Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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 >

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.

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