American consumers had a pretty good year in 2016. The stock market was up, wages were up and inflation remained in check. In fact, the USDA’s Consumer Price Index shows that grocery prices in November were down 2.2 percent from 2015.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. It was a record year for robocalls, Yahoo had the largest data breach in history, cyber attacks got more malicious, and rents skyrocketed. But let’s focus on the positive news:
Gasoline Prices Stayed Low
The national average for regular dropped below $2 a gallon at the start of 2016, and stayed below $2.50 all year long. AAA estimates these lower prices saved U.S. drivers about $27 billion compared to 2015. Gas prices rose about 16 cents in December and they could soon go higher if OPEC and other oil producing nations follow through on promises to cut production in January.
Home Loan Rates Were Historically Low
The average interest rate for the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in 2016 was 3.79 percent, according to Bankrate.com. It averaged 3.99 percent in 2015 and 4.3 percent in 2014. But that average rate has gone up significantly since November and now sits at 4.32 percent.
Airfares Actually Went Down
Yes, airlines generated billions in baggage fees, but the basic ticket price dropped dramatically. The average price of a domestic round-trip flight was $222 in November, that’s 14 percent below where it was in 2014, according to the price-tracking app Hopper.
A few weeks ago, United announced a new Basic Economy fare. You don’t get a seat assignment until you get to the airport and you can’t use the overhead bins. Small personal items brought on board must fit under the seat in front of you. Will other major carriers follow United’s lead? Travel experts say it’s very likely.
Home Prices Skyrocketed
The total value of every home in the U.S. was expected to hit a record high of more than $29.6 trillion in 2016, up 5.7 percent from a year ago, according to a new report from Zillow. The higher prices are good news for people looking sell their homes, but will make it impossible for some renters to become owners, especially first-time buyers.
Five Big Consumer Victories
Thanks to new rules and regulations and enforcement actions by government regulators, consumers also scored some significant victories in 2016:
New Rules for Prepaid Debit Cards
Until now, the multi-billion-dollar prepaid debit card market has been virtually unregulated. In October, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued long-awaited rules that will give the 20 million Americans who use these cards some strong consumer protections, similar to those offered with checking accounts.
When the rules take effect in October 2017, financial institutions that issue these cards will be required to clearly disclose their fees, including monthly service charges, fees for ATM withdrawals, balance inquiries or contacting customer service. This information will be printed on the back of the card’s packaging or disclosed electronically for those who buy online.
The CFPB rules also make it more difficult for financial institutions to allow customers to spend more than the amount loaded on the card. Those that do offer overdraft protection will be limited in the amount they can charge.
FCC Issues First Internet Privacy Rules
Telephone companies are required to protect the information associated with your phone calls. Federal regulations limit how your phone company can repurpose and resell what it learns about your phone activity without your consent. In October, the Federal Communications Commission passed new rules that give similar privacy protection to those who use the Internet.
The FCC’s landmark decision limits what internet service providers can do with customer data and gives you the right to control your personal information when you use the Internet. The new rules require ISPs to get a customer’s explicit consent before using or sharing their personal data, such as app or browsing history, or mobile location.
The big broadband service providers oppose the new rules and could challenge them in court. They claim it’s unfair to limit their data collection while allowing companies like Google and Facebook to do it.
Since the vote for the new rules was along party lines (3-2), it’s possible the issue could be reconsidered by the Commission after President Trump appoints a Republican to replace outgoing chairman Thomas Wheeler.
Congress Protects Your Right to Free Speech
You have the right to post honest reviews about a product or service online — as long as what you say is truthful — even if the company prohibits negative comments with a non-disparagement clause in its terms of service. The Consumer Review Freedom Act, which President Obama signed into law in December, bans these “gag clauses.”
The Federal Trade Commission and state consumer protection agencies are now empowered to enforce the law by taking legal action against companies that continue to use non-disparagement clauses.
The Consumer Review Freedom Act will only protect honest and truthful comments. Companies can still take legal action against someone they believe has disparaged them by making false statements.
Goodbye, Ticket Bots!
It should be easier to get concert tickets when they go on sale, now that you won’t have to compete with computerized ticket-buying software. Congress passed the Better Online Ticket Sales Act (BOTS) just before it went on winter break and it’s been signed into law by President Obama.
BOTS makes it illegal to use software to bypass any computer security system that limits ticket sales to concerts or other public events that can be attended by more than 200 people. Violations will be considered “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” that can be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission or state consumer protection agencies.
Safer Rental Cars
When you rent a car, you assume it’s safe. But before June of 2016 it’s been perfectly legal for a rental car company to put you in a vehicle with an open safety recall. A new federal law prohibits that. Any company with more than 35 vehicles in its fleet must pull recalled cars off the road until repairs are made.
Consumer groups had urged Congress to ban used car dealers from selling vehicles with open recalls, but lawmakers did not go that far. It was hoped the Federal Trade Commission would take a stand on this issue. But a few weeks ago, in a decision that was blasted by safety advocates, the FTC refused to do that.
The Commission ruled that it’s OK for car dealers to advertise used vehicles as passing their safety inspection program, even if those vehicles have recall problems that have not been fixed. All dealers need to do is to tell customers that the cars and trucks on the lot could be subject to a recall — no need to give specific information — and where to go online to find out.
The FTC said its decision will encourage dealers to fix recalls and “empower consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions.” Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety called this, “the worst thing the FTC has ever done on any issue” because “it allows false advertising.”
Honorable mention goes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for fining Wells Fargo $100 million for the widespread practice of secretly opening unauthorized bank and credit card accounts. This is the largest fine the CFPB has ever imposed in its five-year history. The bank’s own analysis found that employees opened more than two million accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers. Wells Fargo will pay full restitution to all victims on top of the civil penalties.
Looking Ahead to 2017
“Overall, there was an improvement in consumer protections in large part because of initiatives of the Obama administration,” said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. “Our fear is that a new congress and administration could jeopardize some of these and many other consumer protections.”
Brobeck and other consumer advocates are specifically worried that Republicans in Congress will try to weaken the CFPB as part of their push against regulations.
“The CFPB has saved tens of millions of consumers tens of billions of dollars in its relatively short life. Nothing should be done that jeopardizes the effectiveness of its consumer protection activities,” he said.