Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

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.

No, child, you don’t need it just because the guy on the screen says you do

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 01, 2014, at 11:51 a.m.

Click for reviews

The conversation, though fictional, could easily go like this:

“Mom, can I have that (whatever was just advertised on TV)?”

“Do you need it?”

“No, but I have to have it.”

“Why?”

“The guy on TV said so.”

From there, the conversation might go in any number of directions. As members of the consuming public, we’re all subject to a barrage of advertising. The younger consumers in our society are increasingly targeted by those ads; both we and they need to understand what the messages of the ads are all about.

Research by the National Institute on Media and Family shows young people spend more time in front of screens than on any other activity, other than sleeping. The average is 53 hours per week, and that’s enough screen time to absorb a pile of ad messages.

Do we need to say that many of those ads are designed for adult consumption?

The advertisers may well say with straight faces that they don’t try to influence children inappropriately. Critics argue that the ads are conditioning young people for lives of fast food, luxurious yet economical cars and a cosmetic or pharmaceutical for all occasions.

The merchants of these goods know the power of electronic media. They’re all too aware of the best intentions of concerned parents, carting children from one activity to the next until all are spent. Finally alone before their respective screens, the consumers of all ages log on, kick back and take it all in.

Most advertisers hope they take it in without question.

And so, parents have a huge obligation to provide guidance. Teach youngsters to think critically about the messages they see and hear — product-related or otherwise — and you’ve taught one of the most important lessons they’ll ever receive.

Cigarettes may be a prime example. Tobacco companies were barred from buying time on TV many years ago, but today electronic cigarette ads abound. Some health officials worry that a whole generation will become addicted to nicotine through a new delivery system. It’s worth a conversation, about both the health effects and the messages e-cigarette ads convey.

A hidden message in a lot of advertising is defiance. Researchers from the Annenberg School of Communications wrote in 1980 that not much study had yet been done on the role of TV commercials in ramping up family conflict. However, the authors said, “One implication from these studies is that by third grade, children become less accepting of parents’ refusals to purchase a product and more likely to respond to their frustration in an aggressive manner (Sheikh and Moleski, 1977).”

Finding the “truth” in advertising is likely another discussion entirely. But helping youngsters to look critically at ads and everything else that comes across their electronic screens is well worth the time and effort.

We recommend a great little book titled Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know by Shari Graydon. Writing for teens and tweens, Graydon sorts wheat from chaff in showing how ads target young people and how young people can be ready.

Talk about ads with a young person you know. You could both learn a lot.

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.

The road to quick-fix driveway repairs is paved with bad intentions

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 25, 2014, at 10 a.m.

Click for top 10 red flags of home repair scams

If the birds are singing and some guy offers to seal your driveway for 200 bucks, it must be spring.

Our long-awaited break of winter’s grip means the home improvement scammers are making the rounds again. One of them actually visited us last summer, saying he had “just enough material from another job in the neighborhood” to give me a great deal. We sent him packing.

His fellow con artists are carrying on the tradition, going door to door offering “rock-bottom prices” and saying they’ve “never had a dissatisfied customer.”

If that’s true, why are they always in such a hurry? Why do they need to do the work immediately? Why must they be paid in cash?

The reason is simple. They need to get running, to stay ahead of the people who enforce the laws they are breaking.

There are three Maine laws that deal with transient sales and home repairs. They are explained in detail in the Consumer Law Guide published by the attorney general’s office (visit www.maine.gov/ag. See chapter 17 of the Guide for laws relating to construction. Chapter 13 deals with transient sales).

Among the key pieces of advice are these. Always have a written contract for any job costing more than $3,000. There’s a three-day cooling-off period before work starts; if you decide you don’t want the job done within those three days, you can cancel the deal. You and the contractor may — but you don’t have to — agree to settle any disputes that might arise through mediation or arbitration.

Don’t sign a contract that includes any blank spaces (to be filled in later). And Maine law says the contractor cannot ask for more than one-third of the total contract amount as a down payment.

The attorney general has a model contract for home construction (see chapter 18 of the Guide). For information on professions requiring a state license, visit www.maine.gov/pfr.

You’ll likely want to check out a number of contractors before hiring one. Ask each of them how many jobs like yours they’ve done in the past year, and ask for references.

Find out what kinds of insurance they carry. Beware of those who demand more than the one-third upfront payment or insist on cash.

Also, be wary if the contractor asks you to get the building permit. Transient sellers must be licensed by the state, and an unlicensed contractor may not want to show up at your town hall.

Be extra wary of transient repair “pros” who “spot a problem” you had not noticed. Once inside your home, they may break something and then point out that it “needs fixing.” The shady contractor may insist you come with him to inspect something, while one of his associates steals your valuables.

Those last few points are among the National Consumers League’s top 10 red flags of home repair scams. Read more at www.nclnet.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, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

Make smart choices and educate yourselves about student loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 18, 2014, at 12:01 p.m.

The Bangor Daily News recently ran a story about a young man who slept in his car to help manage his student debt. Clearly, he took his education and financial situation seriously.

Here are some figures from the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit that tracks debt load nationwide. In 2012, the average debt that a Maine student racked up was $29,352, seventh highest in the country. Just over two-thirds of all students at four-year institutions in Maine carried some debt.

The total debt for higher education in the United States was recently reported to be more than $1 trillion; that’s larger than all U.S. credit card debt. It’s taken on by young adults who may have had no formal instruction in financial planning, and many of them take many years to pay off their debt.

downeasterguidestudentloans-copyGet help in planning your borrowing from agencies that will help because they want to, not because they want you to pay them. The Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Student Loans is a great place to start. Find it online at www.maine.gov/pfr and click on “consumer guides.” Maine residents also may call 800-332-8529 to have a free copy sent by mail.

The guide is filled with solid advice about types of loans — read carefully the part about private versus government-backed loans — plus finding free money for college and repayment options. It also gives some guidance on what you can expect to earn by choosing different majors and whether an advance degree is worth considering.

Your choice of a school can greatly influence the amount of debt you may need to incur. The guide offers some side-by-side comparisons of in-state, four-year institutions; the amount of debt an average student carries at some of those schools may surprise you.

Another source of information is the Finance Authority of Maine. FAME’s website (www.famemaine.com/education) features tips on scholarships, financial aid and help for nontraditional students. Students pursuing careers in education and health fields may be eligible for forgiveness of some of their loan debt if they serve in Maine after completing their studies.

Most education technicians do not qualify for loan forgiveness. However, those working in Chapter One programs may qualify; check with FAME for more information and call 623-3263 or 800-228-3734.

Once in school, there are many ways to reduce the total amount needed to borrow. Living at home, working part-time and staying alert for scholarship opportunities are just three possibilities.

The nonprofit National Consumer Law Center operates what it calls the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. Its website ( www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/) includes a step-by-step guide to dealing with your student loan program. It also tackles tough issues such as bankruptcy and getting out of default.

Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fired a warning shot at many lenders in the private student loan market. The bureau objects to a widespread policy termed “auto default,” under which a borrower is place in default if a loan co-signer dies or files for bankruptcy. This can happen regardless of a borrower’s track record of making payments on time. For more information, visit www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/?s.

In bottom-line terms, most student debts follow long after graduation. If you feel overwhelmed, get advice from a financial planner.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 72 other followers

%d bloggers like this: