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.

How to detect scammers posing as government agents

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 02, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

It has been nearly 10 years since a phishing scam targeted Social Security recipients. That followed announcement of a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

As with many other messages asking consumers to reveal their personal information, this attempt was pegged to a headline. Following details of the increase, copied from a genuine Social Security Administration, or SSA, news release, the crooks inserted their falsehood: “We now need you to update your personal information” or see your checks stop.

Instructions to “confirm your records” by clicking a link only took victims to a bogus website, where many surrendered personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers, bank account and credit card information.

The thieves used that data for their own gain.

SSA officials reacted then as they have recently, with reminders that the agency never asks for personal or financial information by email or over the phone. Such attempts to get your information are always scams.

The agency urges consumers to do the following:

— Never divulge a Social Security number or account number to someone who calls or emails.

— Never wire money using a prepaid debit card, and never pay anyone who calls “out of the blue.”

— Check their status of disability benefits (if you have them) regularly and review your statements to be sure they’re correct.

If you’re called and pressured to provide information, perhaps by someone saying he or she is with law enforcement or other authority figure, hang up and report the call to the Social Security Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Report suspicious activity to the Social Security fraud unit online at oig.ssa.gov/report and to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1. The FTC can’t resolve individual complaints but can advise what next steps a consumer should take.

Medicare recipients also are frequent targets of scammers. Callers from “Medicare” tell consumers they need to verify information because new cards are being issued.

“Medicare will never call you asking for personal information,” said Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for the Maine Senior Medicare Patrol at Legal Services for the Elderly.

While Congress has ordered that Social Security numbers no longer be used on Medicare cards, the change won’t be fully implemented for a few years.

“In the meantime, Medicare consumers should continue to protect their Medicare numbers, just as they protect their credit card and bank account information,” Balderston said.

In the past, we’ve advised consumers to take Medicare cards during an initial visit to a health care facility; from then on, take a photocopy with your Social Security number blacked out; that avoids the need to carry your card which might get lost or stolen.

Another recent hoax email urged recipients to “get protected” and touted ways to help monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Both are lies, designed to prompt your click on links that might download computer malware or divulge your data.

You may spot a scam attempt by hovering your cursor over the address link of the fake email. That likely will show an address ending “.com,” instead of “.gov,” which it should.

If you found the message in your spam folder, ask yourself if your email program didn’t catch the fraud attempt and divert the message appropriately.

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

How to ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage, kemper.com, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at iii.org/article/how-can-i-locate-lost-life-insurance-policy.

You can check online at unclaimed.org and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at missingmoney.com.

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.

The latest in hacker-proof babies, cool dogs and seeing like Iron Man

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 18, 2016, at 8:27 a.m.

A few years ago, most of us thought we’d never see the day that cars braked by themselves in emergencies. Soon, virtually every vehicle made will include this crash avoidance feature.

Insurance companies already reward drivers of such cars with lower premiums. And it’s hard to argue that avoiding a collision isn’t a major technological advance.

Consumers usually pay for such safety improvements when manufacturers all sign off; the cost of the upgrade is borne by future buyers. When the consuming public is left to its own devices, their spending priorities tend to be, well, diverse.

Consumer Affairs, at consumeraffairs.com, alerted us to a couple of safety devices worth noting. First-time parents may have read with alarm about hackers who hijack baby monitors.

They may want to check out a monitor made by Project Nursery that uses secure, wireless technology. It’s expected on the market in May.

Also for nervous parents is the self-installing child car seat. As its name implies, it’s goof-proof. That’s good news for the large number of people who put in the seats incorrectly.

If you need help, there’s an app for that.

Concerned about headphones blocking ambient sounds, such as a boarding call at the airport? The Economic Times of India found a new music player that’s strapped to back of your head. The sound vibrates through the skull bones and makes its way to the middle ear, which recognizes the vibrations as music.

“Don’t worry, the technology is perfectly safe,” the site gushes without elaborating.

Among the more notable gizmos for our pets might be a portable air conditioner that attaches to the back of a dog house. It spreads cooler air inside, keeping man’s best friend cool on sticky days.

Then there’s an on-collar monitor to let owners know what the dog has been up to all day — marketers say it can help to analyze behavior and health trends.

The site gadgetreview.com has some gems. There’s a black T-shirt that looks like the Iron Man suit, complete with “chest-mounted uni-beam that is powered by photons.” It collects light, then gives it off when the person wearing it goes into a dark room.

There’s other stuff you didn’t know you needed until you saw it advertised. Here’s the one-liner of the week, also spotted on the gadget review site: “Slippers with sound makes pretending you’re a giant robot fun.” Your results may vary.

A Web search of “best gizmos 2016” returns 156,000,000 results. We didn’t check very many, but we’re betting few of them offer much in the way of guarantees or even try to be “best.”

The takeaway is unlimited sources for those interested only in bright, shiny things. For those looking to truly make their lives better, research, shop around and invest wisely.

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.

 

Got old paint? Here’s how to get rid of it in Maine.

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 11, 2016, at 7:17 a.m.

When consumers buy paint, Maine environmental officials would like them to do three things: buy the right amount, find ways to use it up and reuse or recycle whatever paint is leftover.

For PaintCare information click map

Helping to make those goals possible is a program called PaintCare, which started several years ago by the paint industry’s trade association. Maine is part of the program, which includes seven other states and the District of Columbia.

At last count, there were about 90 sites in Maine participating in PaintCare. Consumers can bring unused paint in tightly sealed containers — no larger than five gallons — to one of the sites, where they’re collected on pallets.

Latex paint goes to a recycling facility in Illinois (there currently are no large volume recyclers in the Northeast).

Oil-based paint is considered a hazardous waste, although industry officials are talking with a recycler in Ontario about sending Maine’s oil-based paint there.

Somewhere in our basement is a package of drying agent; when added to the dregs of a can of paint, the stuff will harden it, allowing it to be thrown out with the trash. Multiply our leftover paint with that in basements across Maine, and you’re talking about a lot of paint. Industry officials estimate that 10 percent of all paint that’s purchased is not used and that a good deal of that could be reused or recycled.

The nonprofit ReStores run by Habitat for Humanity accept donations of paint, among other things. The stores sell the paint along with other donated home improvement goods at reduced prices. Other than a few informal recycling efforts, there seems to be little other reuse of our unneeded paint.

That fact prompted the start of the PaintCare effort, which kicked off Oct. 1, 2015, in Maine.

John Hurd of PaintCare says more than 1,000 pallet-size boxes of paint have been collected since then. He says PaintCare pays the bill for towns and cities that collect paint at their transfer stations and hold it for recycling. Hurd told me he’s interested in talking with other municipal officials about increasing the number of drop-off sites.

The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2013 that approved the PaintCare program. The law includes fees to help pay for the collection; those fees are 35 cents, 70 cents or $1.60 depending on container size, for paint that’s sold in Maine.

Both Hurd and Andrea Lani of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say they’ve had few questions about the fees.

Lani said she has made several site visits and that the program is running well.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things,” she said. “They’re moving a lot of paint.”

Visit the Department of Enviromental Protection website maine.gov/dep/waste/productstewardship/paint.html or call (800) 452-1942 for more information and a list of drop-off sites.

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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