Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

New food-labeling rules aim to make Americans less fat

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 30, 2015, at 3:12 p.m.
The expert in statistics in his field at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said we need to think of diabetes as an iceberg.

Roughly 29 million Americans have diabetes, mainly Type 2, which is closely linked to weight issues. However, the CDC’s Edward Gregg said about 28 percent of adults with diabetes don’t know they have it, while another one-third of all adults are considered at high risk for diabetes.

The undetected cases represent the part of the iceberg that’s under water.

Experts say three factors account for the country’s increasing obesity problem: larger portion sizes, greater sugar intake and less exercise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking aim at the first of those factors.

Click image for additional FDA resources

The FDA is proposing new rules for companies listing the contents of their packaged foods. The Nutrition Facts Label first appeared 20 years ago. Last March, the FDA began the long process of changing it. The agency hopes consumers’ knowledge will grow in three broad areas:

Understanding the science: New labels will contain information about “added sugars,” update values of sodium dietary fiber and vitamin D and list amounts of potassium and vitamin D, now declared “nutrients of public health significance.” You’ll still see “total fat,” “saturated fat” and “trans fat” on labels, but “calories from fat” will disappear. The FDA’s reasoning: “type of fat is more important than the amount.”

Serving size and per package labels: The ways many of us eat and drink today have changed since serving sizes first were set two decades ago. New labeling rules require that packaged foods normally eaten in one sitting be labeled as a “single serving” and nutrient information be listed for the whole package. Some packages that may be consumed either in one sitting or multiple sittings will need “dual column” labels; those will indicate “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrient information.

The FDA has little bit of wiggle room on the serving size issue. “By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating,” its website states.

Updated design: Calorie counts and serving sizes will be more prominent, and the percent daily value of ingredients will move to the left, so it’s read first. The percent daily value, or %DV, tells consumers how much of certain ingredients they get from that food in the context of a daily diet.

Food manufacturers have not been idle. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute have been actively promoting voluntary front-of-label nutrient listings. The industry’s Facts Up Front website, factsupfront.org, suggested at the time the program was announced that “manufacturers may also include information on one or two nutrients to encourage,” a less robust revealing of information than the FDA label rules would require.

Not everyone loves the timing of FDA’s proposed changes. Back in 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the agency to require more prominent counting of calories and revealing the nutrient content of realistic serving sizes. In a letter to FDA last year, the center urged action to prevent “the possible unintended consequence that some consumers view serving sizes as portion recommendations.”

If FDA’s goal is to get Americans to eat less, four studies cited in the journal Appetite suggest the opposite. In one study, 78 percent of participants thought “serving size” meant the amount of food that can or should be consumed at a sitting. Taken together, the writers say the studies “suggest that the proposed nutrition facts label’s increased serving sizes may lead people who use this information as a reference to serve more food to themselves and others.”

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.

 

Children’s Leukemia Foundation folds amid fraud claims

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 02, 2015, at 2:24 p.m.

In August 2009, Neal Rubin wrote a scathing piece for The Detroit News about the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation, or NCLF.

It wasn’t the first time the writer took on the organization based in Brooklyn, New York. It raised money for years nationwide as a “charity,” though Rubin’s research turned up little in the way of charitable activity.

It did turn up complaints by the president of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan, William Seklar. His group has been spending at least 80 percent of the money it raises on getting information, financial aid and emotional support to families facing life-threatening blood disorders.

NCLF consistently has done much less, according to Rubin and more recently to investigators with the attorney general for New York state. Last month, New York’s attorney general filed a petition in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn to shut down the group and recover money the AG’s office said had been raised through fraud.

The petition cited what it called exorbitant fees for telemarketing and direct mail campaigns, more than 80 percent of the $9.7 million NCLF raked in from mid-2009 to mid-2013. Those court documents found a total of $57,451 in “direct cash assistance to leukemia patients” over the four-year period.

The petition said the foundation really was a one-man operation run by Zvi Shor, who started NCLF in 1991 after he lost a child to leukemia. Court papers showed Shor paid himself $595,000 in salary and $600,000 in deferred compensation from 2009 to 2013, plus a promised lifetime pension of more than $100,000 per year.

The foundation’s phone number is disconnected and its website has disappeared. Shor’s attorney, Douglas Gross, told the New York Times he thinks the AG’s claims are baseless.

“Mr. Shor began this charity and ran it with the best of intentions,” Gross said.

While the New York attorney general’s office includes a charities bureau, the state does not have a law that makes charities fraud a crime. Criminal prosecutions there usually involve tax fraud, embezzlement or larceny.

Records on file with Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Responsibility show NCLF was registered as a charity and thereby able to solicit funds in Maine in 2004. The records indicate the organization did not renew its license after that.

It’s important to remember that charitable giving works best when your donations do the good work you intended to have done. Giving to “sound-alike” charities may benefit the organizers and professional fundraisers most.

Keep in mind that very few legitimate charities “cold call” people. The good ones are happy to mail you information about their services and to explain what percentage of money raised goes to programs. The good ones won’t pressure you for a credit card number now; they’ll gladly take your check when you are ready.

Guidestar, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, are probably the most often used resources to check out charities. The Tampa Bay Times published results of a lengthy investigation of bad charities, which can be found at http://tampabay.com/americas-worst-charities/.

The Center for Investigative Reporting published similar findings at http://cironline.org/americasworstcharities.

Check charities licensed to solicit funds in Maine at maine.gov/pfr and see “licensee search and status” under Consumer Tools. Consider supporting charities that operate close to your home. There’s nothing like a personal visit to see how things run and to have your questions answered.

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.

State Consumer Protection Officials Announce New Publication:

Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing

Auto Guide 1st Ed Web

Click image to access booklet

GARDINER – Governor Paul R. LePage joined staff at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, an agency within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, in announcing the release of a new auto buying publication.  The Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing is a 32-page booklet available online or in paper copy free to Maine residents.

“Purchasing a car or truck can be an enjoyable experience, but it can also be complicated,” Governor LePage said.  “This new guide—the latest in a Downeaster series of consumer protection publications—provides important information and guidance to help individuals and families make sound financial decisions when considering a new vehicle.”

Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection Principal Examiner David Leach, who coauthored the new guide, emphasized that an automobile purchase is a significant financial commitment that often involves a large number of issues and considerations.  He outlined the topics covered in the guide:

  • Determining how much vehicle you can afford;
  • Understanding how to conduct auto buying research;
  • Learning how to check your credit reports before applying for an auto loan;
  • Determining the lowest Annual Percentage Rate or APR for your vehicle loan;
  • Understanding why “No money down” financing can be an expensive mistake;
  • Learning how to negotiate the best price for your new vehicle and trade in;
  • Preparing yourself for the “closing room” at the auto dealership; and
  • Evaluating the pros and cons of add-ons like extended warranty programs and credit insurance.

“This publication will help consumers become more comfortable with auto buying and financing by clearly explaining the process in an easy to understand, step-by-step format,” David Leach said.  “The thought of buying a car or truck makes many people uneasy.  This booklet provides Mainers with the tools and tips to understand and succeed in the process.”

An online copy of the auto buying guide, and several other Downeaster Common Sense financial publications, can be found at www.Credit.Maine.gov by clicking “Publications.”  Copies can also be ordered by calling the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527. 

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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.

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