Monday, March 12, 2007

Julie Lassa's Newsletter

Consumer Protections Put Families First

By State Senator Julie Lassa

We often hear elected officials talk about “family values.” I think it’s time more of our political leaders show that they truly value families, by enacting policies that protect working families from unfair business practices and help them build a strong foundation for the future.

To that end, I’m pleased to support the Wisconsin Families First agenda which includes a series of initiatives to help the legislature focus its priorities on the real needs of Wisconsin’s middle class.
A key aspect of Wisconsin Families First is a series of consumer protection legislation to end practices that hit families in the pocketbook and invade their privacy.

Wisconsin’s popular “Do Not Call” list protects consumers from unwanted telephone solicitation. But there are whole categories of consumers who are currently unprotected–including the growing number of people who use cell phones. It’s bad enough to be hassled by a sales call you don’t want to receive; it’s even worse when you’re paying for the call, which is often the case with cell phone plans. A new bill will extend “Do Not Call” protection to cell phone users. The bill also lets small business phone customers request inclusion in the “Do Not Call” directory, and makes it easier for other non-residential phone customers to avoid unwanted telephone and fax solicitations.

Currently, a violation of the “Do Not Call” law brings a fine of not more than $100. That’s not nearly enough to deter violators, which is one reason that complaints about “Do Not Call” violations are on the rise. The new bill will increase the penalty for violations to between $1,000 and $10,000. And individuals who suffer damages as a result of a violation will be permitted to seek an injunction against the violator or sue for damages of up to $500 per violation. These provisions will put teeth into the “Do Not Call” law and provide a real deterrent to telemarketers who are ignoring it.

Another area that we are turning our attention to is the “payday loan” industry. These lenders offer easy credit—anyone with a job can post-date a check as collateral for a short-term loan. For cash-strapped families, payday lenders appear to offer a way to make it from one paycheck to the next. But by charging extraordinarily high interest rates, many borrowers are pulled into a spiral of debt. Shockingly, Wisconsin families borrowed more than $640 million in 2005 from these storefront lenders.

This session, I will support legislation to regulate this industry and put an end to predatory lending practices.
Privacy protection has become a growing concern. Many of us use tax preparation services; but while we enjoy the convenience and savings tax services offer, few people are aware that the personal information they provide to the preparer is not protected. The fine print in many tax service contracts permits the preparer to share and sell your information to third parties: When you sign your return, you’re signing your privacy away.

New legislation I will support will protect consumer privacy by requiring tax preparation services to disclose the third parties they intend to share personal information with; customers must approve those disclosures in writing. This kind of informed consent will protect privacy and give consumers more control over their personal information.

Email spam is another growing invasion of privacy. There’s not much that state government can do to stop spam—but we can avoid being part of the problem. For instance, the DNR provides a listserve that consumers can sign up for when they apply for hunting and fishing licenses. Although consumers can request that other information they provide on a license application be kept private, the email address they provide for the listserve is not exempt from the state’s open records law. This session, we propose to change the law so that email addresses on the DNR listserve will be protected. There’s no reason that the state should leave your email address open to potential abuse by spammers.

With these and other proposals, the Wisconsin Families First initiative will take important steps to fulfill government’s most important role: defending the families that are the cornerstone of our society. To me, that’s what real family values are all about.

ed note: Julie is our State Senator from the 24th District...

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