Consumer U: tips for college students – National Consumers League

Millions of young people are arriving on the nation’s college campuses this summer. Many of them will be embarking on a life without parents for the first time. Unfortunately, many of these young people will be entering the marketplace on their own, with precious little understanding of how to navigate it successfully. Worse, many students may fall prey to scams targeting college students.

With this in mind, here are a few tips for young consumers heading out on their own, whether to college or just their first apartment:

  • DO read the fine print. While credit card companies are now largely prevented from offering their wares on college campuses, there are still many “gotcha’s” lurking out there for unsuspecting consumers. Those gotcha’s love to hide in the fine print of things like apartment leases, gym memberships, cell phone contracts, student loan applications, spring break vacation package agreements and yes, credit card applications.
  • DON’T sign anything until you understand your responsibilities. Will you be locked in to that gym membership for years to come? Does that free t-shirt come with a credit card that has a high interest rate and annual fee? How much will it cost to break the lease on your apartment if your roommate unexpectedly moves out and leaves you with the full month’s rent?
  • DO make sure you have contact info (the phone numbers or Web addresses for services that can help) if you get in trouble. The local Better Business Bureau, Office of Tenant Advocate, and state and local consumer protection bureaus are good numbers to have handy if you feel that a local business or landlord is taking advantage of you.
  • DO create a budget and stick to it. Create a list of all the expenses you’ll be responsible for, like books, regular meals, rent, and transportation. That way you’ll have a system to help make sure nights out with friends don’t eat in to you required living expenses.
  • DON’T leave personal information unsecured. While young consumers may not have a lot of money to drain from bank or credit card accounts, their credit reports are often clean. This makes them tempting targets for identity thieves. File away important documents, shred credit card offers and keep a close eye on credit and debit card statements for suspicious charges.
  • DO watch out for scams targeting young people. For example, educational grant scams were on NCL’s Top Ten Scams list for 2009, suggesting that scammers may be going after students looking for ways to pay for college in a tough economic environment. Watch out for scams that promise “guaranteed scholarships” or “an inside track on getting money for college.” Also stay away from any service that requires a credit or debit card account number to apply for or hold a scholarship.
  • DON’T leave your social network privacy settings unattended. Scammers scan these networks for information they can use to pitch believable-sounding scams. It usually only takes a few minutes to set privacy settings to make them more secure. Many college students may be surprised to find just how much of their personal information they were sharing in the first place.

Consider these tips the beginning of your journey to becoming a savvy consumer. Remember that the good consumer habits you develop as a college student can yield benefits in school and beyond.

DOL’s newest weapon in fight against child labor – National Consumers League

By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern

In an effort to combat child labor, the U.S. Department of Labor recently updated its list of products made with forced or indentured child labor in foreign countries. Federal contractors are prohibited under U.S. law from using these products.

Under Executive Order 13126 federal contractors are required to make a good faith effort to verify that no child labor was used in the products filling government contracts. It’s a good measure, and the list turns out to be a bit of a Who’s Who among nations with the worst forms of child labor.

Making the most appearances on this list of notoriety is Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). (It almost completely monopolized the list in its first iteration back in 2001.) The nation’s bamboo, beans, bricks, rice, rubber, sugarcane, and teak (a type of wood) all made the Department of Labor product watch list.

India, closely followed by Nepal and China, isn’t doing that much better though. India’s bricks, cottonseed, embroidered textiles, garments, and stones made the list. Nepal was on the list for many of the same products. And China, whose toys and electronics have repeatedly been linked to child labor, must also be watched.

It’s looking at other parts of the list, though, that makes you just scratch your head—because of some of the products that are on the list and some of the countries that are off it. For example, Russia is on the list for having child labor in pornography. Hm… Why exactly is pornography on this list for federal contractors?

And then Ghana, one of the focal points of efforts to remove child labor from the cocoa industry, doesn’t appear on the list for cocoa. Should we be heartened by its absence? Assume that significant strides have been made to eradicate the worst forms of child labor in cocoa harvesting? That seems to be the case for Indian carpets being dropped from the list. Encouragingly, the Department of Labor noted that independent monitoring of carpet looms in India and pending research were sufficient to keep Indian carpets clear—at least for the time being.

All this being said—with Russia on and India and Ghana off—this list only provides a partial picture of the problem of child labor around the world. It’s good that federal contractors are being asked to monitor their supplies, even if they’re only required to “have made a good faith effort to determine whether forced or indentured child labor was used to produce the items listed.” For you and me, though, this list’s worth is primarily as a resource—a quick overview of countries and products. And when we need specific info, the Department of Labor’s bibliography for the list is an even better resource. If you need data on any of the products or countries—check it out.

Gearing up for healthy fall sports – National Consumers League

By Jacob Markey, NCL LifeSmarts intern

Welcome back to the best year of LifeSmarts yet! August begins the 2010-2011 season by focusing on Health and Safety, and not only is it almost time for the school year to begin, it is also the beginning of the Fall sports season. Thinking about this brings me back to my adventures in high school playing soccer (not very good) and tennis (surprisingly decent). There is little else as fun to me as experiencing the thrill and joy of playing organized sports.

To keep yourself at peek performance and avoid injuries while playing sports, make sure you take the following steps:

  • Stay hydrated. Without enough water, your body will begin to cramp and break down. Always remember to bring a water bottle when playing sports, drink 4-6 ounces every 15-20 minutes, and let an adult know if you are in urgent need of help if you become dehydrated. Other recommendations for staying hydrated can be found here and here. And being from Wisconsin, the Dairy State, I have learned that milk is now a good sports drink too. So drink up!
  • See a coach and/or trainer if you have any health concerns. Maybe the worst part of playing a sport is having to sit out a game due to injury. To avoid this, always remember to thoroughly stretch before starting to play. If you do feel any pain, see your school’s trainer or nurse, who will give you advice on how to deal with your injury.
  • Use the proper equipment: Buy the right type of protection (cleats and shin guards for soccer, mouth guard for football, etc.) and make sure they fit correctly.
  • Refuse to take steroids. There are a multitude of negative health implications that can result from steroid use, and your best bet is to steer clear of them.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can best prepare yourself for a safe and successful sports season.

For those who don’t participate in sports, it is still vitally important to stay active for your health. The federal government recommends that teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise just about every day of the week. For some recommendations of the varied kinds of exercises and activities you could do to fulfill this, check out the links here and here.

Good luck to everyone for a fun and successful school year, and I look forward to posting again next month.

Eating right on a budget – National Consumers League

It takes planning and willpower to make healthy food choices, regardless of one’s financial situation, but for those on a tight budget, getting healthy food on the table proves even more difficult. 

No matter your financial constraints, however, it IS possible to create healthy, delicious meals – all it takes is foresight, creativity, and a bit of effort! To make your food budget stretch further in the healthy choices department, follow these tips:

Plan ahead and make a list

Plan a menu for the week, using grocery store sale ads as a guide and incorporating main ingredients into several meals. Make a list of items you need, and stick to your list at the store. Don’t forget to check the pantry before planning meals or buying staple items – you may already have key ingredients to put to good use. Good planning, and shopping only once a week when possible, will enable you to reduce waste, save time, and save gas money.

Buy the right fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables can be incredibly expensive, but they don’t have to be. Seek out produce that is in season in your area, as it generally costs less (and tastes better!). Stay away from pre-chopped, pre-sliced fruits and vegetables, which save time but cost far more than their whole counterparts. Frozen fruits and vegetables are always a great choice, as they are affordable, always ripe (they are flash-frozen at peak ripeness), and can be used in small or large quantities without waste.

Choose whole grains

Whole grains are far more healthful than their refined counterparts and add an affordable nutritional boost to any meal. They have a long shelf life, and many stores sell whole grains from bulk bins, enabling you to purchase only the amount you need. Try using brown rice instead of white, choosing whole wheat bread instead of white, and experimenting with quinoa, barley, and buckwheat. Making whole grains and vegetables the main part of a meal – and serving meat, poultry, or fish as a “side dish” – creates a cheaper, and healthier, plate.

Eat more beans, less beef (and poultry)

Beans are an inexpensive source of protein and fiber, with the added bonus of a long shelf life. Dried beans will give you the most bang for your buck, but canned beans, which are still fairly cheap, are easier to use. Serve beans in salads, pasta dishes, soups, burritos, and chili, or make them the main component of a quick, healthy, meatless, and inexpensive meal.

Bring a brown bag

Although it takes a few extra minutes, packing a brown bag lunch is nearly always cheaper – and healthier – than buying a midday meal during the work or school day. Before you take your weekly shopping trip, plan out packable lunches for the week. Leftovers also make great lunches!

Purchase fewer packaged and processed foods

Meal replacement bars, snack packs, and other packaged, processed foods tend not only to be expensive but to contain ingredient after ingredient that one cannot pronounce. Whenever possible, substitute whole foods for these products (an apple with peanut butter, yogurt and fruit, homemade trail mix), for a healthier diet that saves serious cash. For an added boost to your wallet, buy larger bags of snacks instead of 100-calorie packs, and make your own single servings with plastic bags after you arrive home.

Buy in bulk

When done right, buying in bulk can save both time and money. Focus your bulk purchases on products that you use frequently enough that you will consume them before they spoil or pass their “use by” date. Make a bulk-buying trip with a friend who enjoys similar foods, and split items that you both use, but that are too large for your household’s use before expiration.  Remember that not all bulk items actually save you money, so check the unite price and ensure that you’re getting a good buy before making a purchase.

Find the store brand

Grocery stores sell their own brand of many of the name brand products they offer. These store brands are almost always less expensive and are usually exactly or almost the same as the pricier name brands. Check next to, below, or above the name brand products you usually consume to see if a cheaper alternative exists.

Grow produce in the garden

It doesn’t require a large plot of land, a lot of effort, or more than a few dollars to grow a few fruit or vegetable plants, but the payoff is significant. Plant tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, or other favorites, and reap the nutritional and cost-saving rewards of your labors all summer long.

Auto recycling 101 – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

NCL's ED Sally Greenberg visited the AAA auto recycling parts plant in , MN this week. NCL supports the recycling of auto parts for a number of reasons. Its important to recycle perfectly good parts that haven't been damaged in an accident as long as the parts are bought from a reputable recycler that provides warranties for parts and deals with reputable repair shops: 1) used parts save consumers money compared to paying for new parts 2) there may not be new parts available for certain older vehicles 3) its environmentally sound to recycle old parts and saves many millions of dollars each year, 4) ensuring continued consumers access to such parts requires that damaged autos be available at reasonable rates to recyclers for parts

I spent Monday of this week at AAA auto parts recyclers outside Minneapolis getting an up-close look at the business. I got to know the recyclers when I worked on auto safety issues at Consumers Union a few years back. It’s a very important industry and valuable to American consumers in a number of ways. First, recyclers save us money by dismantling cars that have been in serious crashes and preserving the intact parts – engines, window washing fixtures, fuse boxes, wheels – and making them available at lower cost than new parts. Second, they save millions of dollars because they reuse parts that would otherwise be shredded and go into our landfills, not to mention the millions it would take to make all those parts new again. They also drain out the fluids as they dismantle the cars, and see that they are properly disposed of – gas, oil, power steering and window washing fluids, to name a few. AAA actually uses the oil and gas from the cars to heat its plant, no mean feat in 25-below-zero Minnesota winters. The other fluids are kept out of landfills and waterways.

The best in the industry belong to the Automotive Recyclers Association, and which holds members to strict standards. They have requirements for customer satisfaction, best practices in dismantling parts, cleaning them up and making sure they are in working order before sending them out to auto repair shops, and they provide warranties on the parts they sell.

One of the growing problems facing recyclers, however, is access to cars that have been in serious crashes – known as “total loss” vehicles. The recyclers buy the crashed cars at auctions. However, they have competition from a rogue’s gallery of sleazy repair operators who will take a crumpled car and do a superficial repair, putting a dangerous vehicle back on the streets. And if that weren’t enough, recyclers then have to compete for these cars with criminals looking to buy these total loss vehicles simply to get the vehicle’s unique identification number (VIN). These crooks spend more for the crumpled metal than its worth, and that makes it hard for the honest parts recyclers to compete. They then steal a car that is the same make and model as the crashed vehicle and slap the VIN on the stolen car.

It’s in the interest of consumers to make sure the auto recyclers continue to have access to the total loss vehicles. One idea that has been adopted in New South Wales Australia is to “kill the VIN” off of a total loss vehicle, thus depriving unscrupulous and dishonest actors from either putting a dangerous car back on the road or stealing the wrecked car’s VIN. NCL believes U.S. policymakers should look at the New South Wales regulations and consider whether to adopt such a policy in the United States.

Statute of limitations on debt not so certain – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It turns out that if you have credit card debt where the statute of limitations has run on collecting that debt, you can be sued again by a second company for a lot more than the original debt. Why? Because the law allows claims to be sold on debt collection Web sites where “out of statute debts” – that’s what they are called – are bought for pennies or less on the dollar. The new debt collector can’t sue or threaten to sue, but they can do everything else to collect the debt. And here’s the catch – if you pay anything toward that old expired debt – the statute of limitations starts up again.

This news came as a big surprise to me – but the New York Times featured a Montana man who hasn’t had a credit card in 8 ½ years, couldn’t pay off his debt in 1999, and wrote the court to explain his circumstances.

The statute of limitations has run on the debt, and now he’s being chased by a new company. As one consultant explained “It’s so cheap, if you can work it smart, you don’t need to collect that much.” Investors in old debt apparently recoup 2 ½ times what they pay for the bucket of debts. So what’s wrong with that?

Because these collectors can’t sue, they are more prone to use abusive tactics to get money out of old debtors. Some firms violate the law by filing suits they are not supposed to bring. And they harass people years after a debt has been written off. The Federal Trade Commission studied the issue and recommended that states enact reforms to their rules governing these debts, including forcing collectors to prove the debt is not out of statute. That sounds like a great place to start to protect consumers.

Legal fees a shame for those in need – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Over the weekend a friend called for advice – she needed help finding a lawyer to handle a custody dispute between her and her ex-husband, and since she’s not an attorney and I am, she sought my advice. I don’t work in the family law area so I in turn asked friends who do – and I looked at Washingtonian magazine for its list of “Best Divorce Lawyers.” I was stunned to see the cost per hour that these lawyers are charging!

My friend, it so happens, was financially devastated after her divorce, spending money not only on lawyers, but on selling her house in a depressed market and getting counseling services for her kids and herself. She doesn’t have a lot of resources to spend on attorneys’ fees.

That’s really a shame for her and for the average person who needs legal services. Almost every divorce lawyer on the lists I checked is charging between $300 and $350 an hour. I have no doubt that these are very talented lawyers, but still, after a mere 15 hours of work – that’s maybe 2 or 3 days on a case – the client has racked up $5,000 worth of charges. And unlike health care, there’s no insurance for legal services, so an acrimonious dispute with one’s spouse can mean hours upon hours of legal fees.

Though I’m a member of the legal profession, I run a nonprofit and my time isn’t billed by the hour. But I must say that I’m stunned– and chagrined – that the average person seeking help with a custody or divorce proceeding in the Washington,  DC area is forced to pay these kinds of prices for legal representation. There must be a better way!

The United States, Somalia, and child soldiers – National Consumers League

By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern

I’ve been going through a mental checklist of some of the 12-year-olds that I’ve known. The list includes some extremely rambunctious boys and some spirited girls—my little sister’s friends, an old coach’s son, a family friend, girls that I coached at volleyball camp. It’s these kids that I’ve been thinking back to as I’ve read the recent press that’s come out regarding child soldiers in Somalia.

The reports are disheartening. Although the United Nations believes the use of child soldiers around the world is on the decline, an estimated 250,000 children continue to be enslaved as soldiers—in Burma, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and other countries. They’re not always forced into the fighting by rebel groups either, for in Somalia these kids are on the government’s payroll. Children as young as nine years old serve in the Somali military. Twelve-year olds man checkpoints and wave Kalashnikov assault rifles. Somalia is one of “the most persistent violators of children in armed conflicts,” according to the UN. And what’s worse is that the United States is funding Somalia’s military—sending arms and funds.

This wave of recent media attention has initiated some positive steps. Although the Somalian government has avowed that all their soldiers are at least 20 years old, it has promised an investigation of the matter. That may mean very little, but the chances that this issue will be addressed are seemingly a lot higher now that the public spotlight is shining glaringly down on the situation. The UN is looking to implement measures against the use of child soldiers. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is raising concerns. American officials are being forced to answer some tough questions about where U.S. funding is going. And the State Department just published its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which highlights the concern of child soldiers in Somalia. Recent stories, covering the challenges facing former child soldiers as they try to reintegrate into their communities, further highlight the need to keep pressing this issue.

With Maoists in Nepal and rebels in the Philippines, the UN has found that publicly calling out groups that violate children’s rights—or “naming and shaming”—is an effective method for bringing about reform. Knowing that this method has worked and can work is encouraging. As I think back to the kids in my life, I’m reminded of why it is so important that we push this issue. No 6th grader or junior high student should be handed a gun and forced onto the front lines. This is just simply something that we cannot afford to let fall off the radar.

LifeSmarts gearing up for 2010-2011 with exciting changes – National Consumers League

By Lisa Hertzberg, LifeSmarts Program Director

LifeSmarts is gearing up for the new program year and we’re really excited about some of the new features you’ll find in September. Here’s a sneak peek:


TeamSmarts provides a great way to delve deeper into one subject area, prepare for in-person competition, and forge teamwork and leadership skills among your team members. This new online LifeSmarts activity is designed to be used cooperatively by teams of students. Beginning in September you can challenge your team with 100-question quizzes that will rotate monthly. From September through January quizzes will focus on one LifeSmarts topic per month: personal finance, consumer rights and responsibilities, technology, health and safety, and the environment. In February you can test your students with a quiz across all topic areas.

FCCLA partnership

Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America uses the Family and Consumer Science platform to engage students in real-world learning, and the LifeSmarts program is here to motivate students in the classroom and open doors for them – and their families – beyond.

In a special partnership with FCCLA, LifeSmarts offers FCCLA Advisers:

  • The opportunity to earn monthly chapter cash awards by competing in TeamSmarts
  • The chance for your chapter’s team to represent FCCLA and compete at the 2011 National LifeSmarts Championship in Los Angeles
  • The TeamSmarts practice tool to help prepare for in-person LifeSmarts and FCCLA Quiz Bowl competitions
  • A competitive classroom activity

LifeSmarts U lessons on fraud and health

Looking for ways to spark ordinary lessons and engage students in emerging consumer topics? LifeSmarts U is a great place to start. Lesson are multi-faceted and combine activities students complete on their own with supplemental Power Points and lesson plans that educators may use to round out each activity. In addition to personal finance and technology lessons, new this fall, look for lessons on fraud and health.

New teaching tools

New calendars, questions, and other teaching tools are available at:!