Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.

Bangor library offers many resources for downloading ebooks – The Weekly

Posted Feb. 16, 2015, at 4:11 p.m.
by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff

Area libraries have many sources for accessing ebooks that can be downloaded to ereaders and other mobile devices.

With the popularity of ereaders on the rise, and the advent of reading books on tablets or other mobile devices, public libraries have added resources that offer free downloads of ebooks, texts, documents, audiobooks and music.

Linda Oliver, head of reference at Bangor Public Library, said that the Maine InfoNet Download Library, a collection of ebooks leased from the vendor, Overdrive, a global digital distribution company, is one source where library patrons can download ebooks. Bangor Public Library is one of many libraries in Maine which participates in Maine InfoNet, Oliver said. “It’s one of the services libraries purchase ebooks from,” she said.

Ebook borrowers must have a valid library card from a participating library in order to use the service. Books may be checked out for up to two weeks. As many as three books may be  borrowed at a time, including audiobooks, or a combination of ebooks and audiobooks. The materials come in a variety of formats, including Kindle and ePub. Borrowers cannot renew a title. Once the two-week borrowing time elapses, the ebook no longer can be accessed.

Brewer Public Library, Edythe Dyer Library in Hampden and Orono Public Library also are Maine InfoNet Download Library participants.

“Bring your device to the library and we can help you through it [the ebook downloading process],” OIiver said.

One of the advantages of reading on a mobile device, she said, is that every book is potentially a large print book. You can bump up the type size or alter the amount of backlighting to suit personal, individual visual needs.

The library also has other ebook resources available, including a link at the library’s website to Project Gutenberg — gutenberg.org — which offers books with expired copyrights, generally books published in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

“I think it [reading on mobile devices] is becoming more and more popular. As the price [of devices] goes down, it has become very popular. We see our stats going up quite a bit,” Oliver said. “We have people come into the library on a regular basis to ask us to help them get started using ereaders. People who are passionate readers read in any format.”

Another source is the Hathi Trust, hathitrust.org, a partnership of institutions that has created a digital repository of items in their collections, Oliver said. It archives public domain materials and those that are still under copyright. The books in the public domain are often available in full view and can be read online. The books still under copyright have a limited view or only the catalog record. Most of these items are books in university collections, but it includes both fiction and nonfiction titles, she said.

Edythe Dyer Library, 269 Main Road North, in Hampden has a handout, “Where to Find Free eBooks,” available to its patrons. It contains this information:

  • Google eBookstore: books.google.com/ebooks. Many free books, though most are available for purchase. Includes new releases.
  • Scribd: scribd.com. Millions of documents including books, short stories, poems, pamphlets, brochures and government documents. Most can be read online. Downloading requires a Facebook account.
  • Participates in Maine InfoNet Download Library. Best sellers of fiction, nonfiction, young adult and children’s books. Requires a valid library card from a participating library.
  • Project Gutenberg: gutenberg.org. More than 33,000 older titles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in many categories including fiction and nonfiction.
  • Smashwords: smashwords.com. More than 30,000 titles from mostly self-published, independent authors. Some titles are free to download, others require purchase.
  • Internet Archive, archive.org. More than 2.7 million titles, mostly nonfiction, contributed by academic libraries. Includes movies, music concert videos, audiobooks, music, podcasts, and the Internet Wayback Machine for viewing archived websites.
  • Forgotten Books: forgottenbooks.org. Nearly 10,000 titles. Some Project Gutenberg overlap.
  • Feedbooks: feedbooks.com. Thousands of ebooks, many free to download. Includes  collection of public domain items that can be read on all mobile devices.
  • Munseys: munseys.com. Offers links to thousands of out-of-print books, with more than 1,500 pulp fiction-era novels.

My favorite find at Project Gutenberg is many of the books by Maine writer Holman Day, whose “King Spruce” is considered his masterpiece. However, his “Rider of the King Log,” “The Ramrodders” and “Blow the Man Down: A Romance of the Coast” are equally enjoyable. Other gems available for free download at Project Gutenberg are books written by James Otis Kaler, who was born in Winterport in 1848. Kaler used James Otis as a pen name and at age 16 served as a reporter covering various battles during the Civil War. His “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus,” published in 1881; “The Light Keepers,” published in 1906; and “Aunt Hannah and Seth,” published in 1900, are among a long list of his titles available at Project Gutenberg. Even though his novels are aimed at young readers, adults also will find them enjoyable reading.

“Be cautious when searching the Web for free ebooks,” Oliver cautioned. “Be cautious about using credit cards or giving personal information [on the Internet].”

Kidde Recalls Disposable Plastic Fire Extinguishers Due to Failure to Discharge | CPSC.gov

Consumers should immediately contact Kidde for a replacement fire extinguisher.

Hazard:

A faulty valve component can cause the disposable fire extinguishers not to fully discharge when the lever is repeatedly pressed and released during a fire emergency, posing a risk of injury.

Consumer Contact:

Kidde toll-free at (855) 283-7991 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or online at www.kidde.com and click on Safety Notice for more information.

Incidents/Injuries:

Kidde has received 11 reports of the recalled fire extinguishers failing to discharge as expected. No injuries have been reported.

Remedy:

Consumers should immediately contact Kidde for a replacement fire extinguisher.

Sold at:

Home Depot, Menards, Walmart and other department, home and hardware stores nationwide, and online from August 2013 through November 2014 for between $18 and $65, and about $200 for model XL 5MR.

Consumer Contact: Tech Support Phone Scams – WABI-TV

Russ and Joy discussed tech support phone scams that have been gaining popularity. Russ says due to Maine’s older population, our state is a prime target for these phone calls.

One key tip-off that Russ mentioned, is many of these scammers will drop the name “Microsoft,” saying they’ve “detected trouble with your computer.” Right away this should tip you off: Microsoft does not make “cold calls.” They will give technical help ONLY if a customer initiates the dialogue.

Scammers using this technique have been known to:

  • Try to get you to download malicious software that can capture personal information
  • Get you to visit phony websites that connect you to malicious software
  • Ask for credit card information to make phony charges
  • Send you to fake websites to enter personal information

Russ says the number one rule to remember when you think you might be dealing with one of these scammers: “Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”

Identity thieves try to cash in during tax filing season

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2015, at 9:53 a.m.

click image to report scams, waste and abuse

Two headlines top the news near the start of this income tax season.

Thieves who steal Social Security numbers and other personal data do so in order to file phony tax returns and claim rebates they’re not owed.

And crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service officials are calling people and, in many cases, bullying them into sending money they don’t owe.

They use common names and all kinds of tricks. They may say they’re calling from the IRS criminal division. They might have technology that will spoof a caller ID, making it appear they’re calling from a real IRS office. They threaten those they consider easier targets — such as older people and recent immigrants — with fines, jail terms, job loss, even deportation.

The crooks do their homework before calling. They might know a person’s Social Security number — or at least the last four digits — and other personal details that lend credence to their pitch. Demanding immediate payment is a tipoff it’s a scam — the real IRS first would notify you by letter of any official action — and the agency never would demand payment by a debit card or wire transfer.

Losing a one-time payment is bad enough. Thousands of taxpayers have filed their income taxes only to find a crook has stolen their identities, filed fraudulently and collected their refunds illegally.

The IRS says after such discoveries, it takes an average of four months to get a refund to its rightful recipient. That person also needs to go through the hassle associated with identity theft. Perhaps ironically, prisoners’ Social Security numbers often are tempting targets, because inmates are less apt to be on top of their tax or banking activities.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, says it has received reports of 290,000 scam calls since October 2013, and nearly 3,000 victims have lost a total of $14 million. The IRS has been working to curb these crimes, saying it spotted 19 million suspicious returns since 2011 and prevented more than $63 billion in fraudulent returns. Read about ways to spot impersonators and report scams at Treasury.gov/tigta.

Consumers can and should take all the usual steps to prevent fraud: use firewalls and antivirus software, use strong passwords and change them often on all online accounts and reveal your Social Security number only when it’s absolutely necessary.

If you become a victim, the IRS says it wants to help. Read about the agency’s prevention and detection efforts at IRS.gov/Individuals/Identity-Protection.

The IRS is also warning consumers about unscrupulous preparers who push filers to make inflated claims. Often, these preparers will demand an up-front fee; they may also refuse to give the taxpayer a copy of the return. Both are things that legitimate tax preparation pros don’t do.

You may qualify for free help preparing your income tax filings. Seniors can check with AARP or the local agency on aging. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program gives free tax help to people who make $53,000 or less, have disabilities, are older or who speak little English and need help preparing their returns.

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 necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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