FDA launches new campaign to keep consumers safe from illegal online pharmacies – National Consumers League

By Rebecca Burkholder, NCL Vice President for Health Policy

The sales of counterfeit drugs through bogus online pharmacies continue to rise. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly one in four adult Internet consumers has purchased prescription medicine online. Some of these Internet users may be at risk of harm because they have purchased medicine from questionable online sources.  To protect consumers from the growing threat of fake online pharmacies, FDA is launching a national educational campaign, “BeSafeRx – Know Your Online Pharmacy.” The campaign seeks to increase public awareness about the dangers of buying from illegal online pharmacies and provides resources to help consumers buy prescriptions safely online.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) estimates that more than 97 percent of websites that present themselves as online pharmacies do not meet pharmacy laws and NABP’s practice standards. These websites are often selling unapproved versions of medicines used in the United States—or worse, the drugs may be made with harmful ingredients.  A 2011 Wall Street Journal report, estimated that the counterfeit drug industry netted $24 billion worldwide every year. These drugs are not FDA approved, have not been tested, and their contents are unknown. Consumers should not be tempted by the appeal of cheap drugs at the risk of their health.

The BeSafeRx website contains an interactive map that lets consumers search for licensed online pharmacies in their state. A few signs that an online pharmacy might be illegitimate include:

  • The Web site does not ask you for a prescription before purchasing the drug.
  • There is no doctor or pharmacist you can easily talk to if you have questions or concerns regarding a drug.
  • The Web site asks you to pay for the prescription using a third party payment system such as Western Union or PayPal.

Every year, the FDA issues numerous warnings about counterfeit versions of drugs intended to treat cancer patients. The stakes are high, and with the counterfeit market continuing to expand, many in Washington want to take action to curb this problem. One bill proposes a track-and-trace system that mandates a bar code be placed on prescriptions and then be scanned by everyone who comes in contact with the drug so the medication can be better tracked through the supply chain.

Buying counterfeit drugs can not only hurt your health, but also hurt your wallet. If you think you have purchased counterfeit drugs please report the incident to the FDA. For more information, check out our information on counterfeit drugs at Fraud.org. Before purchasing any drugs online make sure you are using a reputable online pharmacy.

National public awareness campaign on medication adherence honoring leaders in multi-profession student challenge – National Consumers League

May 16, 2013

Contact: Ben Klein, NCL Communications, benk@nclnet.org, (202) 835-3323

Washington, DC — Today, the National Consumers League (NCL) and its partners announced the awardees of the second annual Script Your Future Medication Adherence Team Challenge for health profession students. This month-long competition engaged health profession students and faculty in developing creative ideas for raising awareness about medication adherence as a critical public health issue.   This year’s awardees are:  St. Louis College of Pharmacy, University of Charleston School of Pharmacy, University of the Pacific Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, Touro University College of Pharmacy California, and The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy.

The Medication Adherence Team Challenge is part of the Script Your Future public awareness campaign launched in 2011 by NCL. The campaign includes more than 130 public and private stakeholder organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) Foundation, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA).  “We were excited to expand our competition this year beyond just student pharmacists to more broad outreach to additional fields of future  health professionals who interact with patients–doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, and others,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s Executive Director. “This more comprehensive approach will ultimately result in patients hearing from multiple voices encouraging them to take their medication as directed.”

Research shows that nearly three out of four Americans don’t take their medications as directed. This may cause devastating results, particularly for people with chronic conditions. Poor medication adherence has been recognized by national health advocacy groups as a public health priority; it results in more than one-third of medicine-related hospitalizations and almost 125,000 deaths in the United States each year. Improved medication adherence leads to better health outcomes and reduced total healthcare costs.

The Script Your Future Medication Adherence Team Challenge was a month-long outreach competition held in February 2013 to engage interdisciplinary student teams from pharmacy, medicine, nursing, and other health professions charged with tackling the problem of poor adherence.  The teams implemented innovative solutions and outreach in their communities to raise awareness and improve understanding about medication adherence using Script Your Future materials. This year, the students also submitted entries in the categories of health disparity outreach, chronic condition outreach, and creative inter-professional team.

More than 1,700 future health care professionals held 200 events in 35 states and the District of Columbia, counseling over 12,000 patients and reaching more than 3 million consumers nationwide.

“Educating the next generation of pharmacists and other healthcare professionals is imperative to ensure that future patients practice better adherence,” said Dr. Lucinda L. Maine, Executive Vice President and CEO at AACP.  “The Script Your Future team challenge inspires students to think about new ways to address this issue and encourages innovative strategies to better connect with patients.”

“For patients to achieve optimal health outcomes, it is vital that they take their medication as directed,” said AMA President Jeremy A. Lazarus, M.D. “Patient education through community outreach enhances the conversations happening in doctors’ offices across the country and helps patients avoid adverse drug reactions and unnecessary hospitalizations. The Script Your Future challenge enables healthcare professionals-in-training to advance public health. ”

“The involvement of students and faculty in the effort to boost medication adherence is incredibly important” said NACDS Foundation President Kathleen Jaeger. “The Medication Adherence Team Challenge establishes this issue as a top priority for the next generation of health professionals, and inspires them to advance this goal within their own communities. The winners are showing the tremendous power that healthcare professionals can have on advancing patient care through medication adherence. We hope that is a lesson they will carry with them throughout their careers and that will inspire others to do the same.”

“Positive health outcomes for patients require good medication adherence and the collective efforts of community pharmacists and other health care professionals play a critical role in that equation. This is why the National Community Pharmacists Association is proud to be a sponsor of the Script Your Future team challenge, as it recognizes the indispensable role of each member of a patient’s health care team, and encourages each to be the best patient advocate they can be,” said NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, RPh, MBA.

The recognized schools’ campaigns, selected from over 58 applications, and 85 participating colleges and schools of pharmacy and other health professions are listed below.  In addition, the following schools received Honorable Mention under the National Award category: Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-LECOM School of Pharmacy; University of California San Francisco, School of Pharmacy; and Harding University College of Pharmacy.

National Challenge Award: St. Louis College of Pharmacy

An engaged, inter-professional team of students and their faculty advisors from schools of pharmacy, medicine, physical therapy, and occupational therapy raised awareness of medication adherence through sustainable outreach in their communities. The St. Louis College of Pharmacy conducted two-dozen events throughout the Challenge month, with a particular focus on cardiovascular disease. This team adapted the Script Your Future message to reach almost 50,000 consumers. Students appeared on morning television shows with the help of Miss Missouri USA, engaged with the public at every Metro stop in St. Louis, and staffed local pharmacies and workplaces to offer medication management, health screenings and tips on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. To capitalize on their adherence efforts, the team trained staff from local pharmacies on medication adherence, leaving a lasting impression on their community.

National Challenge Award: University of Charleston School of Pharmacy

University of Charleston School of Pharmacy (UCSOP) created 12 new and innovative activities and resources for this year’s Challenge, reaching over 6,000 consumers in the Charleston, West Virginia community. The team included a unique composition of students from the University of Charleston Pharmacy School, Physician Assistant Program, Athletic Training Education Program, and the Regional Tobacco and Substance Abuse Prevention Program. To showcase the activities during the month, UCSOP engaged in social media by creating a Facebook page and YouTube channel, and also created a cartoon strip contest for fellow students. The team printed unique QR codes on all materials created during the Challenge that linked to original medication adherence videos. UCSOP events included a Teen Expo at a local high school where teens were counseled on healthy lifestyles and adherence.  This team used campaign messages to create outreach tailored to their community for a lasting impact in Charleston, West Virginia.

Target Market Challenge Award: University of the Pacific Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

With a focus on diverse and underserved populations, the University of Pacific team reached a number of patients in the Stockton, California community. The University of the Pacific worked with the Script Your Future Sacramento coalition to translate resources into a variety of languages including Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese. The inter-professional students took to the airways and produced a weekly, hour-long radio show on medication adherence. The team of students from medicine, pharmacy and physical therapy worked with local clinics to provide adherence information to Filipino, Hispanic, and rural populations. Participation in the Challenge has led to continuing partnerships with medical student-run clinics to incorporate medication adherence into the services offered and a collaboration with a university-led Medicare Part D program to provide adherence data on this unique population.

Health Disparities, Under-represented Community Outreach Award: Touro University, California- College of Pharmacy

Touro University targeted underserved populations in their outreach efforts, including uninsured, Hispanic, African American, South and Southeast Asian populations. Noting the high prevalence of chronic disease, non-adherence and barriers to accessing health care for these populations, 80% of the Challenge month events targeted under-represented communities, reaching over 1200 patients. The team conducted blood glucose and blood pressure screenings and referred a number of patients to seek further care due to high blood pressure. Learning from this outreach, Touro plans to work with partners to offer prescription assistance, health screenings and continued health literacy and cultural competency training with student-providers.

Chronic Condition Outreach Award: The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy partnered with public and private partners to focus on medication adherence in populations with cardiovascular disease. Mississippi has the highest cardiovascular disease mortality rate in the nation.  The team used Script Your Future materials to hold a number of health fairs at a local medical mall in Jackson, MS, designed to keep participants engaged with a series of activities and stations. Students from nursing, medicine, pharmacy and physical therapy conducted health screens and education with patients. An evaluation of patients who attended the fairs unearthed interesting population trends and led to a number of referrals for follow-up visits.  All involved in the outreach, from students to faculty to patients, recognized the importance and strength of inter-professional collaboration when addressing chronic diseases.

Creative Inter-professional Team Event Award: St. Louis College of Pharmacy

Partnering with health profession programs at the Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis College of Pharmacy led a robust inter-professional team to engage the St. Louis community. The team adapted Script Your Future materials to create a cohesive message “See it, Hear it, Write it, Understand it, Share it,” in which each profession describes how patients can improve adherence, adding their unique perspective. The largest team effort, Metro St. Louis Talks, involved physical and occupational therapy students educating commuters about adherence at every metro stop in St. Louis. 


About Script Your Future

Script Your Future is a campaign of the National Consumers League (NCL), a private, non-profit membership organization founded in 1899. NCL’s mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.For more information about the Script Your Future campaign, visit www.ScriptYourFuture.org. For more information on NCL, please visit www.nclnet.org.

FDA energized to reexamine caffeine added to products – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

The biggest buzz in the food community in the last few weeks has been around FDA’s announcement to take a closer look at caffeine added in food products.  This recent trend has led to caffeine showing up in products ranging from gum, to marshmallows, to maple syrup, to cracker jacks.

Given the increasing popularity of energy drinks, it should come as no surprise that companies are trying to tap into that market.  However, because there have been some deaths linked to energy drink consumption, and because many of the foods that have added caffeine are particularly attractive to children and teens, FDA has decided to look into these products.

After the announcement by FDA, Wrigley’s, which had been developing a caffeinated gum, has decided to withdraw the product “out of respect” for FDA.  This demonstrates the power of targeted action by the agency.  In a time of constrained resources, it is understandable that FDA has to prioritize.  This announcement by FDA clearly illustrates that one “warning shot” can send a message to the industry to change their behavior.  We hope the agency will continue taking similar action on food fraud and labeling issues, problems we consider important parts of FDA’s mission.

Protect music and sports fans from ticket industry abuses – National Consumers League

Originally posted on the Public Citizen Consumer Law & Policy Blog.

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

When Beyonce recently announced her highly-anticipated “Mrs. Carter Show” tour, fans waited eagerly for the moment tickets went on sale. But at the magic moment, thousands of fans were disappointed to learn the show had sold out in seconds.

Was this just a simple case of too much demand for too little supply, just luck of the draw since not everyone could “win” in the contest for a limited number of tickets?  But the reality of today’s ticket marketplace is neither that simple nor that fair.

In fact, the ticketing procedures for the multibillion dollar sports and entertainment industry have become the antithesis of the fair marketplace that consumers have a right to expect, especially when so many concerts and games take place in taxpayer-subsidized facilities.

Instant sellouts like Beyonce’s occur in part because a large number of tickets are set aside for paid fan club and premium credit card “pre-sales” and for industry insider VIPs, leaving thousands of regular fans disappointed each time.  Sometimes, those pre-sale and VIP tickets are the ones that end up on resale websites. And ordinary fans are left with the sinking feeling that they never did have a chance to buy those tickets at face value in the first place.

In Nashville, for example, an investigative news unit revealed that only 1,001 of 14,000 tickets were offered to the general public for a recent Justin Bieber concert.  The overwhelming majority of the 14,000 seat arena was earmarked for pre-sales, available only to privileged premium credit card holders and paid fan club members.  Often, professional scalpers sign-up for multiple fan club memberships or use multiple American Express cards to gain access to pre-sale tickets to sell on the secondary market.

What’s worse, the investigation found an entire block of tickets held back from the public were then resold above face value by Bieber’s own tour, or as the local news headline put it: “Documents Show Bieber is Scalping His Own Tickets.”

The practice doesn’t stop with Bieber. Singer Katy Perry two years ago garnered unwanted publicity when the Smoking Gun website revealed that the standard rider for her concert tour reserved the option to hold back tickets and provide them to “resellers” for “distribution to the public” on the “secondary market,” the quantity and location of the tickets to be determined in each case by Ms Perry’s personal manager.  Or, as one pop culture website put it, Katy Perry Reserves the Right to Scalp Her Own Tickets, to her own fans at a price higher than the face value.The phenomenon of holdbacks and artists scalping their own tickets is neither new nor unique to just a few bad apples on the pop music scene.  A March 2009 Wall Street Journal article cites Neil Diamond scalping his own tickets on the Ticketmaster resale site, then flatly reports the following:Virtually every major concert tour today involves some official tickets that are priced and sold as if they were offered for resale by fans or brokers, but that are set aside by the artists and promoters, according to a number of people involved in the sales.

That includes recent tours by Bon Jovi, Celine Dion and Van Halen, and a current tour starring Billy Joel and Elton John.

No wonder then that it is almost impossible for ordinary consumers to buy tickets at “face value” when the tickets go on sale to the general public – and no wonder that venues, entertainers, promoters and the ticketing giant Ticketmaster are all loath to disclose to the public just how many tickets they are actually making available to the general public at the moment of the initial on-sale.

Yet once you do buy a ticket with your own money, the entertainment industry wants to control what you do with it.

More and more concert tours use restricted ticketing to limit your ability to resell or even give the ticket away. Under that system, you have to show up with the credit card you used to buy the ticket, or your entire party has to show up at the same time, in order to gain entry. If the goal is to limit the role of professional scalpers, why not deal with the problem at its source instead of inconveniencing every fan?

Consumer activism about what appears to be an unfair market has spurred legislators around the country to seek ways to level that playing field, and to prevent those who benefit from the unfair system from cementing their control over the secondary market.

In New Jersey, bipartisan groups of lawmakers are considering transparency legislation that would require ticketing agencies to disclose how many tickets to an event are actually available when they go on sale online to the general public. Other proposals would prohibit “bot” technology, software programs that grab large blocs of tickets before the general public has a chance to buy them.

Michigan legislators are considering similar proposals targeting software “bots” as well as proposals to ensure fans own the tickets they buy, barring the use of restrictive tickets that would limit fans’ ability to transfer those tickets whether as a gift or through reselling.

Minnesota’s House approved legislation last year to ensure ticket buyers own those tickets, and can transfer them or use them as they wish. The bill has been reintroduced this year as well.

In Tennessee, four legislators who originally co-sponsored a Ticketmaster-backed bill – called, with no sense of irony, the Fairness in Ticketing Act – that would restrict secondary market rights for ticket buyers, rescinded that support when they realized that consumers’ rights were being attacked.

The industry’s attempt to restrict the market in ways that benefit the entertainment and ticketing giants to the detriment of ordinary consumers extends to sports as well.

Both the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels recently opted out of Major League Baseball’s deal with StubHub as the official resale marketplace, instead negotiating their own partnerships with Ticketmaster to establish, for example, the Yankees Ticket Exchange for reselling Yankees tickets.  Unlike the secondary market managed by MLB and StubHub, however, the new Yankees Ticket Exchange will have price floors, limiting both the ability of fans to buy cheap tickets and perhaps the ability of ticket holders to offer their seats for sale at a low market price if the team still has unsold tickets. Since many season ticket holders can only afford their seats by being able to lay off those games they do not want to attend, they could be left holding tickets that will not be used if the floor is imposed.  Already, it has been reported that ticket prices on the new Yankees Ticket Exchange are higher than on StubHub.

Consumers can benefit in many ways from secondary markets that allow them to buy and sell tickets, as long as those markets are transparent, competitive and consumer-protected. Consumers need to make our voices heard so that decision makers understand we want a fair market and an even playing field.

That is why the National Consumers League has joined with advocates and others, including StubHub, to support Fan Freedom (fanfreedom.org), which is fighting in states across the country for a fair deal for fans.

Consumers have a right to expect a fair and transparent marketplace.

Bangladeshi factory collapse igniting worker activist cries for improved safety – National Consumers League

The death toll following the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 has climbed to more than 1,000. There are hundreds of people – mostly women – injured and countless others still missing. In the wake of this tragedy, perhaps the deadliest ever garment-factory disaster, it is clear factory safety must be reexamined, and worker’s rights in Bangladesh must be given the highest priority.

Deadly factory disasters are, unfortunately, nothing new. Last fall, NCL observed that the Bangladeshi factory fires that keep killing workers are reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the United States in 1911. That fire in New York City killed 146 — mostly immigrant – workers, galvanizing the labor community and government to make workplaces safer. Factories put in place fire codes, sprinklers, and new restrictions related to smoking and open flames inside the factory. Advocates hope the recent factory disasters in Bangladesh will have a similar effect on improving factory conditions for workers abroad.

The current situation in Bangladesh is complex, and there is much blame to go around. It would be easy to point to the Bangladeshi government, which often fails to enforce worker safety laws. What’s shocking is that a mere 24 hours before the Rana Plaza collapse, police warned that the building was unsafe to occupy after large structural cracks appeared in the support pillars. Factory owners decided to reopen the building the next day, forcing workers back inside. Those who refused to enter the building were told they would have to work three days unpaid for every day they missed.

The local and federal government in Bangladesh also has not provided a secure environment for workers to unionize and gain collective bargaining rights. Although unions are technically legal in Bangladesh, many reports suggest that those who act to protect themselves and fellow garment workers often face an uncertain fate. Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi worker activist, disappeared under questionable circumstances last September. Days later, Islam’s body was found; he had been tortured and murdered. Many suspect his death was politically motivated.

It would also be easy for retailers to leave Bangladesh, following an example set by Disney earlier this week. To shed the label “Made in Bangladesh” might be a good PR move, for any affiliation with a country so riddled with worker safety issues can only have a negative impact on sales. Companies may be tempted to find the next frontier for cheap labor, a country that has not yet been burdened with the negative reports attributed to Bangladesh, and begin making cheap garments there instead.

This solution, however, could strip 3.5 million Bangladeshi workers of a paycheck. The garment industry pays workers an average of $38 per month, and while that figure may seem insignificant in America, in Bangladesh it provides an opportunity to escape poverty. If other retailers were to follow Disney’s lead, it could devastate the Bangladesh economy and reverse years of upward mobility among the poor.

The major retailers – those companies that reap billions in profits from selling products made in Bangladesh – bear the responsibility to mandate higher safety standards and worker protections. These companies include some of the biggest retailers in the world such as Walmart, J.C. Penney, Mango, Benetton, H&M, The Children’s Place, GAP, and Dress Barn. Currently, many of these companies perform social audits, a practice we and other labor groups call a façade. A 60-page report from the AFL-CIO claims the social auditing program accommodates major corporations at the expense of protecting workers.  Reports of factories being certified as safe just weeks before a collapse or fire raise serious question about these so-called safety audits.

So what can consumers and activists do?

Congressman George Miller, the Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, laid the groundwork for a new independent and transparent monitoring system called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. This template would more thoroughly protect worker’s rights and guarantee minimum safety requirements in factories, including that audits be conducted by independent safety experts that timely repairs be made to violating facilities, and that brands terminate contracts with a factory that does not meet high standards for keeping workers safe. Further, this agreement provides labor protections for workers. Major retailers including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, Arrow and GH Bass & Co., have signed on to this new agreement. Others retailers must now be pressured by consumers and activists to follow.

While Rep. Miller’s proposal takes important steps to ensure increased factory safety, there is more that can be done. Western retailers must take independent steps to ensure increased worker protection. If the Bangladeshi government lacks the capacity to provide sufficient labor oversight, it is the job of those companies who make massive amounts of money from Bangladeshi labor to ensure those workers can safely unionize. Adidas, this week, announced a new program that encourages workers in Asia to anonymously report grievances through text messages directly to the company. The ability to blow the whistle without fear of being fired or blacklisted is an essential worker protection.

Those companies who play by the rules, and show they are willing to make investments to keep their workers safe, should be rewarded for doing so. For 114 years, NCL has worked to eliminate harsh, unregulated working conditions in factories. Florence Kelley, NCL’s first Executive Secretary, championed a “White Label” program over 100 years ago. This NCL seal of approval was displayed on stores that fought against child labor practices and endorsed 8-hour workdays. Consumers were urged to boycott stores that did not earn this certification.

Would a certification program work today? A certification process, like the White Label debuted by NCL a century ago, would give consumers the opportunity to check labels and only spend money on products from those companies who demonstrate the willingness to protect workers throughout their supply chain.

There are modern examples of how this can work. The GoodWeave label serves this function for the rug industry. In order to earn certification, companies must sign a legally binding contract to: adhere to child labor protection standards, allow unannounced random inspections by local inspectors, and pay a licensing fee to support the monitoring of the GoodWeave program. A similar labeling program could be implemented for clothing. If consumer awareness were raised and people began to consistently check labels, only those companies who are socially aware and willing to take the necessary steps for certification would thrive.

Congressman Miller has proposed a rational, realistic model to improve worker safety abroad. The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement will create a binding contract for Western retailers and ensure they play by the rules. This issue deserves more legislative attention, and consumers need to understand that they too serve a role in protecting worker’s abroad. A petition on Change.org urging retailers to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement has already collected more than 100,000 signatures. Consumers should sign the petition, check the labels on the clothes they purchase, and continue to put pressure on retailers to protect worker’s rights and ensure factories are safe.

Consumer group praises re-introduction of Arbitration Fairness Act – National Consumers League

May 9, 2013

Contact: Ben Klein, NCL Communications, benk@nclnet.org, (202) 835-3323

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy group, applauds Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) for reintroducing the Arbitration Fairness Act, H.R. 1844. Forced arbitration is an increasingly common practice that strips American consumers and employees of their right to a fair trial, should they be harmed from a product or while at work.

“Too many consumers and employees unknowingly sign contracts that contain forced arbitration clauses buried deep in fine print,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director. “These hidden agreements effectively protect big companies from being sued by shutting off consumers’ and workers’ access to the courthouse.”

In January of 2013, NCL joined with other consumer groups to issue a manifesto urging the Obama Administration and Congress to re-examine consumer protection laws. The groups asked that consumers be released from mandatory binding arbitration clauses in consumer contracts that do not allow for alternative forms of dispute resolution or judicial review. 

Consumers who sign arbitration clauses are prevented from being able to sue a company in court, but rather are directed to a private arbitration firm that is often chosen and paid for by the business. Forced arbitration not only takes away consumers’ right to a trial, but it also bars them from class-action suits, a vital tool for consumers and workers to band together and seek justice.

Defending consumers’ access to the courts has been a long-time goal of the League. In 2008, NCL, along with six other consumer and public interest groups, called on the Obama Administration and Congress to enact legislation that would restore an unbiased and open justice system that remedies harms and holds wrongdoers accountable. In 2011, NCL praised the introduction of the Arbitration Fairness Act (S. 987 and H.R. 1873), which would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases, and which would effectively override the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T v. Concepcion.

“Having a dispute settled by an arbitration firm is like suing someone in a court when you know the judge has been paid off by the defendant,” said Greenberg. “The Arbitration Fairness Act would restore American’s right to a fair trial and deprive big companies of their get-out-of-jail-free-card and we urge the Senate to vote to pass quickly.”


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 www.nclnet.org.

Telecom advocacy at top of agenda – National Consumers League

NCL staff has been busy at the Federal Communications Commission lately. From comments on inmate calling rates, to the new FCC chair and activity on wireless cramming, telecom and technology issues remain an area of focus for the League.


Inmate calling rates

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2011 there were nearly 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in federal or state correctional facilities. For many of these prisoners, a phone call to loved ones is an important way to stay in touch during a difficult time. Regular contact with loved ones is an important contributing factor to reducing recidivism rates as well. 

Unfortunately, thanks to exclusive agreements between correctional facilities and inmate calling service (ICS) providers, the cost of this regular contact can be prohibitive for many families, particular those on limited incomes. Inmate communications are typically limited to collect calling from prison payphones that often carry exorbitant rates, a portion of which is paid to the correction facility.

In April, NCL joined a coalition of prisoner advocacy, civil rights, public interest and business groups in calling on the FCC to cap these rates. “Having a loved one incarcerated already places severe strain on families,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Being hit with the double whammy of extremely high calling rates to communicate with that loved one only exacerbates that strain. We applaud the FCC for considering this important issue and urge the Commission to institute common-sense rate caps that will allow inmates and their families to affordably stay in touch.”

Calling for public interest advocate for next FCC Chair

On March 22, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that he would be stepping down as chair. FCC Chair that brings extensive public interest expertise to the position. “Any consumer who has opened their mobile phone or cable bill in recent years understands the importance of having an FCC chair that is on their side,” said NCL’s Sally Greenberg in a blog posting about the issue. “While the Obama Administration will undoubtedly consider a number of worthy candidates, we believe that the next FCC chair should have significant experience in public interest advocacy.”

Wireless cramming heating up this spring

In 2012, NCL led a coalition of public interest groups in urging the FCC to protect consumers from cramming fraud. “Cramming,” the placement of unauthorized charges on phone bills, has long been a pernicious scam affecting millions of consumers. Thanks in part to NCL’s advocacy the biggest phone companies in the country announced that they would voluntarily cease providing billing to so-called “enhanced” services on landline phone bills – a change that has had a significant impact on reducing fraud rates.

Unfortunately, it looks like the scam artists may simply be shifting their cons to wireless bill. NCL is not sitting idly by. In May, NCL Vice President John Breyault presented at a Federal Trade Commission roundtable on the issue. We expect that this issue will continue to percolate in Washington in Congress, at the FCC and the FTC. NCL will continue to call for stronger consumer protections in this area so that the massive fraud that affected landline telephone bills gets nipped in the bud before it gets out of control on wireless bills.

Protecting workers, customer service in T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger

As the FCC considered the merger of wireless companies T-Mobile and MetroPCS, NCL joined with a coalition of labor and civil rights groups in calling for the FCC to consider the merger’s impact on jobs. In comments filed at the FCC in December, the groups called for merger conditions that would protect jobs at the combined company and ensure that customer service didn’t suffer as a result of the deal. NCL, along with the other coalition members stated that we were “deeply concerned that the evidence in the record and the Applicants’ practice of sending work offshore will result in significant post-merger job loss and harm to the quality of service provided to customers as a result of staffing cuts.”

LifeSmarts 2013: What a competition! – National Consumers League

After four exciting days of individual assessments, group activities, and team buzzer matches, the Paxon School for Advanced Studies from Jacksonville, Florida outlasted 38 other teams from around the country to claim the title of LifeSmarts champion in the annual national competition. This year’s championship in Atlanta was the biggest competition ever, featuring teams from 35 states, the District of Columbia, and two student organizations, FCCLA and FBLA.

LifeSmarts is a national competition that tests teens around the country on their consumer knowledge. There are five areas of focus including: personal finance, health and safety, consumer rights and responsibilities, the environment, and technology.  LifeSmarts not only gives high school students a chance to demonstrate their consumer acumen, but also provides an opportunity to learn about issues that will prove useful in the real-world. As LifeSmarts participants progress through high school, they will be armed with the practical knowledge needed later in life to protect themselves and their finances.

This year’s competition featured a new collaboration with Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) called the Safety Smart! Ambassador Program. The Safety Smart! program gives LifeSmarts students the opportunity to reach out to younger students in the community and teach them lessons about health and safety.  These lessons feature a curriculum that teaches young children the benefits of going green and being healthy and fit. Older students have an opportunity to reach out to the elementary school students and gain important life skills such as leadership, public speaking, and the importance of advocacy in the community.

Rhode Island’s entrant, Barrington High School, finished the competition in second place. Dallas High School from Pennsylvania and the Coffee County 4-H school from Tennessee finished tied for third. All participants at the national competition, over 200 students, took an individual assessment in a category of their choice and winners in each received special recognition. The winners were: personal finance, Steven Cotter (FL); health and safety, Isaac Mades (WI); consumer rights and responsibilities, Gates Palissery (PA); the environment, Jack Caljouw (MA); and technology, Ryan Jerue (RI).

This year also marked our first ever Twitter contest. The Twitter competition served as a tool to increase buzz around the national competition and many students, coaches, parents, coordinators, and spectators participated. Three winners were selected for demonstrating both quality and quantity in what was tweeted during competition. The winners were: Alicia Heis (IN), Kennnedy Langton (FBLA), and Tshala Pajibo (DC).

NCL is very excited to announce that next year’s 20th annual national competition will be held in Orlando, Florida. Teams representing every corner of the country from Hawaii to Washington to Maine participated in this year’s event and we believe our ultimate goal of inviting a team to our national competition from all 50 states is within reach.  Educators, financial institutions, attorneys general, governmental organizations, and others see the benefits of the LifeSmarts program and continue to invest in educating the next wave of consumers. Knowledge is power, and consumer knowledge gives students the power to avoid financial pain and make healthy, intelligent life decisions. To find out more about the LifeSmarts competition please see our Web site. To see the LifeSmarts students in action, check out our photo album from this year’s competition.

Wireless cramming: The tip of a very large iceberg – National Consumers League

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

Wireless cramming is at the top of the Federal Trade Commission’s agenda today, as government officials, advocates and industry representatives gather to discuss the issue and potential solutions at the FTC’s Mobile Cramming Roundtable. I am honored to present at the event, along with a number of other experts on the topic. For those loyal readers unable to watch the live webcast, I can sum up my comments thusly: Wireless cramming is a big problem and is only going to get worse without action by regulators to protect consumers.

Cramming fraud has been around for decades. Beginning in the late 1990s, enterprising scam artists learned that they could get small charges placed on consumers’ landline phone bills. With doctored “authentications” and poor policing by the phone companies and billing aggregators, scammers made millions of dollars. As consumers increasingly adopted wireless phones, the scam artists moved to those bills. Wireless cramming is proving to be just a lucrative for the fraudsters. In its first enforcement action against alleged wireless cramming outfit Wise Media, the FTC stated that the company made millions of dollars in less than two years of operation.

Wise Media is likely just the tip of a very large iceberg. While there is precious little data about the scope of the wireless third-party billing market generally and the cost of wireless cramming on consumers, we can make some educated estimates based on the data that is available.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) published its Cramming Report, which reported that in 2011, wireless carriers in California billed $171 million for third-party products and services. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Wireless Competition Report, there were an estimated 34,892,000 wireless subscribers in California and 298,293,000 wireless subscribers nationally in 2011. Extrapolating the California data to a national scale therefore yields an estimated $1.46 billion in third-party charges were assessed on consumer bills nationally in 2011. According to recent reports from the Illinois Citizens Utility Board and the Vermont Attorney General, between 44 percent and more than 50 percent of charges on consumers’ wireless bills are fraudulent. This means that we are potentially looking at $643 million to more than $730 million in wireless cramming losses annually.

How did things get this bad? First of all, wireless cramming is practically the perfect scam for its perpetrators. Unlike muggings, carjacking or other types of crime, cramming victims are often unaware that they have been harmed. This is because the scammers typically only charge small amounts per month on consumers’ wireless bills – usually less than $10 per month.  Lost in the maze of fees on consumers’ bills and often deceptively labeled, these charges are easy to miss, even by those few consumers who check their wireless bills regularly. With the ease of paperless bills and auto bill pay, it is even easier for consumers to overlook these charges.

Second, the structure of the wireless billing ecosystem is inherently insecure. There are typically three main actors in this ecosystem: the third-party service provider who provides a service (say, horoscopes by text message), a billing aggregator who contracts with dozens or hundreds of third-party service providers and bills the wireless carrier on their behalf and the wireless carrier who bill the consumer and collect payment (typically 1/3 to ½ of the total charge). Given this lucrative line of business, there is an incentive to overlook instances of cramming at all levels of the billing ecosystem. Even worse, phone bills aren’t protected from fraud the way that credit or debit cards are. Therefore, consumers are essentially at the mercy of their carriers to refund the fraudulent charges when the end-user detects the scam.

When consumer groups and government agencies examined the issue of landline cramming in 2011 and 2012, the solution seemed self-evident to many – simply prohibit third-party billing that was unrelated to the underlying telephone service. Given that the vast majority of third-party billed charges on landline phones were fraudulent, this was an easy call. The solution is more complex when it comes to wireless bills.  By all accounts, legitimate commerce is conducted via wireless third-party billing. For example, relief agencies raised more than $43 million via text-to-donate programs after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Simply prohibiting wireless third-party billing would clearly be regulatory overreach.

However, there are steps that can be taken to address cramming fraud. For example, cramming fraud operators often set up shell companies so that they can continue to operate even when consumer complaints get their operation shut down by wireless carriers or billing aggregators. If billing aggregators were to require all third-party service providers to post a significant bond before they can start billing consumers, it could make it prohibitively expensive for scammers to set up shell companies.

Another solution would be to prohibit the use of “negative options” in confirmatory text messages. Industry guidelines require the use of a “double opt-in” before a third-party service provider can begin billing. This is most often provided in the form of a reply to a confirmation text message (i.e., “are you SURE you want this? Text ‘YES’ to confirm”) Unfortunately, cramming fraud operators like Wise Media often use negative options – assuming that most recipients would simply ignore the confirmation text message and thus agree to be billed.

Third, the lack of public data on wireless cramming is a significant impediment to effective consumer protection. Wireless carriers in California are currently required to report cramming complaints to the California Public Utilities Commission, which makes this data public. Wireless carriers should be required to report all cramming complaints to the FCC so that regulators have an accurate picture of the scope of the problem.

These are just a few common-sense reforms that would do much to better protect consumers from fraud on their wireless bills. We look forward to working with the FTC, FCC and all parties in the wireless billing ecosystem to address this important issue.

Partnering for a healthy America — How to improve medication adherence – National Consumers League

92_ayannaBy Ayanna Johnson, Health Policy Associate

NCL was proud to be a part of a new initiative Prescriptions for a Healthy America: A Partnership to Advance Medication Adherence that launched on May 2. This initiative is a partnership of patients, health care providers, pharmacy organizations, consumers, and health care industry leaders that are working together to advance policy solutions to improve patient health and reduce health care costs through improving rates of adherence.

NCL has been a leader in the medication adherence arena with its public education campaign Script Your Future. Launched in 2011, Script Your Future works to raise awareness among consumers, their family caregiver and health care professionals about the importance of taking medications as directed. Non-adherence costs the health care industry an estimated $290 billion a year and 125,000 people lose their lives annually from complications related to non-adherence. The stakes are high when it comes to encouraging patients to take their medication as directed.

A panel discussion, , announcing the launch of this new initiative included various players, including the National Consumers League, interested in improving rates of adherence.  Often patients have rational reasons for not adhering to their medicines; barriers such as cost, side effects and confusion about the purpose of medication all contribute to non-adherence. Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of National Consumers League, stressed that improving the communication between patients and their health care providers—communicating the consequences of poor adherence and impact of medication—increases the likelihood of better adherence.

Anita Allemand, Vice President of Product Innovation and Management for CVS Caremark noted that patients could save $8,000 a year with improved adherence. She added that the most critical element of improving adherence is face-to-face interactions between healthcare professionals and patients.

Dr. Rebecca Jaffe a board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians and family doctor said that health care professionals must engage their patients. “It is important that heath care professionals talk with them, not at them,” she said. Patients are often hesitant or unwilling to ask their doctors or pharmacists the essential questions that would enable increased adherence. Opening up this new line of communication and ensuring that patients feel comfortable asking questions and expressing worries about potential side effects, or how different drugs might affect each other, or what a patient can expect from a particular prescription will help people understand the need to adhere.

This new initiative is an exciting opportunity to bring together different voices from all parties concerned with the issue of non-adherence to work towards practical policy solutions. For more information about the initiative please visit the newly launched Web site.

For more information on the Script Your Future campaign visit www.scriptyourfuture.org.