Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

A few tips for safe, fun fireworks use

CONSUMER FORUM
Posted June 28, 2015, at 3:15 p.m.
Each Independence Day safety officials renew their advice regarding consumers who buy and use fireworks: Make sure everyone involved knows the items are not toys and are not to be used by children.

“I want to make sure people are aware that fireworks are for people 21 years of age and older,” Joseph Thomas, the state fire marshal, told me last week. Thomas noted young people suffer far too many hand and eye injuries because they are victims of fireworks-related accidents or because they have inappropriate access to fireworks.

Don’ let fun with fireworks turn tragic

 

The attraction is clear: They’re bright, colorful and noisy. Adults use them to celebrate, and children want to be part of the fun. The sad fact is that, in the month surrounding each Fourth of July, people make more trips to hospital emergency rooms because of fireworks mishaps. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated the total in 2013 at 11,400 injuries; the safety commission said one in four children hurt in fireworks-related incidents were bystanders at backyard fireworks displays.

The commission further states 240 people on average suffer fireworks-related injuries each day in the month surrounding July Fourth. Even sparklers — legal in most states where other fireworks can’t be sold — burn at 2,000 degrees and can cause serious burns.

Here is the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s top 10 list of what not to do when it comes to fireworks:

— Never allow young children to play with or light fireworks.

— Don’t buy fireworks wrapped in brown paper, which may be a sign of fireworks made for professional displays that could pose a danger to consumers.

— Always have an adult supervise fireworks in use.

— Don’t stand directly over a device when lighting the fuse; back up to a safe distance after igniting.

— Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.

— Never re-light or pick up fireworks that haven’t gone off.

— Never point or throw fireworks at anyone.

— Keep a bucket of water handy in case of fire.

— Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in glass or metal containers.

— Soak spent devices with plenty of water before discarding to prevent trash fires.

If your neighbor’s fireworks malfunction and burn down your house, your homeowner’s insurance likely will cover your loss — your insurer probably would try to recover the payout from your neighbor. If your fireworks burn down your neighbor’s house, you may be responsible for the property damage and suppression costs; however, your policy might only defend but not cover the loss. The Maine Bureau of Insurance can answer detailed questions at 207-624-8475. Types of coverage in typical homeowner’s policies are found on the Bureau’s website .

Check first to make sure fireworks are legal in your community. The state fire marshal’s office website has a map showing 39 Maine communities where fireworks are banned. If in doubt, call the fire marshal at 207-626-3870 or check with your local fire department.

In most Maine communities, fireworks use by consumers is a given. As Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas put it, “if it’s going to happen, let’s make it happen as safely as possible.”

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.

Home equity loan payback crunch looms as next housing crisis

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 07, 2015, at 12:18 p.m.

Click image for Federal Reserve publication

Home equity loans offer homeowners a line of credit based on the value of their dwellings. A lot of homeowners opened home equity lines of credit, or HELOC, between 2005 and 2008, when the housing market crashed.

Today, HELOCs from that period total about $265 billion. Those loans are about to enter what’s called the drawdown period, when they have to be paid back. And while many of those loan arrangements allowed borrowing for interest-only payments over a 10-year period, borrowers will face principal-plus-interest payments that could be sharply higher.

Experian, one of the big three credit reporting agencies in the U.S., released a report not long ago citing concern over the end-of-draw issue.

“Between 2013 and 2014, there was a 307 percent increase in the number of 90-day delinquencies on HELOC loans for borrowers that were end of draw, compared to just 29 percent that were not end of draw,” Experian said in its report.

The report noted that the percentage of HELOCs that are 90 to 180 days past due, termed “late stage delinquent,” has dropped 0.5 percent from its peak of 1.81 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, more homeowners have been using HELOCs; new loans in the fourth quarter of last year were up 81 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010.

Experian’s report doesn’t predict either good or bad results of this increased borrowing, but its study does caution consumers to do their homework.

Michele Raneri, Experian’s vice president of analytics and business development, put it this way: “This analysis is critical, as we want to not only help lenders prepare and understand the payment stress of their borrowers but also give consumers an opportunity to understand what the impact may be to their financial status and how to be better prepared for it.”

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or OCC, sounded the alarm back in 2012, when about $11 billion in HELOCs reached the end-of-draw period. At that time, OCC predicted the figure would be $29 billion in 2014, $53 billion in 2015 and as much as $111 billion in 2018.

The crunch for borrowers could come when the Fed loosens its grip on interest rates.

The Experian study concludes that, if there is a significant balance on a consumer’s HELOC and that consumer must start repaying, those new payments could put the borrower in a financial squeeze.

Banks that finance the HELOCs generally reach out to consumers six to 12 months before the end of the draw period. They remind consumers of the approaching change in payments and offer to discuss options. Many of those consumers likely will turn to refinancing. Such programs usually operate on a variable interest rate; as an official of TD Bank recently was quoted as saying, “Nobody knows what rates will do a year from now.”

Consumers may want to talk with their loan officers or a financial adviser before deciding. You can read more about HELOCs in the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home, published by Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Read it online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide.rtf. Help also is available from the Bureau by calling 1-800-332-8529.

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.

Send flowers, not other people’s credit card numbers

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 31, 2015, at 2:26 p.m.

Until a couple of years ago, Florists’ Transworld Delivery Inc. and Classmates.com were affiliated companies. Now they’ve settled charges by the Federal Trade Commission that they engaged in misleading advertising and billing.

Maine is among 22 states that took legal action against the companies. A big part of the investigation focused on accusations that the companies used “negative option marketing” to snag customers who didn’t know what they were buying. Investigators looked at tactics, including subscriptions to Classmates that renewed automatically.

The probe also looked at the companies’ dealings with third-party marketers, including travel rewards programs, insurance plans and discount buying clubs, whose ads would “pop up” during transactions.

The states charged that Classmates and FTD shared consumers’ personal information, including credit card numbers. This practice, known as “data pass,” allowed customers to be charged for third-party offers if they did not opt out.

Congress put an end to data pass in Internet dealings by approving the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act in 2010.

In reaching the settlement, which will cost the two firms $11 million, FTD and Classmates admit no wrongdoing. FTD officials say they voluntarily stopped a third-party marketing program in early 2010.

Classmates also denied any wrongdoing. Part of the settlement statement deals with the companies’ denial: “The defendants are confident that if any of the alleged misconduct were to be litigated, the defendants would prevail on each and every claim asserted by the plaintiffs. However, to avoid the substantial burden and expense on the defendants that would result from continued investigation into these issues or litigation, the defendants have elected to resolve this matter through a consensual resolution.”

In the future, both companies say they will keep customers’ information from being passed on to third-party marketers without the consent of those customers.

Classmates also said it would work to make it easier for customers to end their subscriptions.

Both firms must be clear whether membership programs they may offer are their own or those of third parties. They also can’t use terms including “free” or “risk free” if a program will switch to a paid subscription.

Part of the settlement includes $3 million set aside by Classmates for refunds to customers who had signed up and later had problems canceling.

FTD will pay $8 million to the 22 states, including Maine, involved in the suit.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh used the announcement of the settlement to caution people. “Consumers should always carefully review service agreements and other add-on offers when making a purchase to ensure there are no strings attached,” Frosh said in a statement.

Consumers are advised that, to be eligible for restitution from Classmates, they must have purchased subscription services from the company between Jan. 1, 2008, and May 26, 2015

The deadline to file claims is Aug. 24. Mainers may file through Classmates or with the Maine Attorney General by writing to 6 State House Station, Augusta, ME, 04333, or by going online at http://consumer.mediation@maine.gov. If consumers have questions, they may call the Maine attorney general’s office at 1-800-436-2131.

Businesses and consumers can expect more enforcement actions in the future. FTC Guardian is a Georgia-based company — not affiliated with the Federal Trade Commission — which has suggestions for other entities that do online marketing. You can read this company’s advice at ftcguardian.com/articles/tragic-legal-mistake-4-continuity-programs-in-the-ftc-crosshairs/.

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.

The perils of not reading terms, conditions

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted May 17, 2015, at 6:50 a.m.

Dear Company X:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding my inquiry about your negative option policy. I understand your policy states that “purchases and renewals are non-refundable” and that it was in effect when I signed up for your “club.”

I’m confused because your response states “membership cancellation can only be completed prior to the next renewal date.” Lucky me, I have plenty of time, since this membership I’m trying to get out of lasts until next February.

And, yes, when first signing up I checked the little box that says I understand and agree to all the stuff that’s in your policy. For your convenience, at the bottom of this letter I’ve included a checkbox that says you understand that most consumers wouldn’t read these things if trapped alone on a desert island with nothing else to read.

Here’s what gets me, Company X. A request to cancel has to be made at least five days before my plan expires. Even if I do that, with about nine months of “service” left on my current membership, I get nothing back?

I got into this situation because I was looking for a renewal notice before my last membership ran out. I noticed the renewal charge on my credit card bill, which arrived too late for me to cancel. Why don’t you guys do what the magazine companies do and send renewal notices eight or nine months before our subscriptions run out? Why instead is your policy to say nothing and be signed up and charged again?

Click to read: Tragic (Legal) Mistake 4: Continuity Programs: In the FTC Crosshairs

I’m told this is called a negative option policy. This practice by your company and many others has drawn attention from some people in high places. Six years ago, the Federal Trade Commission had its staff look at four kinds of negative option plans. The staff examined automatic renewals, including mine. They also looked at pre-notification negative option plans, such as book or music clubs that send a periodic notice that a consumer will receive another selection. If the person does nothing, the company ships the selection and charges for it. The staff also looked at continuity plans, where consumers agree up front to receive goods or services until they cancel the agreement. There also are free-to-pay or nominal-fee-to-pay plans: After a trial period, sellers automatically start charging a fee — or increased fee — unless consumers affirmatively return the goods or cancel the services.

Then, Company X, there’s the upsell. Some companies pitch their negative options, seal the deal, then offer an additional product or service for a few dollars more. Or they bundle offers, so two or more products or services may only be purchased together.

The FTC staff work led to passage in 2010 of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, or ROSCA. As you know, ROSCA bans negative option deals unless the seller does the following:

— Clearly and conspicuously discloses all material terms before getting the consumer’s billing information.

— Gets the customer’s express informed consent before making the charge.

— Sets up a simple way to prevent recurring charges.

I’m sure you folks at Company X wouldn’t diminish my consuming experience by failing to comply with the law just to make a few dollars more.

DirecTV incurred the FTC’s wrath by allegedly failing to make clear what the rates were when a nifty introductory offer was up. There apparently was some concern about the fees people were paying to get out of the deal, too.

Your company and others may be watching to see if DirecTV appeals. Or maybe you think it’s better for all businesses to be clear and conspicuous with their offers so we all know where we stand. Please check here if you agree — uh, that’s called affirmative consent.

Have a nice day.

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.

FTC Launches New Resource for Identity Theft Victims

IdentityTheft.gov Helps People Report and Recover from Identity Theft

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

May 14, 2015

The Federal Trade Commission has launched IdentityTheft.gov, a new resource that makes it easier for identity theft victims to report and recover from identity theft. A Spanish version of the site is also available at RobodeIdentidad.gov.

The new website provides an interactive checklist that walks people through the recovery process and helps them understand which recovery steps should be taken upon learning their identity has been stolen. It also provides sample letters and other helpful resources.

In addition, the site offers specialized tips for specific forms of identity theft, including tax-related and medical identity theft. The site also has advice for people who have been notified that their personal information was exposed in a data breach.

Identity theft has been the top consumer complaint reported to the FTC for the past 15 years, and in 2014, the Commission received more than 330,000 complaints from consumers who were victims of identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook(link is external), follow us on Twitter(link is external), and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

Phony medication call centers target military families

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 10, 2015, at 4:35 p.m.

Click image to read TRICARE’s April 10th article

The Defense Health Agency has been warning military families and veterans covered by TRICARE about scams involving “call centers.” Callers ask clients to reveal personal and medical information over the phone, with promises to help them get medications.

TRICARE is a civilian health care program run by the U.S. Department of Defense Military Health System. It offers benefits for active duty service people, retirees and their families. The program was formerly known as the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services, or CHAMPUS.

A call from a “call center” generally begins with the caller claiming to be from a sound-alike agency, “calling to tell you about a prescription pain cream you qualify for that TRICARE will cover.” The caller chats up the client — sometimes using personal information gleaned from Google or other sources — and asks for the name of the client’s doctor and other TRICARE information.

“TRICARE will never call beneficiaries and ask for personal information,” Defense Health Agency spokesman Kevin Dwyer said.

But others will, including a host of less-than-reputable companies that deal in compounded prescriptions.

A recent article on the Military Times website notes a huge increase in compounded medications, from $5 million in 2004 to over $700 million in the first three months of this year.

The boom in sales has attracted aggressive marketers, who cold call TRICARE clients, ask if they have certain medical needs and if so, whether they are interested in compound medications. The meds can cost a few hundred dollars to more than $9,000 for a prescription.

The Military Times article cites an ad on Craigslist searching for both customers and sales representatives. The ad claimed meds are “handcrafted for every individual” and formulated to help deal with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to chronic pain and scars.

Supporters of the compounding industry say the majority of its members are small companies that try to help patients and want a fair price in return. But the entry of hustlers during a time of changing regulation has put the industry under a microscope.

Starting May 1, Express Scripts, which administers the TRICARE pharmacy program, is under orders to screen every ingredient in compounded meds to make sure substances meet Food and Drug Administration regulations. TRICARE will cover those with allowable ingredients; others will have to be reformulated or will need prior approval to be covered.

[questions and answers about TRICARE’s new compound drug policy]

It’s unclear how many recent prescriptions may not be reimbursable.

In any case, those cold calls are likely to keep coming.

TRICARE officials say beneficiaries should never reveal personal or financial information over the phone. If they receive such a call, they’re urged to call Express Scripts at 866-759-6139 or 866-216-7096 or email fraudtip@express-scripts.com.

Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, alerted Northeast CONTACT to the cold calling. She urges all seniors who receive similar calls to avoid revealing personal and financial information.

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.

 

A quick means to looking older — not in a good way

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted April 26, 2015, at 11:22 a.m.

After several days of cloudy weather, most of us may not be worrying about getting too much sun. With prom and beach seasons approaching, many people are looking for ways to get a suntan going.

However, many medical professionals are concerned about overexposure to sunshine, specifically to ultraviolet rays, or UVR. Some who treat skin disorders are especially concerned about the use of tanning beds by young people.

WebMD reports UVR exposure damages fibers in our skin called elastin. That breakdown causes the skin to sag and stretch and to lose its ability to go back into shape after stretching.

The bottom line: UVR exposure can make us look older, sooner.

In February, researchers at Yale University released results of a study on UVR exposure. They found evidence of a chemical chain reaction that can damage DNA more than three hours after exposure. They said it’s not clear how many skin cancers may result from this previously unknown reaction.

Click image to view “Are teens heeding the warnings on tanning beds?”

Tanning beds have been the focus of attention of many health experts, because their UVR is more concentrated than the sun’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires sunlamps and tanning beds to carry a warning that people younger than 18 should not use these products.

An FDA website on tanning, found at fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/default.htm, declares repeated UV exposure from sunlamp products “poses a risk of skin cancer for all users.”

Jeffrey Shuren, the doctor in charge of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says, “the highest risk for skin cancer is in young persons under the age of 18 and people with a family history of skin cancer.”

Last July, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer.” The document notes that, while genetic factors — being fair-skinned, having a family history of skin cancer — may heighten a person’s risk, the most common types of skin cancer are strongly associated with UV radiation and that exposure to UV is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

At least 42 states regulate the use of tanning beds. Eleven states ban their use by children younger than 18.

In Maine, anyone under age 14 may not use commercial tanning beds; 14- and 15-year-olds must have a parent’s permission.

A bill to raise the age to 18 passed two years ago but was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. A similar bill was introduced this year but did not pass.

Critics of regulation say links between UVR exposure and development of tumors are based on “circumstantial data and inference, rather than clinical trials and sound scientific data.”

Some also charge public cautions are aimed at younger women, while statistics show men are twice as likely as women to die of melanoma.

Tanning isn’t just about perceived good looks. It’s a $5 billion industry that thrives based on what many consumers are told constitutes a “healthy look.”

The FDA disagrees, stating on its website, “UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin.” Visit the FDA website, FDA.gov, and search “tanning risks” to learn more about tanning beds in particular and the health risks of UVR exposure in general.

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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