Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

How to avoid panic when disaster strikes

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 21, 2015, at 2:30 p.m.

Click image for daily tips

Every day we read about some new disaster somewhere in the world. The sidebar stories warn us to prepare, in case a similar calamity strikes near us.

The best piece of advice we’ve heard lately comes from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA. That advice is simply this: don’t try to do it all at once.

MEMA advises us to put together those items we have on hand for a basic emergency kit. If we’re list makers, we can start by writing things down. Then, we can gather what we have and decide what’s missing. We can buy a few things at a time when we’re out shopping, and we can wait for sales on things such as batteries and canned goods and stock up.

We like MEMA’s common-sense approach for a couple of reasons. It allows us the luxury of time to prepare in a methodical way. We knew during the middle of last week that a storm named Bill was likely to wash over Maine several days hence; some of us checked our emergency supplies then and put together replacement stocks as necessary.

MEMA’s piecemeal approach treats disaster preparedness as a process, rather than a single task. As such, that process will tend to keep emergency preparations on our radar; keeping those thoughts banging around in our brains allows us to add supplies, make plans, practice drills and do a number of other things that we might otherwise overlook.

Here’s another handy hint from MEMA: write down important phone numbers. Many of us can’t recite those numbers from memory, because our cellphones store them for us; one touch and speed dial does the rest.

When the phone battery dies and the ice storm takes down the cell tower, Grandpa’s old rotary dial phone can look mighty good … if we know what numbers we want to call.

Write down the numbers of family members, close friends, your insurance agent, financial pros and others you may want to reach in case of trouble. Drag out that list every couple of months and update it.

After getting things together and writing down key numbers, you might take the next step and talk this all over with your neighbors. MEMA advises that we get together over coffee and talk about ways we can support one another during an emergency. A neighbor set up a generator when the ice storm of 1998 knocked out one of our relatives’ power; at some point, we’d like to pay that favor forward.

You can read all of MEMA’s preparedness tips online. Visit www.maine.gov/mema and click “To learn more, visit Maine Prepares.” You can sign up to receive a daily tip by email or through social media.

For people who are not comfortable using computers, Kathleen Rusley of MEMA says local emergency management directors are great sources (that person is often the local fire chief).

“They are a fount of information; they’ll go out and talk to groups or contact the county or state offices for speakers,” she said.

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.

Elder abuse costs $2.9 billion each year

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 14, 2015, at 11:44 a.m.

Click image for list of aging and disability services

You may have seen news reports noting that June 15 is Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s appropriate to focus this column on elder abuse because it is probably the most under-reported of all abuses of consumers.

So, this is a call to action. People who suspect that our older neighbors or friends are being abused need to speak up.

On top of the huge physical and emotional toll of abuse and neglect are the financial costs, estimated at $2.9 billion per year. Cases of investment fraud targeting seniors are well documented; still, Mainers are victimized almost daily.

“Victims can quickly see their entire life savings depleted with little opportunity to recover financial stability,” said Judith Shaw, Maine’s securities administrator. Shaw, who also co-chairs the Maine Council on Elder Abuse, added that such losses can lead to physical and emotional health problems.

Shaw attended last Thursday’s Scam Jam, an awareness event that drew more than 300 people in Augusta. Shaw was among the speakers, and she came away with a renewed conviction about fighting elder abuse: We are all in the fight together, and collaboration among groups seeking to end abuse is critical.

Shaw said part of the natural aging process is a decreasing ability to understand complex financial concepts. Scam artists prey on this fact and use sophisticated social engineering tricks to try to separate seniors from their funds.

In marking this day of awareness, Maine officials listed warning signs of possible abuse or exploitation:

— Social isolation, depression and/or recent loss of spouse or partner.

— Declining health and ability to provide one’s own care.

— Inability to deal with complicated finances.

— Dependence on others for basic care and services.

— Willingness to listen to telemarketers or respond to solicitations from unverified charities or businesses.

In proclaiming Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Gov. Paul LePage urged Mainers to report suspected abuse of older Mainers. The governor noted in his proclamation that abusers are often family members or caregivers.

“Each of us has a responsibility to speak up and report concerns about potential abuse,” LePage said.

That’s especially true when seniors may be too embarrassed or afraid to speak up for themselves.

Suspected abuse can be reported to Adult Protective Services (maine.gov/dhhs/oads/aging/aps) by calling 800-624-8404

Another key agency is the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services (maine.gov/dhhs/oads), reachable by phone at 800-262-2232.

Legal Services for the Elderly (mainelse.org) can offer free legal help to socially and economically needy Mainers age 60 and over. Call the helpline at 800-750-5353. You can find links to Maine’s area agencies on aging at maine.gov/dhhs/oes/resource/aaa.htm.

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.

 

Home equity loan payback crunch looms as next housing crisis

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 07, 2015, at 12:18 p.m.

Click image for Federal Reserve publication

Home equity loans offer homeowners a line of credit based on the value of their dwellings. A lot of homeowners opened home equity lines of credit, or HELOC, between 2005 and 2008, when the housing market crashed.

Today, HELOCs from that period total about $265 billion. Those loans are about to enter what’s called the drawdown period, when they have to be paid back. And while many of those loan arrangements allowed borrowing for interest-only payments over a 10-year period, borrowers will face principal-plus-interest payments that could be sharply higher.

Experian, one of the big three credit reporting agencies in the U.S., released a report not long ago citing concern over the end-of-draw issue.

“Between 2013 and 2014, there was a 307 percent increase in the number of 90-day delinquencies on HELOC loans for borrowers that were end of draw, compared to just 29 percent that were not end of draw,” Experian said in its report.

The report noted that the percentage of HELOCs that are 90 to 180 days past due, termed “late stage delinquent,” has dropped 0.5 percent from its peak of 1.81 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, more homeowners have been using HELOCs; new loans in the fourth quarter of last year were up 81 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010.

Experian’s report doesn’t predict either good or bad results of this increased borrowing, but its study does caution consumers to do their homework.

Michele Raneri, Experian’s vice president of analytics and business development, put it this way: “This analysis is critical, as we want to not only help lenders prepare and understand the payment stress of their borrowers but also give consumers an opportunity to understand what the impact may be to their financial status and how to be better prepared for it.”

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or OCC, sounded the alarm back in 2012, when about $11 billion in HELOCs reached the end-of-draw period. At that time, OCC predicted the figure would be $29 billion in 2014, $53 billion in 2015 and as much as $111 billion in 2018.

The crunch for borrowers could come when the Fed loosens its grip on interest rates.

The Experian study concludes that, if there is a significant balance on a consumer’s HELOC and that consumer must start repaying, those new payments could put the borrower in a financial squeeze.

Banks that finance the HELOCs generally reach out to consumers six to 12 months before the end of the draw period. They remind consumers of the approaching change in payments and offer to discuss options. Many of those consumers likely will turn to refinancing. Such programs usually operate on a variable interest rate; as an official of TD Bank recently was quoted as saying, “Nobody knows what rates will do a year from now.”

Consumers may want to talk with their loan officers or a financial adviser before deciding. You can read more about HELOCs in the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home, published by Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Read it online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide.rtf. Help also is available from the Bureau by calling 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.

How to be sure that aid gets to Nepal disaster victims

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 03, 2015, at 10:20 a.m.

In Friday’s Bangor Daily News, readers learned Nepalese students at the University of Maine were raising money to aid victims of the earthquake.

The students plan to send donations to a hospital in Kathmandu. The father of one of the students works at the hospital, so they know their donations will go where they intend them to go.

In other words, the students are doing everything right. They know people working in Nepal. They’re familiar with the work done by the people to whom they’re sending the money.

However, some people who are in the business of helping in times of disaster say most of us should wait two weeks — maybe even four — before sending anyone money.

That’s because scam artists often set up websites that resemble legitimate relief organizations. Those scammers rake in thousands, even millions, in gifts from well-meaning people who simply react too quickly.

CDP’s mission is to transform disaster giving by providing timely and thoughtful strategies to increase donors’ impact during domestic and international disasters.Regine Webster is vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, or CDP. As its name might suggest, CDP looks at disasters at home and abroad through a lens that seeks to meet long-term needs. To decide whether to respond, its website says CDP looks for several things:

— Significant injuries, deaths or displacements.

— Call for national or international aid.

— Significant impact on a community’s livelihoods and capacity to respond.

— Significant impact on vulnerable populations.

— Heightened media attention.

Webster says even with what might be termed objective standards, she and others at CDP react emotionally to scenes such as those in Nepal. However, in a recent blog post titled “Watch. Learn. Then Act,” Webster wrote, “our mission is to opt for and encourage medium- and long-term needs over the understandable visceral, emotion-driven response” (emphasis hers).

Webster went on to relate that immediate needs — search and rescue, water, temporary shelter, access to medical care and so on — were being addressed by first responders. Over the course of coming weeks, longer-term needs will need to be met: safeguarding drinking water and basic hygiene, providing physical and mental health services, providing permanent shelter, rebuilding infrastructure and figuring out how people will get back to work.

Using the three points in her blog, Webster suggests potential donors do three things:

— Watch. The disaster began April 24. The scope of the disaster has begun to emerge, but more details are reported every day. Wait a few weeks and get a feel for the total picture of the disaster.

— Learn. Take two or even four weeks to see what the needs are and how responders are meeting them.

— Act. Webster predicts that after two weeks, the media will turn its bright lights away from one of the poorest countries in Asia. At that point, local and international nongovernmental organizations will be going full speed toward medium- and long-term recovery. Donors who make wise giving choices can be most effective at this stage.

Charity rater Guidestar Exchange calls CDP a “bronze participant,” citing transparency in its financial filings, leadership listings and mission statement.

Charity Navigator also helps sort the “real” charities from those that have sprung up overnight. Research any organization to which you plan to donate. Find some possibilities at Give.org.

For best results, choose a group that has worked in Nepal before. As a top official of Save The Children put it, “it’s not a place to break people in.”

Follow the money to make sure it’s not going to someone’s bank account, then decide whether you want to target your donation for a specific purpose.

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.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this report identified GuideStar as GuideStar Exchange, which is a GuideStar program that allows nonprofits to list information about themselves online. GuideStar does not rate nonprofit organizations.

A quick means to looking older — not in a good way

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 26, 2015, at 11:22 a.m.

After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.

However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.

WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.

The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.

In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.

Click image to view “Are teens heeding the warnings on tanning beds?”

Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.

An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”

Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”

Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.

In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.

A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.

Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”

Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.

Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”

The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.

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.

Unlocking the code – FTC Scam Alert

 

Unlocking the code

by Alvaro Puig
Consumer Education Specialist, FTC

Identity thieves may already have a lot of information about you – like your credit card number, the card’s expiration date, and your name, address, and phone number. With all that information in his hands, why would he call you? He’s after one vital piece of information – the security code on your credit card.

Read more >

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