Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

What happens when the feds issue a product recall order


Posted Oct. 24, 2016, at 9:02 a.m.

A recent column dealt with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s settlement with Best Buy after the retailer sold goods that had been recalled.

Northeast CONTACT asked attorney Regan A. Sweeney of Portland, a former trial attorney with CPSC, for some insights into the agency’s actions:

NEC: Does CPSC have a standard procedure when negotiating recalls, or is each case unique?

Sweeney: Your question raises a good point, which is that 99.9 percent of CPSC’s recalls are negotiated with the companies and are voluntary; they are not unilaterally decided by CPSC or forced on the companies. The procedure’s generally the same: the CPSC gets incident reports for a product, evaluates the hazard, opens an investigation, and where it finds a substantial hazard, it negotiates with the company for a recall. Because products are unique, recalls are tailored to the product, the hazard and the remedy being addressed.

NEC: In the Best Buy case, the sale of recalled products went on for some time. Why couldn’t CPSC act more quickly to stop those sales?

Sweeney: Because civil penalty cases are negotiated confidentially between the company and the CPSC, we’ll likely never know the details of the case. The settlement agreement tends to indicate that there were a very small number of recalled products that were similar to non-recalled products currently for sale, and a few were sold to consumers due to poor record-keeping and product tracking on Best Buy’s part. The settlement agreement is intentionally short on details, so we’ll never know what the CPSC knew when.

NEC: What about consumer products made overseas?

Sweeney: Federal laws require that a U.S.-based entity be responsible for imported products and for any recall, if necessary. Internet sales create a wrinkle in this, as they’re not considered sales in the U.S. Products purchased online directly from a foreign manufacturer or distributor wouldn’t be covered by CPSC’s laws, so consumers should always buy from a reputable, U.S. based distributor or retailer whenever possible.

NEC: How can consumers be sure they’re not buying recalled items at yard sales or flea markets?

Sweeney: CPSC maintains a database of all recalls announced, sortable by product type, brand, etc., but there’s currently no efficient way of checking that list short of running searches and looking through the listings. When shopping at places like that, use a smartphone to take a picture of the product and do an internet search for the product name and/or model number. Search CPSC’s site,, for the same things.

Even then, here’s a short list of products you should never buy used at a yard sale or flea market:

— Cribs. Federal crib standards and laws changed drastically in 2011, adding a lot of new safety requirements and making it illegal to resell any crib made before then. More importantly, a crib in a yard sale may not have been properly assembled, may have been subject to abuse that caused damage you can’t see, may have been fixed with unsafe homemade repairs, or have other potential problems. Using a replacement mattress in an old crib can create entrapment and asphyxiation hazards.

— Car Seats. It may be impossible to tell by sight if it’s already been in a car crash, thereby significantly reducing its ability to absorb another impact. Many are designed to work only with specific components and parts from that manufacturer; trying to pair it with other parts may render it unsafe.

— Soft Plastic Child Care Articles and Toys. CPSC’s rules over the years have evolved to prohibit certain plastic compounds — phthalates in particular — as they can migrate from the material to a child. These are relatively new rules and testing for these components is complex, not something recognizable by eye or touch, so steer clear of these items as they may not meet the new requirements.

Sweeney says companies that agree to a recall are required to have a website and a toll-free U.S. number for consumers to call to get the recall remedy and usually have to make the remedy available indefinitely. People who can’t get through on a toll-free number, don’t get a response from the website, or can’t readily get the remedy should visit CPSC online at or call 800-638-2772.

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 or email

Homeland security starts at our keyboards


Posted Oct. 17, 2016, at 6:47 a.m.

Here’s one of those too-good-to-be-true offers — except it’s true.

Small businesses can get access to free tools to help keep their computer data — and their customers’ information — secure. Those tools are found on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or DHS.

Owners of some businesses may think they’re too small for hackers to care about. DHS says quite the opposite may be true. Small businesses have customer information that cyber criminals want: bank account information, employee and customer records, and access to the finances of the business.

Perhaps most troubling is potential access to larger computer networks.

Smaller businesses can be tempting targets for crooks because they likely have fewer staffers skilled in cyber security. While the payoff for the thieves may be smaller, ransomware may work its nasty wonders on many small businesses — in 2012, DHS estimates half of all cyber attacks were aimed at firms with fewer than 2,500 employees.

To shop for those free tools, visit

Yes, it’s a long address. No, don’t Google “safeguard computer data” and shop from the ads that appear. The resources on the DHS site are free.

At the homepage you can begin with a frank look at what DHS calls the “threat environment.” It’s a one-page overview that doesn’t talk down to people who are not versed in computer lingo, while giving security-rich companies a road map to further reducing vulnerabilities.

Each business owner can choose the tool that works for that business. There’s a half-hour introduction to securing data in small businesses at

The Small Biz Cyber Planner covers insurance, advanced spyware and ways to install protective software at

Global problems need global solutions. DHS, the National Cyber Security Alliance and the Anti-Phishing Working Group have joined forces in an awareness campaign they call Stop, Think, Connect at

The campaign has focused on educating computer users to think twice or more before clicking on anything. They also urge users to trust their instincts; if it seems too good to be true, it is.

Closer to home, the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, has been observing National Cyber Security Awareness Month. MEMA has offered a series of tips which you can read at You can also sign up for daily email tips on preparing for all kinds of emergencies.

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 or email

Guard against buying recalled items that are sold as safe


Posted Oct. 10, 2016, at 7:35 a.m.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission or CPSC came down hard last week on Best Buy. The retailer agreed to a $3.8 million civil penalty for distributing and selling products that had been recalled earlier.

Selling goods that are subject to “voluntary corrective action,” including a recall, is a violation of federal law. While agreeing to settle the case, a CPSC statement said “Best Buy’s settlement of this matter does not constitute an admission of CPSC staff’s charges.”

The commission said that between September 2010 and October 2015, Best Buy sold about 600 recalled items, including more than 400 Canon cameras. Other sales included recalled notebook computers, TVs, kitchen appliances and audio gear. Problems that prompted the recalls included overheating and skin irritation.

The CPSC statement said sales continued even after Best Buy told the agency that it had taken steps to reduce the risk that recalled products would be sold.

“While the number of items accidentally sold was small, even one was too many,” Best Buy’s senior director of external communications Jeff Shelman told Fortune.

Best Buy says it will set up a program to make sure that it complies with the Consumer Product Safety Act, including a system to appropriately dispose of recalled products.

You can find a list of the recalled products Best Buy sold at the CPSC website

The list includes contact information for the companies involved in the recalls; check with them regarding remedies.

Last November, CPSC and Home Depot issued an alert that 28 different products had been sold by the home improvement chain. A total of just more than 2,300 items may have ended up in consumers’ homes; about 1,300 were sold by Home Depot, and 1,000 were sent to salvagers or recyclers who could have sold them to consumers, according to CPSC.

See that list at

Keeping up with recalls can be a challenge for businesses and consumers, but you can be notified about some of them. Six federal agencies list recall information at, where you can sign up to receive email notification of new recalls involving four of the agencies — CPSC, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Marden’s Surplus and Salvage is likely the major source of salvaged consumer goods in Maine. Harold “Ham” Marden is the primary buyer for many items. He said, “We don’t have a formal protocol [for tracking recalls] but we are constantly checking the lists.”

Marden said his co-workers are especially concerned about recalled baby clothes but that they do their best to check all stock against published recalls.

“Our people are watching as closely as they can,” he said.

Consumers who buy used goods from smaller dealers or at flea markets and yard sales need to do their own checking.

Another federal government website has links to agencies that track recalls involving food, medicines, medical devices, vehicles (including devices such as child car seats) and a wide range of other consumer products. Get started at or call toll-free 1-844-USA-GOV1 (1-844-872-4681).

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 or email

Americans waste a ridiculous amount of food


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Aug. 29, 2016, at 11:31 a.m.

Click image to learn more at NRDC

The figures are more than troubling. With thousands of Mainers at risk of hunger every day and with so many resources used in the production of food, the amount that we waste is staggering.

By conservative estimates, 20 percent of all food we grow or buy is wasted. More pessimistic estimates put the figure at closer to 40 percent.

People who have looked into the issue say the figures don’t have to be even close to what they are.

In a white paper four years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council said getting food from the farm to our tables:

— Uses 50 percent of U.S. land.
— Requires 10 percent of our energy budget.
— Consumes 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the U.S.

The NRDC estimates that cutting food waste by 15 percent would help feed more than 25 million Americans every year. The Environmental Protection Agency says about 95 percent of the food we throw out goes to landfills or combustion facilities. In landfills, food breaks down to form methane gas.There’s more at the EPA website at

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has guidance about the differences between “sell by,” “use by” and “expiration” dates. Visit and search “food product dating.”

Last fall, USDA and EPA set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. We’re always leery of benchmarks measured in decades, but this one seems to have a chance.

In 2013, the two agencies issued the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, helping people and groups find ways to reduce, recover and recycle food. By the end of 2014, the agencies said the challenge had more than 4,000 participants — well over its initial goal of reaching 1,000 participants by 2020.

College students are leading the charge through something called the Food Recovery Network. In a paper prepared for a symposium last spring, leaders of the five-year-old network wrote “we are challenging the status quo, making food recovery the norm and not the exception.”

We know this is an issue that resonates. People reacted strongly when Shaw’s Supermarkets stopped donating food to groups that work to feed hungry families. Shaw’s reversed field, at least partly at the urging of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has introduced two bills to reduce food waste.

A provision in the Food Recovery Act passed the House in December. It creates an “enhanced” tax deduction for grocery stores, farmers and restaurants that donate excess food to soup kitchens, food banks and the like.

The Food Date Labeling Act would replace the current, often confusing system with two labels: one citing quality through a “best if used by” designation and one stating when a food will become unsafe (“expires on”).

Consumers can help by shopping in our refrigerators first and using up leftovers. We can make meal plans so that we buy just what we need, and buy in bulk only if we’ll use things while they’re still good. We can store things that will last and use up what won’t. We can donate excess produce from our gardens to agencies that help feed the hungry.

We can urge food-centered businesses to follow our lead. We can urge our elected leaders to work for effective changes and steer away from rules for rules’ sake. We can think about the nutritional value of food and maybe overlook a bruise or brown spot. We can do more.

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 or email

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated


Posted July 18, 2016, at 6:30 a.m.

A consumer wrote to Northeast CONTACT recently, saying she was concerned about a series of offers to extend some of her magazine subscriptions.

What tripped her radar was a discrepancy in expiration dates; one notice said a certain magazine subscription ended in September, another indicated November. Return envelopes for two magazines both were addressed to the same post office box in Texas.

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely. has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

The fakers operate under so many names that finding and stopping them usually is a challenge.

In March 2015 the attorneys general of New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Texas sued a network of companies claiming to offer “one of the lowest available rates.” Prosecutors contended the actual charges were about twice those of legitimate subscriptions.

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

Simply because they want your credit card number so they can run up charges you haven’t authorized. You lose your money and don’t get your renewal.

In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against several individuals and companies that it said were deceiving consumers. The companies allegedly sent renewal notices for some 375 newspapers — none of which had consented — to people claiming to offer bargain rates on subscriptions.

In fact, the FTC found that those prices were a lot higher than regular rates. The agency is trying to get at least partial refunds for affected consumers.

Newsmagazine The Nation published the names of two dozen companies that it said were making unauthorized subscription offers. Read the list at

The magazine industry has long opposed efforts to change what it calls “advance consent,” under which subscriptions can be automatically extended unless the subscriber opts out. This is what the FTC calls a “negative option.” The agency looked at strengthening its longstanding rule on negative option but decided two years ago to leave it as is.

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at

Renewal services are good, bad and in-between. Some may offer real deals, while others say you’ll save while you’ll actually pay more. Bottom line with most of them is this: You’ll probably get your magazine, but be ready for any “introductory offers” never to return again.

Many consumers are abandoning print subscriptions and reading magazines online, a free service of MARVEL! a statewide service on any Maine computer. Bangor Public Library patrons can use Flipster to read magazines on all their devices.

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 or email

Volkswagen agrees to settle on charges it misled consumers about their ‘Clean Diesel’ technology


June 30, 2016

AUGUSTA – Attorney General Janet T. Mills today announced a settlement requiring Volkswagen to pay more than $570 million to states for violating state laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices by marketing, selling and leasing diesel vehicles equipped with illegal and undisclosed defeat device software. The settlement also establishes an environmental mitigation fund of $2.7 billion. This agreement is part of a series of state and federal settlements that will provide cash payments to affected consumers, require Volkswagen to buy back or modify certain VW and Audi 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, and prohibit Volkswagen from engaging in future unfair or deceptive acts and practices in its dealings with consumers and regulators.

These coordinated settlements resolve consumer protection claims raised by a multistate coalition of State Attorneys General joined by 43 states and jurisdictions against Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Porsche AG and Porsche Cars, North America, Inc. – collectively referred to as Volkswagen. They also resolve actions against Volkswagen brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), California and car owners in private class action suits.

“Volkswagen groomed an image to lead customers to believe they were making a purchase that was environmentally sound,” said Attorney General Mills. “It turns out their ‘clean diesel’ technology was anything but. Maine consumers were particularly impressed with this marketing, as demonstrated by data showing Maine had among the highest per capita VW ownership in the country. These settlements show that we will not tolerate this kind of manipulation in the market place.”

The investigation of the attorneys general confirmed that Volkswagen sold more than 570,000 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel vehicles in the United States equipped with “defeat device” software intended to circumvent applicable emissions standards for certain air pollutants, and actively concealed the existence of the defeat device from regulators and the public. There were 3,982 affected vehicles sold in Maine. Volkswagen made false statements to consumers in their marketing and advertising, misrepresenting the cars as environmentally friendly or “green” and that the cars were compliant with federal and state emissions standards, when, in fact, Volkswagen knew the vehicles emitted harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOx) at rates many times higher than the law permitted.

Under the settlements, Volkswagen is required to implement a restitution and recall program for more than 475,000 owners and lessees of 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, of the model year 2009 through 2015 listed in the chart below at a maximum cost of just over $10 billion. This includes 3,982 vehicles in Maine.

Once the consumer program is approved by the court, affected Volkswagen owners will receive restitution payment of at least $5,100 and a choice between:

• A buy back of the vehicle (based on pre-scandal NADA value); or • A modification to reduce NOx emissions provided that Volkswagen can develop a modification acceptable to regulators. Owners will still be eligible to choose a buyback in the event regulators do not approve a fix. Owners who choose the modification option would also receive an Extended Emission Warranty; and a Lemon Law-type remedy to protect against the possibility that the modification causes subsequent problems.

The consumer program also provides benefits and restitution for lessees (restitution and a no-penalty lease termination option) and sellers after September 18, 2015 when the emissions-cheating scandal was disclosed (50 percent of the restitution available to owners). Additional components of today’s settlements include:

• Environmental Mitigation Fund: Volkswagen will pay $2.7 billion into a trust to support environmental programs throughout the country to reduce emissions of NOx. This fund, also subject to court approval, is intended to mitigate the total, lifetime excess NOx emissions from the 2.0-liter diesel vehicles identified below. Under the terms of the mitigation trust, Maine is eligible to receive approximately $20 million to fund mitigation projects to be determined by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

• Additional Payment to the States: In addition to consumer restitution, Volkswagen will pay to the states more than $1,000 per car for repeated violations of state consumer protection laws, amounting to $570 million nationwide. This amount includes $3,651,270 for affected vehicles Volkswagen sold and leased in Maine.

• Zero Emission Vehicles: Volkswagen has committed to investing $2 billion over the next 10 years for the development of non-polluting cars, or Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV), and supporting infrastructure.

• Preservation of Environmental Claims: Today’s settlement by state attorneys general preserves all claims under state environmental laws, and Maine maintains the right to seek additional penalties from Volkswagen for its violations of environmental and emissions laws and regulations.

Volkswagen will also pay $20 million to the National Association of Attorneys General to establish a fund that state attorneys general can utilize for future training and initiatives, including investigations concerning emissions violations, automobile compliance, and consumer protection.

The full details of the consumer program will be available online at and

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall 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, visit or email

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

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