Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

How to cure children of ‘nature-deficit disorder’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 25, 2016, at 6:50 a.m.

Parents concerned that their youngsters are spending too much time in front of screens have a place to turn: the great outdoors.

The places where many Maine people feel most at home may offer the best antidote for what The New York Times called “the fully automated child.” Many of our children are or seem to be so disconnected from the natural world that they’ve been branded as sufferers of something called “nature-deficit disorder.”

That’s not a real medical condition. The man who coined the term, writer Richard Louv, contends that a strong connection with the natural world has all kinds of benefits, including mental sharpness, lower levels of obesity, boosting overall health and simply having fun. Louv writes in several books that getting ourselves into natural settings is critical to our healthy growth and development.

Many who have studied the erosion of recess in schools will argue that time spent outdoors in addition to classrooms offers a balanced education. In the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote that she had been seeing more and more young patients who could not tolerate wind in their faces, had poor balance or lack of coordination or who cried or got upset in unfamiliar situations.

Hanscom wrote that lots of movement is the key to countering those problems. “I discovered that movement through active free play — particularly in the outdoors — is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children …” (emphasis hers).

Louv and Hanscom have found that their messages resonate with people and groups across the country. Schools, civic groups and volunteers from numerous organizations have set up environmental education programs for young people of various ages. Summer camps are bustling with young people running headlong into nature, many for the first time.

Groups in many states have joined a coalition called “No Child Left Inside” or NCLI. The goal is to get kids outside, moving as they need to, interacting with nature as they learn about it and themselves.

Portland Water District is among the 35 Maine members of NCLI. The district’s Sarah Plummer coordinates educational offerings of the district. “Getting kids connected to nature from a young age is important,” she told me. “It fosters a love and respect of the environment.”

And some classroom teachers must be wondering, “Why not here?”

Recess times have been shortened to put more emphasis on academics. When children fidget, we tell them to keep still. Hanscom argues that when children are inactive, their brains tend to shut down. She wrote in The Washington Post that 20 minutes of activity is not enough. “They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

As consumers, the ways we use our time may be among the most important decisions we make. Helping young people to put their time to its best use might be the best education we can offer.

“In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention,” Plummer wrote in The Washington Post. “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”

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.

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM 

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

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

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

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely.

ConsumerAffairs.com has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

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

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

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

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

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

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

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

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

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at auditedmedia.com/resources/bylaws-and-rules/chapter-f-consumer-magazines/article-8.

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

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

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

Self-checkouts are prime targets for skimmer scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to protect yourself from credit card skimmers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 04, 2016, at 2:25 p.m.

Three people were arrested recently in southern Maine, facing charges relating to a scheme to “clone” credit cards at gas pumps.

Police say the three had installed a machine called a skimmer, which steals card data that can then be transferred to a blank card and used for illegal purchases.

Those phony charges will show up on the true owner’s monthly statement, so it’s up to all smart consumers to check those statements closely. Disputing them will take time, and so will the process of getting a new card.

A better idea is avoiding any card machine that appears to have been altered.

Look around the card slot. If you see scrapes, scratches or torn labels that raise your suspicions, make your purchase the old-fashioned way: Pay with cash. You might see that one pump seems to stick out farther than the rest. That can be a sign that it’s been tampered with.

Thieves can install a skimmer in a matter of seconds. Even with attendants on duty, they can’t watch every pump every second. The crooks often use double-stick tape to put their skimmers in place. If the card slot looks odd, give it a wiggle. It might just drop right off the pump.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has classified skimming at gas pumps as an “emerging threat.” In Eagan Minnesota, police and most local gas station operators have teamed up in an effort to defeat the skimmers.

Stations that take part in the SkimStop program place stickers on their pumps, warning potential thieves that the pumps are checked daily. The stickers bear serial numbers, so they can’t be easily duplicated. If the seal on the security label is tampered with, the pump can be checked to make sure a skimmer hasn’t been installed.

Eagan police say thieves in one case captured the data of 157 victims. They used the data they stole to buy gift cards and made some $21,000 in illegal purchases.

“For the cost of some stickers, we can solve a lot of problems,” Officer Aaron Machtemes told me.

The SkimStop program began in March. “We haven’t had a skimming device in our city since,” Machtemes said.

At least one Maine chain of convenience stores tried another version of sticker, but company officials declined a request for an interview. Some stickers do not carry a serial number and are readily available for purchase online. Thieves can buy a roll of 500 stickers for about $70, do their dirty work and slap a new sticker on a pump, leaving consumers — and likely most store employees — none the wiser.

William Lund is superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Lund said the arrest of the three suspects in the Brunswick case shows that some thieves consider Maine as ripe for ripping off as anywhere.

“It all boils down to people in Maine realizing that we don’t get a free pass when this technology becomes common,” Lund said. He urged consumers to be observant and cautious when using credit or debit cards in any public setting. More on this topic next week.

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.

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall 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, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

How to be sure your support for veterans actually helps them 

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 13, 2016, at 7:13 a.m.

We received two letters in less than two weeks. Both were addressed with the same misspelling of our last name, a tipoff that we had not supported this charity in the past.

The appeal was ostensibly to help disabled veterans and included a calculator, notepad, window sticker and a check for $2.50, made out to me. Why any group gives money then asks for it back is unclear; because we’d never requested anything, we don’t have to donate or send their stuff back.

The “ask” was for $15, or I could opt to hand over our credit card number so the Disabled Veterans National Foundation could take more donations automatically, month after month. We declined to cash the check or divulge our card number.

click image to research charity

We researched the group on Charity Navigator, one of the top charity rating organizations. The foundation’s website says it “exists to provide critically needed support to disabled and at-risk veterans who leave the military wounded — physically or psychologically — after defending our safety and freedom.”

Charity Navigator says the group’s most recent tax filing shows 19.4 percent of its total expenses went to those programs to help vets. Some 72.8 percent of the total expenses went to fundraisers.

CharityWatch — formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy — using different scoring methods, gave the group an F rating in December 2015.

Looking at the most recent tax filing and audited financial statement, CharityWatch found that, of $8.6 million in expenses, 7 percent went to programs. Of the $8.7 million in total contributions, 89 percent went to fundraising.

CharityWatch rates 53 charities in its “Veterans and Military” category; 26 of them get a grade of F.

People who donate to charities want their money to help those the charity says it’s helping. We believe donors don’t usually think of fundraisers as especially deserving, but we may be wrong. As with all consumer decisions, research comes first.

The nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, at philanthropyroundtable.org, recommends a 2013 report titled “Serving Those Who Served” for people who want to make effective donations supporting veterans in need. It can be downloaded at the above website as a free PDF or ordered in print or digital formats from various vendors.

There’s also a website about all things military. It lists several questions, at military.com/spouse/military-life/military-resources/military-charity-associations.html, which donors might ask themselves before giving.

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.

 

Here’s how to get help reducing Medicare costs

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 06, 2016, at 7:19 a.m.
The Bangor Daily News performed a real public service in publishing the article headlined, “Not junk mail: This Social Security letter can cut Medicare costs.”

Many of the 2 million seniors who received the letter last month surely were skeptical. Their fraud detectors went off after reading, “you can get help paying your Medicare costs.”

But the letter was legitimate.

Social Security officials sent the letters to seniors telling them they might be eligible for a program called Extra Help. The program can cover up to 75 percent of prescription drug costs.

Other seniors may be eligible for a partial subsidy of drug costs. Still others may qualify for a Medicare Savings Program in the state where they live.

Betty Balderston is the statewide coordinator of Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, a program of Legal Services for the Elderly. She says Area Agencies on Aging generally advise Mainers to apply for Maine’s Medicare Savings Program. If they qualify, Medicare beneficiaries automatically are enrolled in the Part D Extra Help program.

“That way, Mainers not only get help with their prescription drug costs but also help paying for their Part B premium and possibly with co-pays and deductibles (depending upon which Medicare Savings Program they qualify for based upon income and assets),” Balderston said.

People with questions can get help from their Area Agency on Aging. A toll-free call (1-877-ELDERS1 or 1-877-353-3771) will direct seniors to their nearest agency.

Dyan Walsh, executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging or EAAA, told me it’s often difficult for seniors to tell the difference between scams and genuine offers of help. She said the agency has volunteers who can visit seniors who request help in sorting the good mail from the bad.

When people call EAAA, one of the first things they’re asked is whether they might qualify for the Extra Help program. Seniors who may have discarded their letters about the program should not feel embarrassed. Just call your Agency on Aging, and people there will be glad to help.

Many questions can be answered online. Visit medicareinteractive.org and search “extra help.”

The Medicare site (medicare.gov/your-medicare-costs/help-paying-costs/extra-help/level-of-extra-help.html) also has detailed information about the program.

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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