Magnet maker wins court ruling despite injuries to children

Posted Dec. 05, 2016, at 1:45 p.m.

In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a rule banning the sale of sets of small magnets. In November, the company that defied the agency won a federal appeals court victory; the firm’s website trumpeted, “Ban cleared. Game on.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s action came after reports of injury to some children who swallowed the powerful neodymium (rare earth) magnet balls. If they ingested more than one, children were at risk of having the magnets attach and tear internal tissues or organs. Surgery sometimes was needed to remove the magnets.

Most distributors heeded the urgings of the group to stop selling the magnets, despite the warning labels stating that the toys were meant for adults and not children. One manufacturer — Zen Magnets of Boulder, Colorado — refused first the urgings and then orders to stop selling magnet sets. It did so with the backing of lots of consumers, who liked the variety of patterns they could form using the magnets.

The safety commission’s research in 2011 had found that some magnets sold in sets were 10 times more powerful than allowed in standards for children’s toys. Manufacturers insisted that the sets were for adults only, but the agency pointed to a rising number of emergency room visits involving children who had swallowed magnets.

A 2015 news release from the safety group blamed the death of a 19-month-old girl on magnet ingestion and estimated that 2,900 ER visits between 2009 and 2013 resulted from swallowed magnets. That news release focused on a federal judge’s order that Zen Magnets — at the time the only known seller of small magnet sets — to stop selling recalled magnets. The Justice Department had charged that Zen bought 917,000 magnets from another company, comingled them with other magnets and sold them after the other company issued a recall. Federal law bans the sale of recalled products.

In November of this year, a federal appeals court overturned the ban on magnet sales and sent the matter back to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two of the three judges wrote that they found the safety group’s emergency room statistics did not show that the agency rule “is reasonably necessary to eliminate or reduce an unreasonable risk of injury.” Those judges wrote that they had “no opinion” on the number of injuries that would support issuing a new safety standard.

The minority judge on the panel wrote, “In my view, the record sufficed for the Commission’s finding of an unreasonable risk of injury.” A commission spokesperson told us “the hazard from these small, powerful magnets has not changed” if more than one is swallowed. The agency is “assessing its options and takes the matter very seriously.”

While the safety commission assesses its options, magnet sales abound on the internet. After doing his victory dance, the founder of Zen Magnets called for education over regulation. Shihan Qu wrote on his company’s website that swimming pools and toy balloons are more dangerous than his magnets and that education is the key to the safe enjoyment of most products.

They may not be toys, but that’s how magnet sets may appear to little eyes. Qu agreed with many critics when he wrote, “… high powered magnets should be kept away from any mouths and young children who don’t know better.”

In the same article Qu wrote, “Instead of driving Zen out of business, and pushing production further from the CPSC’s field of view, I’d rather use our resources to fight alongside the CPSC for successful educational and awareness campaigns focused on consumers and medical professionals.”

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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Avoid paying interest while shopping for holidays

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 28, 2016, at 6:14 a.m.

Consumer revolving debt — mainly credit card balances — grew by $4.2 billion in September, according to the Federal Reserve. America’s total revolving debt reached $978.8 billion, the highest level since April 2009, when the economy was going downhill fast.

Projections of spending during this holiday season vary, but it’s likely that many of us will charge more for holiday gifts than we should. Here are some suggestions for preventing the buyer’s remorse — and interest charges — that can follow aggressive use of credit cards.

Pay cash. The simplest solution to avoiding interest charges is buying with cash. Parting with real money can also help to keep impulse spending in check.

Make a list. Check it as many times as you like, but write stuff down before you visit the stores, real or online. Itemizing what you intend to buy helps to keep your shopping focused, and that can minimize stress as well as curb impulse buying. While you’re writing, devise a place to keep all your receipts, whether they’re paper or digital.

Charge only what you can afford. Buy something with a credit card and you get what amounts to an interest-free loan. However, that’s true only if you pay off your balance in full by the due date after you receive your monthly statement — what’s termed a grace period. If you pay in full month after month, you’ll get a break on new purchases but NOT on cash advances or convenience checks. Those generally start accruing interest immediately. Some balance transfers may also not be included in a grace period; read the terms of your card carefully to see what terms apply.

Plan your payback. If you carry any balance into the next billing cycle, there’s no grace period on purchases you make during that cycle. Your card company will start charging interest the moment you make a purchase. Some card companies require you to pay your balance in full for two straight months to get your grace period back.

If you have carried a balance, you might get hit with something referred to as “trailing interest” or “residual interest.” Those terms refer to interest that accrues on your balance before you have a chance to pay it off, even if you’re paying the full balance that’s shown on your statement. The trailing or residual interest might have accrued between the time your statement was printed and the time your received it in the mail.

David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, has some realistic advice about holiday shopping. He suggests a cooling-off period when considering major purchases.

“Your friends and family don’t want you to incur excessive debt to buy them presents,” Leach said recently.

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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Beware of bogus delivery notices as holidays approach

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 21, 2016, at 9:56 a.m.
This is the graphic sent out with this Fed Ex email scam.

This is the graphic sent out with this Fed Ex email scam.

A consumer from Hancock County was surprised recently to read an email saying that a package he had ordered could not be delivered.

Suspicious because he had not ordered anything, the man read more closely. The generic greeting, “Dear customer,” was followed by an urging that he click on the attachment that contained a “shipping label.”

“Something about it just didn’t strike me right,” the consumer told us, so he ignored the email, allegedly from “Fedex International Ground.” Eight days later, he received another message and attachment, this time from “Fedex International Next Flight.” The next day, an email came from “Fedex 2Day.” A fourth message came three days after that. All carried different senders’ names.

Similar messages arrive in consumers’ email inboxes every day. And every one is a hoax, designed to prompt you to click a link or open an attachment containing malicious software or malware. The virus, Trojan or other nasty code might lock your computer and hold it for ransom, steal your personal information or be used for other illegal purposes.

These attempts to spread malware are constant, but they spike near holidays, when online shopping increases. Variations of the message might include instructions to click the attached “invoice copy,” print it and take it to “the nearest office” to pick up your nonexistent package. Other messages demand payment of a bogus debt before that mystery package can be delivered.

United Parcel Service, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service will never send email notices about missing packages. UPS has guidance on its website ( ups.com and search “scam”). FedEx offers similar advice at fedex.com/mx_english/fraud/email_alert.html.

The recent news that UPS aircraft mechanics have authorized a strike may spark more fraud attempts. Crooks seize such news items to lend credibility to their stories that “packages have been delayed” or “the strike diverted your package to another service.”

Our consumer in Hancock County admitted that, if he had ordered something, he might have clicked on a malicious link when the first email arrived. Still, he said the lack of a phone number or company logo in the message made him suspicious enough to refrain.

In 2015, 782 Maine residents reported to the U.S. Justice Department that they had been the victims of internet crime. Their losses totaled more than $1 million. Don’t join their ranks. If you receive a notice that you think might be legitimate, look up the phone number of a local office and call — don’t click on or call a number that criminals may have spoofed to make it appear real.

To file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, visit ic3.gov online. If you’re threatened over the internet via email, chat room, website or other means, call 911 or contact your local police agency.

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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to stop paying for free things

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 14, 2016, at 11:41 a.m.

There may be no free lunches, but some goods and services have no cost. And wise consumers don’t pay for anything that’s free.

Leading the list are credit reports. By law, all U.S. consumers are entitled to one free report from each of the three major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — every year, and we recommend rotating among agencies every four months. To access these agencies for free, use AnnualCreditReport.com. Other websites may try to charge you for a report, credit monitoring or other services.

Bank accounts and credit cards don’t have to come with hefty fees. Shop around and find what fits your needs. You can do some comparison shopping at nerdwallet.com.

Seniors are bombarded with ads offering help for a fee in finding the best health care insurance. An appointment with your local area agency on aging will link you with someone you can talk with directly, and it’s free. Call 877-353-3771 for information.

Click to link to UMaine

Seniors also can take a class at the University of Maine for free. People 65 and older can take one class per semester without paying tuition or fees. Call 581-3143 for details.

Amazon will sell you a Consumer Action Handbook for $5.99. The author is listed as “United States General Services Administration.” Yes, it’s a free government publication, downloadable at no charge at https://publications.usa.gov/USAPubs.php?PubID=5131. For a printed copy, call 844-USA-GOV1 (844-872-4681). The call also is free.

Speaking of calls, instead of dialing 411 and paying for directory assistance, call 800-FREE-411. It works nationwide. The only catch is that you have to listen to a 20-second ad first.

Paying for free things and services doesn’t make sense. What concerns many consumers is the hidden cost structure of many things in the digital world. Still, these are costs that many consumers pay willingly.

Consider those “free” apps for your handheld computer. You might pay the price of watching whatever ads appear. Maybe you’ll decide that the basic app is so cool you’ll pay for an upgrade. The hidden costs can pile up when young users buy game enhancements from the company store. As we’ve discussed before, in-app spending by children led to action by the Federal Trade Commission requiring informed consent before consumers can be charged.

The explosion in e-commerce has the administrators of retail websites thirsting for ways to attract new customers. Many companies share or sell information, making consumers’ anonymity less likely over time. This fact has many consumers feeling nervous about the amount of data they’re sharing and the use of those data to identify them.

The FTC website says businesses must give customers privacy notices explaining how they use and share their financial information. The FTC says there are no absolutes: “The law balances your right to privacy with a company’s need to provide information for normal business purposes.” When weighing the true cost of free stuff, consumers might do well to put their finger on the scales and opt to share less of their data.

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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to protect mail-ordered gifts from ‘porch pirates’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 07, 2016, at 6:01 a.m.
Check different processes for different carriers

Click image to check different carriers’ responses to claims

More and more consumers are avoiding the whirl of holiday shopping by ordering gifts online.

However, before they’re even wrapped, some goods that should end up in shiny paper go missing. They are among the goods delivered by Fedex, UPS and other package services that are stolen right off people’s front porches.

These “porch pirates” often don’t know what they’re taking. That prompted one writer on the subject to wonder about thieves’ reactions if they had stolen the 20-pound bag of dog food that had been delivered to his home.

That writer also wondered why police in Tarzana, California, had referred to this brand of crooks as “sophisticated porch pirates.” Turns out the thieves had been using a computer app to locate UPS trucks. Then they would follow the trucks, picking up the deliveries within moments of the time they land on the porch. Some even brought their children with them, sending them to do the dirty work.

An estimated 23 million consumers have suffered such losses. On Christmas Eve last year, Bangor police arrested three teenagers (who gave Portland and Boston addresses) on charges that they took packages off people’s property around 15th Street.

Police urge consumers to file a report when a package delivered by UPS or Fedex is stolen.

When a theft occurs from a mailbox, you can file a theft report online at postalinspectors.uspis.gov/investigations/mailfraud/fraudschemes/mailtheft/ReportMailTheft.aspx or by calling 1-800-ASK-USPS, or 1-800-275-8777. Mail theft can bring a hefty fine and up to five years in prison.

There are tools to deter porch piracy. Security cameras — some of which can be monitored remotely on your smartphone — can be installed to monitor delivery areas. A camera might provide enough detail to help police catch a thief, or it might be more of a horse-and-barn-door situation.

Some consumers who receive lots of packages have installed locking dropboxes ranging in cost from about $100 to well over $1,000.

One clever device is called the Package Guard. It’s a flat, circular platform that you place near your entry door. When a courier sets a package weighing at least a pound on it, the built-in wifi device sends a text or email message to the owner that the package has arrived. It also readies an alarm that sounds if the package is removed and can be turned off only by sending the return message, “OFF.”

One UPS security type wrote a while back that, if you ever report a package stolen from your home, a driver will not be allowed to leave packages in the future without getting a signature. If the pickup notice that was stuck to your dirty door blows away in the breeze, hope that it lands where you’ll see it.

Other options include having packages delivered to your workplace, if your employer agrees in advance. Neighbors might also be asked to watch one another’s houses for suspicious activity and perhaps to take packages inside.

And if you’re thinking of trying to beat the system by making a false report, not paying for the item and collecting on UPS insurance, think again. The courier’s security people sometimes work with local police, setting up cameras where people wouldn’t think to look and catching customers “stealing” their own deliveries.

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.

In Maine November is Deer Collision Month!

Deer_Collisions_EMail_09.2015

Deer Collision Information (PDF)

From Maine DOT:

Collisions with deer increase in the autumn, peaking in November – during breeding season. But they can happen any time of the year.

What if a Crash is Unavoidable?

If a crash with an animal is imminent, apply the brakes and steer straight. Let up on the brakes just before impact to allow the front of your vehicle to rise slightly and aim to hit the tail end of the animal. This can reduce the risk of the animal striking the windshield area and may increase your chances of missing it. Duck down to protect yourself from windshield debris.

Be aware that wildlife collisions can occur at any time, under almost any circumstances, and anywhere in Maine. Moose have been hit in heavily populated neighborhoods in Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor – Maine’s three largest communities.

So, pay attention, stay alert and always remember… safety is no accident!

Earlier NE CONTACT BDN article

Hitting a deer may affect car insurance payments

Consumer complaints helped bust bogus call center with 700 employees

Posted Oct. 31, 2016, at 6:54 a.m.
FMI check press release, October 27th

FMI check press release, October 27th

You are likely one of the thousands of Maine consumers who have received phone calls from someone wanting a “delinquent tax payment.” We’ve written over the years about crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service agents or other officials who try to coerce people into paying money they don’t owe.

These days, you might hang up quickly and dismiss the attempted ripoff without another thought. However, you might help slow the scammers by taking the time to report the attempt.

Consider the action by police in Mumbai, India, a few weeks ago. Raids on nine call centers resulted in 70 arrests. Investigators allege that employees were trained to speak with American accents as they pressured people to pay phony debts by wiring money that couldn’t be recovered. Each call center raked in an estimated $150,000 per day, usually from retirees and other older Americans.

The Indian Express reports that authorities are still questioning some of the 700 employees of the fake call centers. They’re also hunting for the alleged mastermind of the scheme, who apparently fled a lavish lifestyle in India for a new home in Dubai.

Back in the U.S., people who keep an eye on such things think the raids were made possible by reports from people the scammers attempted to target. Since March 2015, the Better Business Bureau has maintained a “scam tracker” website that consumers can use to file complaints about the IRS scam and other ripoff attempts. BBB officials say that following the raids in India complaints to that website dropped by 95 percent.

The sharp dip in complaints “validates our belief in the importance of using reports from the public to better understand the scam landscape,” program manager Emma Fletcher told the Washington Post. The Treasury Department welcomes information about these impersonation scams. File a report online at treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center also accepts reports at IC3.gov.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills warned consumers back in August about the IRS impostor scam maine.gov/ag/news/article.shtml?id=703353.

At the time, Mills said, “The IRS scam and others like it are consistently the top complaint we receive.” She urged consumers not to engage callers and not to divulge personal information.

The Internal Revenue Service will not call suddenly to ask for a payment, won’t demand a specific kind of payment (hoaxers specify paying by wire or gift card) and the IRS won’t threaten legal action if you don’t pay immediately.

If you do owe money, you’ll get a letter first, and there’s usually a period of time in which you can settle your debt.

The IRS has a rundown of recent hoaxes and steps consumers can take to avoid being scammed at irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Scammers sometimes send emails to back up their phone call threats. They may have personal information about consumers, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. They may also spoof the number a caller ID shows to mimic a real IRS office. Don’t be fooled. If you have any doubts, look up the number of your nearest IRS office yourself, call that number and inquire.

A lot of scams originate overseas; in fact, posing as a government official ranked second on a list compiled by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, a joint effort by 35 organizations worldwide. Visit its site at econsumer.gov/#crnt.

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 , ME04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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