Every year, NCL honors an individual or two who stand out as leaders in the fight for consumers and workers with our Trumpeter Awards. This year, we will proudly honor writer, activist, and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Check back here to learn more about what we think is so great about each of these guys in the coming days.
This morning on Capitol Hill, NCL’s Sally Greenberg and Dave Strauss from the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs will testify before a subcommittee hearing on Workforce Protection on the issue of domestic child labor, including the Department of Labor’s inadequate enforcement of child labor laws and the need for reform of agricultural child labor laws. They’ll be joined by former child field worker Norma Flores, who will tell her story of growing up in a farmworking family in Texas.
By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Prepaid calling cards—those colorful cards you find at your local convenience store or gas station for $2, $5, $10 that advertise cheap per minute rates for calling countries all over the world—are a $6 billion industry that promises to grow in the years to come. But it turns out that the cheap rates these cards offer—1 or 2 cents a minute to call Nigeria or El Salvador, for example—often fail to deliver the bargain they promise.
Immigrants calling family and friends back home, students, military families, and others who don’t have long distance phone service or a wireless phone often buy these cards because the international rates they offer are cheaper than calling from a pay phone or a home phone. I use these cards to call the friends I made while living in Australia several years ago.
In the last two weeks, I testified on behalf of the National Consumers League before Committees at hearings in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives about new legislation introduced to help curtail the abuses in the prepaid calling card industry:
In the Senate, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, had a hearing chaired by the bill’s author, Senator Bill Nelson of FL and in the House, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection, chaired by Rep Bobby Rush democrat from Illinois. The problem with many of these prepaid cards are the myriad charges they impose: connection fees, maintenance fees, hang up fees, taxes and extra charges that the per minute rates—when combined with the fees—end up to be much higher than what is promised on posters advertising these cards. At the hearing in Senate, a blow-up poster of one card’s fees elicited laughter from the audience when Senator Nelson read aloud that off peak rates were offered only when calls were made between “2 am and 4 am” in the morning.”
The House hearing proved interesting because Professor Emeritus Julia Marlowe from the Department of Housing and Consumer Economics at the University of Georgia discussed her study of calling cards and what they ultimately deliver. (see link above to Committee hearing and her testimony). She and her colleagues tested more than 200 cards. What Professor Marlowe found is that these cards—though they have dizzying numbers of fees and charges—can indeed be a bargain if used wisely. Her study found that if you buy the cheapest card – $2 or $3—and use it all in one call—you get the best bargain for your money. The problem with these cards is that they often diminish in value quickly after the first use (once the many weekly maintenance fees and other charges kick in), so word to the wise for savvy consumers: use as many minutes as you can your first call.
The League supports both the Senate bill—S. 2998, introduced by Senator Nelson of Florida—and its House counterpart, HR 3402, introduced by Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, to require better disclosure of rates and charges and to allow the Federal Trade Commission to carry out more oversight and investigation of the calling card industry. Passage of both bills looks very promising before Congress adjourns in a few weeks—and without much opposition, we may indeed have a new law curbing prepaid calling card abuses before the year’s end. However, NCL also called for review by the FTC in one year if, after the legislation is in force, the stronger disclosure rules aren’t doing enough to curtail the abuses in this industry. It may be appropriate to take further steps to ensure consumers are getting the bargain they paid for in supporting this billion dollar industry.
In May, immigration officials raided the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, uncovering health and safety violations and illegal, dangerous employment of minors.
Last month, NCL sent Reid Maki, our child labor expert, to Postville to observe a community still reeling from the upheaval. Reid observed the community’s reaction to the events through the eyes of the residents: a local radio deejay, a former underage worker at the meat plant, the religious community that’s keeping the affected immigrants afloat.
Read about his visit here.
Today the National Consumers League is celebrating the start of the 15th program year of LifeSmarts, the Ultimate Consumer Challenge! LifeSmarts is an exciting, hands-on educational competition program, run by NCL, that prepares teens to be the savviest consumers. In LifeSmarts, high school aged students (and now their younger middle school brothers and sisters, too!) gain real-world knowledge about the kinds of consumer issues they’re parents encounter daily: credit cards, banking, and personal finance; the environment, global warming, and energy issues; technology, spam, and email scams; health and safety, nutrition, and medication issues; and consumer rights and responsibilities, voting, the role of government agencies, and more!
LifeSmarts begins online, where teams compete for a chance to go to their state championship and — ultimately — represent their state at the National LifeSmarts Championship. NCL has partners in more than 30 states voluntarily running state programs across the country. This year, we welcome Kevin and Sheila Butts, two certified credit professionals, who have joined us as coordinators of the Michigan LifeSmarts program!
Help us celebrate LifeSmarts’ 15th year by logging on and taking a practice quiz today!
by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Some good news for consumers: we’ll soon be getting far better disclosures about potential safety hazards for food and drugs. In a blog about a month ago, I cheered the passage of major reforms in the Consumer Product Safety Act, which will help protect consumers, especially the most vulnerable ones — children — from dangerous or defective products. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates more than 15,000 consumer products, ranging from all-terrain vehicles to electrical outlets to high chairs and bassinets.
Last week I sat in on an all-day briefing, sponsored by the CPSC, detailing highlights of the new law. One of the most important and exciting changes is that CPSC will be setting up a public database to give consumers access to information about products that other consumers, or CPSC, or manufacturers themselves have found dangerous, defective, or otherwise problematic.
Also last week the CPSC announced that it was recalling — without the manufacturer’s cooperation — a bassinet that has been implicated in the deaths of two babies, and that it was making the announcement as a result of new powers Congress had granted under the reform legislation. As a parent shopping for a bassinet, you’d certainly like to know about any hazards associated with this product. In the past, CPSC hasn’t been able to share complaint information, unless the product had been recalled, without checking with the manufacturer first. Under the new law, more general disclosures will be available at the public database of the agency’s Web site. At the meeting last week, CPSC officials noted that the opening of the database is some months away from being ready, but they say they may get it up and running ahead of schedule, which is great news for consumers.
It’s no coincidence that the Food and Drug Administration also announced this week that it will begin to list drugs whose safety is under investigation on its Web site every three months. Once again, Congress directed FDA to do it. However, while the federal safety agency will name the drug and the nature of the “adverse events,” it will not describe their seriousness or the number of complaints received, according to the Washington Post. That’s too bad, because with that information consumers can better assess the level of risk when their doctor prescribes a drug with potentially harmful side effects.
Of course, publishing such information can have a downside. FDA says that its adverse event hotline has received many reports that turned out to be false alarms. The upside, however, is that many times the full impact of side effects isn’t understood until the drug hits the market and many more people are taking it. The hope is that the public will have access to much more information on the safety and side effects of the drugs they are taking through this more open process—always a good thing for consumers.
According to a fresh story in the Associated Press, the United States Food and Drug Administration has announced that the manufacturers of Humira, Cimzia, Enbrel, and Remicade must strengthen the warnings about the risk of developing opportunistic fungal infections. FDA’s statement said the agency “has reviewed 240 reports of histoplasmosis, an infection caused by the fungusHistoplasma capsulatum, in patients being treated with Enbrel, Humira, or Remicade. In at least 21 of the reports, histoplasmosis was initially not recognized by health care professionals, and antifungal treatment was delayed. Twelve of those patients died.”
Another significance of this announcement is that it involves the federal agency’s use of its new authority under the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 to make safety-related changes to prescribing information or labeling. Learn more here.
This month, NCL’s featuring tips in its 2008 Consumer Calendar: Have We Got Tips for You! on protecting your phone records from “pretexting,” an ID Theft technique used by criminals pretending to be you in order to gain access to your personal information.
But NCL’s Fraud Center and the Federal Trade Commission aren’t the only ones out there trying to educate consumers about avoiding ID Theft. Many consumer, finance, and technology reporters have been doing their part to spread the word as well. Here’s a recent story in the Clovis News Journal out of New Mexico, where police are advising locals against scams meant to steal consumers’ identities.