What to do if you think your car qualifies for the massive air bag recall

Posted May 24, 2015, at 10:06 a.m.

Good news and bad news time: I’m average.

The average age of a vehicle on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, so my 2004 Ford Taurus station wagon is right on the median (or is that mean? I never got those two straight). That’s not good news in light of last week’s massive recall of automotive air bags.

Federal law says manufacturers do not have to report suspicious accidents in vehicles more than 10 years old. There’s a bill in Congress to change that, but for now, there may be a lot more cars needing recall work than anyone can imagine.

At last word, we were still looking for the full list of vehicles involved in the recall of those Takata air bags, which could deploy with excessive force, shatter the housing and send shrapnel into the people whom the bags were intended to save. The recall is expected to cover 34 million vehicles, about one of every seven cars in the country. That’s the largest recall ever involving motor vehicles and one of the biggest recalls on record.

Many consumers who have tried to check their recall status have found there are no easy answers. They are anxious, and with good reason; six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty air bags, and owners will likely be impatient while regulators and manufacturers sort things out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to cooperate with its investigation. Federal regulators and Takata agreed last week on the expanded recall, and some observers predict the fines will disappear as Takata absorbs the high costs of both the recall work and inevitable lawsuits.

For the moment, consumers need to be prepared. Consumer Affairs’ checklist goes as follows:

— Find your Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on the vehicle or registration.

— To see if you are eligible, go to www.safercar.gov/vin and type in your VIN.

— If your vehicle is among those recalled, go to any dealer of your vehicle right away and schedule a recall repair appointment.

— Ask your dealer (or the vehicle manufacturer) for a “loaner” vehicle while waiting for parts to become available.

Manufacturers are not required to give you a loaner, but some will. And if your vehicle is not on the recall list, it might be added in the future. It’s important to keep checking.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website is another place to check (www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/index.html). Last week, that site was reporting very heavy usage, so be patient.

Experts are still looking for exact causes of the air bag problem, but excessive humidity is suspected to cause chemicals to deteriorate. Factor in climate when thinking of buying a car from Florida or other warm places.

You can check the safer car site to see if your vehicle has been recalled for other work as well. Carfax, which tracks all kinds of vehicle data, estimates 3.5 million cars for sale online in 2013 had undone, or “open” recalls. If a consumer sells a vehicle with an open recall privately, the buyer is unlikely to know about the needed recall work.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an email notification system for vehicles, tires and child restraints. Before signing up, look at the sample email message on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ’s website (www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/subscriptions/index.cfm#) so you’ll know what the real thing looks like. Expect scammers to exploit the recall for their own purposes.

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 perils of not reading terms, conditions

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted May 17, 2015, at 6:50 a.m.

Dear Company X:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding my inquiry about your negative option policy. I understand your policy states that “purchases and renewals are non-refundable” and that it was in effect when I signed up for your “club.”

I’m confused because your response states “membership cancellation can only be completed prior to the next renewal date.” Lucky me, I have plenty of time, since this membership I’m trying to get out of lasts until next February.

And, yes, when first signing up I checked the little box that says I understand and agree to all the stuff that’s in your policy. For your convenience, at the bottom of this letter I’ve included a checkbox that says you understand that most consumers wouldn’t read these things if trapped alone on a desert island with nothing else to read.

Here’s what gets me, Company X. A request to cancel has to be made at least five days before my plan expires. Even if I do that, with about nine months of “service” left on my current membership, I get nothing back?

I got into this situation because I was looking for a renewal notice before my last membership ran out. I noticed the renewal charge on my credit card bill, which arrived too late for me to cancel. Why don’t you guys do what the magazine companies do and send renewal notices eight or nine months before our subscriptions run out? Why instead is your policy to say nothing and be signed up and charged again?

Click to read: Tragic (Legal) Mistake 4: Continuity Programs: In the FTC Crosshairs

I’m told this is called a negative option policy. This practice by your company and many others has drawn attention from some people in high places. Six years ago, the Federal Trade Commission had its staff look at four kinds of negative option plans. The staff examined automatic renewals, including mine. They also looked at pre-notification negative option plans, such as book or music clubs that send a periodic notice that a consumer will receive another selection. If the person does nothing, the company ships the selection and charges for it. The staff also looked at continuity plans, where consumers agree up front to receive goods or services until they cancel the agreement. There also are free-to-pay or nominal-fee-to-pay plans: After a trial period, sellers automatically start charging a fee — or increased fee — unless consumers affirmatively return the goods or cancel the services.

Then, Company X, there’s the upsell. Some companies pitch their negative options, seal the deal, then offer an additional product or service for a few dollars more. Or they bundle offers, so two or more products or services may only be purchased together.

The FTC staff work led to passage in 2010 of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, or ROSCA. As you know, ROSCA bans negative option deals unless the seller does the following:

— Clearly and conspicuously discloses all material terms before getting the consumer’s billing information.

— Gets the customer’s express informed consent before making the charge.

— Sets up a simple way to prevent recurring charges.

I’m sure you folks at Company X wouldn’t diminish my consuming experience by failing to comply with the law just to make a few dollars more.

DirecTV incurred the FTC’s wrath by allegedly failing to make clear what the rates were when a nifty introductory offer was up. There apparently was some concern about the fees people were paying to get out of the deal, too.

Your company and others may be watching to see if DirecTV appeals. Or maybe you think it’s better for all businesses to be clear and conspicuous with their offers so we all know where we stand. Please check here if you agree — uh, that’s called affirmative consent.

Have a nice day.

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.

FTC Launches New Resource for Identity Theft Victims

IdentityTheft.gov Helps People Report and Recover from Identity Theft

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

May 14, 2015

The Federal Trade Commission has launched IdentityTheft.gov, a new resource that makes it easier for identity theft victims to report and recover from identity theft. A Spanish version of the site is also available at RobodeIdentidad.gov.

The new website provides an interactive checklist that walks people through the recovery process and helps them understand which recovery steps should be taken upon learning their identity has been stolen. It also provides sample letters and other helpful resources.

In addition, the site offers specialized tips for specific forms of identity theft, including tax-related and medical identity theft. The site also has advice for people who have been notified that their personal information was exposed in a data breach.

Identity theft has been the top consumer complaint reported to the FTC for the past 15 years, and in 2014, the Commission received more than 330,000 complaints from consumers who were victims of identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook(link is external), follow us on Twitter(link is external), and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

Phony medication call centers target military families

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 10, 2015, at 4:35 p.m.

Click image to read TRICARE’s April 10th article

The Defense Health Agency has been warning military families and veterans covered by TRICARE about scams involving “call centers.” Callers ask clients to reveal personal and medical information over the phone, with promises to help them get medications.

TRICARE is a civilian health care program run by the U.S. Department of Defense Military Health System. It offers benefits for active duty service people, retirees and their families. The program was formerly known as the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services, or CHAMPUS.

A call from a “call center” generally begins with the caller claiming to be from a sound-alike agency, “calling to tell you about a prescription pain cream you qualify for that TRICARE will cover.” The caller chats up the client — sometimes using personal information gleaned from Google or other sources — and asks for the name of the client’s doctor and other TRICARE information.

“TRICARE will never call beneficiaries and ask for personal information,” Defense Health Agency spokesman Kevin Dwyer said.

But others will, including a host of less-than-reputable companies that deal in compounded prescriptions.

A recent article on the Military Times website notes a huge increase in compounded medications, from $5 million in 2004 to over $700 million in the first three months of this year.

The boom in sales has attracted aggressive marketers, who cold call TRICARE clients, ask if they have certain medical needs and if so, whether they are interested in compound medications. The meds can cost a few hundred dollars to more than $9,000 for a prescription.

The Military Times article cites an ad on Craigslist searching for both customers and sales representatives. The ad claimed meds are “handcrafted for every individual” and formulated to help deal with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to chronic pain and scars.

Supporters of the compounding industry say the majority of its members are small companies that try to help patients and want a fair price in return. But the entry of hustlers during a time of changing regulation has put the industry under a microscope.

Starting May 1, Express Scripts, which administers the TRICARE pharmacy program, is under orders to screen every ingredient in compounded meds to make sure substances meet Food and Drug Administration regulations. TRICARE will cover those with allowable ingredients; others will have to be reformulated or will need prior approval to be covered.

[questions and answers about TRICARE’s new compound drug policy]

It’s unclear how many recent prescriptions may not be reimbursable.

In any case, those cold calls are likely to keep coming.

TRICARE officials say beneficiaries should never reveal personal or financial information over the phone. If they receive such a call, they’re urged to call Express Scripts at 866-759-6139 or 866-216-7096 or email fraudtip@express-scripts.com.

Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, alerted Northeast CONTACT to the cold calling. She urges all seniors who receive similar calls to avoid revealing personal and financial 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, visithttps://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

How to be sure that aid gets to Nepal disaster victims

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 03, 2015, at 10:20 a.m.

In Friday’s Bangor Daily News, readers learned Nepalese students at the University of Maine were raising money to aid victims of the earthquake.

The students plan to send donations to a hospital in Kathmandu. The father of one of the students works at the hospital, so they know their donations will go where they intend them to go.

In other words, the students are doing everything right. They know people working in Nepal. They’re familiar with the work done by the people to whom they’re sending the money.

However, some people who are in the business of helping in times of disaster say most of us should wait two weeks — maybe even four — before sending anyone money.

That’s because scam artists often set up websites that resemble legitimate relief organizations. Those scammers rake in thousands, even millions, in gifts from well-meaning people who simply react too quickly.

CDP’s mission is to transform disaster giving by providing timely and thoughtful strategies to increase donors’ impact during domestic and international disasters.Regine Webster is vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, or CDP. As its name might suggest, CDP looks at disasters at home and abroad through a lens that seeks to meet long-term needs. To decide whether to respond, its website says CDP looks for several things:

— Significant injuries, deaths or displacements.

— Call for national or international aid.

— Significant impact on a community’s livelihoods and capacity to respond.

— Significant impact on vulnerable populations.

— Heightened media attention.

Webster says even with what might be termed objective standards, she and others at CDP react emotionally to scenes such as those in Nepal. However, in a recent blog post titled “Watch. Learn. Then Act,” Webster wrote, “our mission is to opt for and encourage medium- and long-term needs over the understandable visceral, emotion-driven response” (emphasis hers).

Webster went on to relate that immediate needs — search and rescue, water, temporary shelter, access to medical care and so on — were being addressed by first responders. Over the course of coming weeks, longer-term needs will need to be met: safeguarding drinking water and basic hygiene, providing physical and mental health services, providing permanent shelter, rebuilding infrastructure and figuring out how people will get back to work.

Using the three points in her blog, Webster suggests potential donors do three things:

— Watch. The disaster began April 24. The scope of the disaster has begun to emerge, but more details are reported every day. Wait a few weeks and get a feel for the total picture of the disaster.

— Learn. Take two or even four weeks to see what the needs are and how responders are meeting them.

— Act. Webster predicts that after two weeks, the media will turn its bright lights away from one of the poorest countries in Asia. At that point, local and international nongovernmental organizations will be going full speed toward medium- and long-term recovery. Donors who make wise giving choices can be most effective at this stage.

Charity rater Guidestar Exchange calls CDP a “bronze participant,” citing transparency in its financial filings, leadership listings and mission statement.

Charity Navigator also helps sort the “real” charities from those that have sprung up overnight. Research any organization to which you plan to donate. Find some possibilities at Give.org.

For best results, choose a group that has worked in Nepal before. As a top official of Save The Children put it, “it’s not a place to break people in.”

Follow the money to make sure it’s not going to someone’s bank account, then decide whether you want to target your donation for a specific purpose.

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.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this report identified GuideStar as GuideStar Exchange, which is a GuideStar program that allows nonprofits to list information about themselves online. GuideStar does not rate nonprofit organizations.

A quick means to looking older — not in a good way

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 26, 2015, at 11:22 a.m.

After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.

However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.

WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.

The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.

In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.

Click image to view “Are teens heeding the warnings on tanning beds?”

Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.

An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”

Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”

Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.

In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.

A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.

Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”

Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.

Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”

The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.

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.

Home repair scam artists grow more devious

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 19, 2015, at 9:08 a.m.

Click image for “legal guide to door-to-door criminals”

Scam artists posing as home-repair experts have been advertising in Yellow Pages and other media for years, trying to make themselves appear legitimate. Some lowlifes don’t even bother to try.

In Falmouth last October, police arrested a man they say hired a subcontractor to do estimates on home repairs. After getting those estimates, the man would visit the homeowners and collect a deposit of several hundred dollars, then they’d never see the man again. The subcontractor, who had no idea what the man was up to, answered an ad on Craigslist.

“People think if these guys advertise, they’ve got to be legitimate. That’s not necessarily true,” John Holmes, manager of the EZ Fix program at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says.

The program offers low-cost home repairs for seniors. In the seven years he’s managed it, Holmes has seen shady operators try to take advantage of trusting people.

Holmes says many consumers don’t ask enough questions, especially of people who go door to door offering fixes that may or may not be needed.

Many of his clients live alone and may have no one they feel they can turn to for advice. In some cases, Holmes told me, “they would hire the first person off the street who said, ‘something’s wrong with your house.’”

Under Maine law, door-to-door salespeople must be licensed. Always ask to see the license of anyone who knocks on your door offering to fix something.

Be doubly careful, because some disreputable contractors may break something, then try to convince you to pay them to repair it. They also may create a repair job as a way to get into your house and possibly steal from you, as was a case in Falmouth.

Click image for sample home repair contract required if cost exceeds $3000

Other “red flags” to watch for include the following:

— Special deals, offered “today only”

— Pressure to sign a contract or begin work right away. A three-day “cooling off” period is mandated under Maine law.

— A demand of full payment up front, especially in cash. Jobs estimated at more than $3,000 must be done under contract, and no more than one-third of the total may be required as a deposit.

— A lack of personal identification, such as a permit.

— No business name on work vehicles and no indication of roots in a community.

Holmes advises people who need home repairs to ask for three references; call the people who have had work done and ask if they’re satisfied. Also, insist on seeing the contractor’s proof of insurance. Ask to see a sample contract, including clauses that deal with resolving disputes.

“Any reputable contractor is going to hand over all of this,” Holmes says, adding that all consumers should expect no less.

Sticking a magnetic sign on a vehicle doesn’t create a business; that takes a good reputation built on a solid work ethic and real results. If you notice suspicious people hawking cut-rate home “improvements,” notify your local police agency.

Maine’s Consumer Law Guide is available on the Maine Attorney General’s website, at maine.gov/ag. Chapter 17 deals with your rights when building or repairing your home. Chapter 13 covers your rights when a salesperson contacts you at home.

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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