Keep Out e-Ghouls and Goblins – National Consumers League

In obervance of National Cyber Security Month, the National Consumers League is cautioning consumers about how best to guard their computers – and personal information – from the e-goblins and ghouls that may be trying to steal it. Follow this advice year-round to protect yourself from phishing scams and other hazards:

  • Don’t click on links within emails that ask for your personal information.
  • Never enter your personal information in a pop-up screen.
  • Protect your computer with spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall, and keep them up-to-date.
  • Only use secured browsers when entering personal information. Look for a lock symbol to appear at the bottom of the Web page, and for the URL in the browser window to change from “http” to “https” to ensure that the page you’re on is secure.
  • Don’t shop online or do online banking while using an unencrypted or open wireless network, like those provided for free at coffee shops or some airport hotspots. Secure your own wireless network at home by encrypting it with a password. This will keep out your neighbors, but more importantly, it will keep out hackers and thieves who look for open/unencrypted wireless network to capture others’ financial information.
  • Visit to learn more ways to avoid email and Web-based scams.

Keep out e-ghosts and goblins this National Cyber Security Month – National Consumers League

October 29, 2008

Contact: 202-835-3323,

WASHINGTON, DC — In observance of National Cyber Security Awareness Month in October, the National Consumers League (NCL) is cautioning consumers about computer-based scams threatening their bank accounts and other sensitive personal information. NCL is the nation’s oldest consumer organization, and it collects reports of suspected and confirmed Internet and telemarketing fraud, identifies new scams and trends, and works with law enforcement to catch crooks at NCL’s Fraud Center. This month, NCL’s Fraud Center is focusing its efforts on how consumers can protect themselves from the evolving tactics that are used for online phishing scams. Phishing is when ID thieves trick people into providing their social security numbers, financial account numbers, PIN numbers, mothers’ maiden names, and other personal information.

“Consumers should be able to use their computers for fun, entertainment, banking, and other personal business with confidence,” said John Breyault, Director of NCL’s Fraud Center and Vice President for Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud. “But in order to do so, they must be informed about and protected against the sneak attacks scammers use to capture sensitive personal information. During National Cyber Security Awareness Month and year-round, consumers should endeavor to keep better control of their computers and their privacy.”

NCL has issued new tips for consumers this month to protect them from the e-ghosts and goblins that may be out to get them:

  • Don’t click on links within emails that ask for your personal information.
  • Never enter your personal information in a pop-up screen.
  • Protect your computer with spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall, and keep them up-to-date.
  • Only use secured browsers when entering personal information. Look for a lock symbol to appear at the bottom of the Web page, and for the URL in the browser window to change from “http” to “https” to ensure that the page you’re on is secure.
  • Don’t shop online or do online banking while using an unencrypted or open wireless network, like those provided for free at coffee shops or some airport hotspots. Secure your own wireless network at home by encrypting it with a password. This will keep out your neighbors, but more importantly, it will keep out hackers and thieves who look for open/unencrypted wireless network to capture others’ financial information.

For more information about avoiding email and Web-based scams, visit


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

OTC Cold Meds for Kids Under Scrutiny – National Consumers League

by Mimi Johnson, Health Policy Associate

Earlier this month, on October 2, hundreds of people interested in child and health policy convened in Beltsville, MD for the Food and Drug Administration’s public hearing on pediatric over-the-counter cough and cold (OTC) medicines.

You may or may not recall this past winter, when the FDA recommended that children under the age of two not use OTC cough and cold products. This hearing was part of the agency’s efforts to further evaluate the safety and efficacy of the products in older populations, chiefly those between the ages of 2 and 6. The panel consisted of eight medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control and FDA, and 30 people testifying – of whom I was one – representing pharmaceutical companies, public interest groups, physicians, and researchers with varying opinions. Prior to the hearing, a list of questions for those testifying to consider were made available.

The Issue

Are OTC cough and cold medications safe for children? According to the experts at the hearing, it is very difficult to study the safety and efficacy of these drugs in children. Children are not able to communicate as well as adults when it comes to symptoms. Parents, and a substantial number of doctors, feel that it’s appropriate to use OTC products to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds (there is no product that actually “cures” a cold). Still others feel that these products are not only ineffective, but also unsafe.

While the question over the safety and efficacy remains, one of the greater issues at hand is what will happen should the kid versions of these products be removed from the market entirely. Many argue that by removing these products, parents and caregivers may turn to the adult versions. Others might turn to non-traditional remedies, many of which are not regulated by the FDA at all. The unintended consequences are of major concern for all those involved in the decision making process.

Some Thoughts

So, what’s a parent to do? Regardless of what is decided by the FDA, everyone – providers, industry, public interest groups, and the government – needs to work together to educate parents, caregivers—and even kids—about the issue.

Nearly everyone agrees that first and foremost, parents and caregivers need to talk to their doctor before giving their child any form of medication or remedy. It is crucial to encourage communication between the provider and the parent, but it is also important to know that some people do not have primary care providers or their providers might be rather inaccessible. Many others might face language barriers that will prevent them from knowing if it is okay to dispense these drugs, how much they can give, what they should be aware of, etc.

Whatever (and whenever) the decision is made, we must remember that the consumer, whether a parent or caregiver, must be informed. We must tell them about the decision – why the FDA acted how it did, what this means for them and their children, and what alternatives they can turn to (which should never be adult formulations).


On October 7th, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) released a statement that its members would be making several voluntary changes to the labels of OTC pediatric cough and cold medicines. Through consultation with the FDA, CHPA decided to transition the labeling on these medications to read “do not use in children under four years of age.” They also stressed that antihistamines should not be used to sedate or make a child sleepy.

Their bottom line? Read and follow the label, and contact your doctor should you have any questions.

As we continue to wait for the FDA to weigh in, please check back with us – both via the blog and the health section on our Web site – for updates and resources.

October: Talk about Prescriptions Month – National Consumers League

by Mimi Johnson, Health Policy Associate

Our friends at the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE) are celebrating the 23rd annual “Talk About Rx” Month (TAP Month).

This observance helps remind us as consumers to stay informed about the medication we use, and we encourage you to use this month as inspiration to get a little savvier about your Rx meds, OTCs, and even dietary supplements. Take some time to review the drug facts, and learn how to take your medications correctly. Use NCPIE’s resources to help make a list of the medicine you are taking. Learning more about your medicine(s) will help you to share and better talk about this information with your health care providers.

NCPIE’s site is full of useful resources, from learning how to be more Medicine Smart to knowing more about the medicines in your home.

Happy Talk about Prescriptions Month from NCL!

Meet NCL’s Mimi Johnson – National Consumers League

by Mimi Johnson, NCL’s Health Policy Associate

Hello! As I mark my second month-iversary at the National Consumers League as its new Health Policy Associate, I thought I’d take a quick break from my work and introduce myself to you, our Savvy Consumer readers.  I work directly with the Director of Health Policy, Rebecca Burkholder, on issues ranging from medication safety and adherence to the role of consumers in health reform.

As I run around town attending meetings, testifying before Federal agencies, and participating in coalitions, I get to provide a voice for you, the consumer, in the (often very crowded) health policy discussions. I came to the League after having worked for a health law institute at Georgetown University, which allowed me to see policy from the legal and academic side in a way I never had before. My first “Washington Job” was working as an intern in the office of Senator Feingold, which gave me invaluable insights into the legislative and political world. I’ve since worked for health and environmental nonprofit organizations and at the Royal Norwegian Embassy. A native of Wisconsin, I came to Washington for my undergraduate studies at George Washington University. I escaped the Washington, DC political scene for a year to earn a master’s degree in comparative health and social policy at Oslo University College in Norway.

Stay tuned to the Savvy Consumer, where I hope to post exciting stories – some first-hand, others just very interesting – relating to you, the consumer, and the world of health policy. Thanks for reading! I look forward to joining the discussion!

Bringing broadband to low-income households – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League has submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission urging the FCC to adopt a plan that encourages robust competition among current and future broadband delivery platforms, keeps retail prices affordable for moderate-to-low income consumers, creates sustainable jobs, and encourages innovative solutions to bridge the Digital Divide and connect all Americans to the benefits of broadband.

In the letter to the FCC, Breyault pointed out that, while the Universal Service Fund is vital to ensuring that telecommunications service is available to all, the fund has not historically been utilized to provide broadband services. In today’s society, he argued, broadband access is essential, helping improve consumers’ lives in a number of ways – communicating with friends and family, working or telecommuting, getting healthcare and improving their education. All of these benefits should be available to all consumers; unfortunately, often because of cost, they are not.

A recent study published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 25 percent of households with annual incomes below $20,000 have broadband service, as compared with 55 percent of all households. Breyault recommend that, should a pilot USF for broadband program move forward, there be a strong consumer education component included in the plan.

Read NCL’s letter to FCC here.

Immigration Raid Reveals Dirty Secret in Meat Processing Plants – National Consumers League

by Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a Greenville, South Carolina chicken processing plant on October 7th, they arrested 330 workers and unwittingly uncovered a problem we at the National Consumers League are deeply concerned about: child labor. The agents found six minors working in the processing plant, performing one of the dirtiest jobs in America—meat processing. One worker in the plant was 15; five others were 16. They were involved in cutting wings and muscles on the poultry, very dangerous work that federal government’s child labor laws, as outdated as they are, prohibit.

Another immigration raid last May in Postville, Iowa, revealed that nearly 60 kids were working in a kosher meat processing plant. In August, the state of Iowa accused the plant managers of more than 9,000 child labor violations.

In August, I visited Postville and talked to a young man who had worked in the plant when he was 16. He spoke of arduous work, low pay, and routinely being cheated out of his wages. He said that when he complained to his employers about being cheated, he was told to quit. He revealed a scar on his elbow where he had accidentally stabbed himself working on the line. He said when the accident happened, his employers bandaged his arm and told him to get back to work.

Many states prohibit workers under 18 from working in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants because the work is dangerous. The Charlotte Observer published an investigation earlier this year that found that poultry plants are filled with hazards. “Workers are surrounded by dangerous chemicals and machines. They stand shoulder to shoulder wielding sharp knives. They routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, which can leave them with nerve and muscle damage. And they sometimes lose fingers,” reported the Observer’s Ames Alexander and Franco Ordonez.

The companies involved in the raids claim that they didn’t knowingly hire minors—that they believed the young workers to be 18 or older. Yet, immigration officials had no difficulty quickly establishing the teenagers’ actual ages. The former child laborer we spoke to in Postville told us that he wrote on employment forms that he was 20 but said he was sure his supervisors knew he was underage.

When NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg testified before a House subcommittee hearing on child labor this September, she asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to conduct a targeted investigation of meat processing and slaughterhouse facilities across the nation to determine if large numbers of children are working in the plants. This month’s immigration raid in Greenville suggests that Wage and Hour investigators should take our advice and begin looking as soon as possible.

In addition to the concerns it raised about child labor enforcement, the Postville raid raises serious questions about ICE’s evolving immigration enforcement strategies. On Monday, October 20th, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving ICE’s use of aggravated identity theft charges against immigrant workers who use someone else’s Social Security Numbers (SSNs) to secure work. ICE convinced—many advocates would say coerced—302 Postville workers to plead guilty to misusing SSNs by threatening to charge the workers with aggravated identity theft, which carries a minimum two-year sentence. The workers—many of whom were indigenous Guatemalans and seemed unaware that they had committed a crime—agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges and accept a five-month jail sentence, rather than waiting indefinitely in prison for their trial to start and risking a minimum two-year sentence.

In the case being heard by the Supreme Court, Ignacio Flores-Figueroa used illegal papers and was convicted of aggravated ID theft and other counts and received a six-year prison sentence, a longer sentence than some convicted rapists receive. Flores-Figueroa’s attorneys have argued that the government hasn’t proved that he knew he was using someone else’s identity—in many cases, undocumented workers use made up numbers, and no real person’s identity is actually stolen. The immigrant workers often do not know if the numbers they are using belong to someone else. In such cases, there is no intent to steal someone’s identity.

When President Bush signed the Identity Theft Enhancement Act in 2004, he characterized the law as an attempt to stop identity thieves who steal one’s money or credit or commit acts of terrorism—not immigrants taking “dirty” jobs that few Americans want. ICE’s decision to try immigrants or to use the aggravated identity theft charge to coerce immigrants into pleading to lesser charges is a relatively new strategy, used in Postville to great effect.

The Postville workers had very little time to discuss the case with their federally-appointed attorneys and decided they had no choice but to plead guilty.  They were “tried” in court in groups of five or six. Attorneys and judges were provided with scripts by ICE prosecution teams. As Erik Camayd-Freixas, an ICE-hired interpreter for the immigrants, has noted in an important essay about the raid, the men were “caught between hopelessness and despair,” terrified about what would become of their wives and children while they were imprisoned. Despite their guilty pleas, the workers, wrote Camayd-Freixas, did not seem to understand what a SSN was or how the numbers got on their applications. In Camayd-Freixas’s view they could not “knowingly” have used the fake numbers—a criteria of the charge.

In an editorial, which called ICE’s strategy “Dickensian cruelty,” the New York Times noted that “No one is denying that the workers were on the wrong side of the law. But there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of money and property, and using false papers to merely get a job. It is a distinction that the Bush administration, goaded by immigration extremists, has willfully ignored. Deporting unauthorized workers is one thing; sending desperate breadwinners to prison, and their families deeper into poverty, is another.”

Carried out with ridiculous overstatement (assault rifles and a helicopter), the ICE raid cost the federal government $6.1 million to conduct. Add another $2 million to house 300 prisoners for five months and the current tab exceeds $8 million. The raid caused profound problems for the town of Postville, which basically lost one-third of its population overnight. Businesses closed their doors. The tearing apart of families was both traumatizing and heartbreaking. Even if ICE is correct that the raids deter future illegal immigration, we wonder if the price is worth it. Is sending a message worth this kind of civic trauma?

The firestorm of protest over the Postville strategy has caused ICE to back away from using aggravated identity theft as a tool to get workers to plead to lesser charges in subsequent immigration raids. We hope that the next President will look at ICE’s strategy to determine whether the agency is out of control. We hope that in looking back at Postville, they will note one final irony: the Postville workers were processed for arrest at a livestock facility—the National Cattle Congress— in Waterloo. What does that say about how federal officials view these workers?

EFCA Gets Unfair Bad Rap in Washington Times – National Consumers League

Last week, the Washington Times ran an editorial by Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican Senator from South Carolina and chairman of the Republican Steering Committee, that contained misleading criticism of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a piece of legislation that would rightly restore the freedom of American workers to express their interest in unionizing.

NCL’s Reid Maki had a strong rebuttal for the Washington Times in a letter that ran today: “The senator portrayed EFCA as an attempt to undermine a worker’s ability to vote by secret ballot, but the truth is that corporations often use their vast economic might to undermine workers’ attempts to unionize with coercion and manipulative campaigns.”

As NCL and its labor allies know far too well, corporations often have the upper hand when it comes to the balance between workers’ interests and company policies. Unscrupulous companies are able to tip the scales in their favor by threatening to close factories, move overseas, or fire “problem” workers when the workforce shows an interest in unionizing.

It’s time for workers to regain their right to free speech, and that’s why NCL, which has a long history of supporting workers’ rights, supports the EFCA.

Amidst Economic Collapse, Corporate Abuses Shocking and Shameful – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, National Consumers League

While the financial markets’ implosion takes its toll on working Americans in the form of job cuts and lost wages and benefits, a series of events over the past two weeks has me shaking my head in disbelief. In September, the Federal Reserve Board extended an $85 million “bridge loan” to American International Group or AIG, the insurance behemoth, because it was considered “too big to fail.” This week, at a House of Representatives hearing, we learned that AIG’s 70 “top performers” (hard to imagine how you can have “top performers” in a company that needs an $85 billion bail-out, followed by a $37.8 billion infusion) – yes, a week after the bail-out – were sent on a junket to a California resort, where they managed to ring up $440,000 for rooms, meals, and spa fees. (Even White House press secretary Dana Perino described the AIG junket as “pretty despicable.”)

AIG also disclosed at the Congressional hearing that its financial products manager, whose reckless investments contributed to the company’s collapse, is receiving $1 million a month in consulting fees. And the AIG former chief executive who ran the company for the three years leading up to its demise is receiving a $5 million performance bonus! You can’t make this stuff up. A performance bonus to a man whose company now needs multibillions in federal assistance? How did we get to this place where $40 million dollars to one person in salary and benefits is no long considered outrageous? Why does one person need $40 million?

After AIG’s revelations about junkets and outsize pay packages for executives who failed miserably at their jobs, the New York Times last week reported that the Federal Reserve Board will provide an additional $37.8 billion to AIG to help it deal with a rapidly dwindling supply of cash. It wasn’t until this morning’s news that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo demanded that AIG reign in corporate excesses (like multimillion severance packages to outgoing execs and junkets for top brass) that any official has put his or her foot down in the midst of the AIG bailout. AIG says it will comply with Cuomo’s demands – at last!

Where is the accountability? Where’s the outrage? It is no wonder that the hubris and arrogance of these corporate executives – whose incompetence led us to this situation – goes unchecked. Our regulatory authorities appear to be providing loans and other assistance with no strings attached.

You or I might expect AIG executives to be contrite, coming hat in hand to the House of Representatives, asking for forgiveness for their profligacy. Wrong. Robert Willumstad, CEO of AIG from 2005-8, said this: “Looking back on my time as CEO, I don’t believe AIG could have done anything different.”

My question is if the average working American’s dollars are being used to bail out poorly managed companies whose top execs grabbed millions, shouldn’t we expect some accountability? A system that bails out companies like AIG – whose CEO earns $40 million in one year and pays $1 million a month to a consultant who helped drive the company into the ground – is rotten to the core and badly in need of reform.

The National Consumers League believes in regulation and legislation that will contain such outsize executive pay packages. Our friends abroad – in Europe and Australia – are generous with their corporate leadership but don’t begin to approach the absurd and indefensible salaries American companies pay ours – regardless of whether they succeed.

With unemployment rates higher than they have been in many years, it’s unconscionable to pay someone who has nearly destroyed a company a $1 million retainer. With more than 2 million homeowners likely facing disclosure, and states and cities across the country cutting benefits to our neediest citizens, if American consumers are going to bail out banks and insurance companies, we have a right to expect accountability, including an end to the excesses of the past.

Fraudulent Text Messages? Just Delete ’em! – National Consumers League

By John Breyault

When faced with spam text messages — also known as SMiShing – just delete the messages. That was the advice we gave to Nashville’s CBS Newschannel 5 in a story that ran on the issue earlier this week.  Click here to watch the full video.

While the estimated 1.5 billion spam text messages that will be sent in 2008 represent only a small fraction of the total amount of spam consumers receive, the problem is growing. Since 2006, the number of spam text messages sent has nearly doubled, likely driven by dramatic growth in text messaging use by American consumers. Even though most mobile phone consumers will receive very much, if any, text messaging spam, the cost of getting even a few is not insignificant. Given that U.S. consumers pay for text messages sent and received, combined with rising pay-as-you-go text messaging fees (currently at 20¢ per message on most carriers), the real costs of such spam can quickly add up.

The easiest way to avoid becoming a victim of SMiShing scams is to simply delete the messages. Do not call the number listed in the text message or surf to the Web address provided. You will likely be asked to provide sensitive financial information (bank or credit card account numbers) which the scammers will then use to defraud you. In particular, SMiShing scams seem to be targeting credit union, so be especially wary if you are one of their customers and receive these text messages. Other ways to cut down on SMiShing is to avoid listing cell phone numbers online (such as in online social networking site profiles), since scammers frequently use sophisticated harvesting software to comb the Internet for such numbers. If the problem is especially severe, cell phone carriers can block all SMS text messages to a consumer’s handset, though this will also block legitimate messages.

Consumers who suspect they’ve been a victim of SMiShing fraud should contact their financial institution and cell phone provider immediately. Also consider reporting the fraud to NCL’s Fraud Center, so that we can alert the FTC and federal and state law enforcement authorities.