Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

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.

Fiskars Recalls Bypass Lopper Shears Due to Laceration Hazard-CPSC.gov

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lopper shears and contact Fiskars to receive a replacement lopper

Recall Summary

Name of product:

Fiskars® 32-Inch Bypass Lopper Shears

Hazard:

The lopper handles can break when attempting to cut branches, posing a risk of serious injury and laceration.

Remedy:

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lopper shears and contact Fiskars to receive a replacement lopper.

Consumer Contact: Fiskars toll-free at (855) 544-0151 anytime or visit Fiskars’ website at www2.fiskars.com and click on “Product Notifications” for more information.

Report an Incident Involving this Product

Recall Details

Units

About 277,000 in the U.S. and 11,000 in Canada

Description

This recall involves Fiskars Titanium Bypass Lopper shears with model number 6954. The lopper shears have 32-inch dark orange steel handles and black rubber grips with a gray strip. Plastic gears connected to the pruning blades allow the consumers to open and close the pruning blades by moving the handles.  “FISKARS” is printed on one handle and product identification information, including model number 6954, is printed on a label on the opposite handle above the barcode.

Incidents/Injuries

The firm has received 11 reports of incidents involving lopper handles breaking, including reports of bruising and lacerations, some required stitches to the head and face.

Sold exclusively at Home Depot stores nationwide and online at HomeDepot.com from May 2011 through June 2014 for about $40
Distributor: Fiskars Brands Inc., of Madison, Wis.
Manufactured in China

Hearth & Home Technologies Recalls Gas Fireplaces, Stoves, Inserts and Log Sets Due to Risk of Gas Leak and Fire Hazard | CPSC.gov

Hearth & Home Technologies Recalls Gas Fireplaces, Stoves, Inserts and Log Sets Due to Risk of Gas Leak and Fire Hazard | CPSC.gov.

Click image for list of dealers in Bangor area

This recall involves Hearth & Home Technologies®, Heat-N-Glo®, Heatilator®, Outdoor Lifestyles® and Quadra Fire® natural or propane gas indoor and outdoor fireplaces, stoves, inserts and log sets.

Remedy

Consumers should immediately stop using the gas fireplaces, stoves, inserts and log sets, turn off the gas to the units and contact the fireplace store where the unit was purchased to arrange for a free inspection and, if necessary, valve replacement.  The firm’s dealers are contacting known purchasers.

Sold at

Fireplace stores from May 2014 through July 2014 for between $1,200 and $8,000.

Manufacturer

Fireplace Manufacturer: Hearth & Home Technologies, of Lakeville, Minn. 

 

Feds sue for-profit college network of predatory lending, phony career services

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted Sept. 21, 2014, at 10:40 a.m.

It’s likely that only a small percentage of Maine’s college-age students have even heard of Everest University, Heald College and WyoTech. The three schools are operated for profit by Corinthian Colleges Inc (CCI). None is in Maine; the two closest campuses are in the Boston area.

Still, a lawsuit filed last week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau against CCI should be of interest to students who have taken out private student loans to pay for their education. The suit charges Corinthian with predatory lending, persuading students to take out the higher-cost private loans by advertising phony job prospects and career services.

In announcing the lawsuit, the director of CFPB did not mince words. “We believe Corinthian lured in consumers with lies about their job prospects upon graduation, sold high-cost loans to pay for that false hope, and then harassed students for overdue debts while they were still in school,” Richard Cordray said in remarks prepared for a reporter telephone briefing.

Cordray cited “egregious” examples of alleged misdeeds by CCI employees. One school apparently paid legitimate employers to hire graduates just long enough to count them as “employed” (CCI apparently defined a “career” as a job lasting only one day).

Although it touted ongoing career services, students often got generic Craigslist job postings. Often they could not contact any CCI personnel in the various career services offices.

Once they signed up, students faced high-cost tuition. In 2013, CFPB says tuition and fees for an associate degree ran between $33,000 and $43,000; for a bachelor’s degree, the range was $60,000-$75,000.

Tuition was higher than the federal loan limit, so many students were forced to take out private student loans. Corinthian offered its own “Genesis loans” costing more than twice as much as federal student loans.

The CFPB investigation found that three of every five students were likely to fall behind on Genesis loan payments within the first three years. Investigators said CCI did not share that reality with students; rather, it said the students “had no idea they were being set up to fail.”

Corinthian set an unusual policy of requiring students to start paying back those Genesis loans as soon as their classes began. If they fell behind on the payments, they faced what the CFPB director called “harassing and bullying debt-collection methods.” If they dropped out of school, they had all the debt and no degree.

A statement on Corinthian Colleges’ website strongly disputes allegations in the suit. It says the CFPB “wrongly disparages the career services assistance that we offer our graduates and mischaracterizes both the purpose and practices of the ‘Genesis’ lending program.” The company says it discloses details about its loan program before students enroll, calling that process “clear and extensive.”

It also says that a number of the problems CFPB identified were brought to the agency’s attention by the company, and that Corinthian is working on improvements. CFPB is looking for full redress of all Genesis loans made since July 21, 2011, including those that have been paid off.

The future of the 100-plus campuses across the country is uncertain. The company entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education in July to sell or close a number of its campuses.

Meanwhile, a bill pending in the U.S. Senate would allow 25 million Americans to renegotiate their student loans at today’s lower interest rates. It would also cap undergrad loans below 4 percent; federal Stafford loans top out at 9 percent, while some private loans can exceed 14 percent.

You can read the “Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Student Loans” at http://www.maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/publications.htm.

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.

‘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.

Google to Refund Consumers at Least $19 Million to Settle FTC Complaint It Unlawfully Billed Parents for Children’s Unauthorized In-App Charges

FTC Order Requires Google to Change its Mobile App Billing Practices to Ensure Consumers’ Consent is Obtained Before Charges Levied

Google Inc. has agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging that it unfairly billed consumers for millions of dollars in unauthorized charges incurred by children using mobile apps downloaded from the Google Play app store for use on Android mobile devices. Under the terms of the settlement, Google will provide full refunds – with a minimum payment of $19 million – to consumers who were charged for kids’ purchases without authorization of the account holder. Google has also agreed to modify its billing practices to ensure that it obtains express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.

The Commission’s complaint against Google alleges that since 2011, Google violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on “unfair” commercial practices by billing consumers for charges by children made within kids’ apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Many consumers reported hundreds of dollars of such unauthorized charges, according to the complaint.

“For millions of American families, smartphones and tablets have become a part of their daily lives,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorize.”

This marks the Commission’s third case concerning unauthorized in-app charges by children. In January, the Commission announced a settlement with Apple Inc., requiring Apple to provide full refunds to consumers who were billed for unauthorized charges by children – paying a minimum amount of $32.5 million – and obtain express, informed consent for in-app charges. And in July, the Commission filed a complaint in federal court against Amazon.com, Inc., similarly seeking full refunds for consumers and an order requiring informed consent for in-app charges.

In-app charges are a component of many apps available from Google Play and can range from 99 cents to $200. In many apps used by children, users are invited to accumulate virtual items that help them advance in the game, though as the FTC’s complaint notes, the lines between virtual money purchases and real money purchases can be blurred. The FTC’s complaint alleges that Google billed consumers for many such charges by children without obtaining account holders’ authorization, leaving consumers holding the bill.

When Google first introduced in-app charges to the Google Play store in 2011, the complaint alleges, Google billed for such charges without any password requirement or other method to obtain account holder authorization. Children could incur in-app charges simply by clicking on popup boxes within the app as they used it.

According to the complaint, in mid- to late 2012, Google began presenting a pop-up box that asked for the account holder’s password before billing in-app charges. The new pop-up, however, did not contain any information about the charge. Google also did not inform consumers that entering the password opened up a 30-minute window in which a password was no longer required, allowing children to rack up unlimited charges during that time.

During this time, many thousands of consumers complained to Google about children making unauthorized in-app charges, according to the complaint. Some parents noted that their children had spent hundreds of dollars in in-app charges without their consent. Others noted that children buying virtual in-game items with real money were unaware they were causing their parents to be billed.

Google employees referred to the issue as “friendly fraud” and “family fraud” in describing kids’ unauthorized in-app charges as a leading source of refund requests, according to the complaint. The complaint further alleges that Google’s practice has been to refer consumers seeking refunds first to the app developer. Continue reading

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