Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

How to spot dirty tricks when buying a used car

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 13, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.
Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Buying a used car is one of the most stressful purchases a consumer can make. Here are some suggestions intended to ease the tension.

Check first with an established dealer. Maine’s used car dealers are bonded. Their vehicles must have valid inspection stickers, and sales include “clear” titles with no encumbrances. Shady Sales in Anywhere, Maine, might save you a few dollars, but there could be big headaches that follow.

Consumers can check with the attorney general’s office to see if dealers they’re considering have large numbers of complaints against them. Another source of information is the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the secretary of state’s office.

Mark Silk is chief detective at the bureau. He recommends consumers deal with known dealers, because “there are so many more protections” than dealing online or through private sales.

He suggests asking to see the title to the vehicle. It should indicate its prior use — taxi, fleet vehicle, police, etc. The title also might show some “red flags,” such as having been rebuilt after a crash.

The title also should show the odometer reading when the prior owner stopped driving it. If the odometer has been replaced, it must read either zero — with accompanying door sticker stating that fact — or the same mileage as the odometer that it replaced.

Silk also urges car shoppers to look closely at any used car, for the following signs of trouble:

— Watermarks in the engine compartment.

— Rust or flaking on the undercarriage.

— Stiff wiring under the dash.

— Mud, sediment or sand in door panels.

All of the above might be signs that the car is flood-damaged. If your nose is keen, you can likely smell trouble before you buy. In any case, have a trusted mechanic check out a car before you sign a sales agreement.

Mark also reminds buyers that there is nothing in Maine law that requires a dealer to charge a document fee. While those fees can run into hundreds of dollars, charging them is up to the dealer. If they are charged, they must be conspicuously posted.

Note to readers

A few parting words are in order, as this is the last column I’ll be writing for Consumer Forum. Since its founding in 1972, a lot has changed for Northeast CONTACT (originally named C.O.M.B.A.T., for Consumers of Maine Bringing Action Together). At its peak, our all-volunteer group helped walk-ins in need of mediation or other assistance; our assistance saw the return of thousands of dollars to wronged consumers. We counseled consumers on all manner of marketplace issues, spoke at meetings and took action when it needed to be taken.

As the information era came of age, demand for our services tapered off. Soaring oil prices forced the sale of our building eight years ago, and the volunteers who were the heart and soul of Northeast CONTACT found other ways to do good work.

Now, Jane and I are also finding a new avenue, one that we hope will assist consumers. Our hearty thanks go to those many volunteers I mentioned. We plan to continue our blog, https://necontact.wordpress.com. We’ll post news about scams, recalls and items we hope will be helpful; you can search the site for past columns. There will still be links to government and nonprofit agencies with resources beyond our means.

Finally, our thanks go to the people at the Bangor Daily News who’ve offered support, encouragement and the space for this column. And to those of you who have had kind words about the work we’ve done, you will remain in our thoughts.

 

You can’t avoid death and taxes, but you can dodge identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 30, 2017, at 8:25 a.m.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service, the states and tax professionals teamed up to reduce incidents of taxpayer identity theft.


The crime occurs when a criminal steals your Social Security number and files a return in your name; the thief claims a refund to which he’s not entitled. When you file your legitimate tax return, the IRS flags it because it has already received a return in your name.

It’s believed that more diligent enforcement helped the IRS to prevent more than $180 million from going to fraudulent claimants. Now, officials are doubling down on their efforts to fight taxpayer ID theft.

The Federal Trade Commission has proclaimed the week of Jan. 30-Feb. 3 as Tax Identity Theft Week. The agency is offering a series of events to educate consumers and business people on ways they can minimize the risk of thieves stealing refunds.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, the FTC and Identity Theft Resource Center will hold a Twitter chat dealing with tax identity theft, ways to protect yourself and what to do if you are a victim.

A similar session is planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, about tax ID theft for service people, veterans and their families. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, FTC and the IRS will hold a tax ID theft chat for small business people. Find a link to these and other events at www.ftc.gov and look under “Latest News.”

Income tax season is big business for high-tech criminals, so be on guard for all sorts of scams. You might get a call from someone posing as an IRS official, seeking to “verify” tax return information by phone.

Other scammers may mention news reports of tax fraud and try to trick victims into “verifying the last four digits of their Social Security number.”

Others might pretend to be from the tax preparation industry … in short, they’ll use any tactic they think might work to fool consumers.

The crooks also take aim at business people. They might call human resources professionals and ask for information found on W-2 forms; a variation of that scam has an email message bearing the name of a corporate officer seeking personal information about an employee. Some scammers have posed as providers of software to trick tax preparers.

The variations are virtually endless. The IRS lists many of the most often used tricks at its website, www.irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Many tax pros suggest filing early, thereby giving the crooks less time to file fraudulently ahead of you. Once you have filed, you can check the status of your refund at www.irs.gov/Refunds.

You also can call the IRS Identity Theft toll-free at 800-908-4490 or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft.

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

If robots call to say you owe back taxes, don’t believe them

Posted Jan. 16, 2017, at 6:19 a.m.

Which of the following is a scam?

— You get a phone call saying you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and should pay by way of an iTunes card.

— A caller says she is an IRS official demanding immediate payment of overdue taxes, and the number on your caller ID appears to be from the local IRS office.

— A caller identifies himself as a law enforcement officer and says you face immediate arrest if you don’t wire money for overdue taxes.

— An email bearing an official-looking IRS logo asks you to “update your IRS e-file immediately.” The email mentions IRSgov — without a dot separating “IRS” and “gov.”

If you answered that all of the above are scams, you are correct.

The investigative arm of the IRS says that 1.8 million people have reported receiving impostor calls. More than 9,600 victims have been scammed out of more than $50 million.

Phishing and malware incidents rose roughly 400 percent during the 2016 tax filing season. Despite officials’ best efforts to curb the increase, it’s expected that the numbers of tax-related scam attempts will continue to grow.

Increasingly popular with scammers is the robo-call. The crooks leave urgent call-back requests, demanding payment of “back taxes” with gift cards. IRS officials say such demands are clear signs of a scam.

Other callers may ask for payment of a nonexistent “federal student tax.” People they call are told to wire money — another sure sign of a scam — with threats of legal action unless payment comes at once.

Another scheme involves a call saying the IRS “just needs a few details” to speed up the processing of your refund. The scammer tries to get personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers or other sensitive data such as credit card numbers.

Human resources and payroll professionals have been targeted as well, through requests for information about employees. A scammer posing as the company’s CEO requests personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers.

In an effort to catch scammers and identity thieves, the IRS is delaying refunds this year for anyone claiming the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC). That move is expected to give the IRS added time to weed out more sophisticated fraudulent returns. It may also hurt lower income taxpayers who file early and likely will be waiting at least until late February for refunds. Offers to “help speed up your refund” may be more scams.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairs the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which has published a guidebook on avoiding scams. Read it online at aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/217925%20Fraud%20Book%20Final.pdf. You also can call the committee’s fraud hotline (1-855-303-9470) for information or to report fraud attempts.

The IRS offers a summary of our legal protections in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights at irs.gov/taxpayer-bill-of-rights.

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.

Rogues tap holiday spirit, disaster relief to steal in the name of charity

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 26, 2016, at 9:11 a.m.
Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations. Search Maine or your town

Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations found in Maine.

When soliciting donations from 2008 to 2012, fundraisers for four now-defunct “charities” said they spent 100 percent of their money on services including taking patients to chemotherapy sessions, buying pain meds for children and hospice care.

Instead, the money went for meals, rides on jet skis and cruises to the Caribbean.

In a lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission called all four groups “sham charities.” Officials from all 50 states and the District of Columbia joined in the suit, which accused charity officials of spending most of the $187 million they raised on themselves and their fundraisers.

The legal action led to the shutdown of the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society. Only a fraction of the millions of dollars the groups took from consumers was recovered.

The amount of money fundraisers were able to garner shows how willing consumers are to donate to causes they believe are genuine. Scammers know this, and for that very reason they create names for their fake groups that sound like real charities.

At this time of year, when many of us make donations to our favorite causes, let’s make sure we’ve done our due diligence. Be skeptical of cold calls or bulk mailings that you may receive, seeking donations that supposedly will benefit veterans and military families, sick children or police and firefighters.

Scam artists follow the news closely, and they look for items that will make readers respond emotionally. In June, crooks reacted quickly following a shooting rampage that killed 49 people and injured 53 others in Orlando, Florida. They set up phony charities pretending to help the victims and their families; in fact, the money they scammed lined their own pockets.

Pretending to help victims of floods, earthquakes and other disasters is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise. Before you decide to donate, ask questions to find out how your money will be used.

If you’re responding to an online appeal and preparing to click to “donate,” look at the name of the organization in your browser window. If the domain name is hidden, is not familiar or is different from the one in the text, think twice about clicking.

Treat all pleas for your money with a healthy dose of skepticism. Real charities welcome the chance to send you literature by mail. They know that informed consumers will support them and tell others about worthwhile causes. Scammers want a decision right away, and some ask for payment through gift cards or wire transfers — these clearly are scams.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has tips on giving to charities and avoiding getting ripped off in the process. Visit maine.gov/ag/consumer/charities/index.shtml for those suggestions.

The Federal Trade Commission has additional information at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0011-charity-scams.

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.

Magnet maker wins court ruling despite injuries to children

Posted Dec. 05, 2016, at 1:45 p.m.

In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a rule banning the sale of sets of small magnets. In November, the company that defied the agency won a federal appeals court victory; the firm’s website trumpeted, “Ban cleared. Game on.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s action came after reports of injury to some children who swallowed the powerful neodymium (rare earth) magnet balls. If they ingested more than one, children were at risk of having the magnets attach and tear internal tissues or organs. Surgery sometimes was needed to remove the magnets.

Most distributors heeded the urgings of the group to stop selling the magnets, despite the warning labels stating that the toys were meant for adults and not children. One manufacturer — Zen Magnets of Boulder, Colorado — refused first the urgings and then orders to stop selling magnet sets. It did so with the backing of lots of consumers, who liked the variety of patterns they could form using the magnets.

The safety commission’s research in 2011 had found that some magnets sold in sets were 10 times more powerful than allowed in standards for children’s toys. Manufacturers insisted that the sets were for adults only, but the agency pointed to a rising number of emergency room visits involving children who had swallowed magnets.

A 2015 news release from the safety group blamed the death of a 19-month-old girl on magnet ingestion and estimated that 2,900 ER visits between 2009 and 2013 resulted from swallowed magnets. That news release focused on a federal judge’s order that Zen Magnets — at the time the only known seller of small magnet sets — to stop selling recalled magnets. The Justice Department had charged that Zen bought 917,000 magnets from another company, comingled them with other magnets and sold them after the other company issued a recall. Federal law bans the sale of recalled products.

In November of this year, a federal appeals court overturned the ban on magnet sales and sent the matter back to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two of the three judges wrote that they found the safety group’s emergency room statistics did not show that the agency rule “is reasonably necessary to eliminate or reduce an unreasonable risk of injury.” Those judges wrote that they had “no opinion” on the number of injuries that would support issuing a new safety standard.

The minority judge on the panel wrote, “In my view, the record sufficed for the Commission’s finding of an unreasonable risk of injury.” A commission spokesperson told us “the hazard from these small, powerful magnets has not changed” if more than one is swallowed. The agency is “assessing its options and takes the matter very seriously.”

While the safety commission assesses its options, magnet sales abound on the internet. After doing his victory dance, the founder of Zen Magnets called for education over regulation. Shihan Qu wrote on his company’s website that swimming pools and toy balloons are more dangerous than his magnets and that education is the key to the safe enjoyment of most products.

They may not be toys, but that’s how magnet sets may appear to little eyes. Qu agreed with many critics when he wrote, “… high powered magnets should be kept away from any mouths and young children who don’t know better.”

In the same article Qu wrote, “Instead of driving Zen out of business, and pushing production further from the CPSC’s field of view, I’d rather use our resources to fight alongside the CPSC for successful educational and awareness campaigns focused on consumers and medical professionals.”

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

Beware of bogus delivery notices as holidays approach

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 21, 2016, at 9:56 a.m.
This is the graphic sent out with this Fed Ex email scam.

This is the graphic sent out with this Fed Ex email scam.

A consumer from Hancock County was surprised recently to read an email saying that a package he had ordered could not be delivered.

Suspicious because he had not ordered anything, the man read more closely. The generic greeting, “Dear customer,” was followed by an urging that he click on the attachment that contained a “shipping label.”

“Something about it just didn’t strike me right,” the consumer told us, so he ignored the email, allegedly from “Fedex International Ground.” Eight days later, he received another message and attachment, this time from “Fedex International Next Flight.” The next day, an email came from “Fedex 2Day.” A fourth message came three days after that. All carried different senders’ names.

Similar messages arrive in consumers’ email inboxes every day. And every one is a hoax, designed to prompt you to click a link or open an attachment containing malicious software or malware. The virus, Trojan or other nasty code might lock your computer and hold it for ransom, steal your personal information or be used for other illegal purposes.

These attempts to spread malware are constant, but they spike near holidays, when online shopping increases. Variations of the message might include instructions to click the attached “invoice copy,” print it and take it to “the nearest office” to pick up your nonexistent package. Other messages demand payment of a bogus debt before that mystery package can be delivered.

United Parcel Service, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service will never send email notices about missing packages. UPS has guidance on its website ( ups.com and search “scam”). FedEx offers similar advice at fedex.com/mx_english/fraud/email_alert.html.

The recent news that UPS aircraft mechanics have authorized a strike may spark more fraud attempts. Crooks seize such news items to lend credibility to their stories that “packages have been delayed” or “the strike diverted your package to another service.”

Our consumer in Hancock County admitted that, if he had ordered something, he might have clicked on a malicious link when the first email arrived. Still, he said the lack of a phone number or company logo in the message made him suspicious enough to refrain.

In 2015, 782 Maine residents reported to the U.S. Justice Department that they had been the victims of internet crime. Their losses totaled more than $1 million. Don’t join their ranks. If you receive a notice that you think might be legitimate, look up the phone number of a local office and call — don’t click on or call a number that criminals may have spoofed to make it appear real.

To file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, visit ic3.gov online. If you’re threatened over the internet via email, chat room, website or other means, call 911 or contact your local police agency.

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

How to protect mail-ordered gifts from ‘porch pirates’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 07, 2016, at 6:01 a.m.
Check different processes for different carriers

Click image to check different carriers’ responses to claims

More and more consumers are avoiding the whirl of holiday shopping by ordering gifts online.

However, before they’re even wrapped, some goods that should end up in shiny paper go missing. They are among the goods delivered by Fedex, UPS and other package services that are stolen right off people’s front porches.

These “porch pirates” often don’t know what they’re taking. That prompted one writer on the subject to wonder about thieves’ reactions if they had stolen the 20-pound bag of dog food that had been delivered to his home.

That writer also wondered why police in Tarzana, California, had referred to this brand of crooks as “sophisticated porch pirates.” Turns out the thieves had been using a computer app to locate UPS trucks. Then they would follow the trucks, picking up the deliveries within moments of the time they land on the porch. Some even brought their children with them, sending them to do the dirty work.

An estimated 23 million consumers have suffered such losses. On Christmas Eve last year, Bangor police arrested three teenagers (who gave Portland and Boston addresses) on charges that they took packages off people’s property around 15th Street.

Police urge consumers to file a report when a package delivered by UPS or Fedex is stolen.

When a theft occurs from a mailbox, you can file a theft report online at postalinspectors.uspis.gov/investigations/mailfraud/fraudschemes/mailtheft/ReportMailTheft.aspx or by calling 1-800-ASK-USPS, or 1-800-275-8777. Mail theft can bring a hefty fine and up to five years in prison.

There are tools to deter porch piracy. Security cameras — some of which can be monitored remotely on your smartphone — can be installed to monitor delivery areas. A camera might provide enough detail to help police catch a thief, or it might be more of a horse-and-barn-door situation.

Some consumers who receive lots of packages have installed locking dropboxes ranging in cost from about $100 to well over $1,000.

One clever device is called the Package Guard. It’s a flat, circular platform that you place near your entry door. When a courier sets a package weighing at least a pound on it, the built-in wifi device sends a text or email message to the owner that the package has arrived. It also readies an alarm that sounds if the package is removed and can be turned off only by sending the return message, “OFF.”

One UPS security type wrote a while back that, if you ever report a package stolen from your home, a driver will not be allowed to leave packages in the future without getting a signature. If the pickup notice that was stuck to your dirty door blows away in the breeze, hope that it lands where you’ll see it.

Other options include having packages delivered to your workplace, if your employer agrees in advance. Neighbors might also be asked to watch one another’s houses for suspicious activity and perhaps to take packages inside.

And if you’re thinking of trying to beat the system by making a false report, not paying for the item and collecting on UPS insurance, think again. The courier’s security people sometimes work with local police, setting up cameras where people wouldn’t think to look and catching customers “stealing” their own deliveries.

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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