There’s no doctor-patient confidentiality on the Internet

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 01, 2015, at 10:03 a.m.

Click image for Norton’s information on Internet Privacy

Internet watchers have long been warning consumers about the privacy implications of tracking. Now, one researcher says simple online searches for health information could be much more harmful than previously thought.

Timothy Libert was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication when he wrote his study last fall. Libert had developed a software tool he used to track Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, activity between websites and third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.

He found that 91 percent of visits to websites triggered HTTP requests to third parties. Say you were looking for information on influenza and you clicked on “severity in winter” to learn more. The site you visited probably sent your request on to one or possibly several third-party sites interested in your searches.

Seventy percent of the third-party transmissions included information about specific symptoms, diseases or treatments. Libert designed his study to deliver results from all websites, not just health-centered ones.

Libert dug deep into the data and found that Google is the clear winner in third-party requests, collecting user information from 78 percent of pages searched; other leaders are comScore (38 percent) and Facebook (31 percent). He found data brokers Experian and Acxiom on thousands of pages as well.

While many of us still think the Internet can be searched anonymously, Consumer Affairs writer Truman Lewis says the interests people demonstrate through searching might be linked with their names. This could happen if the info is accidentally leaked, if hackers or other crooks get access to the data, or if data brokers collect the information and sell it.

Libert’s research found that a small fraction (3.24 percent) of the pages he analyzed used secure HTTP. The rest used non-encrypted HTTP connections “and thereby potentially transmitted sensitive information to third parties.”

Libert cited a critical U.S. Senate committee report on the data broker industry in 2013. One company was reportedly using “proprietary models” to create and sell lists of “domestic abuse victims,” “rape sufferers” and “HIV/AIDS patients.”

Advertisers like to assure us their data collections are anonymous. But ad tracking can discriminate in subtle ways. Sorting searchers into a category of high spenders on medical needs means those consumers likely will have less to spend on non-essential consumer goods; the trackers might consider them “undesirable” and be less likely to advertise special offers or prices to them.

The ad industry is investing serious money in computer modeling, the better to sort consumers into “buyer” and “other” categories.

Don’t look for existing law to change things. The Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act contains strong language about the ways doctors and insurers handle your health information; those protections don’t apply to web searches.

Libert suggests that nonprofit entities — with nothing to gain from third-party exchanges — tighten systems so data leaks are avoided. For commercial concerns with a profit motive, regulators and legislators might see broad public support for applying rules about how various kinds of data may be used and how long they can and should be saved.

He also urges engineers to spend more time creating intelligent filters that keep sensitive data confidential.

Consumers might do well to use separate web browsers and email accounts with unique, strong passwords when investigating health issues.

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.

Easier to lose money than weight

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT Posted Feb. 22, 2015, at 10:09 a.m.

Here’s a recipe for making millions on unsuspecting consumers. Buy green coffee bean extract from China for about 50 cents per bottle plus shipping, sell each bottle for $30 to $48 and gross an estimated $16 million to $26 million.

To rack up those sales, you’ll need to pass off an unscientific study as “proof” people can lose “an astounding amount of fat and weight” simply by downing your product. Advertise that there’s no need to reduce calories or increase exercise; just swallow the extract along with the seller’s worthless promises. You’ll need some TV promotion to build credibility. An appearance on the “Dr. Oz” show should do the trick. Add a few websites with names that will trigger lots of hits for your wonder product, and you’re on your way.

Dr. Oz scolded at hearing on weight loss scams (click image for FoxDC.com story)

Just don’t get caught. The Federal Trade Commission said last year the “as seen on TV” campaign was false and misleading. In May 2014, the FTC charged NPB Advertising of Tampa, Florida, with making “false and unsupported advertising claims” and with failing to disclose its news sites and testimonials were phony. The case is pending. Then, in September, the FTC charged that Applied Food Sciences of Austin, Texas, used a study it should have known was flawed to make “false and unsubstantiated weight-loss claims” to deceive consumers and sell its extract. The company settled that case for $3.5 million. In September, Dr. Oz announced on his website the study had been retracted. “This sometimes happens in scientific research,” Oz wrote at the time. Last month, the FTC settled charges against Lindsey Duncan and two companies he controls: Pure Health LLC and Genesis Today Inc. Under the settlement, Duncan and his companies have to pay $9 million in consumer redress and refrain from making deceptive claims about green coffee bean extract or any other dietary supplement or drug product. Several critics of the settlement cited a “chilling effect” and voiced fears other manufacturers might hesitate to advertise true claims about products. In a statement, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said she and the other two commissioners supporting the settlement are “more concerned about other marketers’ incentive to emulate the defendants’ conduct, believing that they will ultimately retain the lion’s share of their ill-gotten gains.” You can review a timeline of the FTC’s actions at nutritionaction.com. On the homepage, look for the article titled “Watch Out for Deceitful Marketing of Dietary Supplements” under “Daily Tips.” Then do a web search for “green bean coffee extract.” We’re betting a wide majority of the 1.58 million hits are still touting weight-loss myths. To lose weight and keep if off, eat fewer calories and increase activity. To learn more about possibly getting some money back if you bought green coffee bean extract, visit the FTC website at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0008-getting-your-money-back.

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.

Bangor library offers many resources for downloading ebooks – The Weekly

Posted Feb. 16, 2015, at 4:11 p.m.
by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff

Area libraries have many sources for accessing ebooks that can be downloaded to ereaders and other mobile devices.

With the popularity of ereaders on the rise, and the advent of reading books on tablets or other mobile devices, public libraries have added resources that offer free downloads of ebooks, texts, documents, audiobooks and music.

Linda Oliver, head of reference at Bangor Public Library, said that the Maine InfoNet Download Library, a collection of ebooks leased from the vendor, Overdrive, a global digital distribution company, is one source where library patrons can download ebooks. Bangor Public Library is one of many libraries in Maine which participates in Maine InfoNet, Oliver said. “It’s one of the services libraries purchase ebooks from,” she said.

Ebook borrowers must have a valid library card from a participating library in order to use the service. Books may be checked out for up to two weeks. As many as three books may be  borrowed at a time, including audiobooks, or a combination of ebooks and audiobooks. The materials come in a variety of formats, including Kindle and ePub. Borrowers cannot renew a title. Once the two-week borrowing time elapses, the ebook no longer can be accessed.

Brewer Public Library, Edythe Dyer Library in Hampden and Orono Public Library also are Maine InfoNet Download Library participants.

“Bring your device to the library and we can help you through it [the ebook downloading process],” OIiver said.

One of the advantages of reading on a mobile device, she said, is that every book is potentially a large print book. You can bump up the type size or alter the amount of backlighting to suit personal, individual visual needs.

The library also has other ebook resources available, including a link at the library’s website to Project Gutenberg — gutenberg.org — which offers books with expired copyrights, generally books published in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

“I think it [reading on mobile devices] is becoming more and more popular. As the price [of devices] goes down, it has become very popular. We see our stats going up quite a bit,” Oliver said. “We have people come into the library on a regular basis to ask us to help them get started using ereaders. People who are passionate readers read in any format.”

Another source is the Hathi Trust, hathitrust.org, a partnership of institutions that has created a digital repository of items in their collections, Oliver said. It archives public domain materials and those that are still under copyright. The books in the public domain are often available in full view and can be read online. The books still under copyright have a limited view or only the catalog record. Most of these items are books in university collections, but it includes both fiction and nonfiction titles, she said.

Edythe Dyer Library, 269 Main Road North, in Hampden has a handout, “Where to Find Free eBooks,” available to its patrons. It contains this information:

  • Google eBookstore: books.google.com/ebooks. Many free books, though most are available for purchase. Includes new releases.
  • Scribd: scribd.com. Millions of documents including books, short stories, poems, pamphlets, brochures and government documents. Most can be read online. Downloading requires a Facebook account.
  • Participates in Maine InfoNet Download Library. Best sellers of fiction, nonfiction, young adult and children’s books. Requires a valid library card from a participating library.
  • Project Gutenberg: gutenberg.org. More than 33,000 older titles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in many categories including fiction and nonfiction.
  • Smashwords: smashwords.com. More than 30,000 titles from mostly self-published, independent authors. Some titles are free to download, others require purchase.
  • Internet Archive, archive.org. More than 2.7 million titles, mostly nonfiction, contributed by academic libraries. Includes movies, music concert videos, audiobooks, music, podcasts, and the Internet Wayback Machine for viewing archived websites.
  • Forgotten Books: forgottenbooks.org. Nearly 10,000 titles. Some Project Gutenberg overlap.
  • Feedbooks: feedbooks.com. Thousands of ebooks, many free to download. Includes  collection of public domain items that can be read on all mobile devices.
  • Munseys: munseys.com. Offers links to thousands of out-of-print books, with more than 1,500 pulp fiction-era novels.

My favorite find at Project Gutenberg is many of the books by Maine writer Holman Day, whose “King Spruce” is considered his masterpiece. However, his “Rider of the King Log,” “The Ramrodders” and “Blow the Man Down: A Romance of the Coast” are equally enjoyable. Other gems available for free download at Project Gutenberg are books written by James Otis Kaler, who was born in Winterport in 1848. Kaler used James Otis as a pen name and at age 16 served as a reporter covering various battles during the Civil War. His “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus,” published in 1881; “The Light Keepers,” published in 1906; and “Aunt Hannah and Seth,” published in 1900, are among a long list of his titles available at Project Gutenberg. Even though his novels are aimed at young readers, adults also will find them enjoyable reading.

“Be cautious when searching the Web for free ebooks,” Oliver cautioned. “Be cautious about using credit cards or giving personal information [on the Internet].”

Reverse mortgages put borrower’s heirs at risk

CONSUMER FORUM 

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 15, 2015, at 7:23 a.m.

The smiling actor in the commercial suggests a reverse mortgage may be the answer to all your financial concerns.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, says many have been confused and frustrated by the rules that govern this unique type of borrowing. In a reverse mortgage, a home’s equity is used as a line of credit; instead of making payments, the borrower receives a monthly payment that draws down that equity.

One problem is that reverse mortgages cannot be taken over by a family member when the borrower dies. Many family members have complained to the CFPB about their inability to be added to the loan so they can keep the family home.

Another problem is the confusing process confronting many borrowers when they try to pay off their loans. When the borrower dies, heirs have three choices: sell the home, repay the balance of the loan or pay 95 percent of the assessed value.

Some people have faced delays in getting appraisals, had appraisals done improperly or seen home values inflated so they’ve had to pay more. Many also have reported problems getting responses to questions and concerns about the loans from the parties that service them.

A third problem involves property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. These are the borrower’s responsibility, and the CFPB found some time ago that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage holders are at risk of foreclosure for nonpayment of those overdue costs.

Some consumers reported problems stopping the foreclosure process when they tried to pay overdue taxes. Some said their loan servicers incorrectly stated that taxes were overdue.

HUD information for senior citizens

Most reverse mortgages are insured through the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, program. Changes apply to terms of HECM loans made after Aug. 4, 2014, so nonborrowing spouses may remain in their homes after the borrowing spouse dies.

That change is not retroactive, so the CFPB urges everyone with a reverse mortgage to do three things:

— Verify who is on the loan. Ask your reverse mortgage servicer what names are listed on the loan, and make sure the records are accurate. They may help over the phone, but we prefer consumers send a letter — and keep a copy — so there’s a written record of the inquiry.

— If only one name is on the loan, make a plan for the nonborrowing spouse. After the death of a spouse, the survivor may qualify for a repayment deferral. That would allow the surviving spouse to live in the home. If not, make a plan for other living arrangements. If you or your spouse is not on the loan but think you or he or she should be, seek legal advice right away.

— Talk to your children and heirs, and make plans for any nonborrower family members who live in the home. Make sure family members know what to expect when the reverse mortgage comes due. The mortgage servicer should be able to supply written information about options. Talk these over with your family and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

To read more in the CFPB’s guide to reverse mortgages, visit http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201409_cfpb_guide_reverse_mortgage.pdf.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issues a guide called “Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home.” It’s available online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide_RevisedOnline.pdf.

Consumers can receive a printed copy by writing to 35 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0035 or calling 1-800-DEFederBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529).

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.

Kidde Recalls Disposable Plastic Fire Extinguishers Due to Failure to Discharge | CPSC.gov

Consumers should immediately contact Kidde for a replacement fire extinguisher.

Hazard:

A faulty valve component can cause the disposable fire extinguishers not to fully discharge when the lever is repeatedly pressed and released during a fire emergency, posing a risk of injury.

Consumer Contact:

Kidde toll-free at (855) 283-7991 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or online at www.kidde.com and click on Safety Notice for more information.

Incidents/Injuries:

Kidde has received 11 reports of the recalled fire extinguishers failing to discharge as expected. No injuries have been reported.

Remedy:

Consumers should immediately contact Kidde for a replacement fire extinguisher.

Sold at:

Home Depot, Menards, Walmart and other department, home and hardware stores nationwide, and online from August 2013 through November 2014 for between $18 and $65, and about $200 for model XL 5MR.

If Bruce with a foreign accent calls, offers to fix your computer, hang up

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 08, 2015, at 3:01 p.m.

You get a call from someone claiming to be from Windows Helpdesk, Windows Service Center, Microsoft Tech Support, Microsoft Support or a similar sounding name.

The caller says he has “detected trouble with your computer” and can help you fix it. Red flags should be flying, because this is one of the most frequently perpetrated scams going. Microsoft warns consumers about these scams and offers tips for spotting fake calls.

The clues are all there. Most callers are heavily accented but give very American-sounding names. They claim your computer is infected with a virus or is operating “with a lot of errors.” They can fix this, they claim, if you’ll only turn over control of your computer to them online and send them a few hundred dollars.

It’s always a scam. No cold-caller could possibly know whether your computer is operating correctly. Those “errors” are typical operating vagaries a scammer tries to make you believe will damage your system if left alone.

Give up control of your computer to someone who calls out of the blue, and you run the risk of having your passwords, financial data and other personal details stolen. Thieves could use that information to drain bank accounts, ruin your credit and steal your identity.

If successful, they’ll probably call back and try to sell you worthless computer security software. Once a scammer succeeds, you can bet your phone number will go on other crooks’ call sheets.

The Federal Trade Commission tried to crack down on the tech support scam, as the crime has become known. In September 2012, the FTC froze the assets of 14 companies working the scam. The agency said the “repair” fees ranged from $49 to $450 and netted thieves tens of millions of dollars from innocent consumers.

That put a few crooks out of business, at least for a while. However, cheap international phone rates and sophisticated dialing programs offer criminals the means to exploit the fears of computer users.

If you let the scammers prattle on, they’ll urge you to open a Microsoft event utility viewer; it’s built into Windows and lists harmless errors legitimate repair people can use to fix operating problems. The crooks point to the “error” and “warning” messages as signs that disaster is about to strike, when in fact the computer may be operating just fine.

The caller might then try to trick you into visiting a phony website and downloading what appears to be a repair tool; in fact, it’s malware that can lock up one or more programs on your computer. The caller may later demand a ransom to allow those programs to work properly again. Or the scammers might install malicious software that turns your computer into a “zombie,” which in turn looks for more computers to infect.

If you receive such a phone call, the best thing to do is hang up. Never buy any software or services from these cold callers. Don’t give them a credit card number or other financial information. And don’t click on links at websites to which you’re directed or in emails they send you. And never turn control of your computer over to anyone other than a known representative of a company with which you already have a business relationship for computer service.

If you have given information, change passwords to your computer, main email service and any financial programs. Do an anti-virus scan to look for malware; if you’re unsure whether the scan has dealt with any problems, you may want to take the computer to a local company you trust to have it thoroughly checked out.

If you’ve shared personal or financial information with a scammer, you may want to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Get details from the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, credit.maine.gov, or call 1-800-332-8529 (1-800-DEBT-LAW).

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.

State Says Consumer Laws Protect Against Risks Posed by Anthem Data Breach

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  FEBRUARY 5, 2015
Contact: Doug Dunbar, 207-624-8525

GARDINER — Governor Paul LePage joined officials at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to reassure consumers that state and federal laws will help protect them from losses due to file breaches containing personal identifying information, such as the one disclosed this week by Anthem.

The Anthem breach exposed the personal identifying information of an estimated 80 million current and former members nationally.  According to the company, information accessed included names, dates of birth, medical IDs, Social Security numbers, employment information including income data, street addresses and e-mail addresses.

“Although it’s unknown whether Maine consumers will be impacted by the Anthem data breach, I encourage people to closely monitor medical and financial records for evidence of identity theft,” Governor LePage said. “State and federal laws protect consumers from the effects of identity theft. The staff at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation is available to provide specific information.”

The Department’s Bureau of Insurance has been in communication with Anthem’s South Portland office.  Anthem will directly contact affected individuals by mail and offer free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.  The services are expected to be available in two weeks, for a period of one year, and will be retroactive to January 27, 2015.

Anthem established a dedicated website (www.anthemfacts.com) and toll-free number (877-263-7995) to answer current and former members’ questions about the breach.

The Department’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection and Bureau of Financial Institutions provided the following information and suggestions:

– State law requires notification to affected consumers.  Those consumers should receive a letter from Anthem within two weeks.

– The letter will offer free credit monitoring services for a year, with instructions on how to activate those services.

– Consumers can also check their own credit reports without charge once each year at the website www.AnnualCreditReport.com.  If consumers notice any evidence that their identity has been stolen, they can obtain additional reports at no charge.

– Consumers can place a fraud alert on their credit reports, or for a small fee they can “freeze” access to their reports, blocking the opening of any new accounts.  If a consumer experiences identity theft, the credit reporting agencies must freeze and unfreeze their accounts at no charge.

– Consumers are not responsible for paying charges incurred by an identity thief.  Likewise, consumers are not responsible for charges or debits made by someone else on their credit or debit card.  Upon first noticing evidence of unauthorized charges or withdrawals, consumers should immediately call, then write, the financial institution that issued their card.

– State officials recommend that if a consumer discovers evidence of identity theft, the consumer should file a police report with their local law enforcement agency, and retain a copy of the report.  Maine law (10 MRS sec. 1350-B) requires that a law enforcement agency near a consumer’s home or work place must accept information about a crime of identity theft, and produce a report.  The report is helpful if a consumer must later demonstrate that proper steps have been taken to establish the crime.

– Consumers should be vigilant in order to notice any evidence of identity theft or unauthorized charges.  This includes careful reviews of online or paper credit card and bank statements, unexplained statements of accounts not opened by the consumer, and collection calls or letters on debts not owed by the consumer.

Individuals with questions or concerns regarding consumer financial protection issues can call the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 or the Bureau of Financial Institutions at 1-800-965-5235.  Those with questions or concerns about health insurance matters can call the Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000.

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