New food-labeling rules aim to make Americans less fat

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 30, 2015, at 3:12 p.m.
The expert in statistics in his field at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said we need to think of diabetes as an iceberg.

Roughly 29 million Americans have diabetes, mainly Type 2, which is closely linked to weight issues. However, the CDC’s Edward Gregg said about 28 percent of adults with diabetes don’t know they have it, while another one-third of all adults are considered at high risk for diabetes.

The undetected cases represent the part of the iceberg that’s under water.

Experts say three factors account for the country’s increasing obesity problem: larger portion sizes, greater sugar intake and less exercise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking aim at the first of those factors.

Click image for additional FDA resources

The FDA is proposing new rules for companies listing the contents of their packaged foods. The Nutrition Facts Label first appeared 20 years ago. Last March, the FDA began the long process of changing it. The agency hopes consumers’ knowledge will grow in three broad areas:

Understanding the science: New labels will contain information about “added sugars,” update values of sodium dietary fiber and vitamin D and list amounts of potassium and vitamin D, now declared “nutrients of public health significance.” You’ll still see “total fat,” “saturated fat” and “trans fat” on labels, but “calories from fat” will disappear. The FDA’s reasoning: “type of fat is more important than the amount.”

Serving size and per package labels: The ways many of us eat and drink today have changed since serving sizes first were set two decades ago. New labeling rules require that packaged foods normally eaten in one sitting be labeled as a “single serving” and nutrient information be listed for the whole package. Some packages that may be consumed either in one sitting or multiple sittings will need “dual column” labels; those will indicate “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrient information.

The FDA has little bit of wiggle room on the serving size issue. “By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating,” its website states.

Updated design: Calorie counts and serving sizes will be more prominent, and the percent daily value of ingredients will move to the left, so it’s read first. The percent daily value, or %DV, tells consumers how much of certain ingredients they get from that food in the context of a daily diet.

Food manufacturers have not been idle. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute have been actively promoting voluntary front-of-label nutrient listings. The industry’s Facts Up Front website, factsupfront.org, suggested at the time the program was announced that “manufacturers may also include information on one or two nutrients to encourage,” a less robust revealing of information than the FDA label rules would require.

Not everyone loves the timing of FDA’s proposed changes. Back in 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the agency to require more prominent counting of calories and revealing the nutrient content of realistic serving sizes. In a letter to FDA last year, the center urged action to prevent “the possible unintended consequence that some consumers view serving sizes as portion recommendations.”

If FDA’s goal is to get Americans to eat less, four studies cited in the journal Appetite suggest the opposite. In one study, 78 percent of participants thought “serving size” meant the amount of food that can or should be consumed at a sitting. Taken together, the writers say the studies “suggest that the proposed nutrition facts label’s increased serving sizes may lead people who use this information as a reference to serve more food to themselves and others.”

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.

 

Legal questions swirl about off-label use of medications

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 23, 2015, at 1:38 p.m.

Maine is among the states that will share in a $71 million settlement of the lawsuit against drug manufacturer Amgen.

Click image to see other Off-Label decisions on the DOJ site

The states bringing the suit alleged Amgen promoted biologic medications Aranesp and Enbrel for off-label uses. Their complaint said the company promoted the use of Aranesp for longer periods than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved.

The complaint also charged that Amgen claimed Aranesp could fight anemia caused by cancer without having either FDA approval or scientific research to support that claim.

The complaint said the company also promoted Enbrel as effective in treating mild plaque psoriasis; the FDA has approved use of the drug only to treat chronic-moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. The complaint also charged that Amgen overstated the length of time Embrel was effective in treating psoriasis.

The settlement was announced last week by several state attorneys general. In a statement, Amgen said the settlement resolves some of the same matters as in a 2012 settlement with the federal government. Under the settlement with the states, Amgen did not admit any wrongdoing or liability.

Maine also was a party to the December 2012 settlement. A U.S. Department of Justice news release at that time said the company paid $612 million to resolve lawsuits under the False Claims Act and $150 million in criminal penalties and forfeiture.

In its statement sent to Northeast CONTACT, Amgen said, “separate state and federal resolutions of the same underlying issues is the normal practice in such legal matters.”

The company added it has a “strong compliance program, and our management is dedicated to fostering a culture of doing the right thing at Amgen in full compliance with the law.”

The company also says all Aranesp-related conduct that riled regulators took place during the years 2002 and 2007; it says all Enbrel-related conduct happened between 2004 and 2011.

Over the years, pharmaceutical companies have handed over billions of dollars to settle claims of misbehavior. Federal regulators don’t want drug company reps talking to doctors about off-label uses of drugs; manufacturers have maintained they should be able to have such conversations, as long as they are truthful.

In May, Amarin Pharma filed suit against the FDA, saying it had a constitutional right to share information with doctors. Lawyers for the company say they believe it is the first time the FDA has been sued pre-emptively over the free speech issue.

Floyd Abrams, attorney for Amarin, put it this way in an interview with Business Day: “If you tell the truth — if you’re not misleading — then the First Amendment protects you when you provide this sort of information.”

Dr. Michael Carome of the advocacy group Public Citizen holds the opposite view.

“If this lawsuit were to succeed, it would be devastating for drug safety and undermine the drug approval process,” Carome said.

If it goes that far, a court might rule either broadly or narrowly, making an outcome tough to predict. Consumers can best protect themselves by carefully reading the data sheets that come with their prescription meds. If what your doctor tells you doesn’t match the intended uses in the instructions, start asking questions.

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.

Beware of phony subscription offers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 16, 2015, at 1:33 p.m.

Click image to read FTC tips

The Wall Street Journal’s website includes a caution to readers about new subscriptions and renewals. It notes that certain shady types pretend to represent the publication when their real purpose is simply to rip people off.

The open letter from Christina Komporlis, head of circulation service for Dow Jones & Company, says fraudulent offers came from companies called National Magazine Services, Orbital Publishing and Publishers Billing Exchange. She says none of those entities has any connection with The Wall Street Journal or Barron’s Magazine.

The website further cautions readers not to disclose personal or financial information — especially bank account or credit card data — to anyone from those companies. Komporlis writes she would appreciate having such fraudulent correspondence forwarded to her at reportsubscriptionfraud@dowjones.com.

The Wall Street Journal encourages people with questions to call, so I did. A nice customer service rep told me the publishers posted the notice to encourage caution among readers when renewing their subscriptions. He said consumers are urged to use credit cards, because people who have been scammed and sent checks to the scammers seldom get their money back.

The scam can work in a couple of ways. Crooks can offer a ridiculously low renewal rate, prompting consumers to think they’re getting a great deal — in fact, they’ll get nothing for this “bargain.” On the flip side, scammers may send a renewal notice including a rate that’s much higher than the real price.

Northeast CONTACT recently heard from a Maine consumer who unsuccessfully tried for a refund. She paid for two renewals only to find out the craft magazines had stopped publishing. A full year later, a website still was advertising that the defunct magazines could be ordered.

Words to the wise subscriber come from a variety of consumer advocates. The messages are all the same:

— Read solicitations carefully. If they ask you to send money to an address other than that listed in the magazine’s masthead — publication information inside — be wary. This is not always a deal-breaker, however. Some magazines use outside companies, so call your magazine directly — NOT the number on a mailing you suspect is a scam — to verify the collection firm.

— Look for misspellings. Scammers aren’t the best with grammar, either. Their errors can tip you off that an offer is not legitimate.

— Beware of higher prices and longer-than-normal subscription periods. Our chief caseworker is leery of any offer that’s longer than one year.

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 keep track of latest scam tactics

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 09, 2015, at 1:32 p.m.

At some point, you’ve likely received an email from someone you know who claimed to be trapped in a foreign country and needed you to wire money immediately.

If your scam-sensing radar was well tuned, you deleted that message without another thought. However, a friend or relative may not be so aware of the ways of scam artists. That friend or relative could benefit from the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, series of scam alerts.

These periodic messages cut to the chase with language similar to this: “Government agencies will never ask you to pay by wiring money. Neither will legitimate businesses. If someone insists you pay by wiring money, it’s a scam. Don’t do it.”

That alert was issued last Wednesday on the FTC’s website, ftc.gov. The gold-colored button on the homepage takes you to a series of alerts on all sorts of things every informed consumer should know.

Another recent scam alert was headlined “It’s not the FTC calling about the OPM breach.” There was widespread news coverage of the data breach at the federal Office of Personnel Management, which left more than 21 million current and former federal employees wondering whether their identity was at risk. Scammers use that coverage and those fears to give credibility to their fake phone calls, saying the FTC is offering money to breach victims if they’ll just give up some personal information.

A couple of facts are worth noting here. The FTC does not call to ask for personal data, and the agency does not hand out money, either. It will accept your written or phoned complaint about such hoaxes; that reporting could help investigators put a stop to at least some of the impostor scams and other phishing attempts that put millions of citizens’ identities at risk.

Scam alerts also have dealt with people who pose as friends in an effort to separate you from your money. They may create phony online identities using stolen pictures and profess their love; it’s not long until they’re hitting up their victims for “loans” to deal with fabricated “emergencies.” They’ll always ask you to wire the money — so that it can’t be traced.

Scammers have found creative ways of posing as customer service people who try not to arouse suspicion when they ask you for personal or financial information. Say you have a question for a major retailer but can’t find a phone number; you do a Web search, and several toll-free numbers appear. A closer look at the territory above and to the right of the search results reveals some look-alike names that belong not to your retailer but to a scam artist waiting for your call.

Do your friends and family a favor by sharing the FTC’s scam alerts with them. You can find them under the “education” tab on our blog: https://necontact.wordpress.com. Educating yourself and those close to you is the best single step you can take to fight fraud.

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.

Children’s Leukemia Foundation folds amid fraud claims

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 02, 2015, at 2:24 p.m.

In August 2009, Neal Rubin wrote a scathing piece for The Detroit News about the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation, or NCLF.

It wasn’t the first time the writer took on the organization based in Brooklyn, New York. It raised money for years nationwide as a “charity,” though Rubin’s research turned up little in the way of charitable activity.

It did turn up complaints by the president of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan, William Seklar. His group has been spending at least 80 percent of the money it raises on getting information, financial aid and emotional support to families facing life-threatening blood disorders.

NCLF consistently has done much less, according to Rubin and more recently to investigators with the attorney general for New York state. Last month, New York’s attorney general filed a petition in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn to shut down the group and recover money the AG’s office said had been raised through fraud.

The petition cited what it called exorbitant fees for telemarketing and direct mail campaigns, more than 80 percent of the $9.7 million NCLF raked in from mid-2009 to mid-2013. Those court documents found a total of $57,451 in “direct cash assistance to leukemia patients” over the four-year period.

The petition said the foundation really was a one-man operation run by Zvi Shor, who started NCLF in 1991 after he lost a child to leukemia. Court papers showed Shor paid himself $595,000 in salary and $600,000 in deferred compensation from 2009 to 2013, plus a promised lifetime pension of more than $100,000 per year.

The foundation’s phone number is disconnected and its website has disappeared. Shor’s attorney, Douglas Gross, told the New York Times he thinks the AG’s claims are baseless.

“Mr. Shor began this charity and ran it with the best of intentions,” Gross said.

While the New York attorney general’s office includes a charities bureau, the state does not have a law that makes charities fraud a crime. Criminal prosecutions there usually involve tax fraud, embezzlement or larceny.

Records on file with Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Responsibility show NCLF was registered as a charity and thereby able to solicit funds in Maine in 2004. The records indicate the organization did not renew its license after that.

It’s important to remember that charitable giving works best when your donations do the good work you intended to have done. Giving to “sound-alike” charities may benefit the organizers and professional fundraisers most.

Keep in mind that very few legitimate charities “cold call” people. The good ones are happy to mail you information about their services and to explain what percentage of money raised goes to programs. The good ones won’t pressure you for a credit card number now; they’ll gladly take your check when you are ready.

Guidestar, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, are probably the most often used resources to check out charities. The Tampa Bay Times published results of a lengthy investigation of bad charities, which can be found at http://tampabay.com/americas-worst-charities/.

The Center for Investigative Reporting published similar findings at http://cironline.org/americasworstcharities.

Check charities licensed to solicit funds in Maine at maine.gov/pfr and see “licensee search and status” under Consumer Tools. Consider supporting charities that operate close to your home. There’s nothing like a personal visit to see how things run and to have your questions answered.

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.

Feds say LifeLock broke online data security promises

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 26, 2015, at 2:39 p.m.
The commercials seemed reassuring.

They led viewers to believe LifeLock could keep consumers’ sensitive data as safe as some financial institutions. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission called such claims deceptive and told LifeLock executives to stop making such claims.

In fact, the FTC told LifeLock the same thing back in 2010. That’s when the company, FTC and 35 state attorneys general — including Maine’s — reached a settlement requiring LifeLock to stop making deceptive claims, to tighten up the way it safeguards the information it collects from consumers and to pay $12 million in refunds to consumers.

Last week, the FTC filed documents with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. The agency claims the documents prove LifeLock violated the 2010 order by falling short in three areas:

— Failing to protect customers’ sensitive data.

— Falsely advertising that it used the same high-level safeguards as financial institutions to safeguard those data.

— Failing to meet recordkeeping requirements set forth in the 2010 order.

Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, doesn’t have much of a sense of humor when she thinks agreements aren’t being followed.

“It is essential that companies live up to their obligations under orders obtained by the FTC,” she said. “If a company continues with practices that violate orders and harm consumers, we will act.”

The Associated Press quoted a LifeLock spokesman as saying the FTC actions relate to past practices and that the company is prepared to defend itself in court. LifeLock says it has been talking and cooperating with the FTC for the past year and a half.

The documents filed with the court are sealed, so we don’t know what information the FTC has to back up its claims. The court will decide which documents would be unsealed.

Consumers still need to decide how best to protect their sensitive data. Some may feel paying LifeLock or a similar company amounts to money well spent. Others may feel they can do the best job of keeping an eye on their own credit card statements, getting their free annual credit reports and doing everything else necessary to keep their personal and financial data secure.

Consumer Reports advises that, whatever consumers do, they should act fast if they discover their Social Security numbers have been accessed. Consumer Reports advises putting a security freeze on credit reports with the three major reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. That would keep creditors from accessing your file if a crook tries to open a new account in your name — without that access, creditors are likely to deny the application.

If you’re not a victim of identity theft, the freeze should cost no more than $6, according to a change in the law approved during the last session of the Maine Legislature. If your identity has been stolen, there is usually no charge to freeze your account.

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 Consumer Protection Officials Announce New Publication:

Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing

Auto Guide 1st Ed Web

Click image to access booklet

GARDINER – Governor Paul R. LePage joined staff at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, an agency within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, in announcing the release of a new auto buying publication.  The Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing is a 32-page booklet available online or in paper copy free to Maine residents.

“Purchasing a car or truck can be an enjoyable experience, but it can also be complicated,” Governor LePage said.  “This new guide—the latest in a Downeaster series of consumer protection publications—provides important information and guidance to help individuals and families make sound financial decisions when considering a new vehicle.”

Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection Principal Examiner David Leach, who coauthored the new guide, emphasized that an automobile purchase is a significant financial commitment that often involves a large number of issues and considerations.  He outlined the topics covered in the guide:

  • Determining how much vehicle you can afford;
  • Understanding how to conduct auto buying research;
  • Learning how to check your credit reports before applying for an auto loan;
  • Determining the lowest Annual Percentage Rate or APR for your vehicle loan;
  • Understanding why “No money down” financing can be an expensive mistake;
  • Learning how to negotiate the best price for your new vehicle and trade in;
  • Preparing yourself for the “closing room” at the auto dealership; and
  • Evaluating the pros and cons of add-ons like extended warranty programs and credit insurance.

“This publication will help consumers become more comfortable with auto buying and financing by clearly explaining the process in an easy to understand, step-by-step format,” David Leach said.  “The thought of buying a car or truck makes many people uneasy.  This booklet provides Mainers with the tools and tips to understand and succeed in the process.”

An online copy of the auto buying guide, and several other Downeaster Common Sense financial publications, can be found at www.Credit.Maine.gov by clicking “Publications.”  Copies can also be ordered by calling the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527. 

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