111 posts categorized "Consumer Contracts"

Another Myth of Consumer Law?

posted by Lauren Willis

As the CFPB gears up to regulate arbitration clauses, a timely article by Omri Ben-Shahar has been posted on ssrn. Part of Ben-Shahar’s “Myths of Consumer Law” project (see here, here, and here ), The Myth of Access-to-Justice in Consumer Law  contains some provocative insights, but key blind spots lead the piece to unwarranted conclusions.

The conclusions are that pre-dispute arbitration and class action waiver clauses in consumer contracts benefit weak consumers. To get there, Ben-Shahar first notes that consumers are not a homogeneous group and access to justice in the courts is far from evenly distributed. Because elites are more likely to sue and are likely to collect higher damages (one of the many reasons they are more likely to sue), giving all consumers the right to sue is, in effect, a regressive cross-subsidy from poorer consumers to those elites.

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Don't Fancy Games (For Your Kids' Financial Education)? How About The Theatre?

posted by Melissa Jacoby

MoneyTree"Make it fun and they will come," Lauren Willis discussed in the instructive post that evaluated the pros and cons of "The Gamification of Financial Education." Meanwhile, in London, a live show has been designed for children as young as five to teach them about the financial system. Interesting story on the show in The Guardian here. Tickets to "Bank On It" (running through the 14th of July) and other information here.   

Money tree image courtesy of Shutterstock 

Debtor Audits, RIP

posted by John Pottow

Hot of the presses that the EOUST has (again) suspended its "required" debtor audits due to budgetary constraints.  Initially they were supposed to do 1 in every 250, and that number fell in recent years to one in every 1,500 or so due to constraints, and sometimes they just run out of money toward the end of the fiscal year.  This is the most precocious suspension I'm aware of.  (But it sounds like such a great idea on paper...)

Creeping Privatization of Justice

posted by Jason Kilborn

Shutterstock_99036074Lauren's and Bob's recent posts brought to mind a theme that keeps cropping up in my teaching and research: public authorities increasingly offloading responsibility for important justice-related issues, especially consumer justice, to the private sector.

On the teaching side, I teach Civil Procedure, and that world is all abuzz with talk of a slew of recent Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions that have prioritized private arbitration over public adjudication of disputes (see, e.g., here and here). And this movement is afoot not only in the classic context of complex business disputes, where arbitration makes some sense; rather, it has taken hold in David-and-Goliath situations involving important rights like employment contracts and consumer sales and service contracts of a variety of kinds. In the big case that started the latest round of hoopla, AT&T Mobility v. Concepción, Justice Scalia acknowledges that "the times in which consumer contracts were anything other than adhesive are long past," yet he and the majority proceed to bend over backwards to ensure that clever company counsel can relegate disputes over such contracts to arbitration, effectively ensuring no suits will be brought in many cases, where the stakes are too low without aggregate (class) litigation, as in Concepción.  

On the research side, virtually every discussion around the world of consumer insolvency reform begins from the premise that out-of-court workouts are to be preferred, and court-sanctioned payment plans and coercive discharge should be a last resort. Many world consumer insolvency regimes require consumers to engage in an informal workout negotiation as a mandatory prerequisite to seeking formal relief. The notion of private workouts in this context is like Communism: it sounds great in theory, but it just doesn't work out in practice. In the highly morally charged context of consumer workouts, creditors consistently refuse to offer any kind of relief from the inflated principal debt, and only limited relief from spiraling interest (sound familiar?).

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National Consumer Protection Week and Disclosure 3.0

posted by Jean Braucher

It’s National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW)!   Federal, state, local, and nonprofit consumer protection agencies and organizations are making extra efforts to promote consumer awareness

First I have to get out of my system thoughts of Tom Lehrer’s song, National Brotherhood Week:

                Step up and shake the hand/Of someone you can’t stand . . .

                It’s only for a week so have no fear/Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.

But to get back on message, of particular interest to Credit Slips readers is this part of the mission of consumer protection described on the NCPW website:

    "Financial Fraud Scams: American consumers owe a whopping $11.31 trillion dollars in debt and are behind on paying about $1.01 trillion of that amount. Mortgages, student loans, and credit cards account for a large portion of that debt. Consumers are often haunted with huge monthly payments, and fraudsters take advantage of that with debt relief scams, tax scams, and other financial fraud scams. Scams target individuals who are in financial distress, but they fail to fulfill their promises, and typically leave consumers worse off than when they started."

Let me say that Lauren Willis has done a great job on this site recently taking us, patiently and painstakingly, through the many problems with the idea that disclosure can be refined into a digital juggernaut to protect consumers. See here  and here and here.

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When Nudges Fail: Slippery Defaults

posted by Lauren Willis

Now that my last few posts have bludgeoned consumer financial education and at least bloodied disclosure, and given that my suggestion of comprehension requirements is completely untested as a means of consumer protection for financial products, what about “nudges”? 

One nudge I have taken a close look at is the use of policy defaults. Defaults are settings or rules about the way products, policies, or legal relationships function that apply unless people take action to change them. Although some defaults in the law are mere gap-fillers and others, as pointed out by Ian Ayres and Robert Gertner, penalize one or more parties with the intention that the parties will contract out of them, policy defaults aim for stickiness. The idea behind policy defaults is to set the default to a position that is good for most individuals, under the assumption that only the minority who have clear preferences to the contrary will opt out. 

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Disclosure 3.0: Making Disclosure Smarter

posted by Lauren Willis

What if, instead of making the consumer smarter or the disclosures more comprehensible, as discussed in my last several posts, we made financial product disclosures smarter? For the uninitiated, “smart disclosure,” according to the federal White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure, is “the release of data sets in usable forms that enable consumers to compare and choose between complex services.” The Task Force description continues: “Smart disclosure requires service providers to make data about the full range of their service offerings available in machine-readable formats such that consumers can then use these data to make informed choices about the goods and services they use. While consumers may access the data directly in some cases, the data may also be useful in enabling government agencies or third parties to create online tools for consumer choice.” 

The idea is that both the government and firms will be required to release, in close to real time, complete price, feature, and performance data about products and services offered by the firm or government entity (“product data”) so that consumers can input their own preferences into on-line or mobile app tools (“infomediaries”) that can then recommend the products or services that will best meet those preferences. Kayak for everything! 

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Putting Disclosure to the Test: User Comprehension Requirements

posted by Lauren Willis

Given the limitations of Disclosure 2.0 and Disclosure 2.5 I described in my last posts, what is to be done? To answer this question, we might first ask what financial product disclosure is attempting to achieve. Although disclosure has several aims, one is consumer comprehension to the degree necessary to enable good decisions. Disclosure rules require particular information to be imparted, often in a specified format. What if the law instead allowed firms to disclose whatever truthful and nonmisleading content they choose in whatever format they choose, but required firms to demonstrate, through field-based testing, consumer comprehension of the key facts about the financial product needed to make a good fact-based decision? 

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Arbitration versus sovereign debt: Where will YOU be on February 27?

posted by Mark Weidemaier
February 27 is a big day for people interested in financial markets, consumer credit, and... well, many things of interest to Credit Slips readers. I'll be in New York, attending round two of the Second Circuit oral arguments in NML v. Argentina. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will be hearing argument in In re American Express Merchants Litigation - the latest big arbitration case. Much of my academic writing deals with arbitration, so I want to take a minute to highlight the significance of the AmEx case.

Like many credit providers, American Express tries to escape class action liability by pairing an arbitration clause with a class action waiver, thus requiring customers to bring claims in arbitration, as individuals. In AT&T v. Concepcion, the Court rejected an attempt to use state law unconscionability doctrine to invalidate a clause like this. In the AmEx case, the Court must resolve an arguable conflict between two federal laws. Plaintiffs are merchants who accuse American Express of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and want to bring a class action in federal court. (Actually, they waffle a bit on this (pp. 35-36), but let's just say they wouldn't turn up their nose at a federal class action...) Relying on the Federal Arbitration Act, American Express argues that the plaintiffs must honor their agreement to pursue these claims individually in arbitration. In its prior cases, the Court has resolved such disputes in favor of arbitration so long as that forum allows claimants to "effectively vindicate" their statutory rights.

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Disclosure 2.0: Disclosure in the Lab

posted by Lauren Willis

If, as I suggested in my last post, making the consumer smarter is hopeless, at least for those of us whose prenatal and early childhood environments can no longer be altered, what about disclosure?  Could point-of-sale disclosure equip consumers to make good financial decisions? 

Simple disclosures appear effective in directly aiding consumer decisionmaking in some domains, the A, B, and C restaurant hygiene grades being the classic example.  But because financial products have many varying features that consumers need to understand to make good decisions, financial product disclosures are inevitably much more complex.  As a recent article by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider details, generally speaking, consumers do not read, or if they do read they do not understand, or if they do understand they do not use correctly, the information presented in complex product disclosures.

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Walmart for Women?

posted by Amy Schmitz

Say what you will about Walmart, but give it credit perhaps for partnering in a project aimed to empower female entrepreneurs.  Walmart's Women's Economic Empowerment Project in partnership with Enactus (a global non-profit organization) has been criticized by some as merely part of a public relations campaign to combat image problems in the wake of sex-discrimination lawsuits.  Regardless of whether that is true, however, the project has provided hundreds of women with workforce training and assistance in creating new businesses or strengthinging exsiting businesses in the United States alone.  The Project connects students with academic and industry leaders throughout the United States and other countries to create and carry out endeavors designed to empower women through education and entrepreneurial action.  

Walmart and Enactus award millions of dollars to fund teams of students and leaders who carry out their proposed plans to empower women.  Plans are selected for funding based on the following stated criteria:

  • "Degree of empowerment achieved for women
  • Media exposure (teams are required to recognize Walmart by name in all Walmart Women’s Economic Empowerment activities pertaining to signage, advertising and media outreach)
  • Project concept, execution, outputs and outcomes"

The "media exposure" component may again raise skepticism regarding Walmart's motives. Nonetheless, the program seems to be producing results so why complain?  Spokespersons for the Project report that hundreds of women in the United States alone have been able to enter or renter the workforce, receive promotions and increase their overall income due to participation in funded projects.  Those interested in the Project or applying for funding should check out the website and decide for themselves.  The application deadline for the next round of funding has closed, but the next round of selections should open soon. 

Daniel Schwarcz on the Lack of Transparency in Insurance Consumer Protection

posted by Nathalie Martin

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Disclosure Debates (. . . same old, same old)

posted by Amy Schmitz

We talk about disclosures, and the importance of reading our consumer contract terms before committing to any deal. However, does anyone really care about contracts? Let’s face it: Contracts have become largely meaningless until we run into problems and want to use the “terms” for ammunition to get a remedy. I am a Contracts Professor and often bypass e-contract terms when I am in a hurry or know that I could never get the terms changed. We are all lazy in reading contracts. I have confirmed this in my own research, which I wrote about in Pizza-Box Contracts: True Tales of Consumer Contracting Culture, published in the Wake Forest Law Review.  Disclosure debates are not new.

At the same time, texting and tweets as forms of disclosure have augmented shrouding and other tactics for effectivley hiding terms and contract modifications. The Federal Trade Commission hosted a one-day public workshop on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 to consider the need for new guidance concerning advertising and privacy disclosures in online and mobile environments. The workshop focused especially on challenges of making disclosures clear and conspicuous in social media and mobile marketing.

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posted by Amy Schmitz
I have been working for a few years in developing and creating a consumer outreach website at MyConsumerTips.info.  The site is purely non-profit and has no sponsors or advertisers. It aims to simply provide consumers with “consumer tips” that change each day, independent summaries regarding debt-related and other consumer rights, quizzes and polls regarding such issues, and other consumer protection resources. It is user-friendly and interactive. This is part of my larger “Consumer Empowerment”service and experiential learning projects, and outreach endeavors.

Unfortunately, it is tough to gain traction for such non-profit sites without paying for promotions through Google or others. Also, there so many sites that purport to provide consumer resources that individuals suffer information overload and are not sure what to trust.

Hopefully, MyConsumerTips.info will deservedly gain trust, do some good and expand in ways that benefit consumers!  Check it out.

Protecting Public Rights

posted by Amy Schmitz

Contracts professors, policymakers, consumer groups and others have become particularly interested in another post-AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion case.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently agreed to an en banc rehearing of Kilgore v. Keybank, 673 F.3d 947 (9th Cir. 2012).  The issue in this case is whether Concepcion precludes courts from preserving judicial access for public injunctions under state consumer protection statutes by invoking the public policy exemption from the Federal Arbitration Act's ("FAA") mandate that courts enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.  The en banc hearing is set for some time in December of this year.

The case is important on many levels.  It raises fundamental questions about the reach of FAA preemption in the wake of Concepcion, in which the United States Supreme Court held that the FAA preempted courts from using California unconscionability law to strike a class relief waiver and order class arbitration.  Moreover, the case implicates states' power to protect individuals' access to meaningful injunctive relief in order to enforce and protect public rights under state statutes, such as consumer protection statutes.  

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The Gender Divide in Payday Lending

posted by Amy Schmitz

Nathalie Martin has done great work and has posted comments on Creditslips.org regarding payday lending. I also have been interested in how these payday loans prey on consumers with the least resources and power, and have helped consumers with related issues through my outreach work. At the same time, I have had the privilege to have students like Adria Robinson, who take great interest in these consumer issues. Adria Robinson is so passionate about consumer issues that she volunteered to work with me in gathering the latest data on Colorado's payday lending post-passage of its new payday regulations in August of 2010. Thanks to Adria for her help with this post!

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Needle in a Haystack?

posted by Amy Schmitz

Following my post regarding PayPal's new opt-out arbitration provision, I talked to many individuals who could not find the directions for how they can opt out (hence "needle in a haystack").  Here they are:

"Opt-Out Procedure.

You can choose to reject this Agreement to Arbitrate ("opt out") by mailing us a written opt-out notice ("Opt-Out Notice"). For new PayPal users, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than 30 Days after the date you accept the User Agreement for the first time. If you are already a current PayPal user and previously accepted the User Agreement prior to the introduction of this Agreement to Arbitrate, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than December 1, 2012. You must mail the Opt-Out Notice to PayPal, Inc., Attn: Litigation Department, 2211 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95131.

The Opt-Out Notice must state that you do not agree to this Agreement to Arbitrate and must include your name, address, phone number, and the email address(es) used to log in to the PayPal account(s) to which the opt-out applies. You must sign the Opt-Out Notice for it to be effective. This procedure is the only way you can opt out of the Agreement to Arbitrate."

It seems PayPal is banking on our inertia.  How likely are we to send a letter in the mail to opt-out when PayPal is used for e-contracts?  Why not simply have an online opt-out procedure, as companies do for unsubscribing to online newsletters?  

That said, PayPal's arbitration procedure is arguably reasonable on its face.  

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Fine Print Foils

posted by Amy Schmitz
I was delighted to see Melissa Jacoby’s call in September for more poetry on creditslips.org! Therefore, I wish to share the poem I wrote that served as basis for the lyrics to a consumer protest song that accompanies a non-profit consumer outreach film, Fine Print Foils, that I produced a couple of years ago. Why not have fun with consumer protection?

Fine Print Foils
by Amy J. Schmitz

Fine print foils
We do our best
Confusing contracts
We do detest

Companies send us
Sterling “steals”
Promised savings
Offered as “deals”

“Freebies” are false
And contracts change
While rates rise high
Beyond fair range

Consumers caught
In a mindless maze
Seeking solace
Stuck in a haze

Of limited know-how
And lack-luster laws
Needing protection
From companies’ jaws

Yet we have a duty
To watch what we sign
And read terms closely
Not assuming they’re fine

Embrace education
Empowerment grows
Let’s work together
To end contract woes

You can listen to the song via the link: Fine Print Foils song

PayPal Joined the Party

posted by Amy Schmitz

Adam Levitin commented on the eBay's opt-out arbitration program on CreditSlips.org a few weeks ago, and there have been campaigns calling for consumers to opt out of eBay's program.  Public Citizen has provided instructions on its website for consumers "to protect their constitutional rights by opting out of a forced arbitration clause and ban on consumers joining together in class actions."  eBay is not alone in using this sort of opt-out arbitration program.  Many tech companies have joined, or plan to join, the "party" in requiring consumers to opt out or be subject to binding arbitration.

Opt-out programs also may be layered now that PayPal is joining the party.  It recently sent notices to its users of policy updates, effective November 1, 2012, stating:

"You will, with limited exception, be required to submit claims you have against PayPal to binding and final arbitration, unless you opt out of the Agreement to Arbitrate (Section 14.3) by December 1, 2012. Unless you opt out: (1) you will only be permitted to pursue claims against PayPal on an individual basis, not as a plaintiff or class member in any class or representative action or proceeding and (2) you will only be permitted to seek relief (including monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief) on an individual basis."

Query whether campiagns will begin for consumers to opt out of this program?  It also will be interesting to see how these opt-outs work in tandem due to PayPal's prominence as the purchasing mechanism for sites like eBay?  

When Squeaky Wheels Get Rusty

posted by Amy Schmitz

Yesterday, I wrote about the "squeaky wheel system," or "SWS" for ease of reference, which I explored in my article, Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky Wheel System.  The research shows that consumers who have and take the time and resources to complain (or “squeak”) often get what they want. For example, consumers with the time and patience to endure the labrynth of their phone company's customer assistance line and actually speak with a representative regarding an increase in their bill are much more likely to get "loyalty" and other such discounts.  

That said, I have noticed that companies are even becoming more stingy in providing assistance to proactive consumers. For example, a manufacturer recently insisted on charging me for shipping to send me a replacement for a blender that was under warranty.  Sure, the warranty covered replacement . . . but  not shipping (a la "fine print").  The warranty was therefore meaningless since the blender was worth about the same as the shipping cost, and it would be silly to expend resources to sue using UCC Article 2 or other warranty arguments.  Furthermore, I have been unable lately to catch many breaks on increased fees for phone and internet service, and had difficulty in obtaining any assistance from some credit card companies when trying to rectify the issues I faced when my purse and all my credit cards recently were stolen.

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Winners and Losers in the Squeaky Wheel System

posted by Amy Schmitz

First, I want to thank you for the invitation!  

Most have heard the adage: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” We have long known that the “squeaky wheels” who are proactive in pursuing their needs and complaints are most likely to get what they want. That is proper for the most part to the extent that it rewards those who expend the time and resources to pursue their interests. However, this “squeaky wheel system,” or “SWS” for ease of reference, allows businesses to bank on our inertia (laziness) in contracting and ration remedies to only those with the most resources and power. This also may allow businesses to control public information by quieting the squeaky wheel consumers. The SWS can effectively prevent economists’ proposed “informed minority” from policing fairness of contract terms and business practices by alerting the majority about purchase concerns and prompting companies to make contract changes.

This SWS has troubled me, leading to my recent article, Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky Wheel System in volume 39 of the Pepperdine Law Review. This Article uncovers the salience of the SWS and explores its impacts on contract regulation and purchase practices in the consumer marketplace. It also provides a snapshot of empirical data from my own e-survey of Colorado consumers that is relevant to SWS dynamics. The article proposes proportional and efficient means for consumers to access purchase information and contract remedies using online and other low-cost remedy mechanisms. This proposal is by no means the “answer” and I invite other ideas for expanded and equalized remedy mechanisms to help diffuse the SWS,narrow the divide between the consumer “haves” and “have-nots,” and foster better fairness regulation of companies’ contract and claims assistance practices.

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Arbitration Agreements

posted by Adam Levitin

Brian Wolfman has an interesting post about e-Bay's new arbitration agreement with a class action opt-out.  Curiously, e-Bay's arbitration agreement isn't mandatory, but it is opt-out with a limited opt-out period.  Brian's take is that this opt-out is consumer choice window-dressing:  while there is formally a consumer choice involved, functionally it is meaningless. I agree. 

First, consumers aren't likely to pay attention to the opt-out notice in the first place in this age of information overload.  (That's one reason why I don't like the mandatory annual Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act privacy notice--it contributes to information overload by telling me nothing--basically there are no privacy rights--and lulling me into thinking that all fine-print disclosures by my bank don't matter.)  Second, even if they do pay attention, consumers are unlikely to place much value ex-ante on the right to sue in court or to proceed as part of a class; certainly not enough to bother opting out.  

The problem, it seems to me, with arbitration or class action waiver or forum selection clauses in contracts, even if explicit opt-out provisions are available, is that there's an inherent imbalance between businesses and consumers in the way valuations of the provision are going to work: businesses value arbitration clauses in the aggregate, while consumers value them based on individual transactions. For contract provisions with small value this means that businesses are more likely to value them than consumers, which therefore warps the nature of any sort of bargain. The business is bargaining in aggregate;the consumer is bargaining based on an individal valuation.

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Latest Visa Fraud

posted by Nathalie Martin

A heads up regarding the latest in Visa fraud. Royal Bank received this communication about the newest scam. This is hitting the midwest with a vengance and moving. The trick here is that they provide YOU with all the information, except the one piece they want. The callers do not ask for your card number; they already have it.  By understanding how the VISA & MasterCard telephone Credit Card Scam works, you can avoid this one.

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Reputational Sanctions in an Age of Internet Manipulation?

posted by Adam Levitin

A major argument against substantive regulation of industries (including consumer finance) is that the market self-regulates. Bad actors get bad reputations and lose business.  Therefore, there's no need for government to intervene.  

This type of argument involves a significant set of assumptions about how reputational sanctions work for any particular product and about the inability of bad actors to simply rename themselves. Often, these assumptions are unexamined or unwarranted--ideology trumps all--but the development of the Internet as a reputational reference complicates things. 

The Internet provides a tremendous aggregation of reputational feedback, with everything from formal reviews to "XYZsucks.com" sites, etc. But the typical Internet reputational search involves a google search or the like, and the search results are manipulable. Not only can they be manipulated, but there are whole businesses set up to do just that.

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Doggie DNA Tests: Waste of Money or Legitimate Tool?

posted by Nathalie Martin

Do mutt-lovers (with admittedly too much time and money on their hands) get anything in exchange for the $75-100 they pay to find out what kind of dog they have? It depends. My advice: before ordering a doggie DNA test over the net, do lots of research. Perhaps just have the vet do it.  If you do order a test over the internet, make sure you pick one that tests for the maximum number of breeds and that gets very high marks from consumers, and carefully read the fine print. Now they tell me, the more mixed your mutt is, the less likely you are to get any info at all from the test. I’ll let you decide if the test was worth my money. Here is the dog:Image1

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Consumer Scam Review: Lower Your Interest Rate, Lower Your Credit Card Balances, and Work at Home

posted by Nathalie Martin

I have been meaning to write on several consumer scams so here are a few to avoid.

“We Can Lower Your Home Loan Interest Rate” Scams. 

We’ve all gotten the calls at home. “We can lower your interest rate.” “The banks got their bail-out, now get yours.” But imagine what it feels like if you really need that kind of help. The false hope these scams create is criminal. One of my coworkers has been going through a Chapter 13 in which her mortgage payments are really high. She got this card in the mail asking her to call 800-936-4400 and saying that they could lower her mortgage payment (currently over $1,300) to $611.01. She was very hopeful.  She called the numbers, which directed her to RMA Legal Network in Holbrook, New York, and RMA turned out to stand for Michael Alarcon. She spoke with a Bruce Thomas, a case consultant manager, who asked her for tons of very personal information. She then hung up and did a google search, which turned up a great deal of negative information on this company, including that they want $1,400 up front to even start to do a deal for you.  Red flag!

“We Can Reduce Your Credit Card Balances”

Forget it, it doesn’t work. If I’m wrong, tell me how and where you can get this help legitimately. If you have the time, follow the directions they leave on your phone and report back here.

Work at Home Scams

A third cousin got involved with one of these, and when I say scam, I mean Scam. Again, selling

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Cramming Funny Fees Onto our Phone Bills: Not so Funny

posted by Nathalie Martin

Two weeks in a row, the Haggler column in the New York Times focused on cramming, one of the most damning and profitable scams in the consumer world.  Cramming is tacking unrequested services onto land line bills and now cell phone bills, such as celebrity gossip news, daily horoscopes, even dating services. Our AGs office claims that cramming is one of the practices about which they get the most complaints. After reading last week’s Haggler column, I vowed to look over my consolidated bill with Century Link and Verizon (cell phones, landline, internet service) but never quite got around to it. It seemed to me the bill had stayed pretty much the same over the months and years. Sure enough, today I found a cram and am trying to straighten it out.  This can be a full-time job, which is why it is so easy to scam us in this way. Haggler also notes that while cramming is done by third parties, not phone companies, phone companies supposedly get one –third to one –half of the billions in revenues generated by this fraudulent practice, which is why some may be slow to correct the problem. If Haggler is right about the profits, shouldn't I be able to reverse this with my phone company?

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Credit for Parenthood (in the Wall Street Journal)

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Wall Street Journal Reporter Jessica Silver-Greenberg casts a spotlight on the market for fertility treatment loans - including loans that enable the purchase of other women's eggs  - in the article "In Vitro a Fertile Niche for Lenders."  (subscription required). Perhaps this will prompt some coverage of the adoption loan market, which also has very interesting not-for-profit lending options; the direct financial price of the credit may be low but some complicated strings are attached. My earlier efforts to broadly evaluate the impact of loans in these markets are here and here

NACBA warns of student loan "debt bomb"

posted by Jean Braucher

At its annual Capitol Hill Day in Washington this week, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys sounded an alarm about the growing student loan problem, calling it a “debt bomb.” NACBA released a survey of its members indicating that more potential clients these days have unmanageable educational loans and are facing aggressive collection efforts. See http://www.nacba.org/Legislative/StudentLoanDebt.aspx. It has become common for people to have two mortgage-size debts, one for a home and another for an education. The educational loan problem is looking something like the one a few years back with subprime mortgages.

Absent “undue hardship,” very hard to establish, student debt can be a life sentence because these loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. NACBA supports making private students loans dischargeable again (as they were before the 2005 law). Beyond that, it favors going back to the pre-1990 approach of allowing discharge of any student debt after five years. If the education isn’t paying off enough to make the loan repayable after that much time, something has to give so that people can get on with their lives--and some day buy a home, start a family, and save for their kids’ education and their own retirement.

As a participant in the Capitol Hill Day, I found congressional staff reacted very sympathetically. They are mostly young people carrying big student loans or with friends who have them. They know how hard it is to manage this debt even when you have a decent job. They easily recognize what a big problem this is for their generation and even more so for the next one. This issue isn’t going away.

Should the Government or the Market Set Mortgage Down Payments? A New Study

posted by Melissa Jacoby

UNC's Center for Community Capital has posted a new analysis of 19.5 million mortgage loans originated between 2000 and 2008 finding that mandatory down payments of 10% would lock out nearly 40% of all creditworthy borrowers while a 20% down payment would exclude 60%. The study finds a significantly higher exclusion rate for African American and Latino borrowers. The authors (Roberto Quercia of UNC, Lei Ding of Wayne State University, & Carolina Reid from the Center for Responsible Lending) do find valuable default-reduction benefits of other forms of strong underwriting as the Dodd-Frank Act already requires (through the "QM" and "QRM" classifications), but signal caution about the significant access costs of government-mandated down payment levels that government regulators may be currently considering.

Consumers Beware of Gas Well Leases, Especially Around the Holidays

posted by Nathalie Martin

For those contracts professors who teach Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., 382 P.2d 109 (Okla. 1962), there is a modern version this 1962 case going on right now in the gas drilling context. In the venerable Peevyhouse case, Willie and Lucille Peevyhouse owned a farm that contained coal deposits, and entered into a contract with Garland Coal & Mining Co. allowing Garland to strip mine the coal, in return for a royalty. In the contract, Garland promise that the land would be restored once they were done. The court refused to enforce the clean-up provision, however, finding it incidental to the main purpose of the contract. The land was left a hot mess.

Continue reading "Consumers Beware of Gas Well Leases, Especially Around the Holidays" »

Consumers, Cast Your Vote

posted by Katie Porter

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has launched the first project in its "Know Before You Owe" initiative with the release of proposed mortgage disclosures. While the CFPB did its homework in designing these forms, including getting feedback from a wide variety of sources, it is taking field-testing to a new level by asking American consumers to review two proposed forms. Consumers can then vote for the form that they think best conveys the key information needed to understand a home mortgage loan. The choices, named "Azalea" and "Camellia" for the fictional banks on the sample disclosures, are available here. (Simply click to view them as a PDF and then vote for your favorite.)

Continue reading "Consumers, Cast Your Vote " »

My Final Post: A Recipe for More Effective Consumer Protection in Insurance Regulation

posted by Daniel Schwarcz

Many thanks to Credit Slips for providing me with the opportunity to discuss some of the key consumer protection issues in insurance regulation.  As I hope I have shown over my short stint here, there is much that needs to be done in this important area, which often receives less attention from academics and the press than consumer protection in credit. 

I thought I would close by offering a simple set of recommendations for dramatically improving consumer protection in property/casualty insurance markets.  Here is my basic recipe, which would need to be separately implemented for each line of coverage:

(1) Promulgate a single policy that serves as a minimum baseline of coverage. 

(2) Develop "nutritional labels" geared towards providing consumers with a basic sense of the degree to which a carrier's policy provides greater coverage than the minimum baseline.

(3) Require prominent disclosure on the nutritional labels of several measures of claims paying quality, such as the percentage of claims denied, the average time within which claims are paid, and the frequency of non-renewal or cancellation within a year of a claim being submitted.

(4) Require full online disclosure of insurance policies, variables relating to claims payment, and data regarding the availability of coverage.  

(5) Carefully consider the need to regulate risk classifications that have a disparate impact on underserved communities.   

(6) Abandon all price regulation designed to suppress insurance rates, so long as a reasonable number of carriers exist in the marketplace.

(7) Promote the importance of independent insurance agents, but prohibit these agents from receiving different amounts of compensation based on the carrier with which they place consumers.

Continue reading "My Final Post: A Recipe for More Effective Consumer Protection in Insurance Regulation" »

Homeowners Insurance Claims and the Foreclosure Crisis

posted by Daniel Schwarcz

Prompted by several comments to one of my earlier posts, I've been thinking about situations where a homeowner files an insurance claim for property damage to her home while she is in default on her mortgage.  The general practice, as I understand it, is for insurers to write claim settlement checks out to the mortgagee, rather than the policyholder, in such situations.   This practice is based on a clause in most homeowners policies that "If a mortgagee is named in this policy, any loss payable under Coverage A or B will be paid to the mortgagee and you, as interests appear." 

All of this makes sense.  But, it seems to me that the mortgagee ought to have an obligation to promptly use any insurance proceeds it receives in this manner to fix the underlying property damage.  Failing to do so, and holding on to the insurance proceeds as cash collateral, seems to me to potentially constitute a violation of the mortgagee's obligation of good faith.  Yet according to the commentators referenced above, this is apparently a common practice (though I would be curious about other readers' experiences).  

Continue reading "Homeowners Insurance Claims and the Foreclosure Crisis " »

Are You Really in Good Hands? How Do You Know If Your Insurer Will Pay a Large Claim?

posted by Daniel Schwarcz

Not surprisingly, one of the core consumer protection issues in insurance is ensuring that carriers pay claims fairly and expeditiously.  Unlike many contracts, insurance policies are sequential and contingent: whereas the policyholder performs routinely by paying premiums, the insurer performs by paying a claim if, and only if, a loss occurs.  This dynamic creates special risks of unfair business practices.  These risks are enhanced by the fact that many insurance policies (outside of the life insurance context) necessarily rely on abstract language to describe insurers’ coverage obligations.  For these reasons, much of insurance law – including the availability of bad faith lawsuits and state prohibitions on “unfair claims practices” – is devoted to ensuring carriers’ fair payment of claims.

Despite the centrality of claim-handling to consumer protection in insurance, regulators do essentially nothing to promote transparency in insurance markets with respect to this issue.  The reason is not that it would be particularly difficult to measure this variable:  useful metrics might include how often claims are paid within specified time periods, how often claims are denied, how often policies are non-renewed after a claim is filed, and how often policyholders sue for coverage.  In fact, state regulators already collect some of this data for their own use in policing the market place.   But none of this data is systematically made publicly available to consumers.  Rather, this information is generally treated as confidential on the basis that it could reveal proprietary company information or mislead insurance consumers.    

Continue reading "Are You Really in Good Hands? How Do You Know If Your Insurer Will Pay a Large Claim?" »

Purchasing Insurance as a Game of Chance: What Does Your Homeowners Policy Cover?

posted by Daniel Schwarcz

The core product that insurance consumers buy is a standard form contract.  Unlike virtually any other market, though, it is virtually impossible for purchasers of personal lines coverage (i.e. homeowners, renters, and auto insurance) to scrutinize this product before they purchase it.  Insurers only provide consumers with an actual insurance contract several weeks after they purchase coverage.  They generally do not make sample contracts available to consumers on the Internet or through insurance agents.  Marketing materials and other secondary literature from regulators and consumer organizations provide virtually no guidance about how different carriers’ policies differ.  And most states have essentially zero laws requiring insurers to provide any types of pre-sale disclosure to consumers regarding the scope of their coverage. 

How can this possibly be?  

Continue reading "Purchasing Insurance as a Game of Chance: What Does Your Homeowners Policy Cover? " »

Consumer Protection Strategies in Credit and Insurance: Why the Disconnect?

posted by Daniel Schwarcz

Many thanks to Credit Slips for inviting me to guest blog over the next week or so.  My hope during this time is to explore what I view as an important puzzle in consumer protection regulation: why it is that consumer protection strategies in insurance and credit are so different in the United States.  

From a consumer protection perspective, credit and insurance are intimately related.  At its core, consumer protection regulation in both domains is motivated by the fact that consumers routinely engage in complex financial transactions that they may not fully understand or appreciate.  And in both domains, firms or market intermediaries can exploit this fact to make additional profits in the short term, though such a strategy creates long-term legal and reputation risks.  Despite these similarities, consumer protection regulation in credit is predominantly concerned with disclosure and transparency whereas consumer protection regulation in insurance almost entirely ignores these tools in favor of more prescriptive regulatory approaches. 

Continue reading "Consumer Protection Strategies in Credit and Insurance: Why the Disconnect?" »

Phoney Contest Scams get More Realistic

posted by Nathalie Martin

Uh oh, look what my dad got!   Prize notification_Page_1

Our attorney general’s office reports getting dozens upon dozens of claims about these every year.  I guess it is obvious that it is a scam, but I am not sure the average person would know it.  The check looks incredibly real and even has an ink mark.

  What should you do if you see one of the these?  If it comes from Canada, you should call the Canadian Anti-Fraude Centre at

Toll Free: 1-888-495-8501
Toll Free Fax: 1-888-654-9426
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.antifraudcentre-

Continue reading "Phoney Contest Scams get More Realistic" »

Meaningfully Shopping for Insurance is Next to Impossible

posted by Nathalie Martin

Anybody who cares about consumer rights should take a look at this recent article by Professor Dan Schwarcz, a law professor and insurance expert from the University of Minnesota Law School. This guy actually gets his jollies reading insurance policies, and what he has learned can help you. Well, sort of….. In reality, what he has learned can educate you, anger you, and hopefully motivate you to help solve a tricky problem, namely that consumers don’t generally get to see their policies until they’ve signed on. Policy terms also vary a lot, but no one seems to know this. It is a classic case of consumers shopping solely on the basis of price, when other things like coverage matter more. According to Professor Schwarcz, consumers have access to virtually no information about the things that matter most in an insurance policy. 

Continue reading "Meaningfully Shopping for Insurance is Next to Impossible " »

The Most Important Consumer Product

posted by Stephen Lubben

Going to stray out of my comfort zone for a moment to comment on and clarify a recent post I saw over at Felix Salmon's place. In short, Felix notes how confusing most retirement investment documents are, and hopes for action by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If only. CFPB can do debt and payment systems (checking accounts), but can't do investments or insurance--where arguably the need is even greater. Congress saw to that with §1027 of Dodd-Frank. See, e.g., subparts (f), (i), and (g).

Memo to Elizabeth Warren: How to Do Things With Documents

posted by Annelise Riles

Elizabeth Warren has proposed, as one of her first initiatives, that banks should simplify their standardized credit card contracts with customers to insure that customers understand what they are signing.This proposal has generated lots of enthusiasm among centrists as a modest, relatively non-political initiative, something that hardly anyone could be against, but that holds out the possibility of reducing fraud and confusion in the credit markets by at least ensuring that consumers know what they are getting into.

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Am I Paying for My House or the Brooklyn Bridge?

posted by Ethan Cohen-Cole

The foreclosure mess has raised new tough questions. We once again seem back to distributional issues. If a foreclosure is in question for a homeowner that has not been paying and a bank that has no good proof of its ownership, what should happen to the house?

1. The bank should get it because a homeowner that fails to pay should forfeit his/her collateral. Morally, why should this deadbeat get an asset for free? Particularly if the whole thing was stirred up by a lawyer. (See the WSJ article on this).

2. We should work through the mess in the courts to determine the validity of the individual case. No one should lose their home based on falsified documents. Careful determination ownership is important.

I have a new suggestion:

3. Any payments that the homeowner made to the bank, the one with no evidence of ownership, should be placed into a third party escrow account. 

Continue reading "Am I Paying for My House or the Brooklyn Bridge?" »

Consumer Law

posted by Katie Porter

Credit Slips is a self-proclaimed blog about "credit, finance, and bankruptcy." Much of our discussion here focuses on consumer credit, which also makes up a large amount of what gets taught in law school courses on "consumer law." Jeff Sovern at St. Johns did a survey on the subject. And to understate things, the economy has provided significant fodder for discussions on consumer credit, including credit cards and mortgage lending, in the last decade, and so consumer law courses may increasingly be expanding coverage of credit or being replaced by seminars on predatory lending, the democratization of credit, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, etc.

I remain committed to "consumer law" as a broad field. While consumer credit is part of that, I believe there is a pedagogical value to teaching students about a wide variety of consumer-business transactions in a single course, and I believe there is theoretical coherence in consumer law as a field. An article in the New York Times, Airline Fees Test Travelers' Limits, nicely illustrates my thinking. The pattern of fee hikes, hard-to-discern terms, and complex pricing that the article documents in the airline industry is a pretty close parallel to the credit card industry in the last decade. The problems are fundamental to businessess--sophisticated repeat players aided by technology and expertise--selling things to consumers--relatively unsophisticated one-off players without technology or expert advice. For me, the most interesting question is trying to identify consumer-business transactions that don't exhibit the problems of these disparities. Those markets hold important lessons for the regulation of consumer credit that seems likely to occur in the next few years.

Financial Risks Follow to the Grave

posted by Katie Porter

The New York Times broke the story yesterday about how the VA may be mishandling the death-benefit accounts for life insurance beneficiaries of military personnel. Apparently many of the VA life insurance companies, including Met Life and Prudential, do not give beneficiaries a check when the policy is payable as a lump sum. Instead, grieving family are mailed a checkbook and told that the payout was ready for use in an "convenient interest-bearing account." But here are the catches: 1) The money is not in an FDIC-0insured account, meaning these beneficiaries' money could disappear if the insurers went under. This fact would be hard for consumers to discern given that the checks themselves bear the names of large banks like JPMorgan Chase. The money actually resides in the insurers' general corporate account, earning investment income. 2) The VA was under the impression that the insurers were patriotic volunteers, earning no profit on the checkbook option. In fact, the insurers earned about a 5 percent return, while the beneficiaries received 1 percent interest. When the NY Times explained this, the VA spokesperson said "Maybe I didn't ask enough questions." My former colleague at UNLV's William S. Boyd School of Law, Jeff Stempel, put a finer point on it. "[T]his is a scheme to defraud by inducing the policyholder's beneficiary to let the life insurance company retain assets they are not entitled to. It's turning death claims into a profit center."

Continue reading "Financial Risks Follow to the Grave" »

The Beginning of a Return to Consumer Protection?

posted by Henry Sommer

Many years ago, in the mid 1970's, when I began my career as a legal services lawyer practicing consumer law, it seemed that we were on a roll. Congress and state legislatures were passing a bevy of laws to protect consumers (including the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.)  The FTC was passing regulations and taking action against consumer scams. Innovative lawyers, often in legal services programs, were bringing class actions against a wide variety of illegal and unfair practices. These cases were received sympathetically by courts that, from a common sense perspective, could see that those practices took advantage of consumer ignorance or confusion.  Little did we know that we were at the peak of the consumer protection movement and it would be almost all downhill from there.

Continue reading " The Beginning of a Return to Consumer Protection?" »

The Database You've Been Waiting For

posted by Angie Littwin

I'm sure I'm one of about five people who are excited that the Federal Reserve's credit card agreement database is now up and running, but as a bankruptcy professor, you've got to get your kicks where you can. I have no illusions that it will help many consumers understand their agreements. The database will take the state of credit card contracts from laughable to slightly less laughable. Nobody can read these agreements, and that's the point. To top it off, the Fed has managed to organize the database in a way that makes it largely unusable for the ordinary consumer. When you search by credit card issuer, it gives you all the agreements that company uses. If it's a large issuer, that's more than a dozen agreements. And the listings don't distinguish between the cards by card name (i.e., "Double Platinum Rewards," etc.), so the consumer has no good way to tell which one is hers without opening every one. Worse still, an issuer may have more than one entry to search under. For example, CitiBank is listed under both "Citibank N.A." and "Citibank (South Dakota) N.A." How many people know which one holds their credit card?

Why then, you may ask, is it worth having this database at all? There are at least three good reasons.

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Of Cyborgs and Repo Men

posted by Angie Littwin

The New York Times may have thought it had the scoop on the repo man of the future, but the new movie Repo Men has it beat by several hundred years. Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker star as space-age repossession agents who track down debtors and retake their collateral. The twist is that the collateral in question is transplanted body parts. So if, for example, you fall behind on the payments for your new kidney, Law and Whitaker will hunt you down and take it off your hands. Early in the preview – the movie opens later this week – we see the two scalpel-toting contract enforcers taking the Article 9 “breach of the peace” standard to whole new levels and saying over beers that a job is just a job. But, not surprisingly, Law has change of heart, one that appears to be spurred by a literal change of heart, and suddenly . . . the repo man becomes the debtor. (That’s credit-speak for “the hunter becomes the hunted.”)

Judging from the preview, Repo Men looks like your typical sci-fi dystopia flick where good-looking people fight a seemingly losing battle against a behemoth government or corporation that controls every aspect of human life. What’s interesting is that the credit industry has a starring role as the Big Brother. The movie takes two of the worst miseries of the current credit system – overwhelming medical debt and rampant foreclosure – and twists them into one debt nightmare. I never thought the line, "We could come up with a plan that fits your [budget]" could sound so menacing. Does a movie like this mean that there’s enough anger at lenders to, say, get us a Consumer Financial Protection Agency with teeth? I don’t know. But it does suggest that this is our big chance. We may never get an action-movie moment again.

Thank you to UT student Jennifer Carter for the tip!

Show Me the Original Note and I Will Show You the Money

posted by O. Max Gardner III

As mortgage delinquencies rise each month, and as the number of foreclosures increase each quarter, the “new mantra” of many pro-se and represented consumers is to demand that the mortgage servicer “prove up the original note.” Is this just some new and creative gimmick that has been sold to the desperate homeowners and to a few lawyers who have attended “progressive” seminars or is there really something to it? I submit that there is really something to it.

In my last Credit Slips post, I wrote about what I call the “Alphabet Problem.” Succinctly stated, this problem arises out of the necessity for a true sale of the mortgage note and mortgage from the originator to the sponsor for the securitized trust; then from the sponsor to the depositor for the securitized trust; and finally from the depositor to the owner Trustee for the trust. These multiple “true sales” are necessary in order to make the original asset (the note and mortgage) bankruptcy-remote and FDIC-remote frin the originator in the event the originator files for bankruptcy or is taken over by the FDIC.

Continue reading "Show Me the Original Note and I Will Show You the Money" »

The Alphabet Problem and the Pooling and Servicing Agreements

posted by O. Max Gardner III

The securitization of residential mortgage notes has created a maze of complex issues and problems for the bankruptcy and foreclosure courts. One fundamental issue is who is the actual holder and owner of the mortgage note. In order to answer this question, it is necessary to dig deep into the contracts, warranties and representations that were executed in the formation of the securitized trust.

The Pooling and Servicing Agreement (PSA) is the document that actually creates a residential mortgage backed securitized trust and establishes the obligations and authority of the Master Servicer and the Primary Servicer. The PSA also establishes some mandatory rules and procedures for the sales and transfers of the mortgages and mortgage notes from the originators to the trust. It is this unbroken chain of assignments and negotiations that creates what I have called “The Alphabet Problem.”

Continue reading "The Alphabet Problem and the Pooling and Servicing Agreements" »

What Does RESPA Have to do with Consumer Bankruptcy Cases?

posted by O. Max Gardner III

I have trained over 350 attorneys at my Bankruptcy Boot Camps and to my surprise less than 10 percent know what I mean when I refer to a "QWR." This is shocking in that a reasonable QWR can provide the attorney for the Chapter 13 debtor with some of the very best discovery outside of a contested case or Adversary Proceeding. The QWR can be used to find out how the servicer for the securitized trust is applying the debtor's money and the disbursements on the arrearage claim from the Chapter 13 Trustee. It can also be used to identify all of the "ancillary fees" and "collateral charges" that mortgage servicers are so fond of unilaterally adding to the debtor’s mortgage account, without any notice or the right to a hearing.

The provisions of RESPA which deal with mortgage servicing are generally found in either 12 U.S.C. § 2605 or § 2609. Section 2605, known as the "Servicer Act," requires servicers to respond to borrower requests for information and correction of account errors. The "Servicer Act" provisions are where you find the authority for a Qualified Written Request. The Servicer Act provisions in § 2605 are significant because borrowers are given the right to sue for violations based on the express private right of action found in § 2605(f).

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