Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

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.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

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.

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.

Protect yourself against scams before filing taxes

CONSUMER FORUM

 

Posted Jan. 25, 2016, at 11:18 a.m.
Federal officials have termed them the biggest scams ever. Together, they cost consumers billions of dollars every year. And they use people’s fear of the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon.

The first starts with an unexpected phone call. You’re told that you owe taxes and must pay immediately or you’ll be jailed. What do you do?

An IRS official says, just hang up … it’s a scam.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have received multiple calls from different people, all posing as either IRS officials or law enforcement agents. All the callers claim that legal action is certain, unless they receive money via wire right away. A demand for immediate payment is the second tipoff that it’s a hoax.

The first was the threat of imprisonment.

The IRS does not typically call a taxpayer; the agency begins by sending a letter. It also does not seek payment by way of prepaid cards, and it does not have agents standing by with arrest warrants in case the taxpayer hesitates.

The criminals who use these techniques can be abusive, even threatening to hurt their victims. These hoax calls may originate halfway around the world — although a spoofed phone number may make them appear nearby — and any threatened action rarely happens.

The second major hoax involves the filing of a phony tax return. If a thief steals your name, birthdate and Social Security number, he or she can file a bogus return in your name. If the IRS doesn’t catch it, the agency might send a refund to the crook; it may not be until you file your legitimate return that the fraud is discovered.

The IRS has trained thousands of employees to help possible victims. It has also put in place a number of preventive measures, most of which it won’t discuss in order not to assist the scammers. In a public message last week, the IRS said it has teamed up with the states and tax preparers to “stop fraudulent returns at the door.”

One new piece of information from tax software providers will be the amount of time it took to prepare a return. That could be a tipoff when computer-generated returns are fraudulent and have been filed by the hundreds or thousands.

You can read about the new measures at IRS.gov/uac/IRS,-States-and-Tax-Industry-Deploy-New-Safeguards-for-2016.

Tax season brings with it a rash of scam artists trying new ideas. Crooks might point to last year’s hack of IRS computers, which compromised some information of about 200,000 taxpayers. They might pose as “IRS counselors” or “credit advisers” while their real goal is to steal more personal data.

IRS officials suggest that tax preparers do a “deep scan” of all their computer drives and devices to find malware and viruses that may hide in places that a “quick scan” can’t find. Firewalls and antivirus software also should be up to date; if you use a tax preparer, don’t be shy about asking if security systems are robust.

If you store your tax filings on your computer, make sure there’s a backup in case your hard drive crashes. If you store paper copies, keep them under lock and key (ideally in a fireproof container). Find more security and identity protection tips at IRS.gov.

If you get a phone call you suspect is a hoax attempt, call 800-366-4484 to find out if the caller is a real IRS employee with a legitimate reason to reach you. If a piece of mail seems suspicious, call 800-829-1040 to see if it’s legitimate.

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.

Fake IRS phone scammers more aggressive, sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 14, 2015, at 7:10 a.m.

Click image to report phishing and/or scams

Most consumers can spot a scam attempt almost as soon as they pick up the phone. However, one recent spate of calls has citizens and government officials concerned.

The callers pretend to represent the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. They claim they’re calling because taxes are past due; unless payment is made immediately, the caller threatens to file a lawsuit, seize property, even do them physical harm.

In the past two weeks, the Maine attorney general and Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, have issued warnings about these scams. Similar warnings from officials around the country show scammers are ramping up their efforts. And they’re doing so a lot earlier than usual.

The fake IRS scam usually hits high gear during the run-up to income tax season, that is, in February, March and early April. This year, however, crooks have been burning the phone lines pretending to be IRS agents, police officers, court officials and others who might be in the business of collecting delinquent taxes.

Except, they’re not. They’re just criminals trying to get you to wire them money you can never get back.

“It’s really unusual that they’ve started in December,” David Leach of BCCP said.

Leach said his office has received calls from across Maine. Many callers said they realized they were targets of a scam attempt; others said they didn’t realize they were being victimized until they had sent money they had no hopes of recovering.

As with most scams, the crooks demand that money be sent by wire transfer or prepaid cash cards. Both methods are untraceable, and crooks count on that fact — plus their scare tactics to make their scams work.

Aiding their schemes are electronic tactics, such as spoofing, which makes a phony number appear on caller ID devices. The criminals can make it appear they really are calling from an IRS office, when they may be halfway around the world.

The callers can make their threats sound real, but they’re as phony as the call itself. The real IRS never cold calls; it always sends a letter first — on real IRS stationery — and never asks for credit or debit card information or that money be sent by wire transfer or money card.

If a phone caller claims to be calling from the IRS office in Washington, at the very least the phone number should include a 202 area code. Ask for the agency’s exact name, physical address and the supervisor’s direct dial — not 800 — phone number. If you’re in doubt, locate the phone number of the real tax office and call to find out if you have taxes that are overdue. Don’t disclose personal information — date of birth, Social Security number, credit or bank account numbers — to unknown callers; you could become a victim of identity theft.

Report suspicious activity to the BCCP (1-800-332-8529), to an IRS office or to a federal law enforcement officer in Maine or Boston. The anti-scam guide Gone Phishing is available free to Maine residents who call BCCP at the number above or online at CreditMaine.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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers

%d bloggers like this: