Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

A few tips for safe, fun fireworks use

CONSUMER FORUM
Posted June 28, 2015, at 3:15 p.m.
Each Independence Day safety officials renew their advice regarding consumers who buy and use fireworks: Make sure everyone involved knows the items are not toys and are not to be used by children.

“I want to make sure people are aware that fireworks are for people 21 years of age and older,” Joseph Thomas, the state fire marshal, told me last week. Thomas noted young people suffer far too many hand and eye injuries because they are victims of fireworks-related accidents or because they have inappropriate access to fireworks.

Don’ let fun with fireworks turn tragic

 

The attraction is clear: They’re bright, colorful and noisy. Adults use them to celebrate, and children want to be part of the fun. The sad fact is that, in the month surrounding each Fourth of July, people make more trips to hospital emergency rooms because of fireworks mishaps. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated the total in 2013 at 11,400 injuries; the safety commission said one in four children hurt in fireworks-related incidents were bystanders at backyard fireworks displays.

The commission further states 240 people on average suffer fireworks-related injuries each day in the month surrounding July Fourth. Even sparklers — legal in most states where other fireworks can’t be sold — burn at 2,000 degrees and can cause serious burns.

Here is the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s top 10 list of what not to do when it comes to fireworks:

— Never allow young children to play with or light fireworks.

— Don’t buy fireworks wrapped in brown paper, which may be a sign of fireworks made for professional displays that could pose a danger to consumers.

— Always have an adult supervise fireworks in use.

— Don’t stand directly over a device when lighting the fuse; back up to a safe distance after igniting.

— Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.

— Never re-light or pick up fireworks that haven’t gone off.

— Never point or throw fireworks at anyone.

— Keep a bucket of water handy in case of fire.

— Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in glass or metal containers.

— Soak spent devices with plenty of water before discarding to prevent trash fires.

If your neighbor’s fireworks malfunction and burn down your house, your homeowner’s insurance likely will cover your loss — your insurer probably would try to recover the payout from your neighbor. If your fireworks burn down your neighbor’s house, you may be responsible for the property damage and suppression costs; however, your policy might only defend but not cover the loss. The Maine Bureau of Insurance can answer detailed questions at 207-624-8475. Types of coverage in typical homeowner’s policies are found on the Bureau’s website .

Check first to make sure fireworks are legal in your community. The state fire marshal’s office website has a map showing 39 Maine communities where fireworks are banned. If in doubt, call the fire marshal at 207-626-3870 or check with your local fire department.

In most Maine communities, fireworks use by consumers is a given. As Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas put it, “if it’s going to happen, let’s make it happen as safely as possible.”

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.

Send flowers, not other people’s credit card numbers

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 31, 2015, at 2:26 p.m.

Until a couple of years ago, Florists’ Transworld Delivery Inc. and Classmates.com were affiliated companies. Now they’ve settled charges by the Federal Trade Commission that they engaged in misleading advertising and billing.

Maine is among 22 states that took legal action against the companies. A big part of the investigation focused on accusations that the companies used “negative option marketing” to snag customers who didn’t know what they were buying. Investigators looked at tactics, including subscriptions to Classmates that renewed automatically.

The probe also looked at the companies’ dealings with third-party marketers, including travel rewards programs, insurance plans and discount buying clubs, whose ads would “pop up” during transactions.

The states charged that Classmates and FTD shared consumers’ personal information, including credit card numbers. This practice, known as “data pass,” allowed customers to be charged for third-party offers if they did not opt out.

Congress put an end to data pass in Internet dealings by approving the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act in 2010.

In reaching the settlement, which will cost the two firms $11 million, FTD and Classmates admit no wrongdoing. FTD officials say they voluntarily stopped a third-party marketing program in early 2010.

Classmates also denied any wrongdoing. Part of the settlement statement deals with the companies’ denial: “The defendants are confident that if any of the alleged misconduct were to be litigated, the defendants would prevail on each and every claim asserted by the plaintiffs. However, to avoid the substantial burden and expense on the defendants that would result from continued investigation into these issues or litigation, the defendants have elected to resolve this matter through a consensual resolution.”

In the future, both companies say they will keep customers’ information from being passed on to third-party marketers without the consent of those customers.

Classmates also said it would work to make it easier for customers to end their subscriptions.

Both firms must be clear whether membership programs they may offer are their own or those of third parties. They also can’t use terms including “free” or “risk free” if a program will switch to a paid subscription.

Part of the settlement includes $3 million set aside by Classmates for refunds to customers who had signed up and later had problems canceling.

FTD will pay $8 million to the 22 states, including Maine, involved in the suit.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh used the announcement of the settlement to caution people. “Consumers should always carefully review service agreements and other add-on offers when making a purchase to ensure there are no strings attached,” Frosh said in a statement.

Consumers are advised that, to be eligible for restitution from Classmates, they must have purchased subscription services from the company between Jan. 1, 2008, and May 26, 2015

The deadline to file claims is Aug. 24. Mainers may file through Classmates or with the Maine Attorney General by writing to 6 State House Station, Augusta, ME, 04333, or by going online at http://consumer.mediation@maine.gov. If consumers have questions, they may call the Maine attorney general’s office at 1-800-436-2131.

Businesses and consumers can expect more enforcement actions in the future. FTC Guardian is a Georgia-based company — not affiliated with the Federal Trade Commission — which has suggestions for other entities that do online marketing. You can read this company’s advice at ftcguardian.com/articles/tragic-legal-mistake-4-continuity-programs-in-the-ftc-crosshairs/.

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.

What to do if you think your car qualifies for the massive air bag recall

Posted May 24, 2015, at 10:06 a.m.

Good news and bad news time: I’m average.

The average age of a vehicle on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, so my 2004 Ford Taurus station wagon is right on the median (or is that mean? I never got those two straight). That’s not good news in light of last week’s massive recall of automotive air bags.

Federal law says manufacturers do not have to report suspicious accidents in vehicles more than 10 years old. There’s a bill in Congress to change that, but for now, there may be a lot more cars needing recall work than anyone can imagine.

At last word, we were still looking for the full list of vehicles involved in the recall of those Takata air bags, which could deploy with excessive force, shatter the housing and send shrapnel into the people whom the bags were intended to save. The recall is expected to cover 34 million vehicles, about one of every seven cars in the country. That’s the largest recall ever involving motor vehicles and one of the biggest recalls on record.

Many consumers who have tried to check their recall status have found there are no easy answers. They are anxious, and with good reason; six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty air bags, and owners will likely be impatient while regulators and manufacturers sort things out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to cooperate with its investigation. Federal regulators and Takata agreed last week on the expanded recall, and some observers predict the fines will disappear as Takata absorbs the high costs of both the recall work and inevitable lawsuits.

For the moment, consumers need to be prepared. Consumer Affairs’ checklist goes as follows:

— Find your Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on the vehicle or registration.

— To see if you are eligible, go to www.safercar.gov/vin and type in your VIN.

— If your vehicle is among those recalled, go to any dealer of your vehicle right away and schedule a recall repair appointment.

— Ask your dealer (or the vehicle manufacturer) for a “loaner” vehicle while waiting for parts to become available.

Manufacturers are not required to give you a loaner, but some will. And if your vehicle is not on the recall list, it might be added in the future. It’s important to keep checking.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website is another place to check (www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/index.html). Last week, that site was reporting very heavy usage, so be patient.

Experts are still looking for exact causes of the air bag problem, but excessive humidity is suspected to cause chemicals to deteriorate. Factor in climate when thinking of buying a car from Florida or other warm places.

You can check the safer car site to see if your vehicle has been recalled for other work as well. Carfax, which tracks all kinds of vehicle data, estimates 3.5 million cars for sale online in 2013 had undone, or “open” recalls. If a consumer sells a vehicle with an open recall privately, the buyer is unlikely to know about the needed recall work.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an email notification system for vehicles, tires and child restraints. Before signing up, look at the sample email message on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ’s website (www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/subscriptions/index.cfm#) so you’ll know what the real thing looks like. Expect scammers to exploit the recall for their own purposes.

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.

Phony medication call centers target military families

CONSUMER FORUM

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 fraudtip@express-scripts.com.

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, visithttps://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

A quick means to looking older — not in a good way

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 26, 2015, at 11:22 a.m.

After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.

However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.

WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.

The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.

In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.

Click image to view “Are teens heeding the warnings on tanning beds?”

Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.

An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”

Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”

Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.

In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.

A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.

Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”

Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.

Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”

The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.

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.

Stiffer penalties sought for price tag cheats

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted April 12, 2015, at 11:25 a.m.
We’ve all seen the signs in stores. The wording may vary, but message is the same: Changing prices is a crime, and marking things down — to fool the people who check you out — amounts to stealing.

In Maine, the losses may amount to $147 million a year. That figure comes from Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. Picard told me the loss nationwide could run to $30 billion to $40 billion.

Despite the big numbers, Picard said that, until recently, “it was hard to get this issue to be taken seriously.” Under current law, most price-switching is treated as shoplifting. However, a bill before the Maine Legislature seeks to change that practice.

That bill, LD 310, An Act to Prevent Organized Retail Crime, would make price-switching a Class C crime. A Class C offense also would occur if two or more people, including store employees, act in concert to steal retail merchandise. The bill is focused on a tough and savvy element.

“These criminals are sophisticated,” Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, said. “They’re careful to go where the penalties are less severe,” she said, adding that similar crimes in New Hampshire seem less frequent because the Granite State’s lawmakers took a similar, tougher stand on price-switching.

Some thieves carry supplies of barcode stickers into stores they’ve targeted. After finding an item they want, they slap a barcode indicating a lower price over the real barcode. When scanned at the register, the lesser amount is charged. The thief may wait a few days, peel off the bogus sticker and return the item for a refund of the full price.

Surveillance cameras can trip up such efforts. One would-be thief stuck bogus stickers on three identical items, put two back on the shelf and checked out with the third. Loss prevention officers nabbed the thief, who apparently hoped the discovery of two other lower-priced items might divert suspicion.

Last September, a Tampa man was sentenced in federal court to five years in jail and fined $130,000 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Court documents showed Robert James Mercer, his co-defendants and others traveled to Wal-Mart stores in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado, Texas and other states to defraud the stores.

Mercer and the others purchased prepaid debit cards with cash and received legitimate receipts for those purchases. They altered the receipts to make it appear they bought merchandise. They then used the fake receipts to return items for cash — they obtained those items through the code-switching ploy.

Cynics might say huge retailers, such as Wal-Mart, can absorb such losses. Realists know that, sooner or later, the cost of all such theft is passed along to honest consumers. The crimes hit Maine’s treasury as well, in the form of lost sales tax revenues paid out when crooks make their returns.

Click image to read Wikipedia explanation of return fraud

Some retailers scan a driver’s license or other ID when giving a refund. The data that’s collected is sent to a company specializing in creating “returner profiles.” If it detects an odd return pattern, it notifies the retailer, which then may not accept returns from that consumer for a period of time. Privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the collection and retention of data.

Volk’s bill is pending in the Legislature. Whether it passes may depend in part on whether it carries a fiscal note — that is, whether there will be any cost to implement changes the bill would require.

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 Electricians’ Board Issues Warning about Former Master Electrician and Offers Free Inspections

Press Release
April 8, 2015
Professional and Financial Regulation

The Electricians’ Examining Board within the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation announced that it has found former master electrician Craig Shores of Waterville in violation of statutes prohibiting unlicensed practice. He was also found to have committed permit violations and National Electric Code violations. Mr. Shores is required to pay $8,250 in penalties in the Decision and Order finalized March 20, 2015. Additionally, from a 2009 disciplinary order, he is required to pay a $6,500 penalty and $1,405 in hearing costs.

As outlined in the attached March 20, 2015 Decision and Order, the Board found that Mr. Shores, with a previously expired and suspended license, has continued to engage in dangerous wiring practices that present a threat to public safety and property. After notice and in Mr. Shore’s absence, the Board suspended his right to renew his expired master electrician license indefinitely.

The Board is concerned about potential ongoing, dangerous electrical installations being performed by Mr. Shores and encourages anyone who has had a recent electrical installation performed by Mr. Shores to contact the Board by calling (207) 624-8519. The Board is offering an inspection by a State of Maine Electrical Inspector to any home or business owner who has utilized the services of Mr. Shores.

 

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