Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Beware of gimmicks to treat concussions — Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘As Seen on TV’ firm sued for taking high-pressure sales tactics too far

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 10:26 a.m.

click image to access NJ attorney general’s complaint

New Jersey’s attorney general and that state’s Division of Consumer Affairs have filed a complaint against Telebrands, the company known for its “As Seen on TV” series of offers.

The agencies allege Telebrands violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act through its vigorous “upselling” via the company’s automated phone system and websites. When customers tried to place orders by phone or online, they received repeated prompts to order more goods and few ways to decline.

The five-count lawsuit also accuses Telebrands of shipping and billing for goods customers did not order and for running what the suit says were misleading ads, among other violations. The agencies also claim the company’s ordering system kept some callers tied up for a half hour or more, didn’t allow customers to verify their orders before authorizing charges, didn’t provide total costs of orders and wouldn’t give customers a clear way to decline additional products.

The Division of Consumer Affairs had plenty of complaints — 340 of them from 2012 through July of this year. It also did several months’ worth of undercover work, buying items that included “Instabulbs,” the “Pocket Hose” and the “Olde Brooklyn Lantern” through Telebrands websites and the toll-free numbers in the firm’s TV ads and infomercials.

“This action against Telebrands alleges that consumers were repeatedly pressured through gimmickry, misrepresentations and high-pressure sales tactics to buy products they didn’t want,” Steve Lee, the acting consumer affairs director, said.

He added that return policies were not as represented in ads and on the company’s website and called Telebrands’s actions “unconscionable.”

Telebrands founder and President A.J. Khubani said in a statement, “We take pride that for more than three decades, tens of millions of consumers have trusted TeleBrands for delivering innovative products.”

A search of the Better Business Bureau website for Telebrands reveals a list of more than 200 alternate business names based on products sold, from AB King Pro to Zero Pain.

Khubani’s statement also said consumer satisfaction is “always our top priority.”

“We are confident that this matter with the state of New Jersey will be resolved in short order,” Khubani added.

The lawsuit claims customers often received merchandise they had not ordered; there were no instructions on returning unwanted items; and if they did return items, they had to do so at their expense. The suit also charges that when callers tried to reach customer service people, they were placed on hold for long periods or were disconnected.

The Consumer Fraud Act provides restitution of up to $10,000 per violation. Because Telebrands was operating under a consent judgment in 2001 for similar violations, New Jersey is asking for penalties of up to $20,000 per violation.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business or suspect any other form of consumer abuse can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200. Consumers also can file online at https://www20.state.nj.us/LPSCA_COMPL/ or download a complaint form to fill out and mail. Include copies of as much supporting documentation as possible.

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

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media rants about bad service could land you in court

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

Click image for FindLaw’s explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good consumers don’t inflame, they inform.

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

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

 

Pass It On program helps consumers avoid scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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