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.

Stiffer penalties sought for price tag cheats

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted April 12, 2015, at 11:25 a.m.
We’ve all seen the signs in stores. The wording may vary, but message is the same: Changing prices is a crime, and marking things down — to fool the people who check you out — amounts to stealing.

In Maine, the losses may amount to $147 million a year. That figure comes from Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. Picard told me the loss nationwide could run to $30 billion to $40 billion.

Despite the big numbers, Picard said that, until recently, “it was hard to get this issue to be taken seriously.” Under current law, most price-switching is treated as shoplifting. However, a bill before the Maine Legislature seeks to change that practice.

That bill, LD 310, An Act to Prevent Organized Retail Crime, would make price-switching a Class C crime. A Class C offense also would occur if two or more people, including store employees, act in concert to steal retail merchandise. The bill is focused on a tough and savvy element.

“These criminals are sophisticated,” Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, said. “They’re careful to go where the penalties are less severe,” she said, adding that similar crimes in New Hampshire seem less frequent because the Granite State’s lawmakers took a similar, tougher stand on price-switching.

Some thieves carry supplies of barcode stickers into stores they’ve targeted. After finding an item they want, they slap a barcode indicating a lower price over the real barcode. When scanned at the register, the lesser amount is charged. The thief may wait a few days, peel off the bogus sticker and return the item for a refund of the full price.

Surveillance cameras can trip up such efforts. One would-be thief stuck bogus stickers on three identical items, put two back on the shelf and checked out with the third. Loss prevention officers nabbed the thief, who apparently hoped the discovery of two other lower-priced items might divert suspicion.

Last September, a Tampa man was sentenced in federal court to five years in jail and fined $130,000 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Court documents showed Robert James Mercer, his co-defendants and others traveled to Wal-Mart stores in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado, Texas and other states to defraud the stores.

Mercer and the others purchased prepaid debit cards with cash and received legitimate receipts for those purchases. They altered the receipts to make it appear they bought merchandise. They then used the fake receipts to return items for cash — they obtained those items through the code-switching ploy.

Cynics might say huge retailers, such as Wal-Mart, can absorb such losses. Realists know that, sooner or later, the cost of all such theft is passed along to honest consumers. The crimes hit Maine’s treasury as well, in the form of lost sales tax revenues paid out when crooks make their returns.

Click image to read Wikipedia explanation of return fraud

Some retailers scan a driver’s license or other ID when giving a refund. The data that’s collected is sent to a company specializing in creating “returner profiles.” If it detects an odd return pattern, it notifies the retailer, which then may not accept returns from that consumer for a period of time. Privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the collection and retention of data.

Volk’s bill is pending in the Legislature. Whether it passes may depend in part on whether it carries a fiscal note — that is, whether there will be any cost to implement changes the bill would require.

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 Electricians’ Board Issues Warning about Former Master Electrician and Offers Free Inspections

Press Release
April 8, 2015
Professional and Financial Regulation

The Electricians’ Examining Board within the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation announced that it has found former master electrician Craig Shores of Waterville in violation of statutes prohibiting unlicensed practice. He was also found to have committed permit violations and National Electric Code violations. Mr. Shores is required to pay $8,250 in penalties in the Decision and Order finalized March 20, 2015. Additionally, from a 2009 disciplinary order, he is required to pay a $6,500 penalty and $1,405 in hearing costs.

As outlined in the attached March 20, 2015 Decision and Order, the Board found that Mr. Shores, with a previously expired and suspended license, has continued to engage in dangerous wiring practices that present a threat to public safety and property. After notice and in Mr. Shore’s absence, the Board suspended his right to renew his expired master electrician license indefinitely.

The Board is concerned about potential ongoing, dangerous electrical installations being performed by Mr. Shores and encourages anyone who has had a recent electrical installation performed by Mr. Shores to contact the Board by calling (207) 624-8519. The Board is offering an inspection by a State of Maine Electrical Inspector to any home or business owner who has utilized the services of Mr. Shores.

 

Don’t trust credit card companies to teach kids about finances

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 05, 2015, at 10 a.m.

Personal finance websites CardHub and WalletHub released a rather troubling consumer credit outlook last week.

In the credit card field, forecasters see a trend toward offering more credit to existing debtors, instead of trying to attract new borrowers in a recovering economy. The companies’ experts said zero percent balance transfer periods are stabilizing while zero percent purchase terms are getting shorter.

Trending upward are cash- and points/miles-based rewards, both showing hefty hikes over last year. And, with consumers looking for money to spend, cash advance fees have gone up more than 40 percent since the end of 2010.

CardHub’s website notes a striking lack of confidence in American consumers’ own financial literacy. In 2013, 40 percent of people the firm surveyed gave themselves a grade of C or lower. With a worried eye on the future, just over 70 percent of parents in that survey thought their children didn’t understand basic money management.

We’re concerned as consumer advocates in light of another report, released on April Fools’ Day, on financial education. This one suggested parents and teachers take hard looks at any and all financial education programs and “follow the money” to see whose interests are really being served.

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, keeps a close eye on the materials included in financial education offerings.

“Nowhere have I read the following message in that literature: ‘Save Your Money Until You Can Afford What You Want; Then Pay Cash,’” he recently told Northeast CONTACT.

“Bad money decisions haunt us for a lifetime.” Click image to learn more about the Walter Cronkite Project

People in search of unbiased advice suggest looking at something called the FoolProof Foundation’s Walter Cronkite Project. Leaders of that nonprofit say financial education usually includes the biases of the sponsors, charging that “[t]he financial industry goliaths who profit when a young person makes money mistakes largely determine what young people learn about money habits.”

FoolProof Foundation founder Will deHoo goes on to ask, “is a credit card company going to support a financial literacy program that teaches kids to pay their credit card bill in full each month? Is a bank going to sponsor a program that says, ‘Be sure and read about the billions in fines we’ve paid for hurting our own customers’? Of course not.”

FoolProof, found at foolproofteacher.com, offers a free, Web-based series of financial lessons that it says meet the needs of young consumers instead of the needs of what it terms “conflicted businesses.”

While such entities may sponsor a range of gatherings in the name of helping students, critics charge that their presentations often leave out key pieces of advice that would truly improve students’ financial awareness. After all, if consumers paid off their credit card bills in full every month, they would see a real change in their debt and resulting stress levels. Such a trend would cut into the bottom line of credit card companies in a big way; it’s no wonder their teachings generally don’t include a plea to pay in full.

We’ve written in earlier columns about financial education efforts such as the Jump$tart Coalition, found at jumpstart.org, and Maine’s annual conference on teaching financial literacy. Because Maine has no statewide requirement for financial education, local educators and parents might want to take a serious look at the offerings of FoolProof and other free programs that might come along.

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.

Unlocking the code – FTC Scam Alert

 

Unlocking the code

by Alvaro Puig
Consumer Education Specialist, FTC

Identity thieves may already have a lot of information about you – like your credit card number, the card’s expiration date, and your name, address, and phone number. With all that information in his hands, why would he call you? He’s after one vital piece of information – the security code on your credit card.

Read more >

Attorney General Announces Consumer Settlement against “Bath Fitter”

March 26, 2015

(AUGUSTA) Attorney General Janet T. Mills announced today that the Maine Office of the Attorney General has settled a case against National Bath Systems, LLC, d/b/a Bath Fitter (“Bath Fitter”), of Portland, Maine. The complaint alleged violations of the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Attorney General Mills alleged that Bath Fitter engaged in unlicensed plumbing activities, used non-conforming construction contracts, installed plumbing before a plumbing permit issued, misrepresented employees’ license status, and engaged in plumbing installations that may violate the Maine State Internal Plumbing Code. As part of the settlement, Bath Fitter will comply with Maine law. The consumer complaint initiating this case was made through the Maine Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

The settlement was reached by consent judgment, which prohibits certain activities and requires a penalty of up to $750,000 with a portion of that sum suspended for the duration of the probationary period.

Upon timely request by any homeowner with a Bath Fitter plumbing installation, Bath Fitter will provide a free inspection of the installation by an independent licensed plumber to determine compliance with the plumbing code. If the plumbing does not comply with the code, permits and corrections will be made at no cost to the consumer. Consumers have until September 1, 2015 to request an inspection.

If you have a Bath Fitter installation in your home and wish a free inspection for compliance, please call Bath Fitter at 1-855-798-4646.

Attorney General Mills stated “We are pleased that this company agreed to comply with our laws, provide work by licensed plumbers when appropriate, and ensure their installations are in full compliance.”

Credit report concerns involve more than mailings to wrong address

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 22, 2015, at 10:18 a.m.

Click image for “Credit Reports and Credit Scores”

This was supposed to be an easy column to write. It started out focused on the recent agreement hammered out by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Equifax, Experian and Trans Union, the Big Three among credit reporting agencies.

Then, more than 300 letters ended up in a mailbox in southern Maine. More on that shortly; we’ll begin with the background on the agreement.

Consumers who have been diligent about checking their credit reports might have been upset to learn that some of those reports are less than accurate. It’s been estimated that as many as one credit report in 20 contains significant errors. Those mistakes could adversely affect consumers’ credit scores and therefore their ability to borrow money.

After months of negotiations, the reporting agencies agreed to changes in two major areas: the way consumers can dispute errors and the types of credit data that show up in their files.

Until recently, disputes over errors in a consumer’s files have amounted to “borrower beware.” The agencies typically took the word of a creditor that a consumer’s payment was late or that some other mistake was in the creditor’s favor. The negotiated change means the agencies will hire employees to make independent reviews of consumers’ disputes, rather than siding automatically with creditors.

The second change involves medical debt. The agencies have agreed to a 180-day delay before noting on a consumer’s credit report that the individual was late paying a medical bill. It’s not always clear which family member is liable for a particular bill or what coverage might apply; other factors beyond a consumer’s control might also delay payment.

This is a significant change for consumers, says Will Lund, Superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. “It makes sense to let that process settle out, to let the smoke clear, before a person’s credit history is potentially permanently impacted,” Lund told me last week.

Lund’s office has been investigating last week’s delivery of 312 letters containing other people’s credit reports to Katie Wheeler of Biddeford. Wheeler had requested a report from Equifax and was shocked to find the pile of letters from the agency. At first she thought a computer had printed hundreds of copies of her report; after opening a few, she discovered names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and other personal information of other people.

Lund said it was lucky the mailing ended up in the hands of an honest citizen, who turned them over to the agency responsible for enforcing Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Part of that law requires credit reporting agencies to register with his department. While Lund doesn’t expect any long-term fallout from the mailing, he said, “There are a variety of questions here relating to quality control.”

Lund said he hoped to have the documents delivered by courier to Equifax by March 23, once his office’s initial investigation was complete. He said he likely will have follow-up questions, once Equifax shares the results of its own probe with his office.

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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