Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Had your flu shot yet? What you need to know about this year’s vaccine

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 26, 2014, at 5:57 a.m.

Had your flu shot yet?

You may hear that question a lot, now that the first cases of influenza have been confirmed in Maine. Maine health officials and people at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say most of us should have flu shots as a way to help curb the spread of the seasonal flu.

Vaccinations are especially important for seniors. As many as 90 percent of flu-related deaths are people age 65 and older.

Flu shots also are important for younger people, whose immune systems have not fully developed. There are several kinds of flu vaccines available — some protect against three strains of flu and others protect against four. The CDC isn’t recommending one vaccine over another, with one exception.

For healthy children ages 2-8, the CDC recommends the vaccine that is administered as a nasal spray. The agency says if the spray is not immediately available and a traditional flu shot is, then the child should get the flu shot right away rather than wait.

The federal Vaccines For Children program offers free flu shots for children ages 6 months through 18 years. Health providers enrolled with the Maine Immunization Program also can offer the vaccine free to people who are either Medicaid eligible, uninsured, underinsured (immunizations not covered) or people served by tribal health centers and municipal health departments.

Pregnant women and their partners also are eligible, as are employees and residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes, and employees of schools that hold onsite flu shot clinics on school days.

The vaccine may be free, but there may still be a charge for immunization. Under the Maine Immunization Program, medical practitioners are allowed to charge a “reasonable administration fee provided that no patient is denied the vaccine” for inability to pay.

Immunizations are not for everyone. People with allergies to eggs, gelatin and certain antibiotics should not receive the vaccines. Anyone who has had a bad reaction to a flu shot in the past or who has other health concerns should consult a doctor before being vaccinated.

Bangor Public Health and Community Services runs immunization clinics 9 p.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays and 4-7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month.

“Our aim is to keep our population healthy,” Patricia Hamilton, director of Bangor Public Health, said. “We keep our costs as low as possible,” she said, adding that the charge for a flu shot is $15.

More information about Bangor Public Health is available online at bangorpublichealth.org.

The CDC’s website on influenza can be found at cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm.

The state of Maine’s website is immunizeme.org.

If you have questions, call the Maine Immunization Program at 1-800-867-4775 or email immunizeme.dhhs@maine.gov .

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 let a vacation getaway become a house of horrors

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 19, 2014, at 10:14 a.m.

On Oct. 11, Texas A&M hosted the University of Mississippi in football. Some fans of Ole Miss made the trek to College Station for the game, and a dozen of them planned to spend the night in a rented home.

They discovered soon after arriving that the home was not really for rent, and the $2,000 they had paid up front was in the pocket of the crook who scammed them. The scammer had insisted on being paid by wire transfer, a sure tipoff that the football fans were being swindled.

The property had been listed on several home rental sites, and the descriptions appealed enough that the would-be renters skipped one of the key pieces of advice in such situations: don’t rent sight unseen. That home may not be available to rent, or it might not even exist.

Craigslist offers this tip on its website: “Deal locally, face-to-face; follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.” It’s as valid with vacation rentals as any other transaction. Looking someone in the eye gives you a feel for the person you plan to deal with, and that’s usually more than any anonymous, electronic relationship can offer.

Finding the rental initially might happen by way of a website. There are some reliable sites run by honest people, with accurate descriptions and representative photos. There also are some brazen attempts to separate people from their money through deceptive words and pictures, both of which may bear no relationship to anything in the real world.

Don’t be fooled by great-looking photos; they may have been digitally enhanced. If a description sounds too good to be true … you know how this sentence always ends. And if the price is one-third to one-half below the going rate for other rentals in a given area, chances are the ad is bogus.

If you find a rental that sounds legit, have it checked out by a trusted local agent. Sure, you’ll pay for this service, but that will be money well spent if it verifies that you’re really getting the deal you think you’re making.

Doing your own investigating? Make sure that the person claiming to own the property actually owns it. You can verify this through public property tax records. You may want to have a lawyer review any agreement you sign, as you would if you were signing a yearlong lease.

If you’re on an extended vacation, you may want to spend the first few days in a hotel. That will allow time to check things out on your own before finalizing any rental plans. Trust your instincts during this process. If red flags go up, walk away.

Don’t pay with cash, and don’t wire money. Both methods of payment leave you little recourse if the deal goes sour. Be wary of any requests for a credit check before you meet the owner. Such requests are sometimes ways of trolling for people with less than solid credit who may be desperate for a rental.

If you rent a place and like it, consider renting it again. Building a relationship with an owner over time can remove a lot of uncertainty over future getaways.

For more information, visit the federal government’s website www.usa.gov/topics/consumer/scams-fraud/family-home-community/rental-fraud.shtml or call 800-FED-INFO (333-4636), 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

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 let mobile phone providers sock you with hidden fees

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 12, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

Click image to access FTC page

Maine customers of AT&T Mobility LLC are among many across the country who stand to receive refunds from the mobile phone company. Last week, AT&T agreed to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that the company had improperly “crammed” charges onto bills for services customers did not approve.

Current and former customers of AT&T who paid unauthorized charges after Jan. 1, 2009, can apply for refunds. You may file a claim online by visiting www.ftc.gov/att. You may call 1-877-819-9692 with questions, but claims are not being taken over the phone; you may request a paper claim form to mail in.

You need to file a claim by May 1 of next year. And don’t plan on spending any refund money right away. The FTC has hired Epiq Systems to handle the refund requests and says you should not expect to see a refund check for at least nine months.

Cramming charges are listed on phone bills for third-party services, including digital wallpapers, ringtones and text message subscriptions ranging from horoscopes to gossip about celebrities. The charges range up to $9.99 per month per service; AT&T hauled in millions for those third-party services and kept 35 percent of the take, according to the FTC complaint.

The billing was deceptive, according to that complaint, because many charges were hidden. In some cases they were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” making it appear that the charges were part of the company’s phone service costs. In the “Service Summary” section of the bills, FTC says the company lumped in the unauthorized charges, again making it appear to be part of the company’s wireless service fees.

The settlement requires AT&T to get explicit consent from customers before billing them for third-party charges. If you dispute such a charge, AT&T will give you a refund unless it can prove you consented to the charge. AT&T will still offer the option of blocking all third-party charges.

Other carriers offer free blocking; check with your provider about ways to block charges.

The settlement totals $105 million, with $80 million going to the FTC for the rebates. There’s another $20 million in penalties to the states and the District of Columbia, and $5 million in penalties goes to the FTC.

The settlement is the largest of seven mobile cramming cases the agency has brought since 2013. For a company that reported total second-quarter revenues this year of more than $32 billion, it shouldn’t hurt AT&T much. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, a case that is ongoing.

The FTC says you might avoid cramming charges by:

— Not entering your mobile phone numbers on unsecured websites.

— Looking over your future phone bills closely for unauthorized charges; unsolicited text messages could be a signal you’re being crammed.

— Looking for fees that aren’t specific (minimum use fee, member/activation fee, subscription); if you’re not sure what a fee is for, ask your carrier for an explanation.

If another carrier’s bill contains unauthorized charges, you can file a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. File online at www.maine.gov/mpuc or call 1-800-452-4699.

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.

Variable-rate electricity plans pose high risk of sticker shock

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 28, 2014, at 9:18 a.m.

Thousands of Mainers signed up last spring with suppliers of electricity, who offered what seemed to be great deals. Now, many of those consumers are having second thoughts as the second phase of the arrangement kicks in.

One deal was a six-month contract to buy power at a fixed rate, roughly one-half cent below the standard offer price. Eric Bryant, senior counsel for the Maine Public Advocate, says such a contract offered real savings for many consumers.

But in a news release last March, Bryant warned consumers to watch their calendars. Once the six-month contract was up, Bryant cautioned that a variable rate — likely fluctuating month to month — would kick in.

The variable rates are driven by wholesale market prices. Last winter, MPA says some variable rates went as high as 25-cents a kilowatt hour, or nearly four times the standard offer price.

“Their rates went very, very high,” Bryant says of some consumers who suddenly found themselves with a variable rate contract.

Bryant said last spring MPA generally discourages variable pricing agreements because of sticker shock. Last week, MPA called on consumers to ditch their variable rate deals and get back on the standard offer price, which can’t be raised until March 1 of each year.

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

MPA advises customers of North American Power to call the company at 888-313-9086 or email at customercare@NAPower.com to find out when the contract expires. If the variable rate agreement is still in effect, ask the company to switch immediately to the standard offer; MPA says there’s no need to wait for a meter reading and that the company must process a request within two business days of receiving it.

Emera and Central Maine Power charge a $5 “off-cycle drop fee” if you switch before your next meter reading; there’s no fee if the switch happens “on-cycle.”

If your fixed-rate plan has not yet expired, you can ask North American to switch you to the standard offer on the date the plan does expire. You may also make the change by calling your utility (Emera Maine or Central Maine Power) directly.

North American Power says in a statement its policy is to send notices to all fixed-rate plan customers, telling them when their plan expires. The notices say, if the customer does nothing, a month-to-month variable rate will begin; it also sets a date by which customers should contact North American to choose another fixed rate plan.

North American Power representative Tiffany Eddy told me, “Our goal is to keep our customers happy and to keep communications going.” She could not explain why a number of customers had contacted the advocate saying they had not been notified.

Eddy also disputed figures cited in the advocate’s release, saying “our rates have never been as high as 25 cents (per kwh).”

The public advocate mentioned only North American in its release, but consumers should be aware that other suppliers make similar offers. Know what a plan entails before signing up, so that you don’t face unpleasant surprises later.

 

Click meter to access six things to consider when choosing a supplier

The Office of the Public Advocate’s website is updated monthly. It lists the prices offered by major electricity suppliers and suggestions for choosing a supplier. Visit the site at http://www.state.me.us/meopa/utilities/electric/supply.html or call 207-287-2445 to speak with someone from the Advocate’s office.

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.

‘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.

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