Archive for the ‘Concerns of Older Consumers’ Category

Home repair scam artists grow more devious

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 19, 2015, at 9:08 a.m.

Click image for “legal guide to door-to-door criminals”

Scam artists posing as home-repair experts have been advertising in Yellow Pages and other media for years, trying to make themselves appear legitimate. Some lowlifes don’t even bother to try.

In Falmouth last October, police arrested a man they say hired a subcontractor to do estimates on home repairs. After getting those estimates, the man would visit the homeowners and collect a deposit of several hundred dollars, then they’d never see the man again. The subcontractor, who had no idea what the man was up to, answered an ad on Craigslist.

“People think if these guys advertise, they’ve got to be legitimate. That’s not necessarily true,” John Holmes, manager of the EZ Fix program at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says.

The program offers low-cost home repairs for seniors. In the seven years he’s managed it, Holmes has seen shady operators try to take advantage of trusting people.

Holmes says many consumers don’t ask enough questions, especially of people who go door to door offering fixes that may or may not be needed.

Many of his clients live alone and may have no one they feel they can turn to for advice. In some cases, Holmes told me, “they would hire the first person off the street who said, ‘something’s wrong with your house.’”

Under Maine law, door-to-door salespeople must be licensed. Always ask to see the license of anyone who knocks on your door offering to fix something.

Be doubly careful, because some disreputable contractors may break something, then try to convince you to pay them to repair it. They also may create a repair job as a way to get into your house and possibly steal from you, as was a case in Falmouth.

Click image for sample home repair contract required if cost exceeds $3000

Other “red flags” to watch for include the following:

— Special deals, offered “today only”

— Pressure to sign a contract or begin work right away. A three-day “cooling off” period is mandated under Maine law.

— A demand of full payment up front, especially in cash. Jobs estimated at more than $3,000 must be done under contract, and no more than one-third of the total may be required as a deposit.

— A lack of personal identification, such as a permit.

— No business name on work vehicles and no indication of roots in a community.

Holmes advises people who need home repairs to ask for three references; call the people who have had work done and ask if they’re satisfied. Also, insist on seeing the contractor’s proof of insurance. Ask to see a sample contract, including clauses that deal with resolving disputes.

“Any reputable contractor is going to hand over all of this,” Holmes says, adding that all consumers should expect no less.

Sticking a magnetic sign on a vehicle doesn’t create a business; that takes a good reputation built on a solid work ethic and real results. If you notice suspicious people hawking cut-rate home “improvements,” notify your local police agency.

Maine’s Consumer Law Guide is available on the Maine Attorney General’s website, at maine.gov/ag. Chapter 17 deals with your rights when building or repairing your home. Chapter 13 covers your rights when a salesperson contacts you at home.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Reverse mortgages put borrower’s heirs at risk

CONSUMER FORUM 

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 http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201409_cfpb_guide_reverse_mortgage.pdf.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issues a guide called “Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home.” It’s available online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide_RevisedOnline.pdf.

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

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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, credit.maine.gov, 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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.”

Phony phone cops bullied US consumers out of millions in bogus debt

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 24, 2014, at 9:21 a.m.

Click image to learn more about phantom debt collectors

They make harassing phone calls, claiming that they are law enforcement agents. They threaten to revoke your driver’s license, prosecute you and lock you up. All for debts that aren’t yours.

The National Consumers League says on its website ( www.fraud.org) that thousands of consumers are being bullied into paying debts they don’t owe.

There are many variations, but all scams boil down to one harsh message: wire us money or be in big trouble.

The perpetrator of one such scam received a harsh message last week. A complaint filed by a U.S. attorney in New York charged Williams Scott and Associates of Georgia with scamming $4 million from 6,000 consumers in all 50 states. The complaint charges that over a five-year period, the company had employees pose as police officers, Justice Department officials or FBI agents.

An affidavit filed by a real FBI agent says callers claimed falsely that people owed money for payday loans or had committed fraud.

The affidavit says the scheme involved up to 87 different phone numbers, changing when the scammers realized there were too many complaints. One script seized in an FBI raid includes this exchange between a caller and a frightened woman.

“You think an eight months pregnant woman wants to go to jail?”

“I don’t care if you’re nine months pregnant. I have a job to do.”

When I called Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, principal examiner David Leach was helping a woman whom scammers had tried to dupe.

The scammer had claimed to be from the “Kennebec County Private Locating Service” and said there was legal action pending. When the consumer called the Kennebec County court clerk’s office, she found nothing pending and no record of the “locating service.”

“Scam collectors will do anything to collect money,” Leach told me. He said the fake phone calls “started in Maine sometime in the summer of 2014 and may have peaked somewhere in October.”

However, Leach said this is the most frequent consumer complaint his office deals with.

In some cases, people have taken out payday loans from illegal, unlicensed lenders and repaid the money. The lenders sell their names and other personal information to illegal, unlicensed collectors who then put their defrauding machinery to work.

Consumers may believe these calls are real because the scammers have some personal details about them. If you get such a call, ask for the caller’s name and address, company name and original creditor, if you do have an outstanding loan.

If the caller demands a lot more than you owe, it’s likely a scam. If you have questions about the status of a real loan, hang up and call the number on your loan paperwork.

If you get a call and are uncertain, ask the caller to send a written notice of the debt; then say you don’t want to be called again. That request must be honored, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

You can find sample letters drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the “self-help/action letters” tab on our blog ( necontact.wordpress.com).

Some consumers hire an attorney. Giving callers the attorney’s name and number usually stop such calls, when scammers realize the person isn’t an easy target. Report suspicious calls to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, 1-800-436-2131 or email consumer.mediation@Maine.gov.

Advise the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.

The federal prosecutor says it’s likely that more cases will be brought in the future. He says payday lenders may be among those prosecuted.

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 necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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WABI Interview w/ Wayne Harvey

Pass It On program helps consumers avoid scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 03, 2014, at 10:59 a.m.

Last week’s column dealt with an attempt to scam a caterer in Old Town. When she learned that a man who posed as a client was trying to rip her off via an advance check scheme, Jane Thibodeau told him off; then she told friends, the media and anyone else who would listen.

Jane spread the word in the belief that consumers can and should help one another stay safe in today’s marketplace. Our society’s emphasis on instant messaging, instant sales and instant gratification places us all at risk. Far too many opportunists are looking for ways to separate us from our money; we need the wisdom and experience of others to help keep our guard up.

One source of information comes from the Federal Trade Commission’s Pass It On program. Avoiding identity theft, imposter and “you’ve won” scams, health care ripoffs and charity fraud are featured in articles designed to start a conversation. The dialogue could help people you know avoid falling for those scams, or prevent them from paying for goods or services they didn’t order.

Each of the above topics is the subject of an article, a bookmark and an activity. You can print one copy or order multiples of printed materials to distribute where you think they’ll be read and shared. Find them online here or order free copies by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP and pressing 3.

You might also want to tell friends about something called affinity fraud. “You can trust me,” says the scammer, “because I’m just like you. We share the same background and interests.” The next line out of your new “friend’s” mouth is the pitch: “Because we have so much in common, I can help you make money.”

Common interests or histories don’t necessarily mean a good business fit. Consider all such offers carefully and consult someone you know and trust. The New York State Attorney General’s office has cracked down on a number of affinity fraudsters and shares advice on their website.

Talk with friends and neighbors about spotting fraudulent offers in their email. Telltale signs include generic greetings (rather than your name), grammar and spelling errors and unfamiliar phone numbers. Some samples of bad players and their bad pitches have been compiled by the U.K.-based nonprofit Internet Fraud Advisory Group. It also has a quick guide to phone numbers you should never call to avoid heavy international calling charges.

While we’re on the web, what about those chain letter emails, claiming that if you forward them to five friends, Bill Gates will donate millions to charity? Since he already does that, your action is unlikely to do more than provide new names to a scammer. Break the chain and tell your correspondents what you’ve done and why.

Sort fact from fiction by doing your research. Snopes.com separates urban myth from reality and finds cases that may be a blend of both. It’s a great resource for disposing of some too-good-to-be-true stories.

Credit cards offer convenience, but they also offer scam artists ways to insert small fees they think you won’t notice. When your monthly statement comes, read every line and verify that all charges are ones you’ve authorized. Tell your friends to do the same.

Watching out for one another is a way of life. Letter carriers keep their eyes open for lack of activity at occupied homes on their routes. Police want to hear about suspicious activity, whether in your neighborhood, online, over the phone or by mail. Share your experiences and your knowledge wherever you can; people will thank you for doing so.

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.

The road to quick-fix driveway repairs is paved with bad intentions

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 25, 2014, at 10 a.m.

Click for top 10 red flags of home repair scams

If the birds are singing and some guy offers to seal your driveway for 200 bucks, it must be spring.

Our long-awaited break of winter’s grip means the home improvement scammers are making the rounds again. One of them actually visited us last summer, saying he had “just enough material from another job in the neighborhood” to give me a great deal. We sent him packing.

His fellow con artists are carrying on the tradition, going door to door offering “rock-bottom prices” and saying they’ve “never had a dissatisfied customer.”

If that’s true, why are they always in such a hurry? Why do they need to do the work immediately? Why must they be paid in cash?

The reason is simple. They need to get running, to stay ahead of the people who enforce the laws they are breaking.

There are three Maine laws that deal with transient sales and home repairs. They are explained in detail in the Consumer Law Guide published by the attorney general’s office (visit www.maine.gov/ag. See chapter 17 of the Guide for laws relating to construction. Chapter 13 deals with transient sales).

Among the key pieces of advice are these. Always have a written contract for any job costing more than $3,000. There’s a three-day cooling-off period before work starts; if you decide you don’t want the job done within those three days, you can cancel the deal. You and the contractor may — but you don’t have to — agree to settle any disputes that might arise through mediation or arbitration.

Don’t sign a contract that includes any blank spaces (to be filled in later). And Maine law says the contractor cannot ask for more than one-third of the total contract amount as a down payment.

The attorney general has a model contract for home construction (see chapter 18 of the Guide). For information on professions requiring a state license, visit www.maine.gov/pfr.

You’ll likely want to check out a number of contractors before hiring one. Ask each of them how many jobs like yours they’ve done in the past year, and ask for references.

Find out what kinds of insurance they carry. Beware of those who demand more than the one-third upfront payment or insist on cash.

Also, be wary if the contractor asks you to get the building permit. Transient sellers must be licensed by the state, and an unlicensed contractor may not want to show up at your town hall.

Be extra wary of transient repair “pros” who “spot a problem” you had not noticed. Once inside your home, they may break something and then point out that it “needs fixing.” The shady contractor may insist you come with him to inspect something, while one of his associates steals your valuables.

Those last few points are among the National Consumers League’s top 10 red flags of home repair scams. Read more at www.nclnet.org.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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