving your existing bank or credit accounts.

For more information, visit Consumer Action’s guide to protecting your personal data in the wake of the Equifax breach.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Educational sessions on elder financial abuse, ID theft and more

Consumer Action’s outreach and training manager, Linda Williams, recently conducted a series of trainings at the National Association of Consumer Credit Administrators’ (NAACA) national conference and its annual examiner compliance training school in Phoenix, AZ. NAACA was formed in 1935 to improve the supervision of consumer credit agencies and to facilitate the administration of laws governing these agencies.

Williams delivered her first educational session, entitled Elder Abuse: Financial Scams Against Seniors, to a packed audience. Elder financial abuse occurs when someone illegally or improperly uses a vulnerable senior’s money or other property; financial fraud is the fastest growing form of elder abuse nationally.

Williams kicked off the presentation by featuring the top ten financial scams targeting seniors, as identified in a 2017 report issued by the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging. These include IRS impersonation and sweepstakes, computer and other scams. Williams pointed out that financial scams against older Americans can include a broad range of conduct, from outright theft (money or property) or forgery (a signature on a will, deed or other legal document, for example) to getting paid for care, products or services that are not provided. The audience hung on every word as Williams counted down the top ten scams.

As part of her presentation, Williams opened up a discussion on how to end robocalls and romance scams directed at seniors, which drew a robust conversation that continued in the hallways long after the conclusion of the presentation. Robocalls, which use computerized autodialers to deliver pre-recorded messages (often with the goal of scamming vulnerable people), continue despite the fact that Congress created the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003 with the aim of ending telemarketing intrusions. Fourteen years later, telemarketers and scammers bypass the registry, often using robocall technology to disturb even greater numbers of Americans, especially seniors. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 5.34 million Do Not Call Registry complaints, an increase of 49 percent over the previous year.

Williams informed the audience that in response to the high volume of complaints about robocalls, the FTC launched a contest—the Robocall Challenge—to identify innovative solutions to protect consumers. In April 2013, the FTC announced that Nomorobo, a free service that screens and blocks robocalls made to VoIP phone numbers, was one of the winners of the contest. While Nomorobo has been reviewed by Consumer Reports with good results, “whitelist” call blocking services, which block all incoming numbers except those specifically listed as acceptable, are generally recommended for seniors who are at high risk of being taken advantage of (for instance, those with Alzheimer’s). CPR Call Blocker Protect is one such whitelist service that is marketed primarily to these populations.

Williams’ presentation then turned to romance scams. Some in the audience were shocked to hear that “granny or grandpa” were likely to be engaging in online dating these days, but Williams was quick to inform the audience that romance scams were seventh on the list of the top 10 scams she had presented. As a matter of fact, the love con is an ancient ploy that has only increased due to advances in technology and the explosion of web-based dating services.

AARP reports that, as of December 2013, one in 10 American adults have used online dating services such as Match.com, Plenty of Fish and eHarmony. The online dating boom has also fueled an invisible epidemic: According to the FTC, complaints about impostor ploys such as the romance scam have more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, and nearly half of those who fell victim in 2014 were aged 50 or older. All told, this age group accounted for approximately 70 percent of the money lost to romance scams!

The next day, Williams presented a lively session on identity theft to a standing-room only audience. The audience participated in the session by sharing their personal and professional experiences with different forms of ID theft. Williams used Consumer Action’s ID theft fact sheets to help the audience understand the nuances of each form of ID theft and how they can inflict harm in different ways.

It was a discussion on specialty consumer reports, however, that drew the most interest and questions from the audience during the ID theft session. Many participants were shocked to learn that, in addition to the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian), hundreds of specialty consumer reporting agencies exist to collect information on particular consumer activities (from check-writing to medical payments) and provide reports to creditors, employers, landlords and others involved in the type of critical decision-making that impacts where a consumer can live, what job he or she can get, etc. Williams went on to inform the audience about the different types of specialty reports, consumers’ rights to obtain copies of the reports and how individuals can dispute inaccurate information (as dictated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act).

“I was honored to be able to present these critical issues that are so relevant not only to vulnerable populations but to anyone looking to establish and maintain good credit,” Williams said. “I look forward to continuing my work with the National Association of Consumer Credit Administrators to help its constituents fight back against fraud and unfair, predatory practices in the marketplace.”

Coalition Efforts: Privacy, pro-industry legislation and for-profit schools

Consumer/privacy groups weigh in on 2017 privacy bills. Privacy and consumer rights groups recently submitted formal comments on broadband and internet privacy bills introduced in the U.S. Senate and House. The groups noted that any new laws should not take authority away from agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—agencies that already have expertise and enforcement ability in this arena—and that privacy must remain a fundamental right of all Americans, including our most vulnerable. Learn more.

The FCC could do more to block pesky robocalls. Consumers received 2.4 billion unwanted telemarketing calls and robocalls in 2016. The issue constitutes the biggest consumer gripe filed with the FCC, which receives around 200,000 complaints annually about the calls. While the FCC has passed a new rule that allows providers to block calls coming from invalid numbers, unallocated numbers and numbers whose owners have requested they be blocked, advocates still urge the agency to do more to reduce the scam calls. Learn more.

No room for ideological riders in our nation’s budget. Earlier this year, hundreds of riders—most of them special favors for big corporations and ideological extremists—were proposed as a part of the government’s fiscal year 2017 budget process. (A rider is an additional provision added to a piece of legislation that has little to do with the subject of the bill itself.) The Clean Budget Coalition and its allies in Congress blocked most of them, but now that a new FY18 budget process is underway, some members of Congress once again are insisting on including riders. A coalition of 173 public interest groups maintains that these measures, which have nothing to do with funding our government, have no place in the budget. Learn more.

The CFPB champions consumers over Wall Street once again! The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finalized a rule to prohibit banks and lenders that break the law from stripping customers of their right to join together and hold them accountable in class action lawsuits. Without this CFPB rule, bad actors like Wells Fargo will continue to pocket billions in stolen money and could, in fact, gain a competitive edge in the marketplace by harming consumers. Of course, pro-industry members of Congress are trying to do away with the rule before it’s even announced. Learn more.

Trump favors for-profit college industry over defrauded students. The Trump Administration’s decision to delay and dismantle key student and taxpayer protections against fraudulent for-profit schools is terrible news for struggling student loan borrowers and a boon for the for-profit college industry. Pro-student, consumer and veterans organizations wrote to the Department of Education denouncing its decision to delay and weaken the borrower defense and gainful employment regulations because they protect both students and taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Student loan debt and debt relief refunds

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has halted a private student loan lender and its debt collector from suing thousands of student loan borrowers for debts the collectors cannot prove are owed.

The CFPB has ordered National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts and its debt collector, Transworld Systems Inc., to stop collecting on unverified debts and pay at least $3.5 million to more than 2,000 borrowers who made payments on invalid and expired debts.

Additionally, all 800,000 student loans owned by National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts must undergo independent audits to identify any other unproven debts that the lender has been trying to collect.

The CFPB ordered the private lender to stop collection efforts and lawsuits against borrowers, as well as reporting negative credit information on debts without the proper documentation. The firm also must stop filing falsely notarized documents and pay at least $21 million in ill-gotten gains to the U.S. Treasury, penalty fees to the CFPB and restitution to harmed consumers.

Legally owed student loan debts are doubled

Close to half of student loan borrowers leave school owing at least $20,000. The number of college students carrying such debt loads has doubled in the last decade, according to a new report by the CFPB. The number of students carrying more than $50,000 in student loans has tripled in the last 10 years. What’s more, fewer borrowers are paying down that debt in five years following graduation.

The Bureau’s study shows that even when borrowers are making loan payments, nearly one-third (30%) are not paying enough to cover the interest on their loans, let alone pay down the original debt, causing borrowers’ debts to grow.

Enrolling in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) can allow borrowers to make small monthly payments—even no payments—yet still avoid delinquency. The CFPB offers an online tool to help borrowers understand their repayment options.

The struggle to repay student loans by so many has prompted employers to offer loan repayment plans as an employee benefit. The Bureau reports that a growing number of large and small employers have been trying to help borrowers better manage their student debt through third-party repayment assistance programs, arranged for through the employer. In these cases, loan payments made directly to the borrower’s student loan servicer by the program either supplement or replace the borrower’s monthly installment payment. The Bureau’s research also found that some third-party repayment providers are having trouble submitting loan payments due to servicer errors.

The CFPB has offered recommendations to improve loan servicer repayment processes to help employers provide the much needed repayment relief for struggling borrowers.

Debt relief refunds

Checks are arriving in the mailboxes of 60,000 consumers who were misled by the debt settlement company Morgan Drexen. The CFPB sued the so-called “debt relief” firm for illegally charging upfront fees before arranging to settle people’s debts. Morgan Drexen was ordered by the court to pay $132 million to those enrolled in its debt settlement services between Oct. 27, 2010 and June 18, 2015.

Since the debt relief company is now defunct, the CFPB has issued refunds from its Civil Penalty Fund in order to ensure that consumers are compensated. (Epiq Systems is the claims processor for the Bureau.)

If you believe you’re entitled to a refund and did not receive one, you can file a claim before Dec. 4 here.

If you received only a claim form (and not a refund), the Bureau may need more information before sending your refund. To learn if your form is legit, click here.

Class Action Database: Honest Company is forced to come clean

Class action settlements involving bebe clothing company and Caribou Coffee were among 13 new settlements added to Consumer Action’s Class Action Database in September.

Of note this month are two major class action settlements involving the Honest Company and its marketing practices.

The first case is titled In re Honest Marketing Litigation. The plaintiffs in the case filed a class action against the Honest Company regarding the labeling, advertising and marketing of its cleaning, diapering and personal care products. Plaintiffs have claimed that the “all natural,”“100% natural” and “no harsh chemicals, ever!” product labels are misleading because not all of the ingredients contained in the products are natural and some of the products even contain known chemical irritants like methylisothiazolinone.

The defendant denied the allegations but agreed to a settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

Consumers who bought the following products between Jan. 17, 2012 and July 10, 2017 may be eligible for cash or Honest.com credit. Class members without proof of purchase may submit a claim for $2.50 per product for up to ten products. There is no limit on claims for class members with proof of purchase. The claims deadline is Oct. 23, 2017.

The second case is titled In re: Honest Co Inc. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation. The plaintiffs in this case alleged that Honest falsely advertised that its cleaning products do not contain the chemical sodium lauryl sulfate. Honest denied the allegations but agreed to a settlement to avoid the burden, expense and risk of continuing the lawsuit.

Consumers who bought Honest Multi-Surface Cleaner, Honest Dish Soap or Honest Laundry Detergent between Jan. 17, 2012 and Aug. 2, 2017 may be eligible for payment from a $1.5 million settlement fund. Class members can choose between cash or Honest.com credit. The Honest.com credit will be valued at 1.5 times the cash amount. The claims deadline is Nov. 15, 2017.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial and consumer literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.

Consumer education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of educational resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth information on many topics related to personal money management, housing, insurance and privacy, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. At Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and seven topic-specific subsites. Consumer Action also publishes unbiased surveys of financial and consumer services that expose excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.

Community outreach. With a special focus on serving low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of nearly 7,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free 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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