Hotels increasingly sharing airlines’ fee addiction – National Consumers League

breyault.jpgAsk practically any flier what their biggest gripes are with airlines and the word “fees” will almost certainly come up. From $25 baggage fees, to $200 change fees, to $50 standby fees and more, fees are big business for the U.S. airlines — bringing in a reported $38 billion (with a “b”) in revenue in 2014 alone. Here at NCL, we’ve voiced plenty of gripes about the fee-based profit model at U.S. airlines, but so far little has changed to break the big U.S. airlines of their addiction to fees.Unfortunately, the hotel industry is increasingly taking a page out of the airlines’ playbook when it comes to socking consumers with add-on fees. As Amy Zipkin’s excellent New York Times piece this week lays out, big hotel chains like Marriott International and Hilton and room-sharing apps like Airbnb and HomeAway are joining the fee trend. Things like $40 last-minute booking fees, $50 cancellation penalties, 6-12% “guest service fees” and mandatory resort fees look like they could become the the norm instead of the exception. It’s not hard to see why. According to New York University professor Bjorn Hanson, hotel fees and surcharges are expected to bring in $2.47 billion (again, with a “b”) in revenue in 2015, up from $2.35 billion only a year earlier.

Interestingly, not all experts in the hotel industry think this trend towards more fees is a bad thing. “Hotel reservations have long been way too flexible,” said Christopher K. Anderson, a faculty member at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration who was quoted in the Times.

We couldn’t agree less with Mr. Anderson. Consumers have long appreciated the flexibility of being able to cancel a hotel reservation without a charge if their plans change at the last minute. The need to make such changes are often outside a consumer’s control (think: death or illness in the family, weather-related flight cancellations, etc.). It is outrageous that a consumer should get socked with a hefty fee through no fault of their own.

While there’s no one single regulator with jurisdiction over hotels, there are steps that consumer protection agencies can take to address the growth in fees. For one, hotel fees should be disclosed more up front both on hotels’ own websites and on online booking websites like Hotels.com, Expedia, Airbnb.com, and others. Ensuring honest advertising is a job for the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General. The Department of Transportation can also play a role by requiring better disclosure when hotels are booked as part of a package with airfare. Earlier this year, NCL testified before the DOT’s Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection and called on the agency to do just that.

Until that happens, however, consumers themselves need to express their outrage with these new fees directly to the hotels (preferably loudly, frequently, and with their pocketbooks!). If you get hit with a fee that you think is unfair, we want to hear from you!  Drop us an email at info@nclnet.org or drop us a line on our Facebook page or on Twitter at @ncl_tweets.

Support LifeSmarts on #GivingTuesday, Dec. 1 – National Consumers League

hertzberg-1.jpgThis post originally appeared on LifeSmarts.org. LifeSmarts is a program of the National Consumers League. Written by Lisa Hertzberg, LifeSmarts Program Director.

I could not be more proud of NCL’s LifeSmarts program and the difference it makes for high school students. We educate the next generation of students about their worker and consumer rights, helping them learn about important real-world topics such as saving for their futures, nutrition, digital security and privacy, and much more. LifeSmarts is so successful because it provides teens with the skills and knowledge they need to evaluate risks and opportunities in order to make informed decisions for themselves and their families. It pushes students to use critical thinking skills and prepares them to apply these skills to the real world.But LifeSmarts teachers other lessons, too: It provides students with confidence, pride, leadership skills, and teamwork. It enables students to become a voice for their families and their communities – helping others avoid fraud, make better deals, and exercise their rights with conviction. We also hear from educators that LifeSmarts motivates students to improve their grades. For some, it’s even the anchor they need to stay in school.

Here is one moving story a LifeSmarts coach shared with me about the difference she had seen LifeSmarts make for one of her students, Joey.

Joey was a junior when he took one of my classes. He was a middle child — with an older sister, who was in the top ten in her class, and a younger brother, who made top grades as well. Joey, on the other hand, struggled to maintain passing grades. When we took the test to qualify for the LifeSmarts state competition, he was not in the top five or even the top 15. But I needed another boy on the team, and since Joey had been helping the other students practice, I decided to give him a chance and put him on the team.

At the state competition, the team won the first round and got a fever to win. They kept winning until the semi-final round, when they lost by five points on the final buzzer question.

Their competition was over for the year, but the three junior members of the team came to me when we got home. They wanted to keep the team together and try to win the state LifeSmarts title their senior year.

The next year, when they took their quizzes to qualify online, Joey and Lucy had a tie score. This was the third year Lucy had been on a LifeSmarts team and she had always had the top score. Joey, on the other hand, had more than doubled his score from the year before.

As a junior, he had one area of expertise: automobiles. As a senior, it was obvious that he had spent a lot of time studying. He answered questions in all areas and was fast and confident on the buzzer. I am proud to say that the team finished first at state and traveled to nationals to represent Texas at the National LifeSmarts Championship!

Joey said that this was the first time he had achieved anything academically that his brother and sister had not done first and better. His counselor commented about how far his class rank went up his senior year. Other teachers told me his grades dramatically improved his senior year. I cannot guarantee that it was all due to LifeSmarts, but I know that it was a big factor.

You can help us reach more students like Joey. We are asking for contributions in support of LifeSmarts this #GivingTuesday. This global initiative takes place December 1, 2015, and is a day devoted to giving back to nonprofit organizations via social media. You may donate anytime, and don’t have to wait for December 1!

We are excited to announce that we have received a pledge from BuckleySandler, LLP, and Jonice Gray Tucker, a member of the LifeSmarts Advisory Board, to match individual donations made on #GivingTuesday! Their generosity will help double the contributions we get—so please keep that in mind and give whatever you can this year!

Consumers International’s World Congress 2015: Unlocking Consumer Power – National Consumers League

sg.jpgEvery four years, Consumers International organizes a World Congress event, which convenes 240 consumer groups to meet in an appointed country where it has organizational members. I am fortunate enough to be attending this year’s World Congress in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.IMG_1879(1).jpgThis morning, as the Congress kicked off, we were honored to hear inspiring opening remarks from Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff. Under her administration, Brazil has created a Secretariat for the Defense of Consumers, raising consumer issues to a high level. I was told in my travels in Rio de Janiero that businesses are worried about running afoul of consumers lest they get reported to the federal consumer agency. Now that’s a good thing!

The Brazilian government has also created a website for resolving conflicts between consumers and companies. Apparently, this site operates like a mediation process, and according to the presentations given today, 80 percent of the complaints are solved in 7 days.

President Rousseff also informed us that 40 million citizens were lifted into the middle class from below within last generation. She made the interesting connection between raising living standards and ensuring that the expanded middle class has access to consumer protections when they buy goods and services. She noted that consumer protection is a state policy and stressed her interest in telecommunications and financial services in particular. Additionally, President Rousseff said she is committed to protecting the most vulnerable consumers and consumer rights to privacy, two values that we as the National Consumers League also hold.

It’s been a day of interesting speakers from Africa, South and Central America, Eastern and Western Europe, the Caribbean, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand recommending action plans for consumers. Above all, I found President Rousseff’s remarks a great endorsement of putting consumer protections front and center as the people of this country enjoy greater wealth and prosperity.

New app seeks to raise awareness of the worst forms of child labor and forced labor – National Consumers League

maki.jpgThis post originally appeared on stopchildlabor.org. The Child Labor Coalition is a program of the National Consumers League. Written by Deborah Andrews, CLC Contributing Writer and Reid Maki, CLC Coordinator.

The US Department of Labor recently released an exciting new tool to help consumers figure out if the products they purchase are made with child labor or forced labor.  The sheer size of the 2014 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor produced by the Bureau of International Affairs (ILAB) highlights the reality of this problem – the hard copy version of the report is over 1,000 pages long and weighs in at over eight pounds.USDOL_app.PNG

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 168 million children globally are engaged in child labor, including 85 million in hazardous labor; 21 million people are trapped in forced labor, including 6 million children. Think of the DoL “Findings” report as a road map that tells us where children are working. It also includes vital information about how 140 countries are combating child labor.

On September 30, 2015, ILAB launched their brand new app, ‘Sweat & Toil’ – now available on iTunes and the App Store, which features the report data in a way that makes it much more accessible. The app enables an individual to search by country name or product.  It includes a country specific review of the current laws and ratifications and the efforts by that country being made to eliminate child labor and assesses its progress.

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For example, a user can click on “Albania” and learn that the country made “moderate advancement” in dealing with child labor in 2014. By clicking on a statistics button, the user learns that 87.5 percent of child workers toil in agriculture in the country. A user who clicks on “Brazil,” learns that the country has 16 products produced with exploitative labor, including 13 with child labor and four with forced labor – one of which is beef.

Consumers purchasing a specific good can look it up to see if it is produced by child labor, forced labor, or both. Buying a bag of charcoal for your barbecue? The app would help consumers to know that production of charcoal involves child labor in Brazil and Uganda, and in Brazil it is produced with both forced labor and child labor. For consumers who care about the world and children who are exploited in global supply chains, this app could be addictive.

The broader aim is to empower the consumer to make intelligent decisions about the products we buy, as well as persuade companies to examine their supply chains and identify where risks may be.

Let’s hope this user-friendly app, with its vast amount of current data on child labor and forced labor, will bring about a future where the consumer is highly conscientious and intentional in their consuming.

To download the app, search for “Sweat and Toil.” Readers can view online copies of the new updates of DOL child labor reports by clicking here.

Who decides how much your donor eggs are worth? – National Consumers League

sg.jpgAwhile back I blogged about new moms selling breast milk to make a little money while they are nursing their newborns. Breast milk is full of nutrients and has anti-allergy properties that make it very beneficial for newborns. But because not all new mothers can or want to nurse their babies, there’s a demand for this nutrient-dense food. Nursing is also good for moms and is linked to lower incidents of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Sounds like a win-win, so why shouldn’t women be able to sell their milk then?Now comes a related issue: whether women who donate their eggs to fertility clinics have the right to argue that prices for their eggs shouldn’t be capped. In both cases – breast milk and egg – there’s a concern that women will be manipulated by the promise of money to do what they otherwise would not do at risk to their health.

A group of women have filed a class action lawsuit challenging industry guidelines suggesting a $10,000 limit on compensation for women who donate their eggs. They say since there’s no price limit on donations of sperm, this is an unfair and illegal limit.

I agree with them. Egg donation is an $80 million market and donating eggs involves a lot of discomfort and health risks. It requires weeks of hormone injections to stimulate the ovaries, ultrasounds, and surgery. As one of the plaintiffs who is a three-time donor noted, “The guidelines are skewed toward the intended parents, toward the industry making more money and business.” What about the donors?

In 2000, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine established the guidelines, stating that compensation over $5,000 requires “justification,” and that more than $10,000 is “beyond what is appropriate.” The amounts have never been adjusted.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine argues that capping the price ensures that low-income young women are not drawn to donate by a huge payout. The fear is that if the compensation is too high, there might be an incentive for donors to lie about their medical history.

As experts argue, there is a pressing need for research on whether the hormones given to egg donors increase risk of cancer or create other problems among repeat donors. The reality is that doctors, clinics and agencies who recruit donors and harvest the eggs focus on the recipients, not the donors, and paying for egg donation is expensive.

The best comment came from a recent New York Times article in which Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College in New York and the author of a book on the assisted reproduction industry noted, “Our whole system makes no sense. We cap the price because of the yuck factor of commodifying human eggs, when we should either say, ‘Egg-selling is bad and we forbid it,’ as some countries do, or ‘Egg-selling is OK, and the horse is out of the barn, but we’re going to regulate the market for safety.’”

Doctors, hospitals, and other medical professionals make money on egg donation and no one caps their fees. Similarly, the women who donate eggs should be free to get a price that is commensurate with the value of those eggs to the recipient, without a fee cap in place.

Volkswagen scandal undermines public confidence – National Consumers League

sg.jpgIt’s hard to explain how a company such as Volkswagen, with a strong reputation among consumers for making affordable, safe, and reliable cars, could have gone so far astray. VW computer engineers, we’ve learned of late, developed and installed software for emissions testing in their diesel cars intended to trick the system and falsely improve emissions scores.The Germans take great pride in their auto-manufacturing prowess. In my years as Senior Product Safety Counsel at Consumers Union, I marveled at how German cars – Audi, Mercedes, BMW, and VW  – were often well ahead of the curve in innovative safety technologies – frontal and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, backup cameras – often adopting important safety technology long before the American-built vehicles.

Apparently in this VW scandal, the software was set up to detect when testing was going on and reduce emissions. But during normal driving conditions, when the vehicles had better performance, they produced as much as 40 times the acceptable amount of nitrogen oxide.

VW’s dirty tricks affects 480,000 cars in the United States and will require a major fix, the experts say, involving perhaps 10 hours of work for each car. More than 11 million cars globally are affected. The head of VW America, who testified this week in Congress, said that a few engineers rigged the engines without the knowledge of higher ups.  That sounds suspicious to me but okay, maybe they did. Like hackers who get their jollies designing malware or computer viruses just to see if they can mess things up for a few million unsuspecting users.

Time will tell whether this deception was conceived by company officials or indeed a scheme developed by a few rogue software engineers. Regardless, this further undermines the public’s confidence in automakers to do right by their customers.

How to make life harder for the hackers – National Consumers League

breyault.jpgThis post appeared as a guest blog on the Family Online Safety Institute site on September 24, 2015.

It’s easy to get discouraged about data security. With news of a new data breach practically every day — often affecting thousands or even millions of consumers — you may feel like throwing up your hands in frustration. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to preventing the harm that stems from data breach incidents, but you can reduce your risk by getting educated and taking some fairly simple steps to better protect your personal information.First, it’s important to understand that it’s practically impossible to 100% protect your personal information from cyberthieves. So, short of completely unplugging from the digital economy, what’s a consumer to do? Here are five simple steps that YOU can take to make life harder for the hackers.

#1 – Don’t make life any easier than it needs to be for crooks

Keep your digital hygiene up to snuff. That means installing software updates, especially for your Web browser and operating system but also for your antivirus and other Internet-connected apps and programs. Cyberthieves know that many consumers don’t keep their software up to date, so they take advantage of known vulnerabilities to attack out-of-date computers.

#2 – Use strong, unique passwords

Cybercrooks count on consumers re-using the same email/password combination password across multiple websites. Because of this, if crooks hack the user data for one website, they quickly use those same email address + password combinations at other sites to try increase their access. You can help reduce this risk by using unique passwords at different websites. A password manager can be an invaluable tool in helping create strong, unique passwords without having to go through the hassle of trying to remember them all.

#3 – Take advantage of multi-factor authentication, especially for your primary email account

With multi-factor authentication (also known as two-factor authentication, MFA or TFA), you’ll add an additional layer of defense. Instead of just needing an email address and password, crooks will need access to another device – usually your cell phone – in order to access your sensitive accounts. Many online services currently offer MFA (here’s a handy list), so be sure to take advantage of it, especially for your primary email service.

#4 – Check your credit report regularly

Even with the best online security, fraud can still happen. Make sure to pull your credit report regularly and dispute any suspicious activity, such as lines of credit being opened that you don’t recognize. By law, consumers can access their credit report for free once per year from each of the major credit reporting bureaus at https://www.annualcreditreport.com. You may also want to consider putting a fraud alert or even a credit freeze on your credit reports.

#5 – If you suspect identity theft, act quickly!

ID thieves can do immense damage to your credit, potentially costing you thousands of dollars in higher interest rates, lost job opportunities and delayed tax refunds (just to name a few potential harms). If you think that there’s something fishy with your credit report or you receive another warning of ID theft, take action sooner rather than later. The Federal Trade Commission has a great step by step guide for recovering from ID theft at www.identitytheft.gov.

BONUS – Get educated about other tools to help reduce your data security risk! – The National Consumers League is a proud partner of AT&T’s DigitalYou campaign. They offer great tips for protecting your privacy and security and useful tools for Internet newbies, young people, parents and  people with disabilities. Check it out!

Kickstarter advances public responsibility over profit – National Consumers League

sg.jpgAs game-changing technologies like Uber, AirBnb, and Dropbox consider going public with profitability for founders and investors in the billions, it is interesting to read that Kickstarter, a crowdfunding startup, is choosing to take another course.The founders of Kickstarter are opting to become a B Corporation, which is a voluntary designation certified by a nonprofit group called B Lab. According to the New York Times, B Lab requires companies to meet rigorous environmental and social responsibility standards, which they report annually to their shareholders.  And according to the B Corporations website, “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.” Although the status has no legal impact, it does speak volumes about Kickstarter’s vision and commitment to better business practices. The e-commerce site Etsy, which went public in April, and Warby Parker, the glasses retailer that is injecting some much needed competition into the prescription glasses market, are two other companies that have decided to become B Corporations. The B Corporations website reports that the growing number of Certified B Corporations from 33 countries and over 60 different industries are all “working together toward one unifying goal: to define success in business.”

I think these new technologies are exciting and incredibly good for the market. But so often a few lucky and ingenious entrepreneurs and their equally lucky investors earn the vast majority of the profits when the companies go public. Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler have very clearly conveyed that they do not want to go public in the New York Times piece saying, “We don’t want to ever sell or go public … That would push the company to make choices that I don’t think are in the best interests of the company.”

Kickstarter has been profitable in the last three years at the tune of about $5-$10 million and pays dividends to investors and shares profits with employees. Both founders own stock and will earn income based on their initial investments as the company grows and earns profits. Kickstarter also donates five percent of its profits to groups that fight inequality and to others that promote the arts.

The Kickstarter business model allows startups to put their idea before the public to determine whether these ideas are worthy of investment. It is a worthy mission to advance business in the name of accountability and transparency, which Kickstarter and all B Corporations are committed to doing. Other companies would be doing a service to all consumers by committing to do the same.