Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

New federal budget bill unleashes torrent of collection robocalls


Posted Nov. 09, 2015, at 8:54 a.m.

There’s probably nothing more annoying than a pre-recorded call (robocall) asking you to buy something.

Unless it’s a robocall demanding you pay off a debt you might owe. Congress has just made it possible for some debt collectors to add robocalls to mobile phones to their toolkits. And a number of people and groups are unhappy.

Until passage of the latest federal budget, collectors placing robocalls or sending texts needed advance consent of those receiving such calls. That provision was part of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

Section 301 of the new budget bill repealed the advanced consent requirement for collectors of debt that’s owed to or guaranteed by the federal government. The change allows robocalls not only to student loan and mortgage borrowers, farmers, veterans and others with federally backed loans but also to their relatives, references and even unrelated people who get a reassigned cell phone number from such borrowers.

“They sneaked Section 301 in there. Nobody even knows how it got in [the budget bill],” said Tim Marvin of Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of the organization that publishes Consumer Reports.

Click image to access petition

Consumers Union had launched a campaign in February to pressure phone companies to help curb robocall excesses. When we checked its website,, more than 568,000 people had signed an online petition of support.

The outrage of consumers was matched by that of 10 U.S. senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to overturn Section 301. The bill is called the HANGUP (Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls) Act. Seventeen groups supporting the bill drafted a sample letter consumers can mail to their senators, in an effort to give the bill traction.

Critics say allowing robocalls to mobile phones will flood consumers with nuisance calls, and they contend the calls will generate relatively little in repaid debt. Such calls also offer consumers little recourse if they’re targeted unfairly.

Banks often sell bad loans to collection companies for pennies on the dollar — hard-to-collect loans might be sold several times.

The proper paperwork is supposed to accompany such sales, but that doesn’t always happen. As a result, people with similar names or Social Security numbers may receive dunning robocalls over debts they don’t owe, and it may not be easy to find a live person to straighten things out.

Consumers Union’s Tim Marvin says the Senate bill gives supporters of robocall reform “a great opportunity to mobilize all that support we’ve been building.” Despite what seems like popular backing, supporters of the bill aren’t predicting quick passage.

For help with particular debt collection issues, call Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection 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 or email

New website compares cost, quality of health care in Maine


Posted Nov. 02, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

Click image to connect to website

Consumers in Maine have known for some time that there’s a lot of information about health care. However, it has often been difficult to use available data to make meaningful decisions about the quality and price of various medical procedures.

The quest for meaningful comparisons became easier last week. The Maine Health Data Organization, or MHDO, launched a new website, The keyword MHDO acting Executive Director Karynlee Harrington uses to describe the site is “transparency.”

The organization put together a consumer advisory group about 18 months ago. The agency asked consumers what they would like to see in a user-friendly website.

“One of the things they said over and over is there is information out there, but nobody’s asked consumers what they want,” Harrington said last week.

What the consumers wanted was a single site comparing common medical procedures, in terms of cost and patient ratings. The MDHO working group looked at various websites — private and governmental — to see what information was available and how well organized it was. The result is the website, which was launched last week.

The site allows users to compare average costs of more than 200 medical procedures at more than 170 health care facilities around Maine. In many cases, users also can compare quality ratings for facilities. Florida is the only other state in the country where Harrington says people can find side-by-side cost figures and quality ratings. Maine users can compare costs by facility and by health insurance companies.

Users of the website should remember that figures they find are averages — a number of factors can affect actual costs of a given procedure.

“It’s not like going out and buying an appliance,” Harrington said.

The MHDO urges consumers to consult their health care providers and insurers to get a personalized estimate.

The website was developed through grants from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Over time, more procedures will be added and the number of health care facilities will be increased. The website also will be accessible on additional devices.

Harrington describes the current website as a starting point. “It allows consumers to begin the conversation (with providers and insurers),” she said.

The MHDO is looking for feedback from people who visit the site. You can take a survey online when you visit the site, letting the agency know if it’s helpful.

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

Hidden costs lurk in delayed interest payment offers


Posted Oct. 26, 2015, at 6:52 a.m.

The phrase “no interest until…” may not be what some consumers think.

Offers to pay no interest until the payment period ends are enticing. But you must pay off your balance in full when the time’s up, and you must not be even a day late on a single payment.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau puts the warning bluntly on its website: “If one of your payments is late, or if you don’t pay off the full balance by the end of the deferred interest period, you could have to pay all of the interest that you expected to be deferred.”

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, says consumers sometimes assume deferred interest means they won’t be charged interest on their credit card purchase until the deferral period ends. Lund says they might also expect a notice during month 11 in a 12-month deal, reminding them that full payment is due to avoid retroactive interest charges.

He says both assumptions are wrong.

“Interest and late fees are how banks make money, and they would not offer these plans if consumers all paid the purchase price fully within the promotional period and did not owe fees and interest,” Lund said.

The price of deferred interest, then, is ongoing borrower diligence.

In the case of major purchases — appliances, furniture, medical devices — a lump-sum interest payment could be several hundred dollars. Consumers can avoid such shocks by making sure of the terms of any deal before signing up, giving themselves plenty of time to meet the payment deadline, and not using that credit card for other purchases — making it easier to track a deferred interest balance.

Visit Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website, then search “deferred interest,” for several helpful tips:

— Pay off deferred interest balance before the deferred interest period ends. Some offers may be in weeks instead of months, so the end date may differ from your regular payment date.

— Try to pay more than the minimum payment every month. Paying the minimum likely won’t pay off your deferred balance in time; keep close track of your deferred interest balance.

— Ask your credit card company to apply whatever you pay above the minimum monthly payment to your deferred interest balance. The company doesn’t have to agree; if it does, the move might help you pay your balance before the deferred interest period ends.

Lund reminds consumers that interest rates are high, often nearly 30 percent per year.

Some consumers think federal or state laws cap those rates, but neither does. No state or federal law limits interest rates on credit cards issued by national banks, another reason to know terms of any deal before signing up.

Lund also notes that, although credit cards are offered through retailers, they are underwritten by nationally chartered, out-of-state banks. Laws of the banks’ “home states” apply, and Maine regulations don’t apply.

In case of problems, consumers may complain to federal regulators — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Staff of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer questions about protecting one’s credit. Call toll-free in Maine at 1-800-332-8529.

CardHub, which compares credit card offerings online, predicts credit card debt will rise a net $60 billion by the end of the coming holiday season. See the company’s study of deferred interest at its website

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

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


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