Consumer Action INSIDER - June 2018

Table of Contents

 

What people are saying

I was very happy to participate in the second annual Consumer Lobby Day [a Washington, DC, event, of which Consumer Action was one of the planners] this year, representing the very low-income and vulnerable populations I work with here in San Francisco. This was a wonderful opportunity to meet other advocates from across the country and relay our concerns and messages around anti-consumer bills, predatory lending practices and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with one unified voice to key Congressional legislative staff on the Hill. — John Paul Soto, Program Manager, Lutheran Social Services of Northern California 

Did you know?

The federal government’s Consumer Action Handbook is a hefty, free resource guide worth its weight in gold. Updated annually, it offers information on shopping for goods and services and tips about your consumer rights. Also included are company contacts and other resources to help you file consumer complaints, including contact information for federal, state and local consumer protection agencies and offices. Get yours via mail (order online or write to: Handbook, Pueblo, CO 81009) or immediate online download (PDF) here.

Conference challenges advocates to wage war against discrimination

Reflecting our commitment to housing education and advocacy, Consumer Action was a sponsor of the April 25th Fair Housing Conference 2018: Past Accomplishments, Future Challenges, an event commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly referred to as the Fair Housing Act. Consumer Action’s Audrey Perrott participated in the festivities, which were hosted by the non-profit Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, a longtime partner of Consumer Action that has combated housing discrimination in Marin County since 1982. Perrott served on the Fair Housing Conference advisory committee.

The conference attracted a variety of stakeholders, including advocates, politicians, housing providers, lenders, reporters and consumers, and acted as both a celebration and a call to action. Topics covered at the conference included tenant rights and protections, gentrification and displacement, and strengthening community power through alliance building.

“While we have made great advancements in housing opportunity for people of color, there is still a lot of work to do,” Perrott said. “We cannot rest on the laurels of past achievements. We are still fighting the war for fair housing—a fact that was acknowledged throughout this amazing event.”

The conference featured keynote presentations from leaders across the country, including James Perry, CEO of North Carolina’s Winston-Salem Urban League, and Professor George Lipsitz of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Perry gave a compelling speech on the history of housing discrimination and actions that advocates should take to change the current climate, using California as a model. “California is the frontline in the war to integrate American cities,” said Perry, before offering a primer on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to eliminate housing discrimination. Perry noted that King used crisis situations to compel positive change and gave an example of the current housing crises in both California and Louisiana (post-Katrina) to show how this strategy could be employed today.

According to Perry, California has been in a housing crisis for a very long time. In order to make real change in California (and across the country), Perry encouraged advocates to be strategic in understanding and helping to sway day-to-day policymaking as well as media coverage of housing issues.

Finally, Perry discussed the Trump Administration’s work to eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing by requiring communities to confront racial inequities.

Perry added that the only state in the nation that is actively working to further fair housing is California, particularly through a state Assembly bill (AB 72) introduced by Miguel Santiago (D–Los Angeles) that would allow the state attorney general to enforce state housing laws. Consumer Action and other advocates are working to help pass the legislation.

Professor Lipsitz then gave a thought-provoking presentation about the dangers of failing to enforce fair housing. He talked about the problems of the original Fair Housing Act, explaining how it had few enforcement powers when first written, only becoming stronger over time with the help of advocates like those in attendance.

Lipsitz went on to point out that we live in a society that views a few individuals as exceptional and the masses as disposable, leading to some communities monopolizing amenities and resources while many other communities are treated as nuisances and hazards. The insular resource-rich communities often erroneously believe that they will be better off and “safer” because the problems that develop in the “nuisance” zones will not come to their front doors. However, the concept of safe interiors and dangerous exteriors (e.g., gated communities, a wall between the U.S.-Mexican border) is a fantasy, he says. Instead, these walls produce the very problems they purport to eliminate, often creating what he calls “sacrifice zones” (low-income neighborhoods filled with pollution, poverty and other socioeconomic problems).

Discriminatory housing practices create a racial wealth gap that produces a racial health gap, noted the professor. Residents in sacrifice zones suffer from heart disease, shorter lifespans and crime, which ultimately undermines not just the zones themselves but society at large. Fair housing works to change these conditions and improve society for everyone.

Finally, Lipsitz likened poor housing conditions to the long fetch of a wave. Just as there are a lot of factors that influence a wave before it hits the shore (such as geography, meteorology and wind speed), instances of unfair housing have a long fetch of history behind them, relying on “slavery unwilling to die and new forms of predatory lending and other forms of discrimination.”

The conference also included a musical performance by John Wallace of the Surviving the Odds Project and remarks by June Williams of Senator Kamala Harris’s office. The conference closed with participants energized and ready to go back to the trenches to wage the fair housing fight. To listen to an excerpt from the conference or to download conference slides, visit the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California website.

Higher income limits qualify more households for California LifeLine

California LifeLine provides discounts on phone service for qualifying low-income households. This vital subsidy enables consumers who otherwise could not afford to maintain telephone service to get and stay connected. Since its initial publication in 2011, Consumer Action’s 16-page guide, Connect to California LifeLine and Save!, has helped thousands of the state’s eligible consumers take advantage of the invaluable program.

Every year, Consumer Action updates the publication to reflect changes in qualifying household income as well as any other changes to the program.

For the period of June 1, 2018 through May 31, 2019, allowable annual household incomes have been increased to:

  • $27,000 for one- or two-member households (up from $26,400)
  • $31,300 for three-member households (up from $30,700)
  • $38,100 for four-member households (up from $37,300)
  • $6,800 per person in income (up from $6,600) over $38,100 (for households with more than four members)

Households can also qualify based on enrollment in any one of more than a dozen public assistance programs. (Check our guide for a list.)

The other change is the elimination of the short-lived “portability freeze.” Implemented in December 2016, this rule required Lifeline customers to remain with their service provider for at least 60 days after initiating service in order to continue to receive Lifeline discounts (unless the participant qualified for one of a handful of exceptions to the rule). As of March 19, 2018, this rule has been eliminated.

Connect to California LifeLine and Save! is available for online reading or as a free PDF download in five languages—English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese—from the Consumer Action website.

Using social media to address consumer complaints

Consumer Action’s hotline counselors often recommend using social media channels to bring attention to complaints—especially when a consumer hasn’t had any success with the company’s customer service representatives. The opportunity to shame a business publicly has grown in the age of the internet. We’ve found that using Twitter and Facebook often works to get companies’ attention.

If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can open one and start tweeting, however you should flesh out your account with a profile photo (it doesn’t have to be a personal one) and a header photo. Use a search engine or Twitter.com to find the company’s Twitter “handle” (i.e., @companyX). Make sure you find the company’s customer service handle, which may be different from its corporate handle (i.e., @CompanyX_helpline). At this point, you can tweet a simple message. Here’s an example: @CompanyX_helpline Can you help? I got charged twice for postage and can get no love from your customer service reps! Often the company will tweet back a call-in number to take the issue off-line. 

Many businesses have a Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/consumeraction]. Here you may be able to post about your issue, write a review (which, if allowed, can’t be removed by the company) or send a direct message. If none of these communications tools seems to be available, check if the page allows you to comment under another post. Do not use foul language or a threatening tone (such comments are automatically hidden from the public until reviewed by a page administrator). If the company is responsive, it will send you a private message asking for information about the issue so that it can look into things and put you in touch with the right person.

Another way to get attention (or at the very least warn other consumers) is via review sites such as Yelp, or “complaint sites” such as Pissed Consumer, Complaints Board and Consumer Affairs.

Companies that ignore or respond negatively to consumer complaints on social media do so at their own peril. According to eMarketer, an unhelpful response from brands is sometimes considered worse than no response at all. A July 2017 poll by Sprout Social found that half of those responding said they would never again buy from a brand if it reacted poorly to their complaints. Nearly as many said that a bad response via social media increased the possibility that they would share the poor experience with friends.

Need more help with your consumer complaints? Submit your complaint using our hotline form (English and Spanish). In a real hurry? Check out our “How to Complain” booklet and other Help Desk resources. You can also message us on Facebook or tweet at us!

Advocates travel to nation’s capital for Consumer Lobby Day

In May, months of planning and coordination paid off when over 100 consumer groups and allies descended on Washington, DC, for Consumer Lobby Day, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and other groups, including Consumer Action.

Attendees arrived at the nation’s capital a day prior to the scheduled Lobby Day in order to attend an all-day training on how to effectively lobby their members of Congress on timely issues of impact to consumers.

During the training, speakers from many consumer advocacy groups, including Consumer Action’s deputy director of national priorities, Ruth Susswein, presented attendees with updates and in-depth information on pressing issues, like the struggle to protect the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) public consumer complaint database in the face of attacks from its temporary acting director, Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed by President Trump. Susswein also encouraged fledgling public-interest lobbyists to fight to protect the CFPB’s consumer protection mission as well as its independent structure and funding.

In addition, experts updated attendees on the CFPB’s payday lending rule (which at the time was under attack by some in Congress, who were threatening to overturn it, but has so far remained intact due partly to Lobby Day efforts). Payday loans often carry interest rates of 300%-plus and trap consumers in a spiraling cycle of debt that is difficult to escape. The consumer lobbyists were encouraged to share personal stories, relate their own in-state efforts to combat predatory lending and other marketplace abuses, and present testimonials from the consumers they represent during meetings with their legislators.

The training also provided attendees with “Ten Tips on Lobbying,” including having a specific and direct “ask” (e.g., “we want a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau”); staying focused on your agenda during the meeting; bringing brief but impactful materials that you can drop off with legislative aides; and following up with thank you notes and reminders about any commitments that may have been made during the meeting.

“There’s no experience quite like Consumer Lobby Day; it teaches consumers through ‘real world’ training to become comfortable with speaking to our representatives and their staffers face-to-face,” said Consumer Action’s Lauren Hall, who met with the offices of four members of the House and Senate over the course of the day. “Lobby Day also provides a great opportunity for advocates to connect with others working on the same issues or in the same state. When you walk in to your legislator’s office with other knowledgeable activists working on the same issues, you not only learn from them, you realize just how much power you have in numbers and how much your representatives really are listening to what you have to say!”

Consumer Action will be sending out an alert you can use to write Congress about current anti-consumer legislation and other anti-consumer efforts in the near future. Meanwhile, check our Take Action Center for current alerts you can send.

New Vision Action Center educates consumers on their rights

Consumer Action has launched a new Vision Action Center to help ensure that hundreds of millions of glasses and contact lens wearers in America know their consumer rights. The information is in response to a couple of key industry factors. One, more states across the country are considering anti-consumer restrictions or bans on online prescription renewal services and the use of telehealth in vision care. Two, some eyecare providers and contact lens manufacturers that profit from eyewear sales are seeking to delay and weaken a Federal Trade Commission proposal to strengthen consumer protections in the Contact Lens Rule.

“Americans are increasingly turning to online vendors and telehealth services to purchase contact lenses and glasses and renew prescriptions online. Special interests threaten to interfere with your ability to use these services,” notes Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry. “We’re working to protect your right to buy eyewear where you want and, if you are eligible, to use the new ocular telehealth technologies to save time and money on prescription renewals.”

The Vision Action Center is a new page on Consumer Action’s website. Consumer Action and Fexy Media produced the new educational videos. One, “Know your eyecare and eyewear rights,” outlines basic rights for contact lens and glasses consumers. The other, “Renewing your eyewear prescription online,” explains how online prescription renewal services work.

Polling we conducted last year found that 60 percent of contact lens consumers are unaware that, under federal law, an eye doctor or exam provider is required to automatically provide them with a copy of their prescription after their eye exam, and more than 30 percent of consumers are not given their prescription despite that legal requirement. Consumer Action polling also found that a majority of consumers would welcome access to online prescription renewal services because they have the potential to save them time and money, and are more convenient than in-person prescription renewals. But many polled were unaware that these online services even existed.

Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, notes “eyecare providers who have previously enjoyed a monopoly on prescription renewal are lobbying legislatures in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Missouri and other states to ban or severely limit consumers’ ability to get online tests for prescription renewals. There’s a lot of misinformation flying around, including claims that these services are unsafe or are being marketed as replacements for comprehensive in-person eye exams. Not true—we believe consumers need the real story.”

In addition to the videos and poll findings, the Vision page features letters and other policy statements about the attacks on updated consumer protections and online prescription renewal services. You’ll also find links to two education and policy coalitions we’ve joined to protect consumers’ eyecare and eyewear rights. Look for news updates, additional consumer education materials and new videos in the coming weeks.

Coalition Efforts: Empowering seniors and limited-English speakers

Border wall funding is a waste of taxpayer dollars. A diverse coalition of organizations that include Latino, civil rights, consumer, environmental, faith and border community groups are strongly opposed to federal funding for a border wall. The coalition has spent months objecting to the militarization of the border and the vilification of border and immigrant communities. As Congress moves forward with the FY2019 appropriations process, we urge leadership to reject efforts to continue funding additional border wall construction, which draws scarce resources away from urgently needed national infrastructure. Learn more.

Consumer groups stand up to threats to take CFPB complaint database dark. Consumer, privacy, civil rights and fair lending groups from across the nation called on temporary Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Acting Director Mick Mulvaney to retain the CFPB complaint database tool after he recently threatened to ban public access to the valuable public resource. Learn more.

Modernizing Medicare education tools empowers seniors. Coalition advocates urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to continue its efforts to improve and enhance the information and decision-making tools available to Medicare beneficiaries in order to better enable seniors to make informed decisions about their health benefits. Learn more.

Upgrades to mortgage application process for LEP borrowers. Consumer Action joined advocates in applauding the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) in its efforts to improve its affordable housing goals and to reach underserved communities. The FHFA launched a multi-year plan to improve the ability of limited-English-proficiency (LEP) borrowers to take out home mortgages. Learn more.

CFPB Watch: Assaults on the consumer bureau continue

Mick Mulvaney, temporary acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), has continued his assault on the agency he has been charged with running, announcing over the last month that he will fold the Office of Students and Young Consumers into the Office of Financial Education. The move serves a devastating blow to the nearly 44 million student loan borrowers across the country. The Office of Students and Young Consumers had benefited borrowers by publishing reports, creating templates and tools to help manage debt and repayment, and uncovering abuses related to student lending and loan servicing.

As the only federal government agency solely focused on protecting borrowers from predatory actors in the student lending industry, the Bureau’s Office of Students and Young Consumers was instrumental in uncovering lending abuses and predatory practices among the industry’s biggest players, including Navient, the nation’s largest servicer of federal and private student loans. Since its inception, in 2012, the office acted as a consumer watchdog, fielding more than 50,000 student loan-related consumer complaints and returning over $750 million to wronged student loan borrowers.

“While it is not a surprise that Acting Director Mulvaney is continuing with his efforts to dismantle and weaken the CFPB, it is a gross disservice to those hoping to improve their lives through education,” said Alegra Howard of Consumer Action. “Mulvaney continues to neglect the Bureau’s mission to protect consumers by putting the interests of financial institutions and banks ahead of those the agency was created to protect.”

Consumers will continue to have the help of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman, who, by law, must work to help resolve student borrower complaints. Consumer Action encourages students to continue to submit their student loan complaints to the CFPB online or via email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Mulvaney’s latest move is another in a string of disastrous actions he’s taken at the Bureau: Several months ago he decided to relocate the Bureau’s “Consumer Response” complaint-handling department to the CFPB’s consumer education division. While the move might appear harmless, consumer advocates predict it’s the first step in axing the Bureau’s historically rigorous consumer complaint handling work and public access to complaint data.

Mulvaney threatens public access to complaint database

As we predicted, Mulvaney ramped up his attacks on the CFPB’s complaint database, to the ire of consumer, privacy, civil rights and fair lending groups across the nation, who wrote a letter to the director calling on him to keep the public database open.

The CFPB’s consumer complaint database is an invaluable tool, empowering consumers to inform and protect themselves in the marketplace. Users can access the database to report a problem with a bank, mortgage lender or other company or review and analyze financial complaints directly from other users. The database lets consumers check out a lender prior to making a financial commitment, in order to be sure that the business is not making a habit of cheating or deceiving customers.

In late April, Mulvaney announced at a banking industry conference that he’s considering removing the complaint database from public view. The CFPB, however, has an obligation under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to collect, research, monitor and publish information to identify risks to consumers (which the database fulfills). Taking the database offline or otherwise making it unavailable to consumers is in opposition to the Bureau’s founding principles delineated by Congress.

In addition to protecting consumers, the complaint database serves to hold businesses accountable, with companies privately admitting that it has driven them to improve customer service and create better outcomes for both the public and their own business practices.

Class Action Database: Time’s up for defective Nissan vehicles

Class action settlements involving the clothing company Guess and auto manufacturer Nissan were among 13 new settlements added to the Consumer Action Class Action Database during May.

In Falco v. Nissan North America, the plaintiffs filed a class action against Nissan alleging that certain Nissan vehicles suffered from a timing chain defect that could not be reasonably repaired. Plaintiffs claimed that Nissan’s timing chains should have lasted for at least 10 years without the need for repair or replacement. Plaintiffs alleged that Nissan had known since 2003 that the timing chains installed in its vehicles were prone to premature failure, but, despite the knowledge, continued to install the defective chains. Such defects can result in complete engine failure or inability to accelerate the automobiles and maintain their speed, leading to crashes.

As is usual in settlements, the defendant denied the allegations but agreed to a payout to plaintiffs in order to avoid the expense and corporate risk of continuing the lawsuit.

California or Washington residents who purchased or leased the following vehicles are part of the class:

  • 2004-2006 Nissan Altima with VQ35 engine
  • 2004-2008 Nissan Maxima
  • 2004-2009 Nissan Quest
  • 2005-2007 Nissan Frontier with VQ40 engine
  • 2005-2007 Nissan Pathfinder
  • 2005-2007 Nissan Xterra

The settlement provides partial reimbursement or a voucher toward the purchase of a new Nissan vehicle if a class member had paid for a diagnosis, repair or replacement of their timing chain after Nissan’s five-year factory warranty expired, or after 60,000 miles but before 120,000 miles, whichever occurred first. The benefits fall into the following mileage categories:

  • For repairs made when the vehicle had fewer than 80,001 miles, the class member can choose to receive 80 percent of the first $900 paid for repairs or a $1,500 voucher for a new Nissan;
  • For repairs made when the vehicle had more than 80,000 miles but less than 100,001 miles, the class member can choose to receive 50 percent of the first $900 paid for repairs or a $1,000 voucher for a new Nissan; and
  • For repairs made when the vehicle had more than 100,000 miles but less than 120,000 miles, the class member can choose to receive 20 percent of the first $900 paid for repairs or a $500 voucher for a new Nissan.

The claims deadline is July 2, 2018. For repairs made after April 2, 2018, the claim must be submitted within 90 days of the repair.

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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