Comcast faces $9.1 million penalty for violating consumer protection laws

From today’s Seattle Times:

Comcast violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act by charging nearly 31,000 residents without their knowledge for a service-protection plan, a King County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.

But the order by Judge Timothy Bradshaw also rejected parts of what started as a $100 million lawsuit alleging “deceptive” practices surrounding repair fees and credit checks brought against the Philadelphia-based company by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2016.

Ferguson in late 2017 expanded that complaint to include allegations about the service-protection plans. Those plans — which at that time cost $5.99 per month — are intended to cover repairs for customer-owned wiring related to Xfinity voice, TV and internet service.

In Thursday’s order, Bradshaw imposed $9.1 million in civil penalties against Comcast. He directed the company to pay additional money in restitution to the affected customers within 60 days, according to a news release from the Attorney General’s Office.

The ruling found that Comcast had signed up 30,946 Washington residents to the plan without their consent, according to the news release. Additionally, the company did not reveal the true cost of the plan to another 18,660 state residents.

Read the complete article here.

Google workers want to end mandatory arbitration—Here’s why this matters

From today’s Washington Post:

Employees at Google recently organized a phone drive to lobby Congress to end the practice of mandatory or forced arbitration, in which an arbitrator — typically designated by the company — resolves a legal dispute, rather than a judge.

Over the last three decades, more and more corporations have forced their employees or customers to sign these contracts, agreeing to take their disputes to private arbitration instead of to court. A recent studyestimates that currently more than 60 million U.S. workers signed these mandatory arbitration agreements when they were hired. Anotherfound that, last year, consumers signed almost three times as many consumer arbitration agreements as there are people living in the U.S.

Arbitration’s spread has become controversial. Many on the left criticize it, while many conservatives support it. So it may be surprising that liberal reformers were the first to make arbitration popular. Here’s how the Supreme Court and Congress helped change arbitration from a liberal cause to conservative rallying cry.ADVERTISING

Businesses win — and employees lose — more often in arbitration than in court

Arbitration produces clear winners and losers. Employees win less frequently and receive lower damages in arbitration than in litigation. Employers win more frequently, especially if they use the same arbitrators repeatedly. That’s hardly surprising, given that the employers typically choose the arbitrators. Given recent public criticism, many prominent companies have discontinued mandatory arbitration requirements for sexual harassment claims.

The Supreme Court has helped expand private arbitration. Just last week, in Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, conservatives decided that workers cannot join to bring similar complaints against a company through class arbitration unless their contracts specifically allow it. The 5-4 majority opinion relied heavily upon a controversial case from last term, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis.

These cases are just the latest in a three decades-long trajectory toward disallowing anything that discourages private arbitration, as part of a larger political strategy employed by business-friendly conservatives in Congress, the courts, and the private sector to constrict both access to courts and class-action lawsuits.

Read the complete article here..

Spending Is as Easy as Pushing a Button. The Hard Part? Keeping Track.

From today’s New York Times:

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for tracking budgets?

This may sound strange coming from a personal finance reporter, but I’m not a big fan of traditional budgets — I don’t think they work. I try to keep my own spending in check by taking the reverse approach. Instead of tracking every dollar, I focus on what we need to save for: retirement, college or some other goal. After you’ve automated your savings goals and created a bit of a cushion for emergencies, you’re freer to spend without thinking too hard or feeling too guilty. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s better than a failed budget.

That method won’t necessarily work in all situations, especially if you need to tackle debt or establish a stricter spending plan in retirement. And everyone can benefit from tracking personal spending, even if you do it only for a few months or check in only every quarter.

Mint has been around for a while, but it is still a solid way to take stock of where all of your money is going and whether your net worth is moving in the right direction. It also allows you to create a budget, and alerts you when you’ve spent too much. I use it infrequently, and there’s usually at least one kink I need to work out whenever I log in; most recently, it counted all of my retirement accounts twice, which was kind of cruel.

Which basic tools would you recommend for people to increase their savings and investments?

It’s not so much a tool but a technology: automation. After you’ve settled on a low-cost investment provider such as Vanguard, automation is the surest way to set yourself up for success. Automate as much as you can — your Roth I.R.A. contributions, your kids’ 529 college savings accounts. If you have an employer-provided retirement plan like a 401(k), see if it will allow you to automatically increase the percentage you’re saving each year. If not, set a date in your electronic calendar to remind you to revisit all of those amounts annually.

I also like the little revolution that the roboadvisers have started. They lean heavily on technology to help invest and manage your money, though more of them are increasingly integrating human advisers. Betterment and Wealthfront have free tools that will let you play with various goals and savings amounts to see how long it will take you to save what you need.

Read the complete article here.

“Unqualified” Trump appointee set to take over consumer protection agency

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

If all goes according to Republican plan, this is the week a person with no experience in consumer protection will take over the consumer watchdog agency that the party has been steadily weakening to the point of irrelevancy.

Kathy Kraninger, a White House budget official, received the green light for final approval last week after Republican senators shut down debate on her nomination with a party-line vote of 50 to 49. The only wild card is whether memorial services for former President George H.W. Bush will delay action by a few days.

Kraninger would replace White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who has been leading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on an interim basis and fulfilling President Trump’s pledge to make the agency friendlier to the businesses it was intended to crack down on — banks, payday lenders and others.

“If the Senate approves this unqualified acolyte of Mick Mulvaney, who has no consumer protection or financial regulation experience, expect her to simply follow his playbook,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

That means Kraninger will “leave service members and their families at the mercy of predatory lenders, work with payday lenders to eliminate the payday lending rule even Congress was afraid to vote to repeal, and reduce enforcement penalties, if any, to parking tickets, not punishments,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

Senate approves measure assuring airline passengers of consumer rights

From today’s ABC News Online:

The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would give airline passengers new rights and should help make an often frustrating experience easier.

But the bill, which authorizes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, doesn’t tackle those pesky airline baggage fees — a big win for the airlines.

No bumping passengers who have already boarded

This is a direct result of the April 2017 incident when United Airlines passenger David Dao was bloodied and dragged off an aircraft after refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Shortly after the highly-publicized incident, domestic carriers put an end to the practice of asking already-seated passengers to give up their seats. This bill would make that policy change federal law.

No mid-flight cell phone calls

Just because the flight has Wi-Fi, doesn’t mean passengers are allowed to make that business call. The bill would order the Department of Transportation to prohibit customers from making voice calls between takeoff and landing.

Accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers

Gate agents have long allowed pregnant women to board early along with families with small children, but this bill orders DOT to make that the law. In addition, it requires large and medium-sized airports to provide clean, accessible private rooms for nursing mothers. Changing tables will also have to be in both men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Department of Transportation will provide grants to help airport make the changes.

Orders seat size minimums

The measure, which now goes to the president for his signature, orders the FAA to establish minimum seat standards in pitch (the distance between rows of seats) and width within of year of the president’s signature. Consumer advocates have long argued that shrinking seats create a safety issue, but the FAA presented evidence that evacuating passengers end up waiting in the aisle anyway and current seat sizes have no effect on whether a plane can be emptied in 90 seconds as regulations require.

Read the complete article here.

Freezing Credit Will Now Be Free. Here’s Why You Should Go for It.

From today’s New York Times:

Consumers will soon be able to freeze their credit files without charge. So if you have not yet frozen your files — a recommended step to foil identity theft — now is a good time to take action, consumer advocates say.

Security freezes, often called credit freezes, are “absolutely” the best way to prevent criminals from using your personal information to open new accounts in your name, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy nonprofit group.

Free freezes, which will be available next Friday, were required as part of broader financial legislation signed in May by President Trump.

Free security freezes were already available in some states and in certain situations, but the federal law requires that they be made available nationally. Two of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, have already abandoned the fees. The third, Experian, said it would begin offering free credit freezes next Friday. To be effective, freezes must be placed at all three bureaus.

Read the complete article here.

Dept. of Education Proposes to Curtail Debt Relief for Defrauded Students

From today’s New York Times:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed on Wednesday to curtail Obama administration loan forgiveness rules for students defrauded by for-profit colleges, requiring that student borrowers show they have fallen into hopeless financial straits or prove that their colleges knowingly deceived them.

The DeVos proposal, set to go in force a year from now, would replace Obama-era policies that sought to ease access to loan forgiveness for students who were left saddled with debt after two for-profit college chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, imploded in 2015 and 2016. The schools were found to have misled their students with false advertisements and misleading claims for years.

Afterward, the Obama administration forgave hundreds of millions of dollars in student loans and began rewriting regulations to crack down on predatory institutions and bolster borrowers’ ability to seek debt relief from the federal government. But higher education institutions, including historically black colleges and universities and for-profit educators, maintained the new rules were far too broad and subjected them to frivolous claims that carried significant financial risks.

In June 2017, just one month before the Obama rules were to take effect, Ms. DeVos announced that she would block and rewrite them.

Read the complete article here.

56 years later, JFK’s call for a consumer bill of rights is forgotten under Trump

From the Los Angeles Times:

On this day in 1962, President Kennedy laid out in a speech to Congress the framework for a consumer bill of rights and the crucial role the federal government must play in protecting those rights.

Kennedy’s call to arms is now marked every March 15 as World Consumer Rights Day, which seeks to advance “guidelines for consumer protection”backed by the United Nations.

Yet over half a century later, the current occupant of the Oval Office, President Trump, a wealthy businessman, is aggressively pursuing policies that undermine each of Kennedy’s declared rights.

So it’s worthwhile asking: Is it too late to change course? Have corporate interests prevailed?

Read the complete article here.

Breaking News: Dick’s Sporting Goods To Stop Selling Assault-Style Weapons

From today’s New York Times:

One of the nation’s largest sports retailers, Dick’s Sporting Goods, said Wednesday morning it was immediately ending sales of all assault-style rifles in its stores.

The retailer also said that it would no longer sell high-capacity magazines and that it would not sell any gun to anyone under 21 years of age, regardless of local laws.

The announcement, made two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members, is one of the strongest stances taken by corporate America in the national gun debate. It also carries symbolic weight, coming from a prominent national gun seller.

Late last week, after coming under attack on social media for their ties to the National Rifle Association, a number of major companies, including Hertz car rental, MetLife insurance and Delta Air Lines, publicly ended those relationships, issuing brief, carefully phrased statements.

But Edward Stack, the 63-year-old chief executive of Dick’s whose father founded the store in 1948, is deliberately steering his company directly into the storm, making clear that the company’s new policy was a direct response to the Florida shooting.

“When we saw what happened in Parkland, we were so disturbed and upset,” Mr. Stack said in an interview Tuesday evening. “We love these kids and their rallying cry, ‘enough is enough.’ It got to us.”

He added, “We’re going to take a stand and step up and tell people our view and, hopefully, bring people along into the conversation.”

Mr. Stack said he hoped that conversation would include politicians. As part of its stance, Dick’s is calling on elected officials to enact what it called “common sense gun reform’’ by passing laws to raise the minimum age to purchase guns to 21, to ban assault-type weapons and so-called bump stocks, and to conduct broader universal background checks that include mental-health information and previous interactions with law enforcement.

Read the complete article here.

In Montana, Governor Bullock Signs Order to Enforce Net Neutrality

From the New York Times:

Most efforts underway to restore so-called net neutralityface big obstacles and would take many months, if not years, to succeed.

But in Montana, the governor has used the stroke of a pen to bring the rules to broad parts of his state.

Through an executive order, Gov. Steve Bullock declared on Monday that any internet service provider with a state government contract cannot block or charge more for faster delivery of websites, two core aspects of net neutrality, to any customer in the state.

Many major landline and mobile broadband providers, including Charter, CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon, hold government contracts in the state. The new requirements apply to new and renewed contracts signed after July 1, 2018.

The action, the first of its kind by a governor, could face legal challenges.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission rolled back rules meant to protect a free and open internet. The new rules say states cannot create net neutrality laws. The agency did not respond to a request for comment about the Montana action.

Read the complete article here.