Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

Change in electric rates could prove shocking! Maine’s Public Advocate warns consumers

PRESS RELEASE: Maine Office of Public Advocate Warns North American Power Customers to Get Off Variable Rates (9/23/14)

The Maine Office of the Public Advocate is warning customers of North American Power that their fixed rate contracts for electricity have expired, or will soon expire, and they should act now to avoid paying hundreds of dollars in excess electricity costs this winter.

Earlier this year, North American Power sent a direct mail solicitation to residential electricity customers across the state, offering a 6-month fixed rate for electricity at a favorable price. Thousands of Central Maine Power and Emera Maine customers signed up for these offers, which have now ended or are about to end.

When the fixed rate term expires, customers are automatically rolled over to a variable rate, where the price changes each month based on wholesale market prices. Last winter, some variable rates went as high as 25 cents per kWh, or nearly four times the standard offer price, costing some customers hundreds of dollars in excess costs. The Office expects to see similar variable rate pricing, or worse, this winter.

“North American Power is supposed to let customers know their contract is expiring, but we know some customers haven’t gotten notice, and we’re concerned that those who have received notice may not understand the potential costs of switching to a variable rate.” said Public Advocate Tim Schneider. “Missing that single piece of mail could cost a customer hundreds of dollars this winter.”

 

Consumers should prepare for more data breaches

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 07, 2014, at 1:09 p.m.

They are dirty, rotten scoundrels. Unfortunately, we’re getting much too used to them.

They are the writers of the sinister computer codes that prowl the Internet, looking for vulnerable systems to infect and mine for our personal and financial data. They have found mother lodes of info on several servers that try to handle big retail’s payment systems.

The breaches come so frequently and in such staggering numbers we barely pay attention any more. The crooks keep coming, and the security people are swamped. Consider one estimate that some large banks face as many as 35,000 threats of possible computer mischief every day.

Security officers quickly toss aside the work of hacker wannabes, so the number of real threats they face may number 100 or so a day. That’s still a pile of work, and missing a genuine threat can cause major problems for the company and its customers.

The results stunned us when we first heard the reports: 110 million or so consumers affected by last year’s Target breach. By the time news broke last week about what could become an even larger breach of Home Depot customers’ data, our eyes were beyond glazed over.

The good news, really, is that the banks that issue credit cards assume the financial liability if those cards are misused. That’s written into state and federal law, with varying standards and deadlines for avoiding fraudulent charges on your credit versus debit cards.

The bad news is that the underlying security nightmare will continue as long as most American commerce is tied into magnetic stripe technology. Much has been written about the much better chip-and-pin technology, backed by use of a personal identifying number. What has worked well in much of Europe for several years is still on the horizon for many U.S. retailers.

That technology will come, but it will be costly. Banks have tried to shift financial liability for data breaches to retailers, pointing at poor security systems. As you’d expect, retailers have reacted strongly; however, they are moving faster toward adopting more modern card security technology.

Will Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, told me last week the changeover will happen piecemeal, and that will mean problems during the transition.

“Questions of liability may arise if a store has the technology but the consumer’s card does not, and vice versa,” Lund said.

Lund’s bottom-line advice to consumers is to remember they are not liable if they take reasonable steps to notify their banks of unauthorized charges. They can get free credit reports at each of the three major reporting companies each year — rotating requests yields a new report every four months — by visiting annual.creditreport.com. Lund said consumers should not feel scared or bullied into buying identity theft insurance, credit monitoring or other costly products, because “the most important rights and protections are already granted by state and federal law.”

People in Lund’s office and at the Bureau of Financial Institutions can answer individual questions about data breaches and consumers’ rights. Both are part of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

Visit our blog — necontact.wordpress.com — and search “breach” to read PFR’s information and guidance to consumers regarding financial breaches. You can find information online at the PRF website — maine.gov/pfr — or by calling 207-624-8500.

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.

 

Google to Refund Consumers at Least $19 Million to Settle FTC Complaint It Unlawfully Billed Parents for Children’s Unauthorized In-App Charges

FTC Order Requires Google to Change its Mobile App Billing Practices to Ensure Consumers’ Consent is Obtained Before Charges Levied

Google Inc. has agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging that it unfairly billed consumers for millions of dollars in unauthorized charges incurred by children using mobile apps downloaded from the Google Play app store for use on Android mobile devices. Under the terms of the settlement, Google will provide full refunds – with a minimum payment of $19 million – to consumers who were charged for kids’ purchases without authorization of the account holder. Google has also agreed to modify its billing practices to ensure that it obtains express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.

The Commission’s complaint against Google alleges that since 2011, Google violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on “unfair” commercial practices by billing consumers for charges by children made within kids’ apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Many consumers reported hundreds of dollars of such unauthorized charges, according to the complaint.

“For millions of American families, smartphones and tablets have become a part of their daily lives,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorize.”

This marks the Commission’s third case concerning unauthorized in-app charges by children. In January, the Commission announced a settlement with Apple Inc., requiring Apple to provide full refunds to consumers who were billed for unauthorized charges by children – paying a minimum amount of $32.5 million – and obtain express, informed consent for in-app charges. And in July, the Commission filed a complaint in federal court against Amazon.com, Inc., similarly seeking full refunds for consumers and an order requiring informed consent for in-app charges.

In-app charges are a component of many apps available from Google Play and can range from 99 cents to $200. In many apps used by children, users are invited to accumulate virtual items that help them advance in the game, though as the FTC’s complaint notes, the lines between virtual money purchases and real money purchases can be blurred. The FTC’s complaint alleges that Google billed consumers for many such charges by children without obtaining account holders’ authorization, leaving consumers holding the bill.

When Google first introduced in-app charges to the Google Play store in 2011, the complaint alleges, Google billed for such charges without any password requirement or other method to obtain account holder authorization. Children could incur in-app charges simply by clicking on popup boxes within the app as they used it.

According to the complaint, in mid- to late 2012, Google began presenting a pop-up box that asked for the account holder’s password before billing in-app charges. The new pop-up, however, did not contain any information about the charge. Google also did not inform consumers that entering the password opened up a 30-minute window in which a password was no longer required, allowing children to rack up unlimited charges during that time.

During this time, many thousands of consumers complained to Google about children making unauthorized in-app charges, according to the complaint. Some parents noted that their children had spent hundreds of dollars in in-app charges without their consent. Others noted that children buying virtual in-game items with real money were unaware they were causing their parents to be billed.

Google employees referred to the issue as “friendly fraud” and “family fraud” in describing kids’ unauthorized in-app charges as a leading source of refund requests, according to the complaint. The complaint further alleges that Google’s practice has been to refer consumers seeking refunds first to the app developer. Continue reading

“Gone Phishing” – WABI-TV

Video link

David Leach of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection was in the studio with Russ Van Arsdale on Monday for this week’s Consumer Contact segment. They were speaking to Joy about a new anti-scam guide being released by the bureau. The guide is called “Gone Phishing” and it gives tips on avoiding all manner of scams and protecting your credit.

Order form for all Bureau publications

Publications available on-line:

CFA Petitions the FCC to block the Comcast-Time Warner merger

Consumer Federation of America believes “Online Video Competition is the Last and Only Hope to Break the Stranglehold of Cable.”

Information posted in press release:

Washington, DC (August 25, 2014) – The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and its member groups today filed a petition calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and the swap of additional systems with Charter Communications.  The petition shows that the Comcast-Time Warner merger poses a much greater threat to competition, consumers and the public interest than the Comcast-NBCU merger, which has not benefited the public.

“The inevitable result of this merger will be higher prices, worse service, and less innovation,” Mark Cooper, CFA’s director of research said. “Just four years ago the FCC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that Comcast has market power, as the nation’s largest buyer of professional video content and the largest provider of both multichannel video programming and broadband Internet access service.

“The acquisition of Time Warner would increase Comcast’s market power by at least 50% and create a Goliath that would tower over the industry.  Comcast would be:

  • 1.5 times as large as the next largest multichannel video program distributor (MVPD),
  • 2 times as large as the next largest Internet access service provider,
  • 3 times as large as the next largest service provider with the capacity to deliver an integrated bundle of video and broadband,
  • the dominant cable and broadband operator in 24 of the nation’s largest 25 video markets, including the addition of the most important media markets, New York and Los Angeles.”

‘As Seen on TV’ firm sued for taking high-pressure sales tactics too far

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 10:26 a.m.

click image to access NJ attorney general’s complaint

New Jersey’s attorney general and that state’s Division of Consumer Affairs have filed a complaint against Telebrands, the company known for its “As Seen on TV” series of offers.

The agencies allege Telebrands violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act through its vigorous “upselling” via the company’s automated phone system and websites. When customers tried to place orders by phone or online, they received repeated prompts to order more goods and few ways to decline.

The five-count lawsuit also accuses Telebrands of shipping and billing for goods customers did not order and for running what the suit says were misleading ads, among other violations. The agencies also claim the company’s ordering system kept some callers tied up for a half hour or more, didn’t allow customers to verify their orders before authorizing charges, didn’t provide total costs of orders and wouldn’t give customers a clear way to decline additional products.

The Division of Consumer Affairs had plenty of complaints — 340 of them from 2012 through July of this year. It also did several months’ worth of undercover work, buying items that included “Instabulbs,” the “Pocket Hose” and the “Olde Brooklyn Lantern” through Telebrands websites and the toll-free numbers in the firm’s TV ads and infomercials.

“This action against Telebrands alleges that consumers were repeatedly pressured through gimmickry, misrepresentations and high-pressure sales tactics to buy products they didn’t want,” Steve Lee, the acting consumer affairs director, said.

He added that return policies were not as represented in ads and on the company’s website and called Telebrands’s actions “unconscionable.”

Telebrands founder and President A.J. Khubani said in a statement, “We take pride that for more than three decades, tens of millions of consumers have trusted TeleBrands for delivering innovative products.”

A search of the Better Business Bureau website for Telebrands reveals a list of more than 200 alternate business names based on products sold, from AB King Pro to Zero Pain.

Khubani’s statement also said consumer satisfaction is “always our top priority.”

“We are confident that this matter with the state of New Jersey will be resolved in short order,” Khubani added.

The lawsuit claims customers often received merchandise they had not ordered; there were no instructions on returning unwanted items; and if they did return items, they had to do so at their expense. The suit also charges that when callers tried to reach customer service people, they were placed on hold for long periods or were disconnected.

The Consumer Fraud Act provides restitution of up to $10,000 per violation. Because Telebrands was operating under a consent judgment in 2001 for similar violations, New Jersey is asking for penalties of up to $20,000 per violation.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business or suspect any other form of consumer abuse can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200. Consumers also can file online at https://www20.state.nj.us/LPSCA_COMPL/ or download a complaint form to fill out and mail. Include copies of as much supporting documentation as possible.

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.

Two Deaths Reported with Ace Bayou Bean Bag Chairs; Recall Announced Due to Suffocation and Choking Hazards

Consumers should stop using this product unless otherwise instructed. It is illegal to resell or attempt to resell a recalled consumer product.

Recall date: August 22, 2014, Recall number: 14-261

Description

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Ace Bayou Corp., of New Orleans, La., are announcing the voluntary recall of about 2.2 million bean bag chairs following the deaths of two children.

The zippers on the bean bag chairs can be opened and children can then crawl inside, get trapped and suffocate or choke on the bean bag chair’s foam beads. The voluntary standard requires non-refillable bean bag chairs to have closed and permanently disabled zippers.

A 13-year old boy from McKinney, Texas died and a 3-year-old girl from Lexington, Ky. died after suffocating from lack of air and inhaling the chair’s foam beads. Both children were found inside the chairs.

The recalled bean bag chairs have two zippers that can be unzipped and opened, including one of the exterior cover and other directly underneath that zipper.  The recalled chairs with zippers that open were sold in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and fabrics. They include round or L-shaped, vinyl or fabric, and are filled with polystyrene foam beads. They were sold in a variety of colors, including purple, violet, blue, red, pink, yellow, Kelly green, black, port, navy, lime, royal blue, turquoise, tangerine and multi-color.  The round bean bag chairs were sold in three sizes, 30, 32 and 40 inches in diameter. The L-shaped bean bag chair measures 18 inches wide by 30 inches deep by 30 inches high. “ACE BAYOU CORP” is printed on a tag sewn into the bean bag chair’s cover seam. They were made in China.

The recalled bean bag chairs were sold at Bon-Ton, Meijer, Pamida, School Specialty, Wayfair and Walmart stores and online at Amazon.com, Meijer.com and Walmart.com before July 2013 for between $30 and $100.

Consumers should check their bean bag chairs for any zippers that can open, take those that can open away from children immediately and contact Ace Bayou for a free repair kit to permanently disable the zippers so that they cannot be opened.

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