Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

Home repair scam artists grow more devious

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 19, 2015, at 9:08 a.m.

Click image for “legal guide to door-to-door criminals”

Scam artists posing as home-repair experts have been advertising in Yellow Pages and other media for years, trying to make themselves appear legitimate. Some lowlifes don’t even bother to try.

In Falmouth last October, police arrested a man they say hired a subcontractor to do estimates on home repairs. After getting those estimates, the man would visit the homeowners and collect a deposit of several hundred dollars, then they’d never see the man again. The subcontractor, who had no idea what the man was up to, answered an ad on Craigslist.

“People think if these guys advertise, they’ve got to be legitimate. That’s not necessarily true,” John Holmes, manager of the EZ Fix program at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says.

The program offers low-cost home repairs for seniors. In the seven years he’s managed it, Holmes has seen shady operators try to take advantage of trusting people.

Holmes says many consumers don’t ask enough questions, especially of people who go door to door offering fixes that may or may not be needed.

Many of his clients live alone and may have no one they feel they can turn to for advice. In some cases, Holmes told me, “they would hire the first person off the street who said, ‘something’s wrong with your house.’”

Under Maine law, door-to-door salespeople must be licensed. Always ask to see the license of anyone who knocks on your door offering to fix something.

Be doubly careful, because some disreputable contractors may break something, then try to convince you to pay them to repair it. They also may create a repair job as a way to get into your house and possibly steal from you, as was a case in Falmouth.

Click image for sample home repair contract required if cost exceeds $3000

Other “red flags” to watch for include the following:

— Special deals, offered “today only”

— Pressure to sign a contract or begin work right away. A three-day “cooling off” period is mandated under Maine law.

— A demand of full payment up front, especially in cash. Jobs estimated at more than $3,000 must be done under contract, and no more than one-third of the total may be required as a deposit.

— A lack of personal identification, such as a permit.

— No business name on work vehicles and no indication of roots in a community.

Holmes advises people who need home repairs to ask for three references; call the people who have had work done and ask if they’re satisfied. Also, insist on seeing the contractor’s proof of insurance. Ask to see a sample contract, including clauses that deal with resolving disputes.

“Any reputable contractor is going to hand over all of this,” Holmes says, adding that all consumers should expect no less.

Sticking a magnetic sign on a vehicle doesn’t create a business; that takes a good reputation built on a solid work ethic and real results. If you notice suspicious people hawking cut-rate home “improvements,” notify your local police agency.

Maine’s Consumer Law Guide is available on the Maine Attorney General’s website, at maine.gov/ag. Chapter 17 deals with your rights when building or repairing your home. Chapter 13 covers your rights when a salesperson contacts you at home.

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.

Stiffer penalties sought for price tag cheats

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted April 12, 2015, at 11:25 a.m.
We’ve all seen the signs in stores. The wording may vary, but message is the same: Changing prices is a crime, and marking things down — to fool the people who check you out — amounts to stealing.

In Maine, the losses may amount to $147 million a year. That figure comes from Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. Picard told me the loss nationwide could run to $30 billion to $40 billion.

Despite the big numbers, Picard said that, until recently, “it was hard to get this issue to be taken seriously.” Under current law, most price-switching is treated as shoplifting. However, a bill before the Maine Legislature seeks to change that practice.

That bill, LD 310, An Act to Prevent Organized Retail Crime, would make price-switching a Class C crime. A Class C offense also would occur if two or more people, including store employees, act in concert to steal retail merchandise. The bill is focused on a tough and savvy element.

“These criminals are sophisticated,” Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, said. “They’re careful to go where the penalties are less severe,” she said, adding that similar crimes in New Hampshire seem less frequent because the Granite State’s lawmakers took a similar, tougher stand on price-switching.

Some thieves carry supplies of barcode stickers into stores they’ve targeted. After finding an item they want, they slap a barcode indicating a lower price over the real barcode. When scanned at the register, the lesser amount is charged. The thief may wait a few days, peel off the bogus sticker and return the item for a refund of the full price.

Surveillance cameras can trip up such efforts. One would-be thief stuck bogus stickers on three identical items, put two back on the shelf and checked out with the third. Loss prevention officers nabbed the thief, who apparently hoped the discovery of two other lower-priced items might divert suspicion.

Last September, a Tampa man was sentenced in federal court to five years in jail and fined $130,000 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Court documents showed Robert James Mercer, his co-defendants and others traveled to Wal-Mart stores in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado, Texas and other states to defraud the stores.

Mercer and the others purchased prepaid debit cards with cash and received legitimate receipts for those purchases. They altered the receipts to make it appear they bought merchandise. They then used the fake receipts to return items for cash — they obtained those items through the code-switching ploy.

Cynics might say huge retailers, such as Wal-Mart, can absorb such losses. Realists know that, sooner or later, the cost of all such theft is passed along to honest consumers. The crimes hit Maine’s treasury as well, in the form of lost sales tax revenues paid out when crooks make their returns.

Click image to read Wikipedia explanation of return fraud

Some retailers scan a driver’s license or other ID when giving a refund. The data that’s collected is sent to a company specializing in creating “returner profiles.” If it detects an odd return pattern, it notifies the retailer, which then may not accept returns from that consumer for a period of time. Privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the collection and retention of data.

Volk’s bill is pending in the Legislature. Whether it passes may depend in part on whether it carries a fiscal note — that is, whether there will be any cost to implement changes the bill would require.

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.

Don’t trust credit card companies to teach kids about finances

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 05, 2015, at 10 a.m.

Personal finance websites CardHub and WalletHub released a rather troubling consumer credit outlook last week.

In the credit card field, forecasters see a trend toward offering more credit to existing debtors, instead of trying to attract new borrowers in a recovering economy. The companies’ experts said zero percent balance transfer periods are stabilizing while zero percent purchase terms are getting shorter.

Trending upward are cash- and points/miles-based rewards, both showing hefty hikes over last year. And, with consumers looking for money to spend, cash advance fees have gone up more than 40 percent since the end of 2010.

CardHub’s website notes a striking lack of confidence in American consumers’ own financial literacy. In 2013, 40 percent of people the firm surveyed gave themselves a grade of C or lower. With a worried eye on the future, just over 70 percent of parents in that survey thought their children didn’t understand basic money management.

We’re concerned as consumer advocates in light of another report, released on April Fools’ Day, on financial education. This one suggested parents and teachers take hard looks at any and all financial education programs and “follow the money” to see whose interests are really being served.

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, keeps a close eye on the materials included in financial education offerings.

“Nowhere have I read the following message in that literature: ‘Save Your Money Until You Can Afford What You Want; Then Pay Cash,’” he recently told Northeast CONTACT.

“Bad money decisions haunt us for a lifetime.” Click image to learn more about the Walter Cronkite Project

People in search of unbiased advice suggest looking at something called the FoolProof Foundation’s Walter Cronkite Project. Leaders of that nonprofit say financial education usually includes the biases of the sponsors, charging that “[t]he financial industry goliaths who profit when a young person makes money mistakes largely determine what young people learn about money habits.”

FoolProof Foundation founder Will deHoo goes on to ask, “is a credit card company going to support a financial literacy program that teaches kids to pay their credit card bill in full each month? Is a bank going to sponsor a program that says, ‘Be sure and read about the billions in fines we’ve paid for hurting our own customers’? Of course not.”

FoolProof, found at foolproofteacher.com, offers a free, Web-based series of financial lessons that it says meet the needs of young consumers instead of the needs of what it terms “conflicted businesses.”

While such entities may sponsor a range of gatherings in the name of helping students, critics charge that their presentations often leave out key pieces of advice that would truly improve students’ financial awareness. After all, if consumers paid off their credit card bills in full every month, they would see a real change in their debt and resulting stress levels. Such a trend would cut into the bottom line of credit card companies in a big way; it’s no wonder their teachings generally don’t include a plea to pay in full.

We’ve written in earlier columns about financial education efforts such as the Jump$tart Coalition, found at jumpstart.org, and Maine’s annual conference on teaching financial literacy. Because Maine has no statewide requirement for financial education, local educators and parents might want to take a serious look at the offerings of FoolProof and other free programs that might come along.

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.

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.

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