Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Get ready now for an active hurricane season

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 23, 2016, at 6:15 a.m.

Click image for info

If you missed Hurricane Preparedness Week (the third week in May), it’s not too late to take precautions that could save lives and/or property. The hurricane season begins officially on June 1 but serious storms can happen any time.

In Maine, consumers often think that the end of severe winter weather means we can all relax. In fact, the same diligence we practice in keeping ahead of ice and snow serves us well when severe storms strike.

Several forecasters are predicting the most active hurricane season since 2012, with 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three major hurricanes likely.

There’s no guarantee that all of those storms will hit the United States. But many of us can recall a hurricane that has visited Maine. And most of us would agree, it’s better to be prepared than to be unprepared.

Emergency officials remind us that updating our insurance coverage is important. Whether you own or rent, it’s worth meeting with your insurance agent before hurricane season really ramps up.

Maine’s Bureau of Insurance has a number of resources to help both homeowners and renters prepare. Call the bureau, 1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or visit its website, www.maine.gov/pfr/insurance/consumer/brochures.htm#homeowners, for a home inventory checklist, insurance guide for natural disasters, advice on making claims following storms and more.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners website has more information at www.naic.org/index_consumer.htm.

Most homeowners’ and renters’ insurances do not cover flood damage. Flood insurance must be purchased separately, if you live in a floodplain where you need coverage. There also is a waiting period before it takes effect.

Contact the National Flood Insurance Program by phone at 1-800-427-2419 or online at www.floodsmart.gov for detailed information.

Consumers should put together emergency supplies. Nonperishable food, a nonelectric can opener, cooking utensils, drinking water, flashlights with good batteries and a battery-powered radio are basics. Extra clothing, blankets and a well-stocked first aid kit are also needed items.

Imagine what the loss of important papers in a storm could mean. Consider keeping copies at home and original documents in a safe deposit box or other secure storage site. If you keep your only copies of insurance policies at home, be sure you can get them in a hurry if you have to leave.

Get your home ready by keeping trees trimmed to minimize danger from broken branches. Shop ahead for materials to cover windows; they may be hard to find a day or two before a big storm.

If a hurricane approaches, put vehicles in garages or other secure places. Bring loose items inside and secure all doors; garage doors are often the most subject to damage. Good preparations should help to settle an insurance claim more quickly.

After a major storm, beware of “deals,” especially involving used vehicles. Hidden flood damage that’s not revealed in a private sale might cause big headaches.

Damp goods sold by salvage specialists may or may not be bargains; shop carefully.

If you’re vacationing in an area that’s been hit by a hurricane in the past, pay attention to weather forecasts. Be ready to alter your travel plans if there’s danger of a serious storm. Find out if there are evacuation routes you should know about and how people are alerted about using them.

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.

Diagnosing the value of blanket medical tests

CONSUMER FORUM

 By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted May 16, 2016, at 6:41 a.m.

On May 17 and 18, a business called Life Line Screening will visit the Bangor area.

The firm offers a package of five screenings it says can help consumers avoid cardiovascular disease. The screenings are intended to detect plaque buildup in carotid arteries, abdominal aortic aneurysms and other signs of cardiovascular irregularities.

Life Line Screening offers the five screenings for $149, cash or credit cards accepted. The business does not accept Medicare and does not do private insurance billings.

The brochure advertising the screenings recently in the Bangor Daily News had this statement regarding cancellations: “A full refund is issued if you call to cancel at least 2 days prior to your appointment. If less than 2 days’ notice is given, we will issue a Gift Card for the full amount to be used by you, or anyone you choose, to purchase future screening services.”

The Maine Medical Association has taken a close look at the screenings offered by Life Line Screening during prior visits. Maine Medical Association Executive Vice President Gordon Smith told me that the company does business in conjunction with a physician who is licensed in Maine (although that doctor need not live here).

Smith also said he knows of no problem with the technology of the screenings. He said the tests may offer some consumers peace of mind, should their results come back negative.

Life Line Screening says it will report results within 21 days; it urges those who’ve been screened to take the results to their family doctors for any follow-up tests or other procedures.

Smith and others in the medical community contend that consultation with the family physician should take place before the screening, to make sure the tests are really needed.

Smith said physicians are concerned about “mass testing,” screenings that are offered without regard to people’s medical histories or individual situations. Smith said he worried about “tests that end up with more false positives than real positives, and patients receiving treatment that’s at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.”

Screenings can show irregularities that may or may not be harmful to someone’s health.

Follow-up testing — especially among older patients — can create different levels of risk depending on the patient’s status; the worry and uncertainty that go along with further testing take a toll as well.

Smith told me that Life Line Screening does not accept Medicare because Medicare doesn’t pay for the screenings the firm offers. Smith said Medicare’s reasoning appears to be that the screenings “haven’t been identified as being valuable screening tests for patients, generally.” Testing an individual based on a physician’s advice is one thing; Smith said random testing usually accomplishes very little.

Many consumer advocates sound off about individual choice, and informed choice is great. Smith advises people who don’t have a family physician to do their own research online (researchers at your local library can help).

In the 2007 book “Overtreated,” Shannon Brownlee contended that a lot of medical care is unnecessary and therefore wastes resources better spent on those who need care. Our advice is to be proactive but, in making any serious health decision, consult your physician first.

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 ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage, kemper.com, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at iii.org/article/how-can-i-locate-lost-life-insurance-policy.

You can check online at unclaimed.org and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at missingmoney.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.

Renting a car can be more dangerous than you think

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 04, 2016, at 10:31 a.m.

When renting a car, savvy consumers start the vehicle and let the air conditioning run while they check it over. Even if you’re planning a spring vacation in a normally cool place, it’s worth knowing at the outset that the AC works if you need it.

That’s just one part of a thorough inspection you should give that vehicle before renting. An unnoticed dent or ding at the outset might be found upon return, and you could be charged for damage you did not do.

Other things to do before you rent include the following:

— Have all ID with you, including your driver’s license and the credit card you used to reserve the vehicle.

— Read the credit card documentation to see if it includes insurance. If in doubt, pay for the additional insurance — instead of risking a whopping bill if you’re in a crash.

— Read the fine print. Tracking devices can prove you were speeding, incurred fees for driving out of state or exceeded mileage limits.

— Check that the keys open the trunk — and gas cap, if it’s the locking kind. Make sure there’s a jack, spare tire and lug wrench. Adjust all the mirrors and ask for another vehicle if a mirror is missing.

— Look for bugs, mud or debris on the windshield. If you find any, check under the seats for crawling things. You don’t want to share your ride with bugs.

Most consumer advocates advise against renting at an airport. You’ll generally pay higher rates than at nearby rental sites. If you’re just married and under age 25, make sure you can rent legally; otherwise you might spend your honeymoon at your destination airport.

Insurance coverage can be complicated and costly. Options at the rental counter could add up to more than $40 per day, equal to or greater than the cost of the rental itself.

Know what you have for coverage. Angie’s List found in a poll that 22 percent of respondents did not know if their auto insurance or credit card provided liability and collision coverage on a rental car.

Ask about a collision damage waiver, sometimes called a loss damage waiver. It holds the renter harmless if a rental vehicle is damaged or stolen. In most cases, the waiver will pay for the time the vehicle is out of service while it’s being repaired. The waiver will likely not apply if the damage was because of gross negligence, as in drunken driving.

Consumer Reports had some tips a couple of years back at consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/01/how-to-save-on-car-rentals/index.htm.

In summary, Consumer Reports recommended shopping early, shopping around and declining the “extras.” All consumer advocates agree you should pay for your rental by credit card, in case you need to dispute something. And return the car full of gas or you’ll likely pay high prices to have the rental agency fill the tank.

We’ve written before about recalls, and the rental industry is dealing with a new law requiring that rental cars be taken out of service after receiving a recall notice. The law takes effect June 1 and applies to fleets larger than 35 vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lets you search recalls by vehicle identification number, or VIN, at safercar.gov.

Visit the Consumer Affairs website at consumeraffairs.com/travel/car_rental.html for comparisons of 10 rental companies, including customer reviews.

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.

Naughty debt collectors draw consumers’ ire

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted March 14, 2016, at 12:17 p.m.

Roll two of America’s top consumer complaints into one, and the result might wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I am a phony debt collector.”
The Federal Trade Commission just released its annual list of consumer complaints. Debt collection topped the list, and imposter scams came in third. Together, the two categories accounted for roughly 1.2 million complaints, 40 percent of all complaints the FTC received in 2015.

Nationally, the FTC last year increased its effort to protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. The agency coordinated a federal-state-local effort called Operation Collection Protection; through that program, more than 130 legal actions were brought. The FTC brought 12 actions against 52 defendants, and permanently barred 30 companies and individuals from the debt collection industry. The agency said in a recent statement that it obtained almost $94 million in judgments against debt collectors.

Among the bad practices that have drawn fire from regulators in recent years are these:

— One big bank robo-called a couple 700 times over four years and followed up with letters threatening foreclosure; a judge ordered the bank to pay the couple $1 million.

— A Georgia firm collected $4 million for nonexistent offenses, claiming it had been hired by the federal government; federal officials say these phony collectors have operated in all 50 states.

— A collector threatened a central Maine consumer, who recorded the phone conversation. A transcript of the conversation persuaded the company — which was licensed to do business in Maine — that it should let the employee find work elsewhere.

2015 Debt Collection Booklet.pub

Click image to read online.

David Leach, Principal Examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said more than 1,000 debt collection companies are licensed in Maine and that the majority of them abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, Leach said the number of complaints about scammers or unlicensed collectors is “enormous and growing.” Call the bureau at 800-DEBT-LAW with your questions about debt collection or to receive a copy of “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection” or read the guide online .

The Maine Bar Association reminds consumers that Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids bad language, calling people at work, telling others about someone’s debt and other harassment. It also prohibits using phony letterheads to imitate law enforcement and threats of legal action they can’t take. For general information (not legal advice), visit the Bar Association’s website, mainebar.org/lawyer-referral/legal-information/maine-fair-debt-collection-practices.aspx.

While we’ve written about debt collection before (see Consumer Forum, 12/7/2015 on our blog), some points bear repeating. If a collector calls about an old debt, don’t send money without question. Make sure the debt is really yours by having the collector detail the amount owed and to whom it is owed. Have the collector mail the details to you, and get a physical location of the collector’s place of business. If you do pay, send a check rather than sending funds by wire.

The FTC has published a list of companies that it has banned from further debt collection activities. You can see that list at ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/banned-debt-collectors.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some imposter 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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Being a smart consumer starts with knowing when not to spend

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 29, 2016, at 1:44 p.m.

Last week, many financial and government agencies marked America Saves Week. Military Saves Week, focused on families of armed services personnel, took place at the same time.

The occasions reminded us of a hard reality of our economic lives: It’s never too soon, or too late, to start saving. The sooner the better, of course; but saving is a habit that must be learned, whenever the lesson comes.

For Karen Amador Lesetmoe, a single mom in the U.S. Navy, the lesson began eight years ago. Tired of living paycheck to paycheck, she made the checklist of income and expenses that most smart savers make. She cut expenses to the bone, paid off credit card debt first and socked away every spare cent in savings. She paid off loans as fast as she could.

Now, she’s well on the way to a secure financial future. She’s such a believer in saving as a way of life that she told her fiancé she would not marry him until he paid off his $18,000 in credit card debt.

“We got married last month!” she wrote triumphantly on the Military Saves website (www.militarysaves.org).

America Saves Week is an educational effort to raise awareness about saving; the program is managed by the Consumer Federation of America. Organizers hope that consumers will practice good budgeting and saving habits year-round.

Read more about the campaign at www.americasaves.org and www.AmericaSavesWeek.org.

The American Savings Education Council, or ASEC, is a program of the Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund. It’s a nonprofit coalition of public- and private-sector groups that strive to make saving and retirement planning priorities for everyone. Read more about the council’s efforts at www.choosetosave.org/asec.

Another observance comes along next week, with a broader focus. National Consumer Protection Week (March 6-12) reminds all of us that it takes a lot more than a fat wallet to be a good consumer. We need to take primary responsibility for our own economic well-being. And if we’re really responsible citizens, we’ll pass helpful information on to others.

There are plenty of helpful tips and links at the Consumer Protection Week website, www.ncpw.gov. One blog entry cautions consumers that promises to lower student loan or mortgage payments may instead be schemes to take your money and give you nothing in return.

Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions website includes a number of links on a range of consumer topics, from bankruptcy to unclaimed property. Visit www.maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/index.shtml and find “consumer library” under the Consumer Tools listing.

The U.S. Office of Comptroller of the Currency website includes updates, events and resources on financial literacy. Use the free resources you’ll find at the site (www.occ.gov/topics/community-affairs/resource-directories/financial-literacy/financial-literacy-update.html).

You may know all you need to know about saving and being a smart consumer. If so, pay it forward: Tell a friend or family member about the many, free resources that can help them be equally savvy.

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.

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.

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