Lock the door against “work at home” scams that promise big bucks but deliver grief

Posted Nov. 02, 2014, at 10:15 a.m.

Click for FTC Consumer Information

Maybe you’ve been laid off, or maybe you just decided you would rather work from home than commute to a job.

You went to Monster.com to find the perfect job you could land while staying at home. The only problem is, all that’s available is a job helping people troubleshoot problems with their handheld computing gizmos. You’ve ruled yourself out, since your technical ability stops at turning the computer on.

So now for the answer, you turn to the source of all knowledge: the Internet. Your search for “work at home jobs” returns 29.2 million possibilities. A lot of them promise weekly earnings of “hundreds or thousands of dollars.” For every website warning you of possible scams, 10 more promise “easy earnings” with “minimal” outlay of time and effort.

A federal judge last month threw the book at one of these outfits, Zaken Corp. The company and its principal officer, Tiran Zaken, were ordered to pay more than $25 million to consumers who had been promised “substantial income” by working from home. The Federal Trade Commission had opened an investigation in 2012 and found that more than 99 percent of the 110,000 consumers who invested in the “Quicksell” program got no income at all in return.

The Justice Department probe was labeled “Operation Lost Opportunity.” Investigators found that consumers had been promised that they could earn $4,000 or more in their first 30 days, or an average of $4,280 per deal. After signing up for an average fee of $148, they were typically bombarded with ads to buy more “business tools” for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The FTC doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about such things. When companies advertise business opportunities, the agency says the ads should be clear about what markets exist and what an investor’s potential income truly is.

There are some legitimate careers that allow you to work from home. Do some serious research before investing:

— Know who you’re dealing with; find out if the offer is a job or just a way to sell overpriced supplies.

— Get all details before you pay; a real company will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision.

— Don’t believe claims of big rewards for little work (wouldn’t they do it themselves?).

— Be sure there’s a market first. There must be a real market, not a perpetuation of the scam in which you hoodwink others into investing.

— Know the refund policy.

— Talk with people who have been successful — real people, not those a scammer might refer to you.

Once you’ve responded to an offer, you’re likely to be targeted by other scammers. Several years ago, a client of Northeast CONTACT complained that her husband — whose disabilities prompted him to seek home-based work — complained that he was receiving shady-sounding offers virtually every day. Our caseworker suggested (only half kiddingly) that she keep a blowtorch with her while she checked their mailbox.

The FTC warns consumers not to believe any ad about stuffing envelopes; they’re virtually always ripoffs. Read the FTC’s advice at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0175-work-home-businesses.

The Maine attorney general’s Consumer Law Guide also offers tips on work-at-home offers online at http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/consumer_law_guide.shtml (chapter 12, section 14).

You can also call the AG’s Consumer Mediation Service at 800-436-2131.

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.

Had your flu shot yet? What you need to know about this year’s vaccine

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 26, 2014, at 5:57 a.m.

Had your flu shot yet?

You may hear that question a lot, now that the first cases of influenza have been confirmed in Maine. Maine health officials and people at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say most of us should have flu shots as a way to help curb the spread of the seasonal flu.

Vaccinations are especially important for seniors. As many as 90 percent of flu-related deaths are people age 65 and older.

Flu shots also are important for younger people, whose immune systems have not fully developed. There are several kinds of flu vaccines available — some protect against three strains of flu and others protect against four. The CDC isn’t recommending one vaccine over another, with one exception.

For healthy children ages 2-8, the CDC recommends the vaccine that is administered as a nasal spray. The agency says if the spray is not immediately available and a traditional flu shot is, then the child should get the flu shot right away rather than wait.

The federal Vaccines For Children program offers free flu shots for children ages 6 months through 18 years. Health providers enrolled with the Maine Immunization Program also can offer the vaccine free to people who are either Medicaid eligible, uninsured, underinsured (immunizations not covered) or people served by tribal health centers and municipal health departments.

Pregnant women and their partners also are eligible, as are employees and residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes, and employees of schools that hold onsite flu shot clinics on school days.

The vaccine may be free, but there may still be a charge for immunization. Under the Maine Immunization Program, medical practitioners are allowed to charge a “reasonable administration fee provided that no patient is denied the vaccine” for inability to pay.

Immunizations are not for everyone. People with allergies to eggs, gelatin and certain antibiotics should not receive the vaccines. Anyone who has had a bad reaction to a flu shot in the past or who has other health concerns should consult a doctor before being vaccinated.

Bangor Public Health and Community Services runs immunization clinics 9 p.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays and 4-7 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month.

“Our aim is to keep our population healthy,” Patricia Hamilton, director of Bangor Public Health, said. “We keep our costs as low as possible,” she said, adding that the charge for a flu shot is $15.

More information about Bangor Public Health is available online at bangorpublichealth.org.

The CDC’s website on influenza can be found at cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm.

The state of Maine’s website is immunizeme.org.

If you have questions, call the Maine Immunization Program at 1-800-867-4775 or email immunizeme.dhhs@maine.gov .

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.

Consumer Advisory: Vehicle Owners with Defective Airbags Urged to Take Immediate Action

Monday, October 20, 2014
Contact: Karen Aldana, 202-366-9550, Public.Affairs@dot.gov

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags. The message comes with urgency, especially for owners of vehicles affected by the regional recalls in the following areas: Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

Consumers that are uncertain whether their vehicle is impacted by the Takata recalls, or any other recall, can check on www.safercar.gov/vinlookup. On the site, consumers can search by their vehicle identification number (VIN) to confirm whether their individual vehicle has an open recall that needs to be addressed. In addition, consumers can sign-up for NHTSA recall alerts, which go out before recall letters are mailed by the manufacturers to the affected owners.

Affected Vehicles, by Manufacturer, Impacted by CY 2013 and 2014 Recalls Involving Takata Airbags

Toyota: 778,177 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2002 – 2004 Lexus SC
2003 – 2004 Toyota Corolla
2003 – 2004 Toyota Corolla Matrix
2002 – 2004 Toyota Sequoia
2003 – 2004 Toyota Tundra
2003 – 2004 Pontiac Vibe

Honda: 2,803,214 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 – 2007 Honda Accord (4 cyl)
2001 – 2002 Honda Accord (6 cyl)
2001 – 2005 Honda Civic
2002 – 2006 Honda CR-V
2003 – 2011 Honda Element
2002 – 2004 Honda Odyssey
2003 – 2007 Honda Pilot
2006 – Honda Ridgeline
2003 – 2006 Acura MDX
2002 – 2003 Acura TL/CL

Nissan: 437,712 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2001 – 2003 Nissan Maxima
2001 – 2003 Nissan Pathfinder
2002 – 2003 Nissan Sentra
2001 – 2003 Infiniti I30/I35
2002 – 2003 Infiniti QX4
2003 – Infiniti FX

Mazda: 18,050 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2003 – 2004 Mazda6
2004 – Mazda RX-8

BMW: 573,935 total number of potentially affected vehicles
2000 – 2005 3 Series Sedan
2000 – 2006 3 Series Coupe
2000 – 2005 3 Series Sports Wagon
2000 – 2006 3 Series Convertible
2001 – 2006 M3 Coupe
2001 – 2006 M3 Convertible

General Motors: 133,221 total number potentially affected vehicles
2002 – 2003 Buick LeSabre
2002 – 2003 Buick Rendezvous
2002 – 2003 Cadillac DeVille
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Impala
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
2002 – 2003 Chevrolet Venture
2002 – 2003 GMC Envoy
2002 – 2003 GMC Envoy XL
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Aurora
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Bravada
2002 – 2003 Oldsmobile Silhouette
2002 – 2003 Pontiac Bonneville
2002 – 2003 Pontiac Montana

 

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

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 19, 2014, at 10:14 a.m.

On Oct. 11, Texas A&M hosted the University of Mississippi in football. Some fans of Ole Miss made the trek to College Station for the game, and a dozen of them planned to spend the night in a rented home.

They discovered soon after arriving that the home was not really for rent, and the $2,000 they had paid up front was in the pocket of the crook who scammed them. The scammer had insisted on being paid by wire transfer, a sure tipoff that the football fans were being swindled.

The property had been listed on several home rental sites, and the descriptions appealed enough that the would-be renters skipped one of the key pieces of advice in such situations: don’t rent sight unseen. That home may not be available to rent, or it might not even exist.

Craigslist offers this tip on its website: “Deal locally, face-to-face; follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.” It’s as valid with vacation rentals as any other transaction. Looking someone in the eye gives you a feel for the person you plan to deal with, and that’s usually more than any anonymous, electronic relationship can offer.

Finding the rental initially might happen by way of a website. There are some reliable sites run by honest people, with accurate descriptions and representative photos. There also are some brazen attempts to separate people from their money through deceptive words and pictures, both of which may bear no relationship to anything in the real world.

Don’t be fooled by great-looking photos; they may have been digitally enhanced. If a description sounds too good to be true … you know how this sentence always ends. And if the price is one-third to one-half below the going rate for other rentals in a given area, chances are the ad is bogus.

If you find a rental that sounds legit, have it checked out by a trusted local agent. Sure, you’ll pay for this service, but that will be money well spent if it verifies that you’re really getting the deal you think you’re making.

Doing your own investigating? Make sure that the person claiming to own the property actually owns it. You can verify this through public property tax records. You may want to have a lawyer review any agreement you sign, as you would if you were signing a yearlong lease.

If you’re on an extended vacation, you may want to spend the first few days in a hotel. That will allow time to check things out on your own before finalizing any rental plans. Trust your instincts during this process. If red flags go up, walk away.

Don’t pay with cash, and don’t wire money. Both methods of payment leave you little recourse if the deal goes sour. Be wary of any requests for a credit check before you meet the owner. Such requests are sometimes ways of trolling for people with less than solid credit who may be desperate for a rental.

If you rent a place and like it, consider renting it again. Building a relationship with an owner over time can remove a lot of uncertainty over future getaways.

For more information, visit the federal government’s website www.usa.gov/topics/consumer/scams-fraud/family-home-community/rental-fraud.shtml or call 800-FED-INFO (333-4636), 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 12, 2014, at 10:52 a.m.

Click image to access FTC page

Maine customers of AT&T Mobility LLC are among many across the country who stand to receive refunds from the mobile phone company. Last week, AT&T agreed to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that the company had improperly “crammed” charges onto bills for services customers did not approve.

Current and former customers of AT&T who paid unauthorized charges after Jan. 1, 2009, can apply for refunds. You may file a claim online by visiting www.ftc.gov/att. You may call 1-877-819-9692 with questions, but claims are not being taken over the phone; you may request a paper claim form to mail in.

You need to file a claim by May 1 of next year. And don’t plan on spending any refund money right away. The FTC has hired Epiq Systems to handle the refund requests and says you should not expect to see a refund check for at least nine months.

Cramming charges are listed on phone bills for third-party services, including digital wallpapers, ringtones and text message subscriptions ranging from horoscopes to gossip about celebrities. The charges range up to $9.99 per month per service; AT&T hauled in millions for those third-party services and kept 35 percent of the take, according to the FTC complaint.

The billing was deceptive, according to that complaint, because many charges were hidden. In some cases they were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” making it appear that the charges were part of the company’s phone service costs. In the “Service Summary” section of the bills, FTC says the company lumped in the unauthorized charges, again making it appear to be part of the company’s wireless service fees.

The settlement requires AT&T to get explicit consent from customers before billing them for third-party charges. If you dispute such a charge, AT&T will give you a refund unless it can prove you consented to the charge. AT&T will still offer the option of blocking all third-party charges.

Other carriers offer free blocking; check with your provider about ways to block charges.

The settlement totals $105 million, with $80 million going to the FTC for the rebates. There’s another $20 million in penalties to the states and the District of Columbia, and $5 million in penalties goes to the FTC.

The settlement is the largest of seven mobile cramming cases the agency has brought since 2013. For a company that reported total second-quarter revenues this year of more than $32 billion, it shouldn’t hurt AT&T much. The FTC filed a complaint against T-Mobile in July, a case that is ongoing.

The FTC says you might avoid cramming charges by:

— Not entering your mobile phone numbers on unsecured websites.

— Looking over your future phone bills closely for unauthorized charges; unsolicited text messages could be a signal you’re being crammed.

— Looking for fees that aren’t specific (minimum use fee, member/activation fee, subscription); if you’re not sure what a fee is for, ask your carrier for an explanation.

If another carrier’s bill contains unauthorized charges, you can file a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. File online at www.maine.gov/mpuc or call 1-800-452-4699.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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

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

Recall Summary

Name of product:

Fiskars® 32-Inch Bypass Lopper Shears

Hazard:

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

Remedy:

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

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

Report an Incident Involving this Product

Recall Details

Units

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

Description

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

Incidents/Injuries

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

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

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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 http://www.maine.gov/pfr/securities/index.shtml 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 http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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