National Consumers League

From the Experts Blog

NCL staff is hard at work for you playing watchdog on a variety of issues. Get to know the latest From the Experts!

So long, and thanks for the memories!

Public Policy Intern TimI am wrapping up my spring internship here at NCL. Three months flies by in the world of consumer rights! I feel like I just got off the plane from San Diego only to hop back on to return to law school.

I was fortunate enough to observe the NCL staff from the planning stages of consumer events and advocacy projects all the way to their implementation. Not only did I get a behind the scenes look at the League, but I was also able to participate in host of different forums. Here are a few highlights:

  • I dropped by Capitol Hill on a couple of occasions, to participate in a National Consumer Protection Week fair with hill staffers, federal, state, and local government agencies, and national consumer advocacy organizations, and to show support for testimony on the need for greater car safety.
  • I attended a symposium on women and African-Americans in the workplace at the National Labor College.
  • I sat in on a Child Labor Coalition meeting and was present at a conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America.

I also managed to squeeze in some research and writing for an article Sally Greenberg is writing on the unintended consequences of the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). Phew! I had a blast and learned more about consumers’ issues in three months at NCL than I could have in three years of law school.

Most importantly, I know that NCL is fighting for my rights as a consumer on a daily basis. As for me, who knows? Maybe I’ll be back to pitch in for the NCL cause. With all the talk of “change” in Washington, I hope NCL’s hundred year-old commitment to fighting for consumers’ rights stays the same.

Thanks, NCL!

Do Yourself a Favor: Read Your Bills

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I’m one of those consumers who always assumes there’s a mistake — and not in my favor — in the bills that arrive in my mailbox. I’m not always right about that, but mostly it turns out to be true. When my wireless phone bill arrived this month, my eyes popped out. How the heck did I rack up these charges? Upon more careful examination, I noticed that the higher rate for international coverage for my Blackberry that I needed when I went overseas during the holidays had never been changed back to normal, despite my request — the day I arrived back in the U.S. — that it be done. I also noticed that my son had racked up 850 text messages sending inane one-word notes to his friends umpteen times a day. Hey, but I thought I had signed him up for unlimited texting? I called the company and can report that my story has a happy ending. They had on record that I had called in January to change my service, so they credited me the extra charges, plus the hefty taxes, and they changed my son’s cell phone over to unlimited texts retroactively, so we didn’t have pay for the extra 500 texts. (Turns out that hadn’t been an overcharge after all; my son really had only 250 free ones coming, which explained the $64 extra on my bill.) I saved nearly $140 by taking the time to call! What worries me, however, is when consumers don’t call and question charges on their bills, utilities companies are only too happy to keep their money. I worry about consumers with limited English, the elderly, or people working two jobs who just don’t have the time it takes to challenge the kind of charges I saw on my bill. As sure as day turns into night, the corporations who send out monthly bills are making millions from consumers who cannot or do not challenge unfair charges. Should companies have people on staff who routinely review consumer bills to see if there are unfair charges? I think that would be great PR for any corporation.

Grocery Shopping Advice from a Nutrition Expert

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last month the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue or TACD convened for its 9th annual meeting in Washington DC. TACD is a forum of US and EU consumer organizations that develops and agrees on joint consumer policy recommendations to the US government and European Union to promote the consumer interest in EU and US policy making.

The last day of this lively gathering included a day long meeting: “Generation Excess III conference on obesity and diet-related disease.” The featured speaker, Marion Nestle, was a professor at New York University in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and a national expert on the societal impacts of food and nutrition policy.NCL's Ria Eapen (left) and Sally Greenberg (right) with Marion Nestle (center).

Nestle’s work is focused on how food marketing influences what children eat. Her slide show presentation is full of enticing photos of food products – many of them that have sugar as their main ingredient – which are offered to children as “healthy” snacks or meals. The more health and nutrition claims the food makes, Nestle says, the more calories the food probably has.

Nestle described how food companies lobby officials, co-opt experts, and expand sales by marketing to children, members of minority groups, and people in developing countries.

The sad truth is that our food policy is influenced more by our big food conglomerates racking up billions in sales than concerns about the health of Americans. The easy availability of high calorie, high fat, high sugar foods means greater obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer –the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. This is having serious consequences in cities and towns across the United States.

Recently, the Washington Post featured a story from Radford, Virginia, a rural area where there’s been a sharp drop in life expectancy for women. In 1983, the life expectancy in the Radford area was 84 years. By 1999, it had dropped to 78 years. A local doctor described the risk factors for women as the “Five F’s: female, forty, fertile, fair, and fat.”

Several of the women interviewed for the story suffer from serious obesity, and diseases related to poor diet and smoking. One of the women had a younger sister who died at age 56 weighing 350 pounds.

Which brings us back to Marion Nestle’s work on obesity and the costs of overweight to the society as a whole. The estimated figure is $117 billion a year. The cost of type 2 diabetes alone is simply staggering to contemplate. And as Nestle points out, we're seeing type 2 diabetes in young children, where it has rarely been seen before.

Her advice to consumers who want to shop healthy:

  • Shop the perimeters of the market. That's where the real foods are -- the meat, produce, dairy.
  • Don't go into the center aisles. But if you have to, don't buy anything with more than five ingredients, not counting vitamins.
  • If you can't pronounce an ingredient, don't buy the product.
  • Don't buy anything with a health claim -- they're misleading.
  • Don't buy artificial anything.
  • Don't buy anything with a cartoon on it -- these people are marketing directly to your child.

Win-win: Heath, Labor Advocates Have Something to Celebrate this Weekend

By Reid Maki, NCL staff

Healthcare consumers and child labor advocates are celebrating a shared victory in the U.S. Congress this week. When the House passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act on May 1 — a week after it passed the Senate — advocates for patients with genetic risk factors for many common diseases like diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer breathed a sigh of relief. The bill makes it illegal to discriminate against patients because of information gathered through genetic testing. Insurance companies will no longer be able to deny patients insurance or raise their insurance premiums because of their increased risk based on genetics.

An amendment in the bill, authored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), also added some teeth to the nation’s child labor laws. The amendment gives the Department of Labor the ability to increase fines in cases in which children working on the job are killed or seriously injured.  In labor violations that cause death or serious injury, the penalties would be increased from $11,000 to $50,000. The fines could also be doubled if investigators find that the safety violation was either willful or repeated. The legislative language allows penalties to be assessed for each violation (e.g., if two or more working children are injured in the same accident).

Unfortunately, the bill could have gone a bit further: the language does not make penalties mandatory. And it does not set minimum fines as the language proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would have. In talking about the child labor language last year, Rep. Woolsey said, “There is much that must be done to strengthen our child labor laws.” The new provisions, she added, are “a small beginning.”

President Bush has indicated that he will sign the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act into law when it reaches his desk.

Feds, Orgs, Biz Collaborating against Phishing Scams

by Sally Greenberg Recently, the Federal Trade Commission brought together experts from government, nonprofit, and industry in Washington to talk about “Phishing.” The National Consumers League, which has long worked to help and protect consumers from fraud, came equipped with our latest intelligence on Phishing scams brought to our attention by our Fraud Center.

What is Phishing? If you’ve ever received a pop-up box on your computer screen with requests like this, you’ve been a target of a phishing scam:

  • “We suspect an unauthorized transaction on your account. To ensure that your account has not been compromised, please click below and confirm your identity.”

or this:

  • “During our regular course of verifying accounts, we couldn’t verify your information. Please click here to update and provide us with your account information”

These email pitches are sent out by the millions from Internet fraudsters who trick consumers into giving out bank account, social security passwords, or other sensitive personal information. This information enables these crooks to get into your accounts and steal money from you.

I got a phishing request myself several months ago in a pop-up that appeared on my computer – could I just quickly verify some personal information? The language was very similar to what you see above. I didn’t recognize the company asking for my “account” information, so I looked up the company and called them to ask why they had contacted me. The woman on the other line confirmed what I suspected: “Sorry, we’ve been the victim of a phishing scam.”

That was simple enough. We don’t want you to take the bait either, so, remember:

  • don’t respond to pop up windows asking for personal information
  • don’t ever give out passwords to anyone
  • the IRS doesn’t ask for information through the Internet, they will mail you a letter, so don’t fall for a tax scam either

Too many consumers don’t heed these warnings as the numbers below demonstrate:

  • More than 3.5 million Americans lost money to phishing schemes and online identify theft over a 12 month period ending in August 2007.
  • Total amount lost is $3.2 billion
  • The Anti Phisihing Working Group found that in November 2007 that 178 corporate identifies and brands were hijacked and used for phishing scams, - when we did our report the numbers were much smaller – in 2003 28 brands had been attacked– in Oct 2004 44 brands – October 2005 – 96 brands. Now we’re at 178 brands hijacked.

NCL recently met with the staff of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) who has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Ted Stevens (D-AK), to make criminal phishing schemes illegal and to create funding for prevention efforts. NCL will be working with these members of Congress and the FTC to heighten awareness among consumers about phishing scams and increase penalties on the perpetrators.