‘Zap Rachel’ and other ways the feds are fighting robocall ripoffs

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 14, 2014, at 11:09 a.m.

It’s worth celebrating consumers’ wins over ripoff artists. Last week’s ruling that shut down an illegal robocall operation telling consumers they were entitled to free money was one such victory.

It was sweeter still for the Federal Trade Commission, whose banner the scammers had been flying when they claimed to have helped more than 13,000 people get refunds. The victims had received phone calls saying they were entitled to those refunds. The calls seemed credible to many victims when the FTC’s consumer assistance phone number appeared on their Caller ID screens.

The robotic calls drew attention in late 2012. They directed people they called to a website labeled “FTCrefund.com,” and gave them a six-figure number called a “Seizure ID.” Entering that number would entitle them to a refund from something called American Consumer Group Inc.

Except it didn’t work; it was all aimed at getting victims’ personal and financial information. Once they surrendered their names, bank account numbers and bank routing numbers, their funds began to be drained away.

This kind of “spoofing” of phone numbers is not new; scammers have long used computer trickery to fool victims. However, when the FTC first learned what the operators of The Cuban Exchange Inc. were doing, they headed for the courthouse. (The Cuban Exchange has also done business as CrediSure America and MyiPad.us.)

The FTC doesn’t use robocalls or cold calls of any kind, and it doesn’t ask people to provide financial or other personal information.

“To anyone breaking the law by making illegal robocalls, transmitting phony Caller ID information, or impersonating a federal agency, we have two words for you: Stop now. The real Federal Trade Commission will come after you,” said David Vladeck, who was director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection at the time the agency first had the phony website shut down.

Last week, a federal judge in New York permanently barred The Cuban Exchange and its principal, Suhaylee Riviera, from misrepresenting any goods or services for sale. The ruling also bans defendants from claiming any affiliation with the FTC or saying they can get refunds for consumers from the agency.

The FTC has information on its website about cases against companies making deceptive claims. You can check the site (www.ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/refunds) to see if you might be eligible for a refund in one of those cases.

The FTC highlighted the Cuban Exchange case, the 100th example of legal action it’s taken over nine years against violators of national do-not-call rules. Those rules have been in effect since 2003. Yet, every week consumers get calls from the relentless robot “Rachel from Cardholder Services.” The FTC even sponsored a contest with cash awards for computer enthusiasts who came up with possible ways to “Zap Rachel.”

In the end, the FTC may find that paying hackers is more effective than taking the scammers to court. Meanwhile, consumers are advised to be sure what entities they’re dealing with, especially when they receive unsolicited offers. An ad might say it will help you get money you’re owed by a state or federal agency; it’s certainly too good to be true, since such an agency will almost certainly help you for free.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Consumers should prepare for more data breaches

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 07, 2014, at 1:09 p.m.

They are dirty, rotten scoundrels. Unfortunately, we’re getting much too used to them.

They are the writers of the sinister computer codes that prowl the Internet, looking for vulnerable systems to infect and mine for our personal and financial data. They have found mother lodes of info on several servers that try to handle big retail’s payment systems.

The breaches come so frequently and in such staggering numbers we barely pay attention any more. The crooks keep coming, and the security people are swamped. Consider one estimate that some large banks face as many as 35,000 threats of possible computer mischief every day.

Security officers quickly toss aside the work of hacker wannabes, so the number of real threats they face may number 100 or so a day. That’s still a pile of work, and missing a genuine threat can cause major problems for the company and its customers.

The results stunned us when we first heard the reports: 110 million or so consumers affected by last year’s Target breach. By the time news broke last week about what could become an even larger breach of Home Depot customers’ data, our eyes were beyond glazed over.

The good news, really, is that the banks that issue credit cards assume the financial liability if those cards are misused. That’s written into state and federal law, with varying standards and deadlines for avoiding fraudulent charges on your credit versus debit cards.

The bad news is that the underlying security nightmare will continue as long as most American commerce is tied into magnetic stripe technology. Much has been written about the much better chip-and-pin technology, backed by use of a personal identifying number. What has worked well in much of Europe for several years is still on the horizon for many U.S. retailers.

That technology will come, but it will be costly. Banks have tried to shift financial liability for data breaches to retailers, pointing at poor security systems. As you’d expect, retailers have reacted strongly; however, they are moving faster toward adopting more modern card security technology.

Will Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, told me last week the changeover will happen piecemeal, and that will mean problems during the transition.

“Questions of liability may arise if a store has the technology but the consumer’s card does not, and vice versa,” Lund said.

Lund’s bottom-line advice to consumers is to remember they are not liable if they take reasonable steps to notify their banks of unauthorized charges. They can get free credit reports at each of the three major reporting companies each year — rotating requests yields a new report every four months — by visiting annual.creditreport.com. Lund said consumers should not feel scared or bullied into buying identity theft insurance, credit monitoring or other costly products, because “the most important rights and protections are already granted by state and federal law.”

People in Lund’s office and at the Bureau of Financial Institutions can answer individual questions about data breaches and consumers’ rights. Both are part of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

Visit our blog — necontact.wordpress.com — and search “breach” to read PFR’s information and guidance to consumers regarding financial breaches. You can find information online at the PRF website — maine.gov/pfr — or by calling 207-624-8500.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

Google to Refund Consumers at Least $19 Million to Settle FTC Complaint It Unlawfully Billed Parents for Children’s Unauthorized In-App Charges

FTC Order Requires Google to Change its Mobile App Billing Practices to Ensure Consumers’ Consent is Obtained Before Charges Levied

Google Inc. has agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging that it unfairly billed consumers for millions of dollars in unauthorized charges incurred by children using mobile apps downloaded from the Google Play app store for use on Android mobile devices. Under the terms of the settlement, Google will provide full refunds – with a minimum payment of $19 million – to consumers who were charged for kids’ purchases without authorization of the account holder. Google has also agreed to modify its billing practices to ensure that it obtains express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.

The Commission’s complaint against Google alleges that since 2011, Google violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on “unfair” commercial practices by billing consumers for charges by children made within kids’ apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Many consumers reported hundreds of dollars of such unauthorized charges, according to the complaint.

“For millions of American families, smartphones and tablets have become a part of their daily lives,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorize.”

This marks the Commission’s third case concerning unauthorized in-app charges by children. In January, the Commission announced a settlement with Apple Inc., requiring Apple to provide full refunds to consumers who were billed for unauthorized charges by children – paying a minimum amount of $32.5 million – and obtain express, informed consent for in-app charges. And in July, the Commission filed a complaint in federal court against Amazon.com, Inc., similarly seeking full refunds for consumers and an order requiring informed consent for in-app charges.

In-app charges are a component of many apps available from Google Play and can range from 99 cents to $200. In many apps used by children, users are invited to accumulate virtual items that help them advance in the game, though as the FTC’s complaint notes, the lines between virtual money purchases and real money purchases can be blurred. The FTC’s complaint alleges that Google billed consumers for many such charges by children without obtaining account holders’ authorization, leaving consumers holding the bill.

When Google first introduced in-app charges to the Google Play store in 2011, the complaint alleges, Google billed for such charges without any password requirement or other method to obtain account holder authorization. Children could incur in-app charges simply by clicking on popup boxes within the app as they used it.

According to the complaint, in mid- to late 2012, Google began presenting a pop-up box that asked for the account holder’s password before billing in-app charges. The new pop-up, however, did not contain any information about the charge. Google also did not inform consumers that entering the password opened up a 30-minute window in which a password was no longer required, allowing children to rack up unlimited charges during that time.

During this time, many thousands of consumers complained to Google about children making unauthorized in-app charges, according to the complaint. Some parents noted that their children had spent hundreds of dollars in in-app charges without their consent. Others noted that children buying virtual in-game items with real money were unaware they were causing their parents to be billed.

Google employees referred to the issue as “friendly fraud” and “family fraud” in describing kids’ unauthorized in-app charges as a leading source of refund requests, according to the complaint. The complaint further alleges that Google’s practice has been to refer consumers seeking refunds first to the app developer. Continue reading

“Gone Phishing” – WABI-TV

Video link

David Leach of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection was in the studio with Russ Van Arsdale on Monday for this week’s Consumer Contact segment. They were speaking to Joy about a new anti-scam guide being released by the bureau. The guide is called “Gone Phishing” and it gives tips on avoiding all manner of scams and protecting your credit.

Order form for all Bureau publications

Publications available on-line:

Beware of gimmicks to treat concussions — Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 31, 2014, at 12:23 p.m.

If you believe a lot of what’s flying around the Internet, recovery from a concussion can be hastened with the right food supplement. Another school of thought suggests concussions might be less severe if all players wore rubber liners over their helmets or a certain brand of mouth guard.

The above represent simple — or simplistic — solutions to very complex problems that can arise from head trauma. Concussions happen because of a violent impact with the head or body, a fall or other injury that shakes or jars the brain inside the skull.

Concussions affect people in different ways, and recovery times vary from person to person.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about snake oil salesmen posing as medical experts. An FDA news release said, despite glitzy claims, “the science doesn’t support the use of any dietary supplements for the prevention of concussions or the reduction of post-concussion symptoms.”

The FDA renewed its warning last week, as many parents began sending their high school students off to football practice.

“We’re very concerned that false assurances of faster recovery will convince athletes of all ages, coaches and even parents that someone suffering from a concussion is ready to resume activities before they are really ready,” Gary Coody, FDA’s national health fraud coordinator, said in the news release.

Many health and sports professionals share FDA’s concern that “wonder cures” may prompt some athletes to resume their parts in collision sports sooner than is medically realistic. Those “quick fixes” also might prompt some injured persons to take less than proper care of themselves after concussions.

Players and parents filed a lawsuit last week in San Francisco, claiming that soccer’s U.S. and international governing bodies aren’t doing enough to protect players.

The American Youth Soccer Organization adopted rules in 2009 that require coaches to remove players and have them medically evaluated after they suffer apparent concussions. The suit claims testing of injured players and time off for recovery are both inadequate.

At Orono High School, athletic director Mike Archer says a program called ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) has been part of a concussion management plan since November 2011. More than 7,400 high schools use ImPACT, a scientifically researched concussion management tool that also is used by Cirque du Soleil and more than 200 pro sports teams.

There has been a debate about the benefit of mouth guards and chinstrap impact measuring devices in preventing concussions. Archer says members of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association know there are limits to what protective gear can do.

As Archer puts it, “The bottom line is that there is no apparatus/piece of equipment, including the actual helmet itself, that guarantees the prevention of a concussion.”

He notes that parents at some schools have purchased a protective padding to cover football helmets. Altering a nationally certified piece of equipment can void a manufacturer’s warranty; should an injury occur, Archer says the owner would incur the risk and expense. He says schools should not allow alterations to equipment, as the schools would then assume liability for injuries.

The Maine Principals’ Association has adopted guidelines about athletes resuming sports after a concussion. It states they should not return “until they are symptom free and their cognitive functions have returned to baseline.” Before playing again, the Maine Principals’ Association also urges gradually increasing “sport-specific challenges which do not place the athlete at risk for a subsequent concussion.”

To read the FDA’s latest caution, visit www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/default.htm and see the article titled “Can a Dietary Supplement Treat a Concussion? No!”

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

CFA Petitions the FCC to block the Comcast-Time Warner merger

Consumer Federation of America believes “Online Video Competition is the Last and Only Hope to Break the Stranglehold of Cable.”

Information posted in press release:

Washington, DC (August 25, 2014) – The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and its member groups today filed a petition calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and the swap of additional systems with Charter Communications.  The petition shows that the Comcast-Time Warner merger poses a much greater threat to competition, consumers and the public interest than the Comcast-NBCU merger, which has not benefited the public.

“The inevitable result of this merger will be higher prices, worse service, and less innovation,” Mark Cooper, CFA’s director of research said. “Just four years ago the FCC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that Comcast has market power, as the nation’s largest buyer of professional video content and the largest provider of both multichannel video programming and broadband Internet access service.

“The acquisition of Time Warner would increase Comcast’s market power by at least 50% and create a Goliath that would tower over the industry.  Comcast would be:

  • 1.5 times as large as the next largest multichannel video program distributor (MVPD),
  • 2 times as large as the next largest Internet access service provider,
  • 3 times as large as the next largest service provider with the capacity to deliver an integrated bundle of video and broadband,
  • the dominant cable and broadband operator in 24 of the nation’s largest 25 video markets, including the addition of the most important media markets, New York and Los Angeles.”

‘As Seen on TV’ firm sued for taking high-pressure sales tactics too far

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 10:26 a.m.

click image to access NJ attorney general’s complaint

New Jersey’s attorney general and that state’s Division of Consumer Affairs have filed a complaint against Telebrands, the company known for its “As Seen on TV” series of offers.

The agencies allege Telebrands violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act through its vigorous “upselling” via the company’s automated phone system and websites. When customers tried to place orders by phone or online, they received repeated prompts to order more goods and few ways to decline.

The five-count lawsuit also accuses Telebrands of shipping and billing for goods customers did not order and for running what the suit says were misleading ads, among other violations. The agencies also claim the company’s ordering system kept some callers tied up for a half hour or more, didn’t allow customers to verify their orders before authorizing charges, didn’t provide total costs of orders and wouldn’t give customers a clear way to decline additional products.

The Division of Consumer Affairs had plenty of complaints — 340 of them from 2012 through July of this year. It also did several months’ worth of undercover work, buying items that included “Instabulbs,” the “Pocket Hose” and the “Olde Brooklyn Lantern” through Telebrands websites and the toll-free numbers in the firm’s TV ads and infomercials.

“This action against Telebrands alleges that consumers were repeatedly pressured through gimmickry, misrepresentations and high-pressure sales tactics to buy products they didn’t want,” Steve Lee, the acting consumer affairs director, said.

He added that return policies were not as represented in ads and on the company’s website and called Telebrands’s actions “unconscionable.”

Telebrands founder and President A.J. Khubani said in a statement, “We take pride that for more than three decades, tens of millions of consumers have trusted TeleBrands for delivering innovative products.”

A search of the Better Business Bureau website for Telebrands reveals a list of more than 200 alternate business names based on products sold, from AB King Pro to Zero Pain.

Khubani’s statement also said consumer satisfaction is “always our top priority.”

“We are confident that this matter with the state of New Jersey will be resolved in short order,” Khubani added.

The lawsuit claims customers often received merchandise they had not ordered; there were no instructions on returning unwanted items; and if they did return items, they had to do so at their expense. The suit also charges that when callers tried to reach customer service people, they were placed on hold for long periods or were disconnected.

The Consumer Fraud Act provides restitution of up to $10,000 per violation. Because Telebrands was operating under a consent judgment in 2001 for similar violations, New Jersey is asking for penalties of up to $20,000 per violation.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business or suspect any other form of consumer abuse can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200. Consumers also can file online at https://www20.state.nj.us/LPSCA_COMPL/ or download a complaint form to fill out and mail. Include copies of as much supporting documentation as possible.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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