LifeSmarts dispatches from the road: McKinley Technology High School wins LifeSmarts DC for the second year in a row – National Consumers League

McKinley Technology High School are repeat champions

By LifeSmarts staff

Entering the day, there was one ticket left to be punched for the LifeSmarts national competition, which will be held in Atlanta, GA from April 19-23. McKinley Technology High School won the DC LifeSmarts competition today, ensuring the last spot in beautiful Atlanta. After a long day of heated competition, McKinley Tech’s two teams faced off in the final round of questioning, each flexing their consumer knowledge muscles. This was not uncommon territory for McKinley, which sent a team to the national competition in Philadelphia last year.

Delonte Bright, a member of the 2012 McKinley team and current advisor to the new DC champion team, said LifeSmarts gives students a great opportunity to learn about consumer issues.

“There are so many things I learned in LifeSmarts that have been useful in the real world,” said Bright. Het offered one example, saying, “Now I know how many times I can go to the bank and withdraw money before I get a penalty. I never have to worry about that anymore.”

Bright, who graduated from McKinley in 2012, now attends District of Columbia University, home for the DC LifeSmarts competition. He serves as a mentor to current team captain Leslie Ogu. This McKinley senior, who received a full scholarship to George Washington University for fall 2013, says that LifeSmarts is a great tool to empower consumers, and he has learned so much new information that will be helpful the rest of his life. Ogu hopes to study computer science at GW. He is already knowledgeable of technology issues evidenced by his top score in the individual technology assessment portion of the competition.

The LifeSmarts competition is a nationwide consumer challenge for high school students. It is a program of the National Consumers League. This year in Atlanta, representatives from 36 states will descend upon the Peach State for four days of consumer knowledge competitions. The participants will compete in a variety of games, testing their knowledge in personal finance, consumer rights and responsibilities, health and safety, technology, and the environment. We look forward to welcoming McKinley and all of our other winners from around the country to Atlanta next month. Follow the action on twitter at #LifeSmarts2013.

Tragic Story Highlights the Impact of Grain Bin Danger – National Consumers League


By Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

An estimated 25 to 30 kids a year die at work. Through its advocacy and its work, the Child Labor Coalition, a campaign of the National Consumers League (NCL), has worked to reduce that number over the years. Last spring, the NCL’s annual report on The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens included the agricultural industry. Last year, we worked to help enact proposed rules to protect kids working in agriculture ultimately, however, that effort failed, and the organized farm lobby was able to force the Obama administration to withdraw the rules. We estimate this will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 50 to 100 youth working on farms over the next decade.

This week, the national media has focused much-needed attention on a particular type of farm-related death: work in grain silo facilities, which in a typical year kills 15 or more workers. According to recent data, 20 percent of the victims of grain engulfments are young workers.

National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System’s News Hour each featured in-depth stories this week, highlighting a terrible tragedy that occurred in Mount Carroll, Illinois nearly three years ago. Two teens were engulfed by grain and killed while working in a silo: 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas. Will Piper, a 20-year-old co-worker, barely escaped with his life because someone threw him a bucket that he was able to put over his head. The bucket prevented the flowing grain from asphyxiating him. Today, Piper lives in guilt because he turned his friend Alex Pacas onto work in the grain silo.

Among the worst aspects of this case are the fact that Wyatt, 14, was too young to be doing such dangerous work. He and Alex also should have been wearing safety harnesses as they walked on top of the crusty grain trying to loosen it. The facility had the mandatory harnesses but didn’t instruct or compel the teens to wear them.

The NPR and PBS stories grew out of reporting from the Center for Public Integrity. The center found that the fines levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a result of preventable grain engulfments were typically reduced over 50 percent and in some cases well over 90 percent.

In the deaths of Alex Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread, OSHA found 12 “willful violations” and initially leveled $555,000 in fines. This amount was later reduced to $200,000. A Center for Public Interest-NPR analysis found that the $9.2 million fines proposed by OSHA for engulfments that killed 179 people between 1984 and 2012 were eventually reduced to $3.8 million.

NCL and the CLC believe strongly that youth working on farms and agricultural facilities need to have stronger protections. We urge the Obama administration to reconsider the youth occupational safety rules it withdrew last April. Why allow teen workers to engage in jobs that we know to be extremely dangerous? And in cases where employers are found to be at fault for the death of teen workers, why are fines consistently and dramatically reduced?

Consumers have many choices to save money on prescription drugs – National Consumers League

From 2011 to 2012 prices for brand name drugs increased in price by an average of 13 percent. As healthcare costs continue to rise, all indications are prescription drugs will rise in cost as well. The good news is consumers have more resources than ever to help them save money on their prescriptions. The easiest way consumers can save money is by finding out whether a generic or non-brand name drug is available.  Generic drugs contain the same active ingredients in the same dosages as brand name drugs, but they cost far less.

Another resource available to consumers is co-pay cards. The co-pay on any prescription is a fixed amount of money that insurance companies ask consumers to pay for a specific drug. By using a co-pay card that sum of money can be greatly reduced or eliminated. There are a variety of co-pay cards available. Consumers can also save money using drug discount cards which are often available online. These cards are offered by state governments, pharmacies, non-profit groups, pharmaceutical companies or large retail chain stores. To compare prices and see which medications are covered by which cards you can visit,, or

To find out more about discount and co-pay cards visit the National Consumers League Web site at Be wary of any discount card that requires a fee up front because those fees may cost more than the prescription itself.

Meet the top ten scams – #1 fake check fraud – National Consumers League

This is part one of our 10-part series taking a closer look at the top scams of 2012. The number one scam reported to NCL’s Fraud Center in 2012 was the fake check scheme. To see an overview of our complete report on the top scams of the year, visit our Web site at

By Sandra Latouff, NCL Public Policy Intern

“Congratulations! You’ve won the lottery!”

“You can earn a large salary just by working at home!”

“Get paid for doing what you love, earn a large salary just for shopping!”

Sounds great, right? There is one catch: all you have to do to get your reward is deposit a check and wire the money to the sender to pay the taxes and fees.

There’s another catch, which consumers aren’t told – The checks are fake and the “great opportunity” is actually a scam that could cost you big-time. On average, consumers who fell victim to these schemes lost an average of more than $2,400! That’s serious cash for most of us.

Scams involving counterfeit or fake checks were the number one scam reported to NCL’s campaign in 2012. The scams comes in a number of variations, including foreign lottery scams, check overpayment scams, internet auction scams, and secret shopper scams, just to name a few.

The scams works like this: a scammer contacts a potential victim, either by email, phone, through the mail, or by some other means. The original communication may or may not include a realistic-looking check made out to the victim. If the victim responds to the outreach, usually by replying to an email or by calling a phone number operated by the scam artist, she is instructed to deposit the check into her personal bank account and wire all or a portion of the proceeds from the check to the scam artist or an accomplice via a money transfer service like MoneyGram or Western Union. The scammer gets cash in hand, often within minutes. Depending on how long it takes the bank to recognize the fake check, the victim may not find out about the fraud until days or weeks later. By that time, the scam artist is long gone and the victim is left owing their bank for the proceeds from the fraudulent check.

Regardless of the type of fake check scam the scammer employs – the “mystery shopper,” the “overpayment,” and the “lottery/sweepstakes winnings” variations are popular – the common thread involves the deposit of a check into a personal bank account and then having money wired to the scammer or a third party, such as a fictional “escrow service.”

It is not unusual for a scam artist to use social persuasion techniques to gain a victim’s trust. When being contacted, the scammer may disclose some personal information such as the victim’s name, address, or email address in an effort to convince their mark that the offer is legitimate. Such personal information is widely available online and does not make the alleged company or organization legitimate or trust-worthy.

Tips to keep in mind:

  • If someone gives you a check or money order and asks you to send money somewhere in return, it’s a scam.
  • If you are asked to pay money to collect lottery or sweepstakes winnings, it’s a scam. If you have really won, you will pay taxes directly to the government after you receive your winnings. Be especially wary of claims that you have won well-known sweepstakes such as Reader’s Digest or Publishers Clearing House.
  • Legitimate mystery shopper or account manager jobs don’t involve using money transfer services to send money. Be especially cautious of offers to mystery shop Western Union or Moneygram locations, or the retail stores that house them, such as Walmart, 7-Eleven, or local drug stores.
  • The check or money order may be fake even if your bank or credit union lets you have the cash. You have the right to get the cash quickly, usually within 1-2 days, but your bank or credit union may not be able to tell if there is a problem with the check or money order until it has gone through the system to the person or company that supposedly issued it. That can take weeks. By the time the fraud is discovered, the crook has pocketed the cash.
  • Even if a consumer is defrauded in a fake check scam, she may still be required to pay the bank back for the losses.

For more tips about avoiding scams involving fake checks, please visit NCL’s campaign site or NCL’s guide “Avoid Fake Check Scams: Five things you should know.” For more information on scammers misusing the Publishers Clearing House name, click here. For more information on the Reader’s Digest fake check scam, click here. Western Union’s Consumer Protection Web site is also a good resource for information on these scams.

Familiar faces in 2012 Top Ten Scams Report – National Consumers League

In 2012, fake check scams earned the dubious distinction of being the top scam reported by consumers to the NCL’s fraud complaint site, Nearly 32 percent of the total scams reported fell into this category, and it is the second time in three years fake check scams topped our list.Many consumers do not realize that if they deposit a fake check the account holder is responsible for paying the money back to the bank. Fake check scams take many forms, but the common thread in nearly all fake check scams is a request to wire money to a third party. Tip: Don’t wire money to someone you’ve never met and you should be able to avoid this scam.

Read the full report.

Internet-based scams including bogus online merchandise scams, lottery scams, and phishing scams totaled more than half of all complaints received by this year. The Jamaican lottery scam, which asks people to send an advance fee before receiving their prize, was widely publicized in 2012. While American and Jamaican law enforcement authorities have begun working together to curb this widespread fraud, prevention remains the best option for most consumers.

Consumers reported being contacted by phone in more than 42 percent of the total complaints received in 2012. Tip: Whenever someone asks you on the phone to send money ahead of time in order to receive a prize, don’t do it! In fact, never send money to anyone you don’t know and you will avoid much heartache and headache.

A growing scam in’s complaint data is the office directory/ad sales scam. Complaints about this scam increased by 7.36 percent from 2011 to 2012. In a typical office directory scam, a small business or non-profit organization is called and the receptionist or other front-line employee is asked to verify information about the business. If the mark does so, the organization shortly begins to receive threatening invoices for bogus online business listings or other advertisements. The scam artist may even threaten legal action if payment is not sent.

Regardless of the type of scam, many instances of fraud can be avoided by remembering the old rule of thumb: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If you ever do have questions about a potential fraud or think you might be a victim of a scam, report it immediately via’s secure online complaint form. Embarrassment or fear of friends and relatives finding out about the crime causes many victims of fraud to remain silent. Only by speaking out can we give law enforcement the tools they need to bring these criminals to justice.

Consumer group applauds Perez appointment to DOL – National Consumers League

March 18, 2013

Contact: Carol McKay, NCL Communications, 945-3242

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League, America’s pioneering consumer organization, applauds President Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez to serve as Labor Secretary. Perez is a longtime champion of civil rights and spent his career advocating for working families. Perez currently serves as head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice but had previously served as labor secretary for the state of Maryland. Perez is an advocate of immigration reform, as well, sitting on the board of Casa de Maryland, a group that provides day labor centers. Perez is himself the son of Dominican immigrants. NCL’s Board of Directors recently adopted policy in support of immigration reform because immigrants are so often exploited both as consumers and workers.

The position of Secretary of Labor is critically important in overseeing the health and safety of workers through OSHA, protections provided by the Department’s the Wage and Hour Division, and ensuring there are sufficient inspectors to uncover violations of laws and regulations on child labor. The Secretary of Labor also uses the bully pulpit to highlight rights and protections afforded to workers, and encourages cooperation and collaboration between unions and management. NCL has recognized the important work of Secretaries of labor by given the organization’s Trumpeter Award to several former secretaries, including Robert Reich and Hilda Solis.

“NCL welcomes the nomination of Tom Perez, a champion of working people, to the position of Secretary of Labor and we look forward to working with him on a host of issues, including preventing exploitation of all children and teens who work, and especially farmworker children, and protecting particularly low income workers from wage theft abuses,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

“The Senate should move quickly to confirm this qualified nominee. We look forward to working with Perez to further build and protect the rights that are so integral to maintaining a vibrant American workforce,” said Greenberg.


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

Experts discuss payroll fraud at Senate briefing – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League’s Special Project on Wage Theft hosted a Senate briefing on March 13 to explore the under-reported and growing issue of payroll fraud. Payroll fraud is the result of misclassification, meaning that an employer will identify an employee as an independent contractor or pay them off the books, skirting certain worker protections such as minimum wage, paid leave, or worker’s compensation. This phenomenon is widespread in temporary employment industries such as construction, agriculture, trucking, and janitorial services. Unfortunately, misclassification continues to grow, with too few regulators and too many employers who see payroll fraud as an easy way to save money. Workers who do not receive proper benefits, as well as ethical businesses who follow the rules, are ultimately the biggest victims. More information about this issue can be found at the NCL Web site.

Employers responsible for payroll fraud do so knowingly and intentionally. Classifying a worker as an independent contractor is not a minor clerical error, but rather a conscious decision made by an employer. The problem is not that the laws are confusing or hard to understand. However, employers know that they can get away with not paying employees the benefits they deserve. In this tumultuous economy, with the added factor of fear over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many purposefully break the rules. This puts honest businesses, especially those bidding on contracts, at a distinct disadvantage and unable to compete with the violators.

Heather Rowe, the Director of the Department of Labor Standards from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and member of the payroll fraud panel, explained how Massachusetts is handling this complex issue. Her state is a good example for how to combat violating employers. Using a joint task force and a fraud detection system, Massachusetts has begun the process of identifying employers who violate payroll rules and collecting the money they owe. From 2010 to 2011 the state of Massachusetts recovered almost 11 million dollars in unpaid revenues.

With this problem continuing to grow, the question becomes: how do you honor those companies that have followed the rules and punish the companies practicing payroll fraud? At Wednesday’s Senate briefing, panelists discussed one option: publicly shaming employers who violate the rules in order to drive business to companies that play by the rules. California included a public shaming aspect in the employee misclassification law passed in the state in 2012. Another option is to pass federal legislation such as the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, which was proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2011. Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It and member of the panel, says that there need to be more federal regulators monitoring payroll fraud. “The TSA was able to add 56,000 new regulators in one year. All we need is 1,000 regulators, but it’s an unpopular position in this economy, and people won’t support that,” she said.

The simple fact is payroll fraud is steadily on the rise and rapidly spreading to new industries. Today, many people who work low-wage jobs do not know that they deserve additional benefits or they are too afraid to complain to their employer for fear they will lose the job altogether. New sites such as allow people to anonymously report cases of payroll fraud and helps put public pressure on employers to cease violations. The issue needs more exposure and, as more states follow the example of Massachusetts and other states that have taken action, it will become clear that preventing payroll fraud not only benefits workers, but also provides additional revenues to the states at a time when nearly every state needs the money.

LifeSmarts a Mile High – National Consumers League

By Lisa Hertzberg, LifeSmarts Program Director

When I landed at the Denver International Airport Sunday during a snowstorm the locals were calling a “blizzard,” I knew that my Minnesota driving skills would come in handy on the windy, snow-packed highways. But what a difference a day makes – by Monday morning the sun was shining, everything was melting, and the Rockies were out in full force. It was a beautiful day for the rebirth of LifeSmarts in Colorado.

We had strong competition and the students demonstrated how hard they had been preparing for the LifeSmarts competition. Over the course of the morning team members completed individual assessments, answered six lightning rounds, and competed in three buzzer matches.

Students gained points for answering “water pick,” “FTC,” and giving a textbook description of the term “opportunity cost.” But my favorite answer of the day was to the question, “What does it mean if your can of tuna says it is dolphin safe?” The student who buzzed in answered, “It means it is safe to feed to your dolphin.” (Hint: not quite the answer we were looking for.)

The competition came down to the final match between Northglenn High School and Monarch High School, with Monarch winning the state title.

It was exciting to see a new state program taking shape, and it could not have happened without the tireless work of Dalene Bricker who organized the event, our gracious host DeVry University in Westminster, and Western Union which provided volunteers for the state competition and support to NCL to expand into five new states this year, including Colorado.

Payroll fraud costing workers, government – National Consumers League

March 13, 2013

Contact: Carol McKay, NCL Communications (724) 799-5392,

Washington, DC–When an employer misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, everyone suffers, from workers to taxpayers. By skirting their responsibility to pay taxes, employers pass a heavy tax burden onto workers. Additionally, workers lose crucial employment protections such as minimum wage, paid overtime, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance.

Today, the National Consumers League hosted a Senate briefing on Capitol Hill, featuring a panel of worker advocates, state agency staff, and industry experts to unveil new survey findings about consumers’ awareness of payroll fraud. The survey, conducted by ORC International and commissioned by the National Consumers League, found that most consumers are unaware of the existence of employee misclassification, but are near-unanimously opposed to the negative consequences misclassification creates for workers and tax payers.

“Honest businesses, employees, communities, states, and the federal government are all affected by payroll fraud, which is on the rise in states all across the country,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization.

A 2009 report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that payroll fraud decreased federal revenues by $2.72 billion in 2006. Certain industries including construction, real estate, home care, trucking, and janitorial services have disproportionally high rates of misclassification. These rates continue to rise according to numerous state studies. In California, for example, the number of unreported employees identified by the Economic Development Department increased by a third between 2006 and 2008. More recent studies are needed to understand the full effect of payroll fraud on federal revenues.

“Many consumers do not know how serious and widespread cases of misclassification are in the workplace. Once we educate people about this issue, however, nearly everyone agrees that employers are benefitting at the expense of hard working Americans. People lose valuable worker protections such as paid overtime and worker’s compensation, leaving them vulnerable and without any job security,” said Michell McIntyre, Project Director for NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft.

Survey Highlights

Awareness of “employee misclassification” is low, described to respondents as “a form of payroll fraud in which an employer intentionally classifies workers as ‘independent contractors’ instead of ‘employees’ in order to deprive workers of their workplace protections and defraud state and federal treasuries out of income taxes”.

Two in three Americans (65%) have not heard of employee misclassification.

  • Awareness of this term is substantially lower among females, 71% of whom have not heard of it versus 59% of males.
  • Lack of awareness decreases with education:  72% of those with a high school education or less have never heard of the term, compared to 63% of respondents with some college education and 55% of college graduates.

Once familiarized with the concept of “employee misclassification,” respondents expressed strong views against it, including support for punishment of the companies that engage in this practice.

  • Nine in ten consumers (90%) “strongly agree” or “agree” that it is important that companies do not misclassify workers as independent contractors in order to prevent workers from receiving minimum wage and paid overtime.
  • Agreement is higher among women, with 93% agreeing with the statement versus 87% of men.

According to 93% of Americans who express agreement, companies that intentionally misclassify workers as independent contractors in order to dodge paying minimum wage, overtime, workers compensation and taxes should be fined or punished.

  • Once again, females are more inclined to say they “strongly agree” or “agree” with fines or punishment (95% vs. 90% males).

Nearly all consumers (96%) are in agreement that workers should be clearly informed in writing that they have been classified as independent contractors at the beginning of employment.

  • Agreement is universally high among all demographic subgroups.

See NCL’s full survey and results.


These results are based on 1,024 telephone interviews among a random sample of US adults 18 years old and older. Interviews were conducted over the period December 13-16, 2012, utilizing both landline and cell telephones. Results among total sample have an error margin of +/- 3%. Interviewing was conducted on behalf of National Consumers League using ORC International’s CARAVAN® survey.

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

Public health thwarted – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

In our staff meeting this morning I announced that I was planning to write a blog to celebrate tomorrow’s implementation of New York City’s limits on the sale of sugary beverages over 16 ounces. Since Mayor Bloomberg announced the measure, NCL has been behind it, and our Executive Director Sally Greenberg, actually traveled to New York City to testify in support of the measure. I planned to write about the impact that sodas have on our health, and the way that sugary beverages have contributed to obesity. I planned to applaud the Major for his forward thinking when it comes to public health matters; we feel strongly that any measure which helps us consumer fewer sweetened beverages is a good one.

However, as I was working on my blog post, news began to filter in that a New York judge had issued an injunction barring the Mayor’s proposal from going into effect. My blog post of the morning was no longer the right one to post. While all of the positive things I had written about the soda ban were still true, the bigger issue now was that this common-sense ban has been delayed if not completely derailed. Judge Milton Tingling argues that the rules are “fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences,” and I feel the same way about childhood obesity. How arbitrary for our children that they grow up in an era where the very fabric of society predisposes them towards poor health; in fact more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, meaning most kids will likely end up that way as well unless we change something. Placing reasonable limits on the sale of sugary beverages by certain establishments certainly seemed like a great place to start. Mayor Bloomberg has said he will challenge the judge’s ruling, and we can only hope he will be successful.