Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Credit report concerns involve more than mailings to wrong address

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 22, 2015, at 10:18 a.m.

Click image for “Credit Reports and Credit Scores”

This was supposed to be an easy column to write. It started out focused on the recent agreement hammered out by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Equifax, Experian and Trans Union, the Big Three among credit reporting agencies.

Then, more than 300 letters ended up in a mailbox in southern Maine. More on that shortly; we’ll begin with the background on the agreement.

Consumers who have been diligent about checking their credit reports might have been upset to learn that some of those reports are less than accurate. It’s been estimated that as many as one credit report in 20 contains significant errors. Those mistakes could adversely affect consumers’ credit scores and therefore their ability to borrow money.

After months of negotiations, the reporting agencies agreed to changes in two major areas: the way consumers can dispute errors and the types of credit data that show up in their files.

Until recently, disputes over errors in a consumer’s files have amounted to “borrower beware.” The agencies typically took the word of a creditor that a consumer’s payment was late or that some other mistake was in the creditor’s favor. The negotiated change means the agencies will hire employees to make independent reviews of consumers’ disputes, rather than siding automatically with creditors.

The second change involves medical debt. The agencies have agreed to a 180-day delay before noting on a consumer’s credit report that the individual was late paying a medical bill. It’s not always clear which family member is liable for a particular bill or what coverage might apply; other factors beyond a consumer’s control might also delay payment.

This is a significant change for consumers, says Will Lund, Superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. “It makes sense to let that process settle out, to let the smoke clear, before a person’s credit history is potentially permanently impacted,” Lund told me last week.

Lund’s office has been investigating last week’s delivery of 312 letters containing other people’s credit reports to Katie Wheeler of Biddeford. Wheeler had requested a report from Equifax and was shocked to find the pile of letters from the agency. At first she thought a computer had printed hundreds of copies of her report; after opening a few, she discovered names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and other personal information of other people.

Lund said it was lucky the mailing ended up in the hands of an honest citizen, who turned them over to the agency responsible for enforcing Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Part of that law requires credit reporting agencies to register with his department. While Lund doesn’t expect any long-term fallout from the mailing, he said, “There are a variety of questions here relating to quality control.”

Lund said he hoped to have the documents delivered by courier to Equifax by March 23, once his office’s initial investigation was complete. He said he likely will have follow-up questions, once Equifax shares the results of its own probe with his office.

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.

Ignoring vehicle recall notices puts us all at risk

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 15, 2015, at 8:33 a.m.

Click image to sign up for email alert on your vehicle

If you’re one of the millions of vehicle owners who have received a recall notice and ignored it, this isn’t an attempt to shame you.

Think of it as a wake-up call. Up to one-fourth of us are riding in cars and trucks that may or may not be safe. What‘s unclear is why so many people take the risk.

By now, we’ve all heard of unintended acceleration, faulty air bags and quirky ignition switches. In fact, we’ve heard so much about so many recalls — a record number in 2014 — that we’re getting a little recall numb.

How could it be, we keep wondering, that these defects don’t get fixed? We ventured several reasons in this column back in April. Lack of awareness that a recall has been issued probably tops the list. Also, people move or sell vehicles privately, making delivery of recall notices challenging at best.

We should be past the point of mistaking a recall notice for just another hunk of junk mail. These days the envelopes must contain the words IMPORTANT SAFETY RECALL INFORMATION in bright red, capital letters.

The website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( nhtsa.gov) contains a search tool to determine if recall work has been done on a particular vehicle. Enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), type the pictured numbers to prove you’re not a robot, and the database will reveal whether a vehicle involved in a recall has had the required work done.

It’s estimated that 60 million vehicles were covered by recalls last year. That was nearly double the record at the time. As many as 35 million had not been repaired as of Jan. 1, despite more robust efforts by regulators and automakers alike to get needed repairs done.

Some consumers are reluctant to take their cars or trucks to a dealer. They may have experienced or heard stories about mechanics’ finding “other necessary repairs” not covered by the recall, costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. These people may believe they’re better off to delay recall work or forgo it entirely and hope their luck doesn’t run out.

Some members of Congress have considered applying more pressure by barring re-registration of vehicles with outstanding recall work. Imposing new requirements on states from the federal level is bound to cause friction, even in the name of safety.

Earlier this month, Hyundai recalled some Elantras to fix power steering systems that reverted to manual. The company said loss of the power assist has not been considered a safety defect in the U.S. if manual steering was maintained. Hyundai said the industry has “increasingly handled similar issues through safety recalls” and it was following suit.

For government listings of all recalls, visit www.recalls.gov/nhtsa.html. That’s a page at safercar.gov, where you can also search by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if a particular vehicle has been involved in a recall.

The homepage of our blog ( https://necontact.wordpress.com) contains a section called “Product Safety and Recalls” with links to pertinent websites. The Safer Car entry contains a way to list your car for notification of future recalls.

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.

There’s no doctor-patient confidentiality on the Internet

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 01, 2015, at 10:03 a.m.

Click image for Norton’s information on Internet Privacy

Internet watchers have long been warning consumers about the privacy implications of tracking. Now, one researcher says simple online searches for health information could be much more harmful than previously thought.

Timothy Libert was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication when he wrote his study last fall. Libert had developed a software tool he used to track Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, activity between websites and third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.

He found that 91 percent of visits to websites triggered HTTP requests to third parties. Say you were looking for information on influenza and you clicked on “severity in winter” to learn more. The site you visited probably sent your request on to one or possibly several third-party sites interested in your searches.

Seventy percent of the third-party transmissions included information about specific symptoms, diseases or treatments. Libert designed his study to deliver results from all websites, not just health-centered ones.

Libert dug deep into the data and found that Google is the clear winner in third-party requests, collecting user information from 78 percent of pages searched; other leaders are comScore (38 percent) and Facebook (31 percent). He found data brokers Experian and Acxiom on thousands of pages as well.

While many of us still think the Internet can be searched anonymously, Consumer Affairs writer Truman Lewis says the interests people demonstrate through searching might be linked with their names. This could happen if the info is accidentally leaked, if hackers or other crooks get access to the data, or if data brokers collect the information and sell it.

Libert’s research found that a small fraction (3.24 percent) of the pages he analyzed used secure HTTP. The rest used non-encrypted HTTP connections “and thereby potentially transmitted sensitive information to third parties.”

Libert cited a critical U.S. Senate committee report on the data broker industry in 2013. One company was reportedly using “proprietary models” to create and sell lists of “domestic abuse victims,” “rape sufferers” and “HIV/AIDS patients.”

Advertisers like to assure us their data collections are anonymous. But ad tracking can discriminate in subtle ways. Sorting searchers into a category of high spenders on medical needs means those consumers likely will have less to spend on non-essential consumer goods; the trackers might consider them “undesirable” and be less likely to advertise special offers or prices to them.

The ad industry is investing serious money in computer modeling, the better to sort consumers into “buyer” and “other” categories.

Don’t look for existing law to change things. The Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act contains strong language about the ways doctors and insurers handle your health information; those protections don’t apply to web searches.

Libert suggests that nonprofit entities — with nothing to gain from third-party exchanges — tighten systems so data leaks are avoided. For commercial concerns with a profit motive, regulators and legislators might see broad public support for applying rules about how various kinds of data may be used and how long they can and should be saved.

He also urges engineers to spend more time creating intelligent filters that keep sensitive data confidential.

Consumers might do well to use separate web browsers and email accounts with unique, strong passwords when investigating health issues.

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.

Easier to lose money than weight

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT Posted Feb. 22, 2015, at 10:09 a.m.

Here’s a recipe for making millions on unsuspecting consumers. Buy green coffee bean extract from China for about 50 cents per bottle plus shipping, sell each bottle for $30 to $48 and gross an estimated $16 million to $26 million.

To rack up those sales, you’ll need to pass off an unscientific study as “proof” people can lose “an astounding amount of fat and weight” simply by downing your product. Advertise that there’s no need to reduce calories or increase exercise; just swallow the extract along with the seller’s worthless promises. You’ll need some TV promotion to build credibility. An appearance on the “Dr. Oz” show should do the trick. Add a few websites with names that will trigger lots of hits for your wonder product, and you’re on your way.

Dr. Oz scolded at hearing on weight loss scams (click image for FoxDC.com story)

Just don’t get caught. The Federal Trade Commission said last year the “as seen on TV” campaign was false and misleading. In May 2014, the FTC charged NPB Advertising of Tampa, Florida, with making “false and unsupported advertising claims” and with failing to disclose its news sites and testimonials were phony. The case is pending. Then, in September, the FTC charged that Applied Food Sciences of Austin, Texas, used a study it should have known was flawed to make “false and unsubstantiated weight-loss claims” to deceive consumers and sell its extract. The company settled that case for $3.5 million. In September, Dr. Oz announced on his website the study had been retracted. “This sometimes happens in scientific research,” Oz wrote at the time. Last month, the FTC settled charges against Lindsey Duncan and two companies he controls: Pure Health LLC and Genesis Today Inc. Under the settlement, Duncan and his companies have to pay $9 million in consumer redress and refrain from making deceptive claims about green coffee bean extract or any other dietary supplement or drug product. Several critics of the settlement cited a “chilling effect” and voiced fears other manufacturers might hesitate to advertise true claims about products. In a statement, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said she and the other two commissioners supporting the settlement are “more concerned about other marketers’ incentive to emulate the defendants’ conduct, believing that they will ultimately retain the lion’s share of their ill-gotten gains.” You can review a timeline of the FTC’s actions at nutritionaction.com. On the homepage, look for the article titled “Watch Out for Deceitful Marketing of Dietary Supplements” under “Daily Tips.” Then do a web search for “green bean coffee extract.” We’re betting a wide majority of the 1.58 million hits are still touting weight-loss myths. To lose weight and keep if off, eat fewer calories and increase activity. To learn more about possibly getting some money back if you bought green coffee bean extract, visit the FTC website at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0008-getting-your-money-back.

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.

Reverse mortgages put borrower’s heirs at risk

CONSUMER FORUM 

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Feb. 15, 2015, at 7:23 a.m.

The smiling actor in the commercial suggests a reverse mortgage may be the answer to all your financial concerns.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, says many have been confused and frustrated by the rules that govern this unique type of borrowing. In a reverse mortgage, a home’s equity is used as a line of credit; instead of making payments, the borrower receives a monthly payment that draws down that equity.

One problem is that reverse mortgages cannot be taken over by a family member when the borrower dies. Many family members have complained to the CFPB about their inability to be added to the loan so they can keep the family home.

Another problem is the confusing process confronting many borrowers when they try to pay off their loans. When the borrower dies, heirs have three choices: sell the home, repay the balance of the loan or pay 95 percent of the assessed value.

Some people have faced delays in getting appraisals, had appraisals done improperly or seen home values inflated so they’ve had to pay more. Many also have reported problems getting responses to questions and concerns about the loans from the parties that service them.

A third problem involves property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. These are the borrower’s responsibility, and the CFPB found some time ago that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage holders are at risk of foreclosure for nonpayment of those overdue costs.

Some consumers reported problems stopping the foreclosure process when they tried to pay overdue taxes. Some said their loan servicers incorrectly stated that taxes were overdue.

HUD information for senior citizens

Most reverse mortgages are insured through the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, program. Changes apply to terms of HECM loans made after Aug. 4, 2014, so nonborrowing spouses may remain in their homes after the borrowing spouse dies.

That change is not retroactive, so the CFPB urges everyone with a reverse mortgage to do three things:

— Verify who is on the loan. Ask your reverse mortgage servicer what names are listed on the loan, and make sure the records are accurate. They may help over the phone, but we prefer consumers send a letter — and keep a copy — so there’s a written record of the inquiry.

— If only one name is on the loan, make a plan for the nonborrowing spouse. After the death of a spouse, the survivor may qualify for a repayment deferral. That would allow the surviving spouse to live in the home. If not, make a plan for other living arrangements. If you or your spouse is not on the loan but think you or he or she should be, seek legal advice right away.

— Talk to your children and heirs, and make plans for any nonborrower family members who live in the home. Make sure family members know what to expect when the reverse mortgage comes due. The mortgage servicer should be able to supply written information about options. Talk these over with your family and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

To read more in the CFPB’s guide to reverse mortgages, visit http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201409_cfpb_guide_reverse_mortgage.pdf.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issues a guide called “Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home.” It’s available online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide_RevisedOnline.pdf.

Consumers can receive a printed copy by writing to 35 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0035 or calling 1-800-DEFederBT-LAW (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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

If Bruce with a foreign accent calls, offers to fix your computer, hang up

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 08, 2015, at 3:01 p.m.

You get a call from someone claiming to be from Windows Helpdesk, Windows Service Center, Microsoft Tech Support, Microsoft Support or a similar sounding name.

The caller says he has “detected trouble with your computer” and can help you fix it. Red flags should be flying, because this is one of the most frequently perpetrated scams going. Microsoft warns consumers about these scams and offers tips for spotting fake calls.

The clues are all there. Most callers are heavily accented but give very American-sounding names. They claim your computer is infected with a virus or is operating “with a lot of errors.” They can fix this, they claim, if you’ll only turn over control of your computer to them online and send them a few hundred dollars.

It’s always a scam. No cold-caller could possibly know whether your computer is operating correctly. Those “errors” are typical operating vagaries a scammer tries to make you believe will damage your system if left alone.

Give up control of your computer to someone who calls out of the blue, and you run the risk of having your passwords, financial data and other personal details stolen. Thieves could use that information to drain bank accounts, ruin your credit and steal your identity.

If successful, they’ll probably call back and try to sell you worthless computer security software. Once a scammer succeeds, you can bet your phone number will go on other crooks’ call sheets.

The Federal Trade Commission tried to crack down on the tech support scam, as the crime has become known. In September 2012, the FTC froze the assets of 14 companies working the scam. The agency said the “repair” fees ranged from $49 to $450 and netted thieves tens of millions of dollars from innocent consumers.

That put a few crooks out of business, at least for a while. However, cheap international phone rates and sophisticated dialing programs offer criminals the means to exploit the fears of computer users.

If you let the scammers prattle on, they’ll urge you to open a Microsoft event utility viewer; it’s built into Windows and lists harmless errors legitimate repair people can use to fix operating problems. The crooks point to the “error” and “warning” messages as signs that disaster is about to strike, when in fact the computer may be operating just fine.

The caller might then try to trick you into visiting a phony website and downloading what appears to be a repair tool; in fact, it’s malware that can lock up one or more programs on your computer. The caller may later demand a ransom to allow those programs to work properly again. Or the scammers might install malicious software that turns your computer into a “zombie,” which in turn looks for more computers to infect.

If you receive such a phone call, the best thing to do is hang up. Never buy any software or services from these cold callers. Don’t give them a credit card number or other financial information. And don’t click on links at websites to which you’re directed or in emails they send you. And never turn control of your computer over to anyone other than a known representative of a company with which you already have a business relationship for computer service.

If you have given information, change passwords to your computer, main email service and any financial programs. Do an anti-virus scan to look for malware; if you’re unsure whether the scan has dealt with any problems, you may want to take the computer to a local company you trust to have it thoroughly checked out.

If you’ve shared personal or financial information with a scammer, you may want to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Get details from the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, credit.maine.gov, or call 1-800-332-8529 (1-800-DEBT-LAW).

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.

Identity thieves try to cash in during tax filing season

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2015, at 9:53 a.m.

click image to report scams, waste and abuse

Two headlines top the news near the start of this income tax season.

Thieves who steal Social Security numbers and other personal data do so in order to file phony tax returns and claim rebates they’re not owed.

And crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service officials are calling people and, in many cases, bullying them into sending money they don’t owe.

They use common names and all kinds of tricks. They may say they’re calling from the IRS criminal division. They might have technology that will spoof a caller ID, making it appear they’re calling from a real IRS office. They threaten those they consider easier targets — such as older people and recent immigrants — with fines, jail terms, job loss, even deportation.

The crooks do their homework before calling. They might know a person’s Social Security number — or at least the last four digits — and other personal details that lend credence to their pitch. Demanding immediate payment is a tipoff it’s a scam — the real IRS first would notify you by letter of any official action — and the agency never would demand payment by a debit card or wire transfer.

Losing a one-time payment is bad enough. Thousands of taxpayers have filed their income taxes only to find a crook has stolen their identities, filed fraudulently and collected their refunds illegally.

The IRS says after such discoveries, it takes an average of four months to get a refund to its rightful recipient. That person also needs to go through the hassle associated with identity theft. Perhaps ironically, prisoners’ Social Security numbers often are tempting targets, because inmates are less apt to be on top of their tax or banking activities.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, says it has received reports of 290,000 scam calls since October 2013, and nearly 3,000 victims have lost a total of $14 million. The IRS has been working to curb these crimes, saying it spotted 19 million suspicious returns since 2011 and prevented more than $63 billion in fraudulent returns. Read about ways to spot impersonators and report scams at Treasury.gov/tigta.

Consumers can and should take all the usual steps to prevent fraud: use firewalls and antivirus software, use strong passwords and change them often on all online accounts and reveal your Social Security number only when it’s absolutely necessary.

If you become a victim, the IRS says it wants to help. Read about the agency’s prevention and detection efforts at IRS.gov/Individuals/Identity-Protection.

The IRS is also warning consumers about unscrupulous preparers who push filers to make inflated claims. Often, these preparers will demand an up-front fee; they may also refuse to give the taxpayer a copy of the return. Both are things that legitimate tax preparation pros don’t do.

You may qualify for free help preparing your income tax filings. Seniors can check with AARP or the local agency on aging. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program gives free tax help to people who make $53,000 or less, have disabilities, are older or who speak little English and need help preparing their returns.

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 necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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