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The portion of the belt that’s been retracted inside the seat may contain some surprises: muddy spots, mildew or other clues that the vehicle has spent some time immersed in water.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.

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.

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

 

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.

VIZIO Recalls to Repair 39- and 42-Inch E-Series Flat Panel Televisions Due to Risk of Tip Over | CPSC.gov

Safety Warning

Click screen for list of models

Recall Details

Units — About 245,000

Sold at:  Best Buy, Meijer, Target, Walmart and other retail stores nationwide , online at Amazon.com, Costco.com, Meijer.com, Sams.com and other internet retailers from December 2013 through June 2014 for between $370 and $450.

Description

This recall involves Vizio E-series 39- and 42-inch Full-Array LED flat panel televisions. The flat panel televisions are black with “VIZIO” printed in the lower right corner of the television front and the VIZIO logo in the center of the back.

Incidents/Injuries

VIZIO has received 51 reports of the recalled televisions tipping over. No injuries have been reported.

Remedy

Consumers using the stand assembly should immediately detach the stand, place the television in a safe location and contact VIZIO for a replacement stand assembly. Consumers with wall-mounted televisions should request the replacement stand assembly in case the stand is needed for future use.

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.

My Maine Ride owner agrees to 7-year license suspension, reimburse consumers up to $30,000

Posted July 30, 2014, at 12:46 p.m.
Last modified July 30, 2014, at 8:54 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The used car dealer sued by the Maine attorney general’s office earlier this year for unfair and deceptive trade practices has agreed to the suspension of his license to own a used car business for seven years and to reimburse consumers up to $30,000 for repairs to cars purchased from Bumper2Bumper Inc. and My Maine Ride.

Glenn A. Geiser Jr., 48, of Brewer signed the consent agreement July 11 along with Assistant Attorney General Carolyn A. Silsby, whose office filed a lawsuit against the longtime used car dealer on Jan. 31 in Penobscot County Superior Court.

“There is separate litigation continuing against Bangor Car Care, Inc., which is owned by Geiser’s mother,” according to a statement issued by the Maine attorney general’s office.

The provisions of the agreement — a copy of which was obtained by the Bangor Daily News — allow Geiser to work for someone else who is licensed to sell used cars, as long as that individual is not a member of his household. It also prevents him from seeking payment for money owed his firms after the repossession of a vehicle and filing an adverse report on a consumer’s credit report concerning funds owed for a repossessed car or truck.

Geiser will not be ordered to pay any fines, according to the agreement. If he violates any of its provisions, he would be found in contempt of court and fined up to $10,000 per violation under Maine law.

The agreement will not go into effect until it is signed by a judge. Superior Court Justice Ann Murray is handling the case.

“I am greatly humbled by the experience,” Geiser said in statement issued by his attorney, Joseph Baldacci of Bangor. “I tried the best that I could, and though I made mistakes, we sold almost 19,000 cars and employed 40 people at any given time.

“We all worked very hard to help, and although we as well as I made mistakes, we tried very hard to provide affordable transportation,” he continued. “Despite the publicity, I have been contacted by many customers who have thanked the business for providing the services and choices to them.

“My family and I look forward to continuing to be productive, caring, positive, and helpful citizens in our community,” Geiser concluded. “We love the State of Maine, the school system our children attend, and the community we live in.”

Under the terms of the proposed consent judgment, Geiser and his used car dealerships, My Maine Ride and Bumper2Bumper Inc., will be out of business until 2021, Attorney General Janet Mills said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. Additionally, several consumers will be eligible for partial restitution for repair costs and may be eligible for forgiveness of loan balances on repossessed cars.

“The companies Mr. Geiser relied on to exploit consumers will not do business with him in the future,” she said. “This should stand as a warning to any business that thinks it can cut corners and abuse Maine consumers.”

The companies that provided financing for Geiser’s customers, Persian Acceptance Corp., Westlake Services, LLC, Mid-Atlantic Finance Co., Source One Financial Corp., Consumer Portfolio Services Inc., United Auto Credit Corp. and Credit Acceptance Corp., have cooperated with her office, Mills said.

“We appreciate the willingness of these companies to provide relief to consumers who are stuck with loan payments for cars that were essentially worthless,” she said.

The finance companies have agreed to stop collection actions for consumers whose vehicles were repossessed and to remove all negative information relating to these loans from consumers’ credit reports, according to Mills. In addition, all have agreed that they will not provide financing for any future business owned or operated by Geiser.

The date by which consumers must file claims that is stated in the agreement is expected to be changed from Nov. 15 to a date later in the year, Baldacci said.

In a separate court action, Geiser paid a $7,000 fine in February after pleading no contest to 28 of 83 counts of using fake inspection stickers. At that time, Geiser also owed $9,000 in unpaid fines to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration for workplace safety violations in 2012 and 2013. Information about whether Geiser has paid the OSHA fines was not available Wednesday afternoon.

The lawsuit filed by the attorney general’s office alleged that Geiser and his dealerships targeted consumers with poor credit who needed financing, pressured them to buy cars that were not roadworthy and did not respond to customer complaints, according to a previously published report.

The Consumer Protection Division of the AG’s office received 86 complaints in the previous 13 months about My Maine Ride, 159 complaints about Bumper2Bumper since 2011, and 539 complaints about Bangor Car Care since 2003, the complaint said.

The state initially sought civil penalties, which could have run as high as $10,000 for each violation; a permanent injunction to bar Geiser and any entity in which he has an ownership interest from promoting, selling and/or financing used cars; and reimbursement for the cost of the litigation, including attorney and expert witness fees.

The agreements with the finance companies are available online at http://www.maine.gov/ag/news/cases_of_interest.shtml, Mills said Wednesday. Consumers who purchased a vehicle from a Geiser dealership and have a loan with any of the seven finance companies can call 800-436-2131 or email consumer.mediation@maine.gov to obtain information on how the settlements may affect them.

State of Maine v Glenn A. Geiser, Jr., Bangor Car Care, Bumper2Bumper, and My Maine Ride: First Amended Complaint :: Assurances of Discontinuance with Finance Companies

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