Archive for the ‘Legislative actions’ Category

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.

Get a check from the federal government? Watch out for scams

CONSUMER FORUM
By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director, Northeast Contact
Posted Jan. 13, 2013, at 5:41 p.m.

Ever since the federal government said it would stop sending paper checks in favor of using direct deposit, scam artists have been hard at work. With a March 1 deadline for the switch coming, expect crooks to ramp up their illegal efforts.

Scammers call, write or email to phish for personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers. Once they have enough information, the crooks can claim a false identity and set up an account to receive federal payments.

The U.S. Treasury Department is getting the word out that the switch to direct deposit will be complete as of March 1. Everyone who receives Social Security, veterans’ or other federal benefits should be aware that many such payments will no longer be made by paper checks.

There are two basic reasons for the change, which has been under way for a number of months. Right now, about 93 percent of all federal payments are directly deposited. The Eastern Area Agency on Aging, or EAAA, estimates 3,200 recipients in Hancock, Washington, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties are still receiving paper checks. Fully implementing direct deposit is expected to save the government $4.6 million a month, or a billion dollars over the next decade.

It’s also intended to make those federal payments more secure. Federal statistics show that more than 440,000 Social Security checks were stolen in 2011, and $70 million in checks were fraudulently endorsed. Direct deposit is expected to cut those figures dramatically.

Dyan Walsh, EAAA’s director of community services, says about 300,000 Mainers use direct deposit. “It’s a safety issue,” Walsh says, “to reduce the chance of anything happening to those payments.”

However, there are still risks. Those scammers are already on the phones, claiming to be government officials and asking people for the information that will help the crooks steal their money. Be aware: Governments don’t call or email and ask personal questions; if someone calls you claiming to be a federal official and wants personal information, just hang up.

Instead, you should take the initiative to make sure your payments are secure. The Treasury Department has launched the Go Direct campaign, explaining and promoting the change at www.GoDirect.org. Information is also available through a toll-free call to 800-333-1795, from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. Eastern time, Monday-Friday.

You can arrange for direct deposit to your bank or credit union account, either by phone or online. Christopher Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, says people in the industry are ready to answer customers’ concerns, especially about safety.

“It’s remarkable how well [direct deposit] works,” he told me.

Visit your bank or credit union and ask questions directly, if using the phone or email makes you uneasy.

You may opt to receive your payments by way of what’s called Direct Express Debit Mastercard. There’s no charge to sign up for the prepaid debit card, and most services are free. Those who have not arranged direct deposit by March 1 will receive their payments this way.

When making the switch you’ll need your Social Security number or claim number; 12-digit federal benefit check number; amount of most recent federal benefit check; financial institution’s routing transit number, and your account number and type — checking or savings. Work with a trusted friend or relative if you need help.

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.

Consumer Forum: Oil dependence is a hard habit to break

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.

Every consumer in Maine has noticed the fluctuation in oil prices lately. In a tough economy, those changes have prompted a lot of conversation about the topic.

It’s easy to talk about the need to reduce our dependence on oil. Actually doing it will require more determination, resolve and effort than most of us have expended to date. The hard fact is, it’s a difficult habit to break.

About 10 days ago, a group called Environment Maine released a report calling for a 40 percent reduction in oil use in the state by 2030. Based on the Pine Tree State’s consumption of 37 million gallons of oil in 2008, that would project total oil use in 2030 around 23 million gallons.

That assumes aggressive measures to conserve, using alternatives and otherwise beginning to quench our insatiable thirst for petroleum products. The report said a “business-as-usual approach” would result in lower savings and a total consumption figure closer to 30 million gallons.

The authors admit all projections are just that; our actual results certainly will vary. The hard truth is for all the talk about the need to reduce consumption, the consuming public is all over the map in cutting use.

It’s a hard sell in Maine, for a variety of reasons. The biggest is our climate; long, tough winters require us to generate a lot of heat. More than 400,000 households — about 75 percent of all Maine homes — rely on oil for warmth. Some homeowners have turned to pellets and other biofuels for heat.

The last session of the Maine Legislature saw passage of LD 553, An Act to Improve Maine’s Energy Security. The law calls for cutting oil consumption statewide by 30 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050. The governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security has until Dec. 1, 2012, to figure out how to meet those goals. The bill became law without the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who wants to ramp up use of natural gas, calling it plentiful and efficient.

Critics argue that trading one fossil fuel for another just delays inevitable shortages and invites higher costs by profit-hungry energy companies. Environment Maine and like-minded groups call for a laundry list of better practices, including electric vehicles, doubling mass transit ridership, promoting high-speed rail and bicycling, and retrofitting homes and businesses to save energy.

Our responses as consumers likely fall into one of two categories: “We’ve heard it all before” and “It won’t work here.” The first group has caulked, weatherstripped and insulated everywhere; they doubt the cost-effectiveness of further steps, which many can’t afford without government-sponsored incentives. The second group notes our geography, which discourages transport options geared to more populous regions. Some of us resent the carrot of electric cars dangled before us by makers who offer them only “in select markets.”

As a society, we’re conditioned to expect simple answers to most problems; we’re frustrated when geography and geopolitical realities defy easy solutions. So let’s think about making some hard decisions. Let’s let Maine’s policymakers know our feelings as they make the rules that will shape our energy policy for the future.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email contacexdir@live.com.

Check phone bill for illegal charges – Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM
By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 25, 2011, at 5:20 p.m.

Here’s a request for a little of your time that could save you quite a bit of money. All you have to do is read carefully when you receive your phone bill.

Careful scrutiny can detect “cramming,” an illegal practice of adding charges to your bill for services you do not receive. The fake charges likely will have misleading or meaningless labels, such as “service fee,” “calling plan” or “membership.” They might be for products or services unrelated to telephones, including diet plans, travel clubs or yoga classes.

Sometimes small checks are included with your bill. These may appear to be customer appreciation promotions, when in fact the small print tells you you’re signing up for something, and will be billed monthly thereafter. Again, read carefully.

The fees are often small: $1.99 or $2.99 charges are not uncommon. The crammers count on the multiplier effect, tacking the bogus charges onto tens of thousands of bills.

The Federal Communications Commission fired a warning shot at crammers last week. The FCC released a tip sheet for consumers to help them root out the phony fees, including ways to dispute the fake charges.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the release builds on what his agency is calling the consumer empowerment agenda. It’s aimed at helping consumers use communications technology to its fullest without frivolous charges.

“We want to send a clear message: If you charge consumers unauthorized fees, you will be discovered and you will be punished,” Genachowski said.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued what are called Notices of Apparent Liability recently to four companies for allegedly charging customers for long distance services they had not requested. The notices named companies whose unauthorized billing appears to have gone on for months. Those named were Main Street Telephone at $4.2 million; VoiceNet Telephone, $3 million; Cheap2Digital Telephone, $3 million; and Norristown Telephone, $1.5 million.

The FCC tip sheet for consumers is worth a look. It contains useful advice such as the following:

  • Read promotional materials and forms carefully before signing anything. Be extra careful of offers you receive by phone.
  • Review your monthly phone bill carefully, looking for the sudden appearance of charges for new services. Make sure you’ve really ordered those services before paying, and don’t ignore small charges.
  • If you suspect you’re a victim of cramming, call and ask for an explanation of unclear charges. If you’re not satisfied with the explanation, call your phone company and ask to have incorrect charges deleted. If that doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the FCC for interstate or international calls. For problems with in-state calls, the Maine Public Advocate’s office can help. Contact the Federal Trade Commission for nontelephone-related charges on your bill.

As with many consumer issues, attention to detail is critical. Cramming is an ongoing problem, despite officials’ enforcement efforts; crooks will use all manners of deception and technological trickery to try to steal your money. Don’t let them succeed.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and NortheastCONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

Senate showdown over limiting debit card fees

FairPoint – News channel – Top stories – Senate showdown over limiting debit card fees.

WASHINGTON – A top senator mounted a populist-style attack on banks on Wednesday with a vote pending on whether to block a Federal Reserve plan to lower debit card fees.

Financial institutions and their supporters on Capitol Hill have been fighting a Fed proposal to cap, at 12 cents, the fee stores must pay banks each time a shopper swipes a debit card. Those fees currently average about 44 cents per swipe, transactions that earns banks and credit card companies $16 billion a year, the Fed says.

The battle has pitted banks against merchants, two industries that lawmakers hate to cross because of their influence back home and their campaign contributions.

With a showdown voted slated for later Wednesday, the Senate’s chief proponent of lowering the swipe fees, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that taxpayers had helped banks “in their darkest hour,” a reference to the $700 billion financial industry bailout of 2008. He said banks showed their gratitude by showering huge bonuses on their executives.

“Honestly, are we going to stand here and say we can’t protect small businesses across America struggling to survive?” said Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democratic leader.

In debate on Tuesday, a leader of the drive to prevent the Fed from capping the fees also sought to appeal to everyday Americans, saying he was fighting for jobs and rural America.

“Hard-working folks will get stuck with higher fees” by banks that will have to offset lost revenue by boosting their charges for things like checking accounts, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. He also warned about more consolidation by the banking industry. Continue reading

Consumers should be aware of legislative proposals

Environment needs our vigilance

Kid-Safe Products Act not as secure as one would think.

L.D. 1129, H.P. 841
An Act To Provide the Department of Environmental Protection with Regulatory Flexibility Regarding the Listing of Priority Chemicals. (Presented by Representative HAMPER of Oxford)

Summary

This bill makes a number of changes to the priority chemical program, including:

1. Amending the Maine Administrative Procedure Act to require that the Legislature receive notification through the regulatory agenda process of any proposals to regulate chemicals pursuant to the Maine Revised Statutes, Title 38, chapter 16D before rulemaking may be initiated;

2. Providing the Department of Environmental Protection with a process by which it can respond to developments in science to remove the designation of and de-list a chemical that is ultimately found to not pose a risk to human health;

3. Designating rules adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection that designate chemicals of high concern as priority chemicals to be major substantive rules;

4. Establishing de minimus levels of chemical concentrations in children’s products;

5. Establishing clear exposure criteria for designation of priority chemicals;

6. Removing the presumptions regarding safer alternatives to a priority chemical;

7. Reducing regulatory duplication with other state or federal programs; and

8. Increasing from 10 to 45 days the amount of time a manufacturer or distributor of a product offered for sale in violation of the priority chemical requirements has to provide evidence that the product is not in violation or notify persons who sell the product.

Status In Committee Referred to Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Mar 15, 2011.
Latest Committee Action: WORK SESSION, Apr 12, 2011, Tabled
Committee Report: Not Reported Out

Hidden transaction fees boosting costs for consumers – Bangor Daily News

Consumer Forum

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted March 27, 2011, at 5:41 p.m.

I don’t put bumper stickers on my car. If I did, the first one would say “Real Mainers Pay Cash.”

The phrase captures an idea whose time has surely come. Hidden fees that fuel the plastic transaction industry are driving up costs for everyone, including small businesses that can hardly stand any more charges.

The people who brought you credit and debit cards and all manner of fees associated with them are fighting with makers of the latest generation of cellular phones. Why? Because many phones in the U.S. could be simply waved over a device and used to charge purchases.

That’s already being done in other parts of the world, but we’re not quite ready. When it is time to roll out the latest do-everything phone — complete with ready-to-scan charge mode — the competing industries will have struck some sort of deal to divvy up the fees that will be charged for using the “mobile wallets.”

The fee on each transaction may be small, but multiply by billions of transactions and pretty soon you’re talking real money, as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen famously stated. That’s why the fight is already underway over a proposed rollback in fees on debit card transactions.

Attention has been focused on “swipe fees” since Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill last year. The law directed the Federal Reserve to come up with a reasonable transaction fee, and the Fed came up with a cap of 12 cents. Since the industry average is around 44 cents, the electronic transaction industry raised a ruckus.

The industry argued 12 cents wouldn’t even cover the cost of the transactions, never mind addressing the fraud many card users perpetrate. The Fed says it can’t meet an April deadline for finalizing rules on the swipe fees. Several senators have sponsored legislation calling for a two-year delay and a one-year study while we wait.

All of which gives the card industry a chance to slug it out with retailers. Later, they can all fight with the mobile wallet folks. Finger-pointing about who’ll be responsible for robbing consumers yet again is underway in ad campaigns. The only certain outcome is a basic law of the American marketplace: The consumer pays most, if not all, hidden costs in the end.

Maybe that’s the best reason to take a step backward. Phil Frederick has a little sign on the counter at Bangor Floral which reads, “Life turns on cash (not Visa or Mastercard). Please use it here if you can and [in red letters] Help us lower our cost of doing business.”

Frederick makes no excuses for passing on his processing costs. “The consumer’s got to pay it,” he says, adding that all small businesses are on such tight margins they’re doing everything they can just to stay in business. If we as consumers can save on those hidden fees and help a local enterprise in the process, let’s do it.

We’re not saying “Cut up your cards” (although that’s not bad advice for some over-users). Plastic has its place, but hauling out a debit card with its associated fees for every quart of milk bought at a corner store will sooner or later drive that little storekeeper under.

We’ve seen too much of that already in the name of “convenience.” Let’s go back to the old ways as much as we can by using currency. Those “discount for cash” signs might just make a comeback, and the health of our neighbors in the local business sector along with them.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

Debit cards, swiping fees and local merchants — WABI-Channel 5

Joy and Russ discuss the charges to retailers for  swiping fees of  Debit Cards.

Jane Bryant Quinn

Banks and the Fight Over Debit Card Fees: 6 Things to Watch For

The big banks are threatening to hit you with fees for using your debit card. JPMorgan Chase fired the first shot across the bow last week, by canceling its debit-card rewards program.   Read the rest of the article from CBS  moneywatch.com.

Wanting What’s Good for the Marketplace — Bangor Daily News

Consumer Forum

Wanting what’s good for the marketplace

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director, Northeast Contact
Posted Jan. 30, 2011, at 8:37 p.m.

When our organization changed its name a few years back, we made a conscious decision to call it, “Northeast CONTACT For Better Business Inc.” Our thinking went like this: Since consumers and business people can build a fairer, more effective marketplace together, they should be considered partners in that effort.

It was founded as Bangor COMBAT, later Northeast COMBAT. Consumers of Maine Bringing Action Together yielded the acronym, COMBAT. The recent change reflected a desire to work cooperatively rather than combatively.

Gov. Paul LePage’s recent list of regulations he wants reviewed and possibly repealed may put some people back in combat mode. Instead of a call for regulatory reform to improve Maine’s business climate, some see a rollback effort with health and safety implications.

The governor’s call to scrap some significant natural resource protections caused howls of protest from the environmental community. His list on the consumer protection side, while shorter, may draw almost as much fire.

LePage would have a joint legislative committee look at all rules requiring recycling and “take-backs,” and assure that manufacturers don’t have to pay anything once their products’ useful lives are over. He also wants no Maine law stricter than federal rules.

Experience shows recycling of hazardous materials in computer and television monitors is working. Maine’s first in the nation take-back law took effect in 2006. In 18 months, some 6 million pounds of hazardous junk had been collected. Today, systems are in place to keep mercury thermostats, mercury switches from disman-tled motor vehicles and nickel cadmium batteries out of Maine’s waste stream as well.

Prohibiting some chemicals and materials in consumer products is another area of regulation that concerns the governor. He wants the joint committee to think about scrapping all that, at least to make sure that nothing in Maine law offers any more protection than existing federal rules or statutes. The governor is calling for risk-benefit or cost-benefit standards when the state regulates consumer goods at all.

All of that would be fine, if those federal standards really protected us. A task force named by former Gov. John Baldacci studied the need for regulating dangerous chemicals in common products. The group found federal protections inadequate. The bill that followed, LD 2048, passed 129-9 in the Maine House and 35-0 in the Senate.

Since its passage, the law has led to use of safer products by state government employees. They and members of the public who use state facilities seem to like the change. That task force also found that a growing market for safer products would spark innovation and spur economic growth.

Our conclusion is that the consumer rules LePage would toss out are helping create the greener, safer marketplace of the future. We urge him to stay the course, rather than shifting the real cost of goods from producers to consumers. We ask that he help in the effort to make products safer and allow their reuse or recycling, rather than simply hoping the feds will do a better job (a big hope, if we look at areas like food safety).

In the end, the question is what is good for the marketplace we all want, rather than simply what’s good for business as usual. Make your opinion count by letting your legislators know your views. Their names can be found through the state website at www.maine.gov/legis/house/townlist.htm.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or e-mail at contacexdir@live.com.

Report aims to protect consumer privacy online

Report aims to protect consumer privacy online

1/16/11 06:54 pm
By Russ Van Arsdale
executive director, Northeast CONTACT

If you think that surfing the Web is a harmless pastime, think again.

The Consumer Federation of America recently said people’s track records on social networking sites were used in some cases to determine whether they’re creditworthy. Big Brother and The Matrix, meet Monopoly.

“Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change” is the title of a preliminary staff report to the Federal Trade Commission.

The report has broad implications for the way businesses convince us to buy things. (It will strike some readers as ironic that a federal agency — painted by some as a snarling monster set on devouring every bit of citizen information — may take a lead role in helping us protect our privacy.)

The report states the FTC’s goal clearly: “To protect consumers’ personal information and ensure that they have the confidence to take advantage of the many benefits of the ever-changing marketplace.”

The key word here is “confidence,” and we might take a moment to reflect on the erosion of confidence by target marketers.

The transition of much of our retail sector to online selling has had a crushing effect on the mass media, which used to be the major vehicle of advertisers. Reaching the most readers, listeners and viewers for the fewest dollars made the advertising world go round.

Now all media have felt the sting of competition from Web-based marketers. The e-sellers have invested serious time and money into figuring out how to make it seem they’re doing all they can just for you.

That’s why those cute ads appear along the margins of your computer screen right after you have pointed your browser at the latest widget. Makers of the competing widget explain in a nanosecond why theirs is better and why they will give you the deal of the week on it. Search for another widget and you will find even more ads they are sure you will be interested in. Continue reading

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