Resolve to be a better consumer in 2011 – National Consumers League

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

The start of a new year inevitably means many people will be making New Year’s resolutions. Some of the more common resolutions include spending more time with family and friends, getting into shape, quitting smoking, or getting more organized. Unfortunately, according to researchers, while more than half of consumers believe that they will fulfill their resolutions, just 12 percent will actually be successful.

As consumer advocates, we frequently preach the value of setting small, defined and achievable goals. For example, instead of resolving to get out of debt in a single year (a goal that many make, but few achieve), resolve to allocate an extra $30-50 per month towards paying down debt. In this way, you achieve success early (you’re 8.3 percent of the way to your yearly goal there after the first month!), creating a small victory and incentivizing additional work towards the goal.

So, in honor of 2011, here are 11 achievable goals that consumers can resolve to accomplish in the New Year.


  1. Pay 1 percent more on top of your minimum monthly mortgage payment. Doing so on a typical 30-year fixed rate mortgage could knock months and hundreds (or thousands) of dollars off the cost of the loan over its lifetime.
  2. Don’t make any online purchases from a company you haven’t researched with the Better Business Bureau. is a wealth of information on online and “brick and mortar” companies, including complaints made and resolved. Don’t shop online without it!
  3. Pay more than the minimum monthly payment on your credit cards. Credit card interest rates are often in excess of 10 percent and may be 20 percent or more. Unless your investments are returning profits at a greater rate than your credit card interest rates, it makes a lot of sense to “invest” in paying down high-interest debt.
  4. Check your credit report at least twice. Consumers are entitled to a free credit report from each of the major credit reporting agencies once per year. While these reports may not give you your credit score for free, you can see if there are old accounts or incorrect information that you can fix and (hopefully) improve your credit score. This small step could save you thousands on home or auto loans where credit scores play a big role in interest rates.
  5. Do a “communications audit” once per year. Most consumers subscribe to some combination of cable TV, wireless phone, wired phone (with local and long distance) and broadband Internet service. At least once a year, gather the bills for these services and total up what you’re paying for all of them. Then do an honest appraisal of what you actually use. Many consumer will find that they use their cell phones for most long distance calls and don’t need a second long distance plan on their home phone service. Other consumers may find that they rarely watch premium movie channels and can drop them from their cable package.
  6. Add any new phone numbers to the federal “Do Not Call” list. Consumers who change residence, switch carriers, or get new cell phones may also get new phone numbers. If you want to limit telemarketing calls to these numbers, consider visiting to add these new numbers to the “Do Not Call” registry. Extra Credit: Some states maintain their own “do not call” lists. Check with your state government to see if such a list exists and add numbers to that as well.
  7. Have a “shredding party!” Consumers tend to accumulate lots of paper, including bills, credit card offers, account statements and other materials, which may contain lots of personally identifying information. These can become fodder for identity thieves. Invest in a good shredder then invite friends over with their bills, credit card offers, etc. and shred away. Here’s a great guide to throwing your own “shredding party.”
  8. Create a household budget. It’s tremendously difficult to pay down debt if you aren’t living within your means to begin with. For most people, creating a simple personal or family budget is the first step in figuring out what their “means” are. This doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds, and having a good handle on the money coming in and going out of family accounts can actually relieve a lot of stress. The BBB has a great guide for creating a budget here.
  9. Increase your 401(k) contribution by 1 percent. Many consumers may have been turned off on investing after the recent economic meltdown. However, you still need to save for retirement, and – for most consumers – that means investing in a 401(k) plan. By increasing your contribution by just 1 percent, you probably won’t miss the money and you’ll be investing in your future.
  10. Check your privacy settings on Facebook. Let’s face it: It seems like more of us are on Facebook these days than aren’t. Unfortunately, most users never take a look at their privacy settings. You may be sharing more of your personal information with marketers and other users than you’d like. Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s step-by-step guide to maximizing your privacy on Facebook.
  11. Don’t give to a charity you haven’t checked out first. The holidays are a season ripe for charity scams – where unscrupulous fraudsters use the names of respected charities to con consumers out of their money. Fortunately, a number of online resources are available to help consumers check out a charity ahead of time, including, and For more tips on avoiding charity scams, check out our tip page by clicking here.

New research showing lack of progress on patient safety front a disturbing trend – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Patient safety should be a paramount consideration when someone is admitted to the hospital, but new research is discouraging on that front. Researchers looked at 10 North Carolina hospitals over the 2002-2007 period. They found many problems. About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of injuries were preventable. Most problems patients faced were temporary, but some were serious, and 2.4 percent caused or contributed to a patient’s death.

The thing that is so discouraging is that, in 1999 when an Institute of Medicine report – entitled “To Err is Human” – found that up to 98,000 people each year die, and more than one million people are injured because of medical errors, the medical community made a commitment to try to make a dent in these numbers. It appears that things for consumers and patients haven’t improved much.

Common problems appeared when hospitals failed to use measures proven to avert hazards from devices like urinary catheters, ventilators, and lines inserted into veins and arteries. Medication errors caused problems in 162 cases – computerized systems for ordering drugs can cut such mistakes by 80 percent, the researchers found, but only 17 percent of hospitals have such systems.

These errors not only injure people, but they cost the health care system a bundle. The report estimated that these errors cost Medicare several billion dollars a year. Not only that, but researchers estimate that these numbers are vastly underestimated because reporting medical errors is voluntary.

Latest report on women’s health not pretty – National Consumers League

By Mimi Johnson, Director of NCL Health Policy

The National Women’s Law Center and Oregon Health and Science University recently issued its latest report card on the health of women, and it wasn’t pretty.

The United States received an overall grade of “unsatisfactory” and failed to meet many of the government’s Healthy People 2010 goals.

Some of the biggest problems facing women in the United States? Women are binge drinking, or downing more than five drinks at a single occasion, far more than before. In addition to partaking in riskier behaviors, women are seeking screening for such things as cervical cancer far less than before. This can be very dangerous, especially as rates sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia are on the rise.

Women today are more obese and have more serious chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension than only a few years ago. The report found that one-quarter of women in this country get no physical activity, and the overwhelming majority of women do not eat five fruits and vegetables a day.

Is there hope? The Affordable Care Act prohibits insurance policies from discriminating based on gender or pre-existing conditions, and helps extend Medicaid eligibility to millions of Americans. The Act also allots substantial funding for prevention. One of the major advancements is the elimination of co-pays for preventive services. It might be possible to inch closer to nation’s goal of 90 percent screening rates for pap smears, increase the effective use of mammography, and continue to help women to smoke and drink less with fewer financial and systemic barriers in our way.

So let’s go far a walk, put down the bottle, get to the doctor, and work together to make sure we fare better on the next report card!

Thought you were done with the mall? – National Consumers League

Think again. Many of us will be back there tomorrow, bright and early, to take advantage of after-Christmas sales or – gulp – try to return well-intentioned gifts that didn’t go over so great. Are you ready for your returns? Tips from the experts:

  • Know a store’s return policy before you go back. Know what you’re getting into — whether the return will be in the form of cash or store credit, at full price, the price that was paid by the purchaser, or some more recent marked-down price. Know whether having the receipt factors into this so you can decide whether politely going back to the gift giver to ask for the receipt is warranted.
  • Keep a paper trail. Find your receipts and keep them handy. Having a receipt dramatically increases the chances of an outcome that’s to your liking.
  • Don’t open the packaging of anything you know you don’t want to keep, particularly electronics. Policies that don’t allow returns for opened electronics items are common. If they do take it back, they may withhold a certain percentage of the return price and call it a “restocking fee.”
  • Spend your gift cards. They may lose value over time, so look at the fine print and spend them before they expire.
  • Prepare yourself for the worst. Stores have been tracking customers’ return habits for years. Some retailers subscribe to services that keep track of what consumers are purchasing and bringing back in an attempt to curb consumer return fraud — the returning of stolen goods. For honest consumers, this can cause problems, as some stores limit the amount of return activity to a certain number or value of annual merchandise returns. There’s a possibility if you’ve returned a lot of merchandise, you’ll be denied.
  • Be smart. Don’t wear it. Don’t damage it. Increase the chance of having a successful return by taking care of the item on its way back to the store and being a pleasant, polite customer. The holidays are stressful enough. Don’t contribute with a less-likely-to-be-helped attitude.

Too many households neglecting life insurance – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

A recent industry review of Americans purchasing life insurance showed a startling trend: the number of American households with life insurance was at its lowest in 50 years.  The drop in insurance is tied directly to the economic downturn, Today only 44 percent of households have an individual life insurance policy, and 30 percent have no individual- or employer-provided life insurance. The study was done by LIMRA, an industry life insurance think-tank and research arm. The study found that 11 million households with children younger than 18, which are the families with the greatest need for coverage, have no life insurance.

Life insurance is part of a social safety net. It protects surviving spouses and children when the sole breadwinner or other income earners in a family dies. Ironically, the cost of life insurance has dropped over the past several decades. A 35-year-old healthy male can purchase life insurance for $25 a month for a 20-year-term policy that would pay $500,000 upon his death, according to statistics from ING. But nevertheless in tough economic times, life insurance seems like a luxury. In truth it is not. It is a necessity for all working families trying to watch out for unforeseen events.

Insurance companies need to do outreach, to let consumers know that term life insurance is affordable. But insurance companies need also to guarantee that premiums and fees will be reasonable and that consumers can make a good investment without fearing they will be ripped off in any way.

This is an area of great concern: ensuring that consumers are taking advantage of relatively inexpensive life insurance to protect their families in the event that they will no longer be around. The life insurance industry has a lot of work to do to get the word out – and to work closely with consumers so that they can understand the critical importance a good solid life insurance policy can have on protecting the interests of American families.

NCL statement on passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, H.R. 2751 – National Consumers League

December 21, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC— Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, H.R. 2751, clearing the final hurdle and sending the bill to the President’s desk, where Mr. Obama has pledged to sign it. The legislation will enable consumers to ring in the New Year knowing that the U.S. food supply of the future will be safer.

With today’s vote, the House finished a circuitous process that started nearly a year and a half ago, when the body passed the first version of the food safety bill. In the interim, there have been numerous twists and turns that called into question whether landmark food safety legislation would pass. But indeed, the Senate took up a bill Sunday evening with a new bill number,and it passed by unanimous consent.

“Consumers have waited far too long for an overhaul of outdated food safety laws that do not adequately protect Americans from the threat of foodborne illness. We applaud the members of the House and Senate for overcoming the partisan gridlock and adopting this important measure. This holiday season, there are families in America feeling the absence of those they have lost due to foodborne illness; the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act will protect countless Americans – and their loved ones – from the perils of unsafe food,” stated Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act shifts the focus of the Food and Drug Administration from responding to foodborne illness outbreaks to preventing those outbreaks in the first place. Among other measures, the bill gives the agency the authority to recall contaminated products, develops new requirements for product traceability, and establishes a minimum inspection frequency for domestic food processing facilities. The legislation also increases oversight of imported foods, holding items produced abroad to the same safety standards as those that originate in the United States, and requires farmers and food processors to institute measures to prevent contamination.

The National Consumers League would like to thank Senators Durbin (D-IL), Harkin (D-IA), Dodd (D-CT), Gregg (R-NH), Burr (R-NC), and Enzi (R-WY), as well as Representatives Waxman (D-CA), Dingell (D-MI), DeLauro (D-CT), and Pallone (D-NJ) for their leadership in getting this legislation over the finish line. The League also extends its appreciation to Senators Reid (D-NV) and McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker Pelosi for enabling H.R. 2751 to come to the floor for votes in their respective chambers this week.

As a member of the Make Our Food Safe coalition, the National Consumers League joined other consumer organizations, public health organizations, and groups representing the families of victims of foodborne illness in supporting passage of the bill.


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

Consumer groups call on Microsoft to grant Americans the same browser choices as Europeans – National Consumers League

December 21, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC –Consumer advocates are asking Microsoft to give American consumers browser choices beyond Internet Explorer when purchasing a Windows operating system.

In a letter to Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer, the American Antitrust Institute (AAI), Consumers Union, the National Consumers League (NCL), and Consumer Action express “ongoing concerns that American consumers do not have access to the same choices among browsers that are today available to our European counterparts.”

When the United States settled its antitrust litigation with Microsoft nine years ago, it allowed Microsoft to continue bundling the Internet Explorer web browser with the Windows operating system. Last year’s European Union settlement with Microsoft unbundled Internet Explorer from Windows and gave consumers a software ballot asking them to choose which browser to install from a list of 12 options.

“European consumers are choosing browsers other than Explorer,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “We would expect similar behavior in the U.S. market should consumers be given a choice.”

The letter cites earlier discussions the consumer advocates had with Microsoft on this issue, “In fact, we did ask this question to a Microsoft representative some months ago, but the reply was that the settlement in Europe was forced on the company and is a bad idea because consumers really don’t want choices and those who care enough can learn how to change their settings in order to use a different browser. This seems like the wrong response for a company that views itself as innovative and consumer-friendly.”

“Our aim is not to choose winners or losers in the marketplace, but to ensure a competitive process,” said AAI President Bert Foer. “It in fact may be procompetitive for a consumer to choose Internet Explorer in an environment where other choices are available; but it is anticompetitive for a consumer to use Internet Explorer because he or she was not given a choice. This holiday season, we are asking Microsoft to give American consumers a much deserved and appreciated holiday gift; the gift of choice.”


About the American Antitrust Institute

The American Antitrust Institute is an independent non-profit education, research and advocacy organization. Since its formation in 1998, the AAI’s mission has been to increase the role of competition, assure that competition works in the interests of consumers, and challenge abuses of concentrated economic power in the American and world economy. To learn more about the AAI, please 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

About Consumers Union

Consumers Union (CU) is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. The organization was founded in 1936 when advertising first flooded the mass media. Consumers lacked a reliable source of information they could depend on to help them distinguish hype from fact and good products from bad ones. Since then CU has filled that vacuum with a broad range of consumer information. To maintain its independence and impartiality, CU accepts no outside advertising and no free samples and employs several hundred mystery shoppers and technical experts to buy and test the products it evaluates. Visit

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action has been a champion of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. A nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, Consumer Action focuses on financial education that empowers low to moderate income and limited-English-speaking consumers to financially prosper. Our diverse staff provides expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data. We offer access to victim testimony, as well as expertise on current financial issues affecting low to moderate income and limited-English-speaking consumers. Visit

Happy Winter Solstice! Are you ready? – National Consumers League

In many parts of the country, late fall has resembled some of the worst winters on record. For those of us who live in colder climates — or even for those of us with more moderate winters and the occasional cold snap — winter weather can mean significant and sudden drops in temperatures and very serious winter storms. It is important to be prepared so that you can stay safe and healthy during the winter months. Infants and elderly are among the most vulnerable to life-threatening health problems when the temperatures drop.

Dangers range from power failures to icy sidewalks and snowy roads. Indoors, space heaters and fireplaces also add new dangers, as they increase the risk of household fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Everyone should be prepared for winter. Even if you live in a warmer climate, sudden drops in temperature that are near freezing are considered extreme cold and can be harmful to your health. 

Fed delays on alcohol labeling stymieing national policies on alcohol and obesity – National Consumers League

December 20, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC–The National Consumers League (NCL) has once again called on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to issue a final rule to improve alcohol beverage labeling.

“The drinking public needs certain basic information on beer, wine, and spirits labels,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “With a severe nationwide obesity epidemic, there is no excuse for not having calories listed on all alcohol beverage labels. Consumers also need clear information about alcohol content in order to drink responsibly.”

Seven years ago, the National Consumers League petitioned TTB to require an “Alcohol Facts” panel on labels of beer, wine, and distilled spirits. More than 3 years ago, TTB proposed a watered-down version of “Alcohol Facts,” which it called “Serving Facts,” but has still not issued a final rule.

“The Alcohol Facts panel was intended to provide all the information consumers need in one location, clearly and concisely,” said Greenberg. “It would be like the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels, except that it would provide the information relevant to alcoholic beverages.” NCL asked that the “Alcohol Facts” panel include serving size, the number of calories per serving, alcohol content information (including the amount of alcohol per serving, the definition of a “standard drink,” and the number of standard drinks per container), and ingredient information.

“The nine college students who went to an emergency room for alcohol poisoning after drinking too much of a caffeinated alcoholic beverage earlier this year may not have realized just how much alcohol they were consuming,” added Greenberg. “Maybe if the standard drinks per container had been required to appear on the labels, they wouldn’t have made that mistake.”

TTB’s inaction on Alcohol Facts labeling is also interfering with other important public health objectives. A new law requires nutrition labeling of foods and beverages served in chain restaurants and bars, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no approved method for measuring certain nutrients in alcohol and TTB has provided the industry with no guidance. If the Alcohol Facts panel were required, restaurants and bars could simply use the information on the product label.

The lack of calorie and alcohol information on beer, wine, and spirits labels is also an obstacle to application of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services will soon issue the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, but, without calorie and alcohol information on product labels, consumers still will not be able to follow its recommendations on weight control and alcohol consumption.

“Label reform for alcoholic beverages is a no brainer,” according to Greenberg. “What is TTB waiting for?”


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

Exciting developments from – National Consumers League

By Lisa Hertzberg, LifeSmarts Director

LifeSmarts is an established program in its 17th year, but it is also a program that strives to be “flat and flexible.” Our goal is to make LifeSmarts and all of our educational resources easily adaptable to meet the needs of the students and educators who use the program.

We regularly hear from creative LifeSmarts coaches who use the program in many different ways:

  • Infusing LifeSmarts into their business, economics, family and consumer science, math, or vocational education curriculum
  • Using it as an extracurricular activity with clubs or groups such as FBLA, FCCLA, 4-H, and others
  • Using LifeSmarts in the classroom but allowing students to self-select whether they wish to advance to live competitions, and then practicing with the team outside of the school day
  • Initiating teams at the community level with community educators as coaches

One new tool with many applications is the TeamSmarts online activity, which provides a 100-question quiz each month that students work on collaboratively. Educators can use TeamSmarts in the classroom or with small groups in extracurricular settings. This LifeSmarts practice tool allows students to compete against other teams from across the country, learn about a new LifeSmarts topic each month, and strengthen their teamwork and leadership skills. You can get started at TeamSmarts here.

We have some exciting new projects in the works as well. Our 2011 plans include producing a new LifeSmarts topic list (scope and sequence), an activity box, a LifeSmarts Toolkit, and a comprehensive vocabulary list. All of these components will be designed to help educators easily adapt the “flat and flexible” LifeSmarts program for various groups and settings. Stay tuned for more exciting developments!