Buyer Be Informed!

Christopher D’Urso, C’18, educates consumers about scams.

Monday, June 25, 2018

By Sacha Adorno

Christopher D’Urso, C’18

Christopher D’Urso, C’18, MPA’18, is an expert in the whack-a-mole-like work of consumer protection. Whether it’s romance ruses, pension poaching tricks, weather disaster scams, or unscrupulous telemarketers, new swindles are always popping up—and D’Urso is always on alert.

As Founder and President Emeritus of Penn CASE (Consumer Assistance, Support, and Education), a community service student organization for consumer protection in Philadelphia, D’Urso’s job for the past few years has been helping people recognize and avoid cons that the Federal Trade Commission says bilked Americans out of nearly $1 billion dollars in 2017.

Raised in Monmouth County, New Jersey, D’Urso became involved with consumer affairs during the summer of 2013 when he was a high school junior and worked with the County’s Department of Consumer Affairs. “I helped an elderly woman resolve a Superstorm Sandy related insurance complaint,” he says. “Her relief and gratitude were emotionally raw. The experience showed me that one person can make a real difference in someone’s life.”

D’Urso worked as an Investigative Aide and Outreach Coordinator for the department for the next three summers. In total, he investigated 70 cases, returning more than $114,000 to consumers.

At the age of 17, D’Urso’s concern for consumer rights led to his testifying in Congress about country of origin labeling (COOL) laws. He became interested in the subject after eating and getting sick from a pignoli cookie made with an inedible species of the nut commonly substituted by Chinese companies. The nut’s packaging didn’t list its source. D’Urso’s research into COOL policies found that only a small percentage of imported foods require COOL, and he urged Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04) to support transparency in food labeling. As a rising Penn freshman, D’Urso testified with Smith before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in 2014 to advocate for COOL on all imported products.

Once he started at Penn, D’Urso wanted to bring this experience to consumer protection in Philadelphia. “Everything I had done was reactive, and I wanted to be on the proactive side,” he recalls. “So, I started by reaching out to Joe Tierney to talk about the issues.”

Tierney, Executive Director of the School's Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, which sponsors several types of funded fellowships for Penn undergraduates and recent alumni, encouraged D’Urso to contact the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. Surprising D’Urso, the chief investigator wanted to talk to him.

“What I came to learn, and why I believe I gained this incredible access, is even though Philadelphia is the poorest major city in the U.S., there were really no proactive consumer protection programs here,” he says. “There were financial literacy programs, but nothing focused on fraud and scams.”

It was D’Urso’s opportunity to get ahead of the problem, so in spring of his freshman year, he started Penn CASE.

“I took the first year to recruit a dedicated team and develop resources,” he says. Working with Penn’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, he also made community connections. In the organization’s second year—D’Urso’s junior year—Penn CASE gave its first presentation off campus to a senior living facility.

In its short life thus far, Penn CASE has brought its consumer fraud prevention message to more than 2,600 people through community-based organizations, nonprofits, and schools throughout West Philadelphia.

“The folks primarily targeted by fraud are seniors and low-income and immigrant communities. They're people who might be most afraid to come forward or are so down on their luck they become easy targets,” explains D’Urso. “Penn CASE teaches how to spot or report scams. Education is key to protection because often people don’t know their rights as a consumer or have the resources to defend themselves.”

Penn CASE has also led efforts to address some of the trickier issues in consumer affairs, such as cyber security and postal fraud. In November 2017, with the County and Municipal Consumer Agencies of New Jersey, it co-hosted on campus the first ever Mid-Atlantic Consumer Protection Conference.

The event convened 50 government officials, consumer advocates, attorneys, and business leaders from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Delaware to explore working across state lines.

“Interstate collaborations among law enforcement are so important,” explains D’Urso. “Many cons cross state boundaries, raising the question of jurisdiction—we need to make it harder for people to jump borders to set up shop with impunity.”

The conference was a swan song of sorts for D’Urso, who majored in International Relations, minored in Hispanic Studies, and simultaneously earned a Master of Public Administration degree with a Certificate in Politics from the Fels Institute of Government. As per Penn CASE’s leadership terms, in December he handed the reigns to Ben Friedman, C’19.

D’Urso is now preparing for an intense six years. One of two Penn students to receive a 2018 Rhodes Scholarship, he will spend the next three years at the University of Oxford pursuing a doctorate in public policy. After Oxford, he’s been accepted to Yale Law. Both stops are benchmarks toward his goals of becoming a federal prosecutor and, ultimately, a policymaker.

He set this goal early in life. D’Urso was eight years old when he decided to pursue law and politics, inspired by two unlikely sources.

“I watched The People’s Court all the time,” he laughs. “And, in third grade I saw the blockbuster adventure movie National Treasure and begged my parents to take me to D.C. We visited the White House, National Archives, and Congress and watched the Supreme Court in session. During that trip, I witnessed law and politics coming together which inspired this journey.”