Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

A new way to find out if you are owed life insurance benefits

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 15, 2016, at 7:29 a.m.

Now, where did I put that insurance policy?

Unfortunately, answering that question isn’t always as simple as looking in your home safe or a shoe box. The answer may come via a new Lost Life Insurance Policy Service announced recently by Maine’s Bureau of Insurance.

When someone dies, a surviving family member may not know that he or she had been named as a beneficiary in the deceased’s life insurance policy or annuity contract.

People using the new service will need to provide specific information about the deceased to the bureau, which will then reach out to 277 companies that already have agreed to take part in the locator service. The companies will then check their records to determine if a policy or annuity was in effect and whether the person making the inquiry has a valid claim.

The bureau is hoping the service is used by potential beneficiaries, executors and legal representatives of deceased persons who may have lived in Maine when a policy was written or an annuity sold.

On its website, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners or NAIC lists 13 other states that offer locator services. If consumers believe a policy may have been written in some other state, the NAIC site offers guidance in tracking down the details.

Maine Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa says he would like to see all insurance companies, large and small, take part in the new program.

“We will continue to encourage all companies to do the right thing by cooperating with the bureau, joining this effort, and assisting Maine consumers who have a lawful claim,” Cioppa said in a statement.

More information about the service can be found through the Bureau’s website, at Maine Bureau of Insurance, or directly, at Lost policy locator.

Individuals or companies with questions about the service can contact Violet Hyatt, consumer health care division deputy director, at 207-624-8453 or 1-800-300-5000.

We wrote earlier this year about allegations that some insurance companies balked at paying benefits that were owed to consumers. You can find that article on our blog at https://necontact.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/how-to-ensure-your-life-insurance-benefit-will-be-paid/.

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.

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted July 18, 2016, at 6:30 a.m.

A consumer wrote to Northeast CONTACT recently, saying she was concerned about a series of offers to extend some of her magazine subscriptions.

What tripped her radar was a discrepancy in expiration dates; one notice said a certain magazine subscription ended in September, another indicated November. Return envelopes for two magazines both were addressed to the same post office box in Texas.

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely.

ConsumerAffairs.com has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

The fakers operate under so many names that finding and stopping them usually is a challenge.

In March 2015 the attorneys general of New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Texas sued a network of companies claiming to offer “one of the lowest available rates.” Prosecutors contended the actual charges were about twice those of legitimate subscriptions.

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

Simply because they want your credit card number so they can run up charges you haven’t authorized. You lose your money and don’t get your renewal.

In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against several individuals and companies that it said were deceiving consumers. The companies allegedly sent renewal notices for some 375 newspapers — none of which had consented — to people claiming to offer bargain rates on subscriptions.

In fact, the FTC found that those prices were a lot higher than regular rates. The agency is trying to get at least partial refunds for affected consumers.

Newsmagazine The Nation published the names of two dozen companies that it said were making unauthorized subscription offers. Read the list at thenation.com/renewalscam.

The magazine industry has long opposed efforts to change what it calls “advance consent,” under which subscriptions can be automatically extended unless the subscriber opts out. This is what the FTC calls a “negative option.” The agency looked at strengthening its longstanding rule on negative option but decided two years ago to leave it as is.

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at auditedmedia.com/resources/bylaws-and-rules/chapter-f-consumer-magazines/article-8.

Renewal services are good, bad and in-between. Some may offer real deals, while others say you’ll save while you’ll actually pay more. Bottom line with most of them is this: You’ll probably get your magazine, but be ready for any “introductory offers” never to return again.

Many consumers are abandoning print subscriptions and reading magazines online, a free service of MARVEL! a statewide service on any Maine computer. Bangor Public Library patrons can use Flipster to read magazines on all their devices.

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.

Self-checkouts are prime targets for skimmer scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 11, 2016, at 6:04 a.m.

In the previous column on cloning of credit and debit cards at pay-at-the-pump sites, one piece of advice was key. If one card-reading device does not look like the others, it’s probably wise to avoid it.

“An illegal, fraudulent skimmer (the data-stealing device) is big and bulky and should stand out,” David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said. Leach advised consumer to be “situationally aware.” If something doesn’t look or feel right, trust your instincts and keep your card in your wallet.

As in the case of gas pump scams, other businesses that use self-checkout machines are susceptible.

Crooks design a skimmer to look almost exactly like the real machine; a thief can slide on the phony device in seconds and return later to collect the information from the cards of anyone who uses it in the meantime. They usually use the data to buy gift cards or transfer the data to blank cards.

“Skimmer scammers,” as one internet security wonk termed the criminals, have targeted automated teller machines or ATMs for years. ATM skimming grew more than 500 percent from 2014 to 2015 by some estimates.

Just last month, police investigated the discovery of skimmers at bank ATMs in Kennebunk and Wells.

Chris Pinkham, executive director of the Maine Bankers Association, was quoted in one news report as saying it’s “a sign of the times.” Just as none of us is immune to fraud attempts by phone or over the internet, we’re all potential targets of skimmer crooks.

The illegal devices have been found at self-checkout stands at Wal-Mart and Safeway, and no retailer is exempt from skimming attempts. Security experts say the roll-out of chip-embedded cards should slow the rate of skimming offenses; however, many consumers don’t have cards with chips, and many terminals are not yet chip compatible.

Even with chip technology in place, consumers should not be complacent. Thieves won’t give up being thieves because chip-and-PIN or chip-and-signature technologies apply another layer of security; they’ll look for ways to get around any protections that card issuers use.

They’ll also be focusing on the magnetic strips that are still a part of the cards. Those strips still contain sensitive material that thieves want. And the thieves will double down on data stolen earlier. With the spread of chip technology, security experts predict more sales among crooks of data obtained through breaches of retailers’ websites.

Consumers can buy radio frequency ID, or RFID wallets which purport to safeguard card carriers from hacking by passers-by. Some security experts claim aluminum foil works as well. Whatever safety measures you adopt, resolve to be less trusting when a credit or debit card leaves your hand.

Instead of giving that card to a restaurant worker you’ve never seen before — and having that person disappear for several minutes — seriously consider paying cash for your meal.

“Most restaurant owners are pleased to see cash, because it means they don’t have to split their profits [with major credit card companies],” BCCP’s David Leach said.

As always, monitor your financial statements closely — not using public Wi-Fi — and check your credit reports regularly. Before using an ATM, look for signs of tampering: things that don’t line up, mismatched colors or materials and graphics that seem “off.”

See if any parts wobble or rattle; those machines are sturdy, so you should not hear sounds indicating that anything is loose.

When entering a PIN, cover the keypad as best you can. Watch for hidden cameras that may be recording your every move. Be aware.

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.

How to protect yourself from credit card skimmers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 04, 2016, at 2:25 p.m.

Three people were arrested recently in southern Maine, facing charges relating to a scheme to “clone” credit cards at gas pumps.

Police say the three had installed a machine called a skimmer, which steals card data that can then be transferred to a blank card and used for illegal purchases.

Those phony charges will show up on the true owner’s monthly statement, so it’s up to all smart consumers to check those statements closely. Disputing them will take time, and so will the process of getting a new card.

A better idea is avoiding any card machine that appears to have been altered.

Look around the card slot. If you see scrapes, scratches or torn labels that raise your suspicions, make your purchase the old-fashioned way: Pay with cash. You might see that one pump seems to stick out farther than the rest. That can be a sign that it’s been tampered with.

Thieves can install a skimmer in a matter of seconds. Even with attendants on duty, they can’t watch every pump every second. The crooks often use double-stick tape to put their skimmers in place. If the card slot looks odd, give it a wiggle. It might just drop right off the pump.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has classified skimming at gas pumps as an “emerging threat.” In Eagan Minnesota, police and most local gas station operators have teamed up in an effort to defeat the skimmers.

Stations that take part in the SkimStop program place stickers on their pumps, warning potential thieves that the pumps are checked daily. The stickers bear serial numbers, so they can’t be easily duplicated. If the seal on the security label is tampered with, the pump can be checked to make sure a skimmer hasn’t been installed.

Eagan police say thieves in one case captured the data of 157 victims. They used the data they stole to buy gift cards and made some $21,000 in illegal purchases.

“For the cost of some stickers, we can solve a lot of problems,” Officer Aaron Machtemes told me.

The SkimStop program began in March. “We haven’t had a skimming device in our city since,” Machtemes said.

At least one Maine chain of convenience stores tried another version of sticker, but company officials declined a request for an interview. Some stickers do not carry a serial number and are readily available for purchase online. Thieves can buy a roll of 500 stickers for about $70, do their dirty work and slap a new sticker on a pump, leaving consumers — and likely most store employees — none the wiser.

William Lund is superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Lund said the arrest of the three suspects in the Brunswick case shows that some thieves consider Maine as ripe for ripping off as anywhere.

“It all boils down to people in Maine realizing that we don’t get a free pass when this technology becomes common,” Lund said. He urged consumers to be observant and cautious when using credit or debit cards in any public setting. More on this topic next week.

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.

Volkswagen agrees to settle on charges it misled consumers about their ‘Clean Diesel’ technology

PRESS RELEASE

June 30, 2016

AUGUSTA – Attorney General Janet T. Mills today announced a settlement requiring Volkswagen to pay more than $570 million to states for violating state laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices by marketing, selling and leasing diesel vehicles equipped with illegal and undisclosed defeat device software. The settlement also establishes an environmental mitigation fund of $2.7 billion. This agreement is part of a series of state and federal settlements that will provide cash payments to affected consumers, require Volkswagen to buy back or modify certain VW and Audi 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, and prohibit Volkswagen from engaging in future unfair or deceptive acts and practices in its dealings with consumers and regulators.

These coordinated settlements resolve consumer protection claims raised by a multistate coalition of State Attorneys General joined by 43 states and jurisdictions against Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Porsche AG and Porsche Cars, North America, Inc. – collectively referred to as Volkswagen. They also resolve actions against Volkswagen brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), California and car owners in private class action suits.

“Volkswagen groomed an image to lead customers to believe they were making a purchase that was environmentally sound,” said Attorney General Mills. “It turns out their ‘clean diesel’ technology was anything but. Maine consumers were particularly impressed with this marketing, as demonstrated by data showing Maine had among the highest per capita VW ownership in the country. These settlements show that we will not tolerate this kind of manipulation in the market place.”

The investigation of the attorneys general confirmed that Volkswagen sold more than 570,000 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel vehicles in the United States equipped with “defeat device” software intended to circumvent applicable emissions standards for certain air pollutants, and actively concealed the existence of the defeat device from regulators and the public. There were 3,982 affected vehicles sold in Maine. Volkswagen made false statements to consumers in their marketing and advertising, misrepresenting the cars as environmentally friendly or “green” and that the cars were compliant with federal and state emissions standards, when, in fact, Volkswagen knew the vehicles emitted harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOx) at rates many times higher than the law permitted.

Under the settlements, Volkswagen is required to implement a restitution and recall program for more than 475,000 owners and lessees of 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, of the model year 2009 through 2015 listed in the chart below at a maximum cost of just over $10 billion. This includes 3,982 vehicles in Maine.

Once the consumer program is approved by the court, affected Volkswagen owners will receive restitution payment of at least $5,100 and a choice between:

• A buy back of the vehicle (based on pre-scandal NADA value); or • A modification to reduce NOx emissions provided that Volkswagen can develop a modification acceptable to regulators. Owners will still be eligible to choose a buyback in the event regulators do not approve a fix. Owners who choose the modification option would also receive an Extended Emission Warranty; and a Lemon Law-type remedy to protect against the possibility that the modification causes subsequent problems.

The consumer program also provides benefits and restitution for lessees (restitution and a no-penalty lease termination option) and sellers after September 18, 2015 when the emissions-cheating scandal was disclosed (50 percent of the restitution available to owners). Additional components of today’s settlements include:

• Environmental Mitigation Fund: Volkswagen will pay $2.7 billion into a trust to support environmental programs throughout the country to reduce emissions of NOx. This fund, also subject to court approval, is intended to mitigate the total, lifetime excess NOx emissions from the 2.0-liter diesel vehicles identified below. Under the terms of the mitigation trust, Maine is eligible to receive approximately $20 million to fund mitigation projects to be determined by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

• Additional Payment to the States: In addition to consumer restitution, Volkswagen will pay to the states more than $1,000 per car for repeated violations of state consumer protection laws, amounting to $570 million nationwide. This amount includes $3,651,270 for affected vehicles Volkswagen sold and leased in Maine.

• Zero Emission Vehicles: Volkswagen has committed to investing $2 billion over the next 10 years for the development of non-polluting cars, or Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV), and supporting infrastructure.

• Preservation of Environmental Claims: Today’s settlement by state attorneys general preserves all claims under state environmental laws, and Maine maintains the right to seek additional penalties from Volkswagen for its violations of environmental and emissions laws and regulations.

Volkswagen will also pay $20 million to the National Association of Attorneys General to establish a fund that state attorneys general can utilize for future training and initiatives, including investigations concerning emissions violations, automobile compliance, and consumer protection.

The full details of the consumer program will be available online at VWCourtSettlement.com and www.ftc.gov/VWSettlement.

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.

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

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

How to be sure your support for veterans actually helps them 

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 13, 2016, at 7:13 a.m.

We received two letters in less than two weeks. Both were addressed with the same misspelling of our last name, a tipoff that we had not supported this charity in the past.

The appeal was ostensibly to help disabled veterans and included a calculator, notepad, window sticker and a check for $2.50, made out to me. Why any group gives money then asks for it back is unclear; because we’d never requested anything, we don’t have to donate or send their stuff back.

The “ask” was for $15, or I could opt to hand over our credit card number so the Disabled Veterans National Foundation could take more donations automatically, month after month. We declined to cash the check or divulge our card number.

click image to research charity

We researched the group on Charity Navigator, one of the top charity rating organizations. The foundation’s website says it “exists to provide critically needed support to disabled and at-risk veterans who leave the military wounded — physically or psychologically — after defending our safety and freedom.”

Charity Navigator says the group’s most recent tax filing shows 19.4 percent of its total expenses went to those programs to help vets. Some 72.8 percent of the total expenses went to fundraisers.

CharityWatch — formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy — using different scoring methods, gave the group an F rating in December 2015.

Looking at the most recent tax filing and audited financial statement, CharityWatch found that, of $8.6 million in expenses, 7 percent went to programs. Of the $8.7 million in total contributions, 89 percent went to fundraising.

CharityWatch rates 53 charities in its “Veterans and Military” category; 26 of them get a grade of F.

People who donate to charities want their money to help those the charity says it’s helping. We believe donors don’t usually think of fundraisers as especially deserving, but we may be wrong. As with all consumer decisions, research comes first.

The nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, at philanthropyroundtable.org, recommends a 2013 report titled “Serving Those Who Served” for people who want to make effective donations supporting veterans in need. It can be downloaded at the above website as a free PDF or ordered in print or digital formats from various vendors.

There’s also a website about all things military. It lists several questions, at military.com/spouse/military-life/military-resources/military-charity-associations.html, which donors might ask themselves before giving.

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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