Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Even Maine’s attorney general can’t avoid online thieves


Posted Nov. 30, 2015, at 9:47 a.m.

Maine’s attorney general knows firsthand what debit card fraud means.

Last month, a debit card belonging to Attorney General Janet Mills was breached. A spokesman for Mills said her credit union luckily spotted unusual activity and alerted Mills before the thief racked up too many charges.

CardHub says unauthorized use of debit and credit cards totaled $11.27 billion in 2012.

Card issuers and merchants absorb virtually all losses involving credit cards. Prompt reporting is critical to minimize a consumer’s liability in case of debit card breach or loss.

On Oct. 1, new rules made merchants liable for losses if they had not installed new card processing equipment. The aim was to make chip-embedded cards universally acceptable and to get outdated, magnetic stripe cards out of circulation. Card issuers embraced the chip, but many continue to require a signature as supposed authentication.

Technology known as chip-and-PIN, or personal identification number, boosts security sharply. A consumer can’t vary his or her signature; the consumer can change a PIN at will, and that’s an ability that consumers in about 80 other countries already have.

Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Retailers Federation, said recently that “continued reliance on an illegible scrawl isn’t good enough to protect American consumers when the technology of a secret, secure PIN is readily available.” Duncan’s remarks supported efforts by Mills and eight other attorneys general to get card issuers to embrace chip-and-PIN.

On Nov. 16, the eight attorneys general wrote to top officials of American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Citigroup, Discover, JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard and Visa. Their letter calls for swift adoption of chip-and-PIN.

“Absent this additional protection, your customers and our citizens will be more vulnerable to damaging data breaches,” they wrote. “This is something we cannot accept, and nor should you.”

Debra Berlyn is president of the Consumer Privacy Awareness Project, an effort to educate consumers about online privacy issues. In an OpEd in this newspaper on Nov. 23, Berlyn echoed the attorneys general’s call, charging that “the big banks and credit card companies are cutting corners to cut costs, forgoing the added PIN feature to reduce the amount they would have to invest in new cards.”

Critics contend that requiring PINs could cause confusion among some consumers. Given the need for a PIN in many modern transactions, we doubt serious problems would arise.

An official of the Federal Reserve Bank wrote in 2013 that signature verification in the U.S. was likely to continue for some time. Fraud on lost or stolen cards would likely not drop as a result.

“Fraud may even rise,” Richard J. Sullivan wrote, “as fraudsters, unable to commit fraud on counterfeit cards, begin to target payments with relatively weak security, such as transactions that allow signature authorization.”

The attorneys general say they’re not interested in mandating any particular technology in law. Instead, they call on the executives “as good corporate citizens” to use and continue using available technologies that offer the best protection to consumers.

A spokesman said Mills will be receiving a new debit card, one that includes chip-and-PIN technology. She’s hoping more institutions will make similar shipments in the near future.

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 or email

Heating season increases carbon monoxide poisoning risk


Posted Nov. 23, 2015, at 8:50 a.m.
During the past week, the Maine Emergency Management Agency issued two safety tips, each involving carbon monoxide detectors.

As colder weather sets in, Maine emergency management officials want consumers to be sure they have an early warning system in case of a buildup of carbon monoxide. Any heating appliance can release carbon monoxide. If it reaches dangerous levels, our human senses will not detect this colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

Placement of the detectors is key. They should be in a central location outside each sleeping area of your home. If bedrooms are widely spaced, each area should have a carbon monoxide detector.

The agency also urges prompt action when the detectors sound an alarm. Maine Emergency Management Agency advises getting quickly to a place where there’s plenty of fresh air — probably outdoors — and staying there until emergency personnel say it’s safe to return.

Having emergency phone numbers near the phone also is critical, in case someone in your home is in trouble.

False alarms used to be common in older carbon monoxide detectors. As technology has improved, they’ve become less of a problem. It’s important to know what different sounds from a detector mean. Short beeps at regular intervals might indicate it’s time to replace the battery instead of a carbon monoxide problem. Periodic beeping might also indicate the detector is coming to the end of its useful life.

Many detectors contain an electrochemical cell that reacts when carbon monoxide is present. The chemical can degrade over time, making the detector less reliable. That’s why Underwriters Laboratories set a national standard that requires manufacturers to build in a system to alert consumers when a detector gets to the point where it can no longer detect harmful levels of carbon monoxide.

At the end of its useful life, the detector will chirp or make another sound to alert the consumer it’s time to buy a replacement. That also is a feature of smoke and heat detectors, which also are a must for staying safe.

Jake Johnson of the Bangor Fire Department says those types of detectors should also be replaced regularly; he says it’s good practice to buy new ones every 10 years.

Pushing the “test” button will sound an alarm showing that the detector has power and that the alarm works. Johnson says that sound does not necessarily mean the sensor is still reliable.

Some fire departments have smoke detectors available for people who cannot afford them. Jake Johnson says department members are more than willing to install them.

“We want to make sure if we’re giving these things out that they’re in the right place and that they work,” he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a lot of information about carbon monoxide at

If you have questions about either type of detector, call your local fire department.

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 or email

Susan Collins leads Senate push against medication “price gouging”


Posted Nov. 16, 2015, at 9:20 a.m.

Click image to reach Senate Special Committee on Aging

Recent news reports about sharply rising drug prices — some of which have followed mergers — have raised a lot of questions. Now the leaders of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging say they want answers.

Last week, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, announced a bipartisan investigation into the pricing of pharmaceuticals. They said in a statement that sudden, steep price increases — often on drugs that have been around for years — could inflate the cost of health care by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“Given the potential harm to patients across the country who rely on these drugs for critical care and treatment, the Senate Special Committee on Aging considers these massive price increases worthy of a serious, bipartisan investigation into the causes, impacts and potential solutions,” Collins said.

McCaskill said some of the pharmaceutical industry’s hikes “have looked like little more than price gouging.” She said consumers deserve to know the reasons for the big increases “that seemingly have no relationship to research and development costs.”

To get answers, the committee has asked Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin Inc. and Rodelis Therapeutics for information about price hikes.

The committee is especially keen on finding out why certain drugs, which until recently had been under patent protection, suddenly cost a lot more when another company acquired the rights to manufacture them.

For example, in their letter to Turing the senators asked about the price of a drug used to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis, a cost that rose from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. In their letter to the chairman and CEO of Valeant, they asked about three drugs. The senators wrote that the cost of those three drugs rose between 312 percent and 2,949 percent.

Critics of big pharma contend that a recent flurry of mergers is heating prices. Defenders say the industry is reeling from a kind of perfect storm. The expiration of patents on big-name products, lower productivity from research and development and the outcry of consumers for lower cost drugs are prompting more mergers. The mega-companies that emerge hope to gain traction in R&D while cutting costs and broadening their geographic presence.

Fortune magazine put the value of phama mergers at $221 billion for the first half of 2015, three times the figure for the same period in 2014. Companies may be hurrying to join forces while interest rates remain low, as well as to meet investors’ expectations.

Collins and McCaskill say they want to make sure consumers aren’t paying an unfair share of pharma’s growth. They’ve asked for relevant documents as soon as the four companies can compile them but no later than Dec. 2.

Senate hearings are tentatively set to start Dec. 9. You can reach staff at the Senate Special Committee on Aging online at or by calling 202-224-5364.

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 or email

New federal budget bill unleashes torrent of collection robocalls


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

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

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

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

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

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

Click image to access petition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New website compares cost, quality of health care in Maine


Posted Nov. 02, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

Click image to connect to website

Consumers in Maine have known for some time that there’s a lot of information about health care. However, it has often been difficult to use available data to make meaningful decisions about the quality and price of various medical procedures.

The quest for meaningful comparisons became easier last week. The Maine Health Data Organization, or MHDO, launched a new website, The keyword MHDO acting Executive Director Karynlee Harrington uses to describe the site is “transparency.”

The organization put together a consumer advisory group about 18 months ago. The agency asked consumers what they would like to see in a user-friendly website.

“One of the things they said over and over is there is information out there, but nobody’s asked consumers what they want,” Harrington said last week.

What the consumers wanted was a single site comparing common medical procedures, in terms of cost and patient ratings. The MDHO working group looked at various websites — private and governmental — to see what information was available and how well organized it was. The result is the website, which was launched last week.

The site allows users to compare average costs of more than 200 medical procedures at more than 170 health care facilities around Maine. In many cases, users also can compare quality ratings for facilities. Florida is the only other state in the country where Harrington says people can find side-by-side cost figures and quality ratings. Maine users can compare costs by facility and by health insurance companies.

Users of the website should remember that figures they find are averages — a number of factors can affect actual costs of a given procedure.

“It’s not like going out and buying an appliance,” Harrington said.

The MHDO urges consumers to consult their health care providers and insurers to get a personalized estimate.

The website was developed through grants from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Over time, more procedures will be added and the number of health care facilities will be increased. The website also will be accessible on additional devices.

Harrington describes the current website as a starting point. “It allows consumers to begin the conversation (with providers and insurers),” she said.

The MHDO is looking for feedback from people who visit the site. You can take a survey online when you visit the site, letting the agency know if it’s helpful.

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 or email

Hidden costs lurk in delayed interest payment offers


Posted Oct. 26, 2015, at 6:52 a.m.

The phrase “no interest until…” may not be what some consumers think.

Offers to pay no interest until the payment period ends are enticing. But you must pay off your balance in full when the time’s up, and you must not be even a day late on a single payment.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau puts the warning bluntly on its website: “If one of your payments is late, or if you don’t pay off the full balance by the end of the deferred interest period, you could have to pay all of the interest that you expected to be deferred.”

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, says consumers sometimes assume deferred interest means they won’t be charged interest on their credit card purchase until the deferral period ends. Lund says they might also expect a notice during month 11 in a 12-month deal, reminding them that full payment is due to avoid retroactive interest charges.

He says both assumptions are wrong.

“Interest and late fees are how banks make money, and they would not offer these plans if consumers all paid the purchase price fully within the promotional period and did not owe fees and interest,” Lund said.

The price of deferred interest, then, is ongoing borrower diligence.

In the case of major purchases — appliances, furniture, medical devices — a lump-sum interest payment could be several hundred dollars. Consumers can avoid such shocks by making sure of the terms of any deal before signing up, giving themselves plenty of time to meet the payment deadline, and not using that credit card for other purchases — making it easier to track a deferred interest balance.

Visit Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website, then search “deferred interest,” for several helpful tips:

— Pay off deferred interest balance before the deferred interest period ends. Some offers may be in weeks instead of months, so the end date may differ from your regular payment date.

— Try to pay more than the minimum payment every month. Paying the minimum likely won’t pay off your deferred balance in time; keep close track of your deferred interest balance.

— Ask your credit card company to apply whatever you pay above the minimum monthly payment to your deferred interest balance. The company doesn’t have to agree; if it does, the move might help you pay your balance before the deferred interest period ends.

Lund reminds consumers that interest rates are high, often nearly 30 percent per year.

Some consumers think federal or state laws cap those rates, but neither does. No state or federal law limits interest rates on credit cards issued by national banks, another reason to know terms of any deal before signing up.

Lund also notes that, although credit cards are offered through retailers, they are underwritten by nationally chartered, out-of-state banks. Laws of the banks’ “home states” apply, and Maine regulations don’t apply.

In case of problems, consumers may complain to federal regulators — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Staff of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer questions about protecting one’s credit. Call toll-free in Maine at 1-800-332-8529.

CardHub, which compares credit card offerings online, predicts credit card debt will rise a net $60 billion by the end of the coming holiday season. See the company’s study of deferred interest at its website

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 or email

Where to find help in fighting fraud from abroad


Posted Oct. 19, 2015, at 6:15 a.m.

Here are several recent news items about international scams:

— A federal court has temporarily stopped an alleged international pyramid scheme operated by Vemma Nutrition Co. The Federal Trade Commission alleges Vemma charged $500 to $600 for a membership and rewarded affiliates for recruiting more participants instead of selling products.

— The marketers of Procera AVH, touted as a way to counter memory loss and cognitive decline, will hand over $1 million to the FTC and another $400,000 to satisfy a judgment brought in California. FTC’s complaint charged that marketing claims were false, misleading or unsubstantiated and that the defendants claimed falsely a scientific study proved their product works.

— The FTC and the Florida attorney general’s office have filed a joint complaint against New York-based Lifewatch, charging the firm used illegal and deceptive robocalls to lure older consumers in the U.S. and Canada into signing up for costly medical alert systems. Last year, one of Lifewatch’s telemarketing firms agreed to a settlement with the FTC and Florida to stop making robocalls or engaging in other deception. Since then, FTC and Florida’s attorney general charge that Lifewatch just switched telemarketers and carried on with business as usual.

The items above came from the website of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, The network is an alliance of FTC and consumer protection agencies in 33 other countries. The goal of the groups is to help law enforcement agencies do a better job against international scams.

The website was launched in 2001. An updated version, which creators say is easier to use and tablet- and smartphone-friendly, was unveiled last week at International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s semi-annual meeting in the United Kingdom.

The website advises consumers who find themselves at odds with a foreign company to first try to resolve their differences directly. If that fails, the consumer can learn about ways to settle the dispute without formal legal action.

There’s also a complaint form to let member agencies know about the problem. If the issue involves a member of the European Union, help is available through each member’s consumer centres — visit and search “consumer centres.” File complaints that are U.S.-based with the FTC online at

Most International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network members offer consumer education activities during its Fraud Prevention Month, usually during February or March. ICPEN members also do ongoing International Internet Sweeps, identifying websites that may mislead consumers and flagging them for future educational or enforcement efforts.

Better enforcement can’t come soon enough for York County Sheriff William King. The sheriff, who speaks frequently to seniors’ groups about avoiding scams, told me that bringing legal action with serious penalties is the only way to curb cross-border scams.

International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s website echoes familiar warnings about scam offers, usually unsolicited. The best single piece of advice may be to trust your own radar. The old saying is still valid: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

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 or email


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