Archive for the ‘Concerns of Older Consumers’ Category

Pass It On program helps consumers avoid scammers


Posted Aug. 03, 2014, at 10:59 a.m.

Last week’s column dealt with an attempt to scam a caterer in Old Town. When she learned that a man who posed as a client was trying to rip her off via an advance check scheme, Jane Thibodeau told him off; then she told friends, the media and anyone else who would listen.

Jane spread the word in the belief that consumers can and should help one another stay safe in today’s marketplace. Our society’s emphasis on instant messaging, instant sales and instant gratification places us all at risk. Far too many opportunists are looking for ways to separate us from our money; we need the wisdom and experience of others to help keep our guard up.

One source of information comes from the Federal Trade Commission’s Pass It On program. Avoiding identity theft, imposter and “you’ve won” scams, health care ripoffs and charity fraud are featured in articles designed to start a conversation. The dialogue could help people you know avoid falling for those scams, or prevent them from paying for goods or services they didn’t order.

Each of the above topics is the subject of an article, a bookmark and an activity. You can print one copy or order multiples of printed materials to distribute where you think they’ll be read and shared. Find them online here or order free copies by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP and pressing 3.

You might also want to tell friends about something called affinity fraud. “You can trust me,” says the scammer, “because I’m just like you. We share the same background and interests.” The next line out of your new “friend’s” mouth is the pitch: “Because we have so much in common, I can help you make money.”

Common interests or histories don’t necessarily mean a good business fit. Consider all such offers carefully and consult someone you know and trust. The New York State Attorney General’s office has cracked down on a number of affinity fraudsters and shares advice on their website.

Talk with friends and neighbors about spotting fraudulent offers in their email. Telltale signs include generic greetings (rather than your name), grammar and spelling errors and unfamiliar phone numbers. Some samples of bad players and their bad pitches have been compiled by the U.K.-based nonprofit Internet Fraud Advisory Group. It also has a quick guide to phone numbers you should never call to avoid heavy international calling charges.

While we’re on the web, what about those chain letter emails, claiming that if you forward them to five friends, Bill Gates will donate millions to charity? Since he already does that, your action is unlikely to do more than provide new names to a scammer. Break the chain and tell your correspondents what you’ve done and why.

Sort fact from fiction by doing your research. separates urban myth from reality and finds cases that may be a blend of both. It’s a great resource for disposing of some too-good-to-be-true stories.

Credit cards offer convenience, but they also offer scam artists ways to insert small fees they think you won’t notice. When your monthly statement comes, read every line and verify that all charges are ones you’ve authorized. Tell your friends to do the same.

Watching out for one another is a way of life. Letter carriers keep their eyes open for lack of activity at occupied homes on their routes. Police want to hear about suspicious activity, whether in your neighborhood, online, over the phone or by mail. Share your experiences and your knowledge wherever you can; people will thank you for doing so.

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 or email

The road to quick-fix driveway repairs is paved with bad intentions


Posted May 25, 2014, at 10 a.m.

Click for top 10 red flags of home repair scams

If the birds are singing and some guy offers to seal your driveway for 200 bucks, it must be spring.

Our long-awaited break of winter’s grip means the home improvement scammers are making the rounds again. One of them actually visited us last summer, saying he had “just enough material from another job in the neighborhood” to give me a great deal. We sent him packing.

His fellow con artists are carrying on the tradition, going door to door offering “rock-bottom prices” and saying they’ve “never had a dissatisfied customer.”

If that’s true, why are they always in such a hurry? Why do they need to do the work immediately? Why must they be paid in cash?

The reason is simple. They need to get running, to stay ahead of the people who enforce the laws they are breaking.

There are three Maine laws that deal with transient sales and home repairs. They are explained in detail in the Consumer Law Guide published by the attorney general’s office (visit See chapter 17 of the Guide for laws relating to construction. Chapter 13 deals with transient sales).

Among the key pieces of advice are these. Always have a written contract for any job costing more than $3,000. There’s a three-day cooling-off period before work starts; if you decide you don’t want the job done within those three days, you can cancel the deal. You and the contractor may — but you don’t have to — agree to settle any disputes that might arise through mediation or arbitration.

Don’t sign a contract that includes any blank spaces (to be filled in later). And Maine law says the contractor cannot ask for more than one-third of the total contract amount as a down payment.

The attorney general has a model contract for home construction (see chapter 18 of the Guide). For information on professions requiring a state license, visit

You’ll likely want to check out a number of contractors before hiring one. Ask each of them how many jobs like yours they’ve done in the past year, and ask for references.

Find out what kinds of insurance they carry. Beware of those who demand more than the one-third upfront payment or insist on cash.

Also, be wary if the contractor asks you to get the building permit. Transient sellers must be licensed by the state, and an unlicensed contractor may not want to show up at your town hall.

Be extra wary of transient repair “pros” who “spot a problem” you had not noticed. Once inside your home, they may break something and then point out that it “needs fixing.” The shady contractor may insist you come with him to inspect something, while one of his associates steals your valuables.

Those last few points are among the National Consumers League’s top 10 red flags of home repair scams. Read more at

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 or email


New Maine tax credit replaces ‘Circuit Breaker’ program


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT Posted March 30, 2014, at 5:42 p.m.

A friend approached me recently, saying he was concerned that some seniors may have thrown away paperwork that they could have used to save some money.

At issue is Maine’s new Property Tax Fairness Credit, passed by the Legislature to take the place of the Maine Residents Property Tax and Rent Refund “Circuit Breaker” program. Lawmakers repealed that statute last year and put the PTFC in its place.

Qualifying for the credit are consumers who were Maine residents for any part of tax year 2013 and who lived in a home they owned or rented here for that part of the year. They must have had a Maine adjusted gross income of not more than $40,000 and paid property tax of at least 10 percent of that amount or paid rent on an apartment that was over 40 percent of their Maine adjusted gross income.

The credit of up to $300 (or $400 for those age 70 or older) became available in January and is claimed on the state individual Income Tax Form 1040ME.

To get the credit, eligible people must complete a worksheet that accompanies the form. And that’s where the confusion may have started.

Worksheets were mailed to all Mainers who filed a Circuit Breaker application on or after Aug. 1, 2012, whether they paid state income tax or not. My friend had said some seniors he knew had received the mailing from Maine Revenue Services and discarded it; since they were not liable for any Maine income tax, they reasoned, there was no need to concern themselves with whatever was in the envelope.

That’s not a problem, according to state officials and representatives of seniors groups we’ve spoken with. The forms can be downloaded from Maine Revenue Services’ website ( or by calling 1-207-624-7894 to request that a form be mailed. The credit is available for three years for Mainers who do not have to pay any income tax.

Volunteers from AARP will be at various area Agencies on Aging until April 15. Dyan Walsh, director of community services at the Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says the volunteers have received special training on the PTFC.

Walsh says a number of seniors have called since Jan. 1, expecting to sign up for the Circuit Breaker program and not realizing that it had been replaced by the PTFC. Walsh says if seniors cannot travel to the EAAA office, they can call Maine Revenue Services at 207-626-8475 for help. They may also seek assistance by emailing or by visiting in person at 51 Commerce Drive, Augusta.

Low- and moderate-income earners may qualify for free help in preparing their state and federal income taxes through a program called Ca$h Maine. You can call 211 for details or read about it online at

AARP also offers free tax help at the Bangor Public Library. Until April 10, help will be available Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the small conference room near the reading room.

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 or email  

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Do you need water line insurance?


By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 23, 2014, at 8:57 a.m.
Not long ago, a Bangor resident wrote to ask us about a letter she had received that asked if she was interested in buying water line insurance.

It’s not a question we get every day, so we tried to educate ourselves before responding. It turns out that at least three companies offer coverage of the lines that run from the water main under city streets to the connection in your home. Repair of those pipes is not generally covered by water utilities or by most homeowners’ policies.

As with all types of insurance, not all coverage is created equal. That is likely one reason that many water utilities have not been quick to endorse one company over another. In the case of the Bangor Water District, there’s no endorsement at all.

District General Manager Kathy Moriarty told me that she was aware of letters sent by American Water Resources offering water line insurance. Those letters went to homeowners, not to the district. She said the bottom line decision by most homeowners rests, at least in part, on the age of their homes.

Moriarty said the water lines in most newer homes are made of copper. The lines usually are deep enough so as not to be moved by frost. And, barring breakage by construction equipment or an earthquake, copper lines should provide good service for many years.

If the pipes are galvanized steel, that may be another matter. Galvanized metals tend to have shorter lifespans than copper, and homeowners with such pipes connecting to the mains might want to think about insurance or replacement. As the letters soliciting coverage state, repairs can run into the thousands of dollars. And few of us would welcome a disruption in water service for whatever period repairs would require.

Customers of the Bangor Water District can usually find out what kind of pipe was used to make the connection to their homes by inquiring at the district’s office (the phone number is 947-4516). Moriarty says her office maintains good records on those connections.

“We can give the homeowners those details,” she said.

The Portland Water District says on its website it’s also aware of the recent mailings but “(w)e have no information on their products.” The Portland Water District says it teamed up about eight years ago with HomeServe, an independent company that offers similar insurance. HomeServe’s website says the company has partnerships with other utilities across the country.

Michelle Clements, a spokesperson for the Portland Water District, says district officials like the fact that they can offer insurance as an option to homeowners who want it. She said her district reviews HomeServe’s written materials before they go to consumers; she said the company has been receptive to suggestions the district has made about clarifying terms and explaining coverage.

“We are just offering it,” Clements said of the insurance. “We don’t encourage our customers one way or another.”

A number of customers, though, have opted to buy the coverage, she said.

Homeowners with concerns should talk with people at their local water utility to determine the age and composition of their connecting lines. If you decide to buy water line insurance, find out first EXACTLY what is covered (lines, connections, meters) and what isn’t. Also, find out if you have any say in selecting a contractor should a problem arise.

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 or email

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Elder Financial Abuse – WABI-TV

Monday, February 17th, 2014 at 8:38 am.

Russ and Joy talk about elder financial abuse.  VIDEO

Senior$afe will be training bank and credit union employees to spot signs of elder financial abuse when elderly people are making transactions.

If you suspect a senior is being abused, financially or otherwise you can call Maine Adult Protective Services at 1-800-624-8404.


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New state program helps fight elder financial abuse


By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 16, 2014, at 10:20 a.m.

A family member moved in to help an ailing 75-year-old Penobscot County woman with housework. After just two days there, she persuaded the older woman to sign the home over to her, saying this would help if the woman needed long-term care. Three months later, an eviction notice came.

In Androscoggin County, a woman convinced her 78-year-old mother that it was time to sell her house and move in with her daughter and the daughter’s husband. The couple promised to look after her medical and financial needs. Soon afterward, in the heat of summer, the woman moved her elderly mother into a camper trailer in the couple’s backyard. More than two years, the couple spent all her money and left her homeless and unqualified for Mainecare. Her health declined to the point that she needed nursing home care.

These two examples of the financial abuse of older Mainers are repeated, not just daily but many times every day. In these two cases, the victims complained to Legal Services for the Elderly, and that group’s intervention helped to ease the impact. But thousands more cases are reported every year, and many more cases go unreported.

The Bangor Daily News reported last week on a new effort to head off elder financial abuse. The initiative, called Senior$afe, aims to train employees of banks and credit unions to spot signs of financial abuse at the teller’s window, drive-through or other places where relatives or others might make transactions that are not in the best interest of the account holder.

Financial abuse can happen when a senior gives power of attorney to a family member, friend or other trusted person. That power can be abused when it’s used to take advantage of the senior’s credit, secure their property or the proceeds of sales, and even threaten harm if seniors don’t hand over cash.

The Senior$afe program will provide training to front-line employees to watch for unusual activity, such as a series of checks written to one person or large cash withdrawals. Officials say 200 people have been trained and would share their new knowledge with others at their workplaces.

For example, if a suspected victim comes into a bank or credit union alone and asks to make a large cash withdrawal, the employee might try to engage the senior in casual conversation. If someone else is with the senior, the employee might instead refer the matter to authorities who could begin an investigation.

Senior$afe is spearheaded by the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention, Maine Bankers Association, Maine Credit Union League, the Maine departments of Professional and Financial Regulation and Health and Human Services, and Legal Services for the Elderly. Training is also planned for financial institution managers, who might refer troubling matters to authorities.

Jaye Martin is executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly and a member of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. She says Senior$afe is the first program of its kind in the country. Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw, who co-chairs the council, said the effort will help.

“Giving front line bank and credit union personnel the tools to identify suspected elder abuse will help protect Maine’s seniors before the financial damage becomes too great,” Shaw says.

If you suspect that a senior is being abused, financially or otherwise, you can call Maine Adult Protective Services at or call 1-800-624-8404.

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 or email



Consumer Contact: Jamaican Lottery Scam — WABI-TV

Russ and Joy discuss the Jamaican Lottery scams, and how you can avoid being a victim of one.

You can check out the website for more information on these scams and how to avoid becoming a victim.

If you have fallen victim to one of these scams that you should stop all communication at once. If you are feeling threatened you should call your local law enforcement agency to report the scam. Also do not travel to foreign countries to try to get back your money.


Don’t be tricked by scammers’ use of social engineering


By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted Oct. 06, 2013, at 12:46 p.m.

Generally speaking, cops are tough. They know that bad things happen to good people, and they learn to deal with the hurt that victims endure.

Still, the sleaziness of some crimes gets to law enforcement officials. Lt. Paul Edwards of the Bangor Police Department says Internet criminals who prey on seniors really irritate him.

Edwards related the victimization of a kind-hearted Bangor resident who only wanted to help the stranger who called her asking for money. He seemed like a good sort who just needed a little help, so she withdrew money from her bank and wired him the funds he requested.

She got another call from someone else needing cash, and another and another. Each time, she believed the caller was in genuine need, and each time she responded like a good neighbor. As you’ve guessed by now, the callers were not in any real need; they were scammers, looking for a fast buck.

Such requests — whether by phone or email — tend to multiply. Once scammers get a positive response, they share contact information with other crooks. The requests are for larger and larger amounts and will continue as long as there’s a willing donor.

Edwards says members of the woman’s family urged her to stop, saying scammers were taking advantage of her good nature. The woman persisted saying that the callers were people who really needed her help. She had been taken in by what the experts call social engineering, and we need to learn how to avoid its traps.

Crooks use social engineering tricks to get you to do what they want. A caller might try to convince you that he’s a “friend of a friend” or a distant relative who’s gotten into a financial bind, and you’re the only one he can turn to. He may know a few personal details about you, which he weaves into your conversation. He’ll try to build a relationship as you chat, gaining your trust and ultimately getting you to send money by wire transfer. Impossible to trace, the money is gone forever.

Lt. Edwards said the woman’s family went to her bank, asking bank officials to try to talk the woman out of any large withdrawals she might make in the future. He believes those requests were only partially successful and that the woman has been parted with thousands of dollars over time.

“She wouldn’t trust her own children over this stranger she met over the phone,” Edwards said.

Another victim fell for the “grandparent scam,” where a caller claiming to be a grandchild said he/she was in trouble and needed money wired immediately, to “get out of jail,” “get my car back” or whatever. The manipulation was the same, and so, sadly, was the end result. After the money was wired, the victim checked with her children … the grandchild had been there, safe and sound, all along.

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Learn more about online safety at (

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 or

State Officials Warn Consumers about Scams Related to Federal Health Reform Law (ACA)

GARDINER – Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa and Governor Paul R. LePage are warning the public about scams related to the federal health reform law (ACA). Various schemes have been reported throughout the country to take advantage of consumers’ uncertainty surrounding the law. Often posing as insurance agents or representatives of the government, these scammers attempt to sell fraudulent policies or obtain sensitive information like Social Security and bank account numbers.

Governor LePage encouraged people to contact the Bureau of Insurance if they receive calls or messages from individuals claiming to represent government agencies and offering to sell health insurance policies. “Consumers and business owners should be cautious when receiving an unsolicited sales pitch related to the ACA,” Governor LePage said. “Government representatives aren’t contacting consumers to sell insurance policies. We want Mainers to be vigilant about protecting their private information so they can avoid being scammed.”

Insurance Superintendent Cioppa reinforced that message and noted that insurance agents should not be asking for personal or financial information when explaining policy options. “Maine’s Bureau of Insurance is always available to assist consumers with questions or concerns about health insurance, and never contacts people to sell insurance products. Additionally, insurance agents should never request personal information, such as a Social Security Number or details related to financial accounts, when explaining health insurance policies.”

Maine’s Bureau of Insurance and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) are highlighting common red flags and providing tips on how to avoid being the victim of a scam.

Fraudulent Health Insurance Marketplaces: One of the largest components of the ACA is the creation of federal health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges. These online portals ask consumers to enter information about themselves, and select the level of coverage they desire, to receive a list of plans they can purchase. Open enrollment in the new marketplaces begins October 1. However, bogus websites that purport to be part of the exchanges have been appearing online. Do not enter any personal or financial information into a website that says you can purchase a policy before the open enrollment period. More information is available at

New “Obamacare” Insurance or Medicare Cards: Another common ploy involves unsolicited calls from scammers who claim to have your new “Obamacare” insurance card. The scammer then asks for information in order to send the card to you, such as credit card numbers, bank account information or your Social Security Number. A variation targets seniors on Medicare, with the caller claiming that in order for the senior to get their new Medicare card and continue receiving their benefits, they must verify their bank account and routing numbers. Some callers ask for their Medicare numbers, which are identical to Social Security Numbers. You are not required to obtain a new insurance or Medicare card under the ACA. Also, legitimate representatives of the federal government will already have the information they need and should not ask for personal or financial details.

Salesperson says Premium Offer is Good for a Limited Time: Enrollment in the exchanges will be open from October 1 to March 31, and the rates for plans will be good for the entire enrollment period. Be skeptical of someone who is trying to pressure you into buying a policy because the rate is only good for a short time.

Salesperson says You Could Go to Jail for Not Having Health Insurance: Starting next year, all Americans will be required to have health insurance. You will not face jail time if you do not purchase health insurance. Those who remain uninsured and do not qualify for an exemption will face a penalty of $95 (for each adult) or 1% of family income, whichever is greater. In 2015, the penalty will increase to $325 per adult or 2% of family income, and in 2016 and beyond, the penalty will be $695 per adult or 2.5% of family income.

Unsolicited Call or E-mail from Government Official Selling Insurance: Federal and state government representatives are not contacting individual consumers to sell insurance. Do not give any sensitive information to anyone who claims to be with the federal government or the Maine Bureau of Insurance.

Cioppa urged consumers to contact the Bureau of Insurance to check the validity of an insurance product, agent or company, particularly if an unsolicited sales pitch is received. The Bureau of Insurance can be reached by calling 1-800-300-5000. Individual and small group health insurance plans to be offered in Maine on the federal exchange can be reviewed on the Bureau’s website ( The website also contains a PowerPoint presentation regarding the ACA and Maine’s insurance market.


New twist on old scam


By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Sept. 08, 2013, at 3:02 p.m.

Maine’s seniors are becoming really savvy.

Not only are they hanging up on would-be scam callers, they’re reporting them to law enforcement people. The legal people are looking into the scam attempts, and everyone’s getting better informed about ways to keep our money in our pockets, instead of handing it over to crooks.

That’s what smart consumerism is all about. Just last week, consumers in eastern Maine were put to the test with a new twist on an old scam offer revolving around medical alert services. And, don’t we love it when the scammers try to prey on seniors, and the seniors do the phone equivalent of spitting in their eyes!

The pitch went like this: Pony up whatever they ask for ultimately and they’ll throw in “grocery savings certificates” worth THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS at 100 grocery chains across the U.S. (are those magazine coupons??). The pitch continues, “In addition to your $3,000 in savings certificates you will receive a free emergency medic alert bracelet or necklace,” which of course will save your life if you’ve fallen and you can’t get up. (We’ve written about these lifeline offers before; see Consumer Forum, June 3, 2013).

At least two consumers who received the above call did not bite; instead, they called the Eastern Area Agency on Aging, telling people there that a scam was afoot. The folks at EAAA reported the consumers’ experiences to the Maine Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which loves to keep track of such robocall violations of its Do Not Call rules. Since Penobscot County TRIAD, a coalition of seniors’ advocates and law enforcement personnel is based at EAAA, the Penobscot Sheriff’s Department was alerted as well.

The scam artists know that millions of people have gotten wise to their promises of “free” medical alert devices, only to be slapped with a monthly fee for the “service” that comes with the devices. Sometimes there’s no service at all, although the charges keep coming every month. Sometimes the scammers don’t even get a signature, saying that “a relative signed you up” and not to worry because “your insurance covers any costs.”

As our savvy consumers did last week, the time to head off these crooks is the moment they try to strike. They ask you to “press 1 for more information or 5 to be removed from this offer.” Don’t press anything; simply hang up. If you’re in the national Do Not Call registry, the caller has broken the law simply by calling. Don’t give the lawbreaker the information that his robot has reached a working number by pressing a button that verifies the phone is working. The scammers sell lists of working numbers to other crooks.

If you receive a suspicious call, simply hang up (it’s your phone; you choose how to use it). If the pitch gets far enough so you spot a scam attempt, report it to your local law enforcement agency. Let the FTC know (call 1-877-FTC-HELP or to file a complaint online). In June, the FTC levied a record $7.5-million fine against a mortgage refinancing company for allegedly violating Do Not Call rules. Such cases often begin with complaints from consumers.

Despite the law and bad press, the scammers will keep trying, sugar-coating old scams with phony new promises. Don’t buy what they’re selling.

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 or


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