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Our New Years Resolution

3:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Carmen Balber

What an inspiring 2012! Together, we exposed and stopped false MPG claims by automakers, shamed health insurance companies into lowering outrageous rate hikes and moved closer to the day when technology companies can’t collect and sell our private information online and on our phones without consent. This year we’ll continue these fights, and more.

Big things are going to happen in 2013, and we’re glad you’re here with us to see them through. We’ll be asking in the coming days your thoughts on what Consumer Watchdog’s priorities should be in 2013.

For now, here are some of our pledges for this year. We will:

What do you think of our resolutions? At Consumer Watchdog we know that when public opinion is on our side, we can make big things happen. So be on the lookout for our survey next week, and let us know your opinion on what our priorities should be in 2013.

Your ideas, actions and complaints were behind some of our biggest consumer protection victories. We need your input again to make this year as big as the last.

Happy New Year!
Posted by Carmen Balber, Executive Director of Consumer Watchdog.

Go To The Mattresses

1:15 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Masters of Disaster

If you’re a fan of the Godfather, you have to love any book that says all you have to know about managing a crisis you already learned from Vito Corleone.

We don’t recommend many books, but Masters of Disaster is the perfect playbook for how to respond when you’re under enemy fire and armed with little more than a cannoli.

The team that advised President Clinton, celebrities and corporate titans have broken down the commandments of crisis management, whether you accidentally hit “reply all” to an embarrassing email, or are fending off a real crisis in your life or business. You can get their hard knuckle advice and funny real life stories at bookstores or online at

Penned by fixers Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, and filmmaker Bill Guttentag, Masters of Disaster is a vital and fun read full of back-room tales for those who want to learn from America’s greatest corporate and political scandals. You’ll understand the big mistakes made by companies like Toyota and BP, politicians like Mitt Romney and celebrities like Roger Clemons and Tiger Woods.

The book argues for full and rapid transparency in a crisis: “If the mistake fits, be quick to admit.

The masters also recommend the cool disciplined approach to crisis that made Michael Corleone the Godfather when he decided to kill the corrupt cop that shot his dad: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

America’s greatness, like its greatest historical failures, has come from the fact that public opinion can rule. Masters of Disaster shows those who face crisis can only survive by respecting public opinion and those who don’t will quickly fall.

At Consumer Watchdog, we create a lot of crisis for big corporations and politicians when they stray from the path. If more of them heeded this book’s advice, there would be a lot fewer scandals and more pro-consumer companies.

Go to your mattress with a copy of Masters of Disaster and enjoy the book.
Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Health Law Doesn’t Protect Californians From Rate Increases

2:47 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Reporters largely missed the point of a Commonwealth Fund study released this week, that looked at consumer savings under Obamacare’s 80-20 rule, the rule making insurance companies spend at least 80% of your premiums on health care, not overhead.

The authors started with a fact we already knew — that health insurance companies had to pay $1.1 billion in rebates for missing the MLR requirement in 2011 — and that big shiny number distracted the news media. But the authors zeroed in on a much more important fact. Insurance companies successfully reduced administrative costs by $1.184 billion in 2011, but they used those savings to increase profits instead of passing them on to consumers.

Clearly the 80-20 rule isn’t working to contain profits and hold down premiums, especially in states that don’t have tough regulation of insurance premiums.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones launched an audit this week of the state’s largest health insurers to determine if consumers paid too much when insurers were actually saving money and boosting profits. The Commonwealth study found that in California, insurance companies increased profits for individual plans by $88 per member or about $90 million, even though administrative costs went down and every major insurance company imposed rate increases.

These results are more evidence that states need the ability to say no to rate manipulation. Otherwise, insurance companies will keep premiums artificially high to make sure profit numbers stay high too. As we warned HHS Secretary Sebelius more than two years ago:

“In the same way that a Hollywood agent who gets a 20 percent cut of an actor’s salary has an incentive to seek the highest salary, insurers will have incentive to increase health care costs and raise premiums so that their 15 percent or 20 percent cut is a larger dollar amount.”

As Jones said when announcing the audit:

“I have long pushed for the authority to reject excessive health insurance rate increases and this study provides further evidence of why this change in the law is long overdue in California. Health insurers and HMOs continue to impose double-digit premium increases each year and are making larger profits when selling to individuals and families even during these tough economic times.”

Californians will finally have the chance to stop them, by voting at the next ballot on an initiative measure to require health insurance companies to publicly justify rate increases and get approval before they take effect. Learn more at
Posted by Carmen Balber, Washington DC Director for Consumer Watchdog and Consumer Watchdog Campaign

Political bloggers should reveal funding

12:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Jamie CourtWednesday, the California Fair Political Practices Commission takes up the question of whether political bloggers should have to disclose who pays them to blog in political campaigns. Sacramento’s consultant establishment, both on the left and the right, has been hiding behind free speech protections to propagandize and cut the legs out from under credentialed authorities on behalf of any interest group.

Because voters increasingly rely on information online, paid blogger-based attacks that masquerade as real journalism are one of the biggest rackets in Sacramento.

Journalists get fired for lying. Tax-exempt nonprofit groups can have their tax status revoked if they lie and propagandize. They are subject to disclosure requirements by the IRS, the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the U.S. attorney general. Political bloggers, on the other hand, can get paid to blog lies and are accountable to no one.

How does the paid-blogger racket work? A consumer group like mine finds itself in the crosshairs of a powerful industry. For example, this summer we qualified a ballot measure to regulate health, home and auto insurance rates that will be on the 2014 ballot. This fall, we successfully defeated Proposition 33, the $17.5 million campaign by one insurance company billionaire to deregulate auto insurance.

We were outspent 70 to 1 on the Prop. 33 fight, but we had a strong online voice and large lists of supporters. Our enemies know that our credibility as a consumer group is our main asset. So suddenly a new group was created to “watch” Consumer Watchdog by a Democratic Sacramento political blogger and consultant, Steve Maviglio.

He misstated facts about our funding on his blog and on his new website, made an expensive online video that showed a fake picture of our founder’s house to claim it was a mansion, and took out advertising on Google, YouTube and elsewhere around the Web. He claimed no one paid him for any of that work or advertising, but that he simply had a grudge. Remarkably, the day after the election, when voters rejected Prop. 33, the Google ads were no longer running.

Maviglio was joined in his online assault by a couple of Republican consultants and bloggers. None would disclose who, if anyone, paid them. A California Watch story noted an attack by “Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who is working with an opposition research firm but wouldn’t say who is paying for the effort.” Republican blogger Jon Fleischman wrote an attack blog without bothering to check the facts, then forwarded it to our founder saying: “Thinking about you this holiday season. Happy Hanukah.” Very journalistic.

Who regulates Maviglio, Stutzman and Fleischman, or requires that they disclose their funding? That is the subject of the FPPC deliberations.

Not surprisingly, Maviglio and Fleischman are the most vociferous opponents of any changes to the status quo.

What should be done?

  • Political bloggers should be required to comport themselves with the ethics of journalists if they are claiming First Amendment protection. Bloggers on political issues in California should be required to disclose financial conflicts of interest or face sanctions by the FPPC and public prosecution. “Paid for” political disclosures are cumbersome for bloggers and websites but requiring simple disclosure of payments made by entities involved in political issues in the context of content is no more than we ask of journalists.
  • Legal loopholes allow monied interests to pay unlimited amounts to bloggers for attacks on their opponents. These payments are never disclosed so long as the bloggers don’t expressively advocate how to vote on the ballot measure. Bloggers should be required to disclose such payments.
  • Advertising on a blogger’s website paid for by an interest group with a dog in a political fight should be disclosed. This is one way to compensate someone voicing an opinion without disclosing it.

The good news about the new media is that anyone can create their own media outlet. The bad news is that without regulation it will be harder than ever to decipher whose opinions and voices we are hearing online.

Jamie Court is President of Consumer Watchdog and a director of the Consumer Watchdog Campaign

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 14, 2012

Consumer Watchdog Mobile Application Goes Live with 5-Star Rating

3:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Karl Rove

Karl Rove, Hyundai and Elizabeth Warren Can Go In “The Dog House” With Consumer Watchdog’s New Free App That Lets iPhone Users Create Meme-Like Images

Leading Consumer Group Offers Alerts, News & Expression In 5-Star Rated App

Consumer Watchdog’s new five-star rated app gives iPhone and iPad users a way to complain, stay informed and be engaged on the top consumer issues of the day. A popular feature, the “Consumer Watchdog Dog House,” allows consumers to take a photo with their phone and satirize or applaud a politician, company or product and share it with their networks.

Hyundai“Consumer Watchdog Mobile is a great new way to express your thoughts on the election. Think Super PACs poisoned the election? Now you can take a picture with your phone and put them in an actual Dog House. Win a ballot initiative fight for marriage equality? Announce it to everyone you know with the Dog House Daily Times,” said Carmen Balber, Washington DC Director for Consumer Watchdog.

The free Consumer Watchdog Mobile application can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or by clicking this link

Consumer Watchdog Mobile features:

1) Live updates of Blogs, News, Videos and Podcasts – Stay up-to-date on breaking consumer protection news and ongoing Consumer Watchdog campaigns.

Elizabeth Warren

2) Real-time Consumer Complaints – Report problems and complaints as they occur, and view others that match your own.

3) Mobile Action Center – With weekly Consumer Watchdog actions, contact a member of Congress or email a corporate CEO on the go.

4) Consumer Watchdog Dog House – Satirize a politician, company or faulty product and share it on social media. Nine meme-like templates let you literally put a politician in the Dog House, set corporate executives’ “pants on fire” or point out a lobbyist who’s swimming in cash.

Revenge of the insurance deregulators

2:39 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Jamie Court
Sacramento loves to hate Consumer Watchdog, because we expose the dirty deeds politicians do for corporations, confront regulators who are asleep at the switch, and don’t believe you have to go along with big corporations to get along. We also take on the rich and powerful in the initiative process on behalf of consumers, which the legislature and lobbyists consider a slap in the face.

Whenever we have a big fight with the insurance industry, most of which we have won, some PR flack materializes as the voice of Sacramento’s hatred. There was a Republican operative in the Schwarzenegger years, before that a soon-to-become Blue Shield executive, and now a former chief mouthpiece for two disgraced California Democratic politicians, who recently took to Capitol Weekly’s pages with venom for all things Consumer Watchdog.

It’s somewhat flattering to have a stalker, since it’s reserved for only the most successful public interest groups. It means that the insurance industry, Silicon Valley and the other corporations we fight and beat are very worried about us.

The big difference between journalists and political bloggers is that a journalist gets fired for lying and a political blogger can get paid to do it.

Political bloggers like CW’s latest official stalker Steve Maviglio don’t disclose how much they are paid or who pays them, nor do they live by journalistic standards. That makes them the perfect hit-men-for hire by crooked corporations and politicians who want to attack the credibility of their critics with phony facts and outrageous allegations.
Read the rest of this entry →

Hyundai Elantra’s Poor MPG Frustrates Eco-Aware Drivers

5:43 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Consumer Watchdog has been highly critical of the gap between the Hyundai Elantra’s posted 29 city/40 highway MPG numbers and reality. We’ve asked the Environmental Protection Agency to re-test the Elantra, because even the most eco-aware drivers say they can’t reach those numbers, or the company’s 33MPG combined MPG.

Hyundai has responded that only people who “drive like maniacs” can’t equal the posted MPG, but here’s a complaint from the opposite of a maniac driver. Marc, an East Coast driver, told us:

I read your articles on the Hyundai Elantra with great interest.  While I really like the [Elantra], I have consistently had the same experience as you noted regarding gas mileage.  My combined mileage has never exceeded 29 and is usually between 26 and 28, my city mileage is in the low 20′s and highway mileage in the low 30′s at best.  What makes all of this troubling are a two factors.

First, I always drive in ECO mode and I drive with the goal of keeping the green eco light on all the time.

Second, I rarely drive in city rush hour traffic, rather most of my city, really suburban,  driving is in light suburban traffic, and it is a rare trip where I ever wait more than one light cycle to get through an intersection and travel speeds are typically between 35 and 45 mph.  On the highway, I am usually in free flow, tho 2-3 miles of my daily commute may be as low as 30-35 mph on some days – otherwise it’s 55.  I typically drive between 55-65 and don’t exceed that top speed with any regularity.  I recently returned from a 180 mile highway trip, using cruise control from 60-65 and my mileage was 33.7.  I’ve driven extremely steady highway trips of 40 miles and it’s always between 34 and 37.

So I’ve never seen the advertised mileage, no matter how carefully I drive.  It’s very frustrating because the city mileage is barely better than the what I was getting on the Audi A4 I traded in so I could get a high mileage vehicle.

People who don’t drive like Marc obviously get even worse mileage. Hyundai says that other cars also don’t meet their listed MPG in real-world tests, but our analysis of independent tests shows that the Elantra is at the bottom of the heap. And that is what we wrote Wednesday in a letter to Hyundai’s U.S. CEO. If even the most careful and light-footed driver can’t get to the listed MPG, Hyundai is deceiving the very people who its advertising targets.
Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Blue Cross Claims Fake Credit for “Free” Care

8:25 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

When I first noticed the ad below while hunting for cookie recipes, I was surprised to see a health insurance company buying a full page in the first pages of a cooking magazine. But reading it was another surprise. The headline touts “Free Annual Checkups,” and the text of the Anthem Blue Cross ad takes credit for this brand-new benefit: “100% coverage for checkups, flu shots and other preventive services.”

Anthem, however, had nothing to do with the prevention benefit. It’s a requirement of the federal health reforms passed last year. Blue Cross, along with every other major health insurer, fought to eliminate such mandatory benefits and later falsely blamed the law for outrageous, unjustified double-digit premium increases. (The prevention benefit is just one of the things that will disappear if the courts or Congress succeed in voiding the health reform law.)

Anthem must figure a deceptive claim of “free” care will make us feel better about insurance payments bigger than our mortgage.

It’s stunts like this that drive Consumer Watchdog’s efforts to beat back the insurance lobby and regulate untenable health insurance premiums.
Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Consumer Watchdog Asks Justice Department, FCC To Investigate ‘Spyphone Scandal’

10:10 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Probe of Wiretap Violations Should Include Google, Apple As Well As Software Maker

By John M. Simpson

WASHINGTON, DC – Consumer Watchdog called for a federal investigation into the “Spyphone Scandal”, in which software embedded in smartphones surreptitiously tracks users’ activities, including their keystrokes and numbers they dialed.

The probe should extend beyond the software developer, Carrier IQ, and include operating systems developers like Google and Apple as well as carriers and device manufacturers, the nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group said.

In letters to the Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, John M. Simpson, director of the group’s Privacy Project wrote that surreptitiously tracking smartphone users’ activities “appears to be a flagrant violation of wiretap laws.”

Read Justice letter here:

Read FCC letter here:

“The device many of us carry in our pockets has, simply put, been turned into a virtual spyphone,” said Simpson. “Meaningful Do Not Track Legislation that covers mobile devices could help arm consumers with tools necessary to protect their privacy.”

The software that turns mobile phones into spyphones was developed by Carrier IQ. Last month researcher Trevor Eckhart demonstrated that software installed on more than 140 million smartphones is surreptitiously tracking the activities of their users.

Read his report here:

“Culpability in this massive wiretapping effort extends far beyond the software developer, Carrier IQ,” wrote Simpson. “Clearly mobile phone service providers, manufactures and operating system developers are all potentially implicated. We call on you to launch an immediate criminal investigation into the involvement of software provider Carrier IQ; service providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile; operating system developers Google, Apple and Research In Motion; and device manufacturers including HTC, Samsung, Nokia and Motorola.”

“This Spyphone Scandal is an intrusion on people’s privacy on a massive scale,” the letters to Holder and Genachowski concluded. “Those responsible must be held accountable. We call on you to launch an immediate investigation.”

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When banks buy insurance for you… Watch out!

5:16 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


By Douglas Heller

Does your bank charge you extra on your monthly car or mortgage loan payments for insurance that the bank bought? Do you even know if it’s happening?

Most people insure their homes and cars, but banks sometimes buy an additional policy without asking the owner, adding the costs to the monthly car or home loan payment.

Sometimes the charge is legit, and sometimes it’s not. Homeowners in or near flood zones may be especially at risk of having overpriced and unnecessary insurance policies forced on them. Homeowners who pay their own insurance through an escrow account directly to the bank may also be at extra risk.

If your monthly car or home payment was increased by the bank for excess property insurance, read on.

And if what’s described below happened to you, we’d like to hear from you at our consumer complaints page.

In theory, lenders only purchase insurance on your property if you fail to buy any or enough coverage for the home or car or if your insurance lapses for some reason. And, in theory, it’s a reasonable enough action to guard the value of properties for which banks make loans. In practice, however, it can be a scam of outrageous proportions (as consumer columnist Dave Lieber recently wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

We’ve seen some complaints recently, for example, about people with SunTrust Bank mortgages who are forced to pay for excess coverage, including flood insurance they don’t need.

Here’s how it works: Read the rest of this entry →