Consumer Federation of America
Fortieth Annual Awards Dinner
Speech by Beth Givens at CFA Awards Dinner
Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
June 23, 2010
Receiving the Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award from Consumer Federation of America is a tremendous honor, not only for myself, but for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse staff. My thanks and appreciation go to you, Stephen [Brobeck] and the CFA Board.
This is a humbling experience, knowing of the namesake for this award – Esther Peterson-- as well as award recipients who have preceded me. Some have been close and valued colleagues for many years. These include your own Jean Ann Fox, US PIRG’S Ed Mierzwinski, Walter Dartland of Florida, as well as California’s Rosemary Shahan [Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety] and Ken McEldowney [Consumer Action].
When we were launched in 1992 – 18 years ago – the top consumer complaints on our phone hotline were … can any of you guess? … junk mail and telemarketing. But it wasn’t long before another issue took over and consumed our small staff. That was identity theft … before it was even called identity theft or identity fraud.
One story stands out from those early day in the mid-1990s. An elderly woman from the Bay Area phoned. She had been mugged in front of her home a few months earlier, and her purse was stolen. She survived the mugging, and was able to take care of her stolen credit cards and her checking account. But she explained that it was far more difficult to deal with the brand new credit accounts opened in her name.
She told me that she kept notes on the steps she had needed to take in order to clean up her credit report. Was I interested in what she had learned?
I said “yes, of course!” I copied down each of her steps, added other information from our files and logs – and that became our first guide on identity theft – a guide that has been updated and revised dozens of times since.
I tell that story for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the experiences of the, now, tens of thousands of people who have contacted us over the years that form the foundation of our consumer education work – the 50-plus consumer guides on our website. Second, it’s these first-person accounts that direct many of our public policy efforts at the state and federal levels.
Let me fast forward from the mid-1990s -- when identity theft was our number one issue -- to the present. The top two issues that occupy our staff of four these days are employment background checks and online information brokers. Although these are separate issues, there is some overlap.
I won’t go into detail on these two issues. But let me summarize by relaying the following situations from people who have recently contacted us.
First, employment background checks: We hear from far too many individuals who contact us -- on virtually a daily basis -- with questions about their difficulties in finding work caused by erroneous or inappropriate information that is included in employment background checks. The problem might be a false criminal record, perhaps caused by what we call criminal identity theft. Sometimes the background check includes information that has been technically expunged by the court, but which finds its way into a background report, perhaps because it is still included in the files of an information broker.
Another scenario is the employer who logs onto a social network site such as Facebook and doesn’t like what he or she finds, making the decision to not hire the individual. Yes, this is happening according to recent surveys. Unfortunately, the existing law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, enacted in 1970, has not kept up with these advancements in technology. Based on what we have learned from individuals, many job applicants are being disadvantaged in the workplace because of situations such as these.
Second, online information brokers: An attorney contacted us recently who is representing a victim of domestic violence. The two of them contacted as many online information brokers as they could identify in order to request that the woman’s residential address be removed from their websites to prevent her batterer from finding her. They were successful for all except one company. The owner of the hold-out – a small company in the Northeast -- asserted his First Amendment rights to post such public record information over the woman’s safety interests.
I could relate many more such cases from our files, illustrating how privacy laws have not kept up with technology.
In closing, I feel tremendously fortunate to be doing this work. It is not only fascinating, but there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to give consumers the protection and rights they are due. We recently hired a new employee. I told her that she will go home each day feeling good about the work she has done – and that she will likely never tire of the issue.
Thank you, once again, Consumer Federation of America – not only for this honor but also for all of your work on behalf of consumers and consumer groups in the U.S. You provide excellent information and analyses on current issues and convene top-notch conferences and working groups on the consumer protection issues of the day. You and your staff are a vital national resource.
Thank you for this great honor.
Esther Peterson (1906-1997) was a consumer rights pioneer who successfully advanced such consumer protection and human rights causes as nutrition labeling, truth in advertising, minimum wage reform, and the rights of working women. Her autobiography is Restless: The Memoirs of Labor and Consumer Activist Esther Peterson (Caring Publishing, 1997).