Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

Hang up on phone calls that demand payment for utility bills


Posted Sept. 06, 2015, at 2:38 p.m.

You’ve heard the warnings: Don’t believe that threatening phone calls you receive are the real thing.

The scammers’ ruse is always the same; they tell you that you owe them money, and if you don’t pay up something awful will happen. Lately, they’ve been burning the phone lines posing as people from the billing departments of local utilities.

Click image to contact MPUCA

A customer of a water company in greater Bangor was a target of such a call just last month. Harry Lanphear of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, or MPUC, says the caller cut right to the chase.

“He said if the consumer didn’t get them some money through a prepaid credit card, they would shut off their water,” Lanphear told me last week. The consumer recognized the usual red flags of a scam, ended the call and reported the incident to MPUC.

Regular readers of this column know the red flags. Issuing a threat about service by phone instead of regular mail is one, demanding payment via prepaid credit card or wire transfer is another, and not knowing the customer’s account number or other information is a sure tipoff.

While often short on facts, scam artists tend to be experts in social engineering. They tailor their phone persona to the perceived vulnerabilities of the person on the line. Appealing to the need to “keep your credit record clean” might resonate with some consumers, while a heavy-handed threat could work with others.

Lanphear said his office has heard many complaints about crooks pretending to represent electric utilities

“Given how dependent we are on electricity, I think people just don’t want anything to happen to their service. I think scammers try to take advantage of that,” he said.

MPUC warned consumers recently, issuing these reminders:

— Utilities don’t call customers in good standing saying they have debt needing to be paid immediately.

— Instead of trusting a “cold caller,” hang up and call the utility at the number on your bill; that way, you can verify the status of your account.

— MPUC rules require proper notices regarding disconnection. If you can’t resolve a problem after speaking with their utility, call the MPUC Consumer Assistance Hotline at 1-800-452-4699.

— If you get any phone call demanding immediate payment for any utility or service, it’s likely a scam. Don’t make the payment; instead, report the call to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Information and Mediation Services at 1-800-436-2131 or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

The FTC reports that some scammers have even shown up at consumers’ homes during power outages, saying they will have the power restored for a cash payment. Don’t fall for that one or for instructions to call a phone number and give account information. And never wire money to anyone you don’t know; when that money goes, it’s gone.

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


Beware of phony subscription offers


Posted Aug. 16, 2015, at 1:33 p.m.

Click image to read FTC tips

The Wall Street Journal’s website includes a caution to readers about new subscriptions and renewals. It notes that certain shady types pretend to represent the publication when their real purpose is simply to rip people off.

The open letter from Christina Komporlis, head of circulation service for Dow Jones & Company, says fraudulent offers came from companies called National Magazine Services, Orbital Publishing and Publishers Billing Exchange. She says none of those entities has any connection with The Wall Street Journal or Barron’s Magazine.

The website further cautions readers not to disclose personal or financial information — especially bank account or credit card data — to anyone from those companies. Komporlis writes she would appreciate having such fraudulent correspondence forwarded to her at

The Wall Street Journal encourages people with questions to call, so I did. A nice customer service rep told me the publishers posted the notice to encourage caution among readers when renewing their subscriptions. He said consumers are urged to use credit cards, because people who have been scammed and sent checks to the scammers seldom get their money back.

The scam can work in a couple of ways. Crooks can offer a ridiculously low renewal rate, prompting consumers to think they’re getting a great deal — in fact, they’ll get nothing for this “bargain.” On the flip side, scammers may send a renewal notice including a rate that’s much higher than the real price.

Northeast CONTACT recently heard from a Maine consumer who unsuccessfully tried for a refund. She paid for two renewals only to find out the craft magazines had stopped publishing. A full year later, a website still was advertising that the defunct magazines could be ordered.

Words to the wise subscriber come from a variety of consumer advocates. The messages are all the same:

— Read solicitations carefully. If they ask you to send money to an address other than that listed in the magazine’s masthead — publication information inside — be wary. This is not always a deal-breaker, however. Some magazines use outside companies, so call your magazine directly — NOT the number on a mailing you suspect is a scam — to verify the collection firm.

— Look for misspellings. Scammers aren’t the best with grammar, either. Their errors can tip you off that an offer is not legitimate.

— Beware of higher prices and longer-than-normal subscription periods. Our chief caseworker is leery of any offer that’s longer than one year.

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


How to keep track of latest scam tactics


Posted Aug. 09, 2015, at 1:32 p.m.

At some point, you’ve likely received an email from someone you know who claimed to be trapped in a foreign country and needed you to wire money immediately.

If your scam-sensing radar was well tuned, you deleted that message without another thought. However, a friend or relative may not be so aware of the ways of scam artists. That friend or relative could benefit from the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, series of scam alerts.

These periodic messages cut to the chase with language similar to this: “Government agencies will never ask you to pay by wiring money. Neither will legitimate businesses. If someone insists you pay by wiring money, it’s a scam. Don’t do it.”

That alert was issued last Wednesday on the FTC’s website, The gold-colored button on the homepage takes you to a series of alerts on all sorts of things every informed consumer should know.

Another recent scam alert was headlined “It’s not the FTC calling about the OPM breach.” There was widespread news coverage of the data breach at the federal Office of Personnel Management, which left more than 21 million current and former federal employees wondering whether their identity was at risk. Scammers use that coverage and those fears to give credibility to their fake phone calls, saying the FTC is offering money to breach victims if they’ll just give up some personal information.

A couple of facts are worth noting here. The FTC does not call to ask for personal data, and the agency does not hand out money, either. It will accept your written or phoned complaint about such hoaxes; that reporting could help investigators put a stop to at least some of the impostor scams and other phishing attempts that put millions of citizens’ identities at risk.

Scam alerts also have dealt with people who pose as friends in an effort to separate you from your money. They may create phony online identities using stolen pictures and profess their love; it’s not long until they’re hitting up their victims for “loans” to deal with fabricated “emergencies.” They’ll always ask you to wire the money — so that it can’t be traced.

Scammers have found creative ways of posing as customer service people who try not to arouse suspicion when they ask you for personal or financial information. Say you have a question for a major retailer but can’t find a phone number; you do a Web search, and several toll-free numbers appear. A closer look at the territory above and to the right of the search results reveals some look-alike names that belong not to your retailer but to a scam artist waiting for your call.

Do your friends and family a favor by sharing the FTC’s scam alerts with them. You can find them under the “education” tab on our blog: Educating yourself and those close to you is the best single step you can take to fight fraud.

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

Children’s Leukemia Foundation folds amid fraud claims


Posted Aug. 02, 2015, at 2:24 p.m.

In August 2009, Neal Rubin wrote a scathing piece for The Detroit News about the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation, or NCLF.

It wasn’t the first time the writer took on the organization based in Brooklyn, New York. It raised money for years nationwide as a “charity,” though Rubin’s research turned up little in the way of charitable activity.

It did turn up complaints by the president of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan, William Seklar. His group has been spending at least 80 percent of the money it raises on getting information, financial aid and emotional support to families facing life-threatening blood disorders.

NCLF consistently has done much less, according to Rubin and more recently to investigators with the attorney general for New York state. Last month, New York’s attorney general filed a petition in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn to shut down the group and recover money the AG’s office said had been raised through fraud.

The petition cited what it called exorbitant fees for telemarketing and direct mail campaigns, more than 80 percent of the $9.7 million NCLF raked in from mid-2009 to mid-2013. Those court documents found a total of $57,451 in “direct cash assistance to leukemia patients” over the four-year period.

The petition said the foundation really was a one-man operation run by Zvi Shor, who started NCLF in 1991 after he lost a child to leukemia. Court papers showed Shor paid himself $595,000 in salary and $600,000 in deferred compensation from 2009 to 2013, plus a promised lifetime pension of more than $100,000 per year.

The foundation’s phone number is disconnected and its website has disappeared. Shor’s attorney, Douglas Gross, told the New York Times he thinks the AG’s claims are baseless.

“Mr. Shor began this charity and ran it with the best of intentions,” Gross said.

While the New York attorney general’s office includes a charities bureau, the state does not have a law that makes charities fraud a crime. Criminal prosecutions there usually involve tax fraud, embezzlement or larceny.

Records on file with Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Responsibility show NCLF was registered as a charity and thereby able to solicit funds in Maine in 2004. The records indicate the organization did not renew its license after that.

It’s important to remember that charitable giving works best when your donations do the good work you intended to have done. Giving to “sound-alike” charities may benefit the organizers and professional fundraisers most.

Keep in mind that very few legitimate charities “cold call” people. The good ones are happy to mail you information about their services and to explain what percentage of money raised goes to programs. The good ones won’t pressure you for a credit card number now; they’ll gladly take your check when you are ready.

Guidestar, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, are probably the most often used resources to check out charities. The Tampa Bay Times published results of a lengthy investigation of bad charities, which can be found at

The Center for Investigative Reporting published similar findings at

Check charities licensed to solicit funds in Maine at and see “licensee search and status” under Consumer Tools. Consider supporting charities that operate close to your home. There’s nothing like a personal visit to see how things run and to have your questions answered.

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

Payday loan firm’s departure won’t end predatory lending


Posted July 12, 2015, at 1:15 p.m.

Click image to file a complaint

When Ace Cash Express announced it would stop doing business in Maine on July 11, reactions were mixed.

Consumers who depended on payday loans from the firm wondered where else they might get needed cash. The Maine People’s Alliance cheered, charging Ace was just like all other payday lenders, keeping needy people in a circle of debt. Regulators were unsure whether the unknown that lies ahead might be more troubling than the present we know.

Ace, which had stores in Portland and Brunswick, is shrinking its presence nationwide. This follows a $10 million settlement last July with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. The bureau had found evidence the company used harassment and false threats of prosecution or imprisonment, among other illegal tactics, to pressure overdue borrowers to take out more loans.

When they’re approved for the loan, borrowers usually hand over a check for the loan plus interest; the lender holds it until the borrower’s next payday. If the borrower can’t repay, the loan can be rolled over with another interest charge tacked on.

In Maine, Ace was charging $15 to borrow $150 and $25 to borrow $250 for up to one month. The average annual interest rate of payday lending in Maine is 217 percent, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust. Rates in other states can go much higher, so Maine is not a prime target for payday lenders.

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said Ace operated within the law. He said the company is allowing consumers with outstanding loans to set up installment payments to settle their debts. Lund says, when the state had questions, Ace was reachable and responsive.

In 2014, the CFPB did a study of the payday loan industry. Among its findings: the majority of borrowers renew their loans so many times that they end up paying more in interest than the amount of the original loan.

CFPB plans to release new rules this fall affecting payday lenders, regulation that has until now been left largely to the states. The Maine People’s Alliance, which organized a small rally last Thursday in Portland, wants CFPB to pass strong rules covering car title loans, installment payday loans and online loans as well as traditional payday loans.

Jamie Fulmer is a spokesman for Advance America, the largest U.S. payday lender. He wrote in a recent op-ed that federal officials “do little to understand why millions of Americans choose these loans over other similar products, or what would happen if that choice was taken away.” Fulmer argued that if the new rule affects only payday lenders and ignores other sources of short-term credit, “people will be forced into higher-priced and lower-quality services.”

Lund says his staff would much sooner deal with the storefront lenders who have a brick-and-mortar presence; the online lenders who offer contact only by email are much tougher to regulate.

“Every single day we hear from Maine consumers who are being threatened with illegal collection tactics,” Lund told me.

Since neither consumers nor regulators can readily locate the tough talkers, many of them keep gouging the people they had promised to help.

The CFPB says its rules will require lenders to take steps to make sure consumers can pay back their loans. CFPB Director Richard Cordray said, “These common-sense protections are aimed at ensuring that consumers have access to credit that helps, not harms them.”

After a review panel looks over the rules, they could take effect sometime this fall. In Maine the maximum fee for a payday loan of $500 or more is $25. Unlicensed, unscrupulous lenders may charge much more. Find a list of licensed lenders at the BCCP website at, click “list of license types” and select the payday lender list, or call 1-800-332-DEBT-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

A few tips for safe, fun fireworks use

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 or email

Send flowers, not other people’s credit card numbers


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 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 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

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


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