Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

Feds say LifeLock broke online data security promises

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 26, 2015, at 2:39 p.m.
The commercials seemed reassuring.

They led viewers to believe LifeLock could keep consumers’ sensitive data as safe as some financial institutions. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission called such claims deceptive and told LifeLock executives to stop making such claims.

In fact, the FTC told LifeLock the same thing back in 2010. That’s when the company, FTC and 35 state attorneys general — including Maine’s — reached a settlement requiring LifeLock to stop making deceptive claims, to tighten up the way it safeguards the information it collects from consumers and to pay $12 million in refunds to consumers.

Last week, the FTC filed documents with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. The agency claims the documents prove LifeLock violated the 2010 order by falling short in three areas:

— Failing to protect customers’ sensitive data.

— Falsely advertising that it used the same high-level safeguards as financial institutions to safeguard those data.

— Failing to meet recordkeeping requirements set forth in the 2010 order.

Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, doesn’t have much of a sense of humor when she thinks agreements aren’t being followed.

“It is essential that companies live up to their obligations under orders obtained by the FTC,” she said. “If a company continues with practices that violate orders and harm consumers, we will act.”

The Associated Press quoted a LifeLock spokesman as saying the FTC actions relate to past practices and that the company is prepared to defend itself in court. LifeLock says it has been talking and cooperating with the FTC for the past year and a half.

The documents filed with the court are sealed, so we don’t know what information the FTC has to back up its claims. The court will decide which documents would be unsealed.

Consumers still need to decide how best to protect their sensitive data. Some may feel paying LifeLock or a similar company amounts to money well spent. Others may feel they can do the best job of keeping an eye on their own credit card statements, getting their free annual credit reports and doing everything else necessary to keep their personal and financial data secure.

Consumer Reports advises that, whatever consumers do, they should act fast if they discover their Social Security numbers have been accessed. Consumer Reports advises putting a security freeze on credit reports with the three major reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. That would keep creditors from accessing your file if a crook tries to open a new account in your name — without that access, creditors are likely to deny the application.

If you’re not a victim of identity theft, the freeze should cost no more than $6, according to a change in the law approved during the last session of the Maine Legislature. If your identity has been stolen, there is usually no charge to freeze your account.

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.

Report: Student loan firms still mistreating military members

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted July 19, 2015, at 10:09 p.m.
In May of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation entered an order that provided $60 million to compensate more than 77,000 military service members.

The action was against Sallie Mae and Navient — which formerly were one company — and followed numerous complaints about the educational loan benefits the service people should have received.

Now, 14 months later, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, published a report saying problems with educational loans persist.

The report, titled “Overseas & Underserved: Student Loan Servicing and the Cost to Our Men and Women in Uniform,” cites ongoing mistakes in the ways loan payments by service members are handled and the denial of legal benefits, negative credit reporting and sloppy legal remedies that often follow.

Congress passed the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, to help ease financial burdens on men and women in the military.

The law includes a ceiling on interest rates for military people who assumed student loan debts before going on active duty. Federal student loans include deferment and forgiveness provisions for military service. Some private student lenders say they offer loan discharge, military deferment and other ways to ease the burden on families in the military.

The CFPB wrote a report in October 2012 citing many of the same problems. Since that report was issued, the bureau said it received another 1,300 complaints.

The report cites four major problem areas:

— Military deferments are denied with inadequate explanation, applied haphazardly and sometimes approved verbally but never applied, resulting in late fees, defaults and debt collection.

— Service members still struggle unnecessarily for SCRA protections, and loan servicers still appear not to understand the law.

— Military families continue to have problems with the disability discharge, and negative credit reporting can follow. Families also are unsure whether that benefit applies to private student loans as well as to federal loans. The uncertainty extends to co-signers looking for the same protections following the disability or death of a primary borrower.

— On top of loss of protections specific to military borrowers, complaints also show that servicing breakdowns can affect their financial and military readiness.

Language in the CFPB report makes it clear lenders need to understand and apply military deferment, discharge because of disability and SCRA interest rate reductions.

“Servicers must make the requirements, application process and communications regarding these programs clear, concise and free of unnecessary roadblocks,” the report states. In its conclusion, it recognizes that “no comprehensive statutory or regulatory framework exists” to ensure uniform servicing of all student loans.

At the Finance Authority of Maine, or FAME, Governmental Affairs and Communications Manager William Norbert said Maine service members have not reported any problems. He advises ongoing communication with lenders, especially when service people leave for or return from active duty.

If problems do arise, FAME has an ombudsman, or problem-solver, who can help, online at famemaine.com or by calling the agency at 207-623-3263 or 1-800-228-3734.

The U.S. Department of Education also has an ombudsman who can help military and non-military borrowers with student loan issues. For information, visit the DOE site at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/ or call toll free at 1-877-557-2575.

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.

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.

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