Don’t let a vacation getaway become a house of horrors


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 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 or email

Don’t let mobile phone providers sock you with hidden fees


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 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 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 or email

Fiskars Recalls Bypass Lopper Shears Due to Laceration

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


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


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 and click on “Product Notifications” for more information.

Report an Incident Involving this Product

Recall Details


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


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.


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 from May 2011 through June 2014 for about $40
Distributor: Fiskars Brands Inc., of Madison, Wis.
Manufactured in China

Does your investment adviser offer ‘low-hanging fruit’ to cyber criminals?


Posted Oct. 05, 2014, at 11:26 a.m.
The good news, said a JP Morgan Chase Bank official soon after it filed a regulatory report last week about a data breach, is that it appeared that no sensitive customer data had been compromised

The bad news was the breach lasted several months and affected 76 million households and 7 million small businesses. Gigabytes of data — names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses — apparently were sucked out of the bank’s servers and likely were gathered at a data center somewhere in Russia, according to Bloomberg News.

JP Morgan Chase is this country’s largest bank. You might think that cyber thieves direct all their efforts at the big guys. You might be wrong.

Smaller investment companies may not be very concerned about cybersecurity, perhaps thinking that they are too small for crooks to bother with. One industry observer says that portion of the finance industry could amount to so much “low-hanging fruit” for cyber criminals.

The North American Securities Administrators Association recently ran a pilot study of nine states, including Maine. The study looked at 440 registered investment advisers that manage assets of less than $100 million.

Of those small and medium-sized firms, 4.1 percent reported having experienced a data breach. Some 1.1 percent reported having “theft, loss, unauthorized exposure, or unauthorized use of or access to confidential information.”

Critics say those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Smaller firms with less than state-of-the-art cybersecurity may not know whether their systems have been breached, let alone whether any data have been lost. The survey also showed that more than one-third of the responding firms did not test for threats or security gaps; more than 60 percent don’t have training programs, policies or procedures to detect unauthorized access to data.

The record is better in Maine than in some other states in the survey, according to Judith M. Shaw, Maine’s securities administrator. Shaw said the survey is giving regulators a baseline from which to formulate policies that will help the investment industry as a whole.

“I couldn’t tell you that we have those best practices and policies in place now,” Shaw said. But she added that her staff members visit investment firms large and small and make suggestions when they find security issues that need addressing.

“And they implement our recommendations right away,” Shaw added.

In other states, owners of some investment firms say they don’t manage money, only offer advice; for that reason, they may feel that cybersecurity is less of an issue for them. Shaw says investment firms in Maine “are very attuned to the fact that, whether they are handling assets or not, they need to be vigilant.”

Shaw says consumers should ask the investment pros who handle their money some hard questions, such as these:

— Are you using systems that are protected appropriately?

— What do you do to protect the data that you have?

— Are there appropriate layers of verification for those accessing data?

Shaw says people may hesitate to ask tough questions of people they consider professionals. However, she says these types of questions need to be asked and answered.

The NASAA plans to continue the study with an eye toward recommending practices to improve security. To that end it expects to “engage in additional conversation with industry.”

For more information, visit the Maine Office of Securities website or call (207) 624-8551.

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 or email


Consumer Contact: Electricity Providers – WABI-TV


Russ and Joy discussed choosing the right electricity provider, and things to look for to make sure you are making the right decision.

Some things to consider when making your decision:

  • The standard offer price
  • The price offered by a CEP
  • Whether the price is fixed or variable
  • The term of the contract
  • Termination fee
  • Your rights

For more information you can contact Maine Public Advocate at 287-2445 or online at

You can also contact North American Power at 1-888-313-9086, or email at

Variable-rate electricity plans pose high risk of sticker shock


Posted Sept. 28, 2014, at 9:18 a.m.

Thousands of Mainers signed up last spring with suppliers of electricity, who offered what seemed to be great deals. Now, many of those consumers are having second thoughts as the second phase of the arrangement kicks in.

One deal was a six-month contract to buy power at a fixed rate, roughly one-half cent below the standard offer price. Eric Bryant, senior counsel for the Maine Public Advocate, says such a contract offered real savings for many consumers.

But in a news release last March, Bryant warned consumers to watch their calendars. Once the six-month contract was up, Bryant cautioned that a variable rate — likely fluctuating month to month — would kick in.

The variable rates are driven by wholesale market prices. Last winter, MPA says some variable rates went as high as 25-cents a kilowatt hour, or nearly four times the standard offer price.

“Their rates went very, very high,” Bryant says of some consumers who suddenly found themselves with a variable rate contract.

Bryant said last spring MPA generally discourages variable pricing agreements because of sticker shock. Last week, MPA called on consumers to ditch their variable rate deals and get back on the standard offer price, which can’t be raised until March 1 of each year.

“North American Power is supposed to let customers know their contract is expiring, but we know some customers haven’t gotten notice, and we’re concerned that those who have received notice may not understand the potential costs of switching to a variable rate,” said Public Advocate Tim Schneider in last week’s statement. “Missing that single piece of mail could cost a customer hundreds of dollars this winter.”

MPA advises customers of North American Power to call the company at 888-313-9086 or email at to find out when the contract expires. If the variable rate agreement is still in effect, ask the company to switch immediately to the standard offer; MPA says there’s no need to wait for a meter reading and that the company must process a request within two business days of receiving it.

Emera and Central Maine Power charge a $5 “off-cycle drop fee” if you switch before your next meter reading; there’s no fee if the switch happens “on-cycle.”

If your fixed-rate plan has not yet expired, you can ask North American to switch you to the standard offer on the date the plan does expire. You may also make the change by calling your utility (Emera Maine or Central Maine Power) directly.

North American Power says in a statement its policy is to send notices to all fixed-rate plan customers, telling them when their plan expires. The notices say, if the customer does nothing, a month-to-month variable rate will begin; it also sets a date by which customers should contact North American to choose another fixed rate plan.

North American Power representative Tiffany Eddy told me, “Our goal is to keep our customers happy and to keep communications going.” She could not explain why a number of customers had contacted the advocate saying they had not been notified.

Eddy also disputed figures cited in the advocate’s release, saying “our rates have never been as high as 25 cents (per kwh).”

The public advocate mentioned only North American in its release, but consumers should be aware that other suppliers make similar offers. Know what a plan entails before signing up, so that you don’t face unpleasant surprises later.


Click meter to access six things to consider when choosing a supplier

The Office of the Public Advocate’s website is updated monthly. It lists the prices offered by major electricity suppliers and suggestions for choosing a supplier. Visit the site at or call 207-287-2445 to speak with someone from the Advocate’s office.

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 or email

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

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

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.


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.


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



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