Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

Deadline to register for 2015 Obamacare coverage looms

CONSUMER FORUM
Posted Dec. 14, 2014, at 10:05 a.m.

For Maine consumers who are enrolling in a health care plan for the first time — or for those who are changing plans — Dec. 15 is an important day.

It’s the deadline to sign up for coverage on the Individual Health Insurance Market, in order for the policy to be in effect on Jan. 1. The open enrollment period continues through Feb. 15 of next year; however, for coverage to take effect on New Year’s Day, new enrollees must be signed up by the end of the day on Dec. 15.

Maine Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa says individuals and families who signed up for a plan this year will be renewed automatically for 2015 if they are making payments and do not opt for any changes.

“However, we encourage everyone, even those with existing coverage, to review their options during the open enrollment period,” Cioppa said in a news release late last week.

People who have health insurance — whether through a plan in existence before the Affordable Care Act created the marketplace or by a plan purchased on or off the Marketplace — might save money, find a better provider network or get improved coverage by shopping around now.

For individuals without health insurance, the open enrollment period is the only time to buy health insurance from the federally-facilitated marketplace. The only exceptions to this enrollment period are special circumstances such as losing a job, marriage or divorce, birth or adoption or termination by the insurance company (for reasons other than nonpayment of premiums).

Anthem, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care/HPHC and Maine Community Health Options all sold plans this year and will sell both on and off the marketplace in 2015. Aetna will join the individual market in Maine this year, selling only off the marketplace.

A total of 49 plans will be available from the four companies. Comparing terms and rates could seem like a daunting task, but help is available from your insurance broker or agent or a marketplace navigator.

Cioppa says the Bureau of Insurance can help as well; you can visit its website (www.maine.gov/insurance) or call someone at the bureau’s Consumer Health Care Division at 1-800-300-5000 (within Maine).

Click for help

There’s a lot of information at the state’s health insurance website, www.enroll207.com, and you can find out how to get free help from a navigator there. You can also visit the federal government’s website, www.healthcare.gov.

Be careful of “navigator scams” around the web. You cannot be charged for the help a bona fide navigator provides. Read about the scams at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0394-suspect-health-care-scam.

Qualifying individuals can receive a tax credit, but only if they purchase coverage through the marketplace. A tax penalty of $395 per adult up to $885 or two percent of household income will be levied at tax time for those who do not have “minimal essential health coverage,” unless the individual or family is eligible for a “hardship exemption.”

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.

Don’t open emails to ‘confirm’ online shopping orders you didn’t make

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 07, 2014, at 11:09 a.m.

Click image to file

Pay close attention: If you receive an email that appears to be from Home Depot, Costco, Target or Wal-Mart about an order you don’t recall placing, you might hear a faint “ho, ho, ho.”

That sound would be the laughter of the scammers, hoping you’ll click on the nasty link included in their message. That link will download malicious software that could steal your passwords or other sensitive data or do other damage to your computer.

The scheme surfaced around Black Friday, the most frenzied of shopping days when visions of bargains may have shoved most consumers’ reality checks aside. That’s what the scammers count on.

If you received a phony email and deleted it without clicking on anything, there should be no adverse effects. If you did enter a credit card number or other personal details to “confirm the order,” notify your bank or the issuer of your card right away. Tell them you were the victim of a phishing scam so they can keep an eye on your account for fraudulent purchases and issue you a new card if necessary.

The fake emails show a new level of savvy on the part of the scammers. They have copied company logos and key wording to make the email appear real — though the phony Home Depot message urges the recipient to “sing up” for supposed savings when we assume they meant “sign up.”

Wal-Mart used social media to alert consumers to the scam, posting a picture of the phony message, which included the following bungled grammar: “This letter is to advise you about the order we have which is addressed to you. You have 4 days to pick it in any Local Store of Walmart.”

Then comes the instruction to “follow this link” for more information. However, clicking there will certainly spell trouble. Wal-Mart advises customers who have placed orders to delete the bogus emails and instead log into their website at walmart.com to check the status of orders and delivery details.

As always, keep virus software up to date on all computers.

“Crooks understand it’s easier to catch victims off-guard during the holidays,” security guru Brian Krebs writes on his website, krebsonsecurity.com.

Cyber junkies will want to know the malware is called Asprox. Krebs describes it as a “nasty Trojan that harvests email credentials and other passwords from infected machines, turns the host into a zombie for relaying junk email … and perpetuates additional Asprox malware attacks.”

Krebs wrote recently that Malcovery — a company that studies email attacks — has identified several basic tipoffs in the subject line of fake messages.

“Acknowledgement of order,” “Order Status,” “Order Confirmation,” “Thank you for buying from [company name]” and “Thank you for your order” are among the subjects most often used by spammers.

If you’re the victim of such a scheme, you can file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The center is a collaboration of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. You should also file a report with your local law enforcement agency.

You can read PC World’s article on safer online shopping at pcworld.com/article/2018995/safe-online-shopping-10-tips-to-avoid-getting-burned.html.

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.

WABI appearance

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.

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WABI Interview w/ Wayne Harvey

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.

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

 

Don’t let mobile phone providers sock you with hidden fees

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 12, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

Click image to access FTC page

Maine customers of AT&T Mobility LLC are among many across the country who stand to receive refunds from the mobile phone company. Last week, AT&T agreed to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that the company had improperly “crammed” charges onto bills for services customers did not approve.

Current and former customers of AT&T who paid unauthorized charges after Jan. 1, 2009, can apply for refunds. You may file a claim online by visiting www.ftc.gov/att. You may call 1-877-819-9692 with questions, but claims are not being taken over the phone; you may request a paper claim form to mail in.

You need to file a claim by May 1 of next year. And don’t plan on spending any refund money right away. The FTC has hired Epiq Systems to handle the refund requests and says you should not expect to see a refund check for at least nine months.

Cramming charges are listed on phone bills for third-party services, including digital wallpapers, ringtones and text message subscriptions ranging from horoscopes to gossip about celebrities. The charges range up to $9.99 per month per service; AT&T hauled in millions for those third-party services and kept 35 percent of the take, according to the FTC complaint.

The billing was deceptive, according to that complaint, because many charges were hidden. In some cases they were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” making it appear that the charges were part of the company’s phone service costs. In the “Service Summary” section of the bills, FTC says the company lumped in the unauthorized charges, again making it appear to be part of the company’s wireless service fees.

The settlement requires AT&T to get explicit consent from customers before billing them for third-party charges. If you dispute such a charge, AT&T will give you a refund unless it can prove you consented to the charge. AT&T will still offer the option of blocking all third-party charges.

Other carriers offer free blocking; check with your provider about ways to block charges.

The settlement totals $105 million, with $80 million going to the FTC for the rebates. There’s another $20 million in penalties to the states and the District of Columbia, and $5 million in penalties goes to the FTC.

The settlement is the largest of seven mobile cramming cases the agency has brought since 2013. For a company that reported total second-quarter revenues this year of more than $32 billion, it shouldn’t hurt AT&T much. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, a case that is ongoing.

The FTC says you might avoid cramming charges by:

— Not entering your mobile phone numbers on unsecured websites.

— Looking over your future phone bills closely for unauthorized charges; unsolicited text messages could be a signal you’re being crammed.

— Looking for fees that aren’t specific (minimum use fee, member/activation fee, subscription); if you’re not sure what a fee is for, ask your carrier for an explanation.

If another carrier’s bill contains unauthorized charges, you can file a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. File online at www.maine.gov/mpuc or call 1-800-452-4699.

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.

Fiskars Recalls Bypass Lopper Shears Due to Laceration Hazard-CPSC.gov

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lopper shears and contact Fiskars to receive a replacement lopper

Recall Summary

Name of product:

Fiskars® 32-Inch Bypass Lopper Shears

Hazard:

The lopper handles can break when attempting to cut branches, posing a risk of serious injury and laceration.

Remedy:

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lopper shears and contact Fiskars to receive a replacement lopper.

Consumer Contact: Fiskars toll-free at (855) 544-0151 anytime or visit Fiskars’ website at www2.fiskars.com and click on “Product Notifications” for more information.

Report an Incident Involving this Product

Recall Details

Units

About 277,000 in the U.S. and 11,000 in Canada

Description

This recall involves Fiskars Titanium Bypass Lopper shears with model number 6954. The lopper shears have 32-inch dark orange steel handles and black rubber grips with a gray strip. Plastic gears connected to the pruning blades allow the consumers to open and close the pruning blades by moving the handles.  “FISKARS” is printed on one handle and product identification information, including model number 6954, is printed on a label on the opposite handle above the barcode.

Incidents/Injuries

The firm has received 11 reports of incidents involving lopper handles breaking, including reports of bruising and lacerations, some required stitches to the head and face.

Sold exclusively at Home Depot stores nationwide and online at HomeDepot.com from May 2011 through June 2014 for about $40
Distributor: Fiskars Brands Inc., of Madison, Wis.
Manufactured in China
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