CFA News

CFAnews Update – May 29, 2019

Consumer Groups Support H.R. 946, the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act

CFA joined with the National Consumer Law Center, Consumer Action, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates in urging Congress to act swiftly to enact H.R. 946, the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, in testimony presented on behalf of the groups by NCLC Senior Counsel Margot Freeman Saunders to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology late last month.

Many consumers are all too familiar with the onslaught of robocalls, with the number rising to 5.2 billion robocalls in March of this year—“an increase by a remarkable 370% just since December 2015,” the groups noted.  At the heart of the problem are efforts to weaken the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), they argued.

“The premise of the TCPA is straightforward,” the groups wrote. It does not prohibit robocalls…the TCPA [has] two simple requirements with respect to robocalls and robotexts. First, a call or text can be made to a cell phone using an automatic telephone dialing system or a prerecorded voice only with the prior express consent of the person called…Second, prior express written consent is also required for any prerecorded telemarketing call to a residential line.”

The problem is that callers want to make these robocalls without worrying about having that consent, they argued. They also do not want to stop calling when consumers say “stop.”

In the wake of a March 2018 D.C. Circuit Court decision setting aside a 2015 FCC order on the question of what calling technology is included in the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system, and with robocallers expecting a more caller-friendly policy from this administration, the number of calls has spiked.

With the passage of H.R. 946, powerful tools that will stop most unwanted robocalls would be created, the groups argued. H.R. 946 would accomplish this by:

  • covering autodialing systems designed to evade TCPA coverage;
  • ensuring that consumers can revoke consent;
  • limiting exemptions while also preventing evasive actions to avoid TCPA compliance;
  • improving caller I.D. to make it more accurate; and
  • improving the enforcement mechanisms of the TCPA.

“This bill will help ensure that the TCPA works as intended, to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls, and stop callers from trying to get around it,” said CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy Susan Grant.

CDC Data Shows Stalled Progress on Foodborne Illness

New preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documenting trends in foodborne illness makes clear that consumers need more effective protections against contaminated foods, CFA Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion said in a press statement released last month. While changes in testing protocols have complicated year-over-year comparisons, the data shows higher numbers of lab-confirmed illness from E. Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other contaminants, he said.

The most commonly reported pathogen associated with foodborne illness in the CDC report was Campylobacter, which had an incidence rate of 19.6 cases per 100,000 people in 2018, a twelve percent increase compared to a baseline period of 2015-2017. In its report, CDC recommends measures to “target Campylobacter contamination in chicken” as a means of reducing foodborne illness.

Consumer groups embraced that recommendation. The “USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service prompted an outcry from consumer advocates last year when it revealed that changes in the Campylobacter testing methodology have prevented the agency from detecting the vast majority of positive samples,” Gremillion said. “We remain concerned by the agency’s decision to discontinue assessing whether establishments meet the current Campylobacter performance standards while it develops new standards. Hopefully this latest data will motivate USDA to reconsider interim measures for controlling campylobacter in poultry plants, and to work expeditiously to develop new performance standards,” he continued.

The CDC data also shows a 109% increase in foodborne illness associated with pork. The USDA recently proposed a new plan to “modernize hog slaughter,” and Gremillion noted that “these latest data should invite renewed scrutiny of USDA’s proposal to transfer more food safety responsibilities to company employees at hog slaughterhouses.” .He added that the data “underscore the need for USDA to keep track of which slaughterhouses are doing a good job at keeping Salmonella levels down, and which ones are utterly failing,” he added.

The largest overall increase in foodborne illness reported by CDC was the incidence rate of illness caused by the parasite Cyclospora—399% compared to the baseline period. With several high-profile outbreaks of cyclosporiasis in 2018 related to fresh produce, “new diagnostic tools may have helped to connect the dots in some of those,” said Gremillion “What’s clear though is that FDA needs to continue implementing the Produce Safety Rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and to ensure that all produce farms are using clean water and taking the other steps necessary to prevent Cyclospora contamination.”

CFA Advocates for the CPSC to Increase Mandatory Standards Rulemakings in 2020 and 2021

In testimony before the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) earlier this month, CFA Legislative Director and General Counsel Rachel Weintraub urged the Commission to increase its focus on mandatory standards, increase enforcement and prioritize a number of product safety hazards.

In her testimony, Weintraub highlighted a wide range of product safety areas where action is needed, including: window coverings, flame retardants in consumer products, the internet of things, liquid nicotine, electric scooters, portable generators, senior safety, high powered magnets, furniture tip-overs, laundry packets, and recreational off-highway vehicles. Weintraub also detailed consumer advocates’ concern over the decline in CPSC enforcement under the current administration, the effectiveness of recalls, and other issues.

“The CPSC plays a critical role in ensuring that consumers are safe from product hazards,” said Weintraub. “We urge the Commission to use all of the tools Congress gave it to protect consumers from potentially hazardous products…and [to] address the issues we outlined today as soon as possible as many pose urgent hazards to consumers.”

CFA Report Uncovers Important Limitations and Biases with Angie’s List

Conflicts of interest, overly generous ratings, and other shortcomings undermine the potential value of Angie’s List to consumers, according to a new CFA report released in April. The report, Angie’s List: An Evaluation of Its Usefulness for Consumers, is the first in a series evaluating the usefulness of online services that rate local service providers.

Originally supported by annual subscriptions, today, Angie’s List is free and derives almost all revenue from advertising purchased by businesses that the service lists and rates. CFA’s report found that Angie’s List recommends and gives preferential treatment to those advertisers, “easily mislead[ing] consumers into thinking that these businesses are the best ones and should be patronized.” The report also provided evidence that these profiled businesses are often not those rated the highest by consumers and nonprofit rating groups.

In addition to these key findings, CFA’s report on Angie’s List also included the following conclusions about the usefulness of the service:

  • A large majority of businesses rated on Angie’s List are given the same “A” Rating, making it difficult for consumers to actually identify the best businesses.
  • A large number of businesses with fewer than five consumer reviews, some with only one review, receive an “A” grade.
  • There is circumstantial evidence that some businesses have engineered the submission of fake reviews.
  • Angie’s List does not provide reliable information, based on actual price shopping, about which businesses charge the lowest prices.
  • Only those businesses that pay to advertise on Angie’s List are recommended as “top-rated pros.”
  • Advertisers are always listed first on those pages listing all businesses providing a specific type of service.
  • Advertisers are given information about consumer users in order to market directly to these consumers, and some of those businesses do so immediately through phone calls and/or emails.

“While advertised as free, there is a price consumers pay for joining Angie’s List,” said CFA Executive Director and report co-author Jack Gillis. “Consumers must submit personal information and then expect phone calls and emails from advertisers.”

Stephen Brobeck, CFA Senior Fellow and report co-author, offered the following comments to consumers regarding the report: “When possible, consumers should rely on nonprofit organizations that evaluate businesses and are not funded by the companies they are evaluating. But when these organizations are not available, shoppers can benefit by consulting a variety of information sources, including the detailed consumer comments on Angie’s List.” He cautioned consumers, when using the service, to ignore Angie’s List’s recommended and profiled companies and, instead, look only at the customer reviews of all A-rated businesses with at least 25 recent reviews.