Archive for the ‘Consumer Alerts’ Category

Guard against buying recalled items that are sold as safe


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

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

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, 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 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 or email

How to protect yourself from the Yahoo hackers


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 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

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

Find details of the Maine law covering consumers’ rights when data breaches occur at

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


Answering these text messages could lead to empty bank accounts


Posted Sept. 19, 2016, at 9:55 a.m.

Click to access booklet

Customers at some Maine banks and credit unions have been receiving fraudulent text messages. The messages are from scammers falsely claiming that there’s a problem with the customer’s account or debit card.

You can guess at the rest. There are frantic-sounding instructions to click on a link or phone number contained in the message. Failure to do so will cause some horrendous problem with the account, card or the customer’s credit rating.

The fix is easy, says the text. Just type in your account or card information and any passwords that you can remember. The sender will take care of everything — like emptying your account or running up bogus charges.

The message seems to come from a customer’s financial institution. On its website, the Maine Credit Union League said members of at least two credit unions in eastern and central Maine appear to have been targeted.

The phony text message said their debit cards had been compromised and to call either 844-334-6152 or 844-611-0709. People who called either number were asked for their card numbers and CVV codes. Divulging that or other personal or financial information is a bad idea.

The superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions says consumers should not fall for the hoax.

“Banks and credit unions will not text, call or email customers asking them to divulge account numbers, PINs or Social Security numbers,” Lloyd LaFountain III said.

LaFountain said if a consumer believes he or she has received a scam text, the consumer should:

— Not return the text or call the number provided.

— Never provide personal or financial information following such a request. Banks and credit unions will never request personal account information that way.

The Bureau of Financial Institutions has a consumer library containing hints about spotting and avoiding financial scams. There’s also a consumer specialist on staff who can answer questions about scams or accounts in general.

If you’re unsure after receiving an unsolicited email, call someone at the bureau, instead of clicking on anything in the message. The bureau’s phone number is 207-624-8570, and its website is

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection has published the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Gone Phishing. It also contains tips to detect and avoid scams.

Find it online at; it’s listed under “Consumer Guides.” Call the bureau (1-800-332-8529) with any questions about protecting your credit.

The Federal Trade Commission also has a wealth of information on its website. Learn about phishing and other scams at

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

Most vehicle warranty extension offers are ripoffs


Posted Sept. 05, 2016, at 11:31 a.m.
When you buy a vehicle, you can almost set your watch by the time the offers for extended warranties start arriving in the mail.

Most of them convey a sense of urgency, especially if you’ve bought a used car or truck. The “Vehicle Document/Alert Notice” from the “Vehicle Services Department” cautions that an “immediate response” is needed, since “your factory warranty may have expired or will be expiring.”

Could they be a little less specific?

Probably not, because the mouse print notes that you probably got this letter through computer data generated by your purchase.

Is it a scam?

Likely as not, it is. Not all such offers are ripoffs, but the Edmunds website puts it bluntly: “Not every extended auto warranty company is out to rip you off, but over the course of our research, we found that the honest ones are few and far between.”

For an impartial explanation of extended warranties, visit the Edmunds website at

As the Edmunds people explain, companies don’t really offer “extended warranties” in the sense of making a manufacturer’s warranty last longer. Those companies — the legit ones, at least — are offering what are called third-party warranties. Some are good, and some are not. Many are not needed in the first place.

Consumer Reports did a survey a couple of years ago. The average cost of extended coverage was $1,200, and 55 percent of all buyers never used it during the life of the policy. Consumer Reports advised potential buyers to set aside money in a savings account earmarked for car repairs. If needed, it’s there; if not, it’s extra cash.

We’ve written about extended warranties in the past. The subject is worth revisiting simply because of the volume of mail a vehicle purchase generates — our “new-to-us” vehicle this summer prompted 10 solicitations, all of which we declined because the manufacturer’s warranty is in effect for two more years.

The offers don’t always come by mail. Some car dealers will try hard to sell you a service contract as part of the deal.

Do the research and make your own decision; don’t be pressured into an add-on that you feel you don’t need. If you do buy a contract through a dealer, make sure the dealer forwards the payment — to the plan administrator or a third party — and get confirmation in writing.

If the service contract is underwritten by an insurance company, talk with people at the Maine Bureau of Insurance (1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or 207-624-8475) to see if any complaints are on file against the company.

Since U.S. Fidelis collapsed under the weight of lawsuits from a number of states, solicitors of service contracts seem to have softened their language — there’s less blatant trickery than before.

However, many still use an official-looking American eagle symbol on letterhead and envelopes, even though they have no link to any U.S. government agency. And most will proclaim this mailing is a “final notice.” If only that were true.

You may want to revisit the Edmunds website for a look at third-party warranty scams at

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

A new way to find out if you are owed life insurance benefits


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 15, 2016, at 7:29 a.m.

Now, where did I put that insurance policy?

Unfortunately, answering that question isn’t always as simple as looking in your home safe or a shoe box. The answer may come via a new Lost Life Insurance Policy Service announced recently by Maine’s Bureau of Insurance.

When someone dies, a surviving family member may not know that he or she had been named as a beneficiary in the deceased’s life insurance policy or annuity contract.

People using the new service will need to provide specific information about the deceased to the bureau, which will then reach out to 277 companies that already have agreed to take part in the locator service. The companies will then check their records to determine if a policy or annuity was in effect and whether the person making the inquiry has a valid claim.

The bureau is hoping the service is used by potential beneficiaries, executors and legal representatives of deceased persons who may have lived in Maine when a policy was written or an annuity sold.

On its website, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners or NAIC lists 13 other states that offer locator services. If consumers believe a policy may have been written in some other state, the NAIC site offers guidance in tracking down the details.

Maine Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa says he would like to see all insurance companies, large and small, take part in the new program.

“We will continue to encourage all companies to do the right thing by cooperating with the bureau, joining this effort, and assisting Maine consumers who have a lawful claim,” Cioppa said in a statement.

More information about the service can be found through the Bureau’s website, at Maine Bureau of Insurance, or directly, at Lost policy locator.

Individuals or companies with questions about the service can contact Violet Hyatt, consumer health care division deputy director, at 207-624-8453 or 1-800-300-5000.

We wrote earlier this year about allegations that some insurance companies balked at paying benefits that were owed to consumers. You can find that article on our blog at

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

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated


Posted July 18, 2016, at 6:30 a.m.

A consumer wrote to Northeast CONTACT recently, saying she was concerned about a series of offers to extend some of her magazine subscriptions.

What tripped her radar was a discrepancy in expiration dates; one notice said a certain magazine subscription ended in September, another indicated November. Return envelopes for two magazines both were addressed to the same post office box in Texas.

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely. has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

The fakers operate under so many names that finding and stopping them usually is a challenge.

In March 2015 the attorneys general of New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Texas sued a network of companies claiming to offer “one of the lowest available rates.” Prosecutors contended the actual charges were about twice those of legitimate subscriptions.

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

Simply because they want your credit card number so they can run up charges you haven’t authorized. You lose your money and don’t get your renewal.

In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against several individuals and companies that it said were deceiving consumers. The companies allegedly sent renewal notices for some 375 newspapers — none of which had consented — to people claiming to offer bargain rates on subscriptions.

In fact, the FTC found that those prices were a lot higher than regular rates. The agency is trying to get at least partial refunds for affected consumers.

Newsmagazine The Nation published the names of two dozen companies that it said were making unauthorized subscription offers. Read the list at

The magazine industry has long opposed efforts to change what it calls “advance consent,” under which subscriptions can be automatically extended unless the subscriber opts out. This is what the FTC calls a “negative option.” The agency looked at strengthening its longstanding rule on negative option but decided two years ago to leave it as is.

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at

Renewal services are good, bad and in-between. Some may offer real deals, while others say you’ll save while you’ll actually pay more. Bottom line with most of them is this: You’ll probably get your magazine, but be ready for any “introductory offers” never to return again.

Many consumers are abandoning print subscriptions and reading magazines online, a free service of MARVEL! a statewide service on any Maine computer. Bangor Public Library patrons can use Flipster to read magazines on all their devices.

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

Self-checkouts are prime targets for skimmer scammers


Posted July 11, 2016, at 6:04 a.m.

In the previous column on cloning of credit and debit cards at pay-at-the-pump sites, one piece of advice was key. If one card-reading device does not look like the others, it’s probably wise to avoid it.

“An illegal, fraudulent skimmer (the data-stealing device) is big and bulky and should stand out,” David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said. Leach advised consumer to be “situationally aware.” If something doesn’t look or feel right, trust your instincts and keep your card in your wallet.

As in the case of gas pump scams, other businesses that use self-checkout machines are susceptible.

Crooks design a skimmer to look almost exactly like the real machine; a thief can slide on the phony device in seconds and return later to collect the information from the cards of anyone who uses it in the meantime. They usually use the data to buy gift cards or transfer the data to blank cards.

“Skimmer scammers,” as one internet security wonk termed the criminals, have targeted automated teller machines or ATMs for years. ATM skimming grew more than 500 percent from 2014 to 2015 by some estimates.

Just last month, police investigated the discovery of skimmers at bank ATMs in Kennebunk and Wells.

Chris Pinkham, executive director of the Maine Bankers Association, was quoted in one news report as saying it’s “a sign of the times.” Just as none of us is immune to fraud attempts by phone or over the internet, we’re all potential targets of skimmer crooks.

The illegal devices have been found at self-checkout stands at Wal-Mart and Safeway, and no retailer is exempt from skimming attempts. Security experts say the roll-out of chip-embedded cards should slow the rate of skimming offenses; however, many consumers don’t have cards with chips, and many terminals are not yet chip compatible.

Even with chip technology in place, consumers should not be complacent. Thieves won’t give up being thieves because chip-and-PIN or chip-and-signature technologies apply another layer of security; they’ll look for ways to get around any protections that card issuers use.

They’ll also be focusing on the magnetic strips that are still a part of the cards. Those strips still contain sensitive material that thieves want. And the thieves will double down on data stolen earlier. With the spread of chip technology, security experts predict more sales among crooks of data obtained through breaches of retailers’ websites.

Consumers can buy radio frequency ID, or RFID wallets which purport to safeguard card carriers from hacking by passers-by. Some security experts claim aluminum foil works as well. Whatever safety measures you adopt, resolve to be less trusting when a credit or debit card leaves your hand.

Instead of giving that card to a restaurant worker you’ve never seen before — and having that person disappear for several minutes — seriously consider paying cash for your meal.

“Most restaurant owners are pleased to see cash, because it means they don’t have to split their profits [with major credit card companies],” BCCP’s David Leach said.

As always, monitor your financial statements closely — not using public Wi-Fi — and check your credit reports regularly. Before using an ATM, look for signs of tampering: things that don’t line up, mismatched colors or materials and graphics that seem “off.”

See if any parts wobble or rattle; those machines are sturdy, so you should not hear sounds indicating that anything is loose.

When entering a PIN, cover the keypad as best you can. Watch for hidden cameras that may be recording your every move. Be aware.

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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