Archive for the ‘FTC’ Category

‘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.

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.

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