Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

New food-labeling rules aim to make Americans less fat

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 30, 2015, at 3:12 p.m.
The expert in statistics in his field at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said we need to think of diabetes as an iceberg.

Roughly 29 million Americans have diabetes, mainly Type 2, which is closely linked to weight issues. However, the CDC’s Edward Gregg said about 28 percent of adults with diabetes don’t know they have it, while another one-third of all adults are considered at high risk for diabetes.

The undetected cases represent the part of the iceberg that’s under water.

Experts say three factors account for the country’s increasing obesity problem: larger portion sizes, greater sugar intake and less exercise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking aim at the first of those factors.

Click image for additional FDA resources

The FDA is proposing new rules for companies listing the contents of their packaged foods. The Nutrition Facts Label first appeared 20 years ago. Last March, the FDA began the long process of changing it. The agency hopes consumers’ knowledge will grow in three broad areas:

Understanding the science: New labels will contain information about “added sugars,” update values of sodium dietary fiber and vitamin D and list amounts of potassium and vitamin D, now declared “nutrients of public health significance.” You’ll still see “total fat,” “saturated fat” and “trans fat” on labels, but “calories from fat” will disappear. The FDA’s reasoning: “type of fat is more important than the amount.”

Serving size and per package labels: The ways many of us eat and drink today have changed since serving sizes first were set two decades ago. New labeling rules require that packaged foods normally eaten in one sitting be labeled as a “single serving” and nutrient information be listed for the whole package. Some packages that may be consumed either in one sitting or multiple sittings will need “dual column” labels; those will indicate “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrient information.

The FDA has little bit of wiggle room on the serving size issue. “By law, the label information on serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating,” its website states.

Updated design: Calorie counts and serving sizes will be more prominent, and the percent daily value of ingredients will move to the left, so it’s read first. The percent daily value, or %DV, tells consumers how much of certain ingredients they get from that food in the context of a daily diet.

Food manufacturers have not been idle. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute have been actively promoting voluntary front-of-label nutrient listings. The industry’s Facts Up Front website, factsupfront.org, suggested at the time the program was announced that “manufacturers may also include information on one or two nutrients to encourage,” a less robust revealing of information than the FDA label rules would require.

Not everyone loves the timing of FDA’s proposed changes. Back in 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the agency to require more prominent counting of calories and revealing the nutrient content of realistic serving sizes. In a letter to FDA last year, the center urged action to prevent “the possible unintended consequence that some consumers view serving sizes as portion recommendations.”

If FDA’s goal is to get Americans to eat less, four studies cited in the journal Appetite suggest the opposite. In one study, 78 percent of participants thought “serving size” meant the amount of food that can or should be consumed at a sitting. Taken together, the writers say the studies “suggest that the proposed nutrition facts label’s increased serving sizes may lead people who use this information as a reference to serve more food to themselves and others.”

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.

 

Legal questions swirl about off-label use of medications

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 23, 2015, at 1:38 p.m.

Maine is among the states that will share in a $71 million settlement of the lawsuit against drug manufacturer Amgen.

Click image to see other Off-Label decisions on the DOJ site

The states bringing the suit alleged Amgen promoted biologic medications Aranesp and Enbrel for off-label uses. Their complaint said the company promoted the use of Aranesp for longer periods than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved.

The complaint also charged that Amgen claimed Aranesp could fight anemia caused by cancer without having either FDA approval or scientific research to support that claim.

The complaint said the company also promoted Enbrel as effective in treating mild plaque psoriasis; the FDA has approved use of the drug only to treat chronic-moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. The complaint also charged that Amgen overstated the length of time Embrel was effective in treating psoriasis.

The settlement was announced last week by several state attorneys general. In a statement, Amgen said the settlement resolves some of the same matters as in a 2012 settlement with the federal government. Under the settlement with the states, Amgen did not admit any wrongdoing or liability.

Maine also was a party to the December 2012 settlement. A U.S. Department of Justice news release at that time said the company paid $612 million to resolve lawsuits under the False Claims Act and $150 million in criminal penalties and forfeiture.

In its statement sent to Northeast CONTACT, Amgen said, “separate state and federal resolutions of the same underlying issues is the normal practice in such legal matters.”

The company added it has a “strong compliance program, and our management is dedicated to fostering a culture of doing the right thing at Amgen in full compliance with the law.”

The company also says all Aranesp-related conduct that riled regulators took place during the years 2002 and 2007; it says all Enbrel-related conduct happened between 2004 and 2011.

Over the years, pharmaceutical companies have handed over billions of dollars to settle claims of misbehavior. Federal regulators don’t want drug company reps talking to doctors about off-label uses of drugs; manufacturers have maintained they should be able to have such conversations, as long as they are truthful.

In May, Amarin Pharma filed suit against the FDA, saying it had a constitutional right to share information with doctors. Lawyers for the company say they believe it is the first time the FDA has been sued pre-emptively over the free speech issue.

Floyd Abrams, attorney for Amarin, put it this way in an interview with Business Day: “If you tell the truth — if you’re not misleading — then the First Amendment protects you when you provide this sort of information.”

Dr. Michael Carome of the advocacy group Public Citizen holds the opposite view.

“If this lawsuit were to succeed, it would be devastating for drug safety and undermine the drug approval process,” Carome said.

If it goes that far, a court might rule either broadly or narrowly, making an outcome tough to predict. Consumers can best protect themselves by carefully reading the data sheets that come with their prescription meds. If what your doctor tells you doesn’t match the intended uses in the instructions, start asking questions.

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.

Beware of phony subscription offers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 16, 2015, at 1:33 p.m.

Click image to read FTC tips

The Wall Street Journal’s website includes a caution to readers about new subscriptions and renewals. It notes that certain shady types pretend to represent the publication when their real purpose is simply to rip people off.

The open letter from Christina Komporlis, head of circulation service for Dow Jones & Company, says fraudulent offers came from companies called National Magazine Services, Orbital Publishing and Publishers Billing Exchange. She says none of those entities has any connection with The Wall Street Journal or Barron’s Magazine.

The website further cautions readers not to disclose personal or financial information — especially bank account or credit card data — to anyone from those companies. Komporlis writes she would appreciate having such fraudulent correspondence forwarded to her at reportsubscriptionfraud@dowjones.com.

The Wall Street Journal encourages people with questions to call, so I did. A nice customer service rep told me the publishers posted the notice to encourage caution among readers when renewing their subscriptions. He said consumers are urged to use credit cards, because people who have been scammed and sent checks to the scammers seldom get their money back.

The scam can work in a couple of ways. Crooks can offer a ridiculously low renewal rate, prompting consumers to think they’re getting a great deal — in fact, they’ll get nothing for this “bargain.” On the flip side, scammers may send a renewal notice including a rate that’s much higher than the real price.

Northeast CONTACT recently heard from a Maine consumer who unsuccessfully tried for a refund. She paid for two renewals only to find out the craft magazines had stopped publishing. A full year later, a website still was advertising that the defunct magazines could be ordered.

Words to the wise subscriber come from a variety of consumer advocates. The messages are all the same:

— Read solicitations carefully. If they ask you to send money to an address other than that listed in the magazine’s masthead — publication information inside — be wary. This is not always a deal-breaker, however. Some magazines use outside companies, so call your magazine directly — NOT the number on a mailing you suspect is a scam — to verify the collection firm.

— Look for misspellings. Scammers aren’t the best with grammar, either. Their errors can tip you off that an offer is not legitimate.

— Beware of higher prices and longer-than-normal subscription periods. Our chief caseworker is leery of any offer that’s longer than one year.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

How to keep track of latest scam tactics

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Aug. 09, 2015, at 1:32 p.m.

At some point, you’ve likely received an email from someone you know who claimed to be trapped in a foreign country and needed you to wire money immediately.

If your scam-sensing radar was well tuned, you deleted that message without another thought. However, a friend or relative may not be so aware of the ways of scam artists. That friend or relative could benefit from the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, series of scam alerts.

These periodic messages cut to the chase with language similar to this: “Government agencies will never ask you to pay by wiring money. Neither will legitimate businesses. If someone insists you pay by wiring money, it’s a scam. Don’t do it.”

That alert was issued last Wednesday on the FTC’s website, ftc.gov. The gold-colored button on the homepage takes you to a series of alerts on all sorts of things every informed consumer should know.

Another recent scam alert was headlined “It’s not the FTC calling about the OPM breach.” There was widespread news coverage of the data breach at the federal Office of Personnel Management, which left more than 21 million current and former federal employees wondering whether their identity was at risk. Scammers use that coverage and those fears to give credibility to their fake phone calls, saying the FTC is offering money to breach victims if they’ll just give up some personal information.

A couple of facts are worth noting here. The FTC does not call to ask for personal data, and the agency does not hand out money, either. It will accept your written or phoned complaint about such hoaxes; that reporting could help investigators put a stop to at least some of the impostor scams and other phishing attempts that put millions of citizens’ identities at risk.

Scam alerts also have dealt with people who pose as friends in an effort to separate you from your money. They may create phony online identities using stolen pictures and profess their love; it’s not long until they’re hitting up their victims for “loans” to deal with fabricated “emergencies.” They’ll always ask you to wire the money — so that it can’t be traced.

Scammers have found creative ways of posing as customer service people who try not to arouse suspicion when they ask you for personal or financial information. Say you have a question for a major retailer but can’t find a phone number; you do a Web search, and several toll-free numbers appear. A closer look at the territory above and to the right of the search results reveals some look-alike names that belong not to your retailer but to a scam artist waiting for your call.

Do your friends and family a favor by sharing the FTC’s scam alerts with them. You can find them under the “education” tab on our blog: https://necontact.wordpress.com. Educating yourself and those close to you is the best single step you can take to fight fraud.

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.

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.

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