Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

How to spot dirty tricks when buying a used car

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 13, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.
Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Buying a used car is one of the most stressful purchases a consumer can make. Here are some suggestions intended to ease the tension.

Check first with an established dealer. Maine’s used car dealers are bonded. Their vehicles must have valid inspection stickers, and sales include “clear” titles with no encumbrances. Shady Sales in Anywhere, Maine, might save you a few dollars, but there could be big headaches that follow.

Consumers can check with the attorney general’s office to see if dealers they’re considering have large numbers of complaints against them. Another source of information is the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the secretary of state’s office.

Mark Silk is chief detective at the bureau. He recommends consumers deal with known dealers, because “there are so many more protections” than dealing online or through private sales.

He suggests asking to see the title to the vehicle. It should indicate its prior use — taxi, fleet vehicle, police, etc. The title also might show some “red flags,” such as having been rebuilt after a crash.

The title also should show the odometer reading when the prior owner stopped driving it. If the odometer has been replaced, it must read either zero — with accompanying door sticker stating that fact — or the same mileage as the odometer that it replaced.

Silk also urges car shoppers to look closely at any used car, for the following signs of trouble:

— Watermarks in the engine compartment.

— Rust or flaking on the undercarriage.

— Stiff wiring under the dash.

— Mud, sediment or sand in door panels.

All of the above might be signs that the car is flood-damaged. If your nose is keen, you can likely smell trouble before you buy. In any case, have a trusted mechanic check out a car before you sign a sales agreement.

Mark also reminds buyers that there is nothing in Maine law that requires a dealer to charge a document fee. While those fees can run into hundreds of dollars, charging them is up to the dealer. If they are charged, they must be conspicuously posted.

Note to readers

A few parting words are in order, as this is the last column I’ll be writing for Consumer Forum. Since its founding in 1972, a lot has changed for Northeast CONTACT (originally named C.O.M.B.A.T., for Consumers of Maine Bringing Action Together). At its peak, our all-volunteer group helped walk-ins in need of mediation or other assistance; our assistance saw the return of thousands of dollars to wronged consumers. We counseled consumers on all manner of marketplace issues, spoke at meetings and took action when it needed to be taken.

As the information era came of age, demand for our services tapered off. Soaring oil prices forced the sale of our building eight years ago, and the volunteers who were the heart and soul of Northeast CONTACT found other ways to do good work.

Now, Jane and I are also finding a new avenue, one that we hope will assist consumers. Our hearty thanks go to those many volunteers I mentioned. We plan to continue our blog, https://necontact.wordpress.com. We’ll post news about scams, recalls and items we hope will be helpful; you can search the site for past columns. There will still be links to government and nonprofit agencies with resources beyond our means.

Finally, our thanks go to the people at the Bangor Daily News who’ve offered support, encouragement and the space for this column. And to those of you who have had kind words about the work we’ve done, you will remain in our thoughts.

 

How to avoid getting hit with a big fee to cash tax refund checks

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 06, 2017, at 8:07 a.m.
The Internal Revenue Service or IRS recommends that anyone earning $54,000 or less find out more about the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Last year 27 million Americans qualified, and the EITC average was more than $2,455. This year, officials say even more taxpayers will qualify.

As we’ve written earlier, IRS officials will be scrutinizing reviews to curb fraud; that will slow the pace of returns for those claiming EITC and the Additional Child Tax Credit. Once those refunds do arrive, some consumers will face hard choices about cashing those refund checks.

Those are consumers who do not regularly use a bank or credit union. Often referred to as “the unbanked,” these consumers use a variety of alternative methods to pay monthly bills and buy goods in other than brick-and-mortar stores.

In doing so, they rack up on average more than $2,400 per year in interest charges. Financial advisers say much of that interest burden could be reduced or eliminated.

Many of those advisers suggest turning first to local banks and credit unions. Responding to competition from multi-state banks, Maine-based financial institutions have been looking for ways to attract customers who until recently may have avoided traditional banks or credit unions.

“The playing field has expanded as far as low or no-cost banking services go,” David Leach, adjunct professor of banking at the University of Maine at Augusta, said. “I think the challenge for policy makers and politicians is to get the word out, through social service agencies and through governmental regulatory agencies, that there are low- and no-cost banking services.”

Lloyd Lafountain III is superintendent of banking for the state of Maine. He said Maine-based financial institutions combine the latest technologies with local knowledge.

“Many offer low-cost accounts, and consumers can avoid overdraft fees by not using paper checks and not opting into overdraft protection programs,” he said.

Check-cashing outlets, pawnshops and payday loans are costly substitutes for a bank or credit union. Federal and state officials have launched efforts over the years to attract consumers to the world of traditional banking. Still, millions of Americans find themselves using short-term, high-cost solutions to get past the next round of bills.

A lot of those quick-fix solutions are found on the internet, but many are less than economical. Few of them offer the kinds of customer service that face-to-face relationships can provide.

Tips on opening a low-cost account can be found online at maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/consumer/saveandprotectyourmoney.pdf.

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.

You can’t avoid death and taxes, but you can dodge identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 30, 2017, at 8:25 a.m.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service, the states and tax professionals teamed up to reduce incidents of taxpayer identity theft.


The crime occurs when a criminal steals your Social Security number and files a return in your name; the thief claims a refund to which he’s not entitled. When you file your legitimate tax return, the IRS flags it because it has already received a return in your name.

It’s believed that more diligent enforcement helped the IRS to prevent more than $180 million from going to fraudulent claimants. Now, officials are doubling down on their efforts to fight taxpayer ID theft.

The Federal Trade Commission has proclaimed the week of Jan. 30-Feb. 3 as Tax Identity Theft Week. The agency is offering a series of events to educate consumers and business people on ways they can minimize the risk of thieves stealing refunds.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, the FTC and Identity Theft Resource Center will hold a Twitter chat dealing with tax identity theft, ways to protect yourself and what to do if you are a victim.

A similar session is planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, about tax ID theft for service people, veterans and their families. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, FTC and the IRS will hold a tax ID theft chat for small business people. Find a link to these and other events at www.ftc.gov and look under “Latest News.”

Income tax season is big business for high-tech criminals, so be on guard for all sorts of scams. You might get a call from someone posing as an IRS official, seeking to “verify” tax return information by phone.

Other scammers may mention news reports of tax fraud and try to trick victims into “verifying the last four digits of their Social Security number.”

Others might pretend to be from the tax preparation industry … in short, they’ll use any tactic they think might work to fool consumers.

The crooks also take aim at business people. They might call human resources professionals and ask for information found on W-2 forms; a variation of that scam has an email message bearing the name of a corporate officer seeking personal information about an employee. Some scammers have posed as providers of software to trick tax preparers.

The variations are virtually endless. The IRS lists many of the most often used tricks at its website, www.irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Many tax pros suggest filing early, thereby giving the crooks less time to file fraudulently ahead of you. Once you have filed, you can check the status of your refund at www.irs.gov/Refunds.

You also can call the IRS Identity Theft toll-free at 800-908-4490 or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft.

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.

Items bought in Maine come with an implied warranty

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 23, 2017, at 9:18 a.m.

Tap Image for Link to Maine AG’s Consumer Info

An underused law in Maine might prompt many consumers to skip buying the extended warranties store clerks are all too eager to sell.

Maine’s Uniform Commercial Code includes an implied warranty of merchantability. It states that any goods sold in Maine for personal or family use should, under normal use, work as intended for up to four years after purchase.

When a clerk asks if you want a one-year extended warranty, you might ask, “Why? Don’t you think your product will work longer than a year?”

The law conveys an implied warranty that goods sold in Maine are not seriously defective. It applies to all new or used goods sold by merchants (except used cars), and the warranty must be recognized by the store that sold it and the manufacturer.

A consumer who invokes the implied warranty law must prove the product was purchased in Maine. It must have been used in accordance with any directions and not abused, misused or improperly maintained. Normal wear is not covered by the law.

According to the state attorney general, Maine is one of just 10 states with an implied warranty law on the books. You can find a summary of Maine laws dealing with sales to consumers at the AG’s website, maine.gov/ag/consumer/purchasing_goods/index.shtml.

A consumer from eastern Maine wrote to us recently, saying he has used the law successfully on several occasions. Currently, a 2-year-old smartphone is acting up. At first, he was told repairs would cost up to $200. Later conversations with store personnel suggested that when he brings it in, he might be given a refurbished phone as a replacement.

Our consumer wondered how the swap would be covered by Maine’s implied warranty law.

Martha Currier, complaint examiner at the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Information and Mediation Service, said the standard is the same: The law applies from the original purchase date.

When he receives the refurbished phone, Currier said the clock does not restart.

“If something happens to the refurbished phone within the next two years we can still mediate under the implied warranty,” she added. Consumers with problems can write to the Attorney General’s Consumer Information and Mediation Service, 6 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

You may also call (626-8849 or 1-800-436-2131) from 9 a.m. to noon or 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays or email consumer.mediation@maine.gov.

During our conversation, our consumer related the story of his girlfriend’s mother, who purchased an extended warranty on a large, flat-screen TV. After he told her about Maine’s implied warranty law, she returned to the store, asked for and received a refund on the extended warranty.

Our consumer also said the Maine law has prompted him to rethink large electronics purchases. He said he refuses to shop for such items in New Hampshire, even though such a purchase might save considerable money in sales taxes.

“Buying within the state guarantees you that protection [of implied warranty], and that peace of mind is priceless,” he said.

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, Brewe, MEr 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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.

Pillow seller’s puffed-up ad claims offer wake-up call to shoppers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 09, 2017, at 6:42 a.m.

The first network news coverage we saw on the MyPillow flap told only half the story.

Yes, the headline was that the Better Business Bureau, or BBB, had pulled the company’s accreditation and lowered its rating from A-plus to F because of the firm’s advertising practices. The story cited the “buy-one-get-one-free” offer that runs continuously, meaning the “sale” price was actually the “regular” price.

The BBB said it acted because of a “pattern of complaints” over the BOGO offer, both on TV and online. MyPillow owner and CEO Mike Lindell said he was “terribly disappointed” and that his goal is still to give “as many people as possible the chance to have a great night’s sleep.”

What the initial network news story did not cover was MyPillow’s settlement last fall of a lawsuit brought by consumer advocacy groups in California. The groups took issue with health claims on its website that MyPillow could help sufferers of sleep apnea, fibromyalgia and insomnia.

While admitting no wrongdoing, the company paid just less than $1 million in civil penalties and promised another $100,000 for homeless shelters. It also dropped the health claims.

Earlier last year, the company settled a suit brought by the state of New York, which claimed that MyPillow had knowingly failed to pay sales taxes on purchases by New Yorkers. Again admitting no wrongdoing, the company entered into a $1.1 million settlement.

Lindell said he’s planning to change his advertising early this year but has not said how.

Consumer Reports bought three MyPillows last fall. Testers gave them mixed reviews (www.consumerreports.org/mattresses/should-my-pillow-become-your-pillow/).

Consumers should know that the BOGO offer applied to the firm’s “premium” series ($90 for two pillows). The pillows sold in retail stores have no gusset, fewer loft levels and retail for $49 to $69 each.

If companies make false health claims and are warned to stop, they “are going to pay the price if they don’t comply,” Bonnie Patton, executive director of Truth in Advertising Inc., said. The Connecticut-based nonprofit fights misleading ads and investigates complaints ( www.truthinadvertising.org).

TINA published a report on its investigation of MyPillow’s ads in February of 2016.

Consumers who sleep restfully may scoff at others who have paid millions over the years seeking a good night’s sleep. But they may be among the millions of consumers who spend billions of dollars on health products, many with dubious claims and sketchy performance.

It’s not too late for resolutions in the early days of this year.

Let’s all promise ourselves that we’ll look hard at ad claims, scientific research, real testimonials and the experience of friends or relatives. Let’s put our skepticism on high and our spending on low, which searching for the true bargains in the marketplace.

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.

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