Archive for the ‘Legislative actions’ Category

A quick means to looking older — not in a good way

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 26, 2015, at 11:22 a.m.

After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.

However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.

WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.

The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.

In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.

Click image to view “Are teens heeding the warnings on tanning beds?”

Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.

An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”

Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”

Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.

In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.

A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.

Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”

Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.

Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”

The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.

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.

Stiffer penalties sought for price tag cheats

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted April 12, 2015, at 11:25 a.m.
We’ve all seen the signs in stores. The wording may vary, but message is the same: Changing prices is a crime, and marking things down — to fool the people who check you out — amounts to stealing.

In Maine, the losses may amount to $147 million a year. That figure comes from Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. Picard told me the loss nationwide could run to $30 billion to $40 billion.

Despite the big numbers, Picard said that, until recently, “it was hard to get this issue to be taken seriously.” Under current law, most price-switching is treated as shoplifting. However, a bill before the Maine Legislature seeks to change that practice.

That bill, LD 310, An Act to Prevent Organized Retail Crime, would make price-switching a Class C crime. A Class C offense also would occur if two or more people, including store employees, act in concert to steal retail merchandise. The bill is focused on a tough and savvy element.

“These criminals are sophisticated,” Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, said. “They’re careful to go where the penalties are less severe,” she said, adding that similar crimes in New Hampshire seem less frequent because the Granite State’s lawmakers took a similar, tougher stand on price-switching.

Some thieves carry supplies of barcode stickers into stores they’ve targeted. After finding an item they want, they slap a barcode indicating a lower price over the real barcode. When scanned at the register, the lesser amount is charged. The thief may wait a few days, peel off the bogus sticker and return the item for a refund of the full price.

Surveillance cameras can trip up such efforts. One would-be thief stuck bogus stickers on three identical items, put two back on the shelf and checked out with the third. Loss prevention officers nabbed the thief, who apparently hoped the discovery of two other lower-priced items might divert suspicion.

Last September, a Tampa man was sentenced in federal court to five years in jail and fined $130,000 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Court documents showed Robert James Mercer, his co-defendants and others traveled to Wal-Mart stores in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado, Texas and other states to defraud the stores.

Mercer and the others purchased prepaid debit cards with cash and received legitimate receipts for those purchases. They altered the receipts to make it appear they bought merchandise. They then used the fake receipts to return items for cash — they obtained those items through the code-switching ploy.

Cynics might say huge retailers, such as Wal-Mart, can absorb such losses. Realists know that, sooner or later, the cost of all such theft is passed along to honest consumers. The crimes hit Maine’s treasury as well, in the form of lost sales tax revenues paid out when crooks make their returns.

Click image to read Wikipedia explanation of return fraud

Some retailers scan a driver’s license or other ID when giving a refund. The data that’s collected is sent to a company specializing in creating “returner profiles.” If it detects an odd return pattern, it notifies the retailer, which then may not accept returns from that consumer for a period of time. Privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the collection and retention of data.

Volk’s bill is pending in the Legislature. Whether it passes may depend in part on whether it carries a fiscal note — that is, whether there will be any cost to implement changes the bill would require.

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.

It’s a fine line between targeted marketing, cellphone stalking

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 08, 2014, at 12:43 p.m.

Here’s a quick question relating to your privacy: How much and what kinds of geotracking do you think are acceptable?

Geotracking is the science (some would say art) of finding a person by way of his or her cellphone or other electronic device. It could provide an answer to that nagging question, “Do you know where your teenager is right now?”

It could also be the means to all kinds of mischief.

The apps included with many of today’s smartphones — or available for purchase — can track those phones’ locations. Advertisers pay to know where phone users are in the lightning round of modern commerce; walk into some stores and almost instantly your phone receives info about products that someone knows you’ll want to buy there.

Knowing someone’s location in real time could be a lifesaver. Consider the aging parent diagnosed with dementia who wanders away from home. Tracking that individual might be critical. However, as with all technological advances, it can be abused.

That worries U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, who has introduced what he calls the Location Privacy Protection Bill. It would ban what amount to “stalking” apps that people might use to keep too close an eye on a loved one. That part of the bill has strong support from opponents of domestic violence.

The second part of Franken’s bill would require companies to get a person’s permission before collecting location data from the person’s phone or other device and sharing the data with anyone. That’s a huge concern for corporations, whose executives see big profit potential in “geolocation marketing” of their products.

The Franken bill first appeared in 2012. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but never reached the Senate floor. While concern over privacy and cybersecurity may bolster support in some quarters, observers seem split on whether it has a chance to pass during the current session of Congress.

Meanwhile, companies are making trackers available and affordable. One of them — designed with the daredevil in mind — includes an emergency button to be pressed only in case of life-threatening situations. Its maker says it can trigger a search-and-rescue operation.

Businesses have legitimate reasons for upping the geolocation ante, especially in web-based trade. Examples might include making special offers to consumers in specific locales, complying with varying state or local laws and trying to detect cyber criminals posing as clients.

MasterCard began testing a system in February aimed at reducing fraudulent card transactions abroad. A cardholder’s mobile phone needs to be switched on and be nearby when a card transaction occurs.

MasterCard says the procedure — which requires cardholders to opt in if they want it — should also reduce the number of legitimate charges that are denied.

Then there’s the profit motive. MasterCard said in one promotional piece that the new system would allow retailers with geolocation technology to ping your phone offering a special deal as you drive by, or upping your rewards points based on your location.

Look for such targeted offers for people carrying phones to increase. If other companies use the MasterCard model of asking consumers to opt in, we should get a clearer picture of just how much personal information we’re willing to divulge.

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.

Move over law – WABI-TV

Russ and Joy talk about and remind people of Maine’s Move Over Law. VIDEO

This law was put in place in 2007, and requires drivers to be cautious when passing emergency responders on the roadway. Drivers are to move over if possible or slow down when going by emergency responders.

Get a check from the federal government? Watch out for scams

CONSUMER FORUM
By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director, Northeast Contact
Posted Jan. 13, 2013, at 5:41 p.m.

Ever since the federal government said it would stop sending paper checks in favor of using direct deposit, scam artists have been hard at work. With a March 1 deadline for the switch coming, expect crooks to ramp up their illegal efforts.

Scammers call, write or email to phish for personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers. Once they have enough information, the crooks can claim a false identity and set up an account to receive federal payments.

The U.S. Treasury Department is getting the word out that the switch to direct deposit will be complete as of March 1. Everyone who receives Social Security, veterans’ or other federal benefits should be aware that many such payments will no longer be made by paper checks.

There are two basic reasons for the change, which has been under way for a number of months. Right now, about 93 percent of all federal payments are directly deposited. The Eastern Area Agency on Aging, or EAAA, estimates 3,200 recipients in Hancock, Washington, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties are still receiving paper checks. Fully implementing direct deposit is expected to save the government $4.6 million a month, or a billion dollars over the next decade.

It’s also intended to make those federal payments more secure. Federal statistics show that more than 440,000 Social Security checks were stolen in 2011, and $70 million in checks were fraudulently endorsed. Direct deposit is expected to cut those figures dramatically.

Dyan Walsh, EAAA’s director of community services, says about 300,000 Mainers use direct deposit. “It’s a safety issue,” Walsh says, “to reduce the chance of anything happening to those payments.”

However, there are still risks. Those scammers are already on the phones, claiming to be government officials and asking people for the information that will help the crooks steal their money. Be aware: Governments don’t call or email and ask personal questions; if someone calls you claiming to be a federal official and wants personal information, just hang up.

Instead, you should take the initiative to make sure your payments are secure. The Treasury Department has launched the Go Direct campaign, explaining and promoting the change at www.GoDirect.org. Information is also available through a toll-free call to 800-333-1795, from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. Eastern time, Monday-Friday.

You can arrange for direct deposit to your bank or credit union account, either by phone or online. Christopher Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, says people in the industry are ready to answer customers’ concerns, especially about safety.

“It’s remarkable how well [direct deposit] works,” he told me.

Visit your bank or credit union and ask questions directly, if using the phone or email makes you uneasy.

You may opt to receive your payments by way of what’s called Direct Express Debit Mastercard. There’s no charge to sign up for the prepaid debit card, and most services are free. Those who have not arranged direct deposit by March 1 will receive their payments this way.

When making the switch you’ll need your Social Security number or claim number; 12-digit federal benefit check number; amount of most recent federal benefit check; financial institution’s routing transit number, and your account number and type — checking or savings. Work with a trusted friend or relative if you need help.

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.

Consumer Forum: Oil dependence is a hard habit to break

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.

Every consumer in Maine has noticed the fluctuation in oil prices lately. In a tough economy, those changes have prompted a lot of conversation about the topic.

It’s easy to talk about the need to reduce our dependence on oil. Actually doing it will require more determination, resolve and effort than most of us have expended to date. The hard fact is, it’s a difficult habit to break.

About 10 days ago, a group called Environment Maine released a report calling for a 40 percent reduction in oil use in the state by 2030. Based on the Pine Tree State’s consumption of 37 million gallons of oil in 2008, that would project total oil use in 2030 around 23 million gallons.

That assumes aggressive measures to conserve, using alternatives and otherwise beginning to quench our insatiable thirst for petroleum products. The report said a “business-as-usual approach” would result in lower savings and a total consumption figure closer to 30 million gallons.

The authors admit all projections are just that; our actual results certainly will vary. The hard truth is for all the talk about the need to reduce consumption, the consuming public is all over the map in cutting use.

It’s a hard sell in Maine, for a variety of reasons. The biggest is our climate; long, tough winters require us to generate a lot of heat. More than 400,000 households — about 75 percent of all Maine homes — rely on oil for warmth. Some homeowners have turned to pellets and other biofuels for heat.

The last session of the Maine Legislature saw passage of LD 553, An Act to Improve Maine’s Energy Security. The law calls for cutting oil consumption statewide by 30 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050. The governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security has until Dec. 1, 2012, to figure out how to meet those goals. The bill became law without the signature of Gov. Paul LePage, who wants to ramp up use of natural gas, calling it plentiful and efficient.

Critics argue that trading one fossil fuel for another just delays inevitable shortages and invites higher costs by profit-hungry energy companies. Environment Maine and like-minded groups call for a laundry list of better practices, including electric vehicles, doubling mass transit ridership, promoting high-speed rail and bicycling, and retrofitting homes and businesses to save energy.

Our responses as consumers likely fall into one of two categories: “We’ve heard it all before” and “It won’t work here.” The first group has caulked, weatherstripped and insulated everywhere; they doubt the cost-effectiveness of further steps, which many can’t afford without government-sponsored incentives. The second group notes our geography, which discourages transport options geared to more populous regions. Some of us resent the carrot of electric cars dangled before us by makers who offer them only “in select markets.”

As a society, we’re conditioned to expect simple answers to most problems; we’re frustrated when geography and geopolitical realities defy easy solutions. So let’s think about making some hard decisions. Let’s let Maine’s policymakers know our feelings as they make the rules that will shape our energy policy for the future.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email contacexdir@live.com.

Check phone bill for illegal charges – Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM
By Russ Van Arsdale, Executive director, Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 25, 2011, at 5:20 p.m.

Here’s a request for a little of your time that could save you quite a bit of money. All you have to do is read carefully when you receive your phone bill.

Careful scrutiny can detect “cramming,” an illegal practice of adding charges to your bill for services you do not receive. The fake charges likely will have misleading or meaningless labels, such as “service fee,” “calling plan” or “membership.” They might be for products or services unrelated to telephones, including diet plans, travel clubs or yoga classes.

Sometimes small checks are included with your bill. These may appear to be customer appreciation promotions, when in fact the small print tells you you’re signing up for something, and will be billed monthly thereafter. Again, read carefully.

The fees are often small: $1.99 or $2.99 charges are not uncommon. The crammers count on the multiplier effect, tacking the bogus charges onto tens of thousands of bills.

The Federal Communications Commission fired a warning shot at crammers last week. The FCC released a tip sheet for consumers to help them root out the phony fees, including ways to dispute the fake charges.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the release builds on what his agency is calling the consumer empowerment agenda. It’s aimed at helping consumers use communications technology to its fullest without frivolous charges.

“We want to send a clear message: If you charge consumers unauthorized fees, you will be discovered and you will be punished,” Genachowski said.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued what are called Notices of Apparent Liability recently to four companies for allegedly charging customers for long distance services they had not requested. The notices named companies whose unauthorized billing appears to have gone on for months. Those named were Main Street Telephone at $4.2 million; VoiceNet Telephone, $3 million; Cheap2Digital Telephone, $3 million; and Norristown Telephone, $1.5 million.

The FCC tip sheet for consumers is worth a look. It contains useful advice such as the following:

  • Read promotional materials and forms carefully before signing anything. Be extra careful of offers you receive by phone.
  • Review your monthly phone bill carefully, looking for the sudden appearance of charges for new services. Make sure you’ve really ordered those services before paying, and don’t ignore small charges.
  • If you suspect you’re a victim of cramming, call and ask for an explanation of unclear charges. If you’re not satisfied with the explanation, call your phone company and ask to have incorrect charges deleted. If that doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the FCC for interstate or international calls. For problems with in-state calls, the Maine Public Advocate’s office can help. Contact the Federal Trade Commission for nontelephone-related charges on your bill.

As with many consumer issues, attention to detail is critical. Cramming is an ongoing problem, despite officials’ enforcement efforts; crooks will use all manners of deception and technological trickery to try to steal your money. Don’t let them succeed.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and NortheastCONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to https://necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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