Coalition urging consumers to walk away from Wells Fargo – National Consumers League

wells_fargo_icon.jpgNCL is part of a broad coalition of pro-consumer groups are launching a national campaign targeting Wells Fargo Bank over its illegal practices, and its denying customers and employees their constitutional rights under the 7th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to hold businesses that engage in illegal practices accountable in a court of law. 

The organizations, including NCL, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) Foundation, and Consumer Action, also released a letter from a broad-based coalition of groups calling on Wells Fargo’s CEO Timothy Sloan to cease forcing its customers and workers to submit to forced arbitration. The bank continues to resist calls from pro-consumer leaders such as Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), and the editors of leading newspapers for the bank to free its customers and employees to pursue cases before a court of law, particularly regarding millions of accounts set up without their permission, through identity theft, forgery, and fraud.

We talked to two consumers who fell victim to the bank’s illegal practices. Here are their stories:

Aaron, Texas
Victim of Wells Fargo’s illegal practice of establishing accounts without permission

Aaron works as an emergency dispatcher for the Fort Worth, Texas, police department. In 2011, when he was entering college in Bakersfield, California, as a freshman, he opened a checking account at a local Wells Fargo branch. His family had warned him about the dangers of using credit, and he had firmly decided that he did not want a credit card. However, without his permission, and without obtaining his signature, the bank employee also opened a credit card account.

When Aaron received the credit card in the mail, he contacted the bank and informed them that he wanted them to close the account. They refused to close it, but told him that he could simply not use the card, with no ill effects. He destroyed the credit card and thought that took care of the matter. What he did not realize was that every time he used his debit card and the charges went over the amount of available funds, fees were mounting in his credit card account, and he was being charged added interest and penalties. That account accumulated over $1300 in fees, which Aaron has refused to pay.

Wells Fargo reported the unpaid charges to credit reporting agencies, harming his credit. As a result, Aaron had to pay extra down payments and interest for car loans, make extra deposits for utilities, and incur other substantial costs. Wells Fargo refused to correct this wrong. Aaron is now suing Wells Fargo, and Wells Fargo is attempting to force him to submit to arbitration instead of being able to hold the bank accountable in court.

Byron, California
Victim of Wells Fargo’s illegal practice of establishing accounts without permission

Byron is a graduate of West Point and also an attorney who specializes in patent law. For about 20 years, he had a “free” checking account with Wells Fargo. In 2014, Bryon received a call from an employee at Wells Fargo who attempted to talk him into opening two new accounts – a savings account and a “high yield” account – which he had not requested or authorized. He told the employee that he did not want the accounts. Byron also sent an email stating that he did not want any new accounts.

The employee disregarded his expressed wishes, and opened up the new accounts. Wells Fargo also changed his “free” checking to an account that charged him $30 per month unless he maintained a balance of $25,000. Then the bank shifted $25,000 from his checking account into the savings account – also without his permission. The day after he found out that the accounts had been opened, he went in person to his local Wells Fargo branch and closed each of the accounts. It took about a day to arrange for direct deposits and automatic bill payments. He now does his banking with a credit union and several other banks.

Tips for switching

The coalition has put together tips for consumers who are also ready to walk away from Wells Fargo and its anti-consumer and worker practices. Get the tips from Consumer Action here.

Proposed CFPB rules will protect consumers from predatory payday loans – National Consumers League

payday_loan_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is taking action against payday loans through a series of new regulations that will limit certain lending and fee practices. The proposal aims to protect borrowers from falling into endless cycles of debt by making predatory lenders liable for their excessively high interest rates.Payday loans are short term loans that are usually paid off on one’s next payday. Such loans are targeted towards borrowers with low credit scores and unreliable incomes who may live from paycheck to paycheck.

According to the CFPB, the average annual rate for a payday loan is approximately 390 percent. In contrast, most credit cards have APRs between 12 and 30 percent. Payday loans with APRs in the triple digits can be crippling for borrowers who are using them to cover basic living expenses such as rent or utilities. NCL supports CFPB’s proposal for more stringent regulation in the payday loan market.

CFPB’s proposal includes the following regulations:

1. A “full payment test” would require lenders, before handing out a loan, to determine whether the borrower can afford to pay the loan back while still being able to cover basic living expenses.

2.  The number of times a borrower can roll over a loan would be limited to two. According to the CFPB, more than 80 percent of payday loans are rolled over within two weeks and more than 50 percent are rolled over as many as 10 times. The cap on roll over loans is an effort to end what CFPB calls “debt traps.” In addition, lenders would have to adhere to a 60-day wait period to refinance a loan.

3. Penalty fees would be regulated to reduce overdraft fees that come from unsuccessful withdrawals from an account. Borrowers usually provide lenders with their checking account information so that payment can be automatically collected within two weeks. However, insufficient funds in an account can lead to hefty fees from both the borrower’s bank and the lender. Under the new proposal, lenders must provide written notice three days prior to withdrawing from an account.

According to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, “Too many short-term and longer-term loans are made based on a lender’s ability to collect and not on a borrower’s ability to repay. The proposals we are considering would require lenders to take steps to make sure consumers can pay back their loans.”

The proposed regulations could save consumers from taking on burdensome debt. Some argue, however, that they are not strict enough. Nick Bourke, director of small dollar loans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggests that the amount that can be lent should be limited. The proposal set forth by CFPB is currently open to public comment.

Wall Street CEO pay is outrageous, needs stricter regulations – National Consumers League

money_hands_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

According to Fortune, the combined CEO salaries of America’s six biggest banks totaled a whopping $123 million in 2015. With an average pay of $20.5 million per executive, that is estimated to be 455 times the salary of the average American worker. While millions of Americans are still struggling to overcome the financial crisis, Wall Street CEOs have continued to stockpile greater wealth over time. The average pay for Wall Street CEOs rose nearly 10 percent last year in contrast to the meager 1.6 percent increase in wages for the average American worker.As a counterweight to this phenomenon, Wall Street regulators released a proposal to limit how top executives are paid at major financial institutions. The new restrictions would postpone bonuses for the highest paid executives from three years to four years. If the regulations go into effect, banks would have to rescind bonuses to those bankers who have caused vast financial losses as a result of their risky behavior.

In 2010, President Obama signed the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” in response to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when government funds were used to bail out major American banks. The new regulations are an extension of the Act, and with the upcoming presidential election, the public is alarmed once again at the lack of stringent Wall Street regulations.

As an organization committed to consumer protection, NCL supports these stronger regulations. The public should not be forced to bail out Wall Street for irresponsible and risky behavior.  According to Rick Metsger, vice chairman at the National Credit Union Administration, “Congress, and the American people, want senior executives at large financial institutions held accountable if their desire for personal enrichment leads to decision-making that results in material losses.”

The way in which executive pay packages were designed before the financial crisis unfortunately incentivized bankers to take unnecessary risks. Bankers were easily drawn to short term gains despite the overarching losses in the long term. By lengthening the time that banking industry executives can get bonuses, the new regulations will ensure that top executives would be responsible for the longer term outcomes. Bankers would also be susceptible to revocation of their bonuses for seven years should they be found guilty of improprieties that lead to major losses.

Enforcing Wall Street pay regulations is necessary to prevent another financial crisis and it is one step further towards fighting the economic inequality that faces our nation today.

Borrower Defense to Repayment rule to protect students from fraudulent schools – National Consumers League

grads_icon.jpgWritten by Elese Chen, NCL Intern

Countless colleges offer enticing promises such as remarkably high job-placement rates, yet, too often new graduates fail to see these promises being fulfilled. Higher education institutions are now being held accountable for what may amount to fraudulent behavior by the “Borrower Defense to Repayment” law.After the collapse of the for-profit chain of Corinthian Colleges, more and more students are turning their attention to this regulation. Under the law, students who were found to have been defrauded by their schools are eligible for a discharge of their federal direct loans. Over 25,000 claims have been filed with the Department of Education since then, and most of them are from former Corinthian College students.

The current regulation is based on the renewal of the Higher Education Act by Congress, originally created in the early 1990s, which allowed student-loan borrowers to make a claim for “acts or omissions of an institution.” The process of reviewing the growing number of claims has made it obvious that the current rule is too ambiguous. In an effort to update and strengthen the rule, the Department of Education has proposed new regulations to better protect students and taxpayers from fraudulent behavior by colleges found to be making fraudulent claims.

The draft proposal includes a process that would consolidate debt relief for groups of students who were defrauded. Institutions with poor loan outcomes would be required to warn prospective and current students by using clear, direct language. To prevent financially risky schools from escaping responsibility, the new proposal would deny schools the use of pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waivers.

A total of 58 advocacy organizations, including NCL, signed a letter to Education Secretary John King, expressing their support for stronger regulations. The following action items were suggested in the letter:

1)    Full loan relief for defrauded borrowers,
2)    Automatic loan relief when there is sufficient evidence of school wrongdoing,
3)    The federal standard for relief as a floor and not a ceiling; the latter process eliminates current borrower eligibility for relief.

In addition, the letter recommends tightening loopholes regarding the use of class action waivers to bar students in court, improving warnings to students regarding concerns about their school, and eliminating new time limits on borrower relief. The letter also recommends that decision-makers involved in borrower relief determinations remain independent.

NCL joined with colleagues in supporting this series of steps because we believe that stronger regulations are imperative to protect students from fraudulent activities and from claims rampant in the for-profit college world. We also want the process to be simpler and more transparent for eligible students seeking relief from fraudulent claims so that they can receive the loan discharges that they deserve.

The impact of overdraft fees on consumers – National Consumers League

overdraft_fees_icon.jpgBy Hannah Rudder, NCL Intern

More than three quarters of the largest U.S. banks allow their customers to overdraw their accounts when they lack sufficient funds in order to cover the transaction for a fee of $35, on average. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found the median transaction amount of purchases that resulted in an overdraft fee was only $24. Additionally, the CFPB study revealed that 18 percent of account holders pay the vast majority of all overdraft fees triggered by debit cards, checks, and automated clearing house electronic charges.  

The banks’ overdraft fees cause financially vulnerable consumers to leave the banking system. Thirty-one percent of consumers without a bank account reported high or unpredictable account fees as one reason for not having an account, while 13 percent cited it as the primary reason for not having a bank account. Overdraft fees are unexpected and unpredictable because most banks do not give their customers notice of an overdraft until two or three days after the incident. In the meantime, the consumer continues to overdraw his or her account, incurring more overdraft fees. The CFPB study found that more than two-thirds of consumers would prefer that the bank decline the transaction rather than assess an overdraft fee. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released the findings of a study conducted on “heavy overdrafters,” those who incur over $100 in overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees. Pew conducted this survey out of concern for consumers because overdraft is high risk, in that it lacks the consumer protections that accompany other credit products. It found that most heavy overdrafters are:  Millennials or members of Generation X; renters rather than homeowners; and those with low incomes. See below. Furthermore, overdraft fees consumed nearly a full week’s household income of heavy overdrafters. 

Half of the heavy overdrafters incur six or more overdraft fees annually and 42 percent paid seven or more overdraft fees. Heavy overdrafters tend to have lower incomes than the rest of the U.S. population, with most reporting an annual household income of under $50,000. This means that overdrafts hit those who can least afford these predatory fees. Debit cards are the most common transaction method for heavy overdrafters, with the actual value of the debit card transaction being relatively low, around $24.  Seventy percent of heavy overdrafters are employed. 

Younger consumers in the Millennial generation may be more affected by these overdraft fees because they are more likely to use debit cards. Additionally, they may be more vulnerable to overdraft fees because many are managing finances independently for the first time. For example, many college students are opening their first accounts for financial aid refunds, and the outside companies that distribute these funds promote their own cards. The Department of Education has adopted rules banning the charging of overdraft fees on accounts used for student aid, which will go into effect this month. 

The results of the Pew survey show that overdraft now serves as a form of short-term credit for many consumers. However, overdraft lacks the requirements that financial institutions use to verify customers’ ability to repay debt before extending credit and provide a reasonable time to repay, as well as limits on late fees. 

Pew urges the CFPB to write new rules to ensure that overdraft programs are safe and designed only for infrequent and accidental occurrences. This could be achieved by limiting: the size of overdraft fees, the frequency with which they can be incurred, and overall cost. A limit of six overdrafts a year would save the 42 percent of heavy overdrafters, who incurred seven or more fees in the past year, a median of $210 annually. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) published guidance suggesting that banks should give customers a reasonable opportunity to choose a less costly alternative and decide whether to continue with fee-based overdraft coverage. 

Frequent overdrafts are a financial burden, especially because the fees are oftentimes hidden and unpredictable. These fees cause many consumers to leave the banking system, with 13 percent of consumers without banking accounts citing overdraft fees as the primary reason, and forces them to use cash other alternatives, like payday loans with predatory interest rates. 

Pew also suggests that the CFPB enact rules to limit the negative effects of overdraft fees and ensure that overdraft is not being used as short-term credit. It suggests that overdraft fees be reasonable and proportional to banks’ cost of covering overdrafts or to the overdraft amount. Financial institutions should charge no more than six small overdraft fees in any 12-month period that are proportional either to the banks’ cost of covering overdrafts or to the overdraft amount, and these fees should be limited to one per negative-balanced episode. If that limit is reached, then any further overdrafts should be covered under the rules for credit. Additionally, banks should post deposits and withdrawals in a fully disclosed, objective, and neutral manner that does not maximize overdraft fees. 

NCL applauds Pew’s report and accompanying recommendations. Imposing these predatory fees on lower income Americans and Millennials who are just beginning to manage their own finances is unacceptable. We hope the CFPB takes action to minimize the impact of these odious charges. 

In the meantime, we support the following strategies to avoid these exorbitant overdraft fees, or at least their frequency:

  • Set up text or email notifications that alert you when your balances are below a certain level.
  • Avoid opting out of overdraft coverage and simply have the card declined if there are insufficient funds.
  • Most banks offer to link a checking account to a savings or money market account, so that money transfers from the savings account to the checking account when there is not enough money in the checking account to cover the transaction. Opt in for this option if possible.
  • Finally, the last, and perhaps the easiest: Carefully monitor the balances in the accounts as well as individual transactions.  

NCL #DataInsecurity Project – National Consumers League

databreach.jpgNCL recently debuted the first issue of The #DataInsecurity Digest, a twice monthly publication curated by NCL’s own, John Breyault, to deliver important consumer-focused data security news, policy and news analysis, and information about upcoming events directly to your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

In 2013, there were 614 data breaches that led to more than 550 million identities compromised. New data breaches means more identity theft and other fraud, and more consumers facing financial loss, great inconvenience, and a loss of trust in the marketplace. That is why NCL is working on the #DataInsecurity Project — to raise awareness about the need for reforms aimed at better protecting consumer data.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6GD9UNbgAs&list=UUXfyCJGEBaMOTcf5l7W_GTg

Data breaches impact consumers, credit unions, banks, and retailers. Last December, the retail giant Target suffered a massive data breach that made national headlines. In the breach, as many as 110 million identities were compromised.

Take a look at the impact of just this single incident:

  • $200 million: the cost to credit unions and community banks for reissuing 21.8 million credit and debit cards
  • 1-3 million: the estimated number of cards stolen in the Target breach that were sold on the black market and successfully used to commit fraud
  • $18-35.70: the price per card stolen from Target and resold on the black market in the months after the breach

Shocking as these numbers are, they represent the fallout from just a single data breach. Data breaches are happening with frightening regularity.

Malicious hackers are going to continue to exploit existing weaknesses, and many businesses lack the incentive or ability to adequately protect their customer data against evolving threats. That is why NCL believes that consumers need to be proactive about protecting their own data and calling on policymakers for improvements.

The current landscape of protection for consumer data is woefully inadequate.

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NCL’s #DataInsecurity Project is calling for reforms such as:

  • Creating a national data breach notification standard, modeled on strong state protections such as California’s;
  • Requiring businesses that maintain consumers’ personal data to protect that information via specific data security requirements;
  • Giving the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General civil penalty authority to enforce violations of data security requirements;
  • Increasing civil and criminal penalties for malicious hacking;
  • Increasing efforts to enhance cooperation with international partners to bring overseas hackers to justice; and
  • Requiring retailers and banks to implement the highest level of security available to protect consumers’ payment data.

To promote these goals, NCL is taking its #DataInsecurity Project on the road to four states across the country, to meet with policymakers, industry experts, consumer advocates, law enforcement officials, and members of the academic and business community. The tour is designed to raise awareness about the frequency of data breaches and to encourage the adoption of comprehensive reforms so that consumers can be better protected.

As a part of the #DataInsecurity Project, NCL has also unveiled important new research by Javelin Strategy & Research investigating the impact of data breaches on consumer trust, on who consumers feel should be responsible for their data, and on current responses to data breaches. Check out NCL’s survey report.

You can get involved!

Help us send the message that the time for reform is now! Sign our petition to the White House calling on policymakers to step up and protect consumers’ data.

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Olive oil mislabeling: Are consumers catching on? – National Consumers League

The food marketplace has come a long way in the past century. Before Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” consumers used to unknowingly eat rats and human body parts in their ground beef. Today, consumers assume they can walk into a grocery store and buy that is both safe and properly labeled. But this assumption is frequently wrong–NCL recently discovered that to be the case with many brands of “extra virgin olive oil.”

The National Consumers League has advocated for consumer rights since 1899, long before Sinclair’s famous novel, exposing green beans dyed green at the 1904 World’s Fair. In the past decade, the League has investigated the term “fresh” used on canned tomatoes, tested bottles labeled “100% real lemon juice” which proved to be far short of 100% lemon juice and brought lawsuits against several bakeries and national restaurant chains for using misleading labeling, suggesting their white bread products were whole grain. With word of rampant olive oil mislabeling on the rise, as reflected in another book, Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, NCL staff decided to go shopping and investigate what exactly a consumer might get when he or she takes home “extra virgin” olive oil.

NCL purchased 11 different varieties of olive oil, all labeled extra virgin, each bought in January 2015, from four major Washington, DC area retailers (Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Giant). One bottle of each product was tested, so this was not meant to be a “study” or a “buyer’s guide,” but rather off-the-shelf testing as to what a consumer might buy within a year. This was an independent sampling, which NCL paid out-of-pocket, that included a battery of chemical and sensory tests that are not inexpensive. Bottles were selected from the back of lower shelves to ensure they were not damaged by exposure to natural or artificial lighting. U.S. and European brands and oils were tested, including private label oils. NCL did not test all brands that a consumer might buy.

Of the 11 products tested, six failed to meet extra virgin olive oil standards as set by the International Olive Council (IOC).  Five were found to be extra virgin olive oils. These are:

  • California Olive Ranch “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Colavita “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Trader Joe’s “ Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Trader Joe’s “100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
  • Lucini “Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.

The testing NCL commissioned was conducted by the Australian Olive Research Laboratory. There are no laboratories in the United States fully accredited by IOC for chemical and sensory testing, so the bottles were shipped overseas to the fully accredited laboratory in Australia.

Although NCL’s sampling set of brands differed, the findings from our testing appeared to be similar to those from testing conducted by Consumer Reports and UC Davis where more than 50% approximately in some way failed to meet “extra virgin” standards. Many of the companies that failed NCL’s testing have had products fail other authenticity tests, so why haven’t they cleaned up their products, or haven’t taken steps to ensure that the oil labeled as “extra virgin” reaches consumers’ hands as extra virgin? Several brands in all of this testing were able to do so.

Failing to make the cut

Mislabeled olive oil can have many explanations. First, producers may be bottling olive oil that was never extra virgin to begin with and attempting to pass it off as extra virgin. This result could be the product of using refined olive oil (made with heat or chemicals that can’t be used to make extra virgin), old oils or oils made from rotten olives, or even mixing in seed oils. Extra virgin olive oil is actually a “fruit juice” without defects of older or rancid oils, meaning that to be extra virgin it needs to be freshly squeezed quickly after harvesting from good olives. Even the best extra virgin will degrade and become rancid over time or by exposure to light or extreme heat. The U.S. has voluntary standards for classifying olive oil and virtually no governmental authenticity testing, making it a prime target for producers to pass off their poorer oils in the US.

The second explanation is perhaps that producers are careless or worse about setting “best by” dates, establishing these dates for far longer than the actual life of the extra virgin oil, or the oil doesn’t hold up to the time it takes for shipping and retail shelf life before it reaches the consumers’ hands. Some producers who have failed other extra virgin olive oil testing have stood up for their product and corrected the problems that lead to consumers purchasing mislabeled oils. Other producers have ignored testing, fail results or have blamed “transit issues,” and continue to provide consumers with mislabeled product. The producer’s name is on the bottle, it should ultimately be the producer’s responsibility to make sure that the oil is correctly labeled extra virgin, and has a good chance of reaching the consumers’ hands in that condition. Some producers seem able to achieve this result, so what is stopping others from doing the same?

In addition to conducting testing of 11 bottles of olive oil, NCL intends to file a consumer complaint to FDA, urging the agency to take action on what appears to be rampant olive oil mislabeling in the US. The FDA itself issued a qualified health claim stating that olive oil offers important health benefits when used to replace foods high in saturated fat as long as overall calories are not increased. Health benefits like these are found mainly in the extra virgin grade. Consumers are deprived of these benefits for which they pay a premium when they purchase mislabeled extra virgin olive oil.

Call for tougher regulations

While NCL applauds the producers of the brands whose oils tested as extra virgin off the shelf, something must be done to hold olive oil companies accountable. For starters, the United States could adopt mandatory federal labeling, grading and testing standards and methodologies. California could be a model for this, where it recently approved for its larger producers more stringent testing parameters and methodologies than current standards often employed. While California’s stricter standards are welcome, it supplies only about 2 percent of America’s total olive oil needs. Federal standards similar to those which California enacted would be the first step in guaranteeing that consumers are getting what they pay for when it comes to olive oil.

What can consumers do?

For consumers, buying extra virgin olive oil with confidence in the United States is a challenge. With the present lack of off-the-shelf testing and enforcement of US standards, it is difficult for consumers to know the real from the not so extra virgin.

According to NCL, consumers should:

  • Choose brands that consistently pass testing. Research prior testing and articles on authenticity, determine which producers are transparent in their processing, and judge for themselves which oils work well with their food and cooking and which don’t.
  • Check for “best by” dates, or – even better – harvest dates.
  • Avoid buying oils in clear glass bottles or from the top shelf, which could be more likely to be degraded. But, warned the NCL, even that is not foolproof, and buying oil in tins or dark bottles does not mean that there is extra virgin oil in there.
  • Remember that the USDA Organic label is also no indication of authenticity, and the fact that an oil is from Italy or another producing country is likewise not a good indicator.

Retailers, particularly the larger retailers, could educate themselves about the latest authenticity issues and the proper testing that can detect mislabeled oil and institute their own testing protocols. If the appropriate tests are employed, producers and suppliers will have a strong incentive to rectify the problems that several tests, including NCL’s, have brought to light.

Beware: Online pet adoption scams – National Consumers League

92_puppy_sale.jpgBringing a new puppy or kitten home is right at the top of many consumers’ wish lists. Unfortunately, scammers know all too well how emotionally connected we can get to idea of adopting a cuddly ball of fuzz. Since the beginning of 2015, NCL’s Fraud.org has received a surge of consumer complaints about pet adoption scams. Learn how the scam works.First, a consumer searching for a pet sees a desirable animal listed for sale online, often on a classifieds website like Craigslist.org or Oodle.com. Next, the consumer reaches out to the prospective seller and expresses interest in acquiring the animal. After a consumer sends money to the alleged owner to pay for the pet, she is told that additional funds are needed to cover the cost of things like “a ventilated shipping crate,” “insurance,” or other reasons. Regardless of how much money is sent, the alleged seller will find new reasons to ask for additional payment. This continues until the victim, now often out hundreds or thousands of dollars catches on and stops sending money.

In reality, the entire act is a farce. The cute pet pictures that prompted the initial outreach by the consumer are usually simply pulled off the Internet and used to create attractive (but fake) listings. The alleged sellers don’t own any actual pets and are just out to milk victims of all the cash they can.

A Massachusetts woman we’ll call “Sue” (not her real name) recently sent us a complaint that is typical of this scam. Sue writes:

“I was looking to purchase a Yorkshire terrier puppy for my 2 little kids. I found one that I was really interested in. It was a 9-week-old female Yorkie. I emailed ‘the owner’ … The puppy was $500 and he told me that was already included with shipping and everything. He told me to put the $500 on a Reloadit card, which I did, and I gave him that. He sent me an email of a flight ticket, which I now know that it was not real because I called American Airlines and the flight ticket was a fake.

An agency started emailing me stating that I had to send them $970.00 for a ‘crate’ for the puppy to arrive to me safe while on flight due to the weather. I was told it was refundable when my puppy would arrive. I was told to send it by Western Union, which I did. Once that happened … I was asked to send $1,500 now for the pets insurance to get sent to me, which was also supposed to be refunded to me. I sent that money through MoneyGram. I was supposed to receive my puppy on March 7, 2015 in the morning and I never received the puppy.

Then I received another email stating I had to send ANOTHER payment of $760.00 to update her shots before she takes off. It was already sounding a little bit too good to be true to me but that’s when I finally realized that this was a scam.”

Fraud.org has received more than a dozen complaints about these scams so far this year. Consumers can see additional examples of these scams at the ASPCA’s Pet-Related Scams website.

It’s easy to get emotionally attached to the idea of acquiring an adorable new pet. Consumers in the market for a new furry friend, can protect themselves by following these safe pet-buying tips:

  1. Never send money for a pet purchase unless you have seen the animal in person (as opposed to simply online).
  2. Beware of any seller who says she’s located out-of-town (or worse, overseas). Dealing with local sellers is usually the smart move.
  3. Requests for payment via wire transfer (Western Union or MoneyGram) or prepaid debit card (Green Dot MoneyPak, Reloadit, or similar cards) are often a red flag for potential fraud. Payment sent via these methods is practically the same as sending cash.
  4. Consider adopting from a local shelter instead of a private seller. There’s likely to be a lower cost to obtain the pet, and you’ll be dealing with a reputable non-profit organization.
  5. Do your due diligence on the seller BEFORE sending money. Ask for detailed information on the seller, including full name, phone number and mailing address. Search online for information on the seller. If no information comes up in the search, or you see negative reviews, it could be a scammer instead of a legitimate seller.
  6. Watch out for offers of “free” pets. While it may seem like a good deal, scammers have been known to use these to lure unwary consumers in to paying for “shipping” and other costs for nonexistent pets.

If you’ve been a victim of one of these scams or been approached by someone you suspect of being a scammer, file a complaint at fraud.org so that we can share your information with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agencies.

Lovers, beware: ‘Tis the season for romance scams – National Consumers League

love_stinks.jpgThink you’ve found your Romeo or Juliet online? Experts are warning, especially this time of year, to be on the lookout for predators posing as the perfect sweetheart. These Romance Scams can be a long, drawn-out process–it takes a long time to kindle a relationship in which the victim might actually consider sending cash. We’ve heard from countless victims who were more than just unlucky in love. Read on to hear their stories.After being single for many years, 51-year-old “Dan” befriended a woman on a dating Web site. She said she was an artist in Lagos. The two developed a spiritual connection and grew romantically involved. The woman told Dan that she longed to come to California to be with him. That’s when she asked him for money, and he happily wired her $2,500. Dan was soon contacted by a man claiming to be the woman’s doctor, who said Dan’s true love had been in a terrible accident and wasAfter being single for many years, 51-year-old “Dan” befriended a woman on a dating Web site. She said she was an artist in Lagos. The two developed a spiritual connection and grew romantically involved. The woman told Dan that she longed to come to California to be with him. That’s when she asked him for money, and he happily wired her $2,500. in a coma. Dan never heard from her again.

Ugh!

Hearing about these victims is really tough. They’re devastated emotionally and sometimes out a ton of money. The worst thing is how far from unique Dan’s story is. Sure, there’s a melodramatic twist at the end “explaining” his swindler’s disappearance. But, time and again, the reports we get at NCL’s Fraud.org often contain a drama: an accident, a tragedy, some sudden need for monetary assistance. And, inevitably, love triumphs over caution, and a soon-to-be-heartbroken consumer victim sends the money via wire transfer, preloaded card, or even cash.

Though the details of the scammers’ stories vary with each individual case, the gist is almost always the same: some tragedy has befallen the scammer and he or she desperately needs money. After spending time communicating and building a relationship with the victim, the scammer will ask for help. In a report we received from a woman we’ll call “Molly,” she had met a man on a major online dating site, and they conversed regularly for about a month before the man told Molly that his daughter needed heart surgery. Over the course of several months, Molly sent the man a total of $1,000. Only later did she realize that the man was after her money and nothing more, and that the daughter who needed heart surgery probably didn’t even exist.

In another report, “Pam” told us about a man she’d met online who asked her for $150 because he’d been hit by a car and needed treatment. He then sent her a document that he claimed was a copy of his medical receipt, and asked her to send him another $760 to help him come to the United States so that they could be together. Pam was in love, and she sent the money. He never showed up, but Pam reported that the man still harasses her for more money from time to time.

We’ve heard reports about such scams occurring on all of the major dating sites, and from victims of varying backgrounds. Men, women, young, old, black, white, gay, straight, etc. So while you shouldn’t let this deter you from finding love online, you should remember that these scammers are out there. And while they may not love you, they would love to take your money, so be sure to only consider giving money to someone you’ve met in person, have known for a long time, and can truly trust. Or be prepared to kiss your money – and your special friend – goodbye.

New NCL report raises concerns about food waste in U.S. – National Consumers League

A new report published to coincide with Food Day reveals that America is one of the worst food waste offenders, tossing 35 million tons of food each year, and offers solutions for retailers and consumers. Released by the National Consumers League, the report finds that, worldwide, a quarter to a third of all food goes to waste, and in America, the figures are more stark: 40 percent of our food remains uneaten, and the numbers are trending upwards.

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