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!

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.

Check's in the Mail, Scam's in the Email

Economic Stimulus ScamsNews worth celebrating: the Economic Stimulus Payments are in the process of being distributed – four whole days early!

The checks are being mailed to more than 130 million taxpayers as part of the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, an effort by President Bush to boost the economy. Here's the bad news: unfortunately, scammers are already trying to capitalize on the checks. NCL's Fraud Center has already received such complaints from consumers. For a sample tax scam email that claims to be from the government, click on the image. So, while we're all thinking of things to do with our checks: pay the bills, put it in the bank, splurge on a new outfit, buy something special for the kids, be aware of con artists' ploys. Remember, to be suspicious of:
  • any emails or calls received from someone claiming to be from the IRS or any other government agency.
  • con artists claiming to be government representatives calling to initiate payment transfer of impending government tax "rebates".

Have you received any of these types of fraudulent pitches? Report them here!

That Warm Fuzzy Feeling: Fraud Center Helps Friend Avoid Credit Repair Scam

Turns out there are a few perks of working at a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization!

Just this week, a staffer at our Fraud Center was able to identify a scam that a friend of his was about to fall for and stop her from losing a bunch of money.

We track complaints on a number of scams: investment seminars, Fake Check Scams, and Phishing are just a few. Here’s what happened: “Rachel” saw an ad in a magazine from a company that claimed it would lower your credit score for only $500. She’s trying to remove some debt from her credit report, in order to buy a car, so this offer was especially appealing. “Rachel” called her friend, our colleague at the Fraud Center, to tell him about the offer. Good thing she did, because “Rachel” was able to save $500, and avoid further financial heartache.

Our staffer explained to Rachel that the only way to repair your credit is to get a copy of your report and review it for any errors. There are tons of scenarios in which mistakes can pop up on your credit report:

  • A creditor reports inaccurate information to the credit bureau
  • A case of mistaken identity leaves you paying for John C. Smith’s debt, when your name is John G. Smith.
  • A credit bureau employee accidentally types the wrong Social Security number when inputting data.

You get the picture.

Consumers are entitled to one free copy a year of their report through any major credit bureau. You can request your copy here. The moral is: as tempting as a company’s promise to “fix” your credit report may be, it’s not true!

You can report complaints of credit repair scams to NCL’s Fraud Center. Feel free to drop us a comment about how you avoided being scammed. Or, consider supporting our efforts in educating consumers on avoiding being scammed!