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!

Sweepstakes Scams Continue to Thrive

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last month we blogged about the results we’ve been seeing from our national public education project on fake check scams.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another consumer who we’ve been able to help.

The consumer had been receiving sweepstakes "winning notifications" in the mail for six months, and was buying money orders twice a week – convinced that sending her money would pay off. A banker from her small Texas town suspected that her 80-year old customer might be falling victim to a sweepstakes scam, and contacted NCL’s Fraud Center.

When I spoke with the consumer (who we'll call "Ms. Jones"), she described the situation to me as such: the first letter she received was from Levittown, New York, from a sweepstakes prize claim office, indicating to her that she’d won millions of dollars in a lottery. The winnings would be hers soon, but first Ms. Jones needed to send in $18 for processing fees to claim her prize. The 80-year-old eagerly did as she was told, and sent in a check for $18. Soon she received another letter, asking for a slightly larger amount to “claim her prize” – but still not enough to set off signals. The letters always included deadlines, urging Ms. Jones to send the necessary fees quickly in order to collect the prizes she’d won.

In the following months, Ms. Jones received what she described to me as “stacks” of letters from very professional-seeming operations telling her she was just one more check away from cashing in on her prize. The woman, who lives on a fixed income, reluctantly admitted to having sent away hundreds of dollars in attempts to claim her prize, little by little. When Jones' banker noticed the trend of small but regular withdrawals to her account, she intervened.

A staffer from NCL’s Fraud Center immediately followed up with the consumer, and explained that she was being duped, as you will never have to pay money to “win” money from a legitimate company or operation.

Unfortunately, this consumer’s story is not that unique. In fact, we hear from many older consumers – or their children or grandchildren – about scams perpetrated against them because many con artists have identified seniors as a vulnerable group. They often find it more difficult to hang up on predatory telemarketers, and they can end up being bilked, bit by bit, out of hundreds or thousands of dollars.

This gets us steamed, and that’s why we are committed to raising awareness about such Telemarketing and Internet Scams. We tell consumers that there is no legitimate reason why anyone would give you a check or money order and ask you to send back any money in return. No matter the details of the scam — whether they’re trying to purchase something from you, asking for your help moving money around, or saying you’ve won a foreign lottery—it’s a scam.

Consumers can report scams online to NCL’s Fraud Center here.

Charlie Cook's Politics 101

Sally Greenberg, Charlie Cook, and an AFL-CIO official from Marylandby Sally Greenberg

On a Tuesday morning right before the Christmas break, I sat mesmerized at a breakfast held at one of Washington’s toniest hotels as the leading guru of political prognostication, Charlie Cook, spun his tale of politics 101. Cook, a native Louisianan, has made his name in Washington as the go-to guy for playing the odds on Presidential politics, U.S. Senate, House and state races. Cook’s considered by many as the best there is for political predictions.

Among his “bon mots” from last year’s breakfast – I wasn’t there but my table mates recounted it – Cook told the audience that Rudy Guliani has “as much chance of winning the Republican nomination as I have of winning the Tour de France.” In order to appreciate that comment, you have to see the man- he’s, well, chubby, very chubby. He probably wouldn’t make it more than a kilometer or two on the straightaway, let alone into the Alps.

Cook’s reasoning? In order to win the republican nomination you have to be at least two of these three: anti-abortion (Guiliani’s pro-choice); anti-gun control (Guiliani’s pro-control, at least he was as mayor of New York City); and anti-gay rights (Guiliani backs civil unions and was considered very gay-friendly while mayor of NYC).

So who does Cook think has the best chance of winning the Republican nomination? He’s giving the odds to Mitt Romney, Massachusetts’ former governor. What about the Huckabee surge ? Cook says he has no money and no organization. And Fred Thompson –“they use the term ‘running’ for a reason. He’s not running, he’s sauntering.” As for Senator John McCain, he doesn’t have any money left either – he blew through a lot of his campaign war chest early on - and he’s made serious tactical mistakes, like backing a compromise on immigration that is inimical to the beliefs of his republican base. Cook doesn’t think McCain can do it.

On the democratic side, Cook says that if Hillary Clinton loses Iowa – the candidates are neck-and-neck there – and New Hampshire, she’s dead. If Obama wins one of these two and Clinton the other, Cooks says it’s a horserace. Cook told the audience that the democrats have a 60-40 chance of winning, but neither “Clinton nor Obama wins big.”

If dems could run a “placebo – you know, your generic boring white male ticket, say former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh - that might guarantee them the top elected official slot.” But, as Cook noted, that’s not happening this year. So, if Cook is right, we’re looking at a Clinton-Romney race come spring, when all the dust has settled and the presidential race at full tilt. If not, well, Cook won’t be the first Washington pundit to get it wrong, but he’ll always be one of the most entertaining.

Jolly Holiday Returns

As surely as people buy holiday gifts, they also return holiday gifts. Returning merchandise successfully — and getting a refund you’re satisfied with — can pose a few challenges any time of year, but there are a number of things consumers can do before the return, or even before the purchase, to reduce stress, ease the process, and increase the odds of a successful transaction. Check out our tips for jolly holiday returns.

Kids and Cars Bill Will Protect Young Children From Being Backed Over and Killed

img_1571.jpgby Sally Greenberg, Executive Director

For years, safety advocates have been working to protect young children from being killed behind vehicles driving in reverse because the driver can’t adequately see the space behind the cars they are backing up. Late this afternoon, a bill to address this deadly hazard – which routinely kills two children a week, according to the group KIDS AND CARS – overcame a major hurdle, passing the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously. The Senate Commerce Committee passed a similar measure several months ago.

The biggest danger comes with the very largest of vehicles: SUVs and pickup trucks. While every car has a blind zone, the larger vehicles tend to have much wider and longer ones. Consumer Reports, where I worked for a decade and lobbied to get this bill passed before coming to the National Consumers League, measures all blind areas behind every vehicle they test. CR has measured blind zones as long as 69 feet, longer than many driveways. This means that, when a driver is sitting in the car about to put it in reverse, she can’t see anything behind her for 69 feet and as much as 7 feet wide. Clearly an accident waiting to happen. Small children run out after Mommy or Daddy, Grandpa or Grandma, without being seen and end up behind the car, in a blind spot. You know the rest. The tragedy is devastating: often the parent is the one who backs over the child, and it often happens in their own driveway.

The bill passed in the House Committee today – sponsored by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Congressman Peter King (R-NY), (the bill bears the name of his young constituent, Cameron Gulbransen, a victim of backover). Like its Senate counterpart, sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator John Sununu (R-NH), the bill will require that every vehicle meet a standard for rear visibility in the next few years allowing drivers to detect objects behind them, that every vehicle require that its brake be depressed if it is to shift into gear, preventing young children from playing with a gear shift and setting a car in motion (because they can’t reach the brake pedal, typically), and calling for data collection by the federal government for these types of nontraffic, noncrash incidents, which are not systematically tracked now by the government.

FDA Says No Thanks to OTC Statin

By NCL Staff

At a public hearing last week, the Food and Drug Administration heard a variety of opinions about the possibility of a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug being made available in an over-the-counter, non-prescription form. After the hearing, the agency held a vote, and the verdict is in: Mevacor will not become an OTC drug, and consumers will continue to have to go to their doctors for diagnosing and treatment of cholesterol – at least for now.

Over the years, the FDA has granted OTC status to other Rx drugs, like medications for heartburn, yeast infections, and other conditions consumers can self-treat. The FDA weighs the pros and cons, including risks of side effects, consumers’ ability to self-diagnose and monitor, and other safety issues. We wanted to know what consumers would think of an OTC statin, so we surveyed adults with moderately-risky cholesterol levels to find out. We told FDA committee members at the public hearing last week that the consumers surveyed had mixed opinions. Many said they’d be interested in the OTC version, but some others thought that they’d prefer to have a doctor’s prescription to treat their cholesterol. Turns out, as we expected, that OTC drugs are seen as safer and Rx drugs are seen as more trustworthy. Interesting stuff!

Now that the FDA has made its ruling, consumers who want to treat their cholesterol without having to go to the doctor first will just have to wait. There’s definitely a plus side to this ruling: FDA advisers noted that at $1 to $1.50 a day, an over-the-counter version would cost more for the insured than the typical $4 to $15 for a month's supply of prescription statins.