Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

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.

Guard against buying recalled items that are sold as safe

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 10, 2016, at 7:35 a.m.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission or CPSC came down hard last week on Best Buy. The retailer agreed to a $3.8 million civil penalty for distributing and selling products that had been recalled earlier.

Selling goods that are subject to “voluntary corrective action,” including a recall, is a violation of federal law. While agreeing to settle the case, a CPSC statement said “Best Buy’s settlement of this matter does not constitute an admission of CPSC staff’s charges.”

The commission said that between September 2010 and October 2015, Best Buy sold about 600 recalled items, including more than 400 Canon cameras. Other sales included recalled notebook computers, TVs, kitchen appliances and audio gear. Problems that prompted the recalls included overheating and skin irritation.

The CPSC statement said sales continued even after Best Buy told the agency that it had taken steps to reduce the risk that recalled products would be sold.

“While the number of items accidentally sold was small, even one was too many,” Best Buy’s senior director of external communications Jeff Shelman told Fortune.

Best Buy says it will set up a program to make sure that it complies with the Consumer Product Safety Act, including a system to appropriately dispose of recalled products.

You can find a list of the recalled products Best Buy sold at the CPSC website cpsc.gov/Recalls/2014/recalled-products-sold-by-best-buy-and-liquidators-after-recall-date.

The list includes contact information for the companies involved in the recalls; check with them regarding remedies.

Last November, CPSC and Home Depot issued an alert that 28 different products had been sold by the home improvement chain. A total of just more than 2,300 items may have ended up in consumers’ homes; about 1,300 were sold by Home Depot, and 1,000 were sent to salvagers or recyclers who could have sold them to consumers, according to CPSC.

See that list at consumerist.com/2015/11/19/home-depot-continued-to-sell-28-products-after-safety-recalls/.

Keeping up with recalls can be a challenge for businesses and consumers, but you can be notified about some of them. Six federal agencies list recall information at recalls.gov, where you can sign up to receive email notification of new recalls involving four of the agencies — CPSC, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Marden’s Surplus and Salvage is likely the major source of salvaged consumer goods in Maine. Harold “Ham” Marden is the primary buyer for many items. He said, “We don’t have a formal protocol [for tracking recalls] but we are constantly checking the lists.”

Marden said his co-workers are especially concerned about recalled baby clothes but that they do their best to check all stock against published recalls.

“Our people are watching as closely as they can,” he said.

Consumers who buy used goods from smaller dealers or at flea markets and yard sales need to do their own checking.

Another federal government website has links to agencies that track recalls involving food, medicines, medical devices, vehicles (including devices such as child car seats) and a wide range of other consumer products. Get started at usa.gov/recalls or call toll-free 1-844-USA-GOV1 (1-844-872-4681).

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

How to protect yourself from the Yahoo hackers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 26, 2016, at 9:22 a.m.

At this writing, the full impact of the massive Yahoo data breach announced Sept. 22 was not known. However, it appears that hundreds of millions of consumers have had private information exposed in what’s believed to be the biggest data breach to date.

Yahoo said hackers had stolen information from at least 500 million users’ accounts, including names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and encrypted passwords. Yahoo said the breach took place in 2014. Technology reporters had written earlier that stolen data from millions of accounts were being sold on the dark web.

This latest breach comes at a time when cybercrime is booming. For years, crooks have opened phony accounts to buy all sorts of things using other people’s good credit records. The thieves don’t pay their bills, and the law-abiding consumers are left to dispute the charges. It can cost time and money to straighten out a credit report following such an incident.

Click to access site

All of this leaves millions of consumers with another reason to review their credit reports. William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said recently all consumers should look for signs of trouble and act quickly.

“A single phone call for an alleged debt that’s not yours should be looked into since it may be the tip of a larger iceberg. Start by checking your credit reports,” Lund said.

Federal law says that each of the major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is required to provide every consumer with a free credit report once per year. Consumers can call each company’s toll-free phone number to request a free report.

To start the process online, go to the truly free website AnnualCreditReport.com. Don’t deal with online websites that promise “free” reports; you might be pressured into buying a credit report, credit monitoring or other services.

Anyone with concerns about her or his credit should pick one of the three reporting agencies and ask for a free report right away. In four months, ask another agency; four months after that, ask the third agency. Rinse and repeat forever.

If your credit report shows accounts were opened that you did not authorize, you may be a victim of identity theft. In fact, accounts may have been opened in the name of any family member. You can freeze your account, meaning no one else can open an account in your name. Get help from Maine’s BCCP by calling toll-free 1-800-332-8529.

Privacy experts say too many of us use too few passwords. A breach that reveals a password securing one account may put other accounts at risk. For that reason, it’s wise to change ALL of your passwords at least once per year. If you know an account has been breached, change right away.

Get more tips on safeguarding your personal and financial information from the U.S. Department of Justice at justice.gov/criminal-fraud/identity-theft/identity-theft-and-identity-fraud.

The nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, privacyrights.org, is another good resource.

Find details of the Maine law covering consumers’ rights when data breaches occur at maine.gov/pfr/insurance/faq/data_breach_faq.htm.

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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