Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

‘Zap Rachel’ and other ways the feds are fighting robocall ripoffs

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 14, 2014, at 11:09 a.m.

It’s worth celebrating consumers’ wins over ripoff artists. Last week’s ruling that shut down an illegal robocall operation telling consumers they were entitled to free money was one such victory.

It was sweeter still for the Federal Trade Commission, whose banner the scammers had been flying when they claimed to have helped more than 13,000 people get refunds. The victims had received phone calls saying they were entitled to those refunds. The calls seemed credible to many victims when the FTC’s consumer assistance phone number appeared on their Caller ID screens.

The robotic calls drew attention in late 2012. They directed people they called to a website labeled “FTCrefund.com,” and gave them a six-figure number called a “Seizure ID.” Entering that number would entitle them to a refund from something called American Consumer Group Inc.

Except it didn’t work; it was all aimed at getting victims’ personal and financial information. Once they surrendered their names, bank account numbers and bank routing numbers, their funds began to be drained away.

This kind of “spoofing” of phone numbers is not new; scammers have long used computer trickery to fool victims. However, when the FTC first learned what the operators of The Cuban Exchange Inc. were doing, they headed for the courthouse. (The Cuban Exchange has also done business as CrediSure America and MyiPad.us.)

The FTC doesn’t use robocalls or cold calls of any kind, and it doesn’t ask people to provide financial or other personal information.

“To anyone breaking the law by making illegal robocalls, transmitting phony Caller ID information, or impersonating a federal agency, we have two words for you: Stop now. The real Federal Trade Commission will come after you,” said David Vladeck, who was director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection at the time the agency first had the phony website shut down.

Last week, a federal judge in New York permanently barred The Cuban Exchange and its principal, Suhaylee Riviera, from misrepresenting any goods or services for sale. The ruling also bans defendants from claiming any affiliation with the FTC or saying they can get refunds for consumers from the agency.

The FTC has information on its website about cases against companies making deceptive claims. You can check the site (www.ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/refunds) to see if you might be eligible for a refund in one of those cases.

The FTC highlighted the Cuban Exchange case, the 100th example of legal action it’s taken over nine years against violators of national do-not-call rules. Those rules have been in effect since 2003. Yet, every week consumers get calls from the relentless robot “Rachel from Cardholder Services.” The FTC even sponsored a contest with cash awards for computer enthusiasts who came up with possible ways to “Zap Rachel.”

In the end, the FTC may find that paying hackers is more effective than taking the scammers to court. Meanwhile, consumers are advised to be sure what entities they’re dealing with, especially when they receive unsolicited offers. An ad might say it will help you get money you’re owed by a state or federal agency; it’s certainly too good to be true, since such an agency will almost certainly help you for free.

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.

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.

 

Beware of gimmicks to treat concussions — Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 31, 2014, at 12:23 p.m.

If you believe a lot of what’s flying around the Internet, recovery from a concussion can be hastened with the right food supplement. Another school of thought suggests concussions might be less severe if all players wore rubber liners over their helmets or a certain brand of mouth guard.

The above represent simple — or simplistic — solutions to very complex problems that can arise from head trauma. Concussions happen because of a violent impact with the head or body, a fall or other injury that shakes or jars the brain inside the skull.

Concussions affect people in different ways, and recovery times vary from person to person.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about snake oil salesmen posing as medical experts. An FDA news release said, despite glitzy claims, “the science doesn’t support the use of any dietary supplements for the prevention of concussions or the reduction of post-concussion symptoms.”

The FDA renewed its warning last week, as many parents began sending their high school students off to football practice.

“We’re very concerned that false assurances of faster recovery will convince athletes of all ages, coaches and even parents that someone suffering from a concussion is ready to resume activities before they are really ready,” Gary Coody, FDA’s national health fraud coordinator, said in the news release.

Many health and sports professionals share FDA’s concern that “wonder cures” may prompt some athletes to resume their parts in collision sports sooner than is medically realistic. Those “quick fixes” also might prompt some injured persons to take less than proper care of themselves after concussions.

Players and parents filed a lawsuit last week in San Francisco, claiming that soccer’s U.S. and international governing bodies aren’t doing enough to protect players.

The American Youth Soccer Organization adopted rules in 2009 that require coaches to remove players and have them medically evaluated after they suffer apparent concussions. The suit claims testing of injured players and time off for recovery are both inadequate.

At Orono High School, athletic director Mike Archer says a program called ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) has been part of a concussion management plan since November 2011. More than 7,400 high schools use ImPACT, a scientifically researched concussion management tool that also is used by Cirque du Soleil and more than 200 pro sports teams.

There has been a debate about the benefit of mouth guards and chinstrap impact measuring devices in preventing concussions. Archer says members of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association know there are limits to what protective gear can do.

As Archer puts it, “The bottom line is that there is no apparatus/piece of equipment, including the actual helmet itself, that guarantees the prevention of a concussion.”

He notes that parents at some schools have purchased a protective padding to cover football helmets. Altering a nationally certified piece of equipment can void a manufacturer’s warranty; should an injury occur, Archer says the owner would incur the risk and expense. He says schools should not allow alterations to equipment, as the schools would then assume liability for injuries.

The Maine Principals’ Association has adopted guidelines about athletes resuming sports after a concussion. It states they should not return “until they are symptom free and their cognitive functions have returned to baseline.” Before playing again, the Maine Principals’ Association also urges gradually increasing “sport-specific challenges which do not place the athlete at risk for a subsequent concussion.”

To read the FDA’s latest caution, visit www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/default.htm and see the article titled “Can a Dietary Supplement Treat a Concussion? No!”

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.

‘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.

Don’t plunge into buying a vehicle without a careful check for water damage

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 17, 2014, at 12:17 p.m.

A truck drives through a flooded area of Poplar Street near Pushaw Lake after the spring melt in Maine caused flooding across the state in April 2014. Brian Feulner | BDN

If you’re offered a deal on a used vehicle that seems too good to be true, pull out the seat belts.

The portion of the belt that’s been retracted inside the seat may contain some surprises: muddy spots, mildew or other clues that the vehicle has spent some time immersed in water. Flood-damaged vehicles may contain a number of other surprises, none of them pleasant.

Last week’s heavy rains brought new warnings from consumer advocates and auto clubs about vehicles’ lives after the storm. Insurance companies will often “total” storm-damaged vehicles, then sell them to salvage companies.

Instead of being dismantled for parts, some of those vehicles may be resold to people who, in the words of an official from AAA, “bring varying levels of expertise to the restoration process.”

Those with lesser abilities may miss a few things, such as water rings that form on the engine block or radiator … mud and dirt under the dashboard (a tough place to clean) … and corrosion, rust or flaking metal on the undercarriage (a tip-off if the car is supposed to be new or “from a Southern state”).

Newer cars contain one or more computers, which are noted for running poorly (if at all) after a drenching. Water can make its way to the cylinders — through the exhaust system or air intakes — and resulting rust could mean lots of burned oil. If water gets into the transmission fluid via the dipstick tube, that transmission could soon be cooked.

If you’re suspicious, first trust your sense of smell. Wet carpets and seats will likely mildew, and the odor will be a tip-off. Look also for dew or droplets inside interior and exterior lights and dashboard instruments. Feel wiring under the dash and in the engine for unusual stiffness, and look for water stains or mineral deposits everywhere. Use a mirror to check under seats for rusty springs.

In March 2013, Eric Cioppa, Maine’s superintendent of insurance, warned consumers and businesses that roughly 250,000 vehicles were damaged in Hurricane Sandy. That figure reflected only insured vehicles; owners who dodge mandatory insurance laws may not be fussy about disclosing damage to a machine they’re trying to unload.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners says most states require that titles indicate when a car or truck has sustained flood damage. However, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners says some wholesalers re-register vehicles in other states to avoid having damage noted and the value of the vehicles lessened. This process is called “title washing.”

Damaged cars registered in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico and Utah may carry a “salvage title” with no indication that they’ve been flooded.

Dealers we’ve talked with locally say they have no worries about wholesalers in Maine being less than up-front about disclosing water damage. But they advise consumers to think carefully about private sales and investigate as fully as possible the history of vehicles before buying.

You can get a vehicle history for a fee from Carfax ( www.carfax.com), Auto Check ( www.autocheck.com) and Consumer Guide ( www.auto.consumerguide.com).

The homepage of the National Insurance Crime Bureau website ( https://www.ncib.org), VINCheck lets you check a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if a vehicle has been reported as salvage by its member insurance companies.

For more information on titles and title searches, including applicable fees, contact Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles at 624-9000 or visit www.maine.gov/sos/bmv.

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.

Social media rants about bad service could land you in court

Posted Aug. 10, 2014, at 10:57 a.m.

Click image for FindLaw’s explanation

Free speech about products and services is something like swinging your fist: your freedom ends at the other person’s nose.

Fire up your favorite online rant site and take a swipe at a company’s performance and you could be facing a hefty fine. You might have signed up for such a penalty when you signed the contract for the goods or services the firm provided.

The legal language that speared you is called a non-disparagement clause. Companies have been using them for some time in employee contracts; lately, they’ve been showing up more and more in purchase agreements.

They’re designed to head off the kind of defamatory statements that a single annoyed customer can launch via social media.

Now, you might get dragged into court for violating your non-disparagement agreement and you could claim it was hidden in the miles of mouse print that almost no one reads. A judge might agree …or, the judge might give the person who posts defamatory statements a tongue-lashing of his own.

Jane Perez had written defamatory reviews, accusing remodeler Chris Dietz of trespassing and stealing jewelry as well as doing sub-par work. Dietz sued, and Perez took down the scathing reviews.

In a Fairfax County, Virginia, Circuit Court in June, Judge David Schell declined to grant Dietz an injunction — since the review had been taken down — and also decided not to allow a retrial.

In his ruling, Judge Schell wrote that it was not his job to rule on free speech … but he had a prediction. “If you want to chill free speech, keep it up, because eventually one of these companies is going to win big,” the judge wrote. “That will chill free speech when somebody is hit with a huge monetary verdict,” he added.

Compare that outcome with a Utah case in which a company was ordered to pay $306,000 to a couple who wrote a harsh review after the company failed to deliver a product they had ordered. When it didn’t come, they canceled the order.

KlearGear.com had said the couple violated its non-disparagement clause and tried to collect $3,500 when the couple didn’t retract the statement.

KlearGear’s owners say they’re headquartered outside the U.S. and didn’t receive proper notice of the lawsuit. It’s unclear if the company will pay up.

The New York Post reported last week on this threat posted on the website of a Hudson, New York, hotel regarding weddings: “There will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review” on any Internet site by anyone in the wedding party. The backlash was huge, and the owner of the Union Street Guest House was quoted later as saying the fine threat was posted as a joke. It’s gone from the website, and now neither the owner nor anyone else is laughing.

The only Maine statute that seems to apply protects speech in public hearings and other actions dealing with public policy. However, lawmakers in other states are taking notice.

A bill approved this spring by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee would prohibit fining customers who publish rants, unless they “knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently” waive their immunity. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering broadening protection against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) beyond environmental issues.

Northeast CONTACT does not offer legal advice. We will pass on advice of Consumer Affairs ( consumeraffairs.com) to look through purchase agreements for terms like “non-disparagement,” “negative review,” “no-review policy” and “public comment.”

Check the major review sites (Angie’s List, Yelp) for comments; a mix of good and bad reviews probably reflects reality rather than a one-sided litany. Regarding choice of language, note the Bangor Daily News blog use policy: no vulgarity, incivility, name-calling, slurs or personal attacks.

Good consumers don’t inflame, they inform.

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.

This new column might be viewed with an earlier Consumer Forum column from August 7, 2011  – When all else fails, complain

 

Pass It On program helps consumers avoid scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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