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Who's Watching Out for the Consumer in Washington?

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Washington, DCLinda Sherry is Director of National Priorities for Consumer Action, a national non-profit organization that both educates and advocates for the consumer. In the Washington office of the San Francisco-based organization, Sherry and her team contribute to the drafting of important protective legislation and produce award-winning publications that keep consumers up-to-date and savvy.

LawyersandSettlements (LAS): Who are your constituencies?
Linda SherryLinda Sherry (LS): We work directly with the individual consumer and people who have been prompted to take some action with their legislators on different issues. We also work very closely with over 10,000 community-based organizations that make use of our educational and training material, including brochures and pamphlets published in five languages.

LAS: What does your role as Director of National Priorities involve?
LS: Although our headquarters are in San Francisco, I supervise a virtual office of three employees in Washington. We do federal legislation and other things, and we're all involved in editing the website. I myself am editor of the newsletter and the website and my staff are all very accomplished writers.

LAS: The Consumer Action News newsletter is a major outreach tool.
LS: When I first took over in '94, it was more news of the organization, which we still do in the quarterly, but now each newsletter focuses on a particular topic--and they're very popular. We're preparing one now that addresses online shopping. And once a year we do a major survey on credit cards and publish that information in the newsletter. Other topics of focus have been personal banking, privacy, telecommunications and food safety.

Over the years, we've worked with so many groups that we know who has the answers to the question. We also do our own research and my staff functions as reporters, then present their findings in a way that's easiest for consumers to understand.

LAS: You also have a Help Desk.
LS: We developed the Help Desk because we've always accepted consumer complaints, advice and referral-type situations on a toll-free number or by email. We database these complaints, if given permission, so that we can provide victim-type stories to the media, lawmakers and attorneys.

And because some callers don't necessarily want to wait 24 hours for an answer, we developed the Help Desk where we have put all kinds of information we find useful so that consumers can perhaps answer their own questions.

LAS: What is the main issue facing your public?
LS: I think an overarching problem for consumers today is that the services and goods they buy are very complex. We just think of ourselves as a friend to the consumer and as an advocate to help them cut through some of the morass out there and find products and trustworthy services.

Through us, they learn how to complain effectively when they have a problem, and we tip them off about certain scams and frauds they might avoid.

LAS: Are there any burning issues you are addressing right now?
LS: Definitely. Our work very much focuses around what we call 'pocketbook issues'. These are financial, insurance and telecom issues that impact people's household budget and their bottom line.

Right now the housing crisis is a big deal and in DC we are working with other groups to try to advocate for better protection for consumers. On the educational side, we put out a couple of publications such as how not to lose your house. We also have been working indepth on credit cards as long as I've been with the organization, and do lots of advocacy around that issue on Capitol Hill, weighing in and helping to craft legislation that's out there now.

Unfortunately we sometimes feel a little impotent in helping consumers with problems that come along with credit cards. We can give advice, show how to effectively craft a letter to describe what happened to them, and tell them how to contact their regulator but that doesn't always get them anywhere in today's market.

That's why we really try to give it the one-two with the advocacy and the education.

LAS: How much influence do you have on Capitol Hill?
LS: We have a coalition of consumer groups we work with and we've worked with a number of offices on the credit card issue. For instance, we worked with Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to craft the Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights--that is a good piece of legislation. We also helped Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) write his bill on the Safety Star Act that rates credit cards for consumer-friendliness.

What Consumer Action brings to the table as currency is our overarching knowledge of these issues from the consumer viewpoint and many of the victim complaints. We've helped some of the congressional offices who are going to hold hearings on these topics to find individual consumers to testify.

LAS: How far does your advocacy extend once a bill is introduced?

LS: If we believe in a bill we help to promote it. In the Take@ction section of our website people can write to lawmakers for free; we provide sample letters that are editable so we're not putting words in consumer's mouths.

I am extremely irritated by what I sometimes hear on the Hill. Just because a consumer goes to an advocacy group to use a convenient tool for reaching their lawmakers does not mean that these are boilerplate letters. These are, in fact, very targeted communications that an individual has to decide whether to send to the lawmaker that represents that issue. In this way we give people a place they can go easily, takes less time to write, they can then print and email and the letter comes out with an address.

It gives people a feeling of power. That's why I'm continually telling offices I visit that they shouldn't fight this email thing; it shows a vocal and interesting constituency.

LAS: What is the biggest obstacle to getting some of your advocacy points across?
LS: That we're fighting for issues that big business is fighting against on the other side. Business, in general, takes a stance that there should be no regulation or the less the better. Money for regular protective regulation is very much needed and I wish the country would give money for the budget of regulators so they could actually provide some of the protection guaranteed by laws.

We're fighting on behalf of some people who are pretty voiceless. People are pleased to have a champion in consumer action on the Hill and with the regulators, and very much on the state level in California.

LAS: What resources allow Consumer Action to provide the level of support that it does?
LS: My boss, the Executive Director of Consumer Action, Ken McEldowney, is very skilled at creating partnerships with major corporations, which become financial literacy partnerships, such as MoneyWi$e with Capital One. With Verizon, we addressed privacy, and the partnership enabled us to produce tools on how to protect one's phone records.

But we write independently all of the material and they hold technical review rights. There is no advertising or marketing type messages, just a small logo on the publication and a credit line on their providing funding.

In this way we can distribute very large numbers of documents but on a controlled system of fulfillment where our San Francisco office sends out free order forms, they choose which publication they need, and we provide them at no cost.

Another way we provide support is through the Cy-pres Remedy grants. This is money leftover from class action lawsuits in which enough of the original claimants could not be contacted. The unclaimed monies become a pool that is given out to non-profits who work on near issues.

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