This week is National Consumer Protection Week. Consumers can visit https://www.ncpw.gov/ and find resources on a variety of topics ranging from banking to identity theft to technology and so much more to avoid common consumer pitfalls. While consumers face threats year round, take some time this week to learn about common threats to a consumer’s wallet and make sure you stay protected.
March kicks off National Nutrition Month – a good time for us to reflect on our diets and physical activity. We all know the importance –and the challenges — of maintaining a healthy weight. A third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight. That means that two thirds of Americans are at increased risk for certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other life threatening illnesses that accompany excessive poundage.
There are a few promising signs that the nation’s health is improving, however. Just this week, a major federal health survey reported that the obesity rate among two-year-old to five-year-old children has dropped 43 percent. Children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. There is a strong focus nationwide on improving eating habits and being more conscious about what we put into our bodies.
In pursuit of sound eating practices, we recommend watching portion sizes, looking at nutritional labels and moderation above all else. It is easy to overeat when we are surrounded by high calorie, high fat foods, many with surprisingly little nutritional value. Americans’ top sources of calories, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are cakes, cookies, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. These foods are laden with fat and/or sweeteners and easy to consume in large quantities. Surprisingly, some foods like candy contribute only 2.2% of calories to the American diet. First Lady Michelle Obama says it well – it’s not that we can NEVER have certain foods like candy or ice cream, but that we should enjoy them in moderation.
We believe strongly in studying Nutrition Facts labels! They are also being updated for the first time in 20 years. Almost every packaged food item includes them: they provide calories per serving and help consumers monitor and control caloric intake for the recommended 2,000 calorie a day diet. The updated labels will now reflect more accurate caloric information, provide larger font and a listing for added sugars, which is useful to know. Focusing on eating more foods that are nutrient dense and low in fat and calories is a critical step in the right direction if you’re looking to shed a few pounds. As “My Plate” suggests, making half of your meal fruits and vegetables is an easy way to do this. A few other tips to get on track are:
- Increase intake of whole grains, making half of all grains consumed whole grains.
- Reduce consumption of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages like soda.
- Monitor and minimize calorie intake from alcoholic beverages.
- Be aware of how large portion sizes are, especially when dining out.
- Prepare more meals at home where you have control over the amount of added salt, sugar and fat.
A balanced diet is just that, balanced. Eat a variety of foods: it keeps your food choices interesting and satisfying. And of course, partake in the occasional indulgence. A very restrictive diet can backfire. A candy bar, piece of chocolate, or some other reasonably small treat can be helpful in curbing cravings.
Finally, physical activity can play a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking at a brisk clip or riding a bike, each week. The idea of fitting this in can be daunting for many of us, but it helps to know that walking to work or taking a quick stroll on your lunch break counts. Any amount of physical activity – however brief – yields rewards and is better than none at all. Taking these steps to better your health may be difficult at first, but with time and practice, they become habit and will surely enhance your quality of life.
By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud
In the world of fraud fighting, the release of the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Data Book is something of a wonky holiday. Yesterday was no exception, with the agency publishing the annual report, which examines trends in the 2 million-plus complaints the FTC receives annually.
The headline of the report was depressingly familiar: identity theft continued to be the biggest driver of complaints to the FTC for the 14th straight year. This trend is one of the reasons NCL produced our State of Identity Theft in 2013 report last year, which examined the continuing threat of ID theft and why we are making the issue of data insecurity a top priority in 2014.
Looking deeper into the Sentinel data, some additional interesting trends and questions come to light, including:
- Does youth correlate with risk of identity theft? The FTC noted that 20% of ID theft complaints came from consumers aged 20-29, who comprise only 13.8% of the population. There is also a steady reduction in ID theft complaint rates as consumers get older. For example, 8% of ID theft complaints come from consumers aged 70-plus, which is consistent with their overall 9% distribution in the population. An open question is whether identity theft risk decreases as consumers age or whether the correlation is due to an increased likelihood that younger consumers will report identity theft.
- The telephone is scammers’ contact method of choice. While recent news has been dominated stories about high-tech data breaches, it appears that scammers are returning to a somewhat old-fashioned tool: the telephone. Last month’s Fraud.org Top Ten Scams report noted that telemarketing fraud was making a major comeback, with 36% of complaints mentioning the telephone as the method of contact. The FTC’s new data confirmed this, finding that 40% of complaints cited the telephone as the method of contact. The telephone is now the preferred method of contact by scammers, overtaking email for the first time since 2011. Congress is taking notice as well. In December, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Anti-Spoofing Act, which would crack down on scammers disguising their calls by altering Caller ID information.
- Scammers shifting technique in “grandparent’s scams.” Con artists have long used the story of a loved one in distress to defraud consumers, particularly older adults. Also known as the imposter scam, this fraud starts with the fraudster calling a victim with an urgent appeal for funds to help a friend or family member in need. For example, the scammer might claim that a beloved grandson was in a car accident overseas and needs money to pay a hospital bill or to get bailed out of jail. More than 121,000 consumers reported an imposter scam to the FTC in 2013, an increase of more than 36,000 complaints since 2012. The scam is evolving as well. Whereas fraudsters used to impersonate a friend or family member, they are increasingly claiming to represent a business or government official.
- Encouraging signs in the fight against lottery scams. For the second year in in a row, complaints about this type of fraud have decreased (down by almost more than 10,000 complaints since 2011). Thanks in part to consumer education campaigns like DeliveringTrust.com growing awareness of these scams seems to be having an impact.
More than 2.1 million complaints were filed with the FTC in 2013, with reported losses of more than $1.6 billion. Given that fraud is a chronically underreported crime, we should assume that many millions more consumers were harmed. As we prepare to mark National Consumer Protection Week, this new data should serve as a reminder of the immense toll that fraud takes on U.S. consumers.
This data should push all of us — anti-fraud advocates, law enforcement, policymakers and everyday consumers — to redouble our vigilance in the fight against scammers.
February is Black History Month and reminds us of NCL’s deep historical connections to the Black community. W.E.B. DuBois, the renowned civil rights leader was appointed in 1910 to be the first editor of the NAACP’s newspaper, The Crisis. He was a brilliant scholar and close friend of Florence Kelley, NCL’s General Secretary. Kelley came from a Philadelphia Quaker family, raised with fiercely abolitionist beliefs and she had no tolerance for racial prejudice and discrimination. She was furious when racial segregation practiced in hotels and restaurants made it difficult for her African American colleagues to attend meetings on minimum wage and child labor.
Earlier this month, NCL sponsored the Communities of Color Consumer Protection and Financial Services Symposium. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies – the only African America think tank in the US – co-hosted the program with the Center for Responsible Lending. The conference focused on telecom, fraud, student loans, auto loans and mortgage financing, with an emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable communities. These communities experience higher interest rates, rip off contract terms, and have had their family wealth wiped out by the subprime mortgage crisis in far larger proportions than their white counterparts.
We organized this conference to bring new voices into the consumer protection discussion. Representatives from La Raza, LULAC, NAACP and Urban League spoke at the event, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN).
I learned a lot at about how financial institutions, car dealers and lenders, for profit colleges, and so many others target the black community for predatory practices and make billions in profits at the expense of these communities.
So as we celebrate Black History Month in 2014, it’s more important than ever that communities of color have the benefit of consumer protections and that regulators and legislators work on their behalf. NCL hopes to do a conference like this at least once a year. We will be following the wonderful example of great leaders like Florence Kelley and W.E.B. Dubois who 100 years ago worked together as partners and colleagues for the cause of social justice in America.
It’s unseasonably warm this week and I’ve found myself longing to populate my deck with plants despite the inevitable cold that may lie ahead. Having grown up in a rural area with parents who spent the majority of our summer weekends landscaping and planting, I feel a deep satisfaction in caring for plants. We never had a successful garden exactly, maybe some tomatoes or herbs in pots but there was something beautiful and amazing about creating something sustaining and useful from tiny seeds.
I worry that Americans are becoming less and less connected with their food. What we buy in the grocery store can be so vastly different than its origins. Lately there has been some buzz about micro-gardening. It’s perfect for people who have very little land to grow on, such as those of us who live in cities or apartments. Micro-gardening focuses on fitting as many plants, and thus produce, into as few square feet as possible.
Companies like Earth Starter are creating aids to achieve maximum space use. Their creations, the Nourishmat and Herbmat may soon be available for purchase but are currently only available through donation to the Kickstarter Campaign. The mats come with “seed bombs” that are planted in designated spots. Window gardening is an even better, yet somewhat involved, solution for apartment dwellers. If you’re able to set up one of these hydroponic window systems, kudos to you.
Encouraging the average American to cultivate his or her green thumb could, through education and assistance, help the urban poor get more fresh food to their tables. Maybe if we all grew fruits and veggies, we’d feel a little more connected to them, more motivated to eat them. Its reason enough for me to give it a try. And for those of you who have absolutely no interest in gardening but still long for extremely fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables, there’s always Community Supported Agriculture which allows consumers to buy directly from farmers and in some cases affords you the opportunity to visit the farm.
By Sarah Hijaz, Health Policy Intern
Modern technology has dramatically improved the way we communicate, connect, and learn. It is also beginning to improve the way we practice medicine and treat patients. On the 5th anniversary of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which created a platform for health information technology to revolutionize our health care system, we are taking a look at what technology has and will do for our health care.
Health information technology (HIT) is the new driving force in the health care system. It allows health care providers to quickly search for patient records, have automatic filing systems, and in the future can create an inter-operable electronic database connecting patient records in real-time. Electronic health records (EHRs) present an amazing opportunity to advance care and improve health care provider workflow. For instance, EHRs make it easier to find out what tests have been ordered and medications prescribed by other providers. This cuts down on the chance of unnecessary, duplicate testing and inappropriate prescribing for medicines that should not be taken together.
Health IT also empowers patients. Prior to the rise of electronic records, many patients, especially those unfamiliar with the healthcare system, thought that their health records were only for the health care provider. When in fact, your health record is yours—and patients should feel free to access it and know what information is in their record. Now with EHRs, patients can go online and access their health information and make queries of the provider in real time. Some EHRs even allow patients to input information about their health to share with their doctor. By being able to quickly access and easily retain and send out copies of their EHRs, patients have a greater level of control of their personal information. In fact, a recent survey by the National Partnership for Women & Families has shown that 80% of individuals who have online EHR access take advantage of that access.
Last Friday the workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted against joining the UAW. In the weeks and months leading up to this vote, VW had agreed to stay neutral and over half the workers had indicated they were in favor of union membership. But that all changed due to a sustained propaganda campaign lead by Bob Corker the notorious anti-union Senator from Tennessee and the Koch brothers. They, and their right wing allies, believe that if Tennessee - a right-to-work (for less) state – opens the door to the union, the rest of the South will open up to labor.
Other threats were lobbed – Senator Corker claimed to have been told by an unnamed top company executive that a vote against the union would guarantee that Chattanooga would be chosen as the production site for a new line of SUVs — the union denied it. State officials apparently said if the plant were unionized, the legislature would refuse to appropriate an estimated $700 million in state subsidies necessary to build out an SUV plant.
I don’t understand why these Southern politicians are so threatened by the union. European companies, like VW, which stayed neutral in this discussion, are used to the notion of workers and employers having a place at the table; they support the concept of worker representatives sitting down with management and arriving at mutually beneficial policies, including work rules, wages, safety and health requirements, and vacation benefits. Everyone understands that there’s money to be made – a lot of it – by both workers and industry. What is so infuriating about so many American businesses, and this campaign against UAW so demonstrates this problem, is that they don’t get that sharing the wealth is GOOD for companies and workers. So many American companies are all about grabbing profits for their higher ups and skimping on wages and benefits whenever possible. Here was a chance to change that paradigm with the company’s support.
But because this is the US, that wasn’t to be.
The anti UAW propaganda was effective, comparing Tennessee to Detroit and scaring the current VW workforce, which currently makes a good salary, by blaming the UAW for Detroit’s current financial disaster. Talk about blaming the victim! Workers making decent wages and benefits are to blame for Detroit’s decades of mismanagement and white flight? It makes no sense but it’s a potent sound bite.
Suppliers threatened to boycott TN if VW unionized. Is giving workers a voice really so scary? Yes, to Southern politicians and business. But Steve Pearlstein in the Washington Post points out that:
[I]n the faster-growing and more prosperous regional economies of the North and West, companies are trying to boost performance by increasing employee engagement and empowerment, not suppressing it. Their business strategies are based not on assuring a steady supply of cheap labor but on increasing the number of highly paid and highly skilled workers. Rather than trying to nullify federal labor law and crush what remains of the much-diminished union movement, these companies, like VW, are looking at new models of workplace cooperation and collaboration.
That’s more likely the wave of the future. And the South, and Senator Corker, the Koch’s, and their ilk – will be left behind If they continue this all out attack against empowering workers and giving them a voice.