Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

When a solicitor calls, ask how much of your donation actually goes to charity

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 13, 2014, at 10:40 a.m.

 

Consumer rights and charitable solicitations

The caller was straightforward, stating up front that hewas being paid to solicit funds on behalf of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters. 

The cause: to aid the families of fallen firefighters. No argument there. However, as a consumer advocate, I had to ask the question. How much of what you raise goes to the federation?

The response stopped me cold.

“I’ve been instructed to tell people who ask that, [that] at least 15 percent of the money goes to that cause,” the caller said.

“Fifteen percent?” I asked in disbelief.

The caller thanked me for my time and ended the call.

He was being accurate. Companies that solicit Maine consumers by phone must register with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Outreach Calling, the firm making the call to our home, reported last year that during 2012, it returned exactly 15.00009885 percent of funds it raised to Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

Outreach made similar reports to Maine on the 16 other charities for which it raised funds.

“Cancer” was a key word in the names of five of those charities; other beneficiaries included veterans, children and public safety groups. Several of the groups also received around 15 percent of funds raised; in 10 instances, the return to each was almost exactly 10 percent.

Why employ a phone solicitor that gives back only a fraction of what it collects?

“We do it because it’s effective, and it raises money for us,” said William Vickerson, the attorney in Portland representing Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

He told me that most members of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters are volunteers, and fundraising is not their strong suit. If they sold cookies or calendars, they’d have overhead that would eat into any proceeds raised.

“With us, the gross profit is also the net profit,” Vickerson said when pressed on the 15 percent return.

He said Outreach has been responsive to concerns he has voiced in the past when consumers complained about particular callers or solicitation techniques. He also said most of those complaints were unfounded, based on recordings of the calls which Outreach routinely makes.

You might wonder why you receive such calls, if you’ve been placed on the National Do-Not-Call list. Charitable causes are one of those exempt classes as are political calls, which we’ll all receive soon in growing numbers.

Some consumers when called routinely say, “Put me on YOUR do-not-call list,” and some of them report success (results may vary).

Charity Navigator, a major watchdog group, rates more than 7,000 charities on its website (www.charitynavigator.org), including two dozen involved in fighting breast cancer. Together, the charities raised $1.8 billion; but the percent of its budget that each spends to raise money varies, from a low of 2 percent to a high of 91 percent.

Advocates like to see at least half of all money raised going to the cause to which they were donated; so, we think, do donors.

Charity Navigator, Guidestar and other research groups offer help in choosing which causes to support. GreatNonprofits.org offers people familiar with a charity’s operations a chance to share experiences with others.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Times and California-based Center for Investigative Reporting did extensive research and rated America’s 50 Worst Charities. Outreach Calling made the list, based on returns of 9.8 percent to 15 percent for six charities reviewed in 2010 and 2011.

William Vickerson says, so far, Maine State Federation of Firefighters has not been able to find a fundraiser that can do better in Maine.

Asked if the federation will keep looking, he replied, “We’ll do it. We always do.”

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

 

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How to avoid scams hiding behind unclaimed property lists

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 06, 2014, at 12:47 p.m.

After seeing a recent news release from the Maine treasurer’s office, a Northeast CONTACT caseworker told a friend that his name was on the treasurer’s list of unclaimed property owners. All that he had to do was call the treasurer’s office, identify himself and give his Social Security number to verify his identity. The friend was indignant. “I’m not revealing my Social Security number,” the friend said. “Don’t you know what could happen?” The caseworker replied, “You don’t think the state of Maine knows your Social Security number already?” The friend was being cautious, perhaps overly cautious. We urge consumers to claim property, cash or other valuables that are rightfully theirs. And we urge them to do so in an orderly manner, so as not to fall victim to a number of scams that are out there. First, we’ll define unclaimed property as lost or forgotten assets. Funds in idle bank or credit union accounts, uncashed payroll or dividend checks, unredeemed money orders, even gift certificates may be unclaimed property. These and other abandoned assets total over $41 billion waiting to be claimed, because the rightful owners could not be located in a specified span of time. Among the things that do not constitute unclaimed property are real estate (see appropriate municipal officials); abandoned animals (animal welfare laws apply); and abandoned vehicles (Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles can advise on these). Let’s look at the Maine state treasurer’s website at www.maine.gov/unclaimed. There, you can search for unclaimed property you may own or report unclaimed property. A fact sheet puts total unclaimed funds in Maine, from 1979 to 2013, at more than $191 million. During fiscal year 2013, the state paid more than 16,000 claims averaging a bit over $1,000 each. The largest single payout was over $130,000. To claim your abandoned property, complete an online form on the state treasurer’s website at www.maine.gov/treasurer; or print out a blank form, fill it out and mail it to the treasurer’s office (39 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04330). There is no fee to file a claim, and there’s no need to pay anyone else to help you. For assistance, call 624-7470 or toll-free in Maine at 888-283-2808. The federal government does not have a single website to search, so you’ll need to search individual states if you have unclaimed property outside Maine. The feds do have leads to finding property that may have been subject to federal regulation (failed financial institutions, savings bonds no longer earning interest and so on) at www.usa.gov (search for “unclaimed property”). State treasurers across the country maintain a National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators website at www.unclaimed.org. You can find links to other states where you have lived to search for unclaimed property. You can also report suspicious unclaimed property email messages and websites to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. And, yes, the scammers are out there. Here are some tip-offs of frauds: They may pose as National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators officials when sending fraudulent emails (which real unclaimed property officers never do). They might try to refer you to someone other than a state official (this work is not outsourced). They could demand a fee (there’s never a charge). And they’ll likely want bank account information (although you might have to supply personal information such as your Social Security number, you’ll never be asked for bank account info).

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.

Wal-Mart Recalls Dolls Due to Burn Hazard | CPSC.gov

Hazard: The circuit board in the chest of the doll can overheat, causing the surface of the doll to get hot, posing a burn hazard to the consumer.

About 174,000

Description

The My Sweet Love / My Sweet Baby electronic baby doll comes in pink floral clothing and matching knit hat. The 16 inch doll is packaged with a toy medical check-up kit including a stethoscope, feeding spoon, thermometer and syringe. The doll’s electronics cause her to babble when she gets “sick,” her cheeks turn red and she starts coughing. Using the medical kit pieces cause the symptoms to stop. “My Sweet Baby” is printed on the front of the clear plastic and cardboard packaging. The doll is identified by UPC 6-04576-16800-5 and a date code which begins with WM. The date code is printed on the stuffed article label sewn into the bottom of the doll.

Incidents/Injuries

Wal-Mart has received 12 reports of incidents, including two reports of burns or blisters to the thumb.

Remedy

Consumers should immediately take the dolls from children, remove the batteries and return the doll to any Walmart store for a full refund.

Sold exclusively at

Walmart stores nationwide from August 2012 through March 2014 for $20.

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Work-at-home scams — WABI-TV

Video Link

Russ and Joy discuss work-at-home scams.
The State of Wisconsin published a guide detailing work-at-home scams. You can find this guide online at http://datcp.wi.gov/uploads/Consumer/pdf/WorkAtHome189.pdf

Be wary of promises that you can get rich by working at home

CONSUMER FORUM

By  Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted March 02, 2014, at 9:50 a.m.

If an ad promises that you can earn “thousands in your spare time,” please know that the promise is likely worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

The following quote from the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Law Guide speaks volumes: “While, of course, not all companies advertising work-at-home plans are dishonest, enough have been the source of problems to warrant special caution on your part.”

Many work-at-home offers hold out what so many unemployed or underemployed people desperately need: hope. That hope can turn to despair when they put money they can’t afford into a scheme that serves only to line its creators’ pockets.

The good news is that complaints nationwide continue to decline. The Consumer Sentinel Network — http://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/consumer-sentinel-network — compiles consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC. The total of work-at-home and similar fraud complaints dropped from more than 39,000 in 2011 to just under 33,000 last year.

The bad news is that work-at-home schemes continue to hit their victims hard. Losses can run into the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars.

Last Wednesday, a federal court issued a temporary restraining order against perpetrators of what one FTC official termed “a massive scam.” The order froze the assets of defendants operating under a number of names, including Essent Media, LLC, Net Training, LLC, YES International, Coaching Department and Apply Knowledge.

In its complaint, the FTC contends that a three-pronged campaign was waged. Initially hucksters sold fairly inexpensive programs, generally less than $100, through which buyers could “earn hundreds of dollars a day from home.”

Phase two offered — at greater cost —“professional coaching” to “ensure success.” Instead, that coaching generally promoted more spending, on things such as business formation, website design, accounting and tax-filing services, few of which the FTC says proved helpful.

The FTC says the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting earning potential and the nature of their services. It also alleges they violated the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule by misrepresenting their investment strategies.

Other scammers are out there making similar pitches. Here are some of the come-ons you should avoid:

— Envelope stuffing. Machines do this faster and cheaper than people.
— Craft work or assembly. Once you’ve paid the money, your work is never “up to standards.”
— Medical billing. Doctors either do the billing themselves or use established firms, rather than someone working at home.
— Rebate processing. The badly written materials you get fall short of the big promises, and there are no rebates to process.

Always be wary of “opportunities” that involve a fee right away or handing over your credit card information. Any such offer demands healthy doses of both research and skepticism.

As part of National Consumer Protection Week, the FTC is hosting a Twitter chat about work-at-home schemes and other frauds at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Follow @FTC #NCPW2014. Learn more at www.ftc.gov and search “FTC Twitter chats.”

The state of Wisconsin has published a nifty guide detailing work-at-home scams. See it online athttp://datcp.wi.gov/uploads/Consumer/pdf/WorkAtHome189.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 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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Attorney General Janet Mills Announces Lawsuit Against Used Car Dealers

PRESS RELEASE

02/07/2014 08:52 AM EST

(AUGUSTA) Attorney General Janet T. Mills announced today that her Office has filed a lawsuit in the Penobscot County Superior Court against Glenn A. Geiser, Jr. and his dealerships – Bangor Car Care, Inc., Bumper2Bumper, Inc. and My Maine Ride – for unfair and deceptive trade practices in connection with the promotion and sale of used cars.

The complaint alleges that the defendants target consumers with poor credit who need financing, pressure them to buy cars that are not road worthy and then not respond to customer complaints. The State is seeking civil penalties and a permanent injunction to bar Geiser and any entity in which he has an ownership interest from promoting, selling and/or financing used cars. “These kinds of practices give Maine businesses a bad name,” said Attorney General Mills. “Targeting vulnerable people and duping them into buying cars that are not safe not only defrauds the consumer but puts every person traveling our roads at risk. We intend to put a stop to it.”

Typically, consumers at Geiser’s businesses are shown cars that failed to pass inspection so they cannot be taken out for a test drive. Known mechanical defects are not disclosed to the consumer, as required by State law. When a consumer decides to buy, defendants complete the financing documents and tell the consumer to return at a later date to pick up the car after it has gone into the shop for an inspection sticker. Many consumers already desperate for transportation are unable to get their cars when promised, and some have made payments on cars they did not receive. Some discover after they take delivery that their cars should not have passed inspection. Many cars break down or develop serious mechanical issues soon after purchase, but the defendants refuse to fix the problems. The Attorney General’s complaint also alleges that the defendants’ response to consumer complaints is rude and abusive and calculated to discourage consumers from seeking redress. These acts also constitute an unfair trade practice.

Maine law requires used car dealers to post a conspicuous notice that a car is an unsafe motor vehicle if it does not meet Maine’s inspection standards and is displayed for sale. The dealer must also disclose certain information about a used car’s history, including any known mechanical defect, even if it has been repaired, and to obtain written acknowledgement from the buyer. The buyer of an unsafe motor vehicle must tow it from the dealer’s lot.

For information about the Used Car Information Act, or to file a complaint, consumers may contact the Consumer Protection Division at http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer or by calling 1-800-436-2131.

The Maine State Police and the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles assisted with the Attorney General’s investigation. The case is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Carolyn Silsby and Linda Conti.

#

Supporting documents

State v. Geiser Complaint

State v. Geiser exhibits

Check your credit card statements – WABI-TV Morning News

Russ and Joy chat about the recent computer breaches effecting credit cards. Russ also warned about the $9.84 credit card scam slipped into consumers’ credit card bills. Rather than steal your identity, scammer’s  profits can be made adding small charges to everyone’s bill.  People seldom check the charge if it seems too small to bother with.  Multiply that amount by the number of compromised credit cards. $$$$$$$$$

Get your free credit report here

Beware the $9.84 credit card scam

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 01, 2014, at 4:54 p.m.

The Better Business Bureau sent out a news release last week, reminding us all that we’re less vigilant than we ought to be.

The bureau said “scammers are banking on the fact that many consumers don’t check their credit card statements all that carefully.” The crooks are laughing all the way to the bank, as money from millions of fraudulent charges rolls in.

The scam has earned the shorthand name of the “$9.84 Scam,” based on the charges that are without exception under $10. Each charge is small enough not to raise many red flags on the part of card issuers or of many consumers who look over their monthly statements.

Those consumers may have noted small charges for a “service fee,” “maintenance fee” or other nonspecific terms. They may have felt that, while the charges were nothing they had authorized, it wasn’t worth the hassle of disputing. Multiply their apathy by a few thousand other consumers, and you’ll warm the heart of any scam artist.

Former Washington Post reporter Brian Krebs writes extensively about cyber security. Krebs did some digging and found that the person who set up one website charging $9.84 for a supposed product or service had set up 230 other sites. Further research on some of those sites turned up a trail of $9.84 fees. Some of those domains were set up over a year ago, so it’s unlikely that the data breach of Target’s computers was the trigger.

There’s lots of speculation over where the scam began and where it might end. Once word got out, scammers likely changed the amount of their phony charges a little. The lesson for consumers is simple: check your statement carefully for false charges; if you find any, call the number on the back of your card and dispute them.

Unauthorized charges may mean your card information has been compromised. Err on the side of caution and ask for a new card. Security experts advise that you never lend your card to anyone, and don’t leave cards, statements and receipts lying around in your home, office or car.

As always, be cautious when ordering over the phone or online. When giving your account number over the phone, be sure the person you’re speaking with actually represents the company with which you’re doing business. Never sign a blank charge slip, and draw lines through blank spaces above the total so numbers can’t be changed.

You can read about the scam investigation in detail at Brian Krebs’s blog,

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.

 

 

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Move over law – WABI-TV

Russ and Joy talk about and remind people of Maine’s Move Over Law. VIDEO

This law was put in place in 2007, and requires drivers to be cautious when passing emergency responders on the roadway. Drivers are to move over if possible or slow down when going by emergency responders.

15 minutes of game: Getting to the core of the FTC’s $32.5 million settlement with Apple | BCP Business Center

By Lesley Fair
January 15, 2014 – 12:30pm

It’s a simple concept really:  Companies shouldn’t charge people for stuff without their express consent.  That’s the law – and it’s always been the law.  So when a company chooses to implement a billing process that, in effect, opens a tab for kids and lets them place “all sales final” charges on their parents’ credit cards with the click of a button – and without Mom or Dad’s express consent – it shouldn’t come as a surprise when law enforcement follows.  That’s the story behind the FTC’s proposed settlement with Apple, which will return at least $32.5 million to consumers.

To paraphrase Andy Warhol’s quote about 15 minutes of fame, the FTC’s complaint focuses on 15 minutes of game – a built-in default period when those unauthorized charges could be racked up.  But first, a bit of background on how Apple’s billing process works.  Before consumers can download anything from the iTunes Store, they have to link their account to a credit or debit card.  When people download an app or buy something within an app, Apple bills their iTunes account and pockets 30% of the revenue.  From start to finish, the billing process is Apple’s baby.  The company controls exactly how it’s done.

Apple offers thousands of apps – including many games featured in the Kids or Family section of the iTunes Store – that let users buy things within the app.  Maybe it’s “food” for an imaginary pet or “gold” that can rev up the gaming experience.  The Magical Pixie Dust may be virtual, but it costs cold, hard cash in the form of charges to the device owner’s iTunes account.  And Pixie Dust doesn’t come cheap these days;  in-app charges can range from 99 cents up to almost $100 per click.

Here’s where that 15-minute window becomes critical.  If a child is playing a game and wants to make an in-app charge, Mom or Dad typically has to key in their password and then hand the device back to the kid to continue playing.  But according to the FTC’s complaint, what Apple didn’t explain is that it stores the password for 15 minutes.  That means all in-app charges made during that 15-minute window are incurred without the account holder having to re-enter the password.  In effect, without telling parents, Apple set up a 15-minute “Put it on my tab” period where Moms and Dads were responsible for charges they didn’t expressly authorize.  That happened even in apps rated for, say, four-year-olds – not a group likely to grasp the concept that pressing a button or two can run up a bill rivaling what a family spends in a week on groceries.  For example, the “Tiny Zoo Friends” app, which Apple has rated for kids 4 and up, lets players buy a quantity of “Zoo Bucks” at a cost of $99.  And remember:  Apple has an “all sales final” policy.

Furthermore, up until the release of Apple’s latest operating system in September 2013, when a child playing a game tried to make the first in-app charge, a BUY button appeared that the kid could click.  What showed up next was a pop-up identical to the password prompt that appears before the installation of an app.  The trouble is nowhere did that password prompt explain it was for a purchase.  So if a kid clicked BUY and then passed the device to Mom or Dad for their password, the parent had no way of knowing that the routine act of entering their password resulted in a charge – much less that it opened that 15-minute window when unauthorized charges could be added.  (Click on the picture to see how that worked.)  That payment process isn’t entirely a thing of the past.  For people who haven’t upgraded their operating system, that’s still what happens.

The financial injury in this case isn’t speculative.  Apple received tens of thousands of complaints from consumers about unauthorized in-app charges by kids.  For example, one Mom reported that her daughter’s clicks resulted in $2600 in unauthorized purchases in the “Tap Pet Hotel” app.  Others reported $500 in surprise in-app charges when kids played “Dragon Story” and “Tiny Zoo Friends.”

The FTC’s proposed order requires Apple to change its practices to make sure it has account holders’ express, informed consent before billing them for in-app charges.  If people give their OK to be billed for future charges but then change their mind, the order gives them the right to withdraw their consent at any time.  You’ll want to check the order’s definition of “express, informed consent” in this context, but here are some salient features:  It requires an affirmative act communicating authorization for the in-app charge – like entering a password  – that has to be close to both the in-app activity Apple is billing the user for and to a clear and conspicuous disclosure of material information about the charge.  Apple must have those billing changes up and running by March 31, 2014.

As part of the proposed settlement, Apple will provide at least $32.5 million in refunds to people who were billed for accidental or unauthorized in-app charges incurred by kids.  How will the refund program operate?  Apple has to send an electronic notice to customers with directions on how to get their money back.  And it’s not just a “take Apple’s word for it” provision.  The order requires the company to hand over to the FTC records of refund requests, refunds paid, and any refunds denied.

What messages can other companies can take from the FTC’s proposed settlement?

First, get people’s express consent before billing them.  That’s Consumer Protection 101 for app developers, app sellers, advertisers, payment processors, and anyone else in the marketing ecosystem who wants to avoid the scrutiny of law enforcers and the ire of outraged consumers.

Second, especially when it comes to merchandise geared toward kids, think through your processes in advance to minimize the risk that a child’s quick click could result in hefty unauthorized charges unknown to the parent until they get the bill.

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