Old Town caterer outsmarts scammer

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 27, 2014, at 3:56 p.m.

Let’s start this column with a set of assumptions. Let’s agree we’re all in this marketplace together; that means that we give and take, treat others as we want to be treated and learn from our mistakes and those of others.

Link to WABI video

I think Jane Thibodeau believes in that set of assumptions. A short time ago, the owner of Jane’s Catering in Old Town responded to an email offer she had received seeking her services. The email claimed to be from a man named Leroy Martin, who said he was planning to bring his family to eastern Maine for the summer.

“There were several weeks of very nice emails,” Jane told me last week. The first inquiry asked if he could hire Jane as a full-time chef; she would prepare meals for the man, his wife and three children during their stay. Since that’s the reason she is in business, Jane readily agreed.

Martin said he would be sending a check as a deposit for her services, so Jane opened a checking account specifically for her new client. She began to suspect that Martin was a scammer, rather than a mechanical engineer as he claimed, when he made a few other requests.

He needed a chauffeur … not just any chauffer, but one who spoke Spanish, the first language of Martin’s wife. He needed a housekeeper, and both of those positions required a deposit. Would Jane be so kind as to use part of the funds from his overly large check (more than $4,000) he had sent her to wire funds to those two people?

The red flags were really flying now, so Jane visited her banker. They determined the whole thing was a scam, and they closed the checking account. Jane did not lose any money, but she learned to put more faith in her instincts than her hopes.

“It was all a lie,” she said.

During their phone calls, Jane asked how he had picked her name from all of the chefs and caterers available; he wouldn’t answer. Her banker mentioned hearing of other scam attempts targeting people in Jane’s business.

“It would have been a dream job,” she said, “but I caught them, so, whatever.”

Jane urged others not to be taken in by offers — of work, prizes or other rewards — that involve an advance check and then wiring money to unknown parties.

Readers should know that the scammer’s email included a phone number that began “044.” That’s one of dozens of numbers used by advance fee scammers. The United Kingdom-based Internet Fraud Advisory Group says a handful of companies provide the numbers, splitting fees paid by unsuspecting callers with the caller’s network. The criminals apparently get the numbers free.

Jane’s sharing of her story is important. It sends the message that con artists do prey on honest people and that there is no shame in admitting it. When those honest people avoid being taken in, it’s cause for celebration and sharing the details to help educate us all.

The Federal Trade Commission has a neighbor-to-neighbor campaign called “Pass It On.” It’s based on the trust that each of us has in people we know, and their knowledge can save us money and other losses. Visit www.ftc.gov and search “pass it on” for details.

Watch Video from FTC

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 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Timeshare resellers & quick-money promises – Federal Trade Commission

 

Con artists are adept at selling — or selling you on  — just about anything. When it comes to timeshare resale services, they may claim to have a buyer for your property. Or that they can sell your place quickly and for a good price. But first, you’ll have to pay a hefty fee.

As part of an international crackdown on timeshare resale scams, the FTC and state law enforcement officials are going after timeshare resellers who took thousands of dollars in upfront fees from consumers after falsely claiming they could sell or rent the timeshares quickly. Today, the FTC announced settlements with Universal Timeshare, Resort Property Depot, and Resort Resolution Trust.

These companies violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by making false claims about their services in telephone pitches to timeshare owners. Universal Timeshare also called people whose phone numbers were on the Do Not Call Registry. Some consumers paid as much as $4,000 in so-called taxes, closing costs, and processing fees to these companies — and got nothing in return.

Before you allow someone to sell your timeshare:

  1. Check them out before you agree to pay them any money. See if the state Attorney General, local consumer protection agencies, or the Better Business Bureau in the company’s home state have complaints about them on file. Then, search online by entering the company name and the word “complaints” or “scam.”
  1. Deal only with licensed real estate brokers or agents. Check with the Real Estate Commission in the state where your timeshare is located to make sure the company has a current license.
  1. Get all terms in writing before you agree to anything. That includes services the company will perform; timing of the sale; fees and commissions; and cancellation and refund policies. If a company says you have to act now or you might miss out on a buyer, it’s not a company you want to do business with.
  1. Consider doing business only with a company that gets paid after the timeshare is sold. And don’t wire money or pay in cash.
  1. Be alert to a repeat scam. If a company offers to help get your money back from a timeshare resale scam  but wants you to pay them before they do anything for you, walk away. This is a classic setup for another scam.

Read about timeshare vacation plans and selling a timeshare through a reseller to learn more. And be sure to report these and other scams to the FTC.

There’s no such thing as a ‘free government grant’

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted July 20, 2014, at 6:01 a.m.

As soon as she heard the offer of a “free grant from the U.S. government,” Barbara Purington of Litchfield was suspicious.

It was offered simply because she was a good citizen, she was told. She kept the caller on the line, getting as much detail as she could before saying she would think about the offer. Instead, she called David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Leach told her what she thought she might hear: The offer was certainly a scam attempt.

Unsolicited offers of “free government grants” are always scams:

— Government officials don’t make random calls for such purposes.

— The government doesn’t have money to give away.

— Government representatives don’t get angry or upset with people on the phone who won’t do what they ask.

What the caller asked Barbara to do was to go to the nearest store that sold Green Dot prepaid cards, buy one for $250 and wire the money by Western Union. She knew if she did so, she would never see the money again — even though the caller assured her “that’ll come right back to you; [the money] will never leave the voucher.”

Barbara told the caller she would continue to think about the “offer.” He called back three consecutive days, leaving a phone number so he could “walk her through the process” of wiring money. The last call came from another man, who became belligerent when told his offer sounded fishy.

The final caller threatened to sue Barbara. She invited him to show up with his paperwork in hand and see who ended up behind bars.

People at BCCP know cases like these are all too common.

“There’s been an explosion of these scam calls,” David Leach said. “We know as regulators we only see the tip of the iceberg.”

Scammers often try to pass themselves off as government officials. On its website, the Council on Financial Assistance Reform — which coordinates federal assistance — states callers purporting to represent COFAR have told people they can receive grants of up to $25,000 if they’ll pay an up-front “processing fee” of $150 to $700. As with all other such offers, these calls are scam attempts.

Scammers don’t restrict themselves to phone lines. Fake websites abound, saying they’ll get you thousands of dollars if you’ll only send a few hundred up front for “processing” or “administrative” fees. They might also want your bank account number “for direct deposit.” If you reveal enough of your personal information, they can steal your identity.

When considering any such offer, ask for details in writing. People making legitimate offers will not hesitate to send written details, while scammers want quick answers along with your money.

Follow this advice from a BCCP news release last week:

— Don’t wire money to an unknown caller.

— Don’t give out your personal information to such callers.

— If someone calls claiming to be from a federal agency, ask for the agency’s name, physical address and supervisor’s direct-dial (not 800) phone number.

— Report any suspected government grant scams to the Bureau at 1-800-332-8529. More information about the Bureau is available at www.Credit.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.

Officials Say Recent Storms Serve as Reminder about Actions Residents Should Take to Stay Safe and Protect Property During Severe Weather

PRESS RELEASE
Bureau of Insurance
July 18, 2014

GARDINER – Governor Paul R. LePage and Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa urged Maine residents on Friday to recognize that severe summer weather poses a threat to life and property, and they called recent strong storms a reminder that steps can be taken to save lives, minimize property losses and speed recovery.  Several Maine communities experienced heavy rains, power outages and flash flooding earlier this month.

Governor LePage and Superintendent Cioppa cited wind, flooding and fire as potential causes of major damage during summer.  They also noted that the Atlantic Hurricane Season runs through November.  The Governor and Superintendent encourage Mainers to review their homeowner or renter policy and to evaluate the benefits of flood insurance.  They also encourage residents to complete a home inventory checklist, and to assemble an emergency supply kit.

“The best time to prepare for severe weather is when the skies are clear and threats aren’t imminent,” Governor LePage said.  “As we’ve seen, strong storms can arrive quickly and cause significant problems.  We should all take simple steps to keep our families and property safe, and to be in a position to recover quickly should damage occur.”

Cioppa emphasized the importance of knowing what’s covered by a homeowners policy and making sure coverage is adequate.  “Many people are unaware that standard homeowner policies do not cover flooding.  They should review their policy, purchase additional coverage if needed, consider whether flood insurance makes sense for them, and complete an inventory of possessions.”

Flood Insurance:  Flooding is typically not covered by a standard homeowners policy.  Due to a 30-day waiting period for coverage to take effect, quick action is needed for a policy to be in place for later in this year’s hurricane season.  Details are available from the National Flood Insurance Program by calling 1-800-427-2419 or online at www.floodsmart.gov.  The website includes tools to help homeowners assess their flood risk.

Inventory Checklist:  Cioppa emphasized that the checklist can be enormously helpful in establishing an insurance claim.  Although a copy of the inventory can be kept at home, a second should always be maintained with insurance policies, medical records, and other important documents in a safety deposit box or other secure location.  The inventory should include photos and video of property.  A free checklist can be obtained on the Bureau’s website (www.maine.gov/insurance).

Additionally, the Governor and Superintendent encouraged residents to establish an emergency supply kit.  It should include several days of drinking water (at least one gallon per person per day), non-perishable packaged or canned foods, a non-electrical can opener and cooking utensil.  The kit should also contain first aid materials, necessary medications, basic tools, a battery or crank-operated radio and flashlights, extra batteries and any supplies needed for pets, as well as a list of important names and phone numbers, including insurance company contact information.  They also urged Mainers to familiarize themselves with resources provided by the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) — available at www.maine.gov/mema/prepare/.

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Disaster Preparedness Tips for Homeowners and Renters from the NAIC

  • Take an inventory of your valuables and belongings. This should include taking photographs or a video of each room. This documentation will provide your insurance company with proof of your belongings and help to process claims more quickly in the event of disaster.
  • To enable filing claims more quickly, keep sales receipts and/or canceled checks. Also note the model and serial numbers of the items in your home inventory.
  • As you acquire more valuables — jewelry, family heirlooms, antiques, art —consider purchasing an additional “floater” or “rider” to your policy to cover these special items. These types of items typically are not covered by a basic homeowners or renter’s insurance policy.
  • Remember to include in your home inventory those items you rarely use (e.g., holiday decorations, sports equipment, tools, etc.).
  • Store copies of all your insurance policies in a safe location away from your home that is easily accessible in case of disaster. You may want to store your policies and inventory in a waterproof, fireproof box or in a safe, remote location such as a bank safe deposit box. Consider leaving a copy of your inventory with relatives, friends or your insurance provider and store digital pictures in your e-mail or on a Web site for easy retrieval.
  • Know what is and is not covered by your insurance policy. You might need additional protection depending on where you live. Make sure your policies are up to date. Contact your insurance provider annually to review and update your insurance policy.
  • Keep a readily available list of 24-hour contact information for each of your insurance providers.
  • Find out if your possessions are insured for the actual cash value or the replacement cost. Actual cash value is the amount it would take to repair or replace damage to your home or possessions after depreciation while replacement cost is the amount it would take to repair or replace your home or possessions without deducting for depreciation. Speak with your insurance provider to determine whether purchasing replacement coverage is worth the cost.
  • Speak with your insurance provider to find out if your policy covers additional living expenses for a temporary residence if you are unable to live in your home due to damage from a disaster.
  • Appraise your home periodically to make sure your insurance policy reflects home improvements or renovations. Contact your insurance provider to update your policy accordingly.

The Bureau of Insurance is part of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation which encourages sound business practices through oversight of insurers, financial institutions, creditors, investment providers, and numerous professions and occupations for the purpose of protecting the citizens of Maine. Consumers can reach the Bureau at www.maine.gov/insurance; by calling 800-300-5000 in state; or by writing to Bureau of Insurance, 34 State House Station, Augusta ME  04333.

 

 

Maine State Officials Issue Warning about Fake Offers of Government Grants in Exchange for Advance Fee

PRESS RELEASE
David Leach, Principal Examiner
Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection

GARDINER – Governor Paul R. LePage joined officials in Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection in highlighting a recent trend of Mainers receiving unsolicited offers of substantial government grants if they pay an initial advance or administrative fee. In some of these cases, the consumers are also asked to provide personal and financial information.

“Government agencies aren’t in the business of making unsolicited calls to offer grants or financial awards of any kind,” Governor LePage said. “Mainers receiving such offers are encouraged to be cautious and to contact the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, which provides expert advice and assistance on many personal finance matters, including those related to unexpected offers of funds, prizes, debt management services or other financial incentives.”

The Bureau’s Principal Examiner, David Leach, outlined several recent cases:

  • A Chelsea resident received an unsolicited call from the “United States Federal Grant Program,” promising an $8,400 grant for an advance fee of $400. The consumer’s Caller ID displayed a Washington, D.C. area code (202), but the call was traced to India.
  • Another Mainer was offered a government grant through the “Finance Accounting Department.” This $6,000 grant, she was told, could be obtained by sending $250 through a Green Dot Money Pack card.
  • The “Federal Treasury Department” offered a Maine man a $6,500 grant in exchange for an unspecified wire payment to cover administrative costs and other program fees.
  • The “Federal Grant Program” called another Maine consumer informing her that she had been selected out of 1,500 Mainers to receive a $7,000 grant. The consumer became wary when the caller demanded an upfront “administrative fee” payment.

In each of these cases, the consumers contacted the Bureau, and were warned not to send funds or permit access to their checking accounts. The phony grant dollar figures typically range from $800 to more than $8,000.

“Consumers are often asked to disclose their bank account numbers, under the premise that the funds could be transmitted directly into those accounts, and are asked for their Social Security numbers and dates of birth,” David Leach said. “But then, before their “grants” are sent, the consumers are told they must transmit funds using money services such as Western Union, MoneyGram, Vanilla Card or Green Dot card to pay administrative costs and fees,”

Leach said the personal information, such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers and dates of birth, is likely collected to perpetrate subsequent identity theft. He emphasized that if an unknown person offers free grant money in exchange for an advance or processing fee or disclosure of personal or bank account information, it’s a scam.

The Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection offers the following guidelines:

  • Never send money, especially using money transmitters or prepaid cash cards, to unknown telephone solicitors.
  • Do not disclose personal information such as Social Security number, date of birth, credit card or bank account numbers to unknown callers. This could lead to identity theft.
  • If the callers say they are from a federal agency, ask for the exact name of that agency, the agency’s physical address, and their supervisor’s direct dial (not an 800 number). If the caller claims to be in Washington, DC, the number should have a Washington, DC area code of 202.
  • Report any suspicious activity involving government grant scams to the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, 1-800-332-8529. Additional information about the Bureau and its resources is available at http://www.Credit.Maine.gov.

The Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Regulation was established in 1975 to enforce consumer financial protection laws. The Bureau is an agency within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which can be reached online at http://www.maine.gov/pfr.

Military consumers face special challenges

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted July 13, 2014, at 10:39 a.m.

This Wednesday marks the second annual Military Consumer Protection Day.

We wrote about the first one last July, and the news flash this year involves several simultaneous efforts to help members of the military and their families become smart, informed and protected consumers.

This year’s observance features a 2 p.m. Wednesday Town Hall/Twitter chat on identity theft and a range of issues relating to credit. The hashtag to take part is #MCPD2014.

Close to home, the state of Maine has been removing barriers to employment opportunities for veterans. Some time ago, state officials announced they were streamlining processes through which veterans can apply for jobs involving technical skills.

The state credits a veteran’s military service and experience when that veteran applies for an occupational license. You can read more at http://www.maine.gov/pfr/military.html.

The state has a number of benefits available to veterans, alongside those benefits guaranteed by the federal government. You can read or download the Veterans Benefit and Resource Guide at http://maine.gov/dvem/bvs/Veteran%20Benefit%20and%20Resource%20Guide_2014APR11.pdf.

The really good news about consumer protection is that regulators are realizing that the need is ongoing. Just as private citizens need to have their rights as consumers safeguarded, so do members of the military and their families.

Federal and state governments plus a number of nonprofit organizations have set up a comprehensive website aimed at service people at http://www.military.ncpw.gov/.

“Military Consumer, Your First Line of Defense” has lots of information about credit, debt, fraud, identity theft and many other topics. You can download materials for free to help spread the word.

The website also includes links to other helpful places. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recognizes that military families face special monetary challenges; they may be approached by both good and bad lenders. The bureau has some advice for meeting those challenges at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/servicemembers/.

We could never cover all topics of interest to consumer-veterans here. The Military One Source website maintained by the Department of Defense offers individual, confidential consultation on health matters. There also is advice on virtually all aspects of military life. Read more at http://www.militaryonesource.mil/ or call 800-342-9647.

Many businesses offer special deals for members of the military and their families. Scam artists offer what may appear to be “deals” but are in fact veiled attempts to rip people off. Other crooks might pose as VA officials in an effort to obtain your personal and financial information. They might try to make you pay for records that should be free.

Don’t be fooled; know the person you’re speaking with, and be sure that any information you divulge won’t be used to defraud you.

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.

FTC Alleges Amazon Unlawfully Billed Parents for Millions of Dollars in Children’s Unauthorized In-App Charges

No Password or Other Indication of Parental Consent Was Required for Charges in Kids’ Apps; Internal E-mail Referred to Situation as “House on Fire”

Date: July 10, 2014

Amazon.com, Inc. has billed parents and other account holders for millions of dollars in unauthorized in-app charges incurred by children, according to a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed today in federal court.

The FTC’s lawsuit seeks a court order requiring refunds to consumers for the unauthorized charges and permanently banning the company from billing parents and other account holders for in-app charges without their consent. According to the complaint, Amazon keeps 30 percent of all in-app charges.

Click image to link to Playing with Fire

According to the FTC, Amazon allowed kids to buy virtual goods — like coins, stars, and pet food — without getting parents’ permission.

Amazon offers many children’s apps in its appstore for download to mobile devices such as the Kindle Fire. In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Amazon violated the FTC Act by billing parents and other Amazon account holders for charges incurred by their children without the permission of the parent or other account holder. Amazon’s setup allowed children playing these kids’ games to spend unlimited amounts of money to pay for virtual items within the apps such as “coins,” “stars,” and “acorns” without parental involvement.

“Amazon’s in-app system allowed children to incur unlimited charges on their parents’ accounts without permission,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Even Amazon’s own employees recognized the serious problem its process created. We are seeking refunds for affected parents and a court order to ensure that Amazon gets parents’ consent for in-app purchases.”

The complaint alleges that when Amazon introduced in-app charges to the Amazon Appstore in November 2011, there were no password requirements of any kind on in-app charges, including in kids’ games and other apps that appeal to children. According to the complaint, this left parents to foot the bill for charges they didn’t authorize.

According to the complaint, kids’ games often encourage children to acquire virtual items in ways that blur the lines between what costs virtual currency and what costs real money. In the app “Ice Age Village,” for example, the complaint noted that children can use “coins” and “acorns” to buy items in the game without a real-money charge. However, they can also purchase additional “coins” and “acorns” using real money on a screen that is visually similar to the one that has no real-money charge. The largest quantity purchase available in the app would cost $99.99.

The complaint highlights internal communications among Amazon employees as early as December 2011 that said allowing unlimited in-app charges without any password was “…clearly causing problems for a large percentage of our customers,” adding that the situation was a “near house on fire.”

In March 2012, according to the complaint, Amazon updated its in-app charge system to require an account owner to enter a password only for individual in-app charges over $20. As the complaint notes, Amazon continued to allow children to make an unlimited number of individual purchases of less than $20 without a parent’s approval. An Amazon employee noted at the time of the change that “it’s much easier to get upset about Amazon letting your child purchase a $99 product without any password protection than a $20 product,” according to the complaint. In July 2012, as set forth in the complaint, internal emails again described consumer complaints about in-app charges as a “house on fire” situation.

The complaint alleges that in early 2013, Amazon updated its in-app charge process to require password entry for some charges in a way that functioned differently in different contexts. According to the complaint, even when a parent was prompted for a password to authorize a single in-app charge made by a child, that single authorization often opened an undisclosed window of 15 minutes to an hour during which the child could then make unlimited charges without further authorization. Not until June 2014, roughly two and a half years after the problem first surfaced and only shortly before the Commission voted to approve the lawsuit against Amazon, did Amazon change its in-app charge framework to obtain account holders’ informed consent for in-app charges on its newer mobile devices, as explained in the complaint.

According to the complaint, thousands of parents complained to Amazon about in-app charges their children incurred without their authorization, amounting to millions of dollars of charges. For example, one mother noted in the FTC complaint told Amazon that her daughter was able to rack up $358.42 in unauthorized charges, while others complained that even children who could not read were able to “click a lot of buttons at random” and incur several unauthorized charges.

The company’s stated policy is that all in-app charges are final and nonrefundable. According to the complaint, even parents who have sought an exception to that policy have faced a refund process that is unclear and confusing, involving statements that do not explain how to seek refunds for in-app charges or suggest consumers cannot get a refund for these charges.

This is the Commission’s second case relating to children’s in-app purchases; Apple, Inc. settled an FTC complaint concerning the issue earlier this year. The Commission is seeking full refunds for all affected consumers, disgorgement of Amazon’s ill-gotten gains, and a court order ensuring that in the future Amazon obtains permission before imposing charges for in-app purchases.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 4-1, with Commissioner Joshua D. Wright voting no. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

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