Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

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The portion of the belt that’s been retracted inside the seat may contain some surprises: muddy spots, mildew or other clues that the vehicle has spent some time immersed in water.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.

Old Town caterer outsmarts scammer

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 27, 2014, at 3:56 p.m.

Let’s start this column with a set of assumptions. Let’s agree we’re all in this marketplace together; that means that we give and take, treat others as we want to be treated and learn from our mistakes and those of others.

Link to WABI video

I think Jane Thibodeau believes in that set of assumptions. A short time ago, the owner of Jane’s Catering in Old Town responded to an email offer she had received seeking her services. The email claimed to be from a man named Leroy Martin, who said he was planning to bring his family to eastern Maine for the summer.

“There were several weeks of very nice emails,” Jane told me last week. The first inquiry asked if he could hire Jane as a full-time chef; she would prepare meals for the man, his wife and three children during their stay. Since that’s the reason she is in business, Jane readily agreed.

Martin said he would be sending a check as a deposit for her services, so Jane opened a checking account specifically for her new client. She began to suspect that Martin was a scammer, rather than a mechanical engineer as he claimed, when he made a few other requests.

He needed a chauffeur … not just any chauffer, but one who spoke Spanish, the first language of Martin’s wife. He needed a housekeeper, and both of those positions required a deposit. Would Jane be so kind as to use part of the funds from his overly large check (more than $4,000) he had sent her to wire funds to those two people?

The red flags were really flying now, so Jane visited her banker. They determined the whole thing was a scam, and they closed the checking account. Jane did not lose any money, but she learned to put more faith in her instincts than her hopes.

“It was all a lie,” she said.

During their phone calls, Jane asked how he had picked her name from all of the chefs and caterers available; he wouldn’t answer. Her banker mentioned hearing of other scam attempts targeting people in Jane’s business.

“It would have been a dream job,” she said, “but I caught them, so, whatever.”

Jane urged others not to be taken in by offers — of work, prizes or other rewards — that involve an advance check and then wiring money to unknown parties.

Readers should know that the scammer’s email included a phone number that began “044.” That’s one of dozens of numbers used by advance fee scammers. The United Kingdom-based Internet Fraud Advisory Group says a handful of companies provide the numbers, splitting fees paid by unsuspecting callers with the caller’s network. The criminals apparently get the numbers free.

Jane’s sharing of her story is important. It sends the message that con artists do prey on honest people and that there is no shame in admitting it. When those honest people avoid being taken in, it’s cause for celebration and sharing the details to help educate us all.

The Federal Trade Commission has a neighbor-to-neighbor campaign called “Pass It On.” It’s based on the trust that each of us has in people we know, and their knowledge can save us money and other losses. Visit www.ftc.gov and search “pass it on” for details.

Watch Video from FTC

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.

Military consumers face special challenges

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted July 13, 2014, at 10:39 a.m.

This Wednesday marks the second annual Military Consumer Protection Day.

We wrote about the first one last July, and the news flash this year involves several simultaneous efforts to help members of the military and their families become smart, informed and protected consumers.

This year’s observance features a 2 p.m. Wednesday Town Hall/Twitter chat on identity theft and a range of issues relating to credit. The hashtag to take part is #MCPD2014.

Close to home, the state of Maine has been removing barriers to employment opportunities for veterans. Some time ago, state officials announced they were streamlining processes through which veterans can apply for jobs involving technical skills.

The state credits a veteran’s military service and experience when that veteran applies for an occupational license. You can read more at http://www.maine.gov/pfr/military.html.

The state has a number of benefits available to veterans, alongside those benefits guaranteed by the federal government. You can read or download the Veterans Benefit and Resource Guide at http://maine.gov/dvem/bvs/Veteran%20Benefit%20and%20Resource%20Guide_2014APR11.pdf.

The really good news about consumer protection is that regulators are realizing that the need is ongoing. Just as private citizens need to have their rights as consumers safeguarded, so do members of the military and their families.

Federal and state governments plus a number of nonprofit organizations have set up a comprehensive website aimed at service people at http://www.military.ncpw.gov/.

“Military Consumer, Your First Line of Defense” has lots of information about credit, debt, fraud, identity theft and many other topics. You can download materials for free to help spread the word.

The website also includes links to other helpful places. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recognizes that military families face special monetary challenges; they may be approached by both good and bad lenders. The bureau has some advice for meeting those challenges at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/servicemembers/.

We could never cover all topics of interest to consumer-veterans here. The Military One Source website maintained by the Department of Defense offers individual, confidential consultation on health matters. There also is advice on virtually all aspects of military life. Read more at http://www.militaryonesource.mil/ or call 800-342-9647.

Many businesses offer special deals for members of the military and their families. Scam artists offer what may appear to be “deals” but are in fact veiled attempts to rip people off. Other crooks might pose as VA officials in an effort to obtain your personal and financial information. They might try to make you pay for records that should be free.

Don’t be fooled; know the person you’re speaking with, and be sure that any information you divulge won’t be used to defraud you.

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.

‘It’s shiny, it’s round’ — and it can kill your child: Guard against accidental poisoning

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted July 06, 2014, at 10:15 a.m.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that nine of every 10 accidental poisonings of children happen in the home. The CPSC also says those cases involve more than our medicine and kitchen cabinets.

Safety experts urge that we “go beyond the bottle” and look all through our homes for possible dangers. They say we need to look at things through a child’s eyes and seek out anything that might be appealing to a youngster.

“It’s shiny, it’s round, and children can’t tell the difference,” says Dr. Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center (NNEPC). Simone says tens of thousands of children who think they are eating candy have to be treated for accidental poisonings every year.

She says most of us think of household cleaners and insecticides as the major problems. However, she says children can grab common products such as toothpaste and deodorants, if they’re not kept out of reach; these products can also cause health problems when ingested.

NNEPC compiles statistics on accidental exposures to harmful things. Accompanying the stats is a reminder that numbers of exposures do not equal numbers of patients treated for those exposures; because little hands and mouths are attracted to all kinds of things, multiple exposures are all too common.

From 2011 to 2013, the center recorded 40,080 exposures in youngsters up to age 5. More than 6,000 of those exposures involved cosmetics or other personal care products. The next leading causes of problems were analgesics — mainly ibuprofen and acetaminophen — in what Dr. Simone describes as “therapeutic misadventures.”

Some of those accidents relate directly to our busy lifestyles. Adults hurrying through their morning routines may set out medication on the kitchen table; while their backs are turned, “a small child will scoop it up before they take it.”

Another issue involves adults putting chemicals of various kinds into food or drink containers for storage. Toddlers who don’t yet read act based on what they see; if they see something that looks like food or drink, they may ingest it faster than an adult can react.

Then there’s the matter of many Mainers’ addiction to opioids. An increasing number of take-home medications pose increased risks to children.

“We need to treat the people, but we have to look at the whole picture,” Simone says, urging more awareness by treatment professionals and patients alike.

A final caution involves caregiver errors. More and more women are working, and men are handling more household duties; Simone says this “has led to some confusion” in administering medications. Communication is the key to keeping consumers safe.

Call NNEPC at 800-222-1222 if you suspect there has been an accidental poisoning. You may also call just to ask a question. Simone urges people not to be embarrassed to call, and says they may call anonymously if they like.

For more information, visit www.nnepc.org.

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, visithttp://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Keeping pets safe in war on ticks, fleas

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted June 29, 2014, at 8:57 a.m.

Fleas and ticks are most active this time of year, so pet owners should consider the variety of treatments on the market and keep their pets and their families safe from the little critters.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued updated guidelines for using flea and tick control products. Those guidelines can be found online at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm169831.htm. What follows is a condensed version of that update.

There are two pieces of advice we consider critical. Don’t go “off-label” when treating your pets, and always consult your veterinarian when beginning or changing treatment.

We’ve read plenty about the dangers of Lyme disease from ticks; complications from incorrect treatment also can have serious consequences.

Fleas are insects, while ticks are arachnids or spider-like creatures. Getting rid of them requires different treatments, as product manufacturers generally do a good job explaining. FDA regulates animal drugs, but some products that deal with external parasites come under rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dogs may be treated either with medication or topically, with what are called “spot-on” products.

Only topical treatments are safe for cats, according to Dr. Robert Feher of the Brewer Veterinary Clinic. He says pet owners must be extra careful not to use flea products designed for dogs on their cats. Because of its grooming habits, anything that’s applied to a cat will end up inside it; any product used on cats must be safe for cats.

Topical treatments coat the hair shaft of the pet. When a pest rubs against it, it picks up the active ingredients that cause it to move faster, so it runs into more hair and treatment. Soon after, the pest dies.

Medication works by being in the bloodstream. When a pest gorges itself on the animal’s blood, it ingests the medication in the blood, which kills the pest. Veterinarians advise pet owners who use medication to do so with great care, especially when giving doses based on a pet’s weight.

Thin animals can be especially at risk for adverse effects due to overdosing.

“Be very careful of weight; don’t guess,” Feher urged. He said that some new flea and tick treatments just on the market have more finely tuned “weight splits,” designed to help owners make better dosing decisions.

Feher, a vet for nearly 40 years, said treatment should continue year-round to protect both pets and people. However, he said kittens and puppies younger than 8 weeks and smaller than two pounds should not receive any treatment.

If side effects do occur — such as vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, excessive salivation or depression — discontinue treatments immediately.

If a topical treatment is suspected, immerse the pet in water to remove as much of the product as possible and call your vet. You can call the National Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. While the call is free, the center does charge for consultation. Save packaging and instructions; they can help pinpoint problems if they occur.

What about flea and tick collars? Experts are split, mainly due to some questionable ingredients in some collars.

Manufacturers of those have agreed to stop using the active ingredient called propoxur by April 2016. Some vets say because collars concentrate active ingredients around the neck, they’re less effective than other treatments.

One off-label use we’ve heard of involves treating the clothes of those who work or spend time outdoors. Put clothing in a recloseable plastic bag and drop in a tick collar; seal the bag, and the next day any ticks that may have come home on the clothing should be dead. Wash clothes thoroughly to remove remnants of both ticks and active ingredients from the flea collar.

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.

Fresh water, batteries — and insurance: Storm preparation includes updating coverage

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted June 22, 2014, at 7:53 a.m.

Maine’s major seasons recently may have felt like “mud” followed by “blackfly,” but we’ve just entered a much more serious time of year. Summer means more than camp and golf. It can also hold the threat of severe weather; the hurricane season began officially on June 1.

Consumers would do well to heed a recent urging of Eric Cioppa, Maine’s superintendent of insurance.

Cioppa said in a news release that a few basic precautions could save lives, minimize property damage and speed up recovery efforts following a severe storm. Wind, fire and flooding are the leading causes of damage and injury in any big storm. Doing what we can ahead of time just makes sense.

The first thing people might want to look at closely is their homeowners’ or renter’s insurance. Know what’s covered, and determine whether your coverage is adequate.

Cioppa said most people don’t know that a standard homeowners policy does not cover damage from flooding.

He also advises that homeowners “should review their policy, purchase additional coverage if needed, consider whether flood insurance makes sense for them, and complete an inventory of possessions.”

“A Consumer’s Guide to Homeowners Insurance” can be found online at http://www.maine.gov/pfr/insurance/consumer/Homeowner.htm.

Mainers who live in a flood plain will likely need to have flood insurance to satisfy requirements of their mortgage loans.

The National Flood Insurance Program’s website ( http://www.floodsmart.gov) contains tools to help you determine your risk of flooding. You may also call the program at 1-800-427-2419.

There’s a 30-day waiting period for flood insurance to take effect; if you’re in doubt about your flood risk, act quickly.

The inventory of your personal property can be critical if you need to file an insurance claim. Your inventory should include a photo or video of each room in your home. Include items you don’t use all the time (seasonal sports gear, tools, holiday decorations). You may want to take multiple, detailed photos of expensive items. As you acquire more valuables, you may want to add a “rider” to your policy to cover them.

While you can keep a copy of your inventory at home, you should keep a second copy — along with insurance policies and other important papers — in a safe deposit box or other secure place.

A free checklist to help prepare your inventory is available at the Maine Bureau of Insurance website ( http://www.maine.gov/insurance).

Update your insurance coverage regularly. Know whether your coverage is for the actual cash value of the items or the replacement value; the difference can be considerable.

Preparing for storms also means preparing an emergency kit. It should contain several days’ supplies of water and nonperishable food, a non-electric can opener and cooking utensils. Include medications you and your family would need, plus a first aid kid and supplies for pets.

A battery-powered radio could be essential in a prolonged power outage. Include a list of important names and phone numbers, including contact information for your insurance agent.

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.

Brush up on safe grill care to avoid painful barbecue pitfalls

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted June 15, 2014, at 11:32 a.m.

When little bits of wire find their way onto the food you grill outdoors, serious health problems can result. Just ask Karen Dunlap of Houston.Just a few bites into her meal of grilled chicken last week, Dunlap felt a huge pain when she swallowed. A broken bristle from a wire brush had been left on the grill, found its way onto her chicken and down her throat. She needed endoscopic surgery to have the wire removed from her esophagus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted a similar problem two years ago, and its warnings are worth repeating. People unknowingly ingested wire bristles from brushes used to clean grills.

The CDC studied patient visits to emergency departments in Providence, Rhode Island hospitals over 15 months, starting in March 2011. The injuries ranged from punctures in the soft tissue of the neck causing painful swallowing to cuts in the gastrointestinal tract requiring surgery.

Wire brushes are commonly used to clean grills. The problem is that not all brushes are created equal. Poorly made brushes can lose bristles or the bristles can break, allowing bits of wire to get caught in the grill surface. The bits of metal can then be transferred to food that’s cooked on the grill.

Doctors urge people who cook outdoors to inspect their grills carefully before using them, to make sure that no bristles or pieces of bristles can be picked up by food as it’s being cooked. Some urge people who use wire brushes to follow up with paper or cloth towels to remove any debris that may be left behind after brushing.

Weber, which manufactures several lines of grills, says many people leave their wire brushes outside, where harsh weather can speed their breakdown. Weber urges people to inspect brushes for signs of deterioration and replace them if they’re badly worn or split.

You can do a simple test with a pair of pliers. Grab a bristle and pull with moderate pressure, as though you were pulling blades of grass out of your lawn. If the bristles come out, replace the brush. Buy a long-handled model to keep your hands out of the fire. Choose a brush with stainless steel bristles that feel firmly attached.

You may want to consider other ways of cleaning the grill. Some abrasive pads and spray-on type cleaners can effectively remove food residue and clean the cooking surfaces. Wad up a piece of aluminum foil — a baseball-sized hunk should do — and see how effectively it cleans.

While bristle injuries are not widespread, illnesses and injuries from poor food handling are unfortunately much more common. Health officials urge caution when cooking outdoors.

Make sure meats are handled safely and are kept away from fresh fruits and vegetables. Cook meat thoroughly and use a meat thermometer to verify that it’s done. Don’t leave food out any longer than necessary, to discourage growth of bacteria.

The CDC has more information online at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6126a4.htm?s_cid=mm6126a4_w.

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.

It’s a fine line between targeted marketing, cellphone stalking

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 08, 2014, at 12:43 p.m.

Here’s a quick question relating to your privacy: How much and what kinds of geotracking do you think are acceptable?

Geotracking is the science (some would say art) of finding a person by way of his or her cellphone or other electronic device. It could provide an answer to that nagging question, “Do you know where your teenager is right now?”

It could also be the means to all kinds of mischief.

The apps included with many of today’s smartphones — or available for purchase — can track those phones’ locations. Advertisers pay to know where phone users are in the lightning round of modern commerce; walk into some stores and almost instantly your phone receives info about products that someone knows you’ll want to buy there.

Knowing someone’s location in real time could be a lifesaver. Consider the aging parent diagnosed with dementia who wanders away from home. Tracking that individual might be critical. However, as with all technological advances, it can be abused.

That worries U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, who has introduced what he calls the Location Privacy Protection Bill. It would ban what amount to “stalking” apps that people might use to keep too close an eye on a loved one. That part of the bill has strong support from opponents of domestic violence.

The second part of Franken’s bill would require companies to get a person’s permission before collecting location data from the person’s phone or other device and sharing the data with anyone. That’s a huge concern for corporations, whose executives see big profit potential in “geolocation marketing” of their products.

The Franken bill first appeared in 2012. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but never reached the Senate floor. While concern over privacy and cybersecurity may bolster support in some quarters, observers seem split on whether it has a chance to pass during the current session of Congress.

Meanwhile, companies are making trackers available and affordable. One of them — designed with the daredevil in mind — includes an emergency button to be pressed only in case of life-threatening situations. Its maker says it can trigger a search-and-rescue operation.

Businesses have legitimate reasons for upping the geolocation ante, especially in web-based trade. Examples might include making special offers to consumers in specific locales, complying with varying state or local laws and trying to detect cyber criminals posing as clients.

MasterCard began testing a system in February aimed at reducing fraudulent card transactions abroad. A cardholder’s mobile phone needs to be switched on and be nearby when a card transaction occurs.

MasterCard says the procedure — which requires cardholders to opt in if they want it — should also reduce the number of legitimate charges that are denied.

Then there’s the profit motive. MasterCard said in one promotional piece that the new system would allow retailers with geolocation technology to ping your phone offering a special deal as you drive by, or upping your rewards points based on your location.

Look for such targeted offers for people carrying phones to increase. If other companies use the MasterCard model of asking consumers to opt in, we should get a clearer picture of just how much personal information we’re willing to divulge.

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, visithttp://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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