Tag Archives: consumer

A call goes out for women to strike on March 8

Organizers of the January Women’s March are calling for women to strike on March 8 and encouraging them not to spend money to show their economic strength and impact on American society.

“A Day Without a Woman” is the first national action by organizers since the nationwide marches held the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration that drew millions of women into the streets in protest against misogyny, inequality and oppression.

Wednesday’s event coincides with the U.N.-designated International Women’s Day and organizers say they want to “stand with women around the globe” who supported their efforts Jan. 21 with similar protests in cities around the world.

Spokeswoman Cassady Findlay said organizers were inspired by the recent “Day Without an Immigrant” protests held last month.

She said the action is aimed at highlighting the effect of women on the country’s socioeconomics system and demonstrating how women’s paid and unpaid work keeps households, communities and economies running.

“We do all of this and get paid less than men, get sexually harassed, get inadequate family leave,” Findlay said. “We provide all this value and keep the system going, and receive unequal benefits from it.”

Organizers are asking women to wear red to signify love and sacrifice.

It is unclear how many women could participate in the action.

More than a million people, mostly women, turned out nationwide for the Women’s March.

School districts including Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools in North Carolina, have canceled classes in anticipation of employee participation.

Some businesses have said they will either close or give female employees the day off.

The event website provides templates for “out of office” emails and an employer letter.

The site had more than a half-million visitors and more than 60,000 had clicked on the letter template by mid-day March 7.

The role of women in American society is significant. According to the U.S. Census, women make up more than 47 percent of the workforce and are dominant in such professions as registered nurses, dental assistants, cashiers, accountants and pharmacists. They make up at least a third of physicians and surgeons, as well as lawyers and judges. Women also represent 55 percent of all college students.

Still, American women continue to be paid less than men, earning 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. The median income for women was $40,742, compared with $51,212 for men, according to 2015 census data.

On the web

A Day Without A Woman: https://www.womensmarch.com/womensday/

In the spirit of love and liberation…

This is the statement from the organizers of the march and A Day Without A Woman:

In the same spirit of love and liberation that inspired the Women’s March, we join together in making March 8th A Day Without a Woman, recognizing the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system–while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity. We recognize that trans and gender nonconforming people face heightened levels of discrimination, social oppression and political targeting. We believe in gender justice.

Anyone, anywhere, can join by making March 8th A Day Without a Woman, in one or all of the following ways:

  1. Women take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
  2. Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses).
  3. Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman

A Day Without a Woman reaffirms our commitment to the Principles of Unity, which were collaboratively outlined for the Women’s March. We are inspired by recent courageous actions like the “Bodega strike” lead by Yemeni immigrant store owners in New York City and the Day Without Immigrants across the U.S. We applaud the efforts of #GrabYourWallet and others to bring public accountability to unethical corporate practices. The Women’s March stands in solidarity with the International Women’s Strike organizers, feminists of color and grassroots groups in planning global actions for equity, justice and human rights.

When millions of us stood together in January, we saw clearly that our army of love greatly outnumbers that of fear, greed and hatred. Let’s raise our voices together again, to say that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.

Taking the day template


Out of office template


Good buys, better living: H20 helpers

Water is life.

And we’re going into 2017 resolved to continue standing with the water protectors at Standing Rock, battle government efforts to sell public water to Wall Street, challenge the proposed leasing of public land and take over of private land for fracking operations and champion regulations aimed at keeping pollutants out of our waterways and removing contaminants from our water supplies.

Many of us also are going into 2017 with personal resolutions aimed at improving and protecting our health and the wellness of our families.

Throughout the new year, WiG will be browsing the marketplace, testing items and recommending products and services we think are good buys for better living. The first products to catch our attention? Two H20 helpers — a water purifier for the home or office and a water purifier for on-the-go.

  • ZeroWater pitchers feature a pour-through filtration system that is certified by the NSF to reduce chromium and lead in tap water.

ZeroWater might sound familiar because the company in 2016 partnered with United Way on the Filters for Flint program, providing purification pitchers and filters in the Michigan community, particularly in homes with children, who are most susceptible to high lead levels.

ZeroWater pitchers feature a pour-through filtration system that is certified by the NSF to reduce chromium and lead in tap water. PHOTO: Courtesy
ZeroWater pitchers feature a pour-through filtration system that is certified by the NSF to reduce chromium and lead in tap water. PHOTO: Courtesy

Most traditional pitchers use carbon filtration and only two stages to remove water impurities — and they may not remove harsh chemicals and solids such as Chromium-6 from tap water. ZeroWater five-stage filters use an ion exchange technology to deionize tap water, which has proven to be an effective method of reducing heavy metals like Chromium-6, as well as lead.

WiG tested two ZeroWater BPA-free pitchers — a futuristic-blue 23-cup dispenser with a spigot kept in the fridge and a 10-cup pitcher/dispenser for the counter — for 60 days.

The Zerowater system includes a filter, the pitcher with a tank and reservoir and a meter that looks like a digital thermometer and detects “total dissolved solids” that may have entered the water supply through old pipes, run-off from road salts, pesticides, fertilizers and other sources.

First, WiG found the filtered water to taste crisp and refreshing with each pour. The water meets the FDA definition for purified water — without generating all the plastic bottles.

Second, and more importantly, we found the ZeroWater filters remove considerably more impurities than other filters, which is why tap water takes longer to pass from the reservoir into the tank.

Third, we love the simplicity of using the meter to show water quality and also indicate when a recyclable filter should be replaced.

A filter, on average, lasts for 15 gallons but this is dependent on water quality — the cleaner the tap water, the longer the filter lasts.

A note: Zerowater filters and pitchers are for use with tap water and the systems do not remove bacteria.

But this next product does…

  • The SteriPEN traveler water purifier uses ultra violent light to destroy more than 99.9 percent of disease-causing microbes — 99.9999 percent of bacteria, 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9 percent of protozoa — in a liter of water in about 90 seconds.
The SteriPEN traveler water purifier uses ultra violent light to destroy more than 99.9 percent of disease-causing microbes — 99.9999 percent of bacteria, 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9 percent of protozoa — in a liter of water in about 90 seconds. PHOTO: Courtesy
The SteriPEN traveler water purifier uses ultra violent light to destroy more than 99.9 percent of disease-causing microbes — 99.9999 percent of bacteria, 99.99 percent of viruses and 99.9 percent of protozoa — in a liter of water in about 90 seconds. PHOTO: Courtesy

The promotional materials from the manufacturer, Hydro-Photon Inc., promise “safe drinking water. Anywhere. Anytime.” And the makers of the hand-held device promise about 3,000 treatments — which is a lot of water on a lot of camping trips to Devil’s Lake or hiking around Lake Geneva.

Operation is simple: Fill a container with water, push the button on the SteriPEN, place the device’s lamp into the water and stir until the LED turns green.

WiG tested the SteriPEN traveler over a 30-day period. We took the SteriPEN on outdoor adventures – a camping trip in the Florida Everglades and hikes through two state parks. We also used the SteriPEN on urban and suburban adventures — drawing curious glances as we purified the tap water at one shopping mall and regrettably offending the parents while purifying the tap water in their condo.

We found the SteriPEN — recently named one of the best gifts for adventurers in a USA Today survey — convenient, reliable, simple to use. It never failed to work and was simple to keep clean with dish soap and a cloth. Our test product was provided by CureUV.com.

You’ll want to be sure to use lithium or rechargeable nickel metal AA batteries — not alkaline. And you’ll want to make sure you memorize— or take a phone photo — of the LED indicator guide.

A note: This device is not certified effective against parasites and their eggs, in part because of restrictions on animal testing.

The cost for the SteriPen? About $50.

The ZeroWater 23-cup dispenser retails for about $40 and the 10-cup dispenser costs about

‘12 Days’ of Christmas now costs $34,363

The slow recovery of the U.S. economy is continuing to keep the cost of Christmas — or at least the gifts listed in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — from spiraling out of control.

The price of two turtle doves jumped from $290 to $375 this year, but nine of the other 12 gifts listed in the carol stayed the same price or became cheaper, including a partridge in a pear tree, according to the 33rd annual PNC Wealth Management Christmas Price Index released Thursday.

As a result, the overall cost of the gifts listed in the song increased 0.7 percent to $34,363, up $233 from last year’s total of $34,131.

PNC Financial Services Group releases the price index each year as a whimsical way of tracking inflation.

Besides the turtle doves, only the cost of 11 pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming _ both up 2.8 percent _ increased.

Thomas Melcher, chief Investment officers for PNC Asset Management Group, said the increasing wages of drummers and pipers could signal a march toward higher wages for a broader range of workers in 2017. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see increases coming for the eight maids-a-milking, nine ladies dancing and 10 lords-a-leaping.

“There are some underlying inflationary pressures that seem to be building,” Melcher said.

The price of five gold rings, as tracked by PNC, hasn’t gone up in three years, even though the price of gold as a commodity has.

“At a certain point, the end product should begin to reflect the price appreciation of the commodity,” Melcher said.

PNC calculates the prices from sources including retailers, bird hatcheries and two Philadelphia dance groups, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadanco.

The cost of buying the same gifts online is $44,603 this year, up 2.2 percent from $43,627 last year. But Melcher cautioned that’s largely because it costs more to transport animals and performers — 10 lords-a-leaping cost $5,509 in-person, but $13,373 online because of transportation costs — than the cost of the items themselves.

“In most instances, it’s cheaper to shop online,” Melcher said. “I’ve never personally shipped a swan, but I imagine it’s not the cheapest endeavor in the world.”

A buyer who purchased all the gifts each time they are mentioned in the song would spend $156,507, up $1,100 from last year.

The full set of prices for purchasing the gifts from a bricks-and-mortar business, not online, is:

• Partridge, $20; last year: $25

• Pear tree, $190; last year: same

• Two turtle doves, $375; last year: $290

• Three French hens, $182; last year: same

• Four calling birds (canaries), $600; last year: same

• Five gold rings, $750; last year: same

• Six geese-a-laying, $360; last year: same

• Seven swans a-swimming, $13,125; last year: same

• Eight maids a-milking, $58; last year: same

• Nine ladies dancing (per performance), $7,553; last year: same

• 10 lords a-leaping (per performance), $5,509; last year: same

• 11 pipers piping (per performance), $2,708; last year: $2,635

• 12 drummers drumming (per performance), $2,934; last year: $2,855

Auto intelligence: What happens to the info autos collect about drivers?

Your car knows more about you than you think. Newer cars that connect to the internet can collect vast amounts of data about drivers, such as where you went to dinner, if you broke the speed limit or if your seat belt was buckled.

When you buy a car, you cede data control to your car company. Most automakers say they won’t sell information without an owner’s consent. But they’re not legally required to inform you if they do.

Car data is about to become big business. A new report from consulting firm McKinsey says automotive data could be worth $450 billion to $750 billion globally by 2030. Automakers, insurers, high-tech firms, city planners and advertisers are among those who could use data to refine services. Drivers could share data in exchange for navigation systems, or they could pay extra for perks like a parking spot finder.

Here’s a primer on the emerging issue of connected-car data:

Q: Which cars collect data?

A: Just under 20 percent of new cars sold globally now can be linked to the internet, according to BI Intelligence. That figure is expected to reach 75 percent by 2020.

For example, General Motors Co. will have 12 million connected vehicles by the end of this year worldwide, which it says is the most for any automaker.

Q: Do I own data that’s collected?

A: That’s unclear. Under federal law, drivers own data stored in event data recorders, or “black boxes,” which monitor vehicles in a crash. Police and insurers need a driver’s consent – or a court order – to get that data. But there are no laws addressing data collected by automakers through vehicle internet connections.

Q: How do automakers use the data?

A: It depends on the vehicle and the manufacturer. Some turn data into notifications. Cars can automatically signal for help if an air bag deploys, for example. Some will send a message if oil needs to be changed or a vehicle is being recalled.

Tesla Motors has used data to reveal – sometimes within hours of a crash – how fast the driver was going and whether or not the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was engaged.

Q: Can automakers sell data without my knowledge?

A: They could, depending on language in owners’ manuals. But under voluntary principles established by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in 2014, most agreed to get permission before sharing anything about a driver’s location, health or behavior with third parties.

Twenty companies – including GM, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz – signed that agreement, which is effective by the 2017 model year.

The policy doesn’t require consent for automakers to share data with emergency workers or to share it internally for research.

Q: Can I stop an automaker from collecting my data?

A: Most automakers let owners opt out, but that’s usually buried in fine print, says Khaliah Barnes, former associate director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, who now works on privacy issues for the federal government.

Under the 2014 agreement, automakers committed to providing clear notices about data, the reasons for collecting it and where it can be shared. But that’s not always happening. For example, some GM owners’ manuals tell people about data storage, but they must track down separate policies to learn more, Barnes says.

Q: Are there benefits to sharing data?

A: Yes. Upon a driver’s request, GM will send driving data to insurance companies like Progressive and State Farm to see if the driver qualifies for lower rates. OnStar will send coupons to your phone for businesses along your route.

Tesla collects data in order to improve cars via software updates.

There’s evidence people aren’t fretting about data sharing. McKinsey found 79 percent of the 3,000 customers it interviewed in the U.S., China and Germany were willing to share. More than 70 percent were willing to pay for data-enabled services that would save time, like a parking spot finder.

Q: What’s the downside to sharing data?

A: Insurance companies could require drivers to let them monitor driving before they grant a policy. They could see if you go fast around curves, accelerate too quickly or if you don’t wear a seat belt. That could raise rates. You could also get overwhelmed with unwanted coupons.

Q: What’s the future of car data sharing?

Mark Thomas, head of connected car marketing for Cisco-Jasper, predicts automakers will eventually go from charging monthly internet fees to monetizing the service other ways, perhaps by selling data. Internet costs could be split, with part going to an insurer, music provider or other data user. Without a monthly charge, more drivers would sign up, he says.

Currently, data charges can be steep. New GM vehicles come with a free OnStar Guidance Plan trial. It automatically calls emergency services after a crash, tracks and slows down a car if it’s stolen and provides hands-free calling. But it costs $34.99 per month when the trial is over.

Privatizing long-term care for profit

With the media focused on our crazy presidential campaign, it’s easy to overlook another disturbing power play by Gov. Scott Walker and his cronies here at home.

A year ago during the legislative budget session, GOP leaders proposed to dismantle Wisconsin’s highly rated long-term care system.

The proposal came as a shock to the state’s nonprofit managed care organizations — or MCOs. They’re the long-term care providers and personal care workers. No one bothered to consult the 55,000 elderly and disabled individuals who receive assistance from the programs or the family members who participate in their care.

Despite a mighty grassroots effort to defeat the proposal, the GOP voted for the changes anyway. Walker vetoed the item only because he disagreed about how to section off regions of the state to the advantage of for-profit insurance companies.

No bad ideas rest for long with the GOP leaders who control our state — especially not when their campaign contributors and cronies stand to benefit.

In late April, Walker and GOP legislative leaders announced again that they plan to shift the current system of eight regions overseen by nonprofit MCOs to three regions administered by national for-profit health insurance companies. They have the votes and the power to do whatever they want.

R.J. Pirlot, executive director of the Alliance for Health Insurers, is in quite a hurry. “The sooner the committee acts,” he said in a statement, “the sooner both service recipients and Wisconsin taxpayers will reap the benefits.”

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson is antsy, too. “We believe the sooner we can transition to improved services, the better off consumers and tax payers will be.”

Pardon my skepticism toward the newfound altruism of our one-party state. In the past few years, the GOP has slashed access to food stamps, rejected almost $1 billion in federal Medicaid funds for the poor, and defunded and forced the closure of Planned Parenthood clinics.

Walker and GOP Rep. John Nygren claim that turning the long-term care system over to the private sector will save the state $300 million over the next six years.

That sounds good, but expanding caseloads and payouts to insurance company shareholders over those years can only result in cuts to services for our most vulnerable citizens.

The non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau has issued several reports showing that our current long-term care system is efficient and has saved money. Its emphasis on providing home and community services reduced the number of Medicaid-covered individuals in nursing homes by 10,811 between 2002 and 2011.

The state Department of Health Services has issued data on the positive health outcomes and high rates of satisfaction among individuals receiving care in their communities. Sudden changes in providers or services will surely be upsetting to elderly and disabled recipients.

I know many dedicated people who worked hard over almost 20 years to gather input, plan and reform our long-term care system into what it is today. It was painstaking work, taking the views of disabled people, their families, caregiving agencies, health care providers, county and state agencies and legislators into account.

It is a travesty of justice that this model of consensus and consumer-directed service can be dismantled in just one month by those whose only concern is providing more profits for wealthy corporations.

Demand for the new Tesla is wild

Demand for the new Tesla Model 3 has been eye-popping, with consumers pre-ordering about $13.7 billion worth of the electric sedans nearly two years before they go on sale.

Yet experts aren’t yet ready to proclaim it’s a tipping point with mainstream America moving from burning gasoline to charging batteries.

The reason? Most of the 325,000 people worldwide who put down $1,000 deposits are tech-savvy, environmentally conscious early adopters who see Tesla as an innovative brand that meets their needs. The $35,000 price tag and the Model 3’s 215-mile range are important, but the brand’s tech image and CEO Elon Musk’s success in cars, rockets and solar panels are the main drivers.

“We’re tech people. I want integration with my phone,” says Charles Butler, a 40-year-old manager with a cloud computing company in Austin, Texas, who was among the first to make an order. “Musk and Tesla, that’s what they do with their customer experience.”

Researchers say other automakers’ electric cars haven’t caught on because their range is limited to around 100 miles. And even General Motors’ Chevrolet Bolt, which will go more than 200 miles per charge and is priced similarly to the Model 3, won’t attract a frenzy of buyers because Chevy doesn’t have Tesla’s tech image, they say.

Surveys by the University of California Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and by Carnegie Mellon University show that Butler is a pretty typical Tesla buyer. The brand is well-known in the U.S., even among those who don’t plan to buy electrics. Tesla buyers always have rated cutting-edge features _ huge touch screens, freeway autopilot and over-the-air software updates — as paramount, said Tom Turrentine, director of electric and hybrid vehicle research at UC Davis.

Early electric cars didn’t have those features, although the new Bolt will have some of them.

“There’s a big overlap in people who think about the future and green technology,” Turrentine said. “Tesla is really sitting right on that.”

Surveys by Carnegie Mellon show that getting from the tech savvy to regular folks will take a lot. Most U.S. consumers don’t even know what an electric car does, said Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy.

“Winning over the enthusiast is just fundamentally different from winning over mainstream consumers,” he said.

Turrentine doesn’t expect similar demand for the Bolt, which is due to hit showrooms late this year. Chevy won’t comment on the Tesla orders, and it isn’t taking advance orders for the Bolt. Instead, it will rely on GM’s vast dealer network, high owner satisfaction with the Volt plug-in hybrid, and Internet connectivity to drum up Bolt sales, a spokeswoman said.

That may not work well, however. UC Davis research shows that when asked to name rechargeable cars, “hardly anybody can name a Volt, but they can name a Tesla,” Turrentine said.

Surveys also show that GM and other automakers don’t have the tech panache of Tesla .

“I just do not believe when you’re a large automaker, you’re necessarily going to solve for that,” says Butler.

Yet Tesla is about to face more competition. Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for the Navigant research firm, said other automakers are scrambling to unveil 200-mile electric cars in the same price range.

More established automakers likely will have a reliability advantage over Tesla, which has struggled with quality problems on its current models, he said.

Still, all automakers face a “chasm” that must be bridged between early adopters and the public for electric cars to be in every driveway, Turrentine said. It will take years of influence from early buyers to change a country in which gas-powered pickup trucks are the top-selling vehicles, he said. Also needed will be more battery breakthroughs for lower costs, and continued government incentives, he said.

There are other problems that could make it hard for Musk to satisfy his orders. The volume — which surprised even Musk — will be difficult for Tesla to produce. The company has been a niche manufacturer, selling just 110,000 cars since it started manufacturing at a California plant in 2008. Even Musk seems to be wondering. On Twitter, he said he may have to rethink production plans and open a factory in Europe.

Tesla also has a history of missing deadlines for previous models, and delays could turn away some buyers. Last week, the company blamed parts shortages from a supply company for production shortfalls with the new Model X SUV and pledged to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with the Model S.

“After a while you have a pattern that things get delayed,” said Standard & Poor’s analyst Efraim Levy.

Another possible bug is the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric car buyers, which could reach its 200,000 limit for Tesla buyers and be phased out before many of those who ordered can get it. Tesla says in a statement that it will make sure customers know when the credits expire.

“We build our vehicles, including Model 3, to offer compelling value without any incentives,” the statement said.

New law gives break to controversial debt buyers

Last summer, Sandra Goodwin was sued by Jefferson Capital Systems for $5,562 in overdue debt. But Goodwin had never heard of or done business with the company.

“The paperwork said I was being sued,” said Goodwin, a former Madison resident who now lives in Stoughton. “I mean, I panicked.”

Goodwin sought free legal advice from Stacia Conneely, an attorney at the Madison branch of the nonprofit law firm Legal Action of Wisconsin. Conneely determined Jefferson Capital had purchased Goodwin’s debt — stemming from an online class she signed up for but never took — from LifeWay Credit Union.

Goodwin’s debt is a small part of the multi-billion-dollar debt-buying industry that recently won a legislative victory in Wisconsin. Such companies buy and sell the right to collect debt, but consumer advocates say the result is sometimes a bill that the consumer may not recognize for an amount that cannot be verified from a company they have never heard of.

Wisconsin consumers have filed more than 2,000 complaints over the past four years with the state Department of Financial Institutions against debt collectors, including such debt-buying companies, outstripping complaints against payday lenders and auto loan-title lenders combined, a Wisconsin Public Radio analysis found. Many of these complaints were about threats or other improper telephone behavior, and some were about attempts to collect debt from the wrong person.

When a creditor such as a credit card company decides it cannot collect, the debt can be sold for pennies on the dollar to a third-party debt buyer. Then, debt buyers try to collect through traditional methods, such as phone calls, or they can sue for repayment.

According to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission report, however, 90 percent or more of people sued never show up in court. If a defendant fails to appear, the judge often issues a default judgment, allowing the creditor to garnish wages and put liens on real estate or other property.

Unlike most states, some consumer debt in Wisconsin is erased after six years. Nationally, the FTC found that slightly over 12 percent of the debt purchased was more than six years old, which would put it beyond the statute of limitations in Wisconsin.

Organizations including the FTC, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Consumer Law Center and Human Rights Watch have all called for stronger regulation of debt buyers, especially in court proceedings.

A bill signed into law March 1 by Gov. Scott Walker sends Wisconsin the opposite way, consumer advocates say. The law standardizes but in some cases lowers how much proof debt collectors must present in court at the beginning of a lawsuit.

“It moves in the exact wrong direction,” said Stoughton consumer attorney Mary Fons, who testified against the bill authored by state Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.

Representatives from the Wisconsin Creditors’ Rights Association, which pushed the bill, did not respond to requests for comment by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Born also declined comment.

When Born first proposed the measure in 2013, it was one of the few times the state Department of Financial Institutions had opposed a bill during Walker’s tenure, said Peter Bildsten, former secretary of the state Department of Financial Institutions. In an interview, Bildsten said he was “very concerned about the lack of protection here in Wisconsin for borrowers like that.”


The ‘telephone game’

By the time someone is sued by a debt buyer, how much is owed and to whom it is owed may be unrecognizable.

The FTC found that debt buyers often received very little information about the debts they purchased, usually packaged in one spreadsheet with many other debts. And the accuracy of the information is not guaranteed. The likelihood that the information is inaccurate grows as the debt ages.

“It’s sort of like the telephone game,” Conneely said. “It starts here, and by the time it comes around … years later, who knows what you’re going to see and what information is available?”

She said in Goodwin’s case, Jefferson Capital had purchased her debt, which originated from an online school called The College Network.

Goodwin said she never took the online course she signed up for, and she tried unsuccessfully to cancel it. Although she did sign a promissory note in 2011, Goodwin said she was legally blind at the time because of a stroke and did not know what she was signing.

The law firm representing Jefferson Capital did not return messages seeking comment.

Conneely said she is working on an out-of-court settlement.

The debt buying industry is thriving. Third-party debt buyers recovered approximately $55.2 billion in 2013, earning close to $10.4 billion in commissions and fees, according to a 2014 Association of Credit and Collections Professionals report. By the FTC’s count, there are now “hundreds, if not thousands” of debt buyers.

Wisconsin’s online circuit court database shows that between 2003 and March 22 of this year, Jefferson Capital, the company that sued Sandra Goodwin, had filed 2,630 cases against Wisconsin consumers. Nearly 3,000 cases have been filed by major debt buyer Portfolio Recovery Associates — one of nine firms that comprise more than three-fourths of the debt purchased nationwide.


‘Sewer service’ and ‘zombie debt’

In some cases, alleged debtors are never notified of the lawsuit, ensuring a no-show in court and a win for the creditor. In a practice sometimes called “sewer service,” a collector falsifies records saying a summons was served when it was not, figuratively throwing the papers in the sewer. In 2010, New York’s attorney general sued to throw out about 100,000 judgments that had been obtained this way.

Another illegal strategy used by some companies is collecting on expired debt. In Wisconsin, consumer debt generally expires after six years. Wisconsin and Mississippi are the only states where certain debts are completely extinguished once they are past that statute of limitations.

Debt that is past that date but which creditors continue to pursue has been referred to as “zombie debt.”

It is a violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to file an action in court to collect an expired debt. But Fons confirmed that creditors sometimes do secure judgments on these so-called zombie debts “because they (companies) don’t get caught very often.”

From 2011 through 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions received 2,351 complaints about debt collectors, including third-party buyers, Wisconsin Public Radio found.

At the federal level, Wisconsin consumers have filed more than 1,100 complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since July 2013 about all kinds of debt collectors. Americollect, a Manitowoc-based collections agency that uses the slogan “ridiculously nice collections,” was the most complained-about company with 44 complaints. “Debt was paid” and “debt is not mine” were common reasons cited in the complaints.


Debate surrounds debt buyer law

The new law signed by Walker standardizes but in some cases loosens the required proof at the beginning of a

lawsuit for these kinds of legal actions under the Wisconsin Consumer Act. Creditors and third-party debt buyers now must provide a single billing statement as proof at the beginning of a lawsuit.

Under the previous standard, they were required to show all documents “evidencing the transaction,” which could include the initial contract and a record of any charges and additional fees or interest.

Born said in a press release after the Assembly passed his bill in November that the legislation “closes a loophole that has been exploited by bad actors to avoid paying debts.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison finance professor Jim Johannes, who testified in favor of the bill, said in an interview that the new law “provides clarity for the courts.”

“Previously … the courts could interpret it any way they wanted to,” he said.

Johannes said he believes the new law will protect consumers while preventing people from getting out of paying their debts.

Conneely said the new law has created a different type of loophole — one that benefits creditors. Now, the required billing statement can be drawn up any time the creditor chooses. It may not include crucial information about the account’s history, she said.

Editor’s note: This story was provided by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.


Wisconsin Senate scraps water privatization vote

Despite a push from private water companies, Senate Republicans failed to reach a consensus on a bill that would have made it easier to privatize water systems in the state.

The measure was pulled and no floor vote took place earlier this week.

The measure, which had passed in the Assembly, was opposed by union members, environmentalists, municipal water and sewer operators, local cities and citizens from across the state.

And opponents made their voices heard.

“Legislators should use what’s left of the legislative session to focus on creating good jobs and economic opportunities for Wisconsin, not on making it easier for out-of-state corporate interests to gobble up Wisconsin’s municipal water systems,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.  “This appalling power grab by corporate interests was stopped by the voice of the people.  Union members sent thousands of messages to lawmakers around the state to express dismay and disappointment with privatizing our water utilities without citizen say. Democracy worked as it should, the people spoke out and their representatives listened.” 

“Water is a source of life, not profit,” added Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.  “With the legislative session winding down, this bad bill should stay buried. Together, union members, environmentalists, municipal sewer and water operators and local cities we were able to sound the alarm, raise a red flag and protect Wisconsin’s water services as a public good and human right.”

Idaho appeals ruling against state’s ‘ag-gag’ law

The state of Idaho is appealing a federal court’s decision to overturn the state’s “ag-gag” law.

The law makes it a crime to videotape agriculture operations. Idaho lawmakers passed the law in 2014 after the state’s $2.5 billion dairy industry complained that videos of weak, dying cows being beaten and stomped on at a southern Idaho dairy unfairly hurt their business.

The vicious brutality caught on video sparked a consumer backlash, as did the images of sickly, terrified cows covered with ulcers and feces being prodded with electrical rods into slaughter tunnels.

The Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy For Animals released the videos, shot in 2012 at Bettencourt Dairy.

Similar conditions have been documented in other states, including Wisconsin. Republican “pro-business” legislators in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee and other states have either passed or tried to pass legislation similar to Utah’s in order to protect companies from public exposure of the squalid, brutal conditions under which animals are kept in factory farms/

A federal court invalidated Utah’s law in August, holding that it violates the First Amendment.

The state appealed that ruling to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The picture shown here is known as a “death pile.” After being crammed into spaces so small they can’t move and loaded with steroids, hormones and anibiotics to make them grow, factory farm animals end up in piles like this before their parts are butchered and sold in shiny cellophane-wrapped packages on supermarket shelves. Their short lives are lived amid conditions of unimaginable brutality and squalor.

Hemp industry enters 2nd year with hazy market potential

The newly legal hemp industry is entering its second growing season with some big questions for producers experimenting with marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin.

The federal government has allowed limited imports of hemp seed — in Colorado’s case, this past month — for research and development purposes. Companies trying to create a U.S. hemp industry are seeking investors not only for unproven products but for a plant that is still classified under the federal Controlled Substances Act with marijuana and thus cannot be patented.

As a result, it’s too soon to tell whether hemp will become a boon for farmers or stay in mostly boutique products that use imported hemp.

At least 22 states allow hemp cultivation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though most are limited to experimental testing, not commercial industry. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they’re not sure how many states are growing hemp or how much is being produced.

Two hemp facilities in northern Colorado underscore the crop’s uncertainty.

A biomass factory about an hour’s drive north of Denver is processing hemp into pulp, sugars and lignin. PureVision Technology CEO Ed Lehrburger is also experimenting with hemp stalks, sensing potential for a broad array of industrial uses but unable to secure enough to see whether it could replace wheat, corn and wood as raw materials for use in things like plastics, fuels and packaging.

“We don’t have enough hemp to process,” said Lehrburger, who created a subsidiary, PureHemp Technology, but concedes the hemp business is a few years from taking off. He’s paying $500 a ton for the scarce commodity, compared to $65 for a ton of corn stalks.

But Lehrburger is bullish on hemp’s industrial potential. Pointing to a room-sized machine that processes the biomass into pulp, Lehrburger explained that hemp stalks become pulp faster than other raw materials and require less water.

Just down the road, a greenhouse contains a more tantalizing prospect. The company CBDRx is growing several hundred hemp plants in order to extract cannabidiol _ frequently shortened to CBD _ a non-intoxicating part of hemp that some believe has a variety of medical applications, from alleviating pain and inflammation to managing seizures.

CBDRx’s owners believe hemp’s therapeutic potential far exceeds any other commercial use. The company, created in January, plans to expand to 200 or more employees within a year, thanks to a large investment of venture capital.

“We see this as a very huge market, much bigger than the marijuana market,” said Alejandro Bergad, CBDRx’s chief agricultural officer for the company. “We’re poised for national expansion.”

But CBDRx must first to develop a product they can’t yet patent and make sure their plants don’t contain too much of the plant’s more popular chemical, THC, which produces a high.

The federal Controlled Substances Act makes no difference between hemp as a plant and marijuana as a drug. 

Plants containing more than 0.3 percent THC are considered marijuana and must be destroyed by law, though licensed hemp growers aren’t subject to criminal prosecution if their plants are too strong. Last year, the first in which Colorado licensed hemp growers, agriculture authorities ordered the destruction of about an acre’s worth of plants after spot inspections, out of 1,811 total licensed acres.

More growers have signed up this year, with 2,637 acres licensed. Colorado now allows indoor hemp production, too, with 465,000 square feet in production statewide, such as the CBDRx greenhouse.

Colorado agriculture authorities say the state’s hemp industry is still very much in its infancy, even though the state’s industry is thought to be the nation’s most mature.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture, along with other states, got permission in early May from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to import hemp seeds. They’re to be used for research, a crucial first step for states to develop certified seed stock to replace the current “don’t ask, don’t tell”-like policies for farmers growing hemp.

Duane Sinning, assistant director of plant industries for the state agriculture department, said he frequently fields calls from companies seeking introductions to hemp growers. 

“When it started off we thought it was all going to be rope and soap, and there’s a lot of that, but we’re seeing interest from others, too,” said Sinning, who recently worked with a maker of boating carpet to find farmers who might have hemp fibers to sell.

“In any emerging industry you don’t really know what the uses are,” Sinning said. “When Edison invented the electric light bulb and the telephone, he never thought about computers and cellphones.”

One area of the state’s hemp revenue has vanished completely. Last year, Colorado’s Department of Agriculture got several hemp applications from people willing to pay $200 just to have licenses to display.

“They wanted a souvenir of the first year,” Sinning said with a chuckle. The agency hasn’t received any souvenir license requests for 2015.