Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

How to ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage, kemper.com, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at iii.org/article/how-can-i-locate-lost-life-insurance-policy.

You can check online at unclaimed.org and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at missingmoney.com.

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.

Got old paint? Here’s how to get rid of it in Maine.

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 11, 2016, at 7:17 a.m.

When consumers buy paint, Maine environmental officials would like them to do three things: buy the right amount, find ways to use it up and reuse or recycle whatever paint is leftover.

For PaintCare information click map

Helping to make those goals possible is a program called PaintCare, which started several years ago by the paint industry’s trade association. Maine is part of the program, which includes seven other states and the District of Columbia.

At last count, there were about 90 sites in Maine participating in PaintCare. Consumers can bring unused paint in tightly sealed containers — no larger than five gallons — to one of the sites, where they’re collected on pallets.

Latex paint goes to a recycling facility in Illinois (there currently are no large volume recyclers in the Northeast).

Oil-based paint is considered a hazardous waste, although industry officials are talking with a recycler in Ontario about sending Maine’s oil-based paint there.

Somewhere in our basement is a package of drying agent; when added to the dregs of a can of paint, the stuff will harden it, allowing it to be thrown out with the trash. Multiply our leftover paint with that in basements across Maine, and you’re talking about a lot of paint. Industry officials estimate that 10 percent of all paint that’s purchased is not used and that a good deal of that could be reused or recycled.

The nonprofit ReStores run by Habitat for Humanity accept donations of paint, among other things. The stores sell the paint along with other donated home improvement goods at reduced prices. Other than a few informal recycling efforts, there seems to be little other reuse of our unneeded paint.

That fact prompted the start of the PaintCare effort, which kicked off Oct. 1, 2015, in Maine.

John Hurd of PaintCare says more than 1,000 pallet-size boxes of paint have been collected since then. He says PaintCare pays the bill for towns and cities that collect paint at their transfer stations and hold it for recycling. Hurd told me he’s interested in talking with other municipal officials about increasing the number of drop-off sites.

The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2013 that approved the PaintCare program. The law includes fees to help pay for the collection; those fees are 35 cents, 70 cents or $1.60 depending on container size, for paint that’s sold in Maine.

Both Hurd and Andrea Lani of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say they’ve had few questions about the fees.

Lani said she has made several site visits and that the program is running well.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things,” she said. “They’re moving a lot of paint.”

Visit the Department of Enviromental Protection website maine.gov/dep/waste/productstewardship/paint.html or call (800) 452-1942 for more information and a list of drop-off sites.

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.

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

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.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

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.

Naughty debt collectors draw consumers’ ire

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted March 14, 2016, at 12:17 p.m.

Roll two of America’s top consumer complaints into one, and the result might wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I am a phony debt collector.”
The Federal Trade Commission just released its annual list of consumer complaints. Debt collection topped the list, and imposter scams came in third. Together, the two categories accounted for roughly 1.2 million complaints, 40 percent of all complaints the FTC received in 2015.

Nationally, the FTC last year increased its effort to protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. The agency coordinated a federal-state-local effort called Operation Collection Protection; through that program, more than 130 legal actions were brought. The FTC brought 12 actions against 52 defendants, and permanently barred 30 companies and individuals from the debt collection industry. The agency said in a recent statement that it obtained almost $94 million in judgments against debt collectors.

Among the bad practices that have drawn fire from regulators in recent years are these:

— One big bank robo-called a couple 700 times over four years and followed up with letters threatening foreclosure; a judge ordered the bank to pay the couple $1 million.

— A Georgia firm collected $4 million for nonexistent offenses, claiming it had been hired by the federal government; federal officials say these phony collectors have operated in all 50 states.

— A collector threatened a central Maine consumer, who recorded the phone conversation. A transcript of the conversation persuaded the company — which was licensed to do business in Maine — that it should let the employee find work elsewhere.

2015 Debt Collection Booklet.pub

Click image to read online.

David Leach, Principal Examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said more than 1,000 debt collection companies are licensed in Maine and that the majority of them abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, Leach said the number of complaints about scammers or unlicensed collectors is “enormous and growing.” Call the bureau at 800-DEBT-LAW with your questions about debt collection or to receive a copy of “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection” or read the guide online .

The Maine Bar Association reminds consumers that Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids bad language, calling people at work, telling others about someone’s debt and other harassment. It also prohibits using phony letterheads to imitate law enforcement and threats of legal action they can’t take. For general information (not legal advice), visit the Bar Association’s website, mainebar.org/lawyer-referral/legal-information/maine-fair-debt-collection-practices.aspx.

While we’ve written about debt collection before (see Consumer Forum, 12/7/2015 on our blog), some points bear repeating. If a collector calls about an old debt, don’t send money without question. Make sure the debt is really yours by having the collector detail the amount owed and to whom it is owed. Have the collector mail the details to you, and get a physical location of the collector’s place of business. If you do pay, send a check rather than sending funds by wire.

The FTC has published a list of companies that it has banned from further debt collection activities. You can see that list at ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/banned-debt-collectors.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some imposter 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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Why it’s a bad idea to hurry to holiday auto deals

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 15, 2016, at 6:59 a.m.

Here’s a quick quiz for consumers: What word is most often featured in those Presidents Day car sales ads?

Answer: “Hurry.”

According to David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, that is the last thing consumers should do.

“It’s a great time for Maine auto dealers, both new and used, to market and sell a good number of vehicles in what generally would be a pretty slow time of year,” Leach told me.

Otherwise sluggish sales prompt dealers to create promotions designed to spur quick action by buyers.

“Hurry is the antithesis of what a consumer should be in,” Leach added. He said consumers should adopt a deliberative, thoughtful process in which they thoroughly research their needs and assess their budgets.

With that in mind, the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection has issued a special edition of its Downeaster Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing.

In his letter of greeting, Leach cautions that reforms in the mortgage lending industry have not yet reached the auto loan market. As a result, “it remains quite possible to purchase and finance a vehicle that you, the consumer, cannot afford.”

The guide goes on to list a half-dozen danger signs that a vehicle deal might go bad. One is title washing, in which damaged cars or trucks can be salvaged and resold, especially in other states.

A second tricky practice is called spot delivery, when a dealer allows a customer to drive a vehicle home “on the spot,” even if financing has not been formally approved. If that approval doesn’t happen, the buyer may have to pay the balance in full or return the vehicle.

A third area of concern is contract mistakes. Signing a contract means you agree its contents are correct. Signing could affect your rights in case of a dispute over the vehicle or loan. Certain clauses in a contract might cause problems; failing to maintain insurance on a vehicle might allow the creditor to repossess without sending a Notice of Right to Cure.

The guide also warns against title loans, when the consumer gives the lender a hard copy of the title so the vehicle is used as collateral. Such loans are illegal in Maine.

Watch out also for what are called “loaded” payments, which are monthly payments including add-on items the buyer did not request.

The guide offers a range of information about buying versus leasing, getting the best possible deals on loans and checking your credit reports. There also are tips on research you can and should do, and what to look for in the “closing room” before you sign on the dotted line.

The guide is available online by visiting the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection website, at credit.maine.gov, and looking under “consumer guides.” Maine residents can receive a hard copy by calling the bureau toll-free at 1-800-332-8529.

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

Protect yourself against scams before filing taxes

CONSUMER FORUM

 

Posted Jan. 25, 2016, at 11:18 a.m.
Federal officials have termed them the biggest scams ever. Together, they cost consumers billions of dollars every year. And they use people’s fear of the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon.

The first starts with an unexpected phone call. You’re told that you owe taxes and must pay immediately or you’ll be jailed. What do you do?

An IRS official says, just hang up … it’s a scam.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have received multiple calls from different people, all posing as either IRS officials or law enforcement agents. All the callers claim that legal action is certain, unless they receive money via wire right away. A demand for immediate payment is the second tipoff that it’s a hoax.

The first was the threat of imprisonment.

The IRS does not typically call a taxpayer; the agency begins by sending a letter. It also does not seek payment by way of prepaid cards, and it does not have agents standing by with arrest warrants in case the taxpayer hesitates.

The criminals who use these techniques can be abusive, even threatening to hurt their victims. These hoax calls may originate halfway around the world — although a spoofed phone number may make them appear nearby — and any threatened action rarely happens.

The second major hoax involves the filing of a phony tax return. If a thief steals your name, birthdate and Social Security number, he or she can file a bogus return in your name. If the IRS doesn’t catch it, the agency might send a refund to the crook; it may not be until you file your legitimate return that the fraud is discovered.

The IRS has trained thousands of employees to help possible victims. It has also put in place a number of preventive measures, most of which it won’t discuss in order not to assist the scammers. In a public message last week, the IRS said it has teamed up with the states and tax preparers to “stop fraudulent returns at the door.”

One new piece of information from tax software providers will be the amount of time it took to prepare a return. That could be a tipoff when computer-generated returns are fraudulent and have been filed by the hundreds or thousands.

You can read about the new measures at IRS.gov/uac/IRS,-States-and-Tax-Industry-Deploy-New-Safeguards-for-2016.

Tax season brings with it a rash of scam artists trying new ideas. Crooks might point to last year’s hack of IRS computers, which compromised some information of about 200,000 taxpayers. They might pose as “IRS counselors” or “credit advisers” while their real goal is to steal more personal data.

IRS officials suggest that tax preparers do a “deep scan” of all their computer drives and devices to find malware and viruses that may hide in places that a “quick scan” can’t find. Firewalls and antivirus software also should be up to date; if you use a tax preparer, don’t be shy about asking if security systems are robust.

If you store your tax filings on your computer, make sure there’s a backup in case your hard drive crashes. If you store paper copies, keep them under lock and key (ideally in a fireproof container). Find more security and identity protection tips at IRS.gov.

If you get a phone call you suspect is a hoax attempt, call 800-366-4484 to find out if the caller is a real IRS employee with a legitimate reason to reach you. If a piece of mail seems suspicious, call 800-829-1040 to see if it’s legitimate.

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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