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!

2008: Day Six

by NCL staff

Here we are, less than a week into 2008. How are your new year’s resolutions holding up? Whether you have kept them all, or have resolved not to make any resolutions, we figured you might be interested in some tips to help start the year off right.

Determined to finally lose those extra pounds? Do so healthfully. Did your holiday spending get out of hand? Notice an error on your credit report? Check out NCL’s tips here. Vowed to help others more? Volunteerism can take many forms. Consider helping out at your state or the National LifeSmarts competition. Or, donate to NCL!

Do you want more ideas on how you can stay healthy, avoid scams, and make smart decisions overall as a consumer? Check out NCL’s 2008 Consumer Calendar online.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2008!

NCL in the Land Down Under: Sally Meets with Australian Product Safety Compliance Official

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director G'Day!Sally Down Under

While traveling in Australia this week, I met with a colleague who works the product safety beat for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, (ACCC) the Australian government's official consumer protection and enforcement agency. Gail O'Bryen, Director of Product Safety Compliance, and I have worked together on product safety issues for a number of years. Not surprisingly this year, Australia, like the United States and Europe, has had to grapple with the danger of lead in toys. Australia effectively banned lead in toys so that no toy may have more than .06 parts per million of lead.

Gail also noted that the ACCC expects to set a standard for buggies and strollers after several incidents when these nursery products lead to shocking incidents of injury or death of small children. In several instances, strollers without a braking system rolled away into water or traffic. The ACCC expects to see improved standards for strollers and buggies in the near future.

Finally, the ACCC will likely have a standard for self-extinguishing cigarettes before the end of the year. This is something the United States has adopted in some states, but there has never been a federal standard for fire-safe cigarettes, despite the work of the Consumer Product Safety Commission on the issue. The ACCC works on a vast number of consumer issues, and product safety is only a facet of what this government enforcement agency does for Aussies. Nevertheless, the product and toy safety issue has received the full attention of the Commission.

Learning what colleagues in other countries are doing to address concerns about hazardous products - many of them the same or similar products, like toys, cigarettes, or strollers - has always proved valuable to our work on these and other consumer protection issues.


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.