Ed's Blog

Some Consumer News of the Week, In Case You Missed It

By Ed Mierzwinski
Consumer Program Director

It's hard to keep up, so here are some key consumer news stories I am following that you may have missed this week. We start with CALPIRG Education Fund's new "Cell Phone Guide," look at the Consumer Federation of America's report on auto insurance discrimination and take you all the way to the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign survey on what's "good, bad and ugly (rats!)" in NYC subway stations.

-- CALPIRG Education Fund's Jon Fox tells you about "Making the Right Call" in a new shopping guide and survey of cell phone plans. Here's his final of 7 steps to saving money: Step 7: Keep track of your monthly use, either online or on your phone. CALPIRG found that 40% of those consumers surveyed incurred overcharges.

-- The nation's leading consumer expert on insurance prices, actuary Bob Hunter, along with director Steve Brobeck, both over at the Consumer Federation of America, have a new report on auto insurance discrimination. Among its key findings: "[...] the auto insurance marketplace denies important economic opportunities, especially those related to employment, to low- and moderate-income (LMI) households.  The study also explains how state insurance regulators could ensure that mandated auto insurance coverage is fairly priced and affordable for these families so that they have greater access to car ownership and jobs."

-- A woman who rejected joining a class action case has successfully used small claims court -- a consumer resource more often used by powerful special interests (hospitals, debt collectors) against consumers -- to sue Honda over deceptive mileage claims (Washington Post). Here's Heather Peters' own website dontsettlewithhonda.org.

-- I often tell you about the work of the new CFPB, but its enforcement partners over at the Federal Trade Commission do some good work, too! They spent the week issuing multi-million dollar consent orders against various corporate wrongdoers, most of whom run "last-dollar-scams." That's just another way to say: they kick people when they're down. In perhaps its biggest order of the week, FTC forced the powerful debt buyer Asset Acceptance to "pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it made a range of misrepresentations when trying to collect old debts" and forced the firm "to agree to tell consumers whose debt may be too old to be legally enforceable that it will not sue to collect on that debt." It's an important decision that will have ripple effects across the entire debt buyer industry. The firms typically make their living collecting debts from people who either no longer legally owe them or never owed them (identity theft victims or other vctims of mistaken identity) and have been accused of a wide range of tactics that are illegal under debt collection laws.

-- NerdWallet compares 59 prepaid debit cards and a few checking accounts in an online survey. Fees range from 0-$384/year. I haven't checked the methodology closely-- but only 46 cards and accounts came up on my quick review. There's some grade inflation, too, since any card that cost less than $179/year got an A. Your mileage may vary depending on how often you reload the card and where and how often you use it at ATMs. We've asked the CFPB to investigate and regulate largely unregulated prepaid cards, which are targeted at consumers without bank accounts.

-- This item's from last week, but still worth a  look: consumer Top Gun Lisa Madigan, Attorney General of Illinois, has "filed a lawsuit against Standard & Poor's for its fraudulent role in assigning its highest ratings to risky mortgage-backed investments in the years leading up to the housing market crash." I am sure that you'd be shocked, shocked to learn that the business model for S&P and other credit rating firms involves being paid for the rankings they provide to companies issuing securities. As Madigan says: ""Publically, S&P took every opportunity to proclaim their analyses and ratings as independent, objective and free from its desire for revenue. Yet privately, S&P abandoned its principles and instead used every trick possible to give deals high ratings in order to retain clients and generate revenue. The mortgage-backed securities that helped our market soar – and ultimately crash – could not have been purchased by most investors without S&P's seal of approval."

-- Finally, this week the award-winning NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign took a deep dive into what's "good, bad and ugly (rats!)" in NYC subway stations. 

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