Consumer Issues: Unfair Practices
One role of a government is to protect citizens from unfair practices by companies.
We'll report on some unfair practices, and what actions the people you elect to represent you are taking to make sure you're not being taken advantage of.
Related IssuesAssault on Regulations
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DeVos sued for not implementing student loan protections
|2018-Nov-14  (Updated: 2018-Nov-17)||By: Barry Shatzman|
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is being sued for violating a judge's order to cancel the federal student loans of defrauded students.
The Obama administration's Borrower Defense program allows students defrauded by for-profit colleges to have their loans forgiven, as well as providing other protections.
The Trump administration rewrote the regulation. The new regulation - which provides substantially less protection - is scheduled to go into effect in 2020.
Meanwhile, the administration delayed implementation of the Obama protections.
A federal court ruled in October that the Obama regulation must be put into effect immediately, and remain in effect until replaced by the Trump administration program.
The lawsuit by the Housing & Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) claims that the Department of Education still is collecting on loans that should be discharged, and is not implementing other protections the program provides.
HERA estimates there are tens of thousands of students eligible to have their student debt automatically discharged under the program.
For more, read the NPR story.
Judge supports relief for defrauded federal student loan borrowers
|2018-Oct-01  (Updated: 2018-Oct-12)||By: Barry Shatzman|
Students seeking to have their federal student loans forgiven because their college defrauded them are finding themselves in the crossfire of competing regulations between the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
The Borrower Defense program allows borrowers to have those loans forgiven if the school misled them on issues such as accreditation or job prospects.
The Obama administration rules were to take effect in 2017. They made it easier for borrowers to obtain relief - including allowing students to file class actions against a school and requiring financially at-risk schools to provide security that they can reimburse the government.
The Trump administration postponed implementation of the rules until 2019. Meanwhile, it created its own regulation that would take effect then. The Trump administration rules would make it more difficult to obtain relief. They include allowing schools to prevent class actions.
A federal court has ruled that the administration cannot delay implementing the Obama administration rules, though the Trump administration still can implement its own rule for those taking out loans after 2019.
CAPPS Lawsuit threatens class actions
But that doesn't automatically clear the path for today's defrauded borrowers. A lawsuit filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools (CAPPS) claims that the government has no authority to stop schools from disallowing class action lawsuits.
Judge Randolph Moss has allowed a delay in implementing the Obama regulations until that suit is evaluated. A ruling is expected Oct. 12.
Update 2018-Oct-12: Moss rejected the arguments by CAPPS - ruling that the protections provided by the 2016 Obama administration rule must be immediately implemented.
For more, read this New York Times article, this Bloomberg story and this NPR story.
Click here to read the Department of Education notice of the changed policy (the Executive Summary runs from pages 4-33)
CFBP to stop oversight of predatory lending to military members
|2018-Aug-10  (Updated: 2018-Aug-20)||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Trump administration has said it will stop looking for violators of a law that protects military members from predatory lending.
Since 2006, the Military Lending Act has protected service members' financial health by limiting interest rates they can be charged and guaranteeing them access to the court system in the event of disputes.
Taxpayers as well as service members pay the price
People typically join the military in their late teens or early 20s - with no credit and little experience in personal finance. As a result, members of the military are four times more likely to use payday loans than non-military people, according to a Defense Department study. Payday lending companies cluster around military bases.
Members of the military also fall victim to predatory actions when buying cars. Dealers often push new car buyers to purchase gap insurance at drastically inflated prices over what their insurance company would charge them. The cost is added to the loan amount.
Service members who find themselves in financial trouble can lose security clearances or even get discharged.
"Predatory lending undermines military readiness, harms the morale of troops and their families, and adds to the cost of fielding an all-volunteer fighting force," the report stated.
Proactive investigations of predatory lenders will end
While the law would remain in place, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) no longer would monitor lenders to see if they are violating it. Instead, it would rely on members of the military reporting individual violations.
Yet this proactive monitoring has led to significant enforcement and fines, including a $10 million fine against a payday lender in 2014.
A spokesperson for acting CFPB director Mick Mulvaney said the Military Lending Act does not specifically provide for these supervisory examinations.
For more, read the NPR story.
Supreme Court: Merchants can't suggest cost-saving credit card
|2018-Jun-25  (Updated: 2018-Jul-09)||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Supreme Court has ruled that American Express legally can prevent merchants from suggesting you use a credit card other than theirs.
Whenever you buy something using a credit card, the merchant pays a swipe fee to the credit card company.
American Express charges merchants higher fees than the other credit card companies such as Visa, Mastercard, or Discover. That means a merchant would prefer that you use one of the other cards. But American Express - in its contracts with merchants - forbids them from doing anything that would steer customers away from using their card.
This can cost you money
Swipe fees are passed onto consumers - usually in the form of higher prices for everyone. They cost the average household $400 a year in higher prices.
And anti-steering provisions dissuade the other credit card companies from lowering their fees, since merchants aren't allowed to suggest the card that would cost them the least anyway.
So what happened?
In 2010, the federal government and several states sued credit card companies that used anti-steering clauses - saying the practice violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Mastercard and Visa agreed to stop the practice, but American Express has kept it.
After the court ruling, American Express (as well as other companies) are free to include anti-steering provisions in their contracts with merchants.
Car loan minority protections repealed
|2018-Apr-23  (Updated: 2018-May-21)||By: Barry Shatzman|
How can car loans discriminate against minorities?
When you buy a car using a loan from the dealer, the dealer may increase your interest rate beyond what the actual lender asks for. The lender returns all or part of the difference to the dealer as extra profit on the car.
If you're aware of that, you can negotiate the markup that leads to your final rate with the dealer. That opens up the process to discrimination on factors such as race.
If the bank set the rates directly with the borrower, interest rate differences based on race would violate the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA).
In 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a guidance bulletin stating that these indirect lenders also are subject to the law - even though they may not have any knowledge of a dealer's discriminatory practices.
The guidance is based on the principle of disparate impact - meaning the effect is identical even if there was no explicit intent.
The CFPB has used this guidance to justify enforcement actions against auto dealers they accused of charging minorities higher interest rates, The Hill reported.
What have Congressional Republicans done to reverse protections?
Sen. Patrick Toomey appealed to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the bulletin was a regulation, rather than merely guidance. That would allow them to nullify the rule using the Congressional Review Act. In December, the GAO said the Congressional Review Act could be used to nullify the guidance.
On May 8, Congress passed a bill to repeal the protection. President Trump signed the bill on May 21 - officially repealing the rule.
CFPB enforcements dwindle under Trump appointee
|2018-Apr-11  (Updated: 2018-Apr-21)||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has fined Wells Fargo Bank $1 billion. It was the CFPB's first enforcement action since Mick Mulvaney became acting director almost six months ago.
Under previous director Richard Cordray, the CFPB had averaged between two and four enforcement actions a month - requiring financial institutions to return almost $12 billion to Americans in cash or other types of relief. One out of every 10 Americans has received some form of compensation through CFPB enforcement, the Associated Press calculated from CFBP records.
Along with reduced enforcement, Mulvaney has taken other steps to weaken consumer protections - as well as to weaken the CFPB itself.
What did Wells Fargo do?
The fine against Wells Fargo was the result of the bank improperly adding insurance to auto loans.
Here's what happened. When someone takes out a car loan, the bank requires the purchaser to maintain insurance in case the car is damaged. The purchaser often buys insurance separately and provides proof to the bank. Wells Fargo surreptitiously added insurance to car loans - even for customers who already had insurance. For many of these customers, the illegal insurance may have contributed to their car being repossessed.
Though the fine was $1 billion, Wells Fargo will save almost 4 times that much as a result of the tax reduction President Trump signed in December.
Payday loan companies sue to prevent regulations
|2018-Apr-09  (Updated: 2018-Apr-18)||By: Barry Shatzman|
This past October, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finalized a rule preventing payday loan companies from lending to borrowers who likely wouldn't be able to repay the debt. Most provisions are expected to take effect by late 2019.
The companies now are suing the bureau to prevent that from ever happening. And their only obstacle might be someone who wants them to win.
The lending restriction was created by the bureau under Richard Cordray - the previous director who had been appointed by President Barack Obama.
But Mick Mulvaney - who became the bureau's acting director in a controversial appointment after Cordray resigned - announced in January that he would reconsider the rule. But he conceded he doesn't know how it could be done. In the meantime, he said he would "entertain waiver requests" from payday loan companies for parts of the rule that have taken effect.
For more, read the Washington Post story.
Rule allowing class action suits against banks nullified.
|2017-Nov-01||By: Barry Shatzman|
In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a rule that would have allowed groups of consumers to file class action lawsuits against banks.
President Trump has just signed a bill nullifying that rule.
In nullifying the regulation, Congress made use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows new rules to be blocked by Congress and is immune to a Senate filibuster. Needing only a simple majority, the vote in the Senate was tied 50-50. Vice President Mike Pence cast the 51st vote to pass the bill.
Companies often insulate themselves from being sued by adding a clause to the agreement you sign saying that any disputes will be resolved through arbitration.
One company that uses arbitration clauses is Wells Fargo Bank. In 2016, the bank created unwanted accounts for unwary customers. While Wells Fargo ended up paying more than $100 million in fines imposed by the CFPB, affected customers were unable to sue the bank.
House passes bill to revoke consumer and financial protections
|2017-Jun-08  (Updated: 2017-Jun-20)||By: Rob Dennis and Barry Shatzman|
The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would weaken consumer protections and repeal many of the regulations intended to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.
The Financial CHOICE Act (CHOICE stands for Create Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers, and Entrepreneurs) would roll back financial protections created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Its provisions include...
The bill also includes versions of the REINS Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act - bills that would make it extraordinarily difficult for federal agencies to enact regulations protecting consumers and the environment. These bills were among the first bills passed by the current House of Representatives, but have been blocked in the Senate by a Democratic filibuster.
This bill still must pass the Senate - where it also is subject to a filibuster - in order for President Trump to be given the opportunity to sign it into law.
Click here to read our description of the Financial CHOICE Act.
For more, read the New York Times analysis of the bill.
Click here to read our discussion of the current Congress' assault on regulations.
Rule protecting retirement will take effect in June
|2017-May-23||By: Barry Shatzman|
A rule requiring financial advisors to act in their clients' best interests when planning retirement investments will take effect June 9.
The Obama administration Fiduciary Rule was supposed to take effect in April, but a memorandum by President Trump demanded that it be reviewed first.
Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta says that the Labor Department will continue to review the rule, but could not identify a legal issue that would cause further delay.
Bills would eliminate Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
|2017-Feb-14  (Updated: 2017-Feb-22)||By: Rob Dennis|
Rep. John Ratcliffe and Sen. Ted Cruz have introduced legislation to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
The CFPB was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Among other things, the agency has...
To become law, either version would need to pass both houses of Congress and then be signed by the president.
House resolution would remove protections for prepaid cards
|2017-Feb-03||By: Rob Dennis|
A resolution has been introduced in the Hosue of Representatives that would revoke a regulation that creates consumer protections for prepaid accounts.
The resolution would overturn a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that requires disclosures about prepaid account fees and protects users from errors, loss and theft.
Prepaid accounts allow users to pay with money that has been loaded onto cards in advance. They are used by people who don't have bank accounts, but also are becoming one of the most common ways to pay for things.
The resolution was introduced by Rep. Tom Graves.
While eliminating a protection to consumers, blocking the regulation would benefit commercial banks, which were Graves' top industry donors in the 2016 campaign cycle.
The repeal also would need Senate approval, as well as a signature by President Trump. It cannot be filibustered because the rule is being nullified under the Congressional Review Act.
Click here for more information on the resolution.
For more on the regulation, read our story below.
Click here to see what other Obama administration protections Congress is working to revoke using the Congressional Review Act.
New protections for users of prepaid cards
|2016-Oct-05||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a rule that would protect users of prepaid cards.
The rule requires banks (and other issuers of prepaid cards) to more clearly disclose fees associated with the account. It also protects you if your prepaid card is lost or stolen, or if your account is wrongly charged.
For more, read the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau description of the regulation.
Bill would make it easier to buy event tickets
|2016-Sep-12  (Updated: 2016-Sep-22)||By: Barry Shatzman|
Your favorite performer is coming. You jump online the second tickets become available. And the website tells you the show's already sold out. What happened?
Several things, actually. It's likely that about half of the tickets never were available in the first place - having been reserved for the artist, fan clubs, and promotions. But that still leaves a lot of tickets for the public to have bought up in such a short amount of time.
Those tickets weren't bought by the public. They were purchased by ticket resellers such as StubHub and TicketsNow, who will sell them to you at a much higher price. To buy so many tickets so fast, resellers use computer programs known as bots.
Bots effectively lock out the general public from buying tickets at face value. They buy thousands of tickets both by being lightning-fast and by using tactics to circumvent ticket limits imposed by artists and venues.
The House of Representatives has passed the Better On-line Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act, that would make it illegal for resellers to use bots in an unfair way. In order to become law, it still must pass the Senate and be signed by President Obama.
For a clear explanation of how ticket sales work and how bots cause you to pay much more for event tickets, read the report by the New York Attorney General office.
For more, read the Rolling Stone article.
Bill would prevent companies from squelching bad reviews
|2016-Sep-12  (Updated: 2016-Dec-14)||By: Barry Shatzman|
You buy something that doesn't live up to expectations. Or maybe it doesn't get delivered at all. So you go online and write an honest review.
So the company sends you a bill for hundreds - or thousands - of dollars.
Some companies add a clause to their terms of sale that prohibits you from publishing anything negative about them or their products - even if it's the truth.
A new bill that would end that practice. The Consumer Review Fairness Act would make clauses such as this automatically invalid.
The bill passed both houses of Congress, and President Obama signed it into law Dec 14, 2016.
For more, read the Consumerist.com story.
Wells Fargo fined for creating secret accounts
|2016-Sep-08||By: Barry Shatzman|
Wells Fargo Bank opened about 2 million bank and credit card accounts for some of its customers in the past five years. One problem. The customers didn't know about them.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has fined the bank $100 million. The bank also will pay $85 million to other government agencies.
The accounts were opened by employees in order to help them reach their sales quotas and receive commissions. Lax oversight by the bank allowed the practice to persist, the CFPB reported.
Although the customers weren't aware of the accounts opened in their name, they still paid for them. Many of the savings accounts were funded by having money secretly transferred from their existing account - resulting in charges for things like insufficient funds and overdrafts in the existing account. For the credit cards opened in their name without their knowledge, customers were charged annual and other fees.
In addition to the fines, the the bank was ordered to refund all fees and charges that customers paid due to the rogue accounts.
For more, read the CFPB press release.
Regulations would curtail payday loan debt cycle
|2016-Jun-02  (Updated: 2017-Oct-05)||By: Barry Shatzman|
Update 2017-Oct-5: The CFPB finalized this rule. It is expected to take effect by late 2019.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has proposed regulations to protect those who use payday loans from falling into a cycle of continually-growing debt.
The regulations would include...
The regulations would cover loans required to be paid back within 45 days. They also would cover longer-term loans if it is paid back directly from the borrower's checking account or is secured by the borrower's car, and the Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is greater than 36 percent.
The regulations could go into effect by early 2017. There is a public comment period through Oct. 7.
For a clearer understanding of payday loans, read our discussion of this issue.
For more on the new regulations, read the New York Times story.
You can read a summary of the planned regulations (as well as the full proposal) at the CFPB website.
Click here to read public comments already submitted or to add your own comment.
Fiduciary Rule will protect those investing for retirement
|2016-Apr-04||By: Barry Shatzman|
When you receive retirement investment advice from your financial planner, do you want that advice to represent your best interests?
Though the answer seems obvious, your planner has not been obligated to give that advice - and often does not.
For example, while an advisor is required to recommend investments suitable to your goals, he can suggest an investment that will earn him a higher fee - rather than one that would provide you with the best return.
Conflicted advice such as that has led to a total annual loss of $17 billion to American families according to the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
New regulations from the Department of Labor (DOL) will change that.
The Fiduciary Rule will require financial advisers and brokers to act in the best interests of their clients when offering advice on retirement investments. The regulations are expected to take effect around mid-2017.
Did you buy StarKist tuna recently? You're entitled to $25.
|2015-Aug-27||By: Barry Shatzman|
Did your 5-ounce can of Starkist Tuna contain a few tenths of an ounce less than feceral law requires? If it did, would you even notice?
It doesn't matter. What matters is that if you bought that can between 2009 and 2014, you can get a $25 check from the company. Or you can choose $50 in vouchers for StarKist products.
It is the result of a class action lawsuit in which a customer alleged that StarKist slightly under filled its 5-ounce tuna cans. The company agreed to settle the case without admitting fault.
To receive either a check or a voucher, you must file a claim by Nov. 20. You won't need a receipt, but you'll need to certify that you actually bought at least one can of StarKist tuna during the affected period.
For more, including how to file a claim, visit the official website for Hendricks v. StarKist Co.
Time Warner must pay woman $200,000 for robocalls
|2015-Jul-08||By: Barry Shatzman|
A judge has ordered Time Warner Cable to pay a Texas woman more than $200,000 for calling her more than 150 times with robocalls - half of those after she filed a complaint.
For more, read the BBC News story.
FCC makes it easier for you to control telemarketers
|2015-Jun-18||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is making it easier for you to control automated marketing calls (referred to as robocalls) and text messages.
The new rules extend the protections implemented under the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). They include...
Credit reporting agencies will become more consumer-friendly
|2015-Mar-09||By: Barry Shatzman|
The three primary credit reporting agencies have agreed to new policies that will benefit consumers. Their new National Consumer Assistance Plan will limit the types of information that they keep, and make it easier for you to dispute errors.
Features of the agreement include...
In addition, the agencies are working on ways to better deal with situations such as fraud, identity theft, and mixed files - where two consumer files are mistakenly mixed together.
The new procedures also could benefit businesses - who might otherwise turn down a dependable borrower because of an error. They are expected to start taking place in about six months.
For more, read the New York Times story.
Snuggies marketer pulled the wool over consumers' eyes
|2015-Mar-05  (Updated: 2015-Mar-09)||By: Barry Shatzman|
If you ever bought a Snuggie or Magic Mesh by calling the phone number on the infomercial, you almost definitely received two in the mail. Which sounds okay, because you were told if you bought one for $19.95 you'd get another one free.
One problem... your credit card was charged $35.85. That's because the television marketer added $7.95 for "processing and handling" of each item. And they provided no way to understand that or to back out.
Allstar Marketing Group will pay an $8 million settlement for its deceptive practices, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported.
The FTC alleged the company violated several provisions, including...
The company has been ordered to change its practices, and the fine may be used to provide refunds to customers.
FTC will investigate ads disguised as news content
|2013-Dec-05||By: Barry Shatzman|
The Federal Trade Commission is investigating what to do about advertisements on websites that are disguised as news stories. Almost 3 out of every 4 online publishers offer such ads, according to FTC surveys.
Even when labeled as sponsored content or something similar, the ads give the misleading impression of being unbiased news stories.
For more, read the New York Times story
Note: Lobby99 does not accept paid advertisements on its website. We do not expect this to change.
Credit Card protection law saving consumers $20 billion a year
|2013-Nov-07||By: Barry Shatzman|
Protections created by a 2009 law to limit stop deceptive and excessive credit card fees are saving Americans more than $20 billion a year, according to a recently-released study.
The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act outlawed practices such as charging a fee for every transaction that would cause someone to exceed his or her credit limit. Banks now can only charge the fee once in a billing period - and only if he or she had explicitly agreed to allow such transactions (by default now the credit card company must decline such transactions).
The law also prohibits other practices such as varying payment due dates from month to month, or specifying a time of day as well as a date for when a bill must be paid.
Changing jobs? 401(k) rollover advice often misleading
|2013-Apr-03||By: Rob Dennis and Barry Shatzman|
When you change jobs, what should you do with the money you have contributed to your old employer's 401(k) retirement plan? Your old employer might refer you to a money management company for advice.
That advice often is misleading, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on April 3.
The GAO, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, found that plan providers often encourage workers to roll their plans into IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) even when they'd be better off leaving their money in a 401(k). The companies can collect bigger fees when workers move their money into IRAs, according to the report.
Both IRAs and 401(k) plans were created by the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
Part of the problem, the GAO says, is that it's easier for an employee to move their money into an IRA. Reducing the waiting period to roll over money into a new 401(k) plan and streamlining the process could allow participants "to make distribution decisions based on their financial circumstances rather than on convenience," the report states.
Taxes simple and for free? Not if Intuit has a say (and it does)
|2013-Mar-27||By: Barry Shatzman|
If your tax situation is simple, you might have wondered why it's necessary to fill out a tax form. After all, the IRS already has all your information. You also might wonder why you might pay someone to do it for you, or pay for a service such as TurboTax.
The answer has little to do with technology. Other countries such as Spain and Sweden already do this.
The answer in the United States is much more ironic. The corporations you pay to help make your taxes simple are paying your elected representatives to keep them complex. Intuit - the maker of TurboTax - has spent more than $11 million in the past five years lobbying against making tax filing simple and free for the overwhelming majority of Americans.
For more, read the ProPublica story.
One in five report errors on their credit reports
Five percent of consumers had errors on their credit reports that could force them to pay more for financial products such as auto loans and insurance, according to a study by the Federal Trade Commission released today.
The congressionally mandated study involved 1,001 participants, who used the Fair Credit Reporting Act to fix potential errors.
The full 208-page FTC study can be viewed here.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies - Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion - to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once a year, upon request. Details about how to order reports are available here.
Credit reports are used to evaluate applications for credit, insurance, employment or renting a home. They include information about how you pay your bills, bankruptcies, criminal history and lawsuits. The FTC describes the procedure for correcting errors here
Seniors losing homes due to reverse mortgages
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working on rules to protect senior citizens from losing their homes due to fraudulent reverse mortgage practices.
Reverse mortgages allow many people over 62 years old to remain in their homes by essentially lending them money that does not need to be repaid until they move out or die. But some lenders have issued the loans knowing the borrowers could not afford the fees or pay their property taxes. And some widows are facing eviction after they say they were pressured to keep their name off the deed without being told that they could be left facing foreclosure after their husbands died.
For more, read the New York Times report