Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

State Officials Offer Auto Buying and Financing Guide In Time for Presidents’ Day Sales

Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection PRESS RELEASE

GARDINER – With annual Presidents’ Day auto sales ongoing, 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 offering an 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.

Auto Guide 1st Ed Web

“Maine consumers have many reputable auto dealers throughout the state who treat customers well and contribute to their communities,” Governor LePage said.  “Purchasing a car or truck, however, can be complicated.  This guide offers important information and guidance to assist buyers in making sound financial decisions when considering a new vehicle.”

David Leach, the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection Principal Examiner, who coauthored the guide, emphasized that purchasing or leasing an auto is a significant financial commitment that often involves a large number of 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;
  • Learning the pros and cons of leasing an auto;
  • Understanding why “No money down” financing can be an expensive decision;
  • 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 guide explains the many important steps involved in responsible auto buying and financing,” Leach said.  “The purchase and financing of a vehicle is a significant economic decision, and one that should be made with as much thought as possible, and not an impulse decision.”

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.

How to spot dirty tricks when buying a used car

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 13, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.
Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Click image to see 10 ways to spot a flood-damaged car

Buying a used car is one of the most stressful purchases a consumer can make. Here are some suggestions intended to ease the tension.

Check first with an established dealer. Maine’s used car dealers are bonded. Their vehicles must have valid inspection stickers, and sales include “clear” titles with no encumbrances. Shady Sales in Anywhere, Maine, might save you a few dollars, but there could be big headaches that follow.

Consumers can check with the attorney general’s office to see if dealers they’re considering have large numbers of complaints against them. Another source of information is the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the secretary of state’s office.

Mark Silk is chief detective at the bureau. He recommends consumers deal with known dealers, because “there are so many more protections” than dealing online or through private sales.

He suggests asking to see the title to the vehicle. It should indicate its prior use — taxi, fleet vehicle, police, etc. The title also might show some “red flags,” such as having been rebuilt after a crash.

The title also should show the odometer reading when the prior owner stopped driving it. If the odometer has been replaced, it must read either zero — with accompanying door sticker stating that fact — or the same mileage as the odometer that it replaced.

Silk also urges car shoppers to look closely at any used car, for the following signs of trouble:

— Watermarks in the engine compartment.

— Rust or flaking on the undercarriage.

— Stiff wiring under the dash.

— Mud, sediment or sand in door panels.

All of the above might be signs that the car is flood-damaged. If your nose is keen, you can likely smell trouble before you buy. In any case, have a trusted mechanic check out a car before you sign a sales agreement.

Mark also reminds buyers that there is nothing in Maine law that requires a dealer to charge a document fee. While those fees can run into hundreds of dollars, charging them is up to the dealer. If they are charged, they must be conspicuously posted.

Note to readers

A few parting words are in order, as this is the last column I’ll be writing for Consumer Forum. Since its founding in 1972, a lot has changed for Northeast CONTACT (originally named C.O.M.B.A.T., for Consumers of Maine Bringing Action Together). At its peak, our all-volunteer group helped walk-ins in need of mediation or other assistance; our assistance saw the return of thousands of dollars to wronged consumers. We counseled consumers on all manner of marketplace issues, spoke at meetings and took action when it needed to be taken.

As the information era came of age, demand for our services tapered off. Soaring oil prices forced the sale of our building eight years ago, and the volunteers who were the heart and soul of Northeast CONTACT found other ways to do good work.

Now, Jane and I are also finding a new avenue, one that we hope will assist consumers. Our hearty thanks go to those many volunteers I mentioned. We plan to continue our blog, https://necontact.wordpress.com. We’ll post news about scams, recalls and items we hope will be helpful; you can search the site for past columns. There will still be links to government and nonprofit agencies with resources beyond our means.

Finally, our thanks go to the people at the Bangor Daily News who’ve offered support, encouragement and the space for this column. And to those of you who have had kind words about the work we’ve done, you will remain in our thoughts.

 

You can’t avoid death and taxes, but you can dodge identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 30, 2017, at 8:25 a.m.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service, the states and tax professionals teamed up to reduce incidents of taxpayer identity theft.


The crime occurs when a criminal steals your Social Security number and files a return in your name; the thief claims a refund to which he’s not entitled. When you file your legitimate tax return, the IRS flags it because it has already received a return in your name.

It’s believed that more diligent enforcement helped the IRS to prevent more than $180 million from going to fraudulent claimants. Now, officials are doubling down on their efforts to fight taxpayer ID theft.

The Federal Trade Commission has proclaimed the week of Jan. 30-Feb. 3 as Tax Identity Theft Week. The agency is offering a series of events to educate consumers and business people on ways they can minimize the risk of thieves stealing refunds.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, the FTC and Identity Theft Resource Center will hold a Twitter chat dealing with tax identity theft, ways to protect yourself and what to do if you are a victim.

A similar session is planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, about tax ID theft for service people, veterans and their families. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, FTC and the IRS will hold a tax ID theft chat for small business people. Find a link to these and other events at www.ftc.gov and look under “Latest News.”

Income tax season is big business for high-tech criminals, so be on guard for all sorts of scams. You might get a call from someone posing as an IRS official, seeking to “verify” tax return information by phone.

Other scammers may mention news reports of tax fraud and try to trick victims into “verifying the last four digits of their Social Security number.”

Others might pretend to be from the tax preparation industry … in short, they’ll use any tactic they think might work to fool consumers.

The crooks also take aim at business people. They might call human resources professionals and ask for information found on W-2 forms; a variation of that scam has an email message bearing the name of a corporate officer seeking personal information about an employee. Some scammers have posed as providers of software to trick tax preparers.

The variations are virtually endless. The IRS lists many of the most often used tricks at its website, www.irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Many tax pros suggest filing early, thereby giving the crooks less time to file fraudulently ahead of you. Once you have filed, you can check the status of your refund at www.irs.gov/Refunds.

You also can call the IRS Identity Theft toll-free at 800-908-4490 or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft.

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.

If robots call to say you owe back taxes, don’t believe them

Posted Jan. 16, 2017, at 6:19 a.m.

Which of the following is a scam?

— You get a phone call saying you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and should pay by way of an iTunes card.

— A caller says she is an IRS official demanding immediate payment of overdue taxes, and the number on your caller ID appears to be from the local IRS office.

— A caller identifies himself as a law enforcement officer and says you face immediate arrest if you don’t wire money for overdue taxes.

— An email bearing an official-looking IRS logo asks you to “update your IRS e-file immediately.” The email mentions IRSgov — without a dot separating “IRS” and “gov.”

If you answered that all of the above are scams, you are correct.

The investigative arm of the IRS says that 1.8 million people have reported receiving impostor calls. More than 9,600 victims have been scammed out of more than $50 million.

Phishing and malware incidents rose roughly 400 percent during the 2016 tax filing season. Despite officials’ best efforts to curb the increase, it’s expected that the numbers of tax-related scam attempts will continue to grow.

Increasingly popular with scammers is the robo-call. The crooks leave urgent call-back requests, demanding payment of “back taxes” with gift cards. IRS officials say such demands are clear signs of a scam.

Other callers may ask for payment of a nonexistent “federal student tax.” People they call are told to wire money — another sure sign of a scam — with threats of legal action unless payment comes at once.

Another scheme involves a call saying the IRS “just needs a few details” to speed up the processing of your refund. The scammer tries to get personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers or other sensitive data such as credit card numbers.

Human resources and payroll professionals have been targeted as well, through requests for information about employees. A scammer posing as the company’s CEO requests personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers.

In an effort to catch scammers and identity thieves, the IRS is delaying refunds this year for anyone claiming the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC). That move is expected to give the IRS added time to weed out more sophisticated fraudulent returns. It may also hurt lower income taxpayers who file early and likely will be waiting at least until late February for refunds. Offers to “help speed up your refund” may be more scams.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairs the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which has published a guidebook on avoiding scams. Read it online at aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/217925%20Fraud%20Book%20Final.pdf. You also can call the committee’s fraud hotline (1-855-303-9470) for information or to report fraud attempts.

The IRS offers a summary of our legal protections in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights at irs.gov/taxpayer-bill-of-rights.

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.

Pillow seller’s puffed-up ad claims offer wake-up call to shoppers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 09, 2017, at 6:42 a.m.

The first network news coverage we saw on the MyPillow flap told only half the story.

Yes, the headline was that the Better Business Bureau, or BBB, had pulled the company’s accreditation and lowered its rating from A-plus to F because of the firm’s advertising practices. The story cited the “buy-one-get-one-free” offer that runs continuously, meaning the “sale” price was actually the “regular” price.

The BBB said it acted because of a “pattern of complaints” over the BOGO offer, both on TV and online. MyPillow owner and CEO Mike Lindell said he was “terribly disappointed” and that his goal is still to give “as many people as possible the chance to have a great night’s sleep.”

What the initial network news story did not cover was MyPillow’s settlement last fall of a lawsuit brought by consumer advocacy groups in California. The groups took issue with health claims on its website that MyPillow could help sufferers of sleep apnea, fibromyalgia and insomnia.

While admitting no wrongdoing, the company paid just less than $1 million in civil penalties and promised another $100,000 for homeless shelters. It also dropped the health claims.

Earlier last year, the company settled a suit brought by the state of New York, which claimed that MyPillow had knowingly failed to pay sales taxes on purchases by New Yorkers. Again admitting no wrongdoing, the company entered into a $1.1 million settlement.

Lindell said he’s planning to change his advertising early this year but has not said how.

Consumer Reports bought three MyPillows last fall. Testers gave them mixed reviews (www.consumerreports.org/mattresses/should-my-pillow-become-your-pillow/).

Consumers should know that the BOGO offer applied to the firm’s “premium” series ($90 for two pillows). The pillows sold in retail stores have no gusset, fewer loft levels and retail for $49 to $69 each.

If companies make false health claims and are warned to stop, they “are going to pay the price if they don’t comply,” Bonnie Patton, executive director of Truth in Advertising Inc., said. The Connecticut-based nonprofit fights misleading ads and investigates complaints ( www.truthinadvertising.org).

TINA published a report on its investigation of MyPillow’s ads in February of 2016.

Consumers who sleep restfully may scoff at others who have paid millions over the years seeking a good night’s sleep. But they may be among the millions of consumers who spend billions of dollars on health products, many with dubious claims and sketchy performance.

It’s not too late for resolutions in the early days of this year.

Let’s all promise ourselves that we’ll look hard at ad claims, scientific research, real testimonials and the experience of friends or relatives. Let’s put our skepticism on high and our spending on low, which searching for the true bargains in the marketplace.

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 ‘Top 10’ New Year’s Resolutions to Improve Financial Health

PRESS RELEASE

GARDINER – With a New Year approaching, it’s time for resolutions.  While most people think of resolutions related to their physical health, such as eating better and getting back in shape, staff at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection are encouraging individual and families to also resolve to improve their “financial health” in 2017.

Bureau Superintendent Will Lund announced a Top 10 list of Financial Health New Year’s Resolutions, based on the agency’s discussions with hundreds of consumers who called the Bureau’s hotline (1-800-DEBT-LAW) for assistance and advice during 2016:

1) I resolve to check my credit reports with each major credit reporting agency (Trans Union, Equifax and Experian) at least once this year, which I can do for free by going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228.

2)  I resolve to reduce or eliminate credit card balances, and to use cash or a debit card whenever possible. I resolve to consider doing business with banks or credit unions that have offices here in Maine, because then if a problem arises I can go visit a real live person to resolve it.

3)  I resolve to be suspicious of offers that involve romantic relationships with individuals I have “met” only online, and offers involving Nigerian finance ministers who claim to need my help moving large amounts of money out of their country.

4)  I resolve not to send funds in order to claim foreign “sweepstakes” winnings when I didn’t even enter the sweepstakes contest.

5)  I resolve to purchase a telephone Caller ID and an answering machine for my elderly relatives who are bothered by too many junk calls, and teach them how to use the system, reminding them that “real” friends and family who call will leave a message.

6)  I resolve to stay in touch with elderly relatives, encouraging them to tell me or their friends if they are presented with investment opportunities. Further, I will remember that investments are governed by the Maine Office of Securities, whose helpful staff can tell someone whether the investment they are being offered has been properly registered with the state.

7)  I resolve to take my time when making a big purchase like an automobile or major appliance, learning all I can about the product beforehand, visiting more than one retailer, negotiating the best price, getting all aspects of the deal in writing, and walking away if the sales pitch becomes pressured.

8)  I resolve not be intimidated by collection calls demanding payment for debts I do not owe. I will remember that debt collectors must be licensed by the state, and that the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection stands ready to provide assistance and to enforce the laws.

9)   I resolve to be suspicious of any phone call I receive from someone I don’t know, including callers who tell me that a virus has been detected on my computer and that I must turn on my computer and give the caller access in order to fix the problem.

10)  If I find myself providing credit card numbers over the phone to someone I don’t know on a call I did not initiate, or if I find myself at the Western Union window or purchasing prepaid cash cards to send money to someone I don’t know, I resolve to recognize that I am likely being scammed, and I will seek advice and assistance.

 Superintendent Lund urges people with questions about items in this Top 10 list, or any other issues related to consumer credit or financial concerns to contact the Bureau.  The website is www.Credit.Maine.gov and the phone number is 1-800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527.

Rogues tap holiday spirit, disaster relief to steal in the name of charity

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 26, 2016, at 9:11 a.m.
Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations. Search Maine or your town

Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations found in Maine.

When soliciting donations from 2008 to 2012, fundraisers for four now-defunct “charities” said they spent 100 percent of their money on services including taking patients to chemotherapy sessions, buying pain meds for children and hospice care.

Instead, the money went for meals, rides on jet skis and cruises to the Caribbean.

In a lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission called all four groups “sham charities.” Officials from all 50 states and the District of Columbia joined in the suit, which accused charity officials of spending most of the $187 million they raised on themselves and their fundraisers.

The legal action led to the shutdown of the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society. Only a fraction of the millions of dollars the groups took from consumers was recovered.

The amount of money fundraisers were able to garner shows how willing consumers are to donate to causes they believe are genuine. Scammers know this, and for that very reason they create names for their fake groups that sound like real charities.

At this time of year, when many of us make donations to our favorite causes, let’s make sure we’ve done our due diligence. Be skeptical of cold calls or bulk mailings that you may receive, seeking donations that supposedly will benefit veterans and military families, sick children or police and firefighters.

Scam artists follow the news closely, and they look for items that will make readers respond emotionally. In June, crooks reacted quickly following a shooting rampage that killed 49 people and injured 53 others in Orlando, Florida. They set up phony charities pretending to help the victims and their families; in fact, the money they scammed lined their own pockets.

Pretending to help victims of floods, earthquakes and other disasters is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise. Before you decide to donate, ask questions to find out how your money will be used.

If you’re responding to an online appeal and preparing to click to “donate,” look at the name of the organization in your browser window. If the domain name is hidden, is not familiar or is different from the one in the text, think twice about clicking.

Treat all pleas for your money with a healthy dose of skepticism. Real charities welcome the chance to send you literature by mail. They know that informed consumers will support them and tell others about worthwhile causes. Scammers want a decision right away, and some ask for payment through gift cards or wire transfers — these clearly are scams.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has tips on giving to charities and avoiding getting ripped off in the process. Visit maine.gov/ag/consumer/charities/index.shtml for those suggestions.

The Federal Trade Commission has additional information at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0011-charity-scams.

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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