Archive for the ‘Concerns of Older Consumers’ Category

How to be sure your support for veterans actually helps them 


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 13, 2016, at 7:13 a.m.

We received two letters in less than two weeks. Both were addressed with the same misspelling of our last name, a tipoff that we had not supported this charity in the past.

The appeal was ostensibly to help disabled veterans and included a calculator, notepad, window sticker and a check for $2.50, made out to me. Why any group gives money then asks for it back is unclear; because we’d never requested anything, we don’t have to donate or send their stuff back.

The “ask” was for $15, or I could opt to hand over our credit card number so the Disabled Veterans National Foundation could take more donations automatically, month after month. We declined to cash the check or divulge our card number.

click image to research charity

We researched the group on Charity Navigator, one of the top charity rating organizations. The foundation’s website says it “exists to provide critically needed support to disabled and at-risk veterans who leave the military wounded — physically or psychologically — after defending our safety and freedom.”

Charity Navigator says the group’s most recent tax filing shows 19.4 percent of its total expenses went to those programs to help vets. Some 72.8 percent of the total expenses went to fundraisers.

CharityWatch — formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy — using different scoring methods, gave the group an F rating in December 2015.

Looking at the most recent tax filing and audited financial statement, CharityWatch found that, of $8.6 million in expenses, 7 percent went to programs. Of the $8.7 million in total contributions, 89 percent went to fundraising.

CharityWatch rates 53 charities in its “Veterans and Military” category; 26 of them get a grade of F.

People who donate to charities want their money to help those the charity says it’s helping. We believe donors don’t usually think of fundraisers as especially deserving, but we may be wrong. As with all consumer decisions, research comes first.

The nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, at, recommends a 2013 report titled “Serving Those Who Served” for people who want to make effective donations supporting veterans in need. It can be downloaded at the above website as a free PDF or ordered in print or digital formats from various vendors.

There’s also a website about all things military. It lists several questions, at, which donors might ask themselves before giving.

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 or email


Here’s how to get help reducing Medicare costs


Posted June 06, 2016, at 7:19 a.m.
The Bangor Daily News performed a real public service in publishing the article headlined, “Not junk mail: This Social Security letter can cut Medicare costs.”

Many of the 2 million seniors who received the letter last month surely were skeptical. Their fraud detectors went off after reading, “you can get help paying your Medicare costs.”

But the letter was legitimate.

Social Security officials sent the letters to seniors telling them they might be eligible for a program called Extra Help. The program can cover up to 75 percent of prescription drug costs.

Other seniors may be eligible for a partial subsidy of drug costs. Still others may qualify for a Medicare Savings Program in the state where they live.

Betty Balderston is the statewide coordinator of Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, a program of Legal Services for the Elderly. She says Area Agencies on Aging generally advise Mainers to apply for Maine’s Medicare Savings Program. If they qualify, Medicare beneficiaries automatically are enrolled in the Part D Extra Help program.

“That way, Mainers not only get help with their prescription drug costs but also help paying for their Part B premium and possibly with co-pays and deductibles (depending upon which Medicare Savings Program they qualify for based upon income and assets),” Balderston said.

People with questions can get help from their Area Agency on Aging. A toll-free call (1-877-ELDERS1 or 1-877-353-3771) will direct seniors to their nearest agency.

Dyan Walsh, executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging or EAAA, told me it’s often difficult for seniors to tell the difference between scams and genuine offers of help. She said the agency has volunteers who can visit seniors who request help in sorting the good mail from the bad.

When people call EAAA, one of the first things they’re asked is whether they might qualify for the Extra Help program. Seniors who may have discarded their letters about the program should not feel embarrassed. Just call your Agency on Aging, and people there will be glad to help.

Many questions can be answered online. Visit and search “extra help.”

The Medicare site ( also has detailed information about the program.

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 or email

Diagnosing the value of blanket medical tests


 By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted May 16, 2016, at 6:41 a.m.

On May 17 and 18, a business called Life Line Screening will visit the Bangor area.

The firm offers a package of five screenings it says can help consumers avoid cardiovascular disease. The screenings are intended to detect plaque buildup in carotid arteries, abdominal aortic aneurysms and other signs of cardiovascular irregularities.

Life Line Screening offers the five screenings for $149, cash or credit cards accepted. The business does not accept Medicare and does not do private insurance billings.

The brochure advertising the screenings recently in the Bangor Daily News had this statement regarding cancellations: “A full refund is issued if you call to cancel at least 2 days prior to your appointment. If less than 2 days’ notice is given, we will issue a Gift Card for the full amount to be used by you, or anyone you choose, to purchase future screening services.”

The Maine Medical Association has taken a close look at the screenings offered by Life Line Screening during prior visits. Maine Medical Association Executive Vice President Gordon Smith told me that the company does business in conjunction with a physician who is licensed in Maine (although that doctor need not live here).

Smith also said he knows of no problem with the technology of the screenings. He said the tests may offer some consumers peace of mind, should their results come back negative.

Life Line Screening says it will report results within 21 days; it urges those who’ve been screened to take the results to their family doctors for any follow-up tests or other procedures.

Smith and others in the medical community contend that consultation with the family physician should take place before the screening, to make sure the tests are really needed.

Smith said physicians are concerned about “mass testing,” screenings that are offered without regard to people’s medical histories or individual situations. Smith said he worried about “tests that end up with more false positives than real positives, and patients receiving treatment that’s at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.”

Screenings can show irregularities that may or may not be harmful to someone’s health.

Follow-up testing — especially among older patients — can create different levels of risk depending on the patient’s status; the worry and uncertainty that go along with further testing take a toll as well.

Smith told me that Life Line Screening does not accept Medicare because Medicare doesn’t pay for the screenings the firm offers. Smith said Medicare’s reasoning appears to be that the screenings “haven’t been identified as being valuable screening tests for patients, generally.” Testing an individual based on a physician’s advice is one thing; Smith said random testing usually accomplishes very little.

Many consumer advocates sound off about individual choice, and informed choice is great. Smith advises people who don’t have a family physician to do their own research online (researchers at your local library can help).

In the 2007 book “Overtreated,” Shannon Brownlee contended that a lot of medical care is unnecessary and therefore wastes resources better spent on those who need care. Our advice is to be proactive but, in making any serious health decision, consult your physician first.

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 or email

How to detect scammers posing as government agents


Posted May 02, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

It has been nearly 10 years since a phishing scam targeted Social Security recipients. That followed announcement of a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

As with many other messages asking consumers to reveal their personal information, this attempt was pegged to a headline. Following details of the increase, copied from a genuine Social Security Administration, or SSA, news release, the crooks inserted their falsehood: “We now need you to update your personal information” or see your checks stop.

Instructions to “confirm your records” by clicking a link only took victims to a bogus website, where many surrendered personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers, bank account and credit card information.

The thieves used that data for their own gain.

SSA officials reacted then as they have recently, with reminders that the agency never asks for personal or financial information by email or over the phone. Such attempts to get your information are always scams.

The agency urges consumers to do the following:

— Never divulge a Social Security number or account number to someone who calls or emails.

— Never wire money using a prepaid debit card, and never pay anyone who calls “out of the blue.”

— Check their status of disability benefits (if you have them) regularly and review your statements to be sure they’re correct.

If you’re called and pressured to provide information, perhaps by someone saying he or she is with law enforcement or other authority figure, hang up and report the call to the Social Security Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Report suspicious activity to the Social Security fraud unit online at and to the Federal Trade Commission at The FTC can’t resolve individual complaints but can advise what next steps a consumer should take.

Medicare recipients also are frequent targets of scammers. Callers from “Medicare” tell consumers they need to verify information because new cards are being issued.

“Medicare will never call you asking for personal information,” said Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for the Maine Senior Medicare Patrol at Legal Services for the Elderly.

While Congress has ordered that Social Security numbers no longer be used on Medicare cards, the change won’t be fully implemented for a few years.

“In the meantime, Medicare consumers should continue to protect their Medicare numbers, just as they protect their credit card and bank account information,” Balderston said.

In the past, we’ve advised consumers to take Medicare cards during an initial visit to a health care facility; from then on, take a photocopy with your Social Security number blacked out; that avoids the need to carry your card which might get lost or stolen.

Another recent hoax email urged recipients to “get protected” and touted ways to help monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Both are lies, designed to prompt your click on links that might download computer malware or divulge your data.

You may spot a scam attempt by hovering your cursor over the address link of the fake email. That likely will show an address ending “.com,” instead of “.gov,” which it should.

If you found the message in your spam folder, ask yourself if your email program didn’t catch the fraud attempt and divert the message appropriately.

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 or email

How to ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid


Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage,, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at

You can check online at and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at

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 or email

Don’t buy a car if you can’t touch it first – Bangor Daily News


Posted Feb. 08, 2016, at 7:50 a.m.

Northeast CONTACT wishes to give a major thank you to all the financial professionals who keep consumers safe. Our thanks go especially to one bank official in the Ellsworth area.

The official was concerned when a customer wanted to make a sizeable withdrawal with plans to wire money for an antique car. What aroused the official’s suspicion was the money’s destination: London, England.

Scammers typically operate from bases overseas, and money that’s wired away never comes back. The official had heard of such schemes and gently urged the customer not to buy a vehicle sight unseen and definitely not to wire money to an unknown party. That advice probably prevented a $14,500 payment for a car that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

The customer had seen an ad in a local newspaper. Detective Dorothy Small of the Ellsworth Police Department said identical ads appeared in Rolling Thunder Express and Penobscot Bay Press.

The latter online publication is now running a scam alert on its classified page, noting that the ad that ran in its Jan. 14 and 21 papers “was submitted under false pretenses and is a scam.” The publisher went on to apologize “for falling victim” — even though the ad appeared to meet policy guidelines — and urged readers not to respond.

The look-alike ads are no coincidence. Scammers find appealing phrases (“1970 Chevrolet Chevelle 454, manual four-speed, red with black stripes”) and cut and paste in publications everywhere.

One online vintage car dealer has tips to avoid being scammed, including a nearly identical ad to those that appeared in Maine, at Search a key phrase from the ad and find all kinds of “late husbands” and their treasured cars for sale, over several years.

The gist of all such ads is the same: you’ll be getting the deal of a lifetime. In fact, you’ll get nothing.

Small noticed that photos of the car “for sale” had been taken on different road surfaces, a tipoff that the pictures had been lifted from various Internet sources. Payment was to be made via Pay Safe, which is headquartered in Nevada … so instructions to wire funds to England were another red flag.

“If you can’t put your hand on the vehicle that you’re going to buy, then don’t buy it,” Small said.


Click image to access brochure

That probably echoed the urging of our bank teller, who was likely one of more than 300 front-line bank and credit union employees who have undergone training in what’s called Senior$afe.

The program is a partnership of Maine’s financial community and state government, all allied through the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. Training enables key employees to spot potential cases of fraud and, in many cases, stop them cold.

Partner agencies help with training and promoting what Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw called a “no wrong door” approach to referrals in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last year.

A spokesman for Shaw’s department told me it’s hoped Senior$afe will grow and further expand protections against financial fraud. You can find a brochure on the program at the Maine Bankers Association website,

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 or email

Susan Collins leads Senate push against medication “price gouging”


Posted Nov. 16, 2015, at 9:20 a.m.

Click image to reach Senate Special Committee on Aging

Recent news reports about sharply rising drug prices — some of which have followed mergers — have raised a lot of questions. Now the leaders of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging say they want answers.

Last week, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, announced a bipartisan investigation into the pricing of pharmaceuticals. They said in a statement that sudden, steep price increases — often on drugs that have been around for years — could inflate the cost of health care by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“Given the potential harm to patients across the country who rely on these drugs for critical care and treatment, the Senate Special Committee on Aging considers these massive price increases worthy of a serious, bipartisan investigation into the causes, impacts and potential solutions,” Collins said.

McCaskill said some of the pharmaceutical industry’s hikes “have looked like little more than price gouging.” She said consumers deserve to know the reasons for the big increases “that seemingly have no relationship to research and development costs.”

To get answers, the committee has asked Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin Inc. and Rodelis Therapeutics for information about price hikes.

The committee is especially keen on finding out why certain drugs, which until recently had been under patent protection, suddenly cost a lot more when another company acquired the rights to manufacture them.

For example, in their letter to Turing the senators asked about the price of a drug used to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis, a cost that rose from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. In their letter to the chairman and CEO of Valeant, they asked about three drugs. The senators wrote that the cost of those three drugs rose between 312 percent and 2,949 percent.

Critics of big pharma contend that a recent flurry of mergers is heating prices. Defenders say the industry is reeling from a kind of perfect storm. The expiration of patents on big-name products, lower productivity from research and development and the outcry of consumers for lower cost drugs are prompting more mergers. The mega-companies that emerge hope to gain traction in R&D while cutting costs and broadening their geographic presence.

Fortune magazine put the value of phama mergers at $221 billion for the first half of 2015, three times the figure for the same period in 2014. Companies may be hurrying to join forces while interest rates remain low, as well as to meet investors’ expectations.

Collins and McCaskill say they want to make sure consumers aren’t paying an unfair share of pharma’s growth. They’ve asked for relevant documents as soon as the four companies can compile them but no later than Dec. 2.

Senate hearings are tentatively set to start Dec. 9. You can reach staff at the Senate Special Committee on Aging online at or by calling 202-224-5364.

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 or email


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