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!

Targeting and Tracking Customers Raises Privacy Concerns

By Susan Grant, Director of NCL's Fraud Center Most consumers don't know that their activities online may be tracked by companies that create profiles of them based on the Web sites they visit, the pages they look at, the ads they click on, what they buy, and other information about their behavior. These profiles help businesses target their ads to those consumers who are most likely to be interested in their products or services. So, for instance, if you're an avid golfer and you've visited Web sites about golf or bought golf equipment online, you may see an ad for golfing vacations to Scotland the next time you visit a travel Web site. This isn't necessarily sinister -- you may want to see ads that are tailored to your interests. But the practice, behavioral tracking and targeting, raises concerns about privacy, security of personal information, the potential for discrimination, and use for other purposes such as law enforcement. Even though these profiles may not include consumers' names, they may contain information that can easily be linked to specific people. On November 1 and 2, 2007, the Federal Trade Commission held a Town Hall that brought members of the online advertising industry together with researchers, consumer representatives, privacy advocates, and others to discuss these concerns. Today, the National Consumers League submitted comments asking the FTC to take action to protect consumers and ensure trust in the online marketplace. One interesting idea, which NCL supports, is to create a national "Do Not Track List" similar to the popular "Do Not Call Registry" for consumers who don't want to be tracked online.


It's Working! FakeChecks.org Saving Consumers Cash

by Susan Grant, Director of NCL's Fraud Center

When you work on a national public educationusps_lottery_320x240_backup.gif project, it's often hard to tell if the message really works. So it's been gratifying to hear from consumers (below) that our effort to warn people about fake check scams is succeeding! On October 3, we launched a new Web site, www.fakechecks.org, and a major publicity campaign in partnership with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, major banks, money transfer services, and others who shared our concern about the epidemic of fake check scams that is sweeping our nation.

You've probably seen the commercials, like the one with the guy on the bus who tries to give the woman a check as a down payment for the millions she has supposedly won in a foreign lottery. Fake check scams have become the top telemarketing fraud and the second most common Internet scam reported to NCL's Fraud Center. The average loss is $3,000-$4,000 -- that's a lot of money for most of us. But the consequences can be even more severe.

Victims' bank accounts may be closed, and they may have difficultly opening new accounts. They may be sued if they can't pay the money back to their banks right away, and some are even being prosecuted for check fraud.

Essentially, these scammers are stealing money from the banks and leaving consumers holding the bag. That's why it's so important for consumers to be aware of these scams and understand that just because the funds are available doesn't mean the check is good. The new Web site is getting tons of hits, but even more gratifying are the messages that many consumers are including when they report these scams through the Web site, like the following ones we recently received.

THANK YOU for the warning. I was recently contacted by unsolicited email after posting my resume on Monster.com. I did respond to the offer, but now that I saw your advertised warning this evening, I am planning on NOT depositing any checks sent to me by the company in question...If not for this warning, I would have lost money and time I do not have.

M.F., Bellflower, CA

 

I had received a letter in the mail with a check of $2875.00. The letter stated for me to keep $300 of that and send $2520.00 as a money gram through Wal-Mart to an address in Canada, and $55 was for the money gram itself.

They wanted me to do this "assignment" to evaluate the effectiveness of a payment system... I thought about it and decided to "look it up" on the internet. I found this website and thank God I did!!! Thanks!!! Needless to say I didn't cash it...I want these people stopped."

S.P., Wharton, TX


Popcorn Lung part two: Are Popcorn Makers Doing Enough?

We recently blogged about popcorn lung, a disease associated with exposure to a chemical found in the production of butter-flavored popcorn and other products. Here's part two.

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Given NCL’s view that consumers care about more than just the bottom line when it comes to the products they purchase, we decided to conduct an informal phone survey to see what kind of information popcorn makers were providing consumers about the safety of their products. Last week we called six different makers of microwave popcorn, using the toll-free customer service phone numbers we found on the box. These included Con Agra (makers of Act II, Orville Redenbacher and Jiffy Pop brands), JollyTime, Pop Weaver, Little Bear Foods, Newman’s Own, and Black Jewell. One of the companies had a recorded greeting reassuring callers that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers, while advising that the company is phasing out the use of diacetyl because of concerns about worker health. None of the popcorn boxes we bought named “diacetyl” in the ingredient list. Instead, diacetyl is included in the catch-all term “natural and artificial flavorings”. This is what we learned:

  • All companies told us that any butter-flavored microwave popcorn contains diacetyl, although the ingredient list does not name the chemical.
  • All companies claim diacetyl is safe for consumers.
  • All companies told us they would begin phasing out diacetyl, some as quickly as in the next month.
  • Popcorn already popped in bags doesn’t contain diacetly.

Despite their claims that diacetyl is safe for consumers, we are leery of butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The industry’s claims that consumers aren’t at risk from casual consumption aren’t convincing, because the assertion is not based on research on the consumer effect of airborne diacetyl. Just ask the Denver man who ate several bags a day and was diagnosed with diminished lung capacity caused by breathing the microwave fumes. Tests on the air in his home were said to yield surprising high levels of diacetyl. Diacetyl is being phased out of the production of microwave popcorn; in the meantime, for popcorn lovers, there are many good alternatives to microwave butter-flavor popcorn available to consumers right now.

We recommend that consumers call the companies and get their own answers about butter flavor microwave popcorn. The numbers are on the box. Ask about consumer exposure to diacetyl and any hazards that might present, and while you're at it, ask what they are doing to reduce worker exposure to the chemical while they are phasing it out of their microwave popcorn.


Are We Finally Making Progress on Popcorn Lung?

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Butter-flavored microwave popcorn has long been a consumer favorite, but the chemical that gives it that buttery flavor – diacetyl – has caused serious lung impairment, known as “popcorn lung,” so called because many cases have occurred among factory workers who make the product. This is a concern for workers and consumers alike. On October 17, 2007, I attended a “roundtable discussion” outside Washington DC called by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to discuss “popcorn lung” disease.

I went because I wanted to hear these federal officials explain why they haven’t done anything yet to protect workers from “popcorn lung” despite having become aware of the problem years ago. I never heard a good explanation, but OSHA did say it would look at regulating the use of diacetyl. I also went out of concern for consumers who eat microwave popcorn and are therefore exposed to the chemical that has made workers sick.

It seems that the government called this meeting after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a recent bill (H.R. 2693) ordering OSHA to develop interim standards limiting diacetyl exposure by workers in flavor manufacturing plants and microwave popcorn factories. OSHA officials, scientists, environmental health specialists, labor union representatives, and lawyers representing workers who were exposed to diacetyl were all at this meeting. One of those workers, a guy from Missouri named Eric Peoples who is pictured here on the left, was there, and he was wearing his breathing apparatus, having contracted lung disease during the short 1 ½ years he worked at a Jasper, MO plant making butter-flavored popcorn. In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted an investigation of the Jasper plant. Peoples and 8 of his fellow employees, who had worked in the plant anywhere from 8 months to 17 years, were diagnosed with “popcorn lung,” known in the medical community as “brochiolitis obliterans.” Five of the employees had worked in the room where butter flavorings and oil were mixed. The other four had worked on packaging lines where popcorn and the oil/flavorings are added to microwaveable bags and packaged for shipment. All of the employees experienced similar symptoms, including progressive shortness of breath, persistent cough, and unusual fatigue. Five of the nine employees were placed on a lung transplant candidate list, and one of the employees died in April 2006 before receiving a lung transplant. She had worked for 18 months at the plant during the mid-1990s. NIOSH surveyed other plants and identified six additional employees with similar “popcorn lung” symptoms. So we know the production of butter-flavored popcorn involving diacetyl isn't perfectly safe for workers, and the government is starting to do something about it. Are the products safe for consumers? Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on that.


Do Not Call Me. Seriously.

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of putting my home phone number on the first national Do Not Call list. Dramatically seeing the number of unwanted telemarketing calls drop was a joy for my family. Back when the list was created in 2002, the plan was that consumers who added their phone numbers to the list would remain on it for five years. When the five years were up, they’d have to sign up again. (Unless, of course, they missed being interrupted at dinner time and wanted the calls to resume.)

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission, the agency responsible for the implementation of the list, announced it would not be purging the numbers after five years and require that people re-up. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection of the Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony from the FTC last week pledging to keep the list going without dropping any names. Great news for consumers! Further steps taken by Congress recently indicate our phone numbers will remain protected. House and Senate committees passed bills making it permanent. We see this as a win-win, and I was on National Public Radio’s Marketplace earlier this week to talk about it.