Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

How to protect yourself from the Yahoo hackers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 26, 2016, at 9:22 a.m.

At this writing, the full impact of the massive Yahoo data breach announced Sept. 22 was not known. However, it appears that hundreds of millions of consumers have had private information exposed in what’s believed to be the biggest data breach to date.

Yahoo said hackers had stolen information from at least 500 million users’ accounts, including names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and encrypted passwords. Yahoo said the breach took place in 2014. Technology reporters had written earlier that stolen data from millions of accounts were being sold on the dark web.

This latest breach comes at a time when cybercrime is booming. For years, crooks have opened phony accounts to buy all sorts of things using other people’s good credit records. The thieves don’t pay their bills, and the law-abiding consumers are left to dispute the charges. It can cost time and money to straighten out a credit report following such an incident.

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All of this leaves millions of consumers with another reason to review their credit reports. William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said recently all consumers should look for signs of trouble and act quickly.

“A single phone call for an alleged debt that’s not yours should be looked into since it may be the tip of a larger iceberg. Start by checking your credit reports,” Lund said.

Federal law says that each of the major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is required to provide every consumer with a free credit report once per year. Consumers can call each company’s toll-free phone number to request a free report.

To start the process online, go to the truly free website AnnualCreditReport.com. Don’t deal with online websites that promise “free” reports; you might be pressured into buying a credit report, credit monitoring or other services.

Anyone with concerns about her or his credit should pick one of the three reporting agencies and ask for a free report right away. In four months, ask another agency; four months after that, ask the third agency. Rinse and repeat forever.

If your credit report shows accounts were opened that you did not authorize, you may be a victim of identity theft. In fact, accounts may have been opened in the name of any family member. You can freeze your account, meaning no one else can open an account in your name. Get help from Maine’s BCCP by calling toll-free 1-800-332-8529.

Privacy experts say too many of us use too few passwords. A breach that reveals a password securing one account may put other accounts at risk. For that reason, it’s wise to change ALL of your passwords at least once per year. If you know an account has been breached, change right away.

Get more tips on safeguarding your personal and financial information from the U.S. Department of Justice at justice.gov/criminal-fraud/identity-theft/identity-theft-and-identity-fraud.

The nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, privacyrights.org, is another good resource.

Find details of the Maine law covering consumers’ rights when data breaches occur at maine.gov/pfr/insurance/faq/data_breach_faq.htm.

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.

 

Answering these text messages could lead to empty bank accounts

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 19, 2016, at 9:55 a.m.
gone-phishing

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Customers at some Maine banks and credit unions have been receiving fraudulent text messages. The messages are from scammers falsely claiming that there’s a problem with the customer’s account or debit card.

You can guess at the rest. There are frantic-sounding instructions to click on a link or phone number contained in the message. Failure to do so will cause some horrendous problem with the account, card or the customer’s credit rating.

The fix is easy, says the text. Just type in your account or card information and any passwords that you can remember. The sender will take care of everything — like emptying your account or running up bogus charges.

The message seems to come from a customer’s financial institution. On its website, the Maine Credit Union League said members of at least two credit unions in eastern and central Maine appear to have been targeted.

The phony text message said their debit cards had been compromised and to call either 844-334-6152 or 844-611-0709. People who called either number were asked for their card numbers and CVV codes. Divulging that or other personal or financial information is a bad idea.

The superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions says consumers should not fall for the hoax.

“Banks and credit unions will not text, call or email customers asking them to divulge account numbers, PINs or Social Security numbers,” Lloyd LaFountain III said.

LaFountain said if a consumer believes he or she has received a scam text, the consumer should:

— Not return the text or call the number provided.

— Never provide personal or financial information following such a request. Banks and credit unions will never request personal account information that way.

The Bureau of Financial Institutions has a consumer library containing hints about spotting and avoiding financial scams. There’s also a consumer specialist on staff who can answer questions about scams or accounts in general.

If you’re unsure after receiving an unsolicited email, call someone at the bureau, instead of clicking on anything in the message. The bureau’s phone number is 207-624-8570, and its website is maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/index.shtml.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection has published the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Gone Phishing. It also contains tips to detect and avoid scams.

Find it online at Credit.Maine.gov; it’s listed under “Consumer Guides.” Call the bureau (1-800-332-8529) with any questions about protecting your credit.

The Federal Trade Commission also has a wealth of information on its website. Learn about phishing and other scams at consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts.

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.

Free speech law doesn’t always protect social media bashing of bad service

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 12, 2016, at 10 a.m.
A pet-sitting company in Texas allegedly overfed a customer’s fish, allowing tank water to become cloudy while the customer was on vacation. Not a big deal, most of us might think.

But the owners had several other complaints, and on their return they wrote up a negative review and posted it on Yelp. The couple claimed they had been unable to talk directly with company officials, so they went to social media with their concerns.

The company struck back, filing a lawsuit claiming the couple had violated the nondisparagement clause in the contract they signed. A judge recently dismissed the $1 million lawsuit, ruling the clause was not enforceable.

This is news in the consumer world because it appears to be the first case in which a nondisparagement clause in a consumer contract has been ruled unenforceable. The company had tried to stifle bad publicity by including the clause; now the firm is on the hook for attorney fees.

Other attempts to silence consumers in advance have caused uproars. In an Aug. 10, 2014, blog post, we wrote about one case in which a hotel that hosted weddings threatened a “$500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review” written about the hotel. The media firestorm prompted the hotel to remove the stipulation from its website; the hotel said later it had been published as a joke.

Other businesses have used nondisparagement clauses with mixed success. Consumer advocates have advised people entering into contracts to look for terms such as “negative review,” “no-review policy” and “public comment” before signing.

Lawyers had been advising clients to tighten up their definitions of “disparagement” and to include language in contracts stating that exclusion of such clauses amounts to a deal-breaker. Momentum seemed to being going pro business and anti-free speech. Last fall, the issue made it to the halls of Congress.

A bill titled the Consumer Review Freedom Act was introduced, aimed at banning speech-stifling language from contracts. One of the Senate sponsors, Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said the bill would ensure free speech “and ensure consumers are free to share their views, free from intimidation.”

Because the nature of internet reviews is global, enforcement of nondisparagement provisions can vary greatly by location. Unless and until the Consumer Review Freedom Act becomes law, a wise consumer might think twice before publicizing any harsh reviews of businesses. Even if it is passed, the act would not shield bloggers or others from unfair or libelous statements.

Use the writer’s approach to any statement that’s questionable: “When in doubt, leave it out.” As too many users of social media have found out the hard way, once something goes online, it almost never disappears.

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.

Most vehicle warranty extension offers are ripoffs

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted Sept. 05, 2016, at 11:31 a.m.
When you buy a vehicle, you can almost set your watch by the time the offers for extended warranties start arriving in the mail.

Most of them convey a sense of urgency, especially if you’ve bought a used car or truck. The “Vehicle Document/Alert Notice” from the “Vehicle Services Department” cautions that an “immediate response” is needed, since “your factory warranty may have expired or will be expiring.”

Could they be a little less specific?

Probably not, because the mouse print notes that you probably got this letter through computer data generated by your purchase.

Is it a scam?

Likely as not, it is. Not all such offers are ripoffs, but the Edmunds website puts it bluntly: “Not every extended auto warranty company is out to rip you off, but over the course of our research, we found that the honest ones are few and far between.”

For an impartial explanation of extended warranties, visit the Edmunds website at edmunds.com/auto-warranty/understanding-extended-warranties.html.

As the Edmunds people explain, companies don’t really offer “extended warranties” in the sense of making a manufacturer’s warranty last longer. Those companies — the legit ones, at least — are offering what are called third-party warranties. Some are good, and some are not. Many are not needed in the first place.

Consumer Reports did a survey a couple of years ago. The average cost of extended coverage was $1,200, and 55 percent of all buyers never used it during the life of the policy. Consumer Reports advised potential buyers to set aside money in a savings account earmarked for car repairs. If needed, it’s there; if not, it’s extra cash.

We’ve written about extended warranties in the past. The subject is worth revisiting simply because of the volume of mail a vehicle purchase generates — our “new-to-us” vehicle this summer prompted 10 solicitations, all of which we declined because the manufacturer’s warranty is in effect for two more years.

The offers don’t always come by mail. Some car dealers will try hard to sell you a service contract as part of the deal.

Do the research and make your own decision; don’t be pressured into an add-on that you feel you don’t need. If you do buy a contract through a dealer, make sure the dealer forwards the payment — to the plan administrator or a third party — and get confirmation in writing.

If the service contract is underwritten by an insurance company, talk with people at the Maine Bureau of Insurance (1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or 207-624-8475) to see if any complaints are on file against the company.

Since U.S. Fidelis collapsed under the weight of lawsuits from a number of states, solicitors of service contracts seem to have softened their language — there’s less blatant trickery than before.

However, many still use an official-looking American eagle symbol on letterhead and envelopes, even though they have no link to any U.S. government agency. And most will proclaim this mailing is a “final notice.” If only that were true.

You may want to revisit the Edmunds website for a look at third-party warranty scams at edmunds.com/auto-warranty/third-party-extended-warranty-scams.html.

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.

Americans waste a ridiculous amount of food

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 29, 2016, at 11:31 a.m.

Click image to learn more at NRDC

The figures are more than troubling. With thousands of Mainers at risk of hunger every day and with so many resources used in the production of food, the amount that we waste is staggering.

By conservative estimates, 20 percent of all food we grow or buy is wasted. More pessimistic estimates put the figure at closer to 40 percent.

People who have looked into the issue say the figures don’t have to be even close to what they are.

In a white paper four years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council said getting food from the farm to our tables:

— Uses 50 percent of U.S. land.
— Requires 10 percent of our energy budget.
— Consumes 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the U.S.

The NRDC estimates that cutting food waste by 15 percent would help feed more than 25 million Americans every year. The Environmental Protection Agency says about 95 percent of the food we throw out goes to landfills or combustion facilities. In landfills, food breaks down to form methane gas.There’s more at the EPA website at epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has guidance about the differences between “sell by,” “use by” and “expiration” dates. Visit fsis.usda.gov and search “food product dating.”

Last fall, USDA and EPA set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. We’re always leery of benchmarks measured in decades, but this one seems to have a chance.

In 2013, the two agencies issued the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, helping people and groups find ways to reduce, recover and recycle food. By the end of 2014, the agencies said the challenge had more than 4,000 participants — well over its initial goal of reaching 1,000 participants by 2020.

College students are leading the charge through something called the Food Recovery Network. In a paper prepared for a symposium last spring, leaders of the five-year-old network wrote “we are challenging the status quo, making food recovery the norm and not the exception.”

We know this is an issue that resonates. People reacted strongly when Shaw’s Supermarkets stopped donating food to groups that work to feed hungry families. Shaw’s reversed field, at least partly at the urging of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has introduced two bills to reduce food waste.

A provision in the Food Recovery Act passed the House in December. It creates an “enhanced” tax deduction for grocery stores, farmers and restaurants that donate excess food to soup kitchens, food banks and the like.

The Food Date Labeling Act would replace the current, often confusing system with two labels: one citing quality through a “best if used by” designation and one stating when a food will become unsafe (“expires on”).

Consumers can help by shopping in our refrigerators first and using up leftovers. We can make meal plans so that we buy just what we need, and buy in bulk only if we’ll use things while they’re still good. We can store things that will last and use up what won’t. We can donate excess produce from our gardens to agencies that help feed the hungry.

We can urge food-centered businesses to follow our lead. We can urge our elected leaders to work for effective changes and steer away from rules for rules’ sake. We can think about the nutritional value of food and maybe overlook a bruise or brown spot. We can do more.

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.

If you have to borrow, here’s how to do it smartly

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 22, 2016, at 6 a.m.

In prior columns, we’ve discussed the need to shop around for low annual percentage rates or APRs when borrowing money. Either a hefty APR or a term that’s too long can add interest dollars that end up making that loan a bad deal.

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That point is among many made in the latest in the series called Downeaster Guides. The newest one deals with high-interest, high-cost loans. Like the others, it is published by Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.

Regular readers of this column know that earlier guides have dealt with a range of issues affecting credit. David Leach, principal examiner with the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection and co-author of the latest guide, says it explores alternatives to several types of high-cost borrowing, including:

— Buy-here-pay-here auto loans.
— Payday loans.
— Furniture and appliance loans.
— Private student loans.
— Non-bank finance company lending.

As an example, the guide points out that overdraft lines of credit usually carry annual percentage rates or APRs of 9.9 percent to 18 percent or a flat per-item fee. The guide goes on to say, “A line extension of $100 for a couple of days could result in finance charges under $1.00 — a big savings over a payday loan!”

A major component of consumer debt is acquired through credit cards. Many consumers have multiple cards, and many have more debt than they would like on more than one card. The guide advises that consumers might take one of two possible routes to whittle down those debts.

One strategy is called the “avalanche” method. Budget an amount to pay toward lowering your total credit card debt each month. Then, pick the debt with the highest APR and put the bulk of your budgeted amount toward eliminating that debt. Make at least the minimum payments on the other card bills.

When the highest APR bill is zero, use the same strategy on the amount with the next highest rate. Keep the same budgeted amount each month and knock down the balances one by one.

Another approach is termed the “snowball” method. Some financial experts say it focuses on the smallest debts first, while others say consumers focus on paying for the things that matter to them the most.

Leach is in the second school, saying, “Experts agree that the mortgage or rent gets paid first, followed by a vehicle loan payment, because in Maine, we need a car or truck to get to work!”

Some consumers will prefer the avalanche method, while others will find the snowball method more satisfying. The key is to choose a strategy and stick with it.

The Downeaster Common Sense Guide to High Interest/High Cost Loans details strategies to keep debt under control. The guide will be available soon at www.Credit.Maine.gov; click on “consumer guides.” A hard copy is available free to Maine residents by calling the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527.

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 new way to find out if you are owed life insurance benefits

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 15, 2016, at 7:29 a.m.

Now, where did I put that insurance policy?

Unfortunately, answering that question isn’t always as simple as looking in your home safe or a shoe box. The answer may come via a new Lost Life Insurance Policy Service announced recently by Maine’s Bureau of Insurance.

When someone dies, a surviving family member may not know that he or she had been named as a beneficiary in the deceased’s life insurance policy or annuity contract.

People using the new service will need to provide specific information about the deceased to the bureau, which will then reach out to 277 companies that already have agreed to take part in the locator service. The companies will then check their records to determine if a policy or annuity was in effect and whether the person making the inquiry has a valid claim.

The bureau is hoping the service is used by potential beneficiaries, executors and legal representatives of deceased persons who may have lived in Maine when a policy was written or an annuity sold.

On its website, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners or NAIC lists 13 other states that offer locator services. If consumers believe a policy may have been written in some other state, the NAIC site offers guidance in tracking down the details.

Maine Insurance Superintendent Eric Cioppa says he would like to see all insurance companies, large and small, take part in the new program.

“We will continue to encourage all companies to do the right thing by cooperating with the bureau, joining this effort, and assisting Maine consumers who have a lawful claim,” Cioppa said in a statement.

More information about the service can be found through the Bureau’s website, at Maine Bureau of Insurance, or directly, at Lost policy locator.

Individuals or companies with questions about the service can contact Violet Hyatt, consumer health care division deputy director, at 207-624-8453 or 1-800-300-5000.

We wrote earlier this year about allegations that some insurance companies balked at paying benefits that were owed to consumers. You can find that article on our blog at https://necontact.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/how-to-ensure-your-life-insurance-benefit-will-be-paid/.

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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