Turning cybersecurity awareness into cybersecurity reform – National Consumers League

Facebook_NCSAM_icon.jpgOctober is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which is a good time for consumers to take stock of their online safety habits and practices. Great tips and tricks for creating stronger passwords, taking advantage of two-factor authentication and learning to spot phishing scams and other cyber threats abound from organizations like the Federal Trade Commission, Stop. Think. Connect., and NCL’s own Fraud.org.In partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Cyber Security Alliance, NCL is helping to raise awareness about cybersecurity and give consumers advice on how to protect themselves from hackers and other online scam artists. However, 2014’s NCSAM comes at a unique time. Consumers’ concern about the security of their personal data has rarely been higher. Due in part to massive data breaches at retailers like Target and Home Depot—and, just this week, news regarding JP Morgan Chase—there is a new urgency for action in Washington and in corporate boardrooms to address data security.

While NCSAM is a perfect opportunity to take ownership of your own data, one person cannot protect all of their data by themselves. In today’s connected economy information about consumers is held by hundreds, if not thousands of entities – often without your knowledge. However, a data breach at just one of these companies can expose millions of consumers’ records to fraud.

This summer, NCL organized events in Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago to raise awareness about the problem of data breaches. Armed with new research from a groundbreaking survey and a report on the consumer impact of data breaches, we met with federal and state law enforcement and consumer protection authorities, local media, and American consumers. What we heard was not surprising: Consumers are fed up with the constant stream of data breaches, which they often feel powerless to stop. They want businesses to do more than just offer up free credit monitoring – they want a way to hold businesses and government accountable when their sensitive data is not protected.

That’s why this October, we’re calling on policymakers in Congress, at the White House and throughout the country to not just be aware of cybersecurity, but to do something about it. Through our #DataInsecurity Project, NCL is working to raise the alarm about the urgent need for data security reforms, including passing a national data breach notification standard, creating meaningful national data security requirements and giving enforcement agencies like the FTC the tools they need to go after hackers and companies that put profits ahead of securing consumers’ data.

As we look towards a new Congress, we at NCL will be redoubling our efforts to make sure our elected leaders don’t sit idly by while hackers profit off our data. Instead, we’ll be making our voice heard in Washington and throughout the country to push for real reforms that start to put a dent in the data security problem.

Practical guide to buying live event and sports tickets – National Consumers League

92_empty_theater_seats.jpgWith fall concert series being announced, the NFL season ready to kick off, and MLB playoffs just around the corner, it is a great time to be a live music and sports fan. However, ticket sellers such as Ticketmaster, artists, sports teams, and venues do not always have consumers’ best interests at heart. NCL wants to make sure fans have the information they need to make the best ticket buying decisions they can.

Below are just a few of the anti-consumer practices we want consumers to be aware of.

Restricted ticketing

A growing number of artists, including Eric Church, Arcade Fire, and The Black Keys are using credit card entry or “paperless” ticketing this summer and fall for the most desirable seats in the house. Garth Brooks, who is going back on the road for the first time in 12 years, is using restricted ticketing for his upcoming tour.

This ticketing system replaces a paper ticket, a PDF, or a print-at-home ticket with the original purchaser’s credit card and photo ID and the tickets are non-transferable.  If you purchased tickets to your favorite concert and then had to change your plans because of a work or family emergency, you are now stuck with tickets you cannot use, resell, or even give away. And if you are one of the 30 million Americans who do not have a credit or debit card, you won’t be able to purchase this type of ticket in the first place.

In addition, because restricted ticketing may only apply to the best seats, it decreases the supply of tickets available on the secondary market, inevitably leading to higher prices.

Undisclosed price floors

Often times the secondary market can provide consumers with great deals on sports tickets. Unfortunately, some ticket resale websites, such as Ticketmaster’s TicketExchange, set an arbitrary minimum on the price of tickets. For example, the Buffalo Bills TicketExchange sets its price floor at face value, even for pre-season games. For the pre-season game against the Detroit Lions, a ticket in Section 139 with a face value of $58 can only be listed on TicketExchange for $58, while SeatGeek showed other resale sites selling tickets for as low as $3. And of course, there is no notice to unsuspecting fans that such a price floor exists.

In addition, last year, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim opted out of Major League Baseball’s deal with StubHub because the resale website would not allow the teams to set a price floor.

Deceptive websites

For too long, unscrupulous ticket resellers have been taking advantage of unsuspecting consumers and deceiving consumers into believing they are purchasing a ticket from the box office website or official primary ticket seller at face value. These resellers use Internet ads or other advertising, along with pictures of the venue and descriptions such as “official” tickets, to dupe consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Connecticut Attorney General recently settled a $1.4 million case with a group of ticket resale websites for violating the FTC Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.

This is a strong step in the right direction towards protecting consumers from unfair practices, while still allowing good actors in the secondary market to offer consumers choices and flexibility when purchasing live event and sports tickets.

To help fans avoid these, and other common, ticket-buying pitfalls, the National Consumers League (NCL) developed the following tips and suggestions.

  1. Read the Fine Print: Artists are increasingly selling restricted tickets, also known as paperless or Credit Card Entry tickets, which require the buyer to show up at the stadium and present the purchasing credit card and photo ID. The fine print indicates these tickets are nontransferable and cannot be given away as gifts or resold. Consumers can easily miss this important information unless they pay close attention during the ticket buying process.
  2. Look into Presales: Popular artists, venues, and ticket vendors tend to allocate large blocks of tickets to fan club members, VIPs, premium credit card holders, and personal acquaintances, leaving only a small portion of tickets to the general public. For example, a 2011 Justin Bieber concert in Nashville, only made 1,001 out of 14,000 seats available to the general public.
  3. Beware of Hidden Price Floors: When purchasing resale tickets on secondary sites, check multiple sources to make sure you get the best price. Some teams and ticket vendors dictate the minimum price that tickets can be sold for, preventing consumers from buying tickets at the cheapest price possible.
  4. Use Reliable Sellers: If you’re unsure whether a company is legitimate, check its ratings with the Better Business Bureau. Also be sure to be certain as to whether you are buying tickets from the box office, official ticket agent, or a reseller. Some ticket resellers hide the fact that they are a reseller or even pose to look like the official ticket agent. If purchasing from a ticket broker, check to see if it is a member of the National Association of Ticket Brokers, whose Code of Ethics requires members to adhere to basic consumer protections. Be especially careful buying tickets from Craigslist or resellers on the street since they offer no refund guarantees.
  5. Check your ticket vendor’s guarantee policy: For example, websites like StubHub, TicketExchange, Ace Tickets, and members of the National Association of Ticket Brokers guarantee every ticket sold on their sites and will replace them or provide refunds to consumers if the event that they receive the wrong tickets, their tickets are invalid, or an event is cancelled.
  6. Buy with a Credit Card: Regardless of where you buy tickets, be sure to use a credit card so you can dispute any unfair or unauthorized charges. Before entering your credit card information online, double check the company’s URL to ensure you don’t get duped by an imposter and be sure the site has “https://” at the beginning of its address.
  7. Check if the Price Includes Additional Fees: Unlike airline tickets, which are now required by law to disclose all taxes and additional fees upfront, the ticket price listed at the start of the purchasing process will likely not be your final price. If you are shopping between multiple websites to compare prices, make sure you know if you are comparing ticket prices that include fees.

Dos and Don’ts for College-bound $tudents – National Consumers League

92_college_movein_.jpgMillions of young people are arriving on the nation’s college campuses this month—finally, life without parents for the first time for many! Unfortunately, many of these young people will be entering the consumer marketplace with little understanding of how to navigate it successfully—credit cards? utility bills? rent? And even worse—many students may fall prey to scams targeting college students.Whether they are heading off to college, a job, or to their first apartment, young adults should keep these dos and don’ts in mind this fall:

  • DO read the fine print. While credit card companies are now largely prevented from offering their wares on college campuses, there are still many “gotchas” lurking out there for unsuspecting consumers. Those gotchas love to hide in the fine print of things like apartment leases, gym memberships, cell phone contracts, student loan applications, spring break vacation package agreements and yes, credit card applications.
  • DON’T sign anything until you understand your responsibilities. Will you be locked in to that gym membership for years to come? Does that free t-shirt come with a credit card that has a high interest rate and annual fee? How much will it cost to break the lease on your apartment if your roommate unexpectedly moves out and leaves you with the full month’s rent?
  • DO make sure you have contact info (the phone numbers or Web addresses for services that can help) if you get in trouble. The local Better Business Bureau, Office of Tenant Advocate, and state and local consumer protection bureaus are good numbers to have handy if you feel that a local business or landlord is taking advantage of you.
  • DO create a budget and stick to it. Create a list of all the expenses you’ll be responsible for, like books, regular meals, rent, and transportation. That way you’ll have a system to help make sure nights out with friends don’t eat in to you required living expenses.
  • DON’T leave personal information unsecured. While young consumers may not have a lot of money to drain from bank or credit card accounts, their credit reports are often clean. This makes them tempting targets for identity thieves. File away important documents, shred credit card offers and keep a close eye on credit and debit card statements for suspicious charges.
  • DO watch out for scams targeting young people. For example, educational grant scams regularly make Fraud.org’s list of top scams each year, suggesting that scammers may be going after students looking for ways to pay for college in a tough economic environment. Watch out for scams that promise “guaranteed scholarships” or “an inside track on getting money for college.” Also stay away from any service that requires a credit or debit card account number to apply for or hold a scholarship.
  • DON’T leave your social network privacy settings unattended. Scammers scan these networks for information they can use to pitch believable-sounding scams. It usually only takes a few minutes to set privacy settings to make them more secure. Many college students may be surprised to find just how much of their personal information they were sharing in the first place.

Consider these tips the beginning of your journey to becoming a savvy consumer. Remember that the good consumer habits you develop as a college student can yield benefits in school and beyond.

Fraud warning: Malware scams locking computers for ransom

92_computer_lock.jpgCrooks are targeting consumers and businesses with sophisticated technology that, spread through email and difficult-to-detect downloads, encrypts the contents of a hard drive, making it impossible to use one’s files. Hackers target unsuspecting users and then claim that their data is being held for ransom — and, once a consumer pays, there’s no guarantee that the data will be unlocked.According to the Federal Trade Commission, after the malware is installed by an unsuspecting computer user, the Cryptolocker crooks send a ransom note demanding hundreds of dollars in payment via Bitcoin or another anonymous payment method before they will unlock the files. Once a consumer pays the ransom, there’s no guarantee that the fraudster will not simply ask for more money.

Even if you pay the ransom, are you really willing to bet that the criminals running this scam will honor their promises and unlock your computer files? Experts say it’s unlikely.

Ransomware has been around for a decade, but the frequency and severity of CryptoLocker scams appears to be on the rise, raking in millions of dollars for crooks.

A study by the University of Kent found that 2 out of every 5 CryptoLocker victims pay the ransom. This malware is especially sneaky, as it can be disguised as JPEG images, as PDF files, as Microsoft Office files, and other innocuous, familiar files. There are even reports that Facebook could be one of the likeliest places to get a CryptoLocker malware. Businesses have also been reported to be victimized by these scams.

It’s not just individuals who are vulnerable. but even computers for whole businesses. ABC 33-40, a news station in Birmingham, Alabama, was hit with the Crypto Locker virus. The director of engineering for ABC 33-40, Ron Thomas, described his station’s experience with the virus. “You buy this $300 Green Dot MoneyPak, you cannot use a credit card for it, it had to be cash or debit card. Once they claim the funds, they unlock your files. If those files had been lost, it could’ve affected 10 years’ worth of work by several departments,” said Thomas in a local news report.

Avoid Cryptolocker and other malware scams!

  1. Back up your files frequently on a separate device (which does not remain connected to your main computer) or use free cloud storage systems that are available online.
  2. Be on the lookout for suspicious looking phishing emails and links. Do not click on links or attachments from untrusted senders.
  3. Consider using ad-filtering applications that are free for your web browser to avoid clicking on suspicious links from ad pop-ups either by accident or by compulsion.

LifeSmarts 20th anniversary season! Countdown to nationals – National Consumers League

ls_championship.jpgFor its 20th anniversary year, NCL has launched an all-new, improved, and rebranded LifeSmarts.org, providing new opportunities for participants and cultivating new partnerships. LifeSmarts has a new Web site with better navigation, usability, and social media integration, and a variety of new coaching and study resources, such as ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum podcasts for LifeSmarts, are available on the site, too.

NCL rolled out a major expansion to LifeSmarts in partnership with the global safety science company Underwriters Laboratories, UL, to provide participants with a community service learning opportunity in their communities. LifeSmarts students are becoming Safety Ambassador, sharing environment and safety lessons with elementary school children in classrooms across the nation. More than 1,000 children have participated in presentations made by LifeSmarts students so far, with many more presentations scheduled before nationals.

LifeSmarts has become an official competitive event open to the 250,000 students involved in Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapters. FBLA participants have the opportunity to compete through FBLA or LifeSmarts – and this year hundreds of teams have taken advantage of the two ways to win. One FBLA team will represent FBLA at nationals in an at-large berth, and as many as 10 other state champions teams are comprised of FBLA members.  In addition, the 24 top FBLA teams will advance to compete live at the FBLA National Leadership Conference in June.

The 2014 season is in the home stretch. The majority of state competitions are taking place in February and March, with 20 state champion teams already determined. The 2013 national champion team from Paxon School for Advanced Studies, in Jacksonville, Florida, will return to defend its title.  At last year’s national competition held in Atlanta, the Florida team took home top honors after competing for four days against 38 state champion teams from across the country.

LifeSmarts is an educational competition run by the National Consumers League to test middle school and high school students nationwide on real-life consumer issues through online quizzes and live competition LifeSmarts provides participants with practical advice and information on consumer issues ranging from personal finance and health and safety to the environment, technology, and consumer rights and responsibilities. Starting online each fall, the competition progresses to live state play-offs, and then builds to a high-spirited National Championship.

Over the years, LifeSmarts has steadily grown in numbers of student and adult participants, state partnerships, and corporate sponsorships. In the most recent season, an estimated 125,000 students and teachers across the country formed nearly 2,000 LifeSmarts teams and answered more than 3.5 million LifeSmarts questions.

This year, LifeSmarts state champion teams from across the country will be treated to the Disney experience, staying at a resort in Orlando on the Disney campus, visiting DisneyWorld, and meeting Timon, a beloved character from Disney’s The Lion King, who also stars in the UL Safety Smart videos.

“The National Consumers League’s mission is to inspire confidence and safety in the marketplace. The LifeSmarts program fosters students’ understanding of consumer issues and provides them with real-world knowledge they will need to take charge of their lives,” said Lisa Hertzberg. “We are looking forward to our best national event ever!”

Target data breach a wake-up call for retailers, policymakers – National Consumers League

92_creditcard.jpgAmericans assume that, when they shop, their personal financial information will be kept private and away from identity thieves. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as evidenced by the more than 4,000 data breaches that have been reported since 2005 — an average of more than one a day over the last nine years. The latest headline-making breach involving the mega retailer Target is making many of us wonder just how safe our data is.

After data breaches occur, the burden for monitoring credit cards and recovering lost funds typically falls squarely on the affected consumers’ shoulders. This can cost the consumer significant time and money. If you think your personal information may have been stolen by cyber thieves in the Target data breach or any other data breach make sure you follow these tips:

  • Check credit card statements and your bank account every day to see if there are any unfamiliar charges. If you see any suspicious activity, report it to your bank immediately.
  • Monitor your credit report. It is a good habit to check your credit report at least once a year. If you think your personal information may have been compromised, check it sooner. Consumers can obtain one free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting agencies via annualcreditreport.com.
  • Stay vigilant. Fraudsters may wait months to use your personal information.

Consumer advocates hope that the scale of the Target data breach will serve as the impetus for much needed data security reform. The time for change is now!

Although consumers’ financial information will never be 100 percent secure, there are things that can be done. Retailers can use advanced encryption technology and more secure firewalls. Credit card companies can encourage the use of “Chip and PIN” technology in their credit cards. Our politicians can pass legislation establishing a national data breach notification standard and urge the Obama Administration to explore incentives and penalties to encourage private sector businesses to better protect consumer data. These changes will not happen without pressure from consumers.

Target has provided a “responses and resources” page for consumers affected by the breach. Click here for more information. The FTC also has information for consumer online here.

Travel plans need to change? Airlines see dollar signs – National Consumers League

92_airtravel_passenger.jpgA central fact of life is that sometimes things happen that consumers can’t expect or plan for. This can make planning for a vacation or other travel a tricky endeavor for even the most careful consumer. An unexpected family illness or injury, for example, could mean that flights to Disney World need to be rescheduled or cancelled altogether. What is a consumer to do? Consider travel insurance? Not so fast.

 

Unfortunately, over the past few years, the airlines have discovered lucrative new ways to profit from these events by raising cancellation and change fees. These fees now stand at $200 per ticket for the four legacy U.S. airlines. For a family of four, if a child breaks an arm at soccer practice or a loved one goes into the hospital, needing to rearrange travel plans could quickly lead to $800 in fees. These fees are big business for the industry. In 2012, the airlines collected more than $2.5 billion in cancellation/change fees, a 176% increase since 2007, according to the Department of Transportation.

What about refundable tickets, you ask? While these tickets, also known as “unrestricted fare” tickets give travelers more flexibility they come at a significant premium over. A NCL analysis of refundable and non-refundable ticket prices found that the cheapest refundable tickets were on average 350% more expensive the cheapest non-refundable ticket for the same flight. Given this disparity, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of consumers opt for restricted, non-refundable. Since 1993, according the DOT, refundable-fare tickets have never accounted for more than 20% of all tickets sold in the U.S.

Given rising cancellation fees and unaffordable refundable tickets, consumers may look to travel insurance as a way to hedge against the risk that travel plans could change. Consumers are likely familiar with these policies thanks to add-on offers at the end of the online ticket-buying process. Unfortunately, the marketing of these policies tends to include misleading language (e.g., “peace of mind is just a click away”) that does not adequately disclose the significant limitations and exclusions of many policies. For airlines, however, selling these policies is almost pure profit. Commissions range from 10-40%. In a $1.9 billion market (including travel-related services), this can mean significant revenue for the airlines.

Caught between rising cancellation fees, unaffordable refundable tickets and misleading travel insurance marketing, consumers are finding that the deck is stacked against them. NCL’s new report, $tuff Happens: Airlines Benefit Handsomely From the Unexpected … and Consumers’ Fears About It, examines these issues and calls for a series of reforms to make the travel industry friendlier to consumers whose plans change unexpectedly.

To address these issues, NCL is recommending the following industry reforms:

  1. Travel insurance policies sold through airline Web sites or online travel agencies should be marketed in clear, non-misleading language – Wording on travel Web sites for travel insurance policies should disclose in large font and plain language important limitations to policies. Consumers should be told where they can find insurance coverage details and informed of the timeframe to purchase travel insurance. Consumers should not be pressured into purchasing travel insurance while shopping for airfares and should not be led to believe that these insurance products are only sold through the ticket checkout process.
  2. Travel insurance loss ratios should be reported – According to the UStiA, 17% of consumers who have purchased travel insurance file a claim at some point. But we do not know how many consumers are ever compensated when they file a claim. The industry should be required to publicly report the loss ratios of their policies, i.e. the percentage of premium dollars paid out in claims.
  3. Tiered cancellation/change fees based on proximity of travel date – The ability of an airline to sell a seat vacated due to a cancelled or changed ticket is greater with more lead time before a particular flight. This should be reflected in a tiered cancellation/change fee policy. Flights cancelled or changed more than 5-10 days prior to the departure date should incur no fee.
  4. Consumers should be able to transfer their tickets without incurring a fee – While some airlines accommodate consumer requests to transfer their unusable ticket to another traveller, this is not standard industry practice and is rarely easily done. With reasonable timeframes in place, consumers should be able to transfer their ticket to another person easily and without incurring a fee.
  5. Congressional oversight hearings should be convened to examine the growth in cancellation fees, disparities in the price of refundable and non-refundable tickets and misleading marketing of travel insurance are needed. The development of an official record regarding the industry practices detailed in this report will help shape necessary legislative or regulatory reforms to establish much-needed basic consumer protections.
  6. Standby fees should be eliminated for missed flights. Consumers who elect to fly standby on the same day in the event of a missed flight should not be required to pay an additional standby fee, which is currently required by many airlines, since it costs the airlines virtually nothing to fill an empty seat.

Weeding through chatter about the ‘ObamaPhone’ – National Consumers League

92_girlcellphone.jpgYou may have heard about the federal Lifeline subsidy program in the news recently. This program has been under scrutiny by Congress, and many believe that the program should be shut down. Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misinformation circulating about the program – dubbed by many as the “Obamaphone.”

To help set the record straight about the program, let’s take a look at what people are saying:

“[Lifeline] is a government run, taxpayer-funded program that’s running wild and costing more and more.”

–Official Web site for Congressman Tim Griffin (R-AR).

Fact: Lifeline is managed by the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC), a federally-chartered not-for-profit corporation that administers money for a variety of telecommunications subsidy programs. In addition to Lifeline, USAC manages programs that make telephone service available in rural areas, provide health care in rural areas and connects schools and libraries to broadband.

Fact: Lifeline is funded by telecommunications companies that provide interstate services, including long-distance telephone companies, wireless carriers and VoIP carriers. These companies are allowed to pass along the cost of this program to their end-users through a line-item fee on customers’ bills (usually listed as “USF Fee”). 

“This phone program has expanded far beyond its original intent, and as so many middle class Americans struggle underneath this economy, it is really offensive for Washington to make taxpayers pay for free cellphones for others,’

–Senator David Vitter (Louisiana) in a May 2013 press release.

Fact: The Lifeline program has grown considerably since the program was expanded to subsidize wireless phone service in addition to landline phone service. However, recent reforms have reduced spending by $178 million and the FCC estimates that these reforms will save $2 billion by the end of 2014.

Fact: Whether one considers a fee like the Universal Service Fee to be a “tax,” or not, the Lifeline program helps millions of consumers afford one of the basic necessities of modern life – access to telecommunications. According to a 2011 study by the New Millennium Research Council, (49 percent) of Lifeline subscribers said the cell phone had “improved their financial situation by helping them find or keep work.” For those working or looking for work, the numbers were higher (63 percent); surprisingly, even the retired (39 percent) and disabled (38 percent) said the phone had helped improve their financial situation. Significantly more African Americans (57 percent) than white Americans (43 percent) said the phone had improved their financial situation. According to the NMRC study, the LifeLine wireless subsidy generates a return $1.08 in economic activity for every dollar invested in the program.

“Obama claims a small cut to federal means losing local police and firefighters, but he’s spending $2.2 billion to give away ‘ObamaPhones.’”

Tweet by Congressman Steve Stockman, Texas (@SteveWorks4You), February 22, 2013

Fact: The Lifeline program is financed by the Universal Service Fee on telephone bills, not by annual budget appropriations. Even if the Lifeline program were ended, it would not affect federal budget appropriations for local police and firefighters not would it reduce the federal budget deficit or the national debt.

“Nobody should be talking about tax hikes when govt is spending taxpayer dollars on free cell phones.”

Tweet by House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio (@SpeakerBoehner), February 19, 2013.

Fact: The Lifeline program subsidizes telephone service, not the telephones themselves. Companies that offer “free” cell phones recoup the cost of the handset through profits generated by the subsidized cell phone service.

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.