Phony phone cops bullied US consumers out of millions in bogus debt

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 24, 2014, at 9:21 a.m.

Click image to learn more about phantom debt collectors

They make harassing phone calls, claiming that they are law enforcement agents. They threaten to revoke your driver’s license, prosecute you and lock you up. All for debts that aren’t yours.

The National Consumers League says on its website ( www.fraud.org) that thousands of consumers are being bullied into paying debts they don’t owe.

There are many variations, but all scams boil down to one harsh message: wire us money or be in big trouble.

The perpetrator of one such scam received a harsh message last week. A complaint filed by a U.S. attorney in New York charged Williams Scott and Associates of Georgia with scamming $4 million from 6,000 consumers in all 50 states. The complaint charges that over a five-year period, the company had employees pose as police officers, Justice Department officials or FBI agents.

An affidavit filed by a real FBI agent says callers claimed falsely that people owed money for payday loans or had committed fraud.

The affidavit says the scheme involved up to 87 different phone numbers, changing when the scammers realized there were too many complaints. One script seized in an FBI raid includes this exchange between a caller and a frightened woman.

“You think an eight months pregnant woman wants to go to jail?”

“I don’t care if you’re nine months pregnant. I have a job to do.”

When I called Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, principal examiner David Leach was helping a woman whom scammers had tried to dupe.

The scammer had claimed to be from the “Kennebec County Private Locating Service” and said there was legal action pending. When the consumer called the Kennebec County court clerk’s office, she found nothing pending and no record of the “locating service.”

“Scam collectors will do anything to collect money,” Leach told me. He said the fake phone calls “started in Maine sometime in the summer of 2014 and may have peaked somewhere in October.”

However, Leach said this is the most frequent consumer complaint his office deals with.

In some cases, people have taken out payday loans from illegal, unlicensed lenders and repaid the money. The lenders sell their names and other personal information to illegal, unlicensed collectors who then put their defrauding machinery to work.

Consumers may believe these calls are real because the scammers have some personal details about them. If you get such a call, ask for the caller’s name and address, company name and original creditor, if you do have an outstanding loan.

If the caller demands a lot more than you owe, it’s likely a scam. If you have questions about the status of a real loan, hang up and call the number on your loan paperwork.

If you get a call and are uncertain, ask the caller to send a written notice of the debt; then say you don’t want to be called again. That request must be honored, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

You can find sample letters drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the “self-help/action letters” tab on our blog ( necontact.wordpress.com).

Some consumers hire an attorney. Giving callers the attorney’s name and number usually stop such calls, when scammers realize the person isn’t an easy target. Report suspicious calls to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, 1-800-436-2131 or email consumer.mediation@Maine.gov.

Advise the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.

The federal prosecutor says it’s likely that more cases will be brought in the future. He says payday lenders may be among those prosecuted.

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.

Graco Recalls 11 Models of Strollers Due to Fingertip Amputation Hazard | CPSC.gov

Name of product:

Aspen, Breeze, Capri, Cirrus, Glider, Kite, LiteRider, Sierra, Solara, Sterling and TravelMate Model Strollers and Travel Systems

Hazard:

The folding hinge on the sides of the stroller can pinch a child’s finger, posing a laceration or amputation hazard.

Click image to read full report.

Incidents/Injuries

Graco has received 11 reports of finger injuries including six reports of fingertip amputation, four reports of partial-fingertip amputation and one finger laceration.

Remedy

Contact Graco immediately for a free repair kit. Repair kits will be available from the firm at the beginning of December 2014. While waiting for a repair kit, caregivers should exercise extreme care when unfolding the stroller to be certain that the hinges are firmly locked before placing a child in the stroller. Caregivers are advised to immediately remove the child from a stroller that begins to fold to keep their fingers from the side hinge area.

Sold at

Target, Toys R Us, Walmart and other retail stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and other online retailers from August 2000 through November 2014 for about $40-70 for the stroller and about $140-$170 for the Travel System.  

Don’t believe these 5 myths about identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 16, 2014, at 9:46 a.m.

Click image to access Komando post

This column is about things that go “bump” in the night. The subtitle is “our biggest fears.”

The top few, according to one survey, include public speaking, walking home alone and identity theft. Since the last one has such serious and expensive consequences, it’s been the subject of plenty of sound advice … and more than a little nonsense.

A recent posting on the website of Kim Komando — who also hosts a radio program about all things digital — points out five major myths involving identity theft. The first is that recovery is easy; virtually anyone who’s been a victim will tell you otherwise. Extended fraud alerts, credit freezes and a detailed plan to repair one’s credit will likely consume hundreds or even thousands of hours.

The second myth is that you’ll get your money back. It’s true that many banks and credit card companies will reimburse you for purchases made fraudulently. However, you must meet certain deadlines to protect your rights. There are also limits on what a bank will cover, so check your bank’s policy.

Myth No. 3 is that credit and debit cards are created equal. While protections exist for many fraudulent credit card purchases, a thief with a debit card may as well have a pipeline into your bank account. The thief can withdraw money at will; until you work things out with your bank, that money is gone.

Liability rules are different, too. Report a credit card stolen before it’s used and you have no liability; if thieves do use the card, your liability is limited to $50.

With a debit card, there’s no liability if loss is reported before it’s used. Report it stolen within two days and the limit is $50; from two to 60 days the liability shoots up to $500. After 60 days, you’re liable for all transactions.

Another myth involves the way identity theft occurs. Many consumers mistakenly think it happens only through online trickery. Major data breaches at retailers have exposed at least some personal data of hundreds of millions of customers.

More often than we’d like to think, friends or family members steal identities. Even contractors you allow into your home might make off with credit cards, bank statements or other potentially damaging documents.

The final big myth is that law enforcement can deal decisively with the perpetrators. Unless you know exactly who they are and the police can build a solid case, there’s little chance of bringing these thieves to justice. You should file a police report, mainly to create a record of the theft for your dealings with credit card and other companies. The report could also head off debt collectors.

You can buy identity theft insurance. The Insurance Information Institute says coverage might include lost wages, phone bills, costs of notary services and certified mailing, maybe even attorney fees.

Your homeowner’s insurance may include an ID theft rider already. Adding such coverage might cost another $25 to $50 per year.

Companies that sell ID theft insurance sometimes advertise that they will cover large dollar losses. Read the fine print before buying, so you will know what is covered and what isn’t.

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.

 

 

How online sales firms such as Amazon, Expedia steer shoppers toward higher-priced options

Posted Nov. 09, 2014, at 6:29 a.m.

Amazon took more than a little heat in 2010 when it came to light that the company was charging different shoppers different prices for the same DVDs. The practice, called price differentiation or price discrimination, was a way online retailers could make some extra money by personalizing the results of consumers’ online searches.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Staples was charging different prices according to customers’ geographic location. The newspaper also said Orbitz showed browsers from Mac computers more expensive hotel options than people using PCs.

The negative reaction was predictable, and some observers thought companies would stop. They did not, according to researchers at Northeastern University.

The academic folks wondered how widespread the price discrimination and steering were, what customer information companies use in the process, and how much prices change when e-commerce websites personalize search results and/or prices.

The researchers collected the search results of consumers using their own browsers. They compared those with an automated browser running the same searches simultaneously but without storing cookies, the little information packets that show what websites computers have visited.

They studied 16 online retailers and travel sites. They found that Cheaptickets, Expedia, Home Depot, Orbitz, Priceline, Sears and Travelocity practiced price discrimination. They said Sears also did some price steering and that the order of search results varied from one shopper to another.

There’s a whole industry that’s grown around online searches; because every consumer’s search pattern is unique, the researchers were unable to say which factors trigger personalization.

They did come up with some interesting findings when they looked at which browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer) and platforms (Windows, OSX, iOS, Android) were used. They also considered whether shoppers were logged into a user account and their history of purchases.

The researchers created one fake account to book low-priced hotels and rental cars, and another for expensive hotel rooms and rental cars. They found that Expedia and Hotels.com use a marketing strategy called A/B tests to steer some users toward pricier hotels. Visitors were assigned to groups A, B or C depending on the cookies saved on their computers. Searchers in groups A and B were shown hotels costing $187 per night on average, and users in group C saw hotels averaging $170 a night.

Home Depot showed different products to consumers using desktop computers and mobile devices. Searching by desktop usually yielded 24 search results with an average item costing $120. From a mobile device, that same search would bring 48 results with each item costing $230 on average.

The researchers say they spoke with officials of Orbitz and Expedia who confirmed the findings of the study. However, they did not offer any explanation for the reasons they design their sites the way they do.

An executive at Orbitz said that company and Cheaptickets offer members-only deals on hotels. The executive took issue with the researchers’ conclusion that price discrimination was “anti-consumer,” and that assertion was taken out of the final draft of the report. (While not illegal, the practice is at the very least annoying.)

Among the researchers’ recommendations: comparison shop, using your normal desktop browser, a private browser window and a mobile device. Since cookies help create customer profiles, deleting those cookies might give you less biased search results. Or, with cookies enabled, leave an item in your shopping cart without buying; a competitor may cut the price to lure you.

You also can use a price tracker, such as camelcamelcamel.com, which tracks an items pricing history on Amazon.

As noted above, this industry is evolving and innovating, so in the future other factors may trigger personalization. You can read the Northeastern study on the university’s website, www.ccs.neu.edu/home/cbw/pdf/imc151-hannak.pdf.

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.

Lock the door against “work at home” scams that promise big bucks but deliver grief

Posted Nov. 02, 2014, at 10:15 a.m.

Click for FTC Consumer Information

Maybe you’ve been laid off, or maybe you just decided you would rather work from home than commute to a job.

You went to Monster.com to find the perfect job you could land while staying at home. The only problem is, all that’s available is a job helping people troubleshoot problems with their handheld computing gizmos. You’ve ruled yourself out, since your technical ability stops at turning the computer on.

So now for the answer, you turn to the source of all knowledge: the Internet. Your search for “work at home jobs” returns 29.2 million possibilities. A lot of them promise weekly earnings of “hundreds or thousands of dollars.” For every website warning you of possible scams, 10 more promise “easy earnings” with “minimal” outlay of time and effort.

A federal judge last month threw the book at one of these outfits, Zaken Corp. The company and its principal officer, Tiran Zaken, were ordered to pay more than $25 million to consumers who had been promised “substantial income” by working from home. The Federal Trade Commission had opened an investigation in 2012 and found that more than 99 percent of the 110,000 consumers who invested in the “Quicksell” program got no income at all in return.

The Justice Department probe was labeled “Operation Lost Opportunity.” Investigators found that consumers had been promised that they could earn $4,000 or more in their first 30 days, or an average of $4,280 per deal. After signing up for an average fee of $148, they were typically bombarded with ads to buy more “business tools” for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The FTC doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about such things. When companies advertise business opportunities, the agency says the ads should be clear about what markets exist and what an investor’s potential income truly is.

There are some legitimate careers that allow you to work from home. Do some serious research before investing:

— Know who you’re dealing with; find out if the offer is a job or just a way to sell overpriced supplies.

— Get all details before you pay; a real company will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision.

— Don’t believe claims of big rewards for little work (wouldn’t they do it themselves?).

— Be sure there’s a market first. There must be a real market, not a perpetuation of the scam in which you hoodwink others into investing.

— Know the refund policy.

— Talk with people who have been successful — real people, not those a scammer might refer to you.

Once you’ve responded to an offer, you’re likely to be targeted by other scammers. Several years ago, a client of Northeast CONTACT complained that her husband — whose disabilities prompted him to seek home-based work — complained that he was receiving shady-sounding offers virtually every day. Our caseworker suggested (only half kiddingly) that she keep a blowtorch with her while she checked their mailbox.

The FTC warns consumers not to believe any ad about stuffing envelopes; they’re virtually always ripoffs. Read the FTC’s advice at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0175-work-home-businesses.

The Maine attorney general’s Consumer Law Guide also offers tips on work-at-home offers online at http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/consumer_law_guide.shtml (chapter 12, section 14).

You can also call the AG’s Consumer Mediation Service at 800-436-2131.

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.

Had your flu shot yet? What you need to know about this year’s vaccine

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 26, 2014, at 5:57 a.m.

Had your flu shot yet?

You may hear that question a lot, now that the first cases of influenza have been confirmed in Maine. Maine health officials and people at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say most of us should have flu shots as a way to help curb the spread of the seasonal flu.

Vaccinations are especially important for seniors. As many as 90 percent of flu-related deaths are people age 65 and older.

Flu shots also are important for younger people, whose immune systems have not fully developed. There are several kinds of flu vaccines available — some protect against three strains of flu and others protect against four. The CDC isn’t recommending one vaccine over another, with one exception.

For healthy children ages 2-8, the CDC recommends the vaccine that is administered as a nasal spray. The agency says if the spray is not immediately available and a traditional flu shot is, then the child should get the flu shot right away rather than wait.

The federal Vaccines For Children program offers free flu shots for children ages 6 months through 18 years. Health providers enrolled with the Maine Immunization Program also can offer the vaccine free to people who are either Medicaid eligible, uninsured, underinsured (immunizations not covered) or people served by tribal health centers and municipal health departments.

Pregnant women and their partners also are eligible, as are employees and residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes, and employees of schools that hold onsite flu shot clinics on school days.

The vaccine may be free, but there may still be a charge for immunization. Under the Maine Immunization Program, medical practitioners are allowed to charge a “reasonable administration fee provided that no patient is denied the vaccine” for inability to pay.

Immunizations are not for everyone. People with allergies to eggs, gelatin and certain antibiotics should not receive the vaccines. Anyone who has had a bad reaction to a flu shot in the past or who has other health concerns should consult a doctor before being vaccinated.

Bangor Public Health and Community Services runs immunization clinics 9 p.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays and 4-7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month.

“Our aim is to keep our population healthy,” Patricia Hamilton, director of Bangor Public Health, said. “We keep our costs as low as possible,” she said, adding that the charge for a flu shot is $15.

More information about Bangor Public Health is available online at bangorpublichealth.org.

The CDC’s website on influenza can be found at cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm.

The state of Maine’s website is immunizeme.org.

If you have questions, call the Maine Immunization Program at 1-800-867-4775 or email immunizeme.dhhs@maine.gov .

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.

Consumer Advisory: Vehicle Owners with Defective Airbags Urged to Take Immediate Action

Monday, October 20, 2014
Contact: Karen Aldana, 202-366-9550, Public.Affairs@dot.gov

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags. The message comes with urgency, especially for owners of vehicles affected by the regional recalls in the following areas: Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

Consumers that are uncertain whether their vehicle is impacted by the Takata recalls, or any other recall, can check on www.safercar.gov/vinlookup. On the site, consumers can search by their vehicle identification number (VIN) to confirm whether their individual vehicle has an open recall that needs to be addressed. In addition, consumers can sign-up for NHTSA recall alerts, which go out before recall letters are mailed by the manufacturers to the affected owners.

Affected Vehicles, by Manufacturer, Impacted by CY 2013 and 2014 Recalls Involving Takata Airbags

Toyota: 778,177 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2002 – 2004 Lexus SC
2003 – 2004 Toyota Corolla
2003 – 2004 Toyota Corolla Matrix
2002 – 2004 Toyota Sequoia
2003 – 2004 Toyota Tundra
2003 – 2004 Pontiac Vibe

Honda: 2,803,214 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 – 2007 Honda Accord (4 cyl)
2001 – 2002 Honda Accord (6 cyl)
2001 – 2005 Honda Civic
2002 – 2006 Honda CR-V
2003 – 2011 Honda Element
2002 – 2004 Honda Odyssey
2003 – 2007 Honda Pilot
2006 – Honda Ridgeline
2003 – 2006 Acura MDX
2002 – 2003 Acura TL/CL

Nissan: 437,712 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 – 2003 Nissan Maxima
2001 – 2003 Nissan Pathfinder
2002 – 2003 Nissan Sentra
2001 – 2003 Infiniti I30/I35
2002 – 2003 Infiniti QX4
2003 – Infiniti FX

Mazda: 18,050 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 – 2004 Mazda6
2004 – Mazda RX-8

BMW: 573,935 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2000 – 2005 3 Series Sedan
2000 – 2006 3 Series Coupe
2000 – 2005 3 Series Sports Wagon
2000 – 2006 3 Series Convertible
2001 – 2006 M3 Coupe
2001 – 2006 M3 Convertible

General Motors: 133,221 total number potentially affected vehicles
2002 – 2003 Buick LeSabre
2002 – 2003 Buick Rendezvous
2002 – 2003 Cadillac DeVille
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Impala
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Venture
2002 – 2003 GMC Envoy
2002 – 2003 GMC Envoy XL
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Aurora
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Bravada
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Silhouette
2002 – 2003 Pontiac Bonneville
2002 – 2003 Pontiac Montana

 

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