Archive for the ‘Concerns of Older Consumers’ Category

How to avoid panic when disaster strikes


Posted June 21, 2015, at 2:30 p.m.

Click image for daily tips

Every day we read about some new disaster somewhere in the world. The sidebar stories warn us to prepare, in case a similar calamity strikes near us.

The best piece of advice we’ve heard lately comes from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA. That advice is simply this: don’t try to do it all at once.

MEMA advises us to put together those items we have on hand for a basic emergency kit. If we’re list makers, we can start by writing things down. Then, we can gather what we have and decide what’s missing. We can buy a few things at a time when we’re out shopping, and we can wait for sales on things such as batteries and canned goods and stock up.

We like MEMA’s common-sense approach for a couple of reasons. It allows us the luxury of time to prepare in a methodical way. We knew during the middle of last week that a storm named Bill was likely to wash over Maine several days hence; some of us checked our emergency supplies then and put together replacement stocks as necessary.

MEMA’s piecemeal approach treats disaster preparedness as a process, rather than a single task. As such, that process will tend to keep emergency preparations on our radar; keeping those thoughts banging around in our brains allows us to add supplies, make plans, practice drills and do a number of other things that we might otherwise overlook.

Here’s another handy hint from MEMA: write down important phone numbers. Many of us can’t recite those numbers from memory, because our cellphones store them for us; one touch and speed dial does the rest.

When the phone battery dies and the ice storm takes down the cell tower, Grandpa’s old rotary dial phone can look mighty good … if we know what numbers we want to call.

Write down the numbers of family members, close friends, your insurance agent, financial pros and others you may want to reach in case of trouble. Drag out that list every couple of months and update it.

After getting things together and writing down key numbers, you might take the next step and talk this all over with your neighbors. MEMA advises that we get together over coffee and talk about ways we can support one another during an emergency. A neighbor set up a generator when the ice storm of 1998 knocked out one of our relatives’ power; at some point, we’d like to pay that favor forward.

You can read all of MEMA’s preparedness tips online. Visit and click “To learn more, visit Maine Prepares.” You can sign up to receive a daily tip by email or through social media.

For people who are not comfortable using computers, Kathleen Rusley of MEMA says local emergency management directors are great sources (that person is often the local fire chief).

“They are a fount of information; they’ll go out and talk to groups or contact the county or state offices for speakers,” she said.

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

Elder abuse costs $2.9 billion each year


Posted June 14, 2015, at 11:44 a.m.

Click image for list of aging and disability services

You may have seen news reports noting that June 15 is Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s appropriate to focus this column on elder abuse because it is probably the most under-reported of all abuses of consumers.

So, this is a call to action. People who suspect that our older neighbors or friends are being abused need to speak up.

On top of the huge physical and emotional toll of abuse and neglect are the financial costs, estimated at $2.9 billion per year. Cases of investment fraud targeting seniors are well documented; still, Mainers are victimized almost daily.

“Victims can quickly see their entire life savings depleted with little opportunity to recover financial stability,” said Judith Shaw, Maine’s securities administrator. Shaw, who also co-chairs the Maine Council on Elder Abuse, added that such losses can lead to physical and emotional health problems.

Shaw attended last Thursday’s Scam Jam, an awareness event that drew more than 300 people in Augusta. Shaw was among the speakers, and she came away with a renewed conviction about fighting elder abuse: We are all in the fight together, and collaboration among groups seeking to end abuse is critical.

Shaw said part of the natural aging process is a decreasing ability to understand complex financial concepts. Scam artists prey on this fact and use sophisticated social engineering tricks to try to separate seniors from their funds.

In marking this day of awareness, Maine officials listed warning signs of possible abuse or exploitation:

— Social isolation, depression and/or recent loss of spouse or partner.

— Declining health and ability to provide one’s own care.

— Inability to deal with complicated finances.

— Dependence on others for basic care and services.

— Willingness to listen to telemarketers or respond to solicitations from unverified charities or businesses.

In proclaiming Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Gov. Paul LePage urged Mainers to report suspected abuse of older Mainers. The governor noted in his proclamation that abusers are often family members or caregivers.

“Each of us has a responsibility to speak up and report concerns about potential abuse,” LePage said.

That’s especially true when seniors may be too embarrassed or afraid to speak up for themselves.

Suspected abuse can be reported to Adult Protective Services ( by calling 800-624-8404

Another key agency is the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services (, reachable by phone at 800-262-2232.

Legal Services for the Elderly ( can offer free legal help to socially and economically needy Mainers age 60 and over. Call the helpline at 800-750-5353. You can find links to Maine’s area agencies on aging 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


Phony medication call centers target military families


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

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, visit or email


Home repair scam artists grow more devious


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 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 or email

Reverse mortgages put borrower’s heirs at risk


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 15, 2015, at 7:23 a.m.

The smiling actor in the commercial suggests a reverse mortgage may be the answer to all your financial concerns.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, says many have been confused and frustrated by the rules that govern this unique type of borrowing. In a reverse mortgage, a home’s equity is used as a line of credit; instead of making payments, the borrower receives a monthly payment that draws down that equity.

One problem is that reverse mortgages cannot be taken over by a family member when the borrower dies. Many family members have complained to the CFPB about their inability to be added to the loan so they can keep the family home.

Another problem is the confusing process confronting many borrowers when they try to pay off their loans. When the borrower dies, heirs have three choices: sell the home, repay the balance of the loan or pay 95 percent of the assessed value.

Some people have faced delays in getting appraisals, had appraisals done improperly or seen home values inflated so they’ve had to pay more. Many also have reported problems getting responses to questions and concerns about the loans from the parties that service them.

A third problem involves property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. These are the borrower’s responsibility, and the CFPB found some time ago that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage holders are at risk of foreclosure for nonpayment of those overdue costs.

Some consumers reported problems stopping the foreclosure process when they tried to pay overdue taxes. Some said their loan servicers incorrectly stated that taxes were overdue.

HUD information for senior citizens

Most reverse mortgages are insured through the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, program. Changes apply to terms of HECM loans made after Aug. 4, 2014, so nonborrowing spouses may remain in their homes after the borrowing spouse dies.

That change is not retroactive, so the CFPB urges everyone with a reverse mortgage to do three things:

— Verify who is on the loan. Ask your reverse mortgage servicer what names are listed on the loan, and make sure the records are accurate. They may help over the phone, but we prefer consumers send a letter — and keep a copy — so there’s a written record of the inquiry.

— If only one name is on the loan, make a plan for the nonborrowing spouse. After the death of a spouse, the survivor may qualify for a repayment deferral. That would allow the surviving spouse to live in the home. If not, make a plan for other living arrangements. If you or your spouse is not on the loan but think you or he or she should be, seek legal advice right away.

— Talk to your children and heirs, and make plans for any nonborrower family members who live in the home. Make sure family members know what to expect when the reverse mortgage comes due. The mortgage servicer should be able to supply written information about options. Talk these over with your family and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

To read more in the CFPB’s guide to reverse mortgages, visit

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issues a guide called “Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home.” It’s available online at

Consumers can receive a printed copy by writing to 35 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0035 or calling 1-800-DEFederBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529).

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

If Bruce with a foreign accent calls, offers to fix your computer, hang up


Posted Feb. 08, 2015, at 3:01 p.m.

You get a call from someone claiming to be from Windows Helpdesk, Windows Service Center, Microsoft Tech Support, Microsoft Support or a similar sounding name.

The caller says he has “detected trouble with your computer” and can help you fix it. Red flags should be flying, because this is one of the most frequently perpetrated scams going. Microsoft warns consumers about these scams and offers tips for spotting fake calls.

The clues are all there. Most callers are heavily accented but give very American-sounding names. They claim your computer is infected with a virus or is operating “with a lot of errors.” They can fix this, they claim, if you’ll only turn over control of your computer to them online and send them a few hundred dollars.

It’s always a scam. No cold-caller could possibly know whether your computer is operating correctly. Those “errors” are typical operating vagaries a scammer tries to make you believe will damage your system if left alone.

Give up control of your computer to someone who calls out of the blue, and you run the risk of having your passwords, financial data and other personal details stolen. Thieves could use that information to drain bank accounts, ruin your credit and steal your identity.

If successful, they’ll probably call back and try to sell you worthless computer security software. Once a scammer succeeds, you can bet your phone number will go on other crooks’ call sheets.

The Federal Trade Commission tried to crack down on the tech support scam, as the crime has become known. In September 2012, the FTC froze the assets of 14 companies working the scam. The agency said the “repair” fees ranged from $49 to $450 and netted thieves tens of millions of dollars from innocent consumers.

That put a few crooks out of business, at least for a while. However, cheap international phone rates and sophisticated dialing programs offer criminals the means to exploit the fears of computer users.

If you let the scammers prattle on, they’ll urge you to open a Microsoft event utility viewer; it’s built into Windows and lists harmless errors legitimate repair people can use to fix operating problems. The crooks point to the “error” and “warning” messages as signs that disaster is about to strike, when in fact the computer may be operating just fine.

The caller might then try to trick you into visiting a phony website and downloading what appears to be a repair tool; in fact, it’s malware that can lock up one or more programs on your computer. The caller may later demand a ransom to allow those programs to work properly again. Or the scammers might install malicious software that turns your computer into a “zombie,” which in turn looks for more computers to infect.

If you receive such a phone call, the best thing to do is hang up. Never buy any software or services from these cold callers. Don’t give them a credit card number or other financial information. And don’t click on links at websites to which you’re directed or in emails they send you. And never turn control of your computer over to anyone other than a known representative of a company with which you already have a business relationship for computer service.

If you have given information, change passwords to your computer, main email service and any financial programs. Do an anti-virus scan to look for malware; if you’re unsure whether the scan has dealt with any problems, you may want to take the computer to a local company you trust to have it thoroughly checked out.

If you’ve shared personal or financial information with a scammer, you may want to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Get details from the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection,, or call 1-800-332-8529 (1-800-DEBT-LAW).

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

Consumer Contact: Tech Support Phone Scams – WABI-TV

Russ and Joy discussed tech support phone scams that have been gaining popularity. Russ says due to Maine’s older population, our state is a prime target for these phone calls.

One key tip-off that Russ mentioned, is many of these scammers will drop the name “Microsoft,” saying they’ve “detected trouble with your computer.” Right away this should tip you off: Microsoft does not make “cold calls.” They will give technical help ONLY if a customer initiates the dialogue.

Scammers using this technique have been known to:

  • Try to get you to download malicious software that can capture personal information
  • Get you to visit phony websites that connect you to malicious software
  • Ask for credit card information to make phony charges
  • Send you to fake websites to enter personal information

Russ says the number one rule to remember when you think you might be dealing with one of these scammers: “Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”


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