In Fine Print, Airlines Make It Harder to Fight for Passenger Rights

From today’s New York Times:

As air travel reopens and flight bookings begin to creep up, AvGeeks — aviation geeks — and others may notice some new legalese in the fine print when they buy plane tickets. More and more carriers are adding clauses that require passengers to settle disputes with the airline in private arbitration, rather than in court, and bar passengers from starting or joining class-action lawsuits.

In early April, American Airlines updated its contract of carriage, a standard industry document that outlines the legal responsibilities of a ticket holder and an airline, with a class-action waiver. British Airways followed in late May, adding a class-action waiver and binding arbitration agreement in the terms and conditions of Executive Club, its loyalty program, for residents of the United States and Canada. British Airways notified members by email.

“What the airline is saying is: If you ever have a dispute with us, the only way you can pursue this is in private,” said Deborah Hensler, Ph.D., a professor of law at Stanford Law School. “These types of agreements are usually an effort to prevent people from having an effective way of challenging a company on what might arguably be a legal violation.”

The timing hardly seems coincidental. Airlines of all sizes are being sued for withholding billions of dollars from passengers whose flights were canceled because of Covid-19. American Airlines was named in a class-action lawsuit in April; a similar one was filed against British Airways in early May. Also in April, separate but similar class actions were filed against the low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, both of which had “No Class Action” clauses in their contracts of carriage before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

These lawsuits have more than 100 class members and seek more than $5 million in combined claims. All claim that the airlines are either breaching their own contracts of carriage — which usually codifies a passenger’s right to a cash refund when a flight is canceled — or sidestepping a Department of Transportation policy that requires airlines to give refunds when flights to, from or within the United States are canceled. Or both.

In a statement, a spokesman for American Airlines said the new class-action waiver is meant to “ensure that customers have an avenue to pursue and resolve disputes with us, including by filing an individual lawsuit. We remain committed to resolving issues customer-by-customer when they arise.”

Read the complete article here.

New Privacy Bills Aim to Protect Health Data During the Pandemic

From today’s Consumer Reports Online:

Tech companies are developing new contact-tracing apps, sharing people’s location information with health researchers, and taking other steps to put consumer data to work in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Now, lawmakers are writing laws to ensure the increased surveillance doesn’t also end up hurting consumers.

Over the past two weeks, legislators in the House and Senate proposed competing privacy bills that would establish safeguards.

The bills differ in some big ways, but both include rules mandating transparency and consent, and controlling the use of data for purposes other than public health. The first, the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act, was introduced by Senate Republicans last week. Democrats introduced a counterproposal today, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act. 

Tech companies are taking a variety of approaches to collecting and sharing consumer data in the wake of the pandemic.

A Facebook survey conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University is tracking symptoms to look for new hot spots around the country. Ancestry and 23andMe are using their collections of DNA data to search for genetic clues that might predict how severely a patient will react to a coronavirus infection. Apple and Google joined forces to build a contact tracing technology that uses Bluetooth signals from cell phones to identify and notify people who have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus. And businesses from location data brokers to smart thermometer companies are repurposing other kinds of data for public health research.

Public health experts have mixed opinions on whether the efforts will provide useful tools for containing the pandemic. But even tools that do help can also introduce serious privacy concerns.

“It’s all very well intentioned, but there is a huge risk here that there could be some really pernicious discrimination, especially when you think about how this virus is disproportionately affecting African Americans, Hispanics, older Americans, and other marginalized communities,” says David Brody, counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that endorsed the Democrats’ Public Health Emergency Privacy Act.

Read the compete article here.

California considers unprecedented $25 billion recovery fund and rental relief

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on Monday. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.”

The proposals are scheduled to be formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Sacramento, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom sends lawmakers a plan to erase a short-term budget deficit that could total more than $54 billion.

Neither the renter-assistance program nor the economic recovery fund would have a direct effect on the state budget in the coming weeks and months. Still, lawmakers believe both ideas could boost California’s shattered economy.

The unconventional effort to help renters would ask landlords to forgive rent payments in exchange for equally sized tax credits spread out over a 10-year period starting in 2024. The tax credits would be transferable, meaning the property owner could sell them to an outside investor and get cash immediately.

“This is a substantive proposal that protects those who are struggling to afford their rent and also keeps rental properties from going into foreclosure,” state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said. “This equitable strategy will keep people housed.”

Some local governments have already stepped up to address concerns about renters being evicted during the public health crisis, promoting a variety of rental assistance programs. Pending legislation at the state Capitol also seeks to prevent evictions during the coronavirus state of emergency, which was declared by Newsom in March and has no targeted end date.

Read the complete article here.

Airlines issued billions in vouchers but can consumers get cash refunds

From today’s MarketWatch Online:

While airlines are providing refunds when they cancel flights, very few carriers are doing so when a customer proactively chooses to cancel a trip because of the coronavirus outbreak, a new report from a group of Democratic lawmakers charges.

U.S. Senators Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Kamala Harris released the findings of an investigation into airline procedures in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Air travel has all but come to a halt as the number of COVID-19 cases around the world has continued to grow. Passenger volume is down some 97%, according to industry trade group Airlines for America, reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. The average flight today is only transporting 10 passengers, down from around 100 before the coronavirus crisis, the group notes.

As the coronavirus crisis worsened, airlines quickly began adopting relaxed policies allowing passengers to receive travel vouchers and to rebook trips without incurring fees if they wanted to change their travel plans. But airlines have been stingier when it comes to providing full refunds.

In total, U.S. carriers are sitting on more than $10 billion in customer cash in the form of vouchers, based on the lawmakers’ calculations. While most airlines refused to confirm the value of the vouchers they had extended, the senators used data provided by JetBlue to reach that amount.

“If these companies released that money back to the public, it would provide a significant stimulus for struggling families,” the senators said in a joint statement. “That’s why we once again urge the airlines to end their anti-consumer policies and offer real refunds during this emergency.”

The Democratic lawmakers sent inquiries to 11 airlines. JetBlue said in its response to the senators’ inquiry that it issued more than $20 million per day in vouchers to consumers in the first few weeks of March. The senators reached the $10 billion figure based on JetBlue’s domestic market share, assuming that the trend was even across the month of March and across the industry.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS could upend consumer financial protection as we know it

From today’s CNBC News Online:

A case before the Supreme Court has the power dramatically to reshape how the U.S. government polices financial fraud and other misdeeds against consumers — which many experts fear would weaken existing protections and expose the public to more harm.

The case, which concerns the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ultimately could lead to the dissolution of the agency, which lawmakers created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was bestowed with broad powers to issue and enforce consumer-protection rules in areas such as banking, student loans, credit reporting, mortgages, payday loans and debt collection.

Depending on their verdict, Supreme Court justices could also diminish states’ power to investigate and punish financial wrongdoing.

“It would be effectively a big rollback in the consumer protection enforcement authorities,” said Christopher Peterson, the director of financial services and a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group. “There would be fewer deterrents [for financial institutions] to use tricks and traps” to ensnare the American public, he said.

Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 when it passed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, giving it a mission to protect Americans from unfair, deceptive and abusive financial practices. At the time, families were grappling with the effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, perpetuated by irresponsible lending practices that reverberated across the U.S. and global economies.

Oversight of consumer finance was previously “scattered across government” and laws “escaped regular federal oversight,” according to the CFPB website. The CFPB has collected billions of dollars in penalties from financial companies for wrongdoing. Its largest, for $2.13 billion in 2013, was levied against mortgage servicing firm Ocwen Financial Corp. and a subsidiary for allegedly putting thousands of people at risk for losing their homes.

The agency has recovered more than $12 billion for consumers to date, according to a Consumer Federation of America report published in March last year. The agency’s activity has dropped off under the Trump administration, the report says.

Read the complete article here.

Data Privacy: What Californians can do about creepy data collection in 2020

From today’s The Mercury News:

Starting New Year’s Day, Californians creeped out by the trove of personal data companies collect on their online shopping, searching and social media habits will get sweeping new privacy rights that will let them opt out of having their information sold or shared and let them demand that it be deleted.

“This is really a watershed moment for consumers,” said Scott W. Pink, a Menlo Park lawyer who advises companies on cybersecurity and privacy. “It’s the first law in the United States outside specialized industries like health care that provides consumers some degree of control and access over data collected on them.”

The California Consumer Privacy Act approved in June 2018 was inspired by public outrage over data breaches at major companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and Equifax that exposed consumers to potential fraud and misuse of their personal information, and by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The new law requires that businesses disclose their data gathering and sharing practices and allows consumers to opt out of it and to demand that businesses delete collected information on them. It prohibits companies from penalizing consumers with higher rates or fewer services for exercising their privacy rights and from selling information about children under age 16 without their explicit consent.

But questions continue to swirl as companies scramble to comply. The state attorney general is still finalizing proposed regulations intended to guide consumers and businesses in order to meet a July deadline when enforcement is expected to begin.

And both consumer and business advocates continue to spar over whether the new privacy provisions go too far or not far enough, with proposed state and federal substitutes in the works.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: One Man Can Bring Equifax to Justice (and Get You Your Money)

From today’s New York Times:

On Dec. 19, District Judge Thomas Thrash of Atlanta will hold a final approval hearing for the Equifax 2017 data breach settlement. There’s a lot at stake. If the settlement is approved, the $31 million pool earmarked for claims will be paid out to some victims. Others will get free credit monitoring (because the cash reward set aside for victims was so small, if all 147 million people affected by the breach filed a claim, everyone would get just 21 cents).

There’s another option. As I wrote in a September column, victims could file a formal, legal objection, which would nullify the settlement. If Judge Thrash finds those objections convincing, Equifax’s class-action counsel wouldn’t receive their $77.5 million fee and Equifax would be liable again to face a substantial penalty for the breach. I’m happy to report quite a few people — maybe even a record number — did just that.

Over the past month Reuben Metcalfe, the founder of Class Action Inc., helped 911 individuals object (another 294 objected but did not provide signatures by the Nov. 19 deadline) by creating a chatbot tool that allowed victims to file objections automatically for the Equifax settlement at no cost (Class Action Inc. waived its 5 percent fee for Equifax). Theodore H. Frank, a lawyer who specializes in class-action suits, has jumped in the ring himself along with another victim, David Watkins. Frank’s objections, which are more formal and detailed than Metcalfe’s many automated ones, argue that the settlement is too broad and doesn’t take into account state-by-state protections for data breaches (in Utah, where Watkins lives, victims could claim damages up to $2,000).

Now it’s up to Judge Thrash to sift through the settlement and its objections and decide. Thanks to Metcalfe and Frank, he’s likely to be feeling some pressure. Back in September a class-action lawyer told me that even if only 1,000 people object, it can send a powerful message. Frank is hopeful the settlement will look weak on its own merits. “If the judge gives an honest look, he’ll realize it doesn’t meet muster,” he told me recently.

I’d argue there’s even more resting on Judge Thrash’s shoulders, including whether companies can get away with abusing our data in the future. Metcalfe, who has steeped himself in the world of class-action suits, suggested that the settlements, initially a method for accountability, have become a mechanism for companies to knowingly skirt liability for not protecting consumers. “It’s becoming cheaper to say sorry after the fact than to obey the law in the first place,” he told me.

This feels especially true in the world of data privacy, where breaches are so frequent that a discovery last week of an open database containing the personal information of 1.2 billion people hardly made news. We seem locked in a vicious cycle: Companies that gather and trade data have few checks or regulations. This allows them to collect more, which means more money. And deeper pockets make it harder to impose meaningful penalties that might deter repeat and future offenders (see: the Federal Trade Commission’s $5 billion slap on the wrist of Facebook). Judge Thrash, then, has a unique opportunity to make a statement by objecting.

Read the complete article here.

CA Senate Approves State Rent Control Capping Increases at 5% Plus Inflation

From today’s KTLA5 News Online:

California lawmakers on Tuesday moved to cap annual rent increases statewide for most tenants as a limited housing supply in the country’s most populous state continues to drive up the cost of living while pushing more people to the streets.

The California Senate voted 25-10 to cap rent increases at 5% each year plus inflation for the next decade while banning landlords from evicting tenants without just cause. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom says he will sign the bill into law, but first it must survive a final vote in the state Assembly where the California Association of Realtors is pushing to defeat it. Lawmakers must act by Friday.

California’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, have some form of rent control, but a state law passed in 1995 has restricted new rent control laws since that year. In most places, landlords can raise rents at any time and for any reason, as long as they give advance notice.

In Pomona, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Yesenia Miranda Meza says her rent has jumped 20% in the past two years. Monday, she marched with other tenants through the halls of the state Capitol chanting: “Once I’ve paid my rent, all my money’s spent.”

“I’m a rent increase away from eviction, and that’s with me having two jobs,” she said “So if this (bill) doesn’t go through and I get another rent increase, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m either going to be homeless or I’ll have to cram into a room with a whole bunch of other people.”

Opponents have likened the proposal to rent control — a more restrictive set of limitations on landlords. California voters overwhelmingly rejected in a statewide ballot initiative to overturn the 1995 law last year.

Read the complete article here.

The Consumer Bureau’s Reckless Plan for Debt Collection

From today’s Wired Magazine:

WE LEARN IN email 101 that hyperlinks from unfamiliar senders are breeding grounds for scams. Microsoft has warned against clicking on foreign links for decades. The Federal Trade Commission has repeatedly cautioned Americans to be wary of malware and phishing expeditions. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission alerted consumers to a new cyber threat it dubbed “smishing”—targeting consumers with deceptive text or SMS messages—and urged consumers to “never click links, reply to text messages or call numbers you don’t recognize.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau apparently skipped these lessons. Despite many warnings, the CFPB has proposed a rule that could require consumers to click on hyperlinks in unfamiliar emails. The proposal allows debt collectors to deliver important information about a debt and a consumer’s rights via links in text messages and emails—without first obtaining consent to electronic communications, as is normally required under federal law.

Debt collectors are required to send a “validation notice” that tells a consumer when a debt has been placed in collection and that the consumer has the right to get information to be able to verify or dispute it. When Congress enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in 1977, it considered the validation notice critical to minimizing mistaken identity and errors on the amount or existence of a debt.

The risk of collectors going after the wrong person or wrong amount is much greater today. Since 1977, a new industry has bloomed: debt buying. As director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, I initiated a 2013 study that found nine of the largest debt buyers alone collectively held a debt of $143 billion from more than 90 million consumers. (As of 2017, two of the largest debt buyers, Encore Capital Group and Portfolio Recovery Associates, held a combined debt of$17.6 billion, about the GDP of Iceland.) Debt buyers sell and resell debts for years on end, typically without account records verifying that the debts are accurate, making the validation notice even more essential. Without one, a consumer won’t be told how to dispute a debt, and they may be harassed for a debt they do not owe. According to an analysis of the CFPB’s complaint database, 44 percent of complaints against debt collectors concern attempts to collect a debt that the complainant does not owe. Worse yet, the collector could report the debt to credit reporting agencies, damaging the person’s credit, or even bring suit.

Read the complete article here.

Robocall Bill Wins Approval in the House

From Consumer Reports Online:

A crackdown on robocalls moved one step closer Wednesday after the House voted 429-3 to increase consumer protections against the unsolicited and annoying phone calls.

The bill, known as the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, builds on the TRACED Act passed by the Senate in May. The House and the Senate now need to reconcile the two bills before sending the legislation to the White House for the President’s signature. That’s expected to happen in the fall.

In addition to giving regulators stronger enforcement tools, the House bill would require phone carriers to implement call identification technology and mandate that the Federal Communications Commission report to Congress annually on the state of robocalls.

On Tuesday, 80 consumer rights groups, including Consumer Reports and the National Consumer Law Center, sent a letter to Congress urging passage of the bill. The wireless industry trade group CTIA also supports it.

To date, there have been 29 billion robocalls in 2019, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking and tracking firm. “That’s nearly 90 calls per person in the U.S.,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.

The blocking and tracking firm Truecaller estimates that consumers lost $10.5 billion to phone scams in 2018.

Read the complete article here.