Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

How to detect scammers posing as government agents

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 02, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

It has been nearly 10 years since a phishing scam targeted Social Security recipients. That followed announcement of a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

As with many other messages asking consumers to reveal their personal information, this attempt was pegged to a headline. Following details of the increase, copied from a genuine Social Security Administration, or SSA, news release, the crooks inserted their falsehood: “We now need you to update your personal information” or see your checks stop.

Instructions to “confirm your records” by clicking a link only took victims to a bogus website, where many surrendered personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers, bank account and credit card information.

The thieves used that data for their own gain.

SSA officials reacted then as they have recently, with reminders that the agency never asks for personal or financial information by email or over the phone. Such attempts to get your information are always scams.

The agency urges consumers to do the following:

— Never divulge a Social Security number or account number to someone who calls or emails.

— Never wire money using a prepaid debit card, and never pay anyone who calls “out of the blue.”

— Check their status of disability benefits (if you have them) regularly and review your statements to be sure they’re correct.

If you’re called and pressured to provide information, perhaps by someone saying he or she is with law enforcement or other authority figure, hang up and report the call to the Social Security Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Report suspicious activity to the Social Security fraud unit online at oig.ssa.gov/report and to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1. The FTC can’t resolve individual complaints but can advise what next steps a consumer should take.

Medicare recipients also are frequent targets of scammers. Callers from “Medicare” tell consumers they need to verify information because new cards are being issued.

“Medicare will never call you asking for personal information,” said Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for the Maine Senior Medicare Patrol at Legal Services for the Elderly.

While Congress has ordered that Social Security numbers no longer be used on Medicare cards, the change won’t be fully implemented for a few years.

“In the meantime, Medicare consumers should continue to protect their Medicare numbers, just as they protect their credit card and bank account information,” Balderston said.

In the past, we’ve advised consumers to take Medicare cards during an initial visit to a health care facility; from then on, take a photocopy with your Social Security number blacked out; that avoids the need to carry your card which might get lost or stolen.

Another recent hoax email urged recipients to “get protected” and touted ways to help monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Both are lies, designed to prompt your click on links that might download computer malware or divulge your data.

You may spot a scam attempt by hovering your cursor over the address link of the fake email. That likely will show an address ending “.com,” instead of “.gov,” which it should.

If you found the message in your spam folder, ask yourself if your email program didn’t catch the fraud attempt and divert the message appropriately.

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 ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage, kemper.com, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at iii.org/article/how-can-i-locate-lost-life-insurance-policy.

You can check online at unclaimed.org and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at missingmoney.com.

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

The latest in hacker-proof babies, cool dogs and seeing like Iron Man

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 18, 2016, at 8:27 a.m.

A few years ago, most of us thought we’d never see the day that cars braked by themselves in emergencies. Soon, virtually every vehicle made will include this crash avoidance feature.

Insurance companies already reward drivers of such cars with lower premiums. And it’s hard to argue that avoiding a collision isn’t a major technological advance.

Consumers usually pay for such safety improvements when manufacturers all sign off; the cost of the upgrade is borne by future buyers. When the consuming public is left to its own devices, their spending priorities tend to be, well, diverse.

Consumer Affairs, at consumeraffairs.com, alerted us to a couple of safety devices worth noting. First-time parents may have read with alarm about hackers who hijack baby monitors.

They may want to check out a monitor made by Project Nursery that uses secure, wireless technology. It’s expected on the market in May.

Also for nervous parents is the self-installing child car seat. As its name implies, it’s goof-proof. That’s good news for the large number of people who put in the seats incorrectly.

If you need help, there’s an app for that.

Concerned about headphones blocking ambient sounds, such as a boarding call at the airport? The Economic Times of India found a new music player that’s strapped to back of your head. The sound vibrates through the skull bones and makes its way to the middle ear, which recognizes the vibrations as music.

“Don’t worry, the technology is perfectly safe,” the site gushes without elaborating.

Among the more notable gizmos for our pets might be a portable air conditioner that attaches to the back of a dog house. It spreads cooler air inside, keeping man’s best friend cool on sticky days.

Then there’s an on-collar monitor to let owners know what the dog has been up to all day — marketers say it can help to analyze behavior and health trends.

The site gadgetreview.com has some gems. There’s a black T-shirt that looks like the Iron Man suit, complete with “chest-mounted uni-beam that is powered by photons.” It collects light, then gives it off when the person wearing it goes into a dark room.

There’s other stuff you didn’t know you needed until you saw it advertised. Here’s the one-liner of the week, also spotted on the gadget review site: “Slippers with sound makes pretending you’re a giant robot fun.” Your results may vary.

A Web search of “best gizmos 2016” returns 156,000,000 results. We didn’t check very many, but we’re betting few of them offer much in the way of guarantees or even try to be “best.”

The takeaway is unlimited sources for those interested only in bright, shiny things. For those looking to truly make their lives better, research, shop around and invest wisely.

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.

 

Got old paint? Here’s how to get rid of it in Maine.

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 11, 2016, at 7:17 a.m.

When consumers buy paint, Maine environmental officials would like them to do three things: buy the right amount, find ways to use it up and reuse or recycle whatever paint is leftover.

For PaintCare information click map

Helping to make those goals possible is a program called PaintCare, which started several years ago by the paint industry’s trade association. Maine is part of the program, which includes seven other states and the District of Columbia.

At last count, there were about 90 sites in Maine participating in PaintCare. Consumers can bring unused paint in tightly sealed containers — no larger than five gallons — to one of the sites, where they’re collected on pallets.

Latex paint goes to a recycling facility in Illinois (there currently are no large volume recyclers in the Northeast).

Oil-based paint is considered a hazardous waste, although industry officials are talking with a recycler in Ontario about sending Maine’s oil-based paint there.

Somewhere in our basement is a package of drying agent; when added to the dregs of a can of paint, the stuff will harden it, allowing it to be thrown out with the trash. Multiply our leftover paint with that in basements across Maine, and you’re talking about a lot of paint. Industry officials estimate that 10 percent of all paint that’s purchased is not used and that a good deal of that could be reused or recycled.

The nonprofit ReStores run by Habitat for Humanity accept donations of paint, among other things. The stores sell the paint along with other donated home improvement goods at reduced prices. Other than a few informal recycling efforts, there seems to be little other reuse of our unneeded paint.

That fact prompted the start of the PaintCare effort, which kicked off Oct. 1, 2015, in Maine.

John Hurd of PaintCare says more than 1,000 pallet-size boxes of paint have been collected since then. He says PaintCare pays the bill for towns and cities that collect paint at their transfer stations and hold it for recycling. Hurd told me he’s interested in talking with other municipal officials about increasing the number of drop-off sites.

The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2013 that approved the PaintCare program. The law includes fees to help pay for the collection; those fees are 35 cents, 70 cents or $1.60 depending on container size, for paint that’s sold in Maine.

Both Hurd and Andrea Lani of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say they’ve had few questions about the fees.

Lani said she has made several site visits and that the program is running well.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things,” she said. “They’re moving a lot of paint.”

Visit the Department of Enviromental Protection website maine.gov/dep/waste/productstewardship/paint.html or call (800) 452-1942 for more information and a list of drop-off sites.

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.

Renting a car can be more dangerous than you think

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 04, 2016, at 10:31 a.m.

When renting a car, savvy consumers start the vehicle and let the air conditioning run while they check it over. Even if you’re planning a spring vacation in a normally cool place, it’s worth knowing at the outset that the AC works if you need it.

That’s just one part of a thorough inspection you should give that vehicle before renting. An unnoticed dent or ding at the outset might be found upon return, and you could be charged for damage you did not do.

Other things to do before you rent include the following:

— Have all ID with you, including your driver’s license and the credit card you used to reserve the vehicle.

— Read the credit card documentation to see if it includes insurance. If in doubt, pay for the additional insurance — instead of risking a whopping bill if you’re in a crash.

— Read the fine print. Tracking devices can prove you were speeding, incurred fees for driving out of state or exceeded mileage limits.

— Check that the keys open the trunk — and gas cap, if it’s the locking kind. Make sure there’s a jack, spare tire and lug wrench. Adjust all the mirrors and ask for another vehicle if a mirror is missing.

— Look for bugs, mud or debris on the windshield. If you find any, check under the seats for crawling things. You don’t want to share your ride with bugs.

Most consumer advocates advise against renting at an airport. You’ll generally pay higher rates than at nearby rental sites. If you’re just married and under age 25, make sure you can rent legally; otherwise you might spend your honeymoon at your destination airport.

Insurance coverage can be complicated and costly. Options at the rental counter could add up to more than $40 per day, equal to or greater than the cost of the rental itself.

Know what you have for coverage. Angie’s List found in a poll that 22 percent of respondents did not know if their auto insurance or credit card provided liability and collision coverage on a rental car.

Ask about a collision damage waiver, sometimes called a loss damage waiver. It holds the renter harmless if a rental vehicle is damaged or stolen. In most cases, the waiver will pay for the time the vehicle is out of service while it’s being repaired. The waiver will likely not apply if the damage was because of gross negligence, as in drunken driving.

Consumer Reports had some tips a couple of years back at consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/01/how-to-save-on-car-rentals/index.htm.

In summary, Consumer Reports recommended shopping early, shopping around and declining the “extras.” All consumer advocates agree you should pay for your rental by credit card, in case you need to dispute something. And return the car full of gas or you’ll likely pay high prices to have the rental agency fill the tank.

We’ve written before about recalls, and the rental industry is dealing with a new law requiring that rental cars be taken out of service after receiving a recall notice. The law takes effect June 1 and applies to fleets larger than 35 vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lets you search recalls by vehicle identification number, or VIN, at safercar.gov.

Visit the Consumer Affairs website at consumeraffairs.com/travel/car_rental.html for comparisons of 10 rental companies, including customer reviews.

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.

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

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.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

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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