Consumer Action INSIDER - July 2017

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

Thank you for the fabulous and very educating lecture. We really enjoyed the [Money Management 1-2-3] class and came back home full of knowledge that was really very useful to us personally, as well as our organization. — Dee Deley, Women of Color on the Move, Sacramento, CA

Did you know?

The president’s budget proposes eliminating public media funding, which is vital to the survival of non-commercial public radio and TV stations. If the budget is reduced or eliminated, local public stations could be forced to go off air or to cut programming and community-based services. Many rural communities could be left without access to any local media. Protect My Public Media, a campaign of more than 400 public television and radio stations throughout the country, was formed to build grassroots support for local public television and radio stations and the programming and services they provide. Make your voice heard at the Protect My Public Media website.

Consumer protections for servicemembers and veterans

While the Treasury Department, the administration and many in Congress are seeking to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Bureau staff are meeting with consumer groups to educate them on the critically important services the Bureau provides.

Consumer Action’s community outreach and training manager Linda Williams, a member of the San Diego Veterans Coalition, received an invitation from the Coalition to attend a roundtable discussion on the CFPB’s work to address the unique financial and marketplace issues plaguing veterans. The roundtable was held at San Diego’s Town and Country hotel on June 12. Paul Kantwill, assistant director of the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA), and Anthony Camilli, veteran outreach specialist at OSA, both spoke at the event.

Kantwill led the discussion by providing an overview of OSA's number one mission: education and outreach to servicemembers and veterans. He outlined both the ways in which servicemembers’ complaints are monitored by the CFPB and the financial coaching services the CFPB offers them.

Kanwill also discussed the Department of Defense’s (DoD) new military lifecycle program and how the CFPB is using it to focus its expertise and efforts on assisting servicemembers with the specific financial hurdles they face throughout various stages of their military careers and beyond. For example, Kantwill explained that the Bureau has created the Delayed Entry Program, an initiative that is designed to reach recruits prior to basic training to offer education on smart consumer decision-making around money, credit transactions and debt management. The program features an online graphic novel experience that incorporates interactive scenario-based learning. The goal is to teach future servicemembers that they can avoid common financial mistakes.

Kantwill was chosen to lead the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs earlier this year—a decision that consumer advocates applauded due to his 25-year military career with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), where he served in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. He also served as the DoD’s legal policy expert on the financial industry’s effects on military members and their families.

Over 25 members of the San Diego Veterans Coalition accepted the invitation to learn more about the services offered to servicemembers, veterans and their families. Williams and other members of the Coalition left the meeting with a better understanding of not only the CFPB’s services but how to use the tools on its website, including its complaint database, virtual trainings and lists of state resources.

Out and About: Awards dinner honors outstanding privacy advocates

Last month, Consumer Action’s Lauren Hall attended the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Champions of Freedom Awards dinner. Established in 1994, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, is a national non-profit that works to bring public attention to emerging privacy and civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, democratic values and freedom of expression. The organization maintains one of the most popular privacy websites in the world, epic.org.

EPIC is particularly interested in defending consumers from privacy threats. The organization works to ensure that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other government agencies prioritize the rights of internet users, who are vulnerable to extensive online tracking, data breaches and all manner of incursions into our Fourth Amendment rights. EPIC even has helped the FTC establish comprehensive privacy programs for Google and Facebook.

Bruce Schneier, writer and privacy expert, and privacy attorney Carrie Goldberg are seen at the EPIC annual event. Photo: Jenifer Morris Photography

At the awards dinner, EPIC honored human rights advocate and master chess player Garry Kasparov, whose critically acclaimed book “Winter is Coming” details Russia’s threat to U.S. and world democracy; privacy attorney Carrie Goldberg, who has fought for hundreds of individuals targeted by scorned partners and others that disseminate the victim’s intimate photos on the internet in a practice commonly known as “revenge porn”; and Judge Patricia Wald, who serves on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which advises the president and executive branch on laws pertaining to terrorism, civil liberties and more. EPIC awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to Ron Rivest for his longstanding work on cryptography (the study and practice of secure communication in the face of adversaries like hackers, foreign governments and such) and his efforts to ensure privacy at the voting booth (and, subsequently, a well-functioning democracy).

Upon arriving at the podium to accept EPIC’s award, each awardee was given the opportunity to discuss his or her work. Goldberg, who has written articles like “How to Handle Revenge Porn,” reviewed some of the laws that currently immunize tech companies from liability and updated the audience on the number of states with anti-revenge porn laws on the books (38, plus the District of Columbia).

"Thanks to EPIC for recognizing that our sexual privacy needs to be protected!" Goldberg stated before leaving the stage.

The event was hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, of WNYC’s “Note to Self” podcast (which covers the complex issues people face in the digital age), security guru Bruce Schneier and former White House Counsel John Podesta.

Kasparov, who autographed free copies of his books “Winter is Coming” and “Deep Thinking” before the event, gave what was perhaps the most chilling warning on current events as they relate to privacy. "As you all know from reading the news, if you want to talk about cyber security news you should talk with a Russian," Kasparov, who fled Russia years prior, initially joked. His tone soon turned somber. "Americans and many in the West take their democracy and their rights for granted,” he continued. “We are finding out the hard way that our democracy has largely been based on tradition, not laws."

Hotline Chronicles: Is your lawyer out of line?

Wally* from North Carolina called Consumer Action’s hotline with a complaint about his attorney’s attitude and rude conduct. “I want to file a disciplinary action against my lawyer,” Wally said. We gave him contact information for the North Carolina Bar Association.

It can be difficult for clients without knowledge of the law to know if a lawyer is doing a good job. Attorneys owe their clients proper representation. But whether the attorney is guilty of an ethical violation or malpractice is tough for laypeople to know. An attorney who shows up to court noticeably drunk, for instance, is almost certainly violating ethical standards. Whereas losing a case is not malpractice, missing an important legal deadline that hurts a client financially could be.

Lawyers must meet certain requirements to be licensed to practice law. They are licensed (and disciplined, if necessary) by their state's highest court.

According to the website FindLaw, attorneys can be disciplined for various reasons, from failing to pay their bar dues to misappropriating client funds to gross ethical violations.

You have the right to file a disciplinary complaint with the state in which your attorney is licensed to practice. Each state has a dedicated organization to investigate the claim and determine whether or not the attorney has violated any ethical rules. To learn where to file your complaint, consult the American Bar Association’s directory of state lawyer disciplinary agencies.

It can take weeks or even months for the state to act on your complaint. The time frame depends upon how complicated the issues are, the number of witnesses involved and the kind of evidence the state must gather. Disciplinary agencies can’t give you legal advice, so consider consulting another attorney in the meantime to avoid losing valuable legal rights related to your original case.

Proving malpractice is not easy, according to the Nolo legal site. To avoid attorney trouble:

  • Never hire an attorney without thoroughly researching his or her disciplinary history. At your state’s lawyer disciplinary agency, you can learn about disciplinary actions and whether a lawyer is eligible to practice law. To research attorney disciplinary history and to learn if a lawyer is currently eligible to practice, visit FindLaw, which provides links to all state legal profession conduct agencies.
  • Make sure you sign a written fee (retainer) agreement with your lawyer. This contract sets out the terms of the lawyer-client relationship, so read it carefully before agreeing to its terms.
  • Keep records. If things go wrong, any ensuing complaint you file can be supported through paperwork such as proof of payment, correspondence between you and your attorney, the case name and number (if a specific case is involved) and copies of papers filed in connection with the case.

*Not this consumer’s real name

Ohio Investor Education Program offers counseling, planning services

The Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE) recently rolled out its free Ohio Investor Education Program. The program links Ohioans to educational resources, financial counselors, planners and more to better equip them to save, invest and plan for retirement. The program was designed by AFCPE with funding from the Investor Protection Trust (IPT) and partnership and support from the Ohio Division of Securities, Consumer Action, Detroit Public Television, WOSU Public Media, ThinkTV and IdeaStream.

The initiative includes the airing of When I’m 65, a 60-minute documentary, on public television stations statewide; three community engagement events; and pro bono financial counseling services provided by Accredited Financial Counselor® (AFC) and Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP) professionals.

The first of AFCPE’s community events was held on May 19 in Columbus. The last two events will be held on July 20 in Dayton and on September 14 in Cleveland.

The Columbus event included a panel discussion presented by local financial professionals Nichole Dunn of the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio; Janice Hitzeman of the Ohio Division of Securities; Kalitha Williams of Policy Matters Ohio; Ernestine Jackson of AARP Ohio; and Laura Orbash, an AFC and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau coach. Ann Fisher, host of “All Sides with Ann Fisher” on 89.7 NPR News, served as the moderator. Consumer Action provided financial educational materials for the event.

AFCPE also hosted a media event at the Ohio Statehouse in April, where it released the findings of its Ohio Investor Education Survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling. (Click here for the full results.) Among the key findings:

1) Few Ohio adults would use a windfall to save or invest for retirement. Only 24 percent of Ohio residents who received a “million-dollar windfall” would use most of the money to save or invest for retirement. Nearly a third (32%) would instead pay off debts and another three in 10 would share much of the money with family members.

2) Only about two in five (41%) Ohio adults are following a financial plan. Of the balance, 14 percent have no plan, 12 percent are just starting to plan for retirement and about a quarter (23%) started to plan but “had to stop because money was needed for other reasons.”

3) A lack of money, knowledge and trust are major factors influencing those Ohioans without a financial plan. Of this demographic, one-third (34%) believe they don’t have enough money to save or invest for retirement; 23 percent report that they don’t know enough to “feel comfortable” saving and investing for retirement; and 25 percent plan to live on Social Security income or other resources.

“There is a critical need for investor education in Ohio,” said Consumer Action’s Audrey Perrott. “But with proper education, training and access to free counseling and planning services, I believe that all Ohioans can make saving for retirement a priority and a reality.”

Coalition Efforts: ‘Ringless voicemail,’ alternative data and more

What’s more annoying than robocalls? We could soon find out. Consumer Action joined coalition advocates in submitting comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opposing its proposal to allow private companies and political organizations to send automated messages into consumers’ voicemail inboxes without causing their cellphones to ring. The proposal would move “ringless voicemail” robocalling technology from a regulatory gray area to legal fair game, opening the floodgates for telemarketers and political organizations to inundate Americans’ voicemails with messages hawking products, services and candidates for office. (Since the letter was sent, the proposal has been withdrawn, however the FCC is grappling with the need to regulate the practice.) Learn more.

Will alt data sources help the credit invisible? It depends. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau takes a closer look at alternative data and the impact it has on those who are deemed “credit thin” or “credit invisible,” consumer advocates submitted their own recommendations on the matter. While it’s true that credit invisibility poses a real problem for many, a lack of credit history could be better than negative credit history. Whether the use of alternative data in calculating credit scores is likely to help or hinder one’s access to credit will depend on the information being used, the consumer’s ability to consent to its use and the way that creditors interpret and apply the data. Learn more.

The CHOICE Act is WRONG for Americans and the economy. A bill being considered by the House, the Financial CHOICE Act (HR 10)—more aptly called the Wrong CHOICE Act—would eviscerate post-Great Recession safeguards, including most of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, putting the U.S. economy and taxpayers in the same perilous position as prior to the financial crisis. Learn more.

Support for proposed CFPB changes to Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to protect communities. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) proposed changes to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) would improve the precision of HMDA data definitions and clarify reporting procedures, said fair housing advocates and consumer groups. The changes would enhance the accuracy of HMDA data and its value in assessing whether lenders are meeting community credit needs. They would also help expose housing and lending discrimination. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Database attacks, deceptive debts and loan defaults

Usually database attacks are attributed to unidentified hackers, but recent attacks on the public complaint database at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) have been the work of Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Both the Financial CHOICE Act (dubbed the Wrong CHOICE Act by opponents) and a recent U.S. Treasury report take aim at the CFPB and its complaint database. The Financial CHOICE Act seeks to obliterate the CFPB’s authority to combat unfair and deceptive practices, eliminate its supervision of banks, reduce its role in creating safe mortgages and take other steps detrimental to a safe and sound financial marketplace.

The CHOICE Act would also prevent the public from accessing the CFPB’s valuable complaint database, which collects consumer complaints about financial services companies, empowering consumers before and after they purchase financial products. The database helps consumers avoid companies with a pattern of problems and allows them to warn other consumers of unresolved problems by sharing their complaints. The complaint process also provides a means to resolve individual disputes with financial institutions and makes these firms more accountable for the products they offer and the way they treat consumers. The database also is a valuable resource for regulators and advocates monitoring predatory financial services.

Consumer Action and other advocates continue to defend the public complaint database and the CFPB from those more interested in supporting Wall Street than Main Street. If you want to join the fight, you can visit Consumer Action’s Take Action! center to contact your Congressional representatives and ask them not to make the wrong choice!

Monthly Complaint Report

The CFPB’s most recent Monthly Complaint Report featured complaints from older Americans who reported problems with reverse mortgages, financial scams, deferred interest plans and credit card add-on products. One quarter of the complaints from seniors related to debt collection troubles, topped only by mortgage complaints.

Reverse mortgages are loans that allow consumers to borrow against the equity in their homes. Some older Americans complained that they were at risk of foreclosure because of repayment agreement problems related to paying their property taxes and insurance. Others complained that they had documentation trouble with mortgage servicers when they sought to remain in their homes after their spouse died.

Setting students up for loan default

As we’ve recently reported, nine in 10 of the highest-risk student loan borrowers are not enrolled in affordable repayment plans after recovering from default, according to the CFPB. Borrowers who make timely payments nine months out of 10 after defaulting are considered “out of default” and eligible to enter a repayment plan based on how much money they earn. (Enrollment should take place through the borrower’s student loan servicer.)

After analyzing hundreds of thousands of high-risk borrowers, the Bureau found that nearly 95 percent of borrowers who consolidated their defaulted loans into an affordable plan remained on track 12 months later. CFPB research also showed that nearly half of all high-risk borrowers not enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan ended up back in default within three years.

Borrowers can learn about the CFPB’s tools to better understand their repayment options.

Demanding relief from high-cost, illegal loans

The CFPB sued four California-based online lenders for deceiving consumers about debts they did not owe. The lenders allegedly demanded payments or made electronic withdrawals on loans that were void under many states’ laws. They also charged illegal interest rates. The lenders included Golden Valley Lending, Inc., Silver Cloud Financial, Inc., Mountain Summit Financial, Inc. and Majestic Lake Financial, Inc.

These online installment lenders offered loans charging annualized interest rates of 440% to 950%, according to the CFPB. The outrageous interest rates were not disclosed online nor when consumers shopped for a loan. The Bureau is seeking refunds for borrowers and a halt to collecting payments on voided loans.

Class Action Database: This is the sale that never ends

Class action settlements involving Real Time Resolutions, Inc. and ProFlowers.com were among eight new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database in June.

Of note this month is the class action Knapp v. Art.com, Inc. The plaintiffs filed suit against Art.com, alleging that Art.com deceptively advertised its products as “on sale” despite the fact that the website constantly conducted sale after sale. Plaintiffs claimed that the perpetual “on sale” prices were the regular costs of Art.com’s merchandise, since the sales promotions started again on the next day after the original sales dates ended.

Plaintiffs alleged that the advertising mislead them into believing that the purchase of Art.com products was a bargain. Plaintiffs submitted the example of the site advertising “35 percent off all orders today only, ends 10/14/15” using sales code NHH798 and “35% off all orders on 10/15/15 and 10/16/15” using sales code PKY398.

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

You are part of the class if between Feb. 12, 2012 and June 9, 2016 you bought a product from art.com, posters.com or allposters.com with a sale coupon code and your order was shipped to a U.S. address. The settlement provides a $10 voucher for use on all three sites.

If the settlement is approved, class members will automatically receive the voucher. The final approval hearing is on Aug. 9, 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.

 

Tags/Keywords


 
 

Quick Menu

Support Consumer Action

Support Consumer
Facebook FTwitter T

Consumer Help Desk

Advocacy