Archive for the ‘Legislative actions’ Category

How the new federal spending plan affects consumers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 28, 2015, at 9:41 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2015, at 10:14 a.m.

The omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this month included $1 billion for a destroyer. Maine’s congressional representatives hope the contract goes to Bath Iron Works.

Passage of the 1,600-page, $1.1 trillion bill headed off a possible government shutdown, prevented another of the stopgap spending plans our lawmakers have made famous and it allowed the national debt to go up. It also included a number of added-on spending items, known on Capitol Hill as “riders.”

Our thanks to writers at The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Atlantic for spotting these items of interest to many consumers.

— A 1 percent pay raise for federal employees, starting Jan. 1, 2016. President Barack Obama ordered the increase and the omnibus bill retains it. Military service personnel will receive a similar raise, while pay for generals and flag officers are subject to a pay freeze.

— Multi-employer pension plans. The benefits of potentially millions of retirees could be cut to try to save some pension plans that are in financial trouble. There are about 1,400 such plans, most of them in good shape.

— More money for food safety. Funding for the Food and Drug Administration goes up $37 million from last year. The Food Safety Modernization Act gets $27 million in new funds, and there’s a $5 million increase for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

— Some Dodd-Frank reforms reversed. The financial reform bill had required that banks “push out” some derivatives trading into other entities that did not have the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Banks won a reversal of that rule; Democrats say that, in exchange, they received more funding for enforcement efforts by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

— Internal Revenue Service cuts. Funding for the IRS drops by $345.6 million. The agency also is barred from singling out organizations that cite ideological beliefs to get tax-exempt status.

— School lunch programs. Flexibility goes to school districts that can “demonstrate a hardship” when buying whole grain products. There also are less rigid sodium standards until they are supported by “additional scientific studies.”

— WIC and potatoes. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for low-income families gets $6.6 billion, down $93 million from the last fiscal year. But WIC will have to guarantee that “all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase.”

— Tired truckers. The trucking industry won a round in the fight to require that drivers get two nights sleep before going back to work. That Department of Transportation regulation would have cut a typical driver’s workweek from 82 hours to 70. Maine Sen. Susan Collins had pressed for suspension of that rule in favor of more study.

— Safer tracks. The omnibus bill includes $3 million to expand inspection of about 14,000 miles of track used by trains that include oil tanker cars.

— Veterans reform bill funding. The bill that was passed last summer gets $209 million to deal with new costs, including added medical staff and expanding facilities. The Veterans Administration’s Office of the Inspector General receives an additional $5 million to keep investigating the “wait list scandal.”

— Light bulb choice. The spending bill limits enforcement of a 2007 law to end use of incandescent bulbs. While many consumers have switched, others may be able to find the older style a while longer.

— Saturday mail delivery. It continues, courtesy of the omnibus bill, despite years of efforts to cut the service to save money.

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.

New federal budget bill unleashes torrent of collection robocalls

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click image to access petition

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

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

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

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

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

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

For help with particular debt collection issues, call Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529.

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

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.

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