Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Don’t buy a car if you can’t touch it first – Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 08, 2016, at 7:50 a.m.

Northeast CONTACT wishes to give a major thank you to all the financial professionals who keep consumers safe. Our thanks go especially to one bank official in the Ellsworth area.

The official was concerned when a customer wanted to make a sizeable withdrawal with plans to wire money for an antique car. What aroused the official’s suspicion was the money’s destination: London, England.

Scammers typically operate from bases overseas, and money that’s wired away never comes back. The official had heard of such schemes and gently urged the customer not to buy a vehicle sight unseen and definitely not to wire money to an unknown party. That advice probably prevented a $14,500 payment for a car that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

The customer had seen an ad in a local newspaper. Detective Dorothy Small of the Ellsworth Police Department said identical ads appeared in Rolling Thunder Express and Penobscot Bay Press.

The latter online publication is now running a scam alert on its classified page, noting that the ad that ran in its Jan. 14 and 21 papers “was submitted under false pretenses and is a scam.” The publisher went on to apologize “for falling victim” — even though the ad appeared to meet policy guidelines — and urged readers not to respond.

The look-alike ads are no coincidence. Scammers find appealing phrases (“1970 Chevrolet Chevelle 454, manual four-speed, red with black stripes”) and cut and paste in publications everywhere.

One online vintage car dealer has tips to avoid being scammed, including a nearly identical ad to those that appeared in Maine, athttp://nwcam.com/Helpful_Tips_About_Internet_Scams.html. Search a key phrase from the ad and find all kinds of “late husbands” and their treasured cars for sale, over several years.

The gist of all such ads is the same: you’ll be getting the deal of a lifetime. In fact, you’ll get nothing.

Small noticed that photos of the car “for sale” had been taken on different road surfaces, a tipoff that the pictures had been lifted from various Internet sources. Payment was to be made via Pay Safe, which is headquartered in Nevada … so instructions to wire funds to England were another red flag.

“If you can’t put your hand on the vehicle that you’re going to buy, then don’t buy it,” Small said.

senior-safe

Click image to access brochure

That probably echoed the urging of our bank teller, who was likely one of more than 300 front-line bank and credit union employees who have undergone training in what’s called Senior$afe.

The program is a partnership of Maine’s financial community and state government, all allied through the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. Training enables key employees to spot potential cases of fraud and, in many cases, stop them cold.

Partner agencies help with training and promoting what Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw called a “no wrong door” approach to referrals in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last year.

A spokesman for Shaw’s department told me it’s hoped Senior$afe will grow and further expand protections against financial fraud. You can find a brochure on the program at the Maine Bankers Association website, www.mainebankers.com/seniorafe/.

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 get help if your identity is stolen

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Having your identity stolen means starting a recovery process that can take months, even years.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, last week announced an upgrade of its efforts to help the millions of consumers who are victimized every year.

Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, told participants on a conference call that complaints about identity theft to her agency rose by nearly 50 percent last year. Ramirez said, while that’s shocking enough, the true scope of the crime is not known because it is “vastly underreported.”

What is known is that thieves are illegally opening new accounts, getting access to existing accounts fraudulently and filing phony tax returns, all while using other people’s names and personal information.

The FTC says victims can ease the task of getting their financial lives back in order by visiting the agency’s secure recovery website at identitytheft.gov.

Visitors can browse the range of recovery tips or jump right in by entering as much relevant data as possible that led to their identities being stolen. The FTC thinks the upgraded site will give consumers a one-stop means of filing a complaint about identity theft and beginning the process of recovery.

Victims are asked to first enter basic information about the type of identity theft to which they were subjected. Then the site walks the victims through a checklist geared toward that type of crime.

The site will generate affidavits and automatically fill a lot of information in letters and forms to be sent to police, businesses, credit bureaus, debt collectors and the IRS. If a recovery effort hits a snag, the site will suggest other ways to proceed.

To minimize further risks, the site will not ask victims for sensitive information, including dates of birth and Social Security numbers. There will be follow-up emails from the site, and consumers can go back to their plans later — through two-factor authentication — as their recovery continues.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 17.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2014. Ramirez said the crime is one that will be with us for quite a while.

“We’re all doing more online. We’re all using mobile technology,” she said. “It’s going to expose people’s information to breaches,” if we’re not increasingly vigilant.

Ramirez made the announcement on Data Privacy Day, designated in 2008 by the National Cyber Security Alliance. Read tips from that nonprofit about keeping your data to yourself at staysafeonline.org.

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.

Second-chance resolutions for smart consumers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 11, 2016, at 7:27 a.m.
Have you abandoned all your New Year’s resolutions? Here’s a chance to start over (good consumers deserve second chances).

Take the pledge to be more aware of your spending, saving and other monetary decisions. We’re well aware of the ads, store displays and peer pressure during the recent holidays. Let’s agree to be attentive to our finances year-round.

A great goal for the end of 2016 is a “rainy day fund,” savings equal to one month’s wages. Setting a few dollars aside each week can get you started, and the extra money could be critical in an emergency. Financial advisers say we should all eventually set aside two to four months pay for unforeseen events.

Setting up such a fund is one recommendation of David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Leach says consumers can save themselves a lot of grief by following the most basic of advice: Always spend less than you earn. Follow that rule, and you can have part of your paycheck withheld and put automatically into a retirement account.

Leach and others at the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection have been watching interest rates with, well, interest. While it’s too soon to get any clear indication how consumers will react to the Fed’s raising of the prime rate by 0.25 percent, Leach cautions consumers not to rush into a major spending spree in anticipation of more rate hikes.

Economists seem to be leaning toward predictions of a few quarter-point increases in coming months. Over time, those increases in the prime lending rate will make their way into the rates consumers pay for loans.

In the near term, Leach predicts those consumer rates won’t change much. That could prompt people to buy durable goods — cars, appliances, other big items — while rates are low. It might trigger other consumer action as well.

“My advice to consumers is to always shop around for the lowest annual percentage rate, or APR, when looking to finance their next home, automobile, snowmobile, or when selecting a new credit card,” Leach told me.

He said big-ticket purchases should come only after thorough investigation of both the items and consumers’ ability to repay any loans needed to buy them.

Leach offers several other money-saving resolutions for Mainers for 2016:

— Pay cash or use a personal check or debit card whenever possible; reduce or eliminate interest paid on credit cards.

— If you’re buying a vehicle, try to make at least a 20 percent down payment in cash or through a trade-in.

— On outstanding auto or home mortgage loans, pay a little extra each month, to shorten the term of the loan and thus save on interest payments.

— Avoid impulse buying at grocery and department stores. When you shop, make a list and stick to it.

Leach’s colleagues at the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can help with a variety of consumer credit issues. Reach them by phone at 800-DEBT-LAW (800-332-8529) toll-free in Maine, or find the bureau online at Credit.Maine.gov.

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 the new federal spending plan affects consumers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 28, 2015, at 9:41 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2015, at 10:14 a.m.

The omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this month included $1 billion for a destroyer. Maine’s congressional representatives hope the contract goes to Bath Iron Works.

Passage of the 1,600-page, $1.1 trillion bill headed off a possible government shutdown, prevented another of the stopgap spending plans our lawmakers have made famous and it allowed the national debt to go up. It also included a number of added-on spending items, known on Capitol Hill as “riders.”

Our thanks to writers at The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Atlantic for spotting these items of interest to many consumers.

— A 1 percent pay raise for federal employees, starting Jan. 1, 2016. President Barack Obama ordered the increase and the omnibus bill retains it. Military service personnel will receive a similar raise, while pay for generals and flag officers are subject to a pay freeze.

— Multi-employer pension plans. The benefits of potentially millions of retirees could be cut to try to save some pension plans that are in financial trouble. There are about 1,400 such plans, most of them in good shape.

— More money for food safety. Funding for the Food and Drug Administration goes up $37 million from last year. The Food Safety Modernization Act gets $27 million in new funds, and there’s a $5 million increase for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

— Some Dodd-Frank reforms reversed. The financial reform bill had required that banks “push out” some derivatives trading into other entities that did not have the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Banks won a reversal of that rule; Democrats say that, in exchange, they received more funding for enforcement efforts by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

— Internal Revenue Service cuts. Funding for the IRS drops by $345.6 million. The agency also is barred from singling out organizations that cite ideological beliefs to get tax-exempt status.

— School lunch programs. Flexibility goes to school districts that can “demonstrate a hardship” when buying whole grain products. There also are less rigid sodium standards until they are supported by “additional scientific studies.”

— WIC and potatoes. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for low-income families gets $6.6 billion, down $93 million from the last fiscal year. But WIC will have to guarantee that “all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase.”

— Tired truckers. The trucking industry won a round in the fight to require that drivers get two nights sleep before going back to work. That Department of Transportation regulation would have cut a typical driver’s workweek from 82 hours to 70. Maine Sen. Susan Collins had pressed for suspension of that rule in favor of more study.

— Safer tracks. The omnibus bill includes $3 million to expand inspection of about 14,000 miles of track used by trains that include oil tanker cars.

— Veterans reform bill funding. The bill that was passed last summer gets $209 million to deal with new costs, including added medical staff and expanding facilities. The Veterans Administration’s Office of the Inspector General receives an additional $5 million to keep investigating the “wait list scandal.”

— Light bulb choice. The spending bill limits enforcement of a 2007 law to end use of incandescent bulbs. While many consumers have switched, others may be able to find the older style a while longer.

— Saturday mail delivery. It continues, courtesy of the omnibus bill, despite years of efforts to cut the service to save money.

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.

New website compares cost, quality of health care in Maine

CONSUMER FORUM 

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, CompareMaine.org. 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Hidden costs lurk in delayed interest payment offers

CONSUMER FORUM

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 consumerfinance.gov, 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 cardhub.com.

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.

Where to find help in fighting fraud from abroad

CONSUMER FORUM 

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, econsumer.gov. 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 ec.europa.eu and search “consumer centres.” File complaints that are U.S.-based with the FTC online at ftc.gov.

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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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