Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Deadline to register for 2015 Obamacare coverage looms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click for help

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

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

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

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

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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

Click image to file

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WABI appearance

Your phone company is not your friend when it comes to blocking telemarketers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 30, 2014, at 9:15 a.m.

Primus Technologies seems to be a hit with consumers in Canada. Since 2007, the company has offered free blocking of unwanted telemarketing calls.

In a survey, two-thirds of Primus customers say they like Telemarketing Guard, as the program is called. A whopping 87 percent of those surveyed say the big drop in unwanted calls is the main reason they stay with the company.

A lot of U.S. consumers likely would be happy if companies on this side of the border offered a similar service. We have all had our fill of robocalls. Despite tougher rules on such automated calling by the Federal Trade Commission, the pre-recorded automatons still harangue us about better credit, “free” cruises and dangerous falls at home.

Indeed, robocalls lead all categories of consumer gripes. The FTC racks up 150,000-200,000 complaints every month — so many that the agency awarded prize money to computer wizards who came up with the best ways of “Zapping Rachel.” One prize winner is offering a service he calls Nomorobo. It detects when numbers are called in sequence or seconds apart and answers with a robotic voice. If the caller can answer a question, the call goes through; if not, it’s disconnected.

We might think phone carriers would jump at the chance to keep Rachel and her ilk out of our phone lines. The chilling truth is that those carriers see federal rules as standing in the way.

At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said the technology for screening such calls is available. She urged “more pressure on the phone carriers to participate in solving this problem.”

An executive with the U.S. Telecom Association, however, testified his members are bound by law to complete all calls. He said they may not be able to employ call screening or filtering software.

A spokesman for the mobile phone industry said wireless carriers are concerned about “overreaching” and blocking legitimate calls.

The attorneys general of 38 states, including Maine, recently chimed in. They’re urging the FTC to update its Telemarketing Sales Rule in several key ways:

— Ban pre-acquired account information, meaning consumer consent is needed for any transaction.

— Clarify the “negative option” in telemarketing. The attorneys general argue a consumer’s silence or failure to take action and opt out of a certain deal does not necessarily mean a customer agrees with that deal.

— Require telemarketers to keep call records. These could help the attorneys general with enforcement actions.

— Ban or restrict several ways of paying, including money transfers.

In a news release, the attorneys general say they support the intent of the TSR but argue it needs updating to reflect current market practices and lessen the chance for harming consumers. You can read a copy of their letter here.

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.

Phony phone cops bullied US consumers out of millions in bogus debt

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 24, 2014, at 9:21 a.m.

Click image to learn more about phantom debt collectors

They make harassing phone calls, claiming that they are law enforcement agents. They threaten to revoke your driver’s license, prosecute you and lock you up. All for debts that aren’t yours.

The National Consumers League says on its website ( www.fraud.org) that thousands of consumers are being bullied into paying debts they don’t owe.

There are many variations, but all scams boil down to one harsh message: wire us money or be in big trouble.

The perpetrator of one such scam received a harsh message last week. A complaint filed by a U.S. attorney in New York charged Williams Scott and Associates of Georgia with scamming $4 million from 6,000 consumers in all 50 states. The complaint charges that over a five-year period, the company had employees pose as police officers, Justice Department officials or FBI agents.

An affidavit filed by a real FBI agent says callers claimed falsely that people owed money for payday loans or had committed fraud.

The affidavit says the scheme involved up to 87 different phone numbers, changing when the scammers realized there were too many complaints. One script seized in an FBI raid includes this exchange between a caller and a frightened woman.

“You think an eight months pregnant woman wants to go to jail?”

“I don’t care if you’re nine months pregnant. I have a job to do.”

When I called Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, principal examiner David Leach was helping a woman whom scammers had tried to dupe.

The scammer had claimed to be from the “Kennebec County Private Locating Service” and said there was legal action pending. When the consumer called the Kennebec County court clerk’s office, she found nothing pending and no record of the “locating service.”

“Scam collectors will do anything to collect money,” Leach told me. He said the fake phone calls “started in Maine sometime in the summer of 2014 and may have peaked somewhere in October.”

However, Leach said this is the most frequent consumer complaint his office deals with.

In some cases, people have taken out payday loans from illegal, unlicensed lenders and repaid the money. The lenders sell their names and other personal information to illegal, unlicensed collectors who then put their defrauding machinery to work.

Consumers may believe these calls are real because the scammers have some personal details about them. If you get such a call, ask for the caller’s name and address, company name and original creditor, if you do have an outstanding loan.

If the caller demands a lot more than you owe, it’s likely a scam. If you have questions about the status of a real loan, hang up and call the number on your loan paperwork.

If you get a call and are uncertain, ask the caller to send a written notice of the debt; then say you don’t want to be called again. That request must be honored, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

You can find sample letters drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the “self-help/action letters” tab on our blog ( necontact.wordpress.com).

Some consumers hire an attorney. Giving callers the attorney’s name and number usually stop such calls, when scammers realize the person isn’t an easy target. Report suspicious calls to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, 1-800-436-2131 or email consumer.mediation@Maine.gov.

Advise the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.

The federal prosecutor says it’s likely that more cases will be brought in the future. He says payday lenders may be among those prosecuted.

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

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WABI Interview w/ Wayne Harvey

Don’t believe these 5 myths about identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 16, 2014, at 9:46 a.m.

Click image to access Komando post

This column is about things that go “bump” in the night. The subtitle is “our biggest fears.”

The top few, according to one survey, include public speaking, walking home alone and identity theft. Since the last one has such serious and expensive consequences, it’s been the subject of plenty of sound advice … and more than a little nonsense.

A recent posting on the website of Kim Komando — who also hosts a radio program about all things digital — points out five major myths involving identity theft. The first is that recovery is easy; virtually anyone who’s been a victim will tell you otherwise. Extended fraud alerts, credit freezes and a detailed plan to repair one’s credit will likely consume hundreds or even thousands of hours.

The second myth is that you’ll get your money back. It’s true that many banks and credit card companies will reimburse you for purchases made fraudulently. However, you must meet certain deadlines to protect your rights. There are also limits on what a bank will cover, so check your bank’s policy.

Myth No. 3 is that credit and debit cards are created equal. While protections exist for many fraudulent credit card purchases, a thief with a debit card may as well have a pipeline into your bank account. The thief can withdraw money at will; until you work things out with your bank, that money is gone.

Liability rules are different, too. Report a credit card stolen before it’s used and you have no liability; if thieves do use the card, your liability is limited to $50.

With a debit card, there’s no liability if loss is reported before it’s used. Report it stolen within two days and the limit is $50; from two to 60 days the liability shoots up to $500. After 60 days, you’re liable for all transactions.

Another myth involves the way identity theft occurs. Many consumers mistakenly think it happens only through online trickery. Major data breaches at retailers have exposed at least some personal data of hundreds of millions of customers.

More often than we’d like to think, friends or family members steal identities. Even contractors you allow into your home might make off with credit cards, bank statements or other potentially damaging documents.

The final big myth is that law enforcement can deal decisively with the perpetrators. Unless you know exactly who they are and the police can build a solid case, there’s little chance of bringing these thieves to justice. You should file a police report, mainly to create a record of the theft for your dealings with credit card and other companies. The report could also head off debt collectors.

You can buy identity theft insurance. The Insurance Information Institute says coverage might include lost wages, phone bills, costs of notary services and certified mailing, maybe even attorney fees.

Your homeowner’s insurance may include an ID theft rider already. Adding such coverage might cost another $25 to $50 per year.

Companies that sell ID theft insurance sometimes advertise that they will cover large dollar losses. Read the fine print before buying, so you will know what is covered and what isn’t.

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.

 

 

How online sales firms such as Amazon, Expedia steer shoppers toward higher-priced options

Posted Nov. 09, 2014, at 6:29 a.m.

Amazon took more than a little heat in 2010 when it came to light that the company was charging different shoppers different prices for the same DVDs. The practice, called price differentiation or price discrimination, was a way online retailers could make some extra money by personalizing the results of consumers’ online searches.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Staples was charging different prices according to customers’ geographic location. The newspaper also said Orbitz showed browsers from Mac computers more expensive hotel options than people using PCs.

The negative reaction was predictable, and some observers thought companies would stop. They did not, according to researchers at Northeastern University.

The academic folks wondered how widespread the price discrimination and steering were, what customer information companies use in the process, and how much prices change when e-commerce websites personalize search results and/or prices.

The researchers collected the search results of consumers using their own browsers. They compared those with an automated browser running the same searches simultaneously but without storing cookies, the little information packets that show what websites computers have visited.

They studied 16 online retailers and travel sites. They found that Cheaptickets, Expedia, Home Depot, Orbitz, Priceline, Sears and Travelocity practiced price discrimination. They said Sears also did some price steering and that the order of search results varied from one shopper to another.

There’s a whole industry that’s grown around online searches; because every consumer’s search pattern is unique, the researchers were unable to say which factors trigger personalization.

They did come up with some interesting findings when they looked at which browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer) and platforms (Windows, OSX, iOS, Android) were used. They also considered whether shoppers were logged into a user account and their history of purchases.

The researchers created one fake account to book low-priced hotels and rental cars, and another for expensive hotel rooms and rental cars. They found that Expedia and Hotels.com use a marketing strategy called A/B tests to steer some users toward pricier hotels. Visitors were assigned to groups A, B or C depending on the cookies saved on their computers. Searchers in groups A and B were shown hotels costing $187 per night on average, and users in group C saw hotels averaging $170 a night.

Home Depot showed different products to consumers using desktop computers and mobile devices. Searching by desktop usually yielded 24 search results with an average item costing $120. From a mobile device, that same search would bring 48 results with each item costing $230 on average.

The researchers say they spoke with officials of Orbitz and Expedia who confirmed the findings of the study. However, they did not offer any explanation for the reasons they design their sites the way they do.

An executive at Orbitz said that company and Cheaptickets offer members-only deals on hotels. The executive took issue with the researchers’ conclusion that price discrimination was “anti-consumer,” and that assertion was taken out of the final draft of the report. (While not illegal, the practice is at the very least annoying.)

Among the researchers’ recommendations: comparison shop, using your normal desktop browser, a private browser window and a mobile device. Since cookies help create customer profiles, deleting those cookies might give you less biased search results. Or, with cookies enabled, leave an item in your shopping cart without buying; a competitor may cut the price to lure you.

You also can use a price tracker, such as camelcamelcamel.com, which tracks an items pricing history on Amazon.

As noted above, this industry is evolving and innovating, so in the future other factors may trigger personalization. You can read the Northeastern study on the university’s website, www.ccs.neu.edu/home/cbw/pdf/imc151-hannak.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, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Lock the door against “work at home” scams that promise big bucks but deliver grief

Posted Nov. 02, 2014, at 10:15 a.m.

Click for FTC Consumer Information

Maybe you’ve been laid off, or maybe you just decided you would rather work from home than commute to a job.

You went to Monster.com to find the perfect job you could land while staying at home. The only problem is, all that’s available is a job helping people troubleshoot problems with their handheld computing gizmos. You’ve ruled yourself out, since your technical ability stops at turning the computer on.

So now for the answer, you turn to the source of all knowledge: the Internet. Your search for “work at home jobs” returns 29.2 million possibilities. A lot of them promise weekly earnings of “hundreds or thousands of dollars.” For every website warning you of possible scams, 10 more promise “easy earnings” with “minimal” outlay of time and effort.

A federal judge last month threw the book at one of these outfits, Zaken Corp. The company and its principal officer, Tiran Zaken, were ordered to pay more than $25 million to consumers who had been promised “substantial income” by working from home. The Federal Trade Commission had opened an investigation in 2012 and found that more than 99 percent of the 110,000 consumers who invested in the “Quicksell” program got no income at all in return.

The Justice Department probe was labeled “Operation Lost Opportunity.” Investigators found that consumers had been promised that they could earn $4,000 or more in their first 30 days, or an average of $4,280 per deal. After signing up for an average fee of $148, they were typically bombarded with ads to buy more “business tools” for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The FTC doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about such things. When companies advertise business opportunities, the agency says the ads should be clear about what markets exist and what an investor’s potential income truly is.

There are some legitimate careers that allow you to work from home. Do some serious research before investing:

— Know who you’re dealing with; find out if the offer is a job or just a way to sell overpriced supplies.

— Get all details before you pay; a real company will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision.

— Don’t believe claims of big rewards for little work (wouldn’t they do it themselves?).

— Be sure there’s a market first. There must be a real market, not a perpetuation of the scam in which you hoodwink others into investing.

— Know the refund policy.

— Talk with people who have been successful — real people, not those a scammer might refer to you.

Once you’ve responded to an offer, you’re likely to be targeted by other scammers. Several years ago, a client of Northeast CONTACT complained that her husband — whose disabilities prompted him to seek home-based work — complained that he was receiving shady-sounding offers virtually every day. Our caseworker suggested (only half kiddingly) that she keep a blowtorch with her while she checked their mailbox.

The FTC warns consumers not to believe any ad about stuffing envelopes; they’re virtually always ripoffs. Read the FTC’s advice at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0175-work-home-businesses.

The Maine attorney general’s Consumer Law Guide also offers tips on work-at-home offers online at http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/consumer_law_guide.shtml (chapter 12, section 14).

You can also call the AG’s Consumer Mediation Service at 800-436-2131.

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

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