Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

There’s no doctor-patient confidentiality on the Internet

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 01, 2015, at 10:03 a.m.

Click image for Norton’s information on Internet Privacy

Internet watchers have long been warning consumers about the privacy implications of tracking. Now, one researcher says simple online searches for health information could be much more harmful than previously thought.

Timothy Libert was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication when he wrote his study last fall. Libert had developed a software tool he used to track Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, activity between websites and third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.

He found that 91 percent of visits to websites triggered HTTP requests to third parties. Say you were looking for information on influenza and you clicked on “severity in winter” to learn more. The site you visited probably sent your request on to one or possibly several third-party sites interested in your searches.

Seventy percent of the third-party transmissions included information about specific symptoms, diseases or treatments. Libert designed his study to deliver results from all websites, not just health-centered ones.

Libert dug deep into the data and found that Google is the clear winner in third-party requests, collecting user information from 78 percent of pages searched; other leaders are comScore (38 percent) and Facebook (31 percent). He found data brokers Experian and Acxiom on thousands of pages as well.

While many of us still think the Internet can be searched anonymously, Consumer Affairs writer Truman Lewis says the interests people demonstrate through searching might be linked with their names. This could happen if the info is accidentally leaked, if hackers or other crooks get access to the data, or if data brokers collect the information and sell it.

Libert’s research found that a small fraction (3.24 percent) of the pages he analyzed used secure HTTP. The rest used non-encrypted HTTP connections “and thereby potentially transmitted sensitive information to third parties.”

Libert cited a critical U.S. Senate committee report on the data broker industry in 2013. One company was reportedly using “proprietary models” to create and sell lists of “domestic abuse victims,” “rape sufferers” and “HIV/AIDS patients.”

Advertisers like to assure us their data collections are anonymous. But ad tracking can discriminate in subtle ways. Sorting searchers into a category of high spenders on medical needs means those consumers likely will have less to spend on non-essential consumer goods; the trackers might consider them “undesirable” and be less likely to advertise special offers or prices to them.

The ad industry is investing serious money in computer modeling, the better to sort consumers into “buyer” and “other” categories.

Don’t look for existing law to change things. The Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act contains strong language about the ways doctors and insurers handle your health information; those protections don’t apply to web searches.

Libert suggests that nonprofit entities — with nothing to gain from third-party exchanges — tighten systems so data leaks are avoided. For commercial concerns with a profit motive, regulators and legislators might see broad public support for applying rules about how various kinds of data may be used and how long they can and should be saved.

He also urges engineers to spend more time creating intelligent filters that keep sensitive data confidential.

Consumers might do well to use separate web browsers and email accounts with unique, strong passwords when investigating health issues.

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.

Easier to lose money than weight

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT Posted Feb. 22, 2015, at 10:09 a.m.

Here’s a recipe for making millions on unsuspecting consumers. Buy green coffee bean extract from China for about 50 cents per bottle plus shipping, sell each bottle for $30 to $48 and gross an estimated $16 million to $26 million.

To rack up those sales, you’ll need to pass off an unscientific study as “proof” people can lose “an astounding amount of fat and weight” simply by downing your product. Advertise that there’s no need to reduce calories or increase exercise; just swallow the extract along with the seller’s worthless promises. You’ll need some TV promotion to build credibility. An appearance on the “Dr. Oz” show should do the trick. Add a few websites with names that will trigger lots of hits for your wonder product, and you’re on your way.

Dr. Oz scolded at hearing on weight loss scams (click image for FoxDC.com story)

Just don’t get caught. The Federal Trade Commission said last year the “as seen on TV” campaign was false and misleading. In May 2014, the FTC charged NPB Advertising of Tampa, Florida, with making “false and unsupported advertising claims” and with failing to disclose its news sites and testimonials were phony. The case is pending. Then, in September, the FTC charged that Applied Food Sciences of Austin, Texas, used a study it should have known was flawed to make “false and unsubstantiated weight-loss claims” to deceive consumers and sell its extract. The company settled that case for $3.5 million. In September, Dr. Oz announced on his website the study had been retracted. “This sometimes happens in scientific research,” Oz wrote at the time. Last month, the FTC settled charges against Lindsey Duncan and two companies he controls: Pure Health LLC and Genesis Today Inc. Under the settlement, Duncan and his companies have to pay $9 million in consumer redress and refrain from making deceptive claims about green coffee bean extract or any other dietary supplement or drug product. Several critics of the settlement cited a “chilling effect” and voiced fears other manufacturers might hesitate to advertise true claims about products. In a statement, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said she and the other two commissioners supporting the settlement are “more concerned about other marketers’ incentive to emulate the defendants’ conduct, believing that they will ultimately retain the lion’s share of their ill-gotten gains.” You can review a timeline of the FTC’s actions at nutritionaction.com. On the homepage, look for the article titled “Watch Out for Deceitful Marketing of Dietary Supplements” under “Daily Tips.” Then do a web search for “green bean coffee extract.” We’re betting a wide majority of the 1.58 million hits are still touting weight-loss myths. To lose weight and keep if off, eat fewer calories and increase activity. To learn more about possibly getting some money back if you bought green coffee bean extract, visit the FTC website at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0008-getting-your-money-back.

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.

State Says Consumer Laws Protect Against Risks Posed by Anthem Data Breach

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  FEBRUARY 5, 2015
Contact: Doug Dunbar, 207-624-8525

GARDINER — Governor Paul LePage joined officials at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to reassure consumers that state and federal laws will help protect them from losses due to file breaches containing personal identifying information, such as the one disclosed this week by Anthem.

The Anthem breach exposed the personal identifying information of an estimated 80 million current and former members nationally.  According to the company, information accessed included names, dates of birth, medical IDs, Social Security numbers, employment information including income data, street addresses and e-mail addresses.

“Although it’s unknown whether Maine consumers will be impacted by the Anthem data breach, I encourage people to closely monitor medical and financial records for evidence of identity theft,” Governor LePage said. “State and federal laws protect consumers from the effects of identity theft. The staff at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation is available to provide specific information.”

The Department’s Bureau of Insurance has been in communication with Anthem’s South Portland office.  Anthem will directly contact affected individuals by mail and offer free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.  The services are expected to be available in two weeks, for a period of one year, and will be retroactive to January 27, 2015.

Anthem established a dedicated website (www.anthemfacts.com) and toll-free number (877-263-7995) to answer current and former members’ questions about the breach.

The Department’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection and Bureau of Financial Institutions provided the following information and suggestions:

– State law requires notification to affected consumers.  Those consumers should receive a letter from Anthem within two weeks.

– The letter will offer free credit monitoring services for a year, with instructions on how to activate those services.

– Consumers can also check their own credit reports without charge once each year at the website www.AnnualCreditReport.com.  If consumers notice any evidence that their identity has been stolen, they can obtain additional reports at no charge.

– Consumers can place a fraud alert on their credit reports, or for a small fee they can “freeze” access to their reports, blocking the opening of any new accounts.  If a consumer experiences identity theft, the credit reporting agencies must freeze and unfreeze their accounts at no charge.

– Consumers are not responsible for paying charges incurred by an identity thief.  Likewise, consumers are not responsible for charges or debits made by someone else on their credit or debit card.  Upon first noticing evidence of unauthorized charges or withdrawals, consumers should immediately call, then write, the financial institution that issued their card.

– State officials recommend that if a consumer discovers evidence of identity theft, the consumer should file a police report with their local law enforcement agency, and retain a copy of the report.  Maine law (10 MRS sec. 1350-B) requires that a law enforcement agency near a consumer’s home or work place must accept information about a crime of identity theft, and produce a report.  The report is helpful if a consumer must later demonstrate that proper steps have been taken to establish the crime.

– Consumers should be vigilant in order to notice any evidence of identity theft or unauthorized charges.  This includes careful reviews of online or paper credit card and bank statements, unexplained statements of accounts not opened by the consumer, and collection calls or letters on debts not owed by the consumer.

Individuals with questions or concerns regarding consumer financial protection issues can call the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 or the Bureau of Financial Institutions at 1-800-965-5235.  Those with questions or concerns about health insurance matters can call the Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000.

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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.”

Identity thieves try to cash in during tax filing season

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2015, at 9:53 a.m.

click image to report scams, waste and abuse

Two headlines top the news near the start of this income tax season.

Thieves who steal Social Security numbers and other personal data do so in order to file phony tax returns and claim rebates they’re not owed.

And crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service officials are calling people and, in many cases, bullying them into sending money they don’t owe.

They use common names and all kinds of tricks. They may say they’re calling from the IRS criminal division. They might have technology that will spoof a caller ID, making it appear they’re calling from a real IRS office. They threaten those they consider easier targets — such as older people and recent immigrants — with fines, jail terms, job loss, even deportation.

The crooks do their homework before calling. They might know a person’s Social Security number — or at least the last four digits — and other personal details that lend credence to their pitch. Demanding immediate payment is a tipoff it’s a scam — the real IRS first would notify you by letter of any official action — and the agency never would demand payment by a debit card or wire transfer.

Losing a one-time payment is bad enough. Thousands of taxpayers have filed their income taxes only to find a crook has stolen their identities, filed fraudulently and collected their refunds illegally.

The IRS says after such discoveries, it takes an average of four months to get a refund to its rightful recipient. That person also needs to go through the hassle associated with identity theft. Perhaps ironically, prisoners’ Social Security numbers often are tempting targets, because inmates are less apt to be on top of their tax or banking activities.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, says it has received reports of 290,000 scam calls since October 2013, and nearly 3,000 victims have lost a total of $14 million. The IRS has been working to curb these crimes, saying it spotted 19 million suspicious returns since 2011 and prevented more than $63 billion in fraudulent returns. Read about ways to spot impersonators and report scams at Treasury.gov/tigta.

Consumers can and should take all the usual steps to prevent fraud: use firewalls and antivirus software, use strong passwords and change them often on all online accounts and reveal your Social Security number only when it’s absolutely necessary.

If you become a victim, the IRS says it wants to help. Read about the agency’s prevention and detection efforts at IRS.gov/Individuals/Identity-Protection.

The IRS is also warning consumers about unscrupulous preparers who push filers to make inflated claims. Often, these preparers will demand an up-front fee; they may also refuse to give the taxpayer a copy of the return. Both are things that legitimate tax preparation pros don’t do.

You may qualify for free help preparing your income tax filings. Seniors can check with AARP or the local agency on aging. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program gives free tax help to people who make $53,000 or less, have disabilities, are older or who speak little English and need help preparing their returns.

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.

Sunbeam Recalls Holmes Oil Filled Heaters Due to Scald Hazard | CPSC.gov

Recall Summary

Name of product: Oil-Filled Heater

Hazard: The oil-filled heaters can spray heated oil, posing a scald hazard.

Refund

 

Remedy

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heater, unplug it and contact Sunbeam for instructions on how to obtain a full refund.

Sold at

Target and small department stores nationwide from August 2014 through November 2014 for about $50.

Description

This recall involves Holmes brand oil-filled heaters that are black or white in color. The heaters included in the recall are about 23 inches tall, 6 inches deep and 12 inches wide and have model number HOH3000 or HOH3000B printed on a label on the bottom of the product. The “Holmes” logo is near the power switch and temperature control. Products affected have a code on the heater plug blade within the following range: G192 through G298.  No other codes are affected.

Incidents/Injuries

The firm has received approximately 40 reports of units that unexpectedly sprayed heated oil, resulting in reports of property damage involving damaged carpet and fabrics. No injuries reported.

Consumer Contact:

Sunbeam Products, Inc. at (800) 515-4715 anytime, or online at www.holmesproducts.com and click on “Oil Filled Heater Recall” for more information.

 

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