A new phone scam

One of the downsides about having a phone is getting phone scam calls. The latest scam is for the caller to leave a recorded message that does not include your name but says “You are a person of interest in a formal proceeding. We have tried to contact you several times, so please call this number to discuss this issue.”

This is a scam. I am certain someone at the number I am asked to call back would ask me to wire money to make it go away. If I was a person of interest, they would not be calling me.

This serves as a reminder of other scams. Top of mind, here are a few to watch out for:

– IRS Scam: Someone will call leaving a message that you owe back taxes and the IRS will seek legal action to collect. The IRS will send you a letter if there is an issue with your taxes.

– Grandparent scam: The caller will pretend to be a grandchild and wait for the person to give the caller a name of a grandchild. The caller then assumes that identity. Typically, the faux grandchild says they have been in an accident and need money wired.

– Microsoft scam: This scam uses a caller who says Microsoft has detected that you are having computer problems. They want access to your computer at which time they will glean important financial information and passwords.

This does not address aggressive marketing attempts where the caller appears to be your credit card company. They are not really, but just want to issue you another credit card. It also doesn’t address other unscrupulous schemes where callers pretend to be who they are not to sell another product. Nor does it address the email phishing attempts that will allow someone to commandeer your computer.

Be on the look out. People want your money. Too many will lie, cheat and steal. All it takes is one bite to get hooked on a bad deal for you. What are some of the other scams you have come across?

Tell me why the CFPB is a disaster

In the current fued over who should lead the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, what should be focused on is why the President and Republicans are calling the CFPB a “joke” or a “disaster.” This agency has penalized banks, credit card companies, lenders, etc. almost $12 billion for aggressive marketing practices, selling products people did not ask for and outright fraud.

Over 90% of this money goes to the affected customers who have been cheated. A good example is Wells Fargo being fined $150 million for setting up accounts for people that did not authorize them, so employees could meet a bonus goal. Another is Bank of America being fined over $780 million for selling services customers did not ask for. Other brand name organizations have also been fined for bad practices.

The organization has also helped over 29 million people with issues and education on financial matters. Since, financial issues are complex and so many were harmed during the housing crisis, the CFPB seems to be a big help to everyday Americans.

The reason for the comments by the President and Republican legislators is the CFPB is working too well and banks don’t like this. It is far from a joke or a disaster, so reporters need to ask the speaker of such a comment as to why they say this? The pat answer is the CFPB has too much authority and too little oversight. Yet, it was set up to be removed from the political process for these reasons. Banks, et all don’t want to be fined for their business practices, so they fund politicians to diminish the CFPB’s clout.

My strong advice to banks is to stop screwing people over and maybe you won’t get fined. Stop selling people products they don’t understand such as variable or pick-a-payment mortgages. Stop selling them products and services they did not authorize. My sister is dealing with one of these banks right now on a credit card account she did not open.

So, Mr. President tell me again why the CFPB is a disaster? And, tell me how attacking this organization helps those voters who put you in office? To be brutally frank, when this President uses the word “disaster” it usually means he is being untruthful about something.

 

Friday Freakiness

This title is actually a misnomer in some respects, as the behavior is normative while the statements are not altogether true. In no particular order:

Representative Robert Pittenger from NC described the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau as dictatorial and bad for the economy. In his one sided argument, not once did he mention the CFPB has fined banks, credit card companies, pay day lenders, etc. over $12 Billion for fraud and aggressive marketing practices. Over 90% of these fines go back to consumers. Banks and their funded politicians don’t like the CFPB, but this is government oversight at its best.

In a sadly comical moved during a scary time with North Korea, the US ships that we were told were heading toward North Korean waters were headed in the opposite direction. To see Sean Spicer try to explain away chaos like this adds to the farcical nature of this White House.

The state of Arkansas has decided it wants to be known for executions rather than something more productive. It turns out their killing drug of choice is about to expire, so the Governor and Attorney General decided a dozen death row inmates had to go. With new DNA techniques and the Innocence project, we can not be certain that all twelve are guilty, with at least one still claiming innocence.

Finally, another shoe has dropped on the election influence with a detailed Russian plans being revealed from a think tank who advises Putin to abet Donald Trump’s efforts. What is also interesting is when this think tank thought Hillary Clinton was going to win in October, the strategy shifted to drumming up concerns over voter fraud. It is also interesting that  this is about the same time Trump ramped up the voter fraud issue and said he had to wait and see if he would support the results. To be frank, for anyone to say these efforts did not affect the election results is selling a story without proof. From where I sit, the survey percentile ranges shifted notably after James Comey’s announcement handing the election to Trump.

That is all the freakiness for one Friday. Have a great weekend.

Tell me again how you care about us?

Many have confused our President’s campaign rhetoric of speaking to a disenfranchised audience with his actually protecting their interests. When you look beneath the bullying of companies which are more pomp than circumstance, he is doing an interesting low profile job of screwing over Americans.

What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples:

– He wants the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unwound or made less effective. The CFPB has been hugely successful at punishing banks, credit card companies and other lenders for aggressive and fraudulent marketing. Over 90% of the fines go to the jilted customers. They have fined WellsFargo, American Express, Bank of America, e.g.

– Within hours of his inaugural speech to protect us Americans, he signed an order that reversed a mortgage premium reduction for homeowners that were required to buy mortgage insurance – this would have benefited over a million people who could not afford a lot down on their home.

– He wants to repeal the ACA which largely helps people making less than 4 times the poverty level. These folks will likely lose access to insurance on a guaranteed issue and renewability basis along with a premium subsidy. Access without either would be detrimental.

– Selecting an EPA cabinet leader who detests the EPA will create burdens on poorer Americans as they bear the brunt of environmental problems living closer to coal ash sites, supplied water by older pipes, and subject to more air and water pollution. We must protect our environment for all Americans, but we should be mindful of the strength and pace of job growth in the renewable energy industry.

– And, as a lightning rod, he tells people to buy American when the ball caps in the audience are mostly made in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh as are most of his and his daughter’s products. Do as I say, not as I do seems to apply.

There are other examples. The inanity of his words distract us from the agony of his pen and history. Pay attention to his actions. That is where the proof will lie. I do hope he does some good things, but we need to keep him as honest as we can.

Beliefs equal facts per the GOP

At last week’s Republican Convention, the big loser was accuracy and factual data. Why let the facts get in the way of your story? If you want to scare the hell out of folks and tell everyone how bad things are and that you alone are the man and group to fix such problems, then why should facts interfere with that narrative? The problem is what was presented is largely at odds with the truth. I ask people who tell me how bad things are by asking a simple question, what country are you talking about?

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” broadcast on Sunday shows the several bald-faced lies that were told by the convention speakers, including their nominee. The fact the nominee lied is not news as he has broken all records for lying in a campaign dating back to when fact checkers started measuring comments. What turned out to be the most fascinating conversation was an interview with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is portrayed as the most serious and knowledgeable GOP spokesperson.

During the interview, the reporter challenged him when he said violent crime is up in America. The reporter said the data clearly shows a decline over the last twenty-five years. Gingrich refused to concede that, but the reporter kept insisting. She gave him an out saying there are a couple of large cities where it has gone up the past year and he seized that, but she reiterated it has clearly declined over time. Gingrich then said people believe it to be higher and I will leave the data to the liberals and media. “As a politician, beliefs are more important,” said Gingrich. Unfortunately, he was not the only person to say he believed something over facts, so in so doing it must make it true.

As Oliver pointed out, it does not work that way. You cannot substitute your beliefs for facts and think everything is alright. You can believe all you want that climate change is a hoax and even make it more colorful as The Donald does adding it is a hoax invented by the Chinese to steal our jobs. But, it remains a huge problem we must deal with.

Let me offer a few facts in rebuttal to the story painted at the GOP convention.

  • America’s economy is actually doing pretty well, especially related to the rest of the world. The stock market has more than doubled under Obama, unemployment is down to under 5%, 10 million plus net jobs have been created on his watch and we are currently on the 5th (soon to be 4th) longest economic growth period ever in the US.
  • In 2015, the US sold more US made cars than ever before, beating the previous record, ironically, when Bill Clinton was President.
  • The rest of the world still respects the US as we have higher ratings than when Obama took the reins from Bush. Our reputation had fallen with the WMD story. By the way, the British just completed their review of the Iraq invasion story and were highly critical of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush. We have chosen to investigate Benghazi ad nauseam rather than the WMD issue.
  • The Affordable Care Act is not perfect and needs improvements, but is working pretty well with over 20 million new insureds and slower cost growth than before it was implemented.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has penalized banks, credit card companies and pay-day lenders over $11 Billion for aggressive and fraudulent marketing practices, with over 90% of that money going to cheated consumers. Consumers benefit, but GOP legislators hate this program. By the way, Senator Elizabeth Warren played a strong role in its passage and implementation.

I could go on, but we are in a much better place than was told last week. Yes, we have things to improve upon such as the declining middle class and increased poverty which have occurred over the last forty years and we must have better dialogue around race and violence issues, as well as gun governance, but America is not going to hell in a hand basket. And, even if it were, The Donald is the absolute worst person to be given keys to the car. His track record is one of great salesmanship, but poor management.

So, please ask questions of politicians and don’t let them off the hook if they say they believe it to be so. Show me your data.

 

What do these organizations have in common?

Based on the question asked above, I want you to think about the following organizations for a minute: Adelphia, American Express, Bank of America, Citigroup, Duke Energy, Enron, GM, Goldman Sachs, Healthsouth, Lehman Brothers, Lumber Liquidators, Marsh and McLennan, Massey Energy, Merrill Lynch, Penn State University, Toyota, Tyco, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo.

What thoughts pop into your head? What do these organizations have in common? Yes, they have all been successful and many still are. The answer I am looking for is they have all been fined, publicly shamed or found guilty of some level of malfeasance, criminal neglect or fraud. The disappointing truth is I have been a shareholder in four of these organizations, so it hurts me both morally and financially, to see leaders forsake their roles as stewards of the company.

Volkswagen is the latest to join the infamous group. I was speaking with a Volkswagen owner the other day. While I was talking about the fine and decline in stock value around their purposeful fraud to avoid poor EPA emissions test results, he was thinking of it as a further depreciated car value. As with the others, what Volkswagen did was wrong and it will hurt them for a long while. The poor emissions will be hurting all of us until the cars are fixed. The CEO resigned earlier this week, and well he should, as a fraud like this has to be understood or even sanctioned at the very top. As of this writing, some car owners and shareholder groups are considering class action lawsuits against Volkswagen’s leadership.

Why do I bring this up today? Quite simply, we have politicians running on a platform of eliminating regulations so business can flourish. We often confuse bureaucracy with regulations. We need to investigate and remedy inefficiency in the latter, as bureaucracy can be antagonistic to efficiency. But, we need to also challenge ourselves to be smart with our regulations. If regulations are not efficacious, we should make changes, which might include their elimination. But, as evidence of the above well-known examples, which do not include countless others, doing away with regulations carte blanche would be unwise and foolish.

So, when you hear a statement like “we must do away with regulations,” ask yourself why? Who does that serve? The answer may be illuminating. I will leave you with a quote from Senator Elizabeth Warren who led the effort to create the hugely successful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This agency has fined several of the financial companies above for hundreds of millions for aggressive marketing and outright fraudulent practices, over 90% of which goes back to the impacted customers. In response to a question about why she does not like Wall Street, she said “I like Wall Street, I just do not like cheating.” Neither do I, nor should any of us.

Let’s lessen bureaucracy, but acknowledge the need for regulations

When I hear we need fewer regulations, I usually have two thoughts running through my mind. First, I believe many confuse bureaucracy, which we need less of, with regulation, which are needed. Second, we do need to review our regulations to make sure that they are providing sufficient governance. Some may need to be loosened, some may need to be tightened and some could be eliminated. But, at all times we should look to make the regulations effective and not bureaucratic.

Erskine Bowles, of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee, was asked to co-chair this committee after serving as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Bowles got this position after he had served as Clinton’s Director of Small Business Administration (SBA) once he left a very successful business career. One of his claims to fame as director was he reduced the SBA application for assistance from 42 pages to 2 pages. He noted the repetitive nature of the form and that it caused far too much work for the applicant and reviewer. This streamlining of bureaucracy is a model for others.

John Oliver on his most recent “Last Week Tonight” show highlighted another terrible bureaucracy which is offensive to those who serve. His show is a comedy, but within its format, he does some excellent news reporting on various subjects, better than many newscasts. Oliver noted that we have committed to help the many Afghani and Iraqi interpreters who helped our troops in these countries. These people saved the lives of our troops many times and are valued members of their squads. Yet, they are in danger once we departed and some members of their families have been killed.

We promised to make them citizens, but the forms and process are so unbelievably bureaucratic, only a handful of the interpreters have made it here. This is beyond shameful. Oliver notes after Vietnam, we patriated hundreds of South Vietnamese who helped us, through an organized process in Guam that took about eight months. Some of these Afghani and Iraqi interpreters have been waiting almost three years. This process has to be changed to make it work better for everyone, while still allowing risk management over people we need to closely at, but these interpreters saved US lives.

Yet, we need regulation as human nature demands it. One of our constants is the “haves” will take advantage of the “have-nots.” It has always been thus, and will forever be this way. The system will be gamed no matter what the government and economic construct. President Teddy Roosevelt took on the Robber Barons who ran the country going against his own party. He wanted a “square deal” for everyone. Today, in America, we are returning in some respects to the Robber Baron period, with the vast amounts of money to win elections and the undue influence that follows.

For those who disagree with my opinion, let me offer some true stories, some in the public domain, some I am aware of through my consulting work experience.

Greed is not often good – altruistic leaders are not common

  • I have known a CEO who had every perquisite and a multi-million dollar income, but he invited customers to his daughter’s wedding, so his company would pay for the cost.
  • I have known executives who tried to have animal hospital bills paid by their spending accounts, expense light bulbs, etc. purchased for their homes and got a second company chauffeur, as the CEO and COO’s wives fought over the use of the lone chauffeur.
  • A colleague worked with a minister of a large church who answered his question about the scope of a compensation consulting project with these immortal words – “Your job is to look after the shepherd; the Lord will look after the flock.”
  • We have more immortal words uttered by the former head of the PTL Club to Ted Koppel on ABC Nightline about the extravagance of a solid gold faucet in his house at the expense of innocent donors – “The Lord wanted me to have nice things.” This was before he went to jail for defrauding his flock..
  • We had a local CEO of the United Way who single-handedly decimated future funding levels of the United Way from $40 million to $15 million, with her trying to ram a Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan through for herself without the full Board’s knowledge, coupled with a PTL Club worthy expense account.
  • Then, there are the tales of the Rigas family who led Adelphia and Dennis Kozlowski who led Tyco International, who basically treated the corporate money as theirs which led to scandals over lavish spending.
  • Bank of America and former Wachovia (I am a shareholder of both), one of which is now owned by someone else, have had a series of aggressive marketing, fraud, malfeasance, insider trading, etc. settlements (of course, without admitting guilt) which have totaled in multiple tens of billions of dollars. They both have been part of three of the worst merger transactions in banking history – the names Moneystore, Golden West and Countrywide will live on as reminders of poor decision-making that harmed many customers and employees, in addition to shareholders.
  • The name Enron will live on as well as its executives had code names for various financial gimmicks that sheltered earnings or created fictitious gains for reporting purposes. And, when the company was about to get caught, its CEO was asking employees to buy more Enron stock in the 401(k) plan to prop up the price.
  • Beazer Homes is one of the poster children for the financial housing crisis as they inflated a buyer’s ability to buy a home, did not disclose they owned the mortgage lender, did not fully describe variable loans, and did not let people know the realtor and inspector were in on the game. So, people bought a house they could not afford under terms that were not suited for their income. The CEOs recent appeal in Court was denied and he is back to jail.
  • The other financial crisis culprits were rating agencies like S&P, Moody’s who stamped AAA ratings on more risky financial products which packaged all these bad loans together and sold them to investors. They sold their ratings by gaining more business from the people whose products they were rating. Goldman Sachs got chastised for selling these products to clients while betting against them with their own money. The above sleazy activities are why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exists and should remain.
  • A West Virginia coal mine owner paid for a judge’s campaign for office, so penalties for EPA violations would go away or be lessened. Later, this sloppy operator later had a coal mine collapse which killed many.
  • The petro-chemical and fossil fuel industries have made so much profit, they will effectively use those profits to get their way with regulators and sway public opinion. The movie” Erin Brockovich” is a great movie as it shows how one person can fight an industry that was harming people, but her heroic efforts should not be an anomaly. I would encourage you to watch “Toxic Hotseat,” “Living Downstream,” and either/ both “Gasland” movies to show how industry can steam roll people. If someone says we should do away with the EPA, ask them why on earth would anyone want to do that?

Regulations are needed to keep things fair. Regulations are needed to keep our children and parents safe. We should test our regulations to make sure they are effective, but we should be ever vigilant to minimize bureaucracy. Bureaucracy and regulations are not the same thing. If we are not careful, we may throw the baby out with the bath water.