Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

New website compares cost, quality of health care in Maine


Posted Nov. 02, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

Click image to connect to website

Consumers in Maine have known for some time that there’s a lot of information about health care. However, it has often been difficult to use available data to make meaningful decisions about the quality and price of various medical procedures.

The quest for meaningful comparisons became easier last week. The Maine Health Data Organization, or MHDO, launched a new website, The keyword MHDO acting Executive Director Karynlee Harrington uses to describe the site is “transparency.”

The organization put together a consumer advisory group about 18 months ago. The agency asked consumers what they would like to see in a user-friendly website.

“One of the things they said over and over is there is information out there, but nobody’s asked consumers what they want,” Harrington said last week.

What the consumers wanted was a single site comparing common medical procedures, in terms of cost and patient ratings. The MDHO working group looked at various websites — private and governmental — to see what information was available and how well organized it was. The result is the website, which was launched last week.

The site allows users to compare average costs of more than 200 medical procedures at more than 170 health care facilities around Maine. In many cases, users also can compare quality ratings for facilities. Florida is the only other state in the country where Harrington says people can find side-by-side cost figures and quality ratings. Maine users can compare costs by facility and by health insurance companies.

Users of the website should remember that figures they find are averages — a number of factors can affect actual costs of a given procedure.

“It’s not like going out and buying an appliance,” Harrington said.

The MHDO urges consumers to consult their health care providers and insurers to get a personalized estimate.

The website was developed through grants from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Over time, more procedures will be added and the number of health care facilities will be increased. The website also will be accessible on additional devices.

Harrington describes the current website as a starting point. “It allows consumers to begin the conversation (with providers and insurers),” she said.

The MHDO is looking for feedback from people who visit the site. You can take a survey online when you visit the site, letting the agency know if it’s helpful.

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 or email

Hidden costs lurk in delayed interest payment offers


Posted Oct. 26, 2015, at 6:52 a.m.

The phrase “no interest until…” may not be what some consumers think.

Offers to pay no interest until the payment period ends are enticing. But you must pay off your balance in full when the time’s up, and you must not be even a day late on a single payment.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau puts the warning bluntly on its website: “If one of your payments is late, or if you don’t pay off the full balance by the end of the deferred interest period, you could have to pay all of the interest that you expected to be deferred.”

William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, says consumers sometimes assume deferred interest means they won’t be charged interest on their credit card purchase until the deferral period ends. Lund says they might also expect a notice during month 11 in a 12-month deal, reminding them that full payment is due to avoid retroactive interest charges.

He says both assumptions are wrong.

“Interest and late fees are how banks make money, and they would not offer these plans if consumers all paid the purchase price fully within the promotional period and did not owe fees and interest,” Lund said.

The price of deferred interest, then, is ongoing borrower diligence.

In the case of major purchases — appliances, furniture, medical devices — a lump-sum interest payment could be several hundred dollars. Consumers can avoid such shocks by making sure of the terms of any deal before signing up, giving themselves plenty of time to meet the payment deadline, and not using that credit card for other purchases — making it easier to track a deferred interest balance.

Visit Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website, then search “deferred interest,” for several helpful tips:

— Pay off deferred interest balance before the deferred interest period ends. Some offers may be in weeks instead of months, so the end date may differ from your regular payment date.

— Try to pay more than the minimum payment every month. Paying the minimum likely won’t pay off your deferred balance in time; keep close track of your deferred interest balance.

— Ask your credit card company to apply whatever you pay above the minimum monthly payment to your deferred interest balance. The company doesn’t have to agree; if it does, the move might help you pay your balance before the deferred interest period ends.

Lund reminds consumers that interest rates are high, often nearly 30 percent per year.

Some consumers think federal or state laws cap those rates, but neither does. No state or federal law limits interest rates on credit cards issued by national banks, another reason to know terms of any deal before signing up.

Lund also notes that, although credit cards are offered through retailers, they are underwritten by nationally chartered, out-of-state banks. Laws of the banks’ “home states” apply, and Maine regulations don’t apply.

In case of problems, consumers may complain to federal regulators — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Staff of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer questions about protecting one’s credit. Call toll-free in Maine at 1-800-332-8529.

CardHub, which compares credit card offerings online, predicts credit card debt will rise a net $60 billion by the end of the coming holiday season. See the company’s study of deferred interest at its website

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 or email

Where to find help in fighting fraud from abroad


Posted Oct. 19, 2015, at 6:15 a.m.

Here are several recent news items about international scams:

— A federal court has temporarily stopped an alleged international pyramid scheme operated by Vemma Nutrition Co. The Federal Trade Commission alleges Vemma charged $500 to $600 for a membership and rewarded affiliates for recruiting more participants instead of selling products.

— The marketers of Procera AVH, touted as a way to counter memory loss and cognitive decline, will hand over $1 million to the FTC and another $400,000 to satisfy a judgment brought in California. FTC’s complaint charged that marketing claims were false, misleading or unsubstantiated and that the defendants claimed falsely a scientific study proved their product works.

— The FTC and the Florida attorney general’s office have filed a joint complaint against New York-based Lifewatch, charging the firm used illegal and deceptive robocalls to lure older consumers in the U.S. and Canada into signing up for costly medical alert systems. Last year, one of Lifewatch’s telemarketing firms agreed to a settlement with the FTC and Florida to stop making robocalls or engaging in other deception. Since then, FTC and Florida’s attorney general charge that Lifewatch just switched telemarketers and carried on with business as usual.

The items above came from the website of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, The network is an alliance of FTC and consumer protection agencies in 33 other countries. The goal of the groups is to help law enforcement agencies do a better job against international scams.

The website was launched in 2001. An updated version, which creators say is easier to use and tablet- and smartphone-friendly, was unveiled last week at International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s semi-annual meeting in the United Kingdom.

The website advises consumers who find themselves at odds with a foreign company to first try to resolve their differences directly. If that fails, the consumer can learn about ways to settle the dispute without formal legal action.

There’s also a complaint form to let member agencies know about the problem. If the issue involves a member of the European Union, help is available through each member’s consumer centres — visit and search “consumer centres.” File complaints that are U.S.-based with the FTC online at

Most International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network members offer consumer education activities during its Fraud Prevention Month, usually during February or March. ICPEN members also do ongoing International Internet Sweeps, identifying websites that may mislead consumers and flagging them for future educational or enforcement efforts.

Better enforcement can’t come soon enough for York County Sheriff William King. The sheriff, who speaks frequently to seniors’ groups about avoiding scams, told me that bringing legal action with serious penalties is the only way to curb cross-border scams.

International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s website echoes familiar warnings about scam offers, usually unsolicited. The best single piece of advice may be to trust your own radar. The old saying is still valid: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

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 or email

New food-labeling rules aim to make Americans less fat


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,, 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 or email


Children’s Leukemia Foundation folds amid fraud claims


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

The Center for Investigative Reporting published similar findings at

Check charities licensed to solicit funds in Maine at 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 or email

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 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. 


How to avoid panic when disaster strikes


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 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 or email


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers

%d bloggers like this: