Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

Avoid paying interest while shopping for holidays

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 28, 2016, at 6:14 a.m.

Consumer revolving debt — mainly credit card balances — grew by $4.2 billion in September, according to the Federal Reserve. America’s total revolving debt reached $978.8 billion, the highest level since April 2009, when the economy was going downhill fast.

Projections of spending during this holiday season vary, but it’s likely that many of us will charge more for holiday gifts than we should. Here are some suggestions for preventing the buyer’s remorse — and interest charges — that can follow aggressive use of credit cards.

Pay cash. The simplest solution to avoiding interest charges is buying with cash. Parting with real money can also help to keep impulse spending in check.

Make a list. Check it as many times as you like, but write stuff down before you visit the stores, real or online. Itemizing what you intend to buy helps to keep your shopping focused, and that can minimize stress as well as curb impulse buying. While you’re writing, devise a place to keep all your receipts, whether they’re paper or digital.

Charge only what you can afford. Buy something with a credit card and you get what amounts to an interest-free loan. However, that’s true only if you pay off your balance in full by the due date after you receive your monthly statement — what’s termed a grace period. If you pay in full month after month, you’ll get a break on new purchases but NOT on cash advances or convenience checks. Those generally start accruing interest immediately. Some balance transfers may also not be included in a grace period; read the terms of your card carefully to see what terms apply.

Plan your payback. If you carry any balance into the next billing cycle, there’s no grace period on purchases you make during that cycle. Your card company will start charging interest the moment you make a purchase. Some card companies require you to pay your balance in full for two straight months to get your grace period back.

If you have carried a balance, you might get hit with something referred to as “trailing interest” or “residual interest.” Those terms refer to interest that accrues on your balance before you have a chance to pay it off, even if you’re paying the full balance that’s shown on your statement. The trailing or residual interest might have accrued between the time your statement was printed and the time your received it in the mail.

David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, has some realistic advice about holiday shopping. He suggests a cooling-off period when considering major purchases.

“Your friends and family don’t want you to incur excessive debt to buy them presents,” Leach said recently.

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 stop paying for free things

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 14, 2016, at 11:41 a.m.

There may be no free lunches, but some goods and services have no cost. And wise consumers don’t pay for anything that’s free.

Leading the list are credit reports. By law, all U.S. consumers are entitled to one free report from each of the three major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — every year, and we recommend rotating among agencies every four months. To access these agencies for free, use AnnualCreditReport.com. Other websites may try to charge you for a report, credit monitoring or other services.

Bank accounts and credit cards don’t have to come with hefty fees. Shop around and find what fits your needs. You can do some comparison shopping at nerdwallet.com.

Seniors are bombarded with ads offering help for a fee in finding the best health care insurance. An appointment with your local area agency on aging will link you with someone you can talk with directly, and it’s free. Call 877-353-3771 for information.

Click to link to UMaine

Seniors also can take a class at the University of Maine for free. People 65 and older can take one class per semester without paying tuition or fees. Call 581-3143 for details.

Amazon will sell you a Consumer Action Handbook for $5.99. The author is listed as “United States General Services Administration.” Yes, it’s a free government publication, downloadable at no charge at https://publications.usa.gov/USAPubs.php?PubID=5131. For a printed copy, call 844-USA-GOV1 (844-872-4681). The call also is free.

Speaking of calls, instead of dialing 411 and paying for directory assistance, call 800-FREE-411. It works nationwide. The only catch is that you have to listen to a 20-second ad first.

Paying for free things and services doesn’t make sense. What concerns many consumers is the hidden cost structure of many things in the digital world. Still, these are costs that many consumers pay willingly.

Consider those “free” apps for your handheld computer. You might pay the price of watching whatever ads appear. Maybe you’ll decide that the basic app is so cool you’ll pay for an upgrade. The hidden costs can pile up when young users buy game enhancements from the company store. As we’ve discussed before, in-app spending by children led to action by the Federal Trade Commission requiring informed consent before consumers can be charged.

The explosion in e-commerce has the administrators of retail websites thirsting for ways to attract new customers. Many companies share or sell information, making consumers’ anonymity less likely over time. This fact has many consumers feeling nervous about the amount of data they’re sharing and the use of those data to identify them.

The FTC website says businesses must give customers privacy notices explaining how they use and share their financial information. The FTC says there are no absolutes: “The law balances your right to privacy with a company’s need to provide information for normal business purposes.” When weighing the true cost of free stuff, consumers might do well to put their finger on the scales and opt to share less of their data.

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.

Consumer complaints helped bust bogus call center with 700 employees

Posted Oct. 31, 2016, at 6:54 a.m.
FMI check press release, October 27th

FMI check press release, October 27th

You are likely one of the thousands of Maine consumers who have received phone calls from someone wanting a “delinquent tax payment.” We’ve written over the years about crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service agents or other officials who try to coerce people into paying money they don’t owe.

These days, you might hang up quickly and dismiss the attempted ripoff without another thought. However, you might help slow the scammers by taking the time to report the attempt.

Consider the action by police in Mumbai, India, a few weeks ago. Raids on nine call centers resulted in 70 arrests. Investigators allege that employees were trained to speak with American accents as they pressured people to pay phony debts by wiring money that couldn’t be recovered. Each call center raked in an estimated $150,000 per day, usually from retirees and other older Americans.

The Indian Express reports that authorities are still questioning some of the 700 employees of the fake call centers. They’re also hunting for the alleged mastermind of the scheme, who apparently fled a lavish lifestyle in India for a new home in Dubai.

Back in the U.S., people who keep an eye on such things think the raids were made possible by reports from people the scammers attempted to target. Since March 2015, the Better Business Bureau has maintained a “scam tracker” website that consumers can use to file complaints about the IRS scam and other ripoff attempts. BBB officials say that following the raids in India complaints to that website dropped by 95 percent.

The sharp dip in complaints “validates our belief in the importance of using reports from the public to better understand the scam landscape,” program manager Emma Fletcher told the Washington Post. The Treasury Department welcomes information about these impersonation scams. File a report online at treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center also accepts reports at IC3.gov.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills warned consumers back in August about the IRS impostor scam maine.gov/ag/news/article.shtml?id=703353.

At the time, Mills said, “The IRS scam and others like it are consistently the top complaint we receive.” She urged consumers not to engage callers and not to divulge personal information.

The Internal Revenue Service will not call suddenly to ask for a payment, won’t demand a specific kind of payment (hoaxers specify paying by wire or gift card) and the IRS won’t threaten legal action if you don’t pay immediately.

If you do owe money, you’ll get a letter first, and there’s usually a period of time in which you can settle your debt.

The IRS has a rundown of recent hoaxes and steps consumers can take to avoid being scammed at irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Scammers sometimes send emails to back up their phone call threats. They may have personal information about consumers, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. They may also spoof the number a caller ID shows to mimic a real IRS office. Don’t be fooled. If you have any doubts, look up the number of your nearest IRS office yourself, call that number and inquire.

A lot of scams originate overseas; in fact, posing as a government official ranked second on a list compiled by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, a joint effort by 35 organizations worldwide. Visit its site at econsumer.gov/#crnt.

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 , ME04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

What happens when the feds issue a product recall order

CONSUMER FORUM

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, www.saferproducts.gov, 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 www.cpsc.gov 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Homeland security starts at our keyboards

CONSUMER FORUM

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 dhs.gov/publication/stopthinkconnect-small-business-resources.

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 sba.gov/tools/sba-learning-center/training/cybersecurity-small-businesses.

The Small Biz Cyber Planner covers insurance, advanced spyware and ways to install protective software at fcc.gov/cyberplanner.

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 stopthinkconnect.org.

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 maine.gov/mema/prepare/prep_tips.shtml?id=23914. 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Guard against buying recalled items that are sold as safe

CONSUMER FORUM

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 cpsc.gov/Recalls/2014/recalled-products-sold-by-best-buy-and-liquidators-after-recall-date.

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 consumerist.com/2015/11/19/home-depot-continued-to-sell-28-products-after-safety-recalls/.

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 recalls.gov, 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 usa.gov/recalls 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Americans waste a ridiculous amount of food

CONSUMER FORUM

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 epa.gov/recycle/reducing-wasted-food-home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has guidance about the differences between “sell by,” “use by” and “expiration” dates. Visit fsis.usda.gov 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 https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

%d bloggers like this: