Kudos to DOJ’s ‘Operation Malicious Mortgage’ – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

BRAVO to the Department of Justice, which has arrested 500 people involved in scamming homeowners into believing they would save their homes. In announcing its effort to stop the scammers, “Operation Malicious Mortgage,” Attorney General Eric Holder described the fraud as “…truly astonishing.” What is interesting about this latest investigation is that it targets some of the smaller operators, not the big Wall Street operators involved in subprime loans. One fraudster was sentenced to 22 years in prison for stealing $400,000 from homeowners who were told they were refinancing their homes but were tricked into selling them.

DOJ says the number of mortgage fraud cases reported to DOJ has risen 5 percent in 2009. I think it’s terrific that the FBI has been put to work on stopping these frauds; the Wall Street Journal reports that investigations into mortgage fraud has more than doubled to 3,000 in 2009.

The FBI can do things we can’t at NCL’s Fraud Center, which logs more than 15,000 complaints each year and sends them to local state and federal law enforcement. For example, the FBI worked with a tax preparer turned informer who recorded conversations with mortgage brokers, real estate agents and others who purchased fake pay stubs, tax returns, and other documents used to inflate income of homeowners so they could obtain bigger mortgages. This group was able to secure $15 million in fraudulent loans. In another case, several fraudsters appealed to Haitian immigrants, using their personal information to apply for mortgages without the victims’ notice.

These are precisely the kind of stings – complete with arrests and hefty prison sentences – that the Department of Justice and FBI should be focused on. One arrest and conviction is a loud warning to other scammers that they’d best change their ways or they too will end up behind bars.

Don’t let foodborne illness ruin summer celebrations – National Consumers League

With temperatures heating up, many of us are heading outdoors to celebrate summertime with picnics, cookouts, and other gatherings. While warm weather creates the perfect atmosphere for family reunions, company picnics, and general merriment, it also increases the likelihood that foods served outdoors will spoil and sicken consumers.

To protect yourself, your family members, and your guests from foodborne illness, follow these simple rules:

Prep your food for safety

Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds, both before and after handling food items. Take special care when handling raw meat.

Keep raw poultry, meat, and eggs away from other foods to avoid cross-contamination.

Thaw and marinate meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator, and not at room temperature.

Clean all surfaces that come into contact with raw meat or poultry – such as cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops – with hot, soapy water or a bleach solution. If outdoors without access to a kitchen, store anything that has come into contact with meat in a separate, sealed bag, and clean items as soon as possible (discard the bag).

Transport food with care

If traveling to a picnic or cookout, store cooked foods, produce, and raw meat and poultry separately, in sealed containers, to avoid cross-contamination during transport.

  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Store hot foods in insulated containers, and keep cold foods on ice – or reusable cold packs – in coolers. In particular, mayonnaise-based foods and cut melons need to be kept cold.
  • Car trunks can exceed 150°F, so transport coolers in the passenger area of the car if at all possible.
  • After arriving at your destination, be sure to remove all food from the car. Place coolers in the shade and keep them closed until the contents are needed.

Grill safety 101

Cook meat in one step, rather than cooking partway and finishing later. Bacteria grow more rapidly in partially cooked food.

Thoroughly cook meat to kill any harmful pathogens that may be present. The only way to know that meat or poultry has reached a safe internal temperature is by using a meat thermometer. Remeber the following temperatures to ensure safety:

  • Ground beef, lamb and pork: 160°F
  • Ground poultry: 165°F
  • Hot dogs: 165°F
  • Beef roasts and steaks: 145°F
  • Poultry: 165°F
  • Pork chops, roasts, and tenderloin: 160°F

When removing cooked food from the grill, always use a clean plate. Never put cooked food – or anything else – on a plate or tray that was used to hold raw meat.

Serve safely

  • Wash hands before serving (and grilling, if applicable). If the picnic site does not have hand washing facilities, bring moist towelettes for all guests, in order to decrease the chances that food will be contaminated
  • Serve and eat grilled foods immediately.
  • Keep hot foods at a temperature between 140°F and 165°F until they are served, as harmful bacteria can grow rapidly at temperatures below 140°F.
  • Keep cold foods at 40°F or cooler until serving, as harmful bacteria can multiply quickly above 40°F.
  • Avoid the temptation to display foods on picnic tables and remove them from coolers/warming areas only right before eating.
  • Minimize handling of picnic foods – such as buns, cut watermelon, and sandwich fillings – as much as possible. The more people who touch an item, the higher the risk of contamination.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers immediately. If the temperature is above 90°F, discard all prepared foods that have sat outside for longer than one hour. Regardless of the temperature, prepared foods should never be left at room temperature for longer than two hours.

Young farmworker shares lessons on hard life in fields – National Consumers League

Meet Samantha Guillen, a child farmworker since age 6, who is helping advocates fight for increased protections for our youngest child laborers in the fields.

One of the great things about doing child labor advocacy is that you get to meet extraordinary young people who have overcome many obstacles associated with child labor and see a responsibility to help prevent other children from following their path. NCL staff recently had the opportunity to meet one of those young people—a young woman who has been toiling in the fields for the last dozen years—at a congressional briefing organized June 22 by advocates working to protect child farmworkers.

Samantha Guillen, 18, told briefing attendees that she began working in the fields when she was just six years old. Her family, she said, has done migratory farmworker for generations. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and asparagus are among the crops the Guillen family has harvested, although her father developed a bad back from harvesting asparagus and the family has decided to avoid that physically demanding crop.

Samantha, who is still a farmworker today, has pretty strong feelings about agricultural labor: “I hate it. I hate this job,” she told briefing participants. She explained how you start in the early morning when it’s freezing cold. Many kids do not have jackets but work in the cold anyway, she added. When it rains, you keep on working. When the sun get’s high, it’s boiling hot, she explained. Her family sometimes works from 4:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., without breaks. “They want you working all the time,” she explained.

The workers, Samantha said, often must eat right in the fields without sanitation facilities to wash their dirty hands, something that has always bothered her. Water and toilets are often far away.

The pay is paltry. She’s lucky to earn $200-300 every two weeks, Samantha said.

“As for my education, it was very, very hard,” said Samantha. As a migrant she moved a lot, often going back and forth from Texas to Washington State. “It was always pieces of school,” she said. “I was always the new kid. I was failing my classes.” But she kept at it and eventually got through and graduated near the top of her class and is now about to enter college. Many of the kids she worked with weren’t so lucky. “Tons of my friends dropped out,” she said. Nationally, roughly two out of three farmworker children drop out of high school.

Advocates, including the members of the Child Labor Coalition, which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League, are fighting to increase the age at which children can legally work for wages in agriculture. They don’t think it’s right that 10- and 12-year-olds can work 10-12 hour days in near-100 degree heat. Most kids can’t work in an air-conditioned office until they are 16, they note. The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE) would end child labor exemptions for agriculture so that kids like Samantha receive the same protections as other children.

By lending her voice, Samantha is hoping to help protect future generations of farmworker children. If you would like to learn more about the plight of farmworker children, please check out Fields of Peril, a new report from Human Rights Watch.

Uplifting and discouraging: the 2010 ILO Report on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – National Consumers League

By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern

The child labor movement seems to constantly be scrambling to gather more data about the size and scope of the child labor problem and the trends within the employment of children. While it’s true that graphs, charts, and data only get you so far, they are great tools to be able to wield to demonstrate the problem we’re up against. The ILO recently published its 2010 report on child labor—Accelerating Action Against Child Labour. Both uplifting and discouraging, it has already begun to inform discussions about child labor.

The good news is that the worst forms of child labor have continued to decrease since the last ILO report, which came out in 2006. Child labor among children under 15 has dropped by 10 percent. And there have also been some big victories for girls: investigators found that there was a 15 percent drop in female child laborers. There is still a lot of reason for concern though, for it’s hard to tell if these gains represent forward progress or if these children have just moved to other areas of child labor—like domestic service which are harder to track. Despite possible reductions in child labor there are still 215 million children laboring away, and 115 million of those kids are working in hazardous conditions.

As in previous years, agriculture continues to be the sector where the most children are still working—nearly seven in ten child laborers are in agriculture. This is true abroad—from Asia to Africa. And it is true at home. Here in the United States, 12-year-olds and even younger children are still legally working long hours in the fields, for low wages, and under dangerous conditions.

Child labor tends to propagate itself, depriving children of an education and continuing the cycle of poverty. That’s why alongside efforts to eliminate child labor, campaigns like the Global Campaign for Education are so important; they seek to address some of the root causes of child labor: the lack of access to basic education for more than 70 million children.

The new ILO report helps us direct our attention and on-the-ground efforts. For it’s these background factors of poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to education that we can’t ignore as we push to eliminate child labor at home and abroad.

Nine terms for labor: West Virginia’s favorite son and the relentless protection of workers and families – National Consumers League

West Virginia’s Senator Robert C. Byrd – who died last week at age 92 – fought relentlessly for fair labor standards throughout his career as senator, which spanned five decades, making Robert Byrd the longest serving Senator in Congressional history. The National Consumers League celebrates his lifelong accomplishments, including vastly improving the conditions under which coal miners’ work.

Byrd fought for health care reform and greater access to higher education. And Byrd championed labor and employment protections, especially for mine workers. As President Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America said upon learning the news of Byrd’s passing, “The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families have lost their best friend in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.”

To improve mine safety, Byrd secured funds to hire additional inspectors; he worked to develop newer and better safety equipment underground. In 1969, Byrd helped pass the Coal Miner Health and Safety Act and convinced President Nixon – who had threatened to veto the bill – not to do so. The passage of the Coal Miner bill helped to improve health and safety in the mining fields and likely saved thousands of lives. In fact, there was a ten-fold decrease in lives lost from the 40 years prior to passage of the bill to the 40 years after: recorded miners’ deaths totaled 32,000 before passage of the bill and 3,200 after. After passage of the act, Byrd continued to champion provisions to protect miners. He supported the 1977 improvements to the 1969 act and later fought to protect mining families by securing their access to health care. In 2006, he helped pass the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, which ensures coal operators are planning, training for, and better able to respond to emergencies.

Byrd’s work on behalf of mining families is unparalleled, but Byrd will also be remembered for a number of other accomplishments. The West Virginia Senator co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, to promote the ability of workers to form unions. Byrd dedicated substantial resources to improving access to education nationwide. His original concept for an honors scholarship in West Virginia soon became the model for the first and only federal based merit scholarship, the Robert C. Byrd Honor Scholarship Program. He brought money into the state for improved health facilities, medical schools, and medical care, expanding these benefits to other states across the U.S.

The Senate will not be the same without the unique presence of Robert Byrd of West Virginia. His legacy of landmark legislation -for miners, education, and health care – will be felt for decades to come. The National Consumers League mourns his passing but is grateful for all that he gave to American workers.

Fighting excessive rental car taxes – National Consumers League

By Jacob Markey, NCL LifeSmarts intern

Jacob is the National Consumers League’s LifeSmarts intern this summer. He will be a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, majoring in political science with a certificate in business.

On only my fifth day as an intern at the NCL, I had the extraordinary opportunity of witnessing Sally Greenberg testifying on Capitol Hill in support of H.R. 4175, a bill that would eliminate the ability of state and local municipalities to levy future discriminatory taxes on renting cars. What sounds like a mundane issue is actually a growing source of contention. Many municipalities erroneously believe the average person who rents cars is someone from out of state on a vacation or business trip. Yet, a substantial subsection of the car rental population is actually local residents, such as someone who needs a car for a week after a car accident, the consumer who needs a car for grocery shopping on a weekend, or even a family that rents a car to help drive their child to college.

Unfortunately, many municipalities have their eyes set on instituting rental car taxes to generate revenue. Back home in Milwaukee, there is talk about raising rental car rates in order to fund a commuter train in Southeastern Wisconsin. Sally noted in her testimony that while some purposes are valid, these taxes often go towards what many would consider unnecessary private projects, such as new stadiums and performing arts centers. She mentioned that the number of rental car taxes has exploded, with 118 separate car rental taxes in 43 states and the District of Colombia today, eight times that of 20 years ago, and exponentially more than the single case found in 1973. As they can add as much as $15 to a $25 rental, more than a 50 percent increase, it should come as no shock that they have raised a substantial amount of revenue — according to industry research, more than $7.5 billion. Regardless, many people support these taxes with the false expectation that this is a method to effectively tax tourists from out of town to fund tourist attractions.

Additional statistics from the rental car industry demonstrate that discriminatory rental car taxes disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. The Brattle Study, conducted by the Brattle Group, notes that 19 percent of car rental taxes are paid by families earning less than $50,000 per year, and that African Americans pay 27 percent of rental car taxes, even though they represent only 12 percent of the population.

H.R. 4175 represents an opportunity for consumers to fight back against unnecessary, excessive taxation to pay for politicians’ pet projects and for all those who feel they are “nickled and dimed” to stand up to the taxation. The National Consumers League is joined by a wide range of organizations in support of this bill, spanning from the American Car Rental Association to the United Auto Workers, and the National Urban League. We urge you to take a stand against these types of unwanted taxes by contacting your local representative and asking them to join us in support of this bill as well to ensure that these unfair taxes are eliminated.