Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

Attorney General Announces Consumer Settlement against “Bath Fitter”

March 26, 2015

(AUGUSTA) Attorney General Janet T. Mills announced today that the Maine Office of the Attorney General has settled a case against National Bath Systems, LLC, d/b/a Bath Fitter (“Bath Fitter”), of Portland, Maine. The complaint alleged violations of the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Attorney General Mills alleged that Bath Fitter engaged in unlicensed plumbing activities, used non-conforming construction contracts, installed plumbing before a plumbing permit issued, misrepresented employees’ license status, and engaged in plumbing installations that may violate the Maine State Internal Plumbing Code. As part of the settlement, Bath Fitter will comply with Maine law. The consumer complaint initiating this case was made through the Maine Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

The settlement was reached by consent judgment, which prohibits certain activities and requires a penalty of up to $750,000 with a portion of that sum suspended for the duration of the probationary period.

Upon timely request by any homeowner with a Bath Fitter plumbing installation, Bath Fitter will provide a free inspection of the installation by an independent licensed plumber to determine compliance with the plumbing code. If the plumbing does not comply with the code, permits and corrections will be made at no cost to the consumer. Consumers have until September 1, 2015 to request an inspection.

If you have a Bath Fitter installation in your home and wish a free inspection for compliance, please call Bath Fitter at 1-855-798-4646.

Attorney General Mills stated “We are pleased that this company agreed to comply with our laws, provide work by licensed plumbers when appropriate, and ensure their installations are in full compliance.”

Credit report concerns involve more than mailings to wrong address

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 22, 2015, at 10:18 a.m.

Click image for “Credit Reports and Credit Scores”

This was supposed to be an easy column to write. It started out focused on the recent agreement hammered out by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Equifax, Experian and Trans Union, the Big Three among credit reporting agencies.

Then, more than 300 letters ended up in a mailbox in southern Maine. More on that shortly; we’ll begin with the background on the agreement.

Consumers who have been diligent about checking their credit reports might have been upset to learn that some of those reports are less than accurate. It’s been estimated that as many as one credit report in 20 contains significant errors. Those mistakes could adversely affect consumers’ credit scores and therefore their ability to borrow money.

After months of negotiations, the reporting agencies agreed to changes in two major areas: the way consumers can dispute errors and the types of credit data that show up in their files.

Until recently, disputes over errors in a consumer’s files have amounted to “borrower beware.” The agencies typically took the word of a creditor that a consumer’s payment was late or that some other mistake was in the creditor’s favor. The negotiated change means the agencies will hire employees to make independent reviews of consumers’ disputes, rather than siding automatically with creditors.

The second change involves medical debt. The agencies have agreed to a 180-day delay before noting on a consumer’s credit report that the individual was late paying a medical bill. It’s not always clear which family member is liable for a particular bill or what coverage might apply; other factors beyond a consumer’s control might also delay payment.

This is a significant change for consumers, says Will Lund, Superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. “It makes sense to let that process settle out, to let the smoke clear, before a person’s credit history is potentially permanently impacted,” Lund told me last week.

Lund’s office has been investigating last week’s delivery of 312 letters containing other people’s credit reports to Katie Wheeler of Biddeford. Wheeler had requested a report from Equifax and was shocked to find the pile of letters from the agency. At first she thought a computer had printed hundreds of copies of her report; after opening a few, she discovered names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and other personal information of other people.

Lund said it was lucky the mailing ended up in the hands of an honest citizen, who turned them over to the agency responsible for enforcing Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Part of that law requires credit reporting agencies to register with his department. While Lund doesn’t expect any long-term fallout from the mailing, he said, “There are a variety of questions here relating to quality control.”

Lund said he hoped to have the documents delivered by courier to Equifax by March 23, once his office’s initial investigation was complete. He said he likely will have follow-up questions, once Equifax shares the results of its own probe with his office.

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.

Ignoring vehicle recall notices puts us all at risk

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 15, 2015, at 8:33 a.m.

Click image to sign up for email alert on your vehicle

If you’re one of the millions of vehicle owners who have received a recall notice and ignored it, this isn’t an attempt to shame you.

Think of it as a wake-up call. Up to one-fourth of us are riding in cars and trucks that may or may not be safe. What‘s unclear is why so many people take the risk.

By now, we’ve all heard of unintended acceleration, faulty air bags and quirky ignition switches. In fact, we’ve heard so much about so many recalls — a record number in 2014 — that we’re getting a little recall numb.

How could it be, we keep wondering, that these defects don’t get fixed? We ventured several reasons in this column back in April. Lack of awareness that a recall has been issued probably tops the list. Also, people move or sell vehicles privately, making delivery of recall notices challenging at best.

We should be past the point of mistaking a recall notice for just another hunk of junk mail. These days the envelopes must contain the words IMPORTANT SAFETY RECALL INFORMATION in bright red, capital letters.

The website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( nhtsa.gov) contains a search tool to determine if recall work has been done on a particular vehicle. Enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), type the pictured numbers to prove you’re not a robot, and the database will reveal whether a vehicle involved in a recall has had the required work done.

It’s estimated that 60 million vehicles were covered by recalls last year. That was nearly double the record at the time. As many as 35 million had not been repaired as of Jan. 1, despite more robust efforts by regulators and automakers alike to get needed repairs done.

Some consumers are reluctant to take their cars or trucks to a dealer. They may have experienced or heard stories about mechanics’ finding “other necessary repairs” not covered by the recall, costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. These people may believe they’re better off to delay recall work or forgo it entirely and hope their luck doesn’t run out.

Some members of Congress have considered applying more pressure by barring re-registration of vehicles with outstanding recall work. Imposing new requirements on states from the federal level is bound to cause friction, even in the name of safety.

Earlier this month, Hyundai recalled some Elantras to fix power steering systems that reverted to manual. The company said loss of the power assist has not been considered a safety defect in the U.S. if manual steering was maintained. Hyundai said the industry has “increasingly handled similar issues through safety recalls” and it was following suit.

For government listings of all recalls, visit www.recalls.gov/nhtsa.html. That’s a page at safercar.gov, where you can also search by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if a particular vehicle has been involved in a recall.

The homepage of our blog ( https://necontact.wordpress.com) contains a section called “Product Safety and Recalls” with links to pertinent websites. The Safer Car entry contains a way to list your car for notification of future recalls.

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, visithttps://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

There’s no doctor-patient confidentiality on the Internet

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 01, 2015, at 10:03 a.m.

Click image for Norton’s information on Internet Privacy

Internet watchers have long been warning consumers about the privacy implications of tracking. Now, one researcher says simple online searches for health information could be much more harmful than previously thought.

Timothy Libert was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication when he wrote his study last fall. Libert had developed a software tool he used to track Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, activity between websites and third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.

He found that 91 percent of visits to websites triggered HTTP requests to third parties. Say you were looking for information on influenza and you clicked on “severity in winter” to learn more. The site you visited probably sent your request on to one or possibly several third-party sites interested in your searches.

Seventy percent of the third-party transmissions included information about specific symptoms, diseases or treatments. Libert designed his study to deliver results from all websites, not just health-centered ones.

Libert dug deep into the data and found that Google is the clear winner in third-party requests, collecting user information from 78 percent of pages searched; other leaders are comScore (38 percent) and Facebook (31 percent). He found data brokers Experian and Acxiom on thousands of pages as well.

While many of us still think the Internet can be searched anonymously, Consumer Affairs writer Truman Lewis says the interests people demonstrate through searching might be linked with their names. This could happen if the info is accidentally leaked, if hackers or other crooks get access to the data, or if data brokers collect the information and sell it.

Libert’s research found that a small fraction (3.24 percent) of the pages he analyzed used secure HTTP. The rest used non-encrypted HTTP connections “and thereby potentially transmitted sensitive information to third parties.”

Libert cited a critical U.S. Senate committee report on the data broker industry in 2013. One company was reportedly using “proprietary models” to create and sell lists of “domestic abuse victims,” “rape sufferers” and “HIV/AIDS patients.”

Advertisers like to assure us their data collections are anonymous. But ad tracking can discriminate in subtle ways. Sorting searchers into a category of high spenders on medical needs means those consumers likely will have less to spend on non-essential consumer goods; the trackers might consider them “undesirable” and be less likely to advertise special offers or prices to them.

The ad industry is investing serious money in computer modeling, the better to sort consumers into “buyer” and “other” categories.

Don’t look for existing law to change things. The Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act contains strong language about the ways doctors and insurers handle your health information; those protections don’t apply to web searches.

Libert suggests that nonprofit entities — with nothing to gain from third-party exchanges — tighten systems so data leaks are avoided. For commercial concerns with a profit motive, regulators and legislators might see broad public support for applying rules about how various kinds of data may be used and how long they can and should be saved.

He also urges engineers to spend more time creating intelligent filters that keep sensitive data confidential.

Consumers might do well to use separate web browsers and email accounts with unique, strong passwords when investigating health issues.

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.

Easier to lose money than weight

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT Posted Feb. 22, 2015, at 10:09 a.m.

Here’s a recipe for making millions on unsuspecting consumers. Buy green coffee bean extract from China for about 50 cents per bottle plus shipping, sell each bottle for $30 to $48 and gross an estimated $16 million to $26 million.

To rack up those sales, you’ll need to pass off an unscientific study as “proof” people can lose “an astounding amount of fat and weight” simply by downing your product. Advertise that there’s no need to reduce calories or increase exercise; just swallow the extract along with the seller’s worthless promises. You’ll need some TV promotion to build credibility. An appearance on the “Dr. Oz” show should do the trick. Add a few websites with names that will trigger lots of hits for your wonder product, and you’re on your way.

Dr. Oz scolded at hearing on weight loss scams (click image for FoxDC.com story)

Just don’t get caught. The Federal Trade Commission said last year the “as seen on TV” campaign was false and misleading. In May 2014, the FTC charged NPB Advertising of Tampa, Florida, with making “false and unsupported advertising claims” and with failing to disclose its news sites and testimonials were phony. The case is pending. Then, in September, the FTC charged that Applied Food Sciences of Austin, Texas, used a study it should have known was flawed to make “false and unsubstantiated weight-loss claims” to deceive consumers and sell its extract. The company settled that case for $3.5 million. In September, Dr. Oz announced on his website the study had been retracted. “This sometimes happens in scientific research,” Oz wrote at the time. Last month, the FTC settled charges against Lindsey Duncan and two companies he controls: Pure Health LLC and Genesis Today Inc. Under the settlement, Duncan and his companies have to pay $9 million in consumer redress and refrain from making deceptive claims about green coffee bean extract or any other dietary supplement or drug product. Several critics of the settlement cited a “chilling effect” and voiced fears other manufacturers might hesitate to advertise true claims about products. In a statement, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said she and the other two commissioners supporting the settlement are “more concerned about other marketers’ incentive to emulate the defendants’ conduct, believing that they will ultimately retain the lion’s share of their ill-gotten gains.” You can review a timeline of the FTC’s actions at nutritionaction.com. On the homepage, look for the article titled “Watch Out for Deceitful Marketing of Dietary Supplements” under “Daily Tips.” Then do a web search for “green bean coffee extract.” We’re betting a wide majority of the 1.58 million hits are still touting weight-loss myths. To lose weight and keep if off, eat fewer calories and increase activity. To learn more about possibly getting some money back if you bought green coffee bean extract, visit the FTC website at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0008-getting-your-money-back.

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.

Reverse mortgages put borrower’s heirs at risk

CONSUMER FORUM 

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 15, 2015, at 7:23 a.m.

The smiling actor in the commercial suggests a reverse mortgage may be the answer to all your financial concerns.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, says many have been confused and frustrated by the rules that govern this unique type of borrowing. In a reverse mortgage, a home’s equity is used as a line of credit; instead of making payments, the borrower receives a monthly payment that draws down that equity.

One problem is that reverse mortgages cannot be taken over by a family member when the borrower dies. Many family members have complained to the CFPB about their inability to be added to the loan so they can keep the family home.

Another problem is the confusing process confronting many borrowers when they try to pay off their loans. When the borrower dies, heirs have three choices: sell the home, repay the balance of the loan or pay 95 percent of the assessed value.

Some people have faced delays in getting appraisals, had appraisals done improperly or seen home values inflated so they’ve had to pay more. Many also have reported problems getting responses to questions and concerns about the loans from the parties that service them.

A third problem involves property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. These are the borrower’s responsibility, and the CFPB found some time ago that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage holders are at risk of foreclosure for nonpayment of those overdue costs.

Some consumers reported problems stopping the foreclosure process when they tried to pay overdue taxes. Some said their loan servicers incorrectly stated that taxes were overdue.

HUD information for senior citizens

Most reverse mortgages are insured through the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, program. Changes apply to terms of HECM loans made after Aug. 4, 2014, so nonborrowing spouses may remain in their homes after the borrowing spouse dies.

That change is not retroactive, so the CFPB urges everyone with a reverse mortgage to do three things:

— Verify who is on the loan. Ask your reverse mortgage servicer what names are listed on the loan, and make sure the records are accurate. They may help over the phone, but we prefer consumers send a letter — and keep a copy — so there’s a written record of the inquiry.

— If only one name is on the loan, make a plan for the nonborrowing spouse. After the death of a spouse, the survivor may qualify for a repayment deferral. That would allow the surviving spouse to live in the home. If not, make a plan for other living arrangements. If you or your spouse is not on the loan but think you or he or she should be, seek legal advice right away.

— Talk to your children and heirs, and make plans for any nonborrower family members who live in the home. Make sure family members know what to expect when the reverse mortgage comes due. The mortgage servicer should be able to supply written information about options. Talk these over with your family and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

To read more in the CFPB’s guide to reverse mortgages, visit http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201409_cfpb_guide_reverse_mortgage.pdf.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issues a guide called “Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home.” It’s available online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide_RevisedOnline.pdf.

Consumers can receive a printed copy by writing to 35 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0035 or calling 1-800-DEFederBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529).

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

State Says Consumer Laws Protect Against Risks Posed by Anthem Data Breach

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  FEBRUARY 5, 2015
Contact: Doug Dunbar, 207-624-8525

GARDINER — Governor Paul LePage joined officials at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to reassure consumers that state and federal laws will help protect them from losses due to file breaches containing personal identifying information, such as the one disclosed this week by Anthem.

The Anthem breach exposed the personal identifying information of an estimated 80 million current and former members nationally.  According to the company, information accessed included names, dates of birth, medical IDs, Social Security numbers, employment information including income data, street addresses and e-mail addresses.

“Although it’s unknown whether Maine consumers will be impacted by the Anthem data breach, I encourage people to closely monitor medical and financial records for evidence of identity theft,” Governor LePage said. “State and federal laws protect consumers from the effects of identity theft. The staff at Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation is available to provide specific information.”

The Department’s Bureau of Insurance has been in communication with Anthem’s South Portland office.  Anthem will directly contact affected individuals by mail and offer free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.  The services are expected to be available in two weeks, for a period of one year, and will be retroactive to January 27, 2015.

Anthem established a dedicated website (www.anthemfacts.com) and toll-free number (877-263-7995) to answer current and former members’ questions about the breach.

The Department’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection and Bureau of Financial Institutions provided the following information and suggestions:

– State law requires notification to affected consumers.  Those consumers should receive a letter from Anthem within two weeks.

– The letter will offer free credit monitoring services for a year, with instructions on how to activate those services.

– Consumers can also check their own credit reports without charge once each year at the website www.AnnualCreditReport.com.  If consumers notice any evidence that their identity has been stolen, they can obtain additional reports at no charge.

– Consumers can place a fraud alert on their credit reports, or for a small fee they can “freeze” access to their reports, blocking the opening of any new accounts.  If a consumer experiences identity theft, the credit reporting agencies must freeze and unfreeze their accounts at no charge.

– Consumers are not responsible for paying charges incurred by an identity thief.  Likewise, consumers are not responsible for charges or debits made by someone else on their credit or debit card.  Upon first noticing evidence of unauthorized charges or withdrawals, consumers should immediately call, then write, the financial institution that issued their card.

– State officials recommend that if a consumer discovers evidence of identity theft, the consumer should file a police report with their local law enforcement agency, and retain a copy of the report.  Maine law (10 MRS sec. 1350-B) requires that a law enforcement agency near a consumer’s home or work place must accept information about a crime of identity theft, and produce a report.  The report is helpful if a consumer must later demonstrate that proper steps have been taken to establish the crime.

– Consumers should be vigilant in order to notice any evidence of identity theft or unauthorized charges.  This includes careful reviews of online or paper credit card and bank statements, unexplained statements of accounts not opened by the consumer, and collection calls or letters on debts not owed by the consumer.

Individuals with questions or concerns regarding consumer financial protection issues can call the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 or the Bureau of Financial Institutions at 1-800-965-5235.  Those with questions or concerns about health insurance matters can call the Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000.

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