‘Make a Splash’ for pool safety – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Safety is a critical component of consumer protection, and now that summer upon us, the issue of safety and the risk of drowning – especially in minority communities –is an important topic for discussion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children and minorities are at much greater risk. In 2007, of children ages 1 to 4 who died from unintentional injuries, almost 30 percent were drowning accidents. From 2000-2007, the drowning rate for African Americans was 1.2 times that of whites.

The evidence shows that fear of drowning – not financial or geographic challenges – keeps most inner-city children from taking swimming lessons. For my siblings and me, learning to swim was like learning to eat – you just did it. By 6 and or 7 years old, every kid I knew could swim across the length of the pool. In fact, my friends and I spent entire days in the water, either at the swimming pool or at the lake, where we were utterly confident of our ability to stay afloat. We learned to float first, then learned the crawl, the backstroke, and the sidestroke, and I always figured everyone else felt comfortable in the water too.

But a recent series of focus groups in the African American community shows that parents are less likely to allow their children to take swimming lessons because they fear they will drown. The ironic result is that the risk of drowning increases greatly for minority children.

To address the issue of kids from minority groups not learning to swim or being competent and comfortable in water, there’s an important new program from the USA Swimming Foundation called Make a Splash aimed at such kids. As Make a Splash’s Katrina Florence said in a recent Washington Post article, “No one ever drowned at a swim lesson. They are safest when they are learning.” This is a life-saving program that all members of the community should support. We have many community pools, and now we need communities to embrace programs like Make A Splash, which will save lives and open up a wonderful form of exercise, relief from the heat, and fun to kids across the country.

Health care reform: A brief look at how implementation will affect young adults – National Consumers League

By Jacob Markey, NCL LifeSmarts intern

The new health care bill passed in March covers a vast array of issues and represents a fundamental shift in health care in the United States. If you are a young adult like me, you probably have had a difficult time understanding how the law affects you. As a student preparing for life after college, I realize knowing about these changes is vital, since they will have a profound impact on my life.

And let’s face it, this law is very important for people my age, as the young adult population faces numerous health issues. The Department of Health and Human Services describes statistics that paint a somewhat bleak picture: about 30 percent of young adults are uninsured; one in six has a chronic illness; and young adults have the lowest rate of access to employer-sponsored health insurance.

Thus, young adults should focus on the process of implementing the law and the aspects that affect our demographic. While many of its provisions will not take effect until 2014 at the earliest, young adults will soon notice some major changes targeted at our age group. In the past, people as young as 19 could be dropped from their parents’ health care plan. Starting in September, dependent children up to the age of 26 will be eligible to remain on their parents’ plan.

By 2014, unemployed young adults with income up to about $15,000/year can look forward to an expansion of Medicaid for coverage. Others who make less than about $43,000 and who work at a place that doesn’t provide affordable coverage can receive tax credits to help pay for insurance.

The new law will hopefully make obtaining insurance easier for young adults who work for small businesses. Small businesses will be eligible to receive tax credits to help make health insurance more affordable for their employees. This is significant, as statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that “36 percent of working uninsured young adults were employed in small firms with less than 26 workers.”

Another important change covers preexisting conditions. While children up to 19 with preexisting conditions like asthma and high blood pressure can no longer be denied coverage starting in September, young adults will not have this option until 2014. In the meantime, adults who have preexisting conditions but have not had insurance for six months will have the option to either enter a temporary national pool for high-risk individuals that will cover them until 2014 or join pools set up by the state they live in. You can find more information about whether your state is covered by this national plan here. While these plans may be expensive, without these provisions, millions of Americans could continue to be denied coverage. The Center for American Progress has a fascinating map that demonstrates the importance of this part of the bill by showing the percentage of adults in each state who have certain preexisting conditions (asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes).

This information represents just a tiny slice of the changes in the health care. For more detailed information about health care reform and the law’s implementation, great sites to check out include the Kaiser Family Foundation and healthcare.gov, the latter which has valuable information targeted specifically for young adults.

NBC Dateline examines child labor in U.S. agriculture – National Consumers League

By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

Did anyone catch NBC Dateline’s excellent expose, the “Children of the Harvest”, about the plight of migrant farmworker children Sunday night? In the show, Dateline returned to a subject it had covered in an Emmy Award-winning broadcast in 1998 and found that 12 years later, significant numbers of small children and young teens are still helping harvest the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

The show followed the Cruz family as it migrated from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Minnesota where it hoed sugar beet fields and cleared fields of rock. Ulysses or “Uly”, the family’s 10-year-old, was just one of many children shown by Dateline cameras working in agriculture, including several children even younger picking blueberries. “Consumers would never know that the berries on their morning cereal were picked by five- and six-year-olds,” said reporter Dennis Murphy.

Exemptions in U.S. child labor law allow children as young as 12 to work in the fields legally. They do this work at considerable risk. Machinery, tools, and pesticides combine to make agriculture a particularly dangerous industry to work in—with a child fatality rate four times that of other job sectors. Young Uly is seen driving a tractor and told NBC that he started driving an ATV used for picking rocks when he was only six.

The children also suffer educationally. A teacher said that Uly was three years behind in his writing and reading levels. The disruptions and exhaustion that comes along with a migrant lifestyle cause farmworker children to drop out at four times the rate of other children, according to NBC. Uly routinely leaves school in Texas in early May to migrate and doesn’t return to his home school district until late November.

For their efforts, most kids are compensated below minimum wage rates.

U.S. child labor laws seem irrational when it comes to agriculture. A 12-year-old child can pick blueberries all day long in the sun, but can’t sell those blueberries in an air-conditioned grocery store. “We don’t let parents take their kids into the mines. We shouldn’t let them take them into the fields,” said Zama-Coursen Neff, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, Fields of Peril. “Agriculture is dangerous. It shouldn’t be the only industry that small children can work in legally,” she added.

Department of Labor official Carl Fillichio, a senior advisor to Secretary Solis, suggested that the fields are not a good environment for children: “The nature of the work—it is outdoors, it is back-breaking—it is not a place for a kid.” The Department of Labor has stepped up enforcement efforts— but as Dateline pointed out—only $60,000 out of the $4 million of child labor fines levied by the Department in 2009 were in U.S. agriculture, and the average fine was only about $900. Still, the Department has hired 250 new investigators, recently announced plans to increase fines, and says it is determined to make the fields safer for children.

The larger problem is that U.S. laws allow children to work at 12. The National Consumers League is among a handful of groups working on a daily basis to pass the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), legislation that would keep 12- and 13-year-olds out of the fields unless they are working on their parent’s farm. The bill would extend protections, including hour restrictions, to 14- and 15-year-olds, and it would bar tasks considered hazardous for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are currently allowed to perform dangerous work because of the agricultural exemption.

Despite having more than 100 cosponsors and the organizational support of 106 groups, the bill has not moved out of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections where it was initially referred. Our hope is that folks will be moved by the plight of Ulysses Cruz and urge Congress to protect migrant farmworker children. The Dateline piece ends on a hopeful note as it points out that some of the children from the 1998 segment went on to college and are successful professionals, but the sad truth is that most farmworker children do not graduate high school.

Financial reform a ‘victory for the little guy’ – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

President Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan Building yesterday, where he signed the financial reform legislation, hit on all the right points. “This is the strongest consumer financial protection bill in history,” the President stated. He said that firms should compete on “price and quality, not on tricks and traps.” He asked whether anyone had experienced signing a sheaf of papers while closing a mortgage or student loan, not ever sure of all the fees and penalties hidden inside the documents we sign. “That will all change because of this bill.”

Representing NCL at this historic even, I felt the buzz in the room as Senators and Representatives milled about, rubbing elbows with consumer advocates, housing, labor, and civil rights advocates on a momentous occasion. Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), chairs of the committees in the House and Senate, along with Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren were instrumental in the bill’s passage.

My consumer colleagues are rightfully taking great pride in getting this bill over the finish line and signed into law. NCL joined the group Americans for Financial Reform, the powerful alliance that became a driving force in the bill’s ultimate passage. With only 60 votes in the Senate – so not one to spare to meet the minimum required for Senate passage – and only three Republican Senators joining the Democratic majority to pass the bill, the Senate bill was a squeaker! (The House passed the bill several months ago).

Average Americans will reap the benefits of this bill if it has the impact that we hope for: we will have a consumer financial protection agency whose main focus will be – for the first time – the rights and protections of consumers when dealing with financial transactions. This bill is a victory for the little guy over the big banks and credit card companies, a blow to those who would perpetrate mortgage fraud and impose outrageous fees and penalties on unsuspecting consumers. A new day has dawned for financial reform and consumers have cause, at last, to celebrate.

NCL insulating consumers from ‘bill shock’ – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

Over the past month, NCL has filed two rounds of comments in the Federal Communications Commission’s proceeding regarding cellular “bill shock.” What is “bill shock,” and why is the FCC taking an interest, you ask? “Bill shock” describes consumers’ reaction to unexpectedly high wireless bills. The FCC released its notice in response to regulations adopted by the European Union that require wireless carriers there to provide notification to their subscribers when they are about to incur high fees for using their cell phones on a network other than that of their own carrier (known as “roaming”). Notification is also required when a European user is approaching their limits for other wireless services, such as texting or data usage.

The FCC is now considering instituting similar regulations in the U.S. After releasing it’s Public Notice on this issue, the Commission released statistics showing that 1 in 6 Americans (approximately 30 million people) have experienced “bill shock.” The headlines are also rife with stories of consumers getting the “shocks” of their lives when they open their cell phone bills and see four or five-figure balances staring them in the face. Here is just one of the examples we noted in our filing:

Wayne Burdick, an AT&T customer, received a $28,067.31 bill after he watched a Chicago Bears football game on his computer. At the time, Burdick was on board a cruise ship docked at a U.S. port. Burdick’s AT&T mobile broadband card had connected to the ship’s microcell rather than the local preferred tower. Because of this, Burdick’s data use was billed at extremely expensive roaming rates. Had his card connected to AT&T’s local tower, he would have been billed at normal rates. This problem was only resolved after Burdick contacted the Chicago Sun-Times, which in turn contacted AT&T on his behalf.

Had regulations like the ones in the EU been in place, Burdick would have received notifications from AT&T (likely via text message) that he was exceeding his data plan limits. AT&T would also have been required to shut off service until Burdick consented to the high rates he was being charged (or, more likely, finding a less-expensive way to watch his Bears game).

We believe that a solution like the one instituted in Europe would be a win-win for consumers and carriers. In the credit card industry, for example, consumers are routinely contacted by their credit card company if the company begins to see a pattern on unusual purchases on the account. The company may even block purchases until the consumer affirms that they — as opposed to a thief who had stolen then card — intended to make those purchases. Personally, when I was contacted by my card company in a similar situation, I was grateful that the credit card issuer took this step to make sure my account had not been compromised.

Similarly, we think that a notification and shut-off requirement would give consumers more faith in their cell phone companies. If a consumer who has never gone over their data limit suddenly starts racking up big overages, they would likely appreciate being asked by their cell phone carrier if they really meant to incur those charges, increasing customer loyalty.

Going forward, the FCC will review all of the comments submitted in this proceeding and decide what action (if any) to take. We, along with other public interest groups, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, and industry players support the adoption of EU-style regulations in this area. Stay tuned for developments on this issue!

Kudos to Maggie’s Organics’ fair labor certified apparel – National Consumers League

By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern

It didn’t make much of a blip on the national news radar, but Maggie’s Organics recently broke new ground with their Fair Labor Certified Apparel Line. From the growers of the cotton to the spinners, knitters, dyers, cutters, sewers, screen-printers, and warehouse workers, this Michigan-based company’s spring apparel line is independently certified to hold to fair labor standards.

This label is one of the first of its kind in the clothing industry. Florence Kelley and the National Consumers League actually pioneered a White Label for cotton underwear way back in 1899. It certified that factories bearing the label treated their employees fairly. And nowadays there’s the Good Weave label, which assures rug buyers that they’re purchasing a child-labor free product. Today, though, there’s really been no simple way for consumers to check whether their clothes are tainted by child labor or exploitative labor practices—until now. It may only be a first step, but this new fair labor line is something that concerned consumers can be excited about.

The certification for Maggie’s Organics was completed by Scientific Certification Systems, and it verifies that at “every point in the supply chain” “fair and equitable labor practices” were used. With evidence far too often surfacing that major clothes retailers use child labor or sweatshops in their production lines, this label is a valuable resource for those of us who want to make sure that what we put on our backs didn’t cost workers before us the shirts off their backs.

Looking at the big picture, Maggie’s Organics is a small company. This label is solid start for businesses though, and if the other brands who have called up Maggie’s to find out about the process follow through and become certified, we’ll be making sure strides. Alongside FREE2WORK, which grades companies for their labor standards and is a great shopping resource, consumers can hopefully expect to see more resources like this continue to crop up.

Statement by NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg on comprehensive financial reform – National Consumers League

July 16, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323, media@nclnet.org

The National Consumers League hails the passage of  the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in the Senate as major victory for American consumers. The following statement is attributable to Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director:

The financial devastation of the past three years has put millions of Americans out of work, caused them to lose their homes and their retirement savings. Reckless banking, mortgage and Wall Street practices  created the problem, while the protections consumers and working families needed were woefully inadequate. Consumer groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations have sought for years to protect consumers, homebuyers, and small businesses. This bill will help us get those protections.

The bill will:

  • Create a strong consumer protection agency to protect consumers and working people  from predatory lenders;
  • Require most derivatives to clear and trade on open, transparent exchanges and mandate that managers of hedge and private equity funds register with the Securities and Exchange Commission;
  • Give long term investors tools to hold corporate boards and senior management accountable; and
  • Help prevent future bank bailouts by creating a council of regulators to oversee systemic risk, giving regulators authority to dissolve failing financial institutions while prohibiting bailouts for bank shareholders and executives
  • Move us toward restoring of Glass Steagall by limiting banks’ ability to make risky bets backed by taxpayer funds.

We also commend those House and Senate members who stepped up to protect consumers, hold the banks accountable, and provide a level playing field for all citizens. NCL looks forward to seeing President Obama sign this into law.


About the National Consumers League

Founded in 1899, the National Consumers League is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Its mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. NCL is a private, nonprofit membership organization. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Fake checks bumped from No.1 spot at NCL’s Fraud Center – National Consumers League

Six months into 2010, NCL’s Fraud Center is noticing some interesting trends in reports from consumers who have been approached by a scam or – even worse – fallen for one. Interestingly enough, for the first time in years (!), the number one scam reported to the Fraud Center is no longer fake checks – those rascally set-ups in which con artists send a realistic-looking fake check for payment for work done or the sale of an item, asking the victim to wire back some portion of the payment. Undoubtedly, the check is bad, and consumers are left owing their bank for the money they wired back.

Fake checks are still plaguing consumers, despite our education efforts, but they’re no longer the top scam reported to the Fraud Center. They’ve been bumped during this first period by general Internet merchandise scams, in which consumers buy something online and either receive something wildly different from what they thought they were purchasing or nothing at all!

Another thing NCL’s Fraud Center staff is noticing is an increase in scams perpetrated against the oldest age group, those over 65. This group of seniors saw the largest increase in complaints, a more than 5 percent increase vs. 2009.

NCL’s Fraud Center Director John Breyault warns that older consumers are particularly vulnerable to scams because they may not be as skeptical about bogus offers, and may be ashamed when they begin to suspect that they have fallen victim to a scam.

Signs that an older loved one may be involved in a fraud include: a sudden inability to pay monthly bills, unusually heavy volumes of junk mail or telemarketing calls, or a reluctance to discuss repeated large payments to “a friend.” Consumers concerned that an elderly friend or relative is a fraud victim should contact their local consumer protection office or state attorney general.

You can read the full 2010 Mid-Year Top Ten Scams report here.

Mid-year report: Internet merchandise scams topping complaints to NCL’s Fraud Center – National Consumers League

July 15, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323, media@nclnet.org

Washington, DC — For the first time in several years, fake check scams were no longer the most-reported scam to the National Consumers League’s Fraud Center during the first six months of 2010. Internet merchandise scams, where consumers are conned into buying non-existent or misrepresented products online, have had the dubious “distinction” of being the most-frequently-reported scam at the mid-year point.

The League’s Mid-year Top Ten Scams report, released today, found that while fake checks continue to make up more than a quarter of the overall scams reported to NCL’s Fraud Center, consumers are more often falling prey to Internet Merchandise scams, which made up 24.87 percent of total complaints, an increase of 4.82 percent over 2009.

In total, consumers reported more than $3.6 million in losses to the Fraud Center, with an average reported loss of $810. The average loss for Internet merchandise scams, the most popular scam of 2010, was a bit higher, at $931. Average loss for fake check scams was $371, and, for scams involving prizes, sweepstakes and free gifts, it was $403.

“Despite our growing comfort and familiarity with buying online, consumers must continue to keep their guard up and follow good Internet purchasing practices in order to protect themselves from con artists who make a living by duping consumers with bogus sales,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Shop from retailers you know and trust, take advantage of consumer reviews and feedback forums, and use a credit card, which is the safest way to pay online. There is an element of risk with any online transaction, but consumers can take simple steps to dramatically decrease the likelihood of becoming a Fraud Center statistic.”

The report, which is compiled from consumer complaints submitted to NCL’s Fraud Center, examines trends in Internet and telemarketing fraud, including most popular scams, contact and payment methods, and victim profiles.

Other trends noted at the mid-year analysis include a dramatic increase in complaints about bogus prizes, sweepstakes, and free gifts, a category which saw the largest increase (7.82 percent vs. 2009) and now make up 17 percent of total complaints. Prizes, sweepstakes, and free gift scams, in which “winning” consumers agree to pay upfront fees to collect prizes that do not exist, are now the most common telemarketing thus far in 2010.

Fraudsters are professional con-men who play on consumers’ hopes and fears,” said Director of NCL’s Fraud Center John Breyault. “In a weak economy, scammers are preying on exactly those consumers who can least afford to lose even a portion of their diminished income to a fraudster.”

New to the top ten overall scams this period are Timeshare Resale scams. In a typical scam of this type, an unscrupulous agent convinces a victim that the resale market is “hot” or even that the agent has a buyer waiting in the wings. In exchange for a large up-front fee, the scam artist offers to assist in the sale of the property. The scammer rarely is able to sell the property and may request additional “fees” to “help” complete the sale process for an increasingly desperate owner.

An additional notable trend in the NCL report is an increase in scams perpetrated against the oldest age group, those over 65; this age group saw the largest increase in complaints, a more than 5 percent increase vs. 2009).

NCL’s Fraud Center warns that older consumers may not be as skeptical about bogus offers, and may be ashamed when they begin to suspect that they have fallen victim to a scam. Signs that an older loved one may be involved in a fraud include: a sudden inability to pay monthly bills, unusually heavy volumes of junk mail or telemarketing calls, or a reluctance to discuss repeated large payments to “a friend.“ Consumers concerned that an elderly friend or relative is a fraud victim should contact their local consumer protection office or state attorney general.

For more information on NCL’s 2010 Mid-Year Top Ten Scams report, click here.


About the National Consumers League

Founded in 1899, the National Consumers League is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Its mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. NCL is a private, nonprofit membership organization. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

For our country’s future – National Consumers League

Update: This morning, the House Education and Labor Committee passed the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act (H.R. 5504) out of committee.  For information on particular amendments to the bill, click here.

By Jacob Markey, NCL’s LifeSmarts intern

I recently had the chance to attend another hearing on Capitol Hill, this time the House Education and Labor Committee’s hearing about H.R. 5504, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act,” a very important issue (if judged solely by the packed audience of onlookers): the extent to which changes will be made to the child nutrition bill covering programs fighting childhood obesity and hunger.

Follow almost any news media, and you will often find reference to a new Robert Wood Johnson report on the worsening childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. Statistics demonstrate the massive extent of this problem: there are three times more obese children today than there were 30 years ago, with 19.6 percent of children aged 6-11 and 18.1 percent of children aged 12-19 now obese. Even with the large number of obese kids in the United States, there remains a significant part of the population that relies on free meals just to be able to get sufficient food each day. Committee chair Rep. George Miller (D-CA) cited compelling statistics: “Over 16 million children are hungry and live in households where families are struggling to put food on the table.”

The consensus of the majority of those testifying (which included the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and Tom Colicchio, a chef whom fans of the Bravo show “Top Chef” would certainly recognize) was that increasing funding is absolutely necessary. Doing so would allow an expansion of the free breakfast program, ensuring that all children have access to a nutritious breakfast in the morning in order to be better prepared to learn at the best of their abilities. This would also streamline food access, allow for better food safety, and provide meals for children year-round, not just during weekdays throughout the school year. In addition, Secretary Vilsack noted this is a moral issue: How can the people of the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, live with themselves knowing there are citizens who still go hungry?

Unfortunately, some people do not feel children’s nutrition is enough of a priority in the present to warrant extra money for this issue. They feel that the budget issues our country faces preclude us from expanding these programs. This would be a huge mistake to make. Providing extra funds in the short-term will hopefully help to stem the problems of childhood obesity and hunger. There are many benefits that may accrue from healthier and well-nourished kids, including better school performance and lower health care costs, and the long-term cost of not acting will far outweigh any money we save in the short-term. We need to avoid this short-sighted thinking and choose to invest in the present instead of passing the buck to a future generation.