Archive for the ‘Consumer Forum’ Category

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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

Now, where did I put that insurance policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds weigh changes to make aggressive debt collectors back off

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 08, 2016, at 7:08 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2016, at 9:29 a.m.

As Maine gripes, so gripes the nation.

That twist on an old saying means the top consumer complaint heard by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, deals with bill collection. Of the roughly 400 complaints filed yearly with Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, about 100 concern debt collectors.

In late July, the CFPB made public a proposal to strengthen the rules governing debt collection.

When the proposals take effect, they would limit the number of times companies can contact debtors to six per week, and they would require debt collectors to have better information about debts before they collect them.

While collecting, companies would have to limit communications, explain details of the debt clearly and make it easy for consumers to dispute the debt. Collectors also would have to explain if debts are too old for the collectors to take them to court.

The CFPB said it has reasons for its proposed changes. When old debts are sold, the information about those debts may not be complete. Anything consumers have submitted might not be passed along, and errors can result.

The new CFPB rules would require collectors to verify information they have before contacting debtors.

William Lund is superintendent of Maine’s BCCP, and he said a lot of work went into the 200 pages of rules and reports the CFPB has made available to his office. Lund said eliminating indiscriminate calling by collectors, including the limit of six calls per week, is a positive step.

He also supports moves to verify debtor information, make disputing debts easier and limit actions by a collector during a dispute.

Lund said another change would affect the sales of debt.

“Sellers would be required to be more careful in what they sell and would have to provide more information as a part of each sale. That’s a positive proposal,” Lund said.

The new rules probably won’t be final for at least a year, and there’s criticism from consumers and the collection industry.

Some consumer groups say while the rules are a good start, portions may confuse consumers. If a collector calls and says, “this debt is too old to take to court, but you still have to pay it,” the debtor might wonder just how much clout the caller has.

Collectors say the rules apply only to third-party collection efforts. Groups including the American Financial Services Association and Consumer Bankers Association are first-party collectors, whom the CFPB may address separately.

Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the bankers group, said in a statement that CFPB recognizes that “consumers have very different experiences when dealing with banks as opposed to debt collectors.”

CFPB said it recognizes that “debt collection serves an important role in the proper functioning of consumer credit markets.” It is also trying to avoid any tightening of credit that over-regulation might trigger.

“If creditors are not able to collect rightfully owed debts, they will be less likely to extend credit to consumers,” Cindy Sebrell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, said.

Lund said the CFPB proposals apply only to the “larger participants,” the 175 companies that recover about more than $10 million per year, or about 60 percent of outstanding debt. Lund said depending on the wording of the final rules, Maine might adopt them and “fill in the gap” by having them apply to companies of all sizes.

You can find a list of licensed debt collectors at BCCP’s website at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/index.shtml. There’s also a link to the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Debt Collection under the heading “consumer tools.”

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.

Where to look if you want to check up on your dentist

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 01, 2016, at 8:59 a.m.

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The state of Maine has a new website for consumers with concerns about dental health professionals, maine.gov/dental.

Users found that the old website was a little tricky to navigate. It also did not provide as many services as its designers believe the new one will.

The Maine Board of Dental Examiners launched the website in partnership with InforME, the portal provider for state government. The site is intended to inform consumers and practitioners about rules and laws, provide licensing information and make policies affecting the dental examiner profession in Maine easily accessible.

As in the rest of the virtual world, the site should help licensees keep abreast of new rules, handle forms and applications online and update contact information.

“This new website should substantially improve how we connect with our licensees and the public,” Penny Vallaincourt, executive director of the Maine Board of Dental Examiners, said.

There’s also a complaint form that consumers can use. While it may be easy to dash off a criticism, the American Dental Association or ADA suggests that consumers with concerns first discuss them with their dentists.

Sometimes people in a state dental association can help. The Maine Dental Association has a contact form at its website, medental.org.

When consumers want to find out if disciplinary action has been taken against someone the Board regulates, a simple search is all that will be needed. Current actions will appear on the new website soon; meanwhile, consumers can search pfr.maine.gov/almsonline/almsquery/welcome.aspx?board=384 for that data.

The state’s new website is not intended to provide financial relief for consumers. A peer-review process offered by dental societies can resolve some disputes about what constitutes appropriate care and sometimes what fees are charged. Serious disputes may end up in civil court.

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 cure children of ‘nature-deficit disorder’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 25, 2016, at 6:50 a.m.

Parents concerned that their youngsters are spending too much time in front of screens have a place to turn: the great outdoors.

The places where many Maine people feel most at home may offer the best antidote for what The New York Times called “the fully automated child.” Many of our children are or seem to be so disconnected from the natural world that they’ve been branded as sufferers of something called “nature-deficit disorder.”

That’s not a real medical condition. The man who coined the term, writer Richard Louv, contends that a strong connection with the natural world has all kinds of benefits, including mental sharpness, lower levels of obesity, boosting overall health and simply having fun. Louv writes in several books that getting ourselves into natural settings is critical to our healthy growth and development.

Many who have studied the erosion of recess in schools will argue that time spent outdoors in addition to classrooms offers a balanced education. In the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote that she had been seeing more and more young patients who could not tolerate wind in their faces, had poor balance or lack of coordination or who cried or got upset in unfamiliar situations.

Hanscom wrote that lots of movement is the key to countering those problems. “I discovered that movement through active free play — particularly in the outdoors — is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children …” (emphasis hers).

Louv and Hanscom have found that their messages resonate with people and groups across the country. Schools, civic groups and volunteers from numerous organizations have set up environmental education programs for young people of various ages. Summer camps are bustling with young people running headlong into nature, many for the first time.

Groups in many states have joined a coalition called “No Child Left Inside” or NCLI. The goal is to get kids outside, moving as they need to, interacting with nature as they learn about it and themselves.

Portland Water District is among the 35 Maine members of NCLI. The district’s Sarah Plummer coordinates educational offerings of the district. “Getting kids connected to nature from a young age is important,” she told me. “It fosters a love and respect of the environment.”

And some classroom teachers must be wondering, “Why not here?”

Recess times have been shortened to put more emphasis on academics. When children fidget, we tell them to keep still. Hanscom argues that when children are inactive, their brains tend to shut down. She wrote in The Washington Post that 20 minutes of activity is not enough. “They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

As consumers, the ways we use our time may be among the most important decisions we make. Helping young people to put their time to its best use might be the best education we can offer.

“In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention,” Plummer wrote in The Washington Post. “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”

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.

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted July 18, 2016, at 6:30 a.m.

A consumer wrote to Northeast CONTACT recently, saying she was concerned about a series of offers to extend some of her magazine subscriptions.

What tripped her radar was a discrepancy in expiration dates; one notice said a certain magazine subscription ended in September, another indicated November. Return envelopes for two magazines both were addressed to the same post office box in Texas.

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely.

ConsumerAffairs.com has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

The fakers operate under so many names that finding and stopping them usually is a challenge.

In March 2015 the attorneys general of New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Texas sued a network of companies claiming to offer “one of the lowest available rates.” Prosecutors contended the actual charges were about twice those of legitimate subscriptions.

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

Simply because they want your credit card number so they can run up charges you haven’t authorized. You lose your money and don’t get your renewal.

In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against several individuals and companies that it said were deceiving consumers. The companies allegedly sent renewal notices for some 375 newspapers — none of which had consented — to people claiming to offer bargain rates on subscriptions.

In fact, the FTC found that those prices were a lot higher than regular rates. The agency is trying to get at least partial refunds for affected consumers.

Newsmagazine The Nation published the names of two dozen companies that it said were making unauthorized subscription offers. Read the list at thenation.com/renewalscam.

The magazine industry has long opposed efforts to change what it calls “advance consent,” under which subscriptions can be automatically extended unless the subscriber opts out. This is what the FTC calls a “negative option.” The agency looked at strengthening its longstanding rule on negative option but decided two years ago to leave it as is.

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at auditedmedia.com/resources/bylaws-and-rules/chapter-f-consumer-magazines/article-8.

Renewal services are good, bad and in-between. Some may offer real deals, while others say you’ll save while you’ll actually pay more. Bottom line with most of them is this: You’ll probably get your magazine, but be ready for any “introductory offers” never to return again.

Many consumers are abandoning print subscriptions and reading magazines online, a free service of MARVEL! a statewide service on any Maine computer. Bangor Public Library patrons can use Flipster to read magazines on all their devices.

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.

Self-checkouts are prime targets for skimmer scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 11, 2016, at 6:04 a.m.

In the previous column on cloning of credit and debit cards at pay-at-the-pump sites, one piece of advice was key. If one card-reading device does not look like the others, it’s probably wise to avoid it.

“An illegal, fraudulent skimmer (the data-stealing device) is big and bulky and should stand out,” David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said. Leach advised consumer to be “situationally aware.” If something doesn’t look or feel right, trust your instincts and keep your card in your wallet.

As in the case of gas pump scams, other businesses that use self-checkout machines are susceptible.

Crooks design a skimmer to look almost exactly like the real machine; a thief can slide on the phony device in seconds and return later to collect the information from the cards of anyone who uses it in the meantime. They usually use the data to buy gift cards or transfer the data to blank cards.

“Skimmer scammers,” as one internet security wonk termed the criminals, have targeted automated teller machines or ATMs for years. ATM skimming grew more than 500 percent from 2014 to 2015 by some estimates.

Just last month, police investigated the discovery of skimmers at bank ATMs in Kennebunk and Wells.

Chris Pinkham, executive director of the Maine Bankers Association, was quoted in one news report as saying it’s “a sign of the times.” Just as none of us is immune to fraud attempts by phone or over the internet, we’re all potential targets of skimmer crooks.

The illegal devices have been found at self-checkout stands at Wal-Mart and Safeway, and no retailer is exempt from skimming attempts. Security experts say the roll-out of chip-embedded cards should slow the rate of skimming offenses; however, many consumers don’t have cards with chips, and many terminals are not yet chip compatible.

Even with chip technology in place, consumers should not be complacent. Thieves won’t give up being thieves because chip-and-PIN or chip-and-signature technologies apply another layer of security; they’ll look for ways to get around any protections that card issuers use.

They’ll also be focusing on the magnetic strips that are still a part of the cards. Those strips still contain sensitive material that thieves want. And the thieves will double down on data stolen earlier. With the spread of chip technology, security experts predict more sales among crooks of data obtained through breaches of retailers’ websites.

Consumers can buy radio frequency ID, or RFID wallets which purport to safeguard card carriers from hacking by passers-by. Some security experts claim aluminum foil works as well. Whatever safety measures you adopt, resolve to be less trusting when a credit or debit card leaves your hand.

Instead of giving that card to a restaurant worker you’ve never seen before — and having that person disappear for several minutes — seriously consider paying cash for your meal.

“Most restaurant owners are pleased to see cash, because it means they don’t have to split their profits [with major credit card companies],” BCCP’s David Leach said.

As always, monitor your financial statements closely — not using public Wi-Fi — and check your credit reports regularly. Before using an ATM, look for signs of tampering: things that don’t line up, mismatched colors or materials and graphics that seem “off.”

See if any parts wobble or rattle; those machines are sturdy, so you should not hear sounds indicating that anything is loose.

When entering a PIN, cover the keypad as best you can. Watch for hidden cameras that may be recording your every move. Be aware.

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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