Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

What to do if you think your car qualifies for the massive air bag recall

Posted May 24, 2015, at 10:06 a.m.

Good news and bad news time: I’m average.

The average age of a vehicle on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, so my 2004 Ford Taurus station wagon is right on the median (or is that mean? I never got those two straight). That’s not good news in light of last week’s massive recall of automotive air bags.

Federal law says manufacturers do not have to report suspicious accidents in vehicles more than 10 years old. There’s a bill in Congress to change that, but for now, there may be a lot more cars needing recall work than anyone can imagine.

At last word, we were still looking for the full list of vehicles involved in the recall of those Takata air bags, which could deploy with excessive force, shatter the housing and send shrapnel into the people whom the bags were intended to save. The recall is expected to cover 34 million vehicles, about one of every seven cars in the country. That’s the largest recall ever involving motor vehicles and one of the biggest recalls on record.

Many consumers who have tried to check their recall status have found there are no easy answers. They are anxious, and with good reason; six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty air bags, and owners will likely be impatient while regulators and manufacturers sort things out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to cooperate with its investigation. Federal regulators and Takata agreed last week on the expanded recall, and some observers predict the fines will disappear as Takata absorbs the high costs of both the recall work and inevitable lawsuits.

For the moment, consumers need to be prepared. Consumer Affairs’ checklist goes as follows:

— Find your Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on the vehicle or registration.

— To see if you are eligible, go to www.safercar.gov/vin and type in your VIN.

— If your vehicle is among those recalled, go to any dealer of your vehicle right away and schedule a recall repair appointment.

— Ask your dealer (or the vehicle manufacturer) for a “loaner” vehicle while waiting for parts to become available.

Manufacturers are not required to give you a loaner, but some will. And if your vehicle is not on the recall list, it might be added in the future. It’s important to keep checking.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website is another place to check (www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/index.html). Last week, that site was reporting very heavy usage, so be patient.

Experts are still looking for exact causes of the air bag problem, but excessive humidity is suspected to cause chemicals to deteriorate. Factor in climate when thinking of buying a car from Florida or other warm places.

You can check the safer car site to see if your vehicle has been recalled for other work as well. Carfax, which tracks all kinds of vehicle data, estimates 3.5 million cars for sale online in 2013 had undone, or “open” recalls. If a consumer sells a vehicle with an open recall privately, the buyer is unlikely to know about the needed recall work.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an email notification system for vehicles, tires and child restraints. Before signing up, look at the sample email message on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ’s website (www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/subscriptions/index.cfm#) so you’ll know what the real thing looks like. Expect scammers to exploit the recall for their own purposes.

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.

The perils of not reading terms, conditions

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted May 17, 2015, at 6:50 a.m.

Dear Company X:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding my inquiry about your negative option policy. I understand your policy states that “purchases and renewals are non-refundable” and that it was in effect when I signed up for your “club.”

I’m confused because your response states “membership cancellation can only be completed prior to the next renewal date.” Lucky me, I have plenty of time, since this membership I’m trying to get out of lasts until next February.

And, yes, when first signing up I checked the little box that says I understand and agree to all the stuff that’s in your policy. For your convenience, at the bottom of this letter I’ve included a checkbox that says you understand that most consumers wouldn’t read these things if trapped alone on a desert island with nothing else to read.

Here’s what gets me, Company X. A request to cancel has to be made at least five days before my plan expires. Even if I do that, with about nine months of “service” left on my current membership, I get nothing back?

I got into this situation because I was looking for a renewal notice before my last membership ran out. I noticed the renewal charge on my credit card bill, which arrived too late for me to cancel. Why don’t you guys do what the magazine companies do and send renewal notices eight or nine months before our subscriptions run out? Why instead is your policy to say nothing and be signed up and charged again?

Click to read: Tragic (Legal) Mistake 4: Continuity Programs: In the FTC Crosshairs

I’m told this is called a negative option policy. This practice by your company and many others has drawn attention from some people in high places. Six years ago, the Federal Trade Commission had its staff look at four kinds of negative option plans. The staff examined automatic renewals, including mine. They also looked at pre-notification negative option plans, such as book or music clubs that send a periodic notice that a consumer will receive another selection. If the person does nothing, the company ships the selection and charges for it. The staff also looked at continuity plans, where consumers agree up front to receive goods or services until they cancel the agreement. There also are free-to-pay or nominal-fee-to-pay plans: After a trial period, sellers automatically start charging a fee — or increased fee — unless consumers affirmatively return the goods or cancel the services.

Then, Company X, there’s the upsell. Some companies pitch their negative options, seal the deal, then offer an additional product or service for a few dollars more. Or they bundle offers, so two or more products or services may only be purchased together.

The FTC staff work led to passage in 2010 of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, or ROSCA. As you know, ROSCA bans negative option deals unless the seller does the following:

— Clearly and conspicuously discloses all material terms before getting the consumer’s billing information.

— Gets the customer’s express informed consent before making the charge.

— Sets up a simple way to prevent recurring charges.

I’m sure you folks at Company X wouldn’t diminish my consuming experience by failing to comply with the law just to make a few dollars more.

DirecTV incurred the FTC’s wrath by allegedly failing to make clear what the rates were when a nifty introductory offer was up. There apparently was some concern about the fees people were paying to get out of the deal, too.

Your company and others may be watching to see if DirecTV appeals. Or maybe you think it’s better for all businesses to be clear and conspicuous with their offers so we all know where we stand. Please check here if you agree — uh, that’s called affirmative consent.

Have a nice day.

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.

Phony medication call centers target military families

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 10, 2015, at 4:35 p.m.

Click image to read TRICARE’s April 10th article

The Defense Health Agency has been warning military families and veterans covered by TRICARE about scams involving “call centers.” Callers ask clients to reveal personal and medical information over the phone, with promises to help them get medications.

TRICARE is a civilian health care program run by the U.S. Department of Defense Military Health System. It offers benefits for active duty service people, retirees and their families. The program was formerly known as the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services, or CHAMPUS.

A call from a “call center” generally begins with the caller claiming to be from a sound-alike agency, “calling to tell you about a prescription pain cream you qualify for that TRICARE will cover.” The caller chats up the client — sometimes using personal information gleaned from Google or other sources — and asks for the name of the client’s doctor and other TRICARE information.

“TRICARE will never call beneficiaries and ask for personal information,” Defense Health Agency spokesman Kevin Dwyer said.

But others will, including a host of less-than-reputable companies that deal in compounded prescriptions.

A recent article on the Military Times website notes a huge increase in compounded medications, from $5 million in 2004 to over $700 million in the first three months of this year.

The boom in sales has attracted aggressive marketers, who cold call TRICARE clients, ask if they have certain medical needs and if so, whether they are interested in compound medications. The meds can cost a few hundred dollars to more than $9,000 for a prescription.

The Military Times article cites an ad on Craigslist searching for both customers and sales representatives. The ad claimed meds are “handcrafted for every individual” and formulated to help deal with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to chronic pain and scars.

Supporters of the compounding industry say the majority of its members are small companies that try to help patients and want a fair price in return. But the entry of hustlers during a time of changing regulation has put the industry under a microscope.

Starting May 1, Express Scripts, which administers the TRICARE pharmacy program, is under orders to screen every ingredient in compounded meds to make sure substances meet Food and Drug Administration regulations. TRICARE will cover those with allowable ingredients; others will have to be reformulated or will need prior approval to be covered.

[questions and answers about TRICARE’s new compound drug policy]

It’s unclear how many recent prescriptions may not be reimbursable.

In any case, those cold calls are likely to keep coming.

TRICARE officials say beneficiaries should never reveal personal or financial information over the phone. If they receive such a call, they’re urged to call Express Scripts at 866-759-6139 or 866-216-7096 or email fraudtip@express-scripts.com.

Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, alerted Northeast CONTACT to the cold calling. She urges all seniors who receive similar calls to avoid revealing personal and financial information.

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.

 

How to be sure that aid gets to Nepal disaster victims

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 03, 2015, at 10:20 a.m.

In Friday’s Bangor Daily News, readers learned Nepalese students at the University of Maine were raising money to aid victims of the earthquake.

The students plan to send donations to a hospital in Kathmandu. The father of one of the students works at the hospital, so they know their donations will go where they intend them to go.

In other words, the students are doing everything right. They know people working in Nepal. They’re familiar with the work done by the people to whom they’re sending the money.

However, some people who are in the business of helping in times of disaster say most of us should wait two weeks — maybe even four — before sending anyone money.

That’s because scam artists often set up websites that resemble legitimate relief organizations. Those scammers rake in thousands, even millions, in gifts from well-meaning people who simply react too quickly.

CDP’s mission is to transform disaster giving by providing timely and thoughtful strategies to increase donors’ impact during domestic and international disasters.Regine Webster is vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, or CDP. As its name might suggest, CDP looks at disasters at home and abroad through a lens that seeks to meet long-term needs. To decide whether to respond, its website says CDP looks for several things:

— Significant injuries, deaths or displacements.

— Call for national or international aid.

— Significant impact on a community’s livelihoods and capacity to respond.

— Significant impact on vulnerable populations.

— Heightened media attention.

Webster says even with what might be termed objective standards, she and others at CDP react emotionally to scenes such as those in Nepal. However, in a recent blog post titled “Watch. Learn. Then Act,” Webster wrote, “our mission is to opt for and encourage medium- and long-term needs over the understandable visceral, emotion-driven response” (emphasis hers).

Webster went on to relate that immediate needs — search and rescue, water, temporary shelter, access to medical care and so on — were being addressed by first responders. Over the course of coming weeks, longer-term needs will need to be met: safeguarding drinking water and basic hygiene, providing physical and mental health services, providing permanent shelter, rebuilding infrastructure and figuring out how people will get back to work.

Using the three points in her blog, Webster suggests potential donors do three things:

— Watch. The disaster began April 24. The scope of the disaster has begun to emerge, but more details are reported every day. Wait a few weeks and get a feel for the total picture of the disaster.

— Learn. Take two or even four weeks to see what the needs are and how responders are meeting them.

— Act. Webster predicts that after two weeks, the media will turn its bright lights away from one of the poorest countries in Asia. At that point, local and international nongovernmental organizations will be going full speed toward medium- and long-term recovery. Donors who make wise giving choices can be most effective at this stage.

Charity rater Guidestar Exchange calls CDP a “bronze participant,” citing transparency in its financial filings, leadership listings and mission statement.

Charity Navigator also helps sort the “real” charities from those that have sprung up overnight. Research any organization to which you plan to donate. Find some possibilities at Give.org.

For best results, choose a group that has worked in Nepal before. As a top official of Save The Children put it, “it’s not a place to break people in.”

Follow the money to make sure it’s not going to someone’s bank account, then decide whether you want to target your donation for a specific purpose.

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.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this report identified GuideStar as GuideStar Exchange, which is a GuideStar program that allows nonprofits to list information about themselves online. GuideStar does not rate nonprofit organizations.

Home repair scam artists grow more devious

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 19, 2015, at 9:08 a.m.

Click image for “legal guide to door-to-door criminals”

Scam artists posing as home-repair experts have been advertising in Yellow Pages and other media for years, trying to make themselves appear legitimate. Some lowlifes don’t even bother to try.

In Falmouth last October, police arrested a man they say hired a subcontractor to do estimates on home repairs. After getting those estimates, the man would visit the homeowners and collect a deposit of several hundred dollars, then they’d never see the man again. The subcontractor, who had no idea what the man was up to, answered an ad on Craigslist.

“People think if these guys advertise, they’ve got to be legitimate. That’s not necessarily true,” John Holmes, manager of the EZ Fix program at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says.

The program offers low-cost home repairs for seniors. In the seven years he’s managed it, Holmes has seen shady operators try to take advantage of trusting people.

Holmes says many consumers don’t ask enough questions, especially of people who go door to door offering fixes that may or may not be needed.

Many of his clients live alone and may have no one they feel they can turn to for advice. In some cases, Holmes told me, “they would hire the first person off the street who said, ‘something’s wrong with your house.’”

Under Maine law, door-to-door salespeople must be licensed. Always ask to see the license of anyone who knocks on your door offering to fix something.

Be doubly careful, because some disreputable contractors may break something, then try to convince you to pay them to repair it. They also may create a repair job as a way to get into your house and possibly steal from you, as was a case in Falmouth.

Click image for sample home repair contract required if cost exceeds $3000

Other “red flags” to watch for include the following:

— Special deals, offered “today only”

— Pressure to sign a contract or begin work right away. A three-day “cooling off” period is mandated under Maine law.

— A demand of full payment up front, especially in cash. Jobs estimated at more than $3,000 must be done under contract, and no more than one-third of the total may be required as a deposit.

— A lack of personal identification, such as a permit.

— No business name on work vehicles and no indication of roots in a community.

Holmes advises people who need home repairs to ask for three references; call the people who have had work done and ask if they’re satisfied. Also, insist on seeing the contractor’s proof of insurance. Ask to see a sample contract, including clauses that deal with resolving disputes.

“Any reputable contractor is going to hand over all of this,” Holmes says, adding that all consumers should expect no less.

Sticking a magnetic sign on a vehicle doesn’t create a business; that takes a good reputation built on a solid work ethic and real results. If you notice suspicious people hawking cut-rate home “improvements,” notify your local police agency.

Maine’s Consumer Law Guide is available on the Maine Attorney General’s website, at maine.gov/ag. Chapter 17 deals with your rights when building or repairing your home. Chapter 13 covers your rights when a salesperson contacts you at home.

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.

Don’t trust credit card companies to teach kids about finances

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 05, 2015, at 10 a.m.

Personal finance websites CardHub and WalletHub released a rather troubling consumer credit outlook last week.

In the credit card field, forecasters see a trend toward offering more credit to existing debtors, instead of trying to attract new borrowers in a recovering economy. The companies’ experts said zero percent balance transfer periods are stabilizing while zero percent purchase terms are getting shorter.

Trending upward are cash- and points/miles-based rewards, both showing hefty hikes over last year. And, with consumers looking for money to spend, cash advance fees have gone up more than 40 percent since the end of 2010.

CardHub’s website notes a striking lack of confidence in American consumers’ own financial literacy. In 2013, 40 percent of people the firm surveyed gave themselves a grade of C or lower. With a worried eye on the future, just over 70 percent of parents in that survey thought their children didn’t understand basic money management.

We’re concerned as consumer advocates in light of another report, released on April Fools’ Day, on financial education. This one suggested parents and teachers take hard looks at any and all financial education programs and “follow the money” to see whose interests are really being served.

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, keeps a close eye on the materials included in financial education offerings.

“Nowhere have I read the following message in that literature: ‘Save Your Money Until You Can Afford What You Want; Then Pay Cash,’” he recently told Northeast CONTACT.

“Bad money decisions haunt us for a lifetime.” Click image to learn more about the Walter Cronkite Project

People in search of unbiased advice suggest looking at something called the FoolProof Foundation’s Walter Cronkite Project. Leaders of that nonprofit say financial education usually includes the biases of the sponsors, charging that “[t]he financial industry goliaths who profit when a young person makes money mistakes largely determine what young people learn about money habits.”

FoolProof Foundation founder Will deHoo goes on to ask, “is a credit card company going to support a financial literacy program that teaches kids to pay their credit card bill in full each month? Is a bank going to sponsor a program that says, ‘Be sure and read about the billions in fines we’ve paid for hurting our own customers’? Of course not.”

FoolProof, found at foolproofteacher.com, offers a free, Web-based series of financial lessons that it says meet the needs of young consumers instead of the needs of what it terms “conflicted businesses.”

While such entities may sponsor a range of gatherings in the name of helping students, critics charge that their presentations often leave out key pieces of advice that would truly improve students’ financial awareness. After all, if consumers paid off their credit card bills in full every month, they would see a real change in their debt and resulting stress levels. Such a trend would cut into the bottom line of credit card companies in a big way; it’s no wonder their teachings generally don’t include a plea to pay in full.

We’ve written in earlier columns about financial education efforts such as the Jump$tart Coalition, found at jumpstart.org, and Maine’s annual conference on teaching financial literacy. Because Maine has no statewide requirement for financial education, local educators and parents might want to take a serious look at the offerings of FoolProof and other free programs that might come along.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers

%d bloggers like this: