Ed's Blog

Groups criticize FTC Used Car Rule and other Financial Follies

By Ed Mierzwinski
Consumer Program Director

Americans for Financial Reform and other leading groups slammed a proposed new FTC Used Car Rule that fails to protect consumers and ignores advice of advocates and state attorneys general. Comments are due to FTC by February 11. From the letter from the PIRG-backed AFR along with the National Consumer Law Center, National Association of Consumer Advocates and CARS:

"The FTC’s proposed Used Car Buyers Guide sticker is even worse than the old one, and is blatantly false and misleading," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety [CARS], one of the groups that had urged the agency to issue a rule to improve protections for used car buyers. The FTC proposal would require dealers who sell vehicles as is to post a sticker on a car that includes: “THE DEALER WON’T PAY FOR ANY REPAIRS. The dealer is not responsible for any repairs, regardless of what anybody tells you.” This is misleading, because under state law in all 50 states, if dealers commit fraud and cheat car buyers, dealers may have to pay for repairs. Indeed, they may also be liable for refunds or even punitive damages."

Meanwhile in other weekly financial follies, beleaguered New York Mets fans, cheering the team for re-signing star third baseman David Wright (but wondering if they have the money to pay him) and cheering star knuckleballer R.A. Dickey for winning the Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher (but wondering if they have the money to keep him), may face another possible ownership and money crisis, according to the New York Times December 2 story "A Mets Owner and Claims of Consumer Fraud" by reporters Steve Eder, Richard Sandomir and Alison Leigh Cowan. The story reports that the Mets, still recovering from a fiscal crisis after their lead owners' involvement with Ponzi king Bernie Madoff, brought in new investors, including one "accused of having participated in a cynical and longstanding scheme to cheat customers out of millions of dollars." That new co-owner is James F. McCann, the founder and chief executive of 1-800-Flowers.com. And even though this story appears on the baseball page, the rest of it is right out of U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller's (D-WV) investigation of and subsequent enactment of reform legislation over the practice of websites allegedly tricking customers into signing up for "free" "trial offers" for "discount clubs." The consumer never actually authorizes a payment, nor may even be aware she has joined a club. The websites, allegedly including 1-800-Flowers, already know your account numbers and sign you up for the pathetic clubs without your knowledge. The story explains what Senator Rockefeller found:

"Customers shop on the Internet for a product — maybe movie tickets, pizza or flowers. Once they find what they want, they type in their contact information and credit card number and click “Purchase.” As they go through the checkout process, Rockefeller explained, an ad from a third-party business tries to trick them into paying to sign up for “useless” membership clubs by offering cash-back rebates or discounts. If the customer is lured in amid the confusion, Rockefeller explained, the consumer’s consent is taken as a given, and the third-party business already has the credit card number the consumer entered for the initial purchase."

We agree with Professor Prentiss Cox, who as a Minnesota assistant attorney general sued banks for engaging in the practice he calls "pre-acquired account telemarketing" (and others call "data-pass"), that the CFPB and other bank regulators need to continue action against the banks. The Rockefeller-passed Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act, due to jurisdictional limitations, protects consumers on the Internet, but may not stop all similar bank practices, although the CFPB's recent enforcement actions against Discover and Capital One credit cards address related sordid conduct. Consumers are now receiving cash refunds, either directly into their accounts or through an administrator, from these and other cases.

Meanwhile, last week the CFPB announced that the city of Chicago has joined several states that share consumer complaint data with the bureau. It also praised the Department of Veterans Affairs for trademarking the term "GI Bill" to protect veterans fromn fraudulent offers.And it warned the many specialty credit bureaus that they, like the Big 3, also are required to provide free annual credit reports on request. The only difference: the specialty bureaus  -- medical, insurance, tenant screening and other sites (CFPB's partial list) -- provide the reports by 800 number or through their own sites. They do not have to provide the free reports through the required-by-law shared site known as Annualcreditreport.com. Note: that link is not directly to the annualcreditreport page, but to an FTC warning page explaining how to get your legally-required free reports, by mail, phone or through the shared site. Watch for upsell offers and scams related to "free" reports and "free" scores, also!

And, the latest reports from the dog-bites-man-not-so-surprising-stuff news feed are that, yes, Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), investigator of the bank bailouts, expert on credit cards and bankruptcies and the architect of the CFPB, will get a seat on the Senate Banking Committee, despite desperate, ludicrous campaigns by opponents of consumer protection to put her on some backwater committee. I mean, really? What were they thinking? I talk about this on Boston public radio.

And, finally, over at Philly.com, longtime consumer reporter Jeff Gelles reports on FTC consumer chief David Vladeck, in his column "Consumer Chief Leaves FTC a Feistier Place." More from my previous blog.

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