Archive for the ‘FTC’ 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.

‘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

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.

Think it’s E-Z? – FTC Scam Alert

Love breezing through tollbooths with your E-Z Pass? A new scam is taking advantage of that.

Here’s how it works: You get an email that appears to be from E-Z Pass. It has the E-Z Pass logo, and says you owe money for driving on a toll road. It also provides a link to click for your invoice.

Guess what? The email isn’t from E-Z Pass. If you click on the link, the crooks running this scam may put malware on your machine. And if you respond to the email with your personal information, they’re likely to steal your identity.

This E-Z Pass email is the latest in a long line of phishing scams, where fraudsters pretend to be legitimate businesses as a way to get access to people’s personal information. But adopting a few online security habits can help you avoid phishing scams:

  • Never click on links in emails unless you’re sure who sent you the message.
  • Don’t respond to any emails that ask for personal or financial information. Email isn’t a secure way to send that information.
  • Type an organization’s URL yourself, and don’t send personal or financial information unless the URL begins with https (the “s” stands for secure).
  • If an email looks like it is from E-Z Pass, contact E-Z Pass customer service to confirm that it is really from them.
  • Keep your computer security software current.

If you might have been tricked by a phishing email:

  • Forward it to spam@uce.gov and to the company impersonated in the email.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint.
  • Visit the FTC’s Identity Theft website at ftc.gov/idtheft. Victims of phishing could become victims of identity theft, but there are steps to take to reduce your risk.

OnGuardOnline.gov has more information about phishing scams.

Russian hackers might have your info — now what?

You may have heard about it in the news: reports that Russian hackers have stolen more than a billion unique username and password combinations, and more than 500 million email addresses, grabbed from thousands of websites. What should you do about it? We asked our resident expert, Maneesha Mithal, director of our Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

Q. How do you know if your information was part of this hack?

A. You really don’t, so don’t take any chances. Change the passwords you use for sensitive sites like your bank and email account — really any site that has important financial or health information. Make sure each password is different so someone who knows one of your passwords won’t suddenly have access to all your important accounts. We have some tips for creating strong passwords — strong, as in hard to guess.

Some online services also offer “two-factor authentication.” To get into your account, you need a password plus something else, like a code sent to your smartphone, to prove it’s you. We recommend that people use this service when it’s available.

If you think your email account might already have been affected by a hack, here’s what you can do.

Q. Is creating new passwords enough?

A. Once you have strong passwords, you need to keep them safe. Think twice when you’re asked to enter usernames and passwords, and never provide them in response to an email. For example, if you get an email or text that seems to be from your bank, visit the bank website directly rather than clicking on any links — which could contain malware — or calling any numbers in the message. Scammers impersonate well-known businesses or the government to trick you into handing over your information.

Q. Is there anything else you can do?

A. It’s unlikely this will be the last time you’re affected by a hack or data breach. One way to increase the chance you’ll catch someone trying to misuse your information is to review your credit card and bank account statements regularly. If you see charges that you don’t recognize, contact your bank or credit card provider right away and speak to the fraud department.

You also can check your credit reports for free every few months at AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. Your credit report includes information about your credit card accounts and other bills you pay, so it’s a good way to find out if someone has opened credit in your name. You’re entitled to a free report every 12 months from each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If it turns out you are a victim of identity theft, you can find the steps you should take to deal with it at ftc.gov/idtheft.

Last but not least, send this post to your family and friends to make sure they know what to do, too.

Q. How can someone make sure this doesn’t happen to them again?

A. Unfortunately, you can’t. But by taking these steps, you can lessen the odds scammers will get a hold of your information, and also minimize the consequences if they do.

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