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Consumer Action INSIDER - May 2011

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What people are saying

Our organization provides financial literacy outreach to numerous groups, including several who service transitional housing populations. We have found that the [Consumer Action] MoneyWi$e financial education program is well received by these individuals due to the fact the modules are not lengthy and you can select those that will best meet the individual needs of each particular audience. Novadebt's workshops are the financial literacy component of their “Life Skills” programs and the MoneyWi$e program modules help to facilitate educating the participants to make their own decisions and set goals. Everybody wins; the participant, their children and the community. —Becky Winters, Education Developer, Novadebt

Tip of the month: Be smart about smartphones

Thinking of getting a smartphone or other data-ready mobile device? First, go to our WirelessED site to learn about mobile data, networks, devices and service plans.

Consumer Action awarded $1 million HUD grant

In March Consumer Action received a $1 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for a national media and outreach project to inform consumers of their fair housing rights and to train community-based organizations about fair housing.

Consumer Action was one of 108 groups receiving grants in a $40 million HUD initiative to fight housing discrimination across the country. Consumer Action has chosen two DC-area firms, Sage Communications and The Hastings Group, as subcontractors for its nationwide multilingual media campaign.

The Hastings Group and Sage Communications bring years of experience in advertising, public relations and strategic marketing for clients around the globe. The companies will develop television, radio, print and web public service announcements in English, Spanish and Asian languages as well as designing a social media outreach campaign.

Consumer Action will handle the education and training component of the project by creating a comprehensive educational module and holding train-the-trainer roundtables in three U.S. cities. The educational module will include two multilingual brochures and a training packet with a curriculum, PowerPoint slides and training exercises. Consumer Action will post the materials in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese on its website and promote the free materials to the 8,000 community based organizations in its national network. It will distribute more than 150,000 printed publications to consumers with the assistance of its network agencies. The three roundtables will train more than 125 CBO staff on effective use of the materials.

Consumer Action worked with HUD on a similar project in the late 1990s and is pleased to continue working with the agency on this important issue. “With Sage Communications and The Hastings Group, we’ve put together a strong project,” says Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action. “We’re going to use our combined strengths to fight the housing discrimination that still exists in our communities.”

Housing discrimination remains a major problem in America—despite a decades-long commitment to eradicate it by lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal and state agencies. Tens of thousands of Americans continue to be illegally denied homes or given unacceptable terms or conditions in housing. In order for the goals of the Fair Housing Act and HUD to be realized, Americans need to know their rights and responsibilities under the law.

There is increased concern among fair housing advocates that the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population are likely to be the least familiar with their rights under the law, as well as the most linguistically isolated. Minorities, especially Hispanics, have accounted for the lion's share of U.S. population growth in the last 10 years, according to the Census report released in 2009. The Consumer Action project will focus on educating limited English speakers and minority consumers.

For more information about the award, including a complete list of recipients, click here to read HUD's press release.

New Consumer Action staffers

Consumer Action is proud to welcome two new staff members in its San Francisco and DC offices.

Vickie Tse has joined the San Francisco office as a hotline counselor, where she will work with Consumer Services Manager Joe Ridout to answer and process consumer complaints via telephone and online Help Desk.

Alegra Howard joined Consumer Action's DC office as a part-time national priorities associate in late March. She is assisting the DC office with editorial and policy work.

Vickie Tse

Tse received a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations from the University of California at Berkley and her Master’s in Accountancy from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Having previously worked as a member of Consumer Action’s administrative team, Tse has been schooled on organization’s materials ordering system and other support functions at the group’s busy San Francisco headquarters. Tse volunteers her time at Tax-Aid to coordinate volunteers to prepare tax returns for low-income families in the Bay Area. She's also studying for her upcoming certified public accountant (CPA) exam.

Alegra Howard

A Bay Area native, Alegra Howard’s policy interests are in the areas of technology and internet privacy. Before working as a EMILY's List campaign consultant on Annise Parker’s city controller race in Houston, Texas, Howard received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Villanova University. From there she went to Ohio to join the team at America Coming Together (ACT), where she worked on state-wide field and GOTV strategy in its state headquarters office during the 2004 Presidential election. Howard then returned to California and joined the labor movement, working with International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 21 (AFL-CIO), on several organizing campaigns around the Bay Area.

As a senior development associate with the youth-sports non-profit, Positive Coaching Alliance, Howard worked with corporate and private donors in the Bay Area and New York City. Most recently, she worked with the Silicon Valley-based technology company, Cisco Systems, supporting its global marketing organization as a project specialist.

Howard moved to DC last fall to attend the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland in College Park. She is a Masters of Public Policy candidate specializing in Management Finance and Leadership.

Web spotlight: Consumer Action’s Consumer Service Guide

One of Consumer Action’s most valuable websites is its Consumer Services Guide (CSG). One of a number of subsites run by the organization, the CSG is a comprehensive database of organizations and agencies dedicated to helping individuals resolve a wide range of consumer issues. From attorneys general to workplace issues, the CSG features 44 comprehensive subject categories. The user simply logs onto www.consumerservicesguide.org and selects from one of several ways to display the growing list of resources, including a convenient search by one’s location.

The CSG has become a valuable tool for consumers seeking help with complaints. All too often, consumers aren’t able to resolve disputes because they do not know where to turn or what questions to ask. The CSG provides a solution to this problem. A person who has fallen victim to deceptive television and Internet ads can click on “Fraud” and pinpoint the agency responsible for handling specific cases. Consumers concerned about tainted food, can click on “Food Safety” to find the right agency who can answer direct questions about meats and other food products.

The CSG also serves as a resource repository for non-consumer issues. A spouse who suffers abuse can click on Legal Assistance and find free and culturally sensitive assistance for battered women. Persons with disabilities who have experienced discrimination will find a Disability Services page as well as a Discrimination page with over 90 listings to help the consumer take action against the offending entity.

In the age of the World Wide Web, the problem is not a lack of information but how easy it is to find appropriate resources. Consumer Action has eliminated the need to scour individual websites by providing a centralized directory of helpful resources. The CSG, coupled with Consumer Action's free national hotline, puts a solid advocate on the side of the consumer.

Amicus briefing: Maintaining the democracy of the Internet

In March, Consumer Action submitted an amicus brief with the National Consumers League, Consumers Union and the U.S. Student Association in the case of Viacom v. YouTube, in support of TouTube/Google, the defendants. A lower court had ruled that that YouTube (owned by Google) is protected against claims of copyright infringement by the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The decision held that online services like YouTube are protected when they work cooperatively and quickly with copyright holders to help manage their rights.

Viacom filed an appeal, bringing the case to the Second Circuit appeals court.

Filed with the Second Circuit, the amicus brief prepared by Anthony P. Schoenberg of the San Francisco law firm Farella Braun + Martel LLP states: “Websites like YouTube have revolutionized the media by democratizing it. There is no doubt that this revolution has benefited independent authors, filmmakers and musicians whose success is now determined more by talent and popularity than by the whim of media-outlet gatekeepers. But this democratization of the media has also directly and undoubtedly benefited their audience—the workers, consumers, and students that amici represent. [...] It is not an overstatement to suggest that this case has the potential to decide whether the internet continues to be the transformational forum for the exchange of ideas and the conduct of commerce that it is today.

User-generated content websites may cease to exist without the Safe Harbor provisions of the DMCA, which allow copyright owners to monitor user-generated content websites and identify material subject to copyright for take-down. The safe harbor gives cooperating companies an opportunity to avoid liability for copyrighted content uploaded by their users because they agree to remove the material when they are notified of a copyright infringement.

Billions of people around the world use the web to communicate and share information on user-generated sites. Without the DMCA safe harbor, such sites could not exist, as it would be impossible for site owners to police the hundreds of thousands of items uploaded to popular sites like YouTube.

Consumer Action has added a new section of its website to list amicus briefs. Click here. This section also can be located under the About section on our home page.

Hotline Chronicles: Foreclosure rescue scams

Carla* from Northern California wrote to Consumer Action’s hotline recently to ask how she could get a mortgage modification without falling victim to fraud. Like Carla, cash-strapped homeowners often seek a loan modification in the hope of avoiding foreclosure. (Foreclosure is the legal process that your mortgage lender uses to take your home when you fall behind on your mortgage payments.)

Carla is smart because she knows that mortgage “mod” scams exist and she wants to avoid falling prey to them. Many times fraudsters may come knocking because they target at-risk homeowners after finding their names and addresses in foreclosure notices in newspapers, on the Internet and in public filings. They also advertise with catchy messages designed to attract desperate homeowners.

“Unfortunately, many companies use half-truths and even outright lies to sell their services,” said Ruth Susswein of Consumer Action. “They promise relief, but don't deliver. In fact, many of these companies leave homeowners in worse financial shape than before.”

Deed transfer scams

Sometimes troubled homeowners believe they can quickly sell their homes and get out from under the burden of their mortgages. Scammers capitalize on this by offering to take over your mortgage payments if you transfer your home's deed to them. Most lenders don't allow you to transfer the deed while you still owe money on your mortgage, and if you do, the lender can demand that you pay the mortgage in full, immediately.

Even worse, you gave the scammer a deed to your home, allowing him to "skim" your equity by taking out a home equity loan or line of credit tied to the property. But once the crook gets the proceeds of the home equity loan he disappears and lets the property go into foreclosure. Because you are still the named mortgage holder, you will be named in the foreclosure proceeding and the bank will report the default on your credit. In some states you could still owe money even after a foreclosure because the bank sold the home for less than the mortgage amount.

Dos and don’ts

Don’t:

  • Sign anything that you do not fully understand. If you are unsure, have all documents reviewed by an attorney, a trusted real estate professional, or a counselor at a HUD-approved non-profit housing counseling agency.
  • Deed your property over to anyone. Signing your home over to someone else does not relieve you of your mortgage obligation.
  • Let someone assume the loan without the lender’s permission and without their formally releasing you from liability for the mortgage.
  • Move out of your house because someone promises to make the mortgage payments for you.
  • Pay money for any foreclosure prevention help.

Do:

  • Be suspicious of anyone, other than your lender, who contacts you with a loan or service they promise will solve your money troubles and save your home.
  • Avoid high-pressure lenders, or those who encourage you to pay an upfront fee for any service or loan, borrow more than the value of the home, or take on a loan without considering your ability to make the payments.
  • Get all terms and promises in writing.
  • Be on the lookout for terms that change or are not disclosed at the beginning of the loan process.
  • Avoid any refinancing loan with exorbitant fees, a stiff prepayment penalty, an excessively high interest rate, or a balloon payment. (If you’re not sure whether the loan you’re being offered includes any of these abusive terms, have someone you trust review them for you.)
  • Check for complaints about any company that offers to buy your home. Contact your state’s consumer protection office (click here to find your office) or your state’s real estate regulator (click here to find your regulator).
  • If you do fall prey to a mortgage related scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission online (www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov) or by phone (877-FTC-HELP (382-4357) and submit a complaint to your state’s Attorney General. Find your state AG’s contact information at National Association of Attorneys General website (www.naag.org).
Reputable assistance resources

Consumer Action believes the best defense against being scammed is to contact a reputable consumer assistance agency to learn what help is available to struggling homeowners. We recommend the following resources for advice and assistance:

  • Non-profit counselors approved by the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). To find a counselor, call 800-569-4287 or visit www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hcs.cfm.
  • Affordable Housing Centers of America. Call 888-409-3557 or visit www.ahcoa.org. Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
  • Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) Home Save program.
  • Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline or by phone at 888-995-HOPE (4673). Free foreclosure prevention counseling in more than 170 languages.
  • The National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s Housing Counseling Network. NCRC assists struggling homeowners negotiate with their lenders to bring their mortgages current. Call 800-475-6272 or visit www.ncrc.org/programs-issues/housing-counseling.
  • Making Home Affordable offers a web-based assessment tool that can help you determine if you are eligible to refinance or modify your home loan. Visit www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.
  • Money Management International’s PHASES (Preserving Home Ownership And Savings Education Strategy) program provides qualified homeowners with grants to pay outstanding debts and one-on-one financial counseling sessions to help keep families in their homes. Participants must take part in housing counseling and Internet-based education sessions. Call 888-589-6959 or visit www.mmiphases.com.
  • To find attorneys who represent consumers, visit the National Association of Consumer Advocates (www.naca.net) to use its Find An Attorney search engine.

These are some of the large lenders that offer specific assistance for their existing mortgage customers facing trouble:

Click here to submit a complaint to Consumer Action’s hotline: http://www.consumer-action.org/hotline/complaint_form/

*Not this consumer’s real name.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a nonprofit organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective, and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.

Financial Education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of education resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth financial information, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. Consumer Action also publishes an unbiased Annual Credit Card Survey that exposes excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.

Community Outreach. With a special focus on serving low to moderate income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of more than 8,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Consumer Action’s rapidly expanding network is the largest and most diverse of its kind.

Advocacy. Consumer Action is deeply committed to ensuring that underrepresented consumers are represented in the national media and in front of lawmakers. The organization promotes pro-consumer policy, regulations, and legislation by taking positions on almost 200 bills per legislative session and testifying at least three times per year. Additionally, its diverse staff provides the media with expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data and victim testimony.

Click here to learn more about our staff.

 

Tags/Keywords

scams, fraud, insider, mortgage scams


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