Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

How to be sure your support for veterans actually helps them 

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 13, 2016, at 7:13 a.m.

We received two letters in less than two weeks. Both were addressed with the same misspelling of our last name, a tipoff that we had not supported this charity in the past.

The appeal was ostensibly to help disabled veterans and included a calculator, notepad, window sticker and a check for $2.50, made out to me. Why any group gives money then asks for it back is unclear; because we’d never requested anything, we don’t have to donate or send their stuff back.

The “ask” was for $15, or I could opt to hand over our credit card number so the Disabled Veterans National Foundation could take more donations automatically, month after month. We declined to cash the check or divulge our card number.

click image to research charity

We researched the group on Charity Navigator, one of the top charity rating organizations. The foundation’s website says it “exists to provide critically needed support to disabled and at-risk veterans who leave the military wounded — physically or psychologically — after defending our safety and freedom.”

Charity Navigator says the group’s most recent tax filing shows 19.4 percent of its total expenses went to those programs to help vets. Some 72.8 percent of the total expenses went to fundraisers.

CharityWatch — formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy — using different scoring methods, gave the group an F rating in December 2015.

Looking at the most recent tax filing and audited financial statement, CharityWatch found that, of $8.6 million in expenses, 7 percent went to programs. Of the $8.7 million in total contributions, 89 percent went to fundraising.

CharityWatch rates 53 charities in its “Veterans and Military” category; 26 of them get a grade of F.

People who donate to charities want their money to help those the charity says it’s helping. We believe donors don’t usually think of fundraisers as especially deserving, but we may be wrong. As with all consumer decisions, research comes first.

The nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, at philanthropyroundtable.org, recommends a 2013 report titled “Serving Those Who Served” for people who want to make effective donations supporting veterans in need. It can be downloaded at the above website as a free PDF or ordered in print or digital formats from various vendors.

There’s also a website about all things military. It lists several questions, at military.com/spouse/military-life/military-resources/military-charity-associations.html, which donors might ask themselves before giving.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

Here’s how to get help reducing Medicare costs

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 06, 2016, at 7:19 a.m.
The Bangor Daily News performed a real public service in publishing the article headlined, “Not junk mail: This Social Security letter can cut Medicare costs.”

Many of the 2 million seniors who received the letter last month surely were skeptical. Their fraud detectors went off after reading, “you can get help paying your Medicare costs.”

But the letter was legitimate.

Social Security officials sent the letters to seniors telling them they might be eligible for a program called Extra Help. The program can cover up to 75 percent of prescription drug costs.

Other seniors may be eligible for a partial subsidy of drug costs. Still others may qualify for a Medicare Savings Program in the state where they live.

Betty Balderston is the statewide coordinator of Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, a program of Legal Services for the Elderly. She says Area Agencies on Aging generally advise Mainers to apply for Maine’s Medicare Savings Program. If they qualify, Medicare beneficiaries automatically are enrolled in the Part D Extra Help program.

“That way, Mainers not only get help with their prescription drug costs but also help paying for their Part B premium and possibly with co-pays and deductibles (depending upon which Medicare Savings Program they qualify for based upon income and assets),” Balderston said.

People with questions can get help from their Area Agency on Aging. A toll-free call (1-877-ELDERS1 or 1-877-353-3771) will direct seniors to their nearest agency.

Dyan Walsh, executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging or EAAA, told me it’s often difficult for seniors to tell the difference between scams and genuine offers of help. She said the agency has volunteers who can visit seniors who request help in sorting the good mail from the bad.

When people call EAAA, one of the first things they’re asked is whether they might qualify for the Extra Help program. Seniors who may have discarded their letters about the program should not feel embarrassed. Just call your Agency on Aging, and people there will be glad to help.

Many questions can be answered online. Visit medicareinteractive.org and search “extra help.”

The Medicare site (medicare.gov/your-medicare-costs/help-paying-costs/extra-help/level-of-extra-help.html) also has detailed information about the program.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

‘Student tax’ doesn’t exist, so hang up on demands to pay it

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 30, 2016, at 11:08 a.m.

Those nasty scam artists claiming to be Internal Revenue Service agents are at it again.

This time, they’re calling students — weary from finals and staggering under student loan debt — and telling them they’re in arrears on their “federal student taxes.”

A lot of students have recognized these calls as the hoaxes they are and hung up. Many then get another call with a “spoofed” caller ID, making it appear the caller is with a branch of law enforcement or other agency. The demand is the same: Wire money immediately or face arrest.

The warning signs are all there: cold calls from supposed authority figures, demands for immediate payment backed by phony threats of jail or sometimes physical harm.

The Federal Trade Commission warned consumers last week that there is no student tax and that attempts to collect are always scams.

“No one from the IRS will ever ask you to wire money, or pay by sending iTunes gift cards or reloadable prepaid cards,” the FTC news release read.

The agency’s advice is to hang up immediately, don’t believe fake follow-up calls and report the call to the FTC.

“And tell your friends at school. They might get the next call!” the release concluded.

It might seem like a waste of time to file a single report, considering the thousands of scams that occur. However, Sen. Susan Collins said last week that a complaint filed with her Special Committee on Aging had led to the arrest of five people in Florida. The five allegedly impersonated IRS agents and scammed victims of nearly $2 million.

The bottom-line message is that criminals don’t care about the age of their intended victims. They care only about stealing money.

All student loans in the U.S. total roughly $1.2 billion, so it’s no surprise that criminals target debtors. Because borrowers are always required to repay student loans, many seek ways to lessen the financial burden of their loans. Unfortunately, they often look for “quick fixes” that can turn into long-term headaches.

Offers to refinance, lower rates or abolish debt altogether are often bogus. Many services for which greedy sellers charge fees can be obtained for free, at least in the case of federal loans.

Get information on federal student loan programs at studentaid.ed.gov/sa/ or call toll-free 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). That website also contains toll-free phone numbers so that federal loan recipients can call their loan servicers directly.

For tips on avoiding scams involving federal student loans, visit studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/scams.

The Finance Authority of Maine also has information about student loans at famemaine.com/education or by calling 1-800-228-3734.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Get ready now for an active hurricane season

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 23, 2016, at 6:15 a.m.

Click image for info

If you missed Hurricane Preparedness Week (the third week in May), it’s not too late to take precautions that could save lives and/or property. The hurricane season begins officially on June 1 but serious storms can happen any time.

In Maine, consumers often think that the end of severe winter weather means we can all relax. In fact, the same diligence we practice in keeping ahead of ice and snow serves us well when severe storms strike.

Several forecasters are predicting the most active hurricane season since 2012, with 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three major hurricanes likely.

There’s no guarantee that all of those storms will hit the United States. But many of us can recall a hurricane that has visited Maine. And most of us would agree, it’s better to be prepared than to be unprepared.

Emergency officials remind us that updating our insurance coverage is important. Whether you own or rent, it’s worth meeting with your insurance agent before hurricane season really ramps up.

Maine’s Bureau of Insurance has a number of resources to help both homeowners and renters prepare. Call the bureau, 1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or visit its website, www.maine.gov/pfr/insurance/consumer/brochures.htm#homeowners, for a home inventory checklist, insurance guide for natural disasters, advice on making claims following storms and more.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners website has more information at www.naic.org/index_consumer.htm.

Most homeowners’ and renters’ insurances do not cover flood damage. Flood insurance must be purchased separately, if you live in a floodplain where you need coverage. There also is a waiting period before it takes effect.

Contact the National Flood Insurance Program by phone at 1-800-427-2419 or online at www.floodsmart.gov for detailed information.

Consumers should put together emergency supplies. Nonperishable food, a nonelectric can opener, cooking utensils, drinking water, flashlights with good batteries and a battery-powered radio are basics. Extra clothing, blankets and a well-stocked first aid kit are also needed items.

Imagine what the loss of important papers in a storm could mean. Consider keeping copies at home and original documents in a safe deposit box or other secure storage site. If you keep your only copies of insurance policies at home, be sure you can get them in a hurry if you have to leave.

Get your home ready by keeping trees trimmed to minimize danger from broken branches. Shop ahead for materials to cover windows; they may be hard to find a day or two before a big storm.

If a hurricane approaches, put vehicles in garages or other secure places. Bring loose items inside and secure all doors; garage doors are often the most subject to damage. Good preparations should help to settle an insurance claim more quickly.

After a major storm, beware of “deals,” especially involving used vehicles. Hidden flood damage that’s not revealed in a private sale might cause big headaches.

Damp goods sold by salvage specialists may or may not be bargains; shop carefully.

If you’re vacationing in an area that’s been hit by a hurricane in the past, pay attention to weather forecasts. Be ready to alter your travel plans if there’s danger of a serious storm. Find out if there are evacuation routes you should know about and how people are alerted about using them.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Diagnosing the value of blanket medical tests

CONSUMER FORUM

 By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted May 16, 2016, at 6:41 a.m.

On May 17 and 18, a business called Life Line Screening will visit the Bangor area.

The firm offers a package of five screenings it says can help consumers avoid cardiovascular disease. The screenings are intended to detect plaque buildup in carotid arteries, abdominal aortic aneurysms and other signs of cardiovascular irregularities.

Life Line Screening offers the five screenings for $149, cash or credit cards accepted. The business does not accept Medicare and does not do private insurance billings.

The brochure advertising the screenings recently in the Bangor Daily News had this statement regarding cancellations: “A full refund is issued if you call to cancel at least 2 days prior to your appointment. If less than 2 days’ notice is given, we will issue a Gift Card for the full amount to be used by you, or anyone you choose, to purchase future screening services.”

The Maine Medical Association has taken a close look at the screenings offered by Life Line Screening during prior visits. Maine Medical Association Executive Vice President Gordon Smith told me that the company does business in conjunction with a physician who is licensed in Maine (although that doctor need not live here).

Smith also said he knows of no problem with the technology of the screenings. He said the tests may offer some consumers peace of mind, should their results come back negative.

Life Line Screening says it will report results within 21 days; it urges those who’ve been screened to take the results to their family doctors for any follow-up tests or other procedures.

Smith and others in the medical community contend that consultation with the family physician should take place before the screening, to make sure the tests are really needed.

Smith said physicians are concerned about “mass testing,” screenings that are offered without regard to people’s medical histories or individual situations. Smith said he worried about “tests that end up with more false positives than real positives, and patients receiving treatment that’s at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.”

Screenings can show irregularities that may or may not be harmful to someone’s health.

Follow-up testing — especially among older patients — can create different levels of risk depending on the patient’s status; the worry and uncertainty that go along with further testing take a toll as well.

Smith told me that Life Line Screening does not accept Medicare because Medicare doesn’t pay for the screenings the firm offers. Smith said Medicare’s reasoning appears to be that the screenings “haven’t been identified as being valuable screening tests for patients, generally.” Testing an individual based on a physician’s advice is one thing; Smith said random testing usually accomplishes very little.

Many consumer advocates sound off about individual choice, and informed choice is great. Smith advises people who don’t have a family physician to do their own research online (researchers at your local library can help).

In the 2007 book “Overtreated,” Shannon Brownlee contended that a lot of medical care is unnecessary and therefore wastes resources better spent on those who need care. Our advice is to be proactive but, in making any serious health decision, consult your physician first.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Job hunters must beware of these new perils

Posted May 09, 2016, at 9:21 a.m.

As anyone who reads this column knows, we don’t like scam artists. But we really don’t like crooks who try to take advantage of people trying to make an honest living.

The latter group includes people who are job hunting. And the scammers include people who pretend they are pre-screening people for large employers.

Say you’re thinking of relocating to the Bay State in hopes of finding a job with state government. An item on Craigslist reveals “State agencies in Massachusetts offering new career opportunities.”

Light on generic advice, the website you reach provides only links to state human resources offices. The site is littered with ads for work-at-home “jobs,” career counseling and high-return annuity investments. These are all for-profit ventures of the advertisers; applicants’ results may vary.

Scam artists have made a bundle by pretending to perform pre-screening of job applicants. They often set up a website claiming that large employers are looking to do lots of hiring. The way to get in is to schedule an interview.

You do that, only to find that the “interview” is just a way for the “pre-screener” to gather information for its real clients. They, in turn, will hit you with a sales pitch. You might be asked to enroll in a college or a career training program.

The process is called lead generation, a legitimate business practice unless the lead generator wasn’t truthful about what it was doing.

The Federal Trade Commission recently settled charges against Gigats.com, which also did business under the names Expand Inc., EducationMatch and SoftRock Inc. {Google Search Results for FTC and Gigats}

Federal investigators determined that the operators of Gigats.com had gathered online job postings by multinationals, government agencies and other employers and summarized them on its website.

Most job listings were not current. Of those that were current, most had not been authorized by the employers. Gigats then allegedly steered applicants toward enrolling in education programs that had paid the defendants for consumer leads.

The FTC says many consumers also were referred to “education advisors” who claimed to be independent but steered people only toward the schools and programs that had agreed to pay the defendants. For leads meeting their education requirements the schools and programs paid $22 to $125 each.

The FTC also says the defendants never sent the information they collected to any employers.

The proposed court order hits Gigats with a $90.2 million penalty. The bulk of the penalty will be waived if Gigats pays $360,000. But the full judgment will be due right away “if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.”

The Maine Department of Labor’s Career Centers throughout the state have resources to help people find jobs and employers find workers at mainecareercenter.com or call 1-888-457-8883 Mon.-Fri. 8-4:30.

Maine state government has a website to help job seekers create a profile and find work in state government or in the private sector at maine.gov/portal/employment/jobs.html.

Both are 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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