Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

Even Maine’s attorney general can’t avoid online thieves


Posted Nov. 30, 2015, at 9:47 a.m.

Maine’s attorney general knows firsthand what debit card fraud means.

Last month, a debit card belonging to Attorney General Janet Mills was breached. A spokesman for Mills said her credit union luckily spotted unusual activity and alerted Mills before the thief racked up too many charges.

CardHub says unauthorized use of debit and credit cards totaled $11.27 billion in 2012.

Card issuers and merchants absorb virtually all losses involving credit cards. Prompt reporting is critical to minimize a consumer’s liability in case of debit card breach or loss.

On Oct. 1, new rules made merchants liable for losses if they had not installed new card processing equipment. The aim was to make chip-embedded cards universally acceptable and to get outdated, magnetic stripe cards out of circulation. Card issuers embraced the chip, but many continue to require a signature as supposed authentication.

Technology known as chip-and-PIN, or personal identification number, boosts security sharply. A consumer can’t vary his or her signature; the consumer can change a PIN at will, and that’s an ability that consumers in about 80 other countries already have.

Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Retailers Federation, said recently that “continued reliance on an illegible scrawl isn’t good enough to protect American consumers when the technology of a secret, secure PIN is readily available.” Duncan’s remarks supported efforts by Mills and eight other attorneys general to get card issuers to embrace chip-and-PIN.

On Nov. 16, the eight attorneys general wrote to top officials of American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Citigroup, Discover, JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard and Visa. Their letter calls for swift adoption of chip-and-PIN.

“Absent this additional protection, your customers and our citizens will be more vulnerable to damaging data breaches,” they wrote. “This is something we cannot accept, and nor should you.”

Debra Berlyn is president of the Consumer Privacy Awareness Project, an effort to educate consumers about online privacy issues. In an OpEd in this newspaper on Nov. 23, Berlyn echoed the attorneys general’s call, charging that “the big banks and credit card companies are cutting corners to cut costs, forgoing the added PIN feature to reduce the amount they would have to invest in new cards.”

Critics contend that requiring PINs could cause confusion among some consumers. Given the need for a PIN in many modern transactions, we doubt serious problems would arise.

An official of the Federal Reserve Bank wrote in 2013 that signature verification in the U.S. was likely to continue for some time. Fraud on lost or stolen cards would likely not drop as a result.

“Fraud may even rise,” Richard J. Sullivan wrote, “as fraudsters, unable to commit fraud on counterfeit cards, begin to target payments with relatively weak security, such as transactions that allow signature authorization.”

The attorneys general say they’re not interested in mandating any particular technology in law. Instead, they call on the executives “as good corporate citizens” to use and continue using available technologies that offer the best protection to consumers.

A spokesman said Mills will be receiving a new debit card, one that includes chip-and-PIN technology. She’s hoping more institutions will make similar shipments in the near future.

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

Heating season increases carbon monoxide poisoning risk


Posted Nov. 23, 2015, at 8:50 a.m.
During the past week, the Maine Emergency Management Agency issued two safety tips, each involving carbon monoxide detectors.

As colder weather sets in, Maine emergency management officials want consumers to be sure they have an early warning system in case of a buildup of carbon monoxide. Any heating appliance can release carbon monoxide. If it reaches dangerous levels, our human senses will not detect this colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

Placement of the detectors is key. They should be in a central location outside each sleeping area of your home. If bedrooms are widely spaced, each area should have a carbon monoxide detector.

The agency also urges prompt action when the detectors sound an alarm. Maine Emergency Management Agency advises getting quickly to a place where there’s plenty of fresh air — probably outdoors — and staying there until emergency personnel say it’s safe to return.

Having emergency phone numbers near the phone also is critical, in case someone in your home is in trouble.

False alarms used to be common in older carbon monoxide detectors. As technology has improved, they’ve become less of a problem. It’s important to know what different sounds from a detector mean. Short beeps at regular intervals might indicate it’s time to replace the battery instead of a carbon monoxide problem. Periodic beeping might also indicate the detector is coming to the end of its useful life.

Many detectors contain an electrochemical cell that reacts when carbon monoxide is present. The chemical can degrade over time, making the detector less reliable. That’s why Underwriters Laboratories set a national standard that requires manufacturers to build in a system to alert consumers when a detector gets to the point where it can no longer detect harmful levels of carbon monoxide.

At the end of its useful life, the detector will chirp or make another sound to alert the consumer it’s time to buy a replacement. That also is a feature of smoke and heat detectors, which also are a must for staying safe.

Jake Johnson of the Bangor Fire Department says those types of detectors should also be replaced regularly; he says it’s good practice to buy new ones every 10 years.

Pushing the “test” button will sound an alarm showing that the detector has power and that the alarm works. Johnson says that sound does not necessarily mean the sensor is still reliable.

Some fire departments have smoke detectors available for people who cannot afford them. Jake Johnson says department members are more than willing to install them.

“We want to make sure if we’re giving these things out that they’re in the right place and that they work,” he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a lot of information about carbon monoxide at

If you have questions about either type of detector, call your local fire department.

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

Where to find help in fighting fraud from abroad


Posted Oct. 19, 2015, at 6:15 a.m.

Here are several recent news items about international scams:

— A federal court has temporarily stopped an alleged international pyramid scheme operated by Vemma Nutrition Co. The Federal Trade Commission alleges Vemma charged $500 to $600 for a membership and rewarded affiliates for recruiting more participants instead of selling products.

— The marketers of Procera AVH, touted as a way to counter memory loss and cognitive decline, will hand over $1 million to the FTC and another $400,000 to satisfy a judgment brought in California. FTC’s complaint charged that marketing claims were false, misleading or unsubstantiated and that the defendants claimed falsely a scientific study proved their product works.

— The FTC and the Florida attorney general’s office have filed a joint complaint against New York-based Lifewatch, charging the firm used illegal and deceptive robocalls to lure older consumers in the U.S. and Canada into signing up for costly medical alert systems. Last year, one of Lifewatch’s telemarketing firms agreed to a settlement with the FTC and Florida to stop making robocalls or engaging in other deception. Since then, FTC and Florida’s attorney general charge that Lifewatch just switched telemarketers and carried on with business as usual.

The items above came from the website of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, The network is an alliance of FTC and consumer protection agencies in 33 other countries. The goal of the groups is to help law enforcement agencies do a better job against international scams.

The website was launched in 2001. An updated version, which creators say is easier to use and tablet- and smartphone-friendly, was unveiled last week at International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s semi-annual meeting in the United Kingdom.

The website advises consumers who find themselves at odds with a foreign company to first try to resolve their differences directly. If that fails, the consumer can learn about ways to settle the dispute without formal legal action.

There’s also a complaint form to let member agencies know about the problem. If the issue involves a member of the European Union, help is available through each member’s consumer centres — visit and search “consumer centres.” File complaints that are U.S.-based with the FTC online at

Most International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network members offer consumer education activities during its Fraud Prevention Month, usually during February or March. ICPEN members also do ongoing International Internet Sweeps, identifying websites that may mislead consumers and flagging them for future educational or enforcement efforts.

Better enforcement can’t come soon enough for York County Sheriff William King. The sheriff, who speaks frequently to seniors’ groups about avoiding scams, told me that bringing legal action with serious penalties is the only way to curb cross-border scams.

International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s website echoes familiar warnings about scam offers, usually unsolicited. The best single piece of advice may be to trust your own radar. The old saying is still valid: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

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

Feds rev new push for better truck gas mileage

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Oct. 05, 2015, at 6:39 a.m.

Click image to link to

It has been four years since President Barack Obama’s administration proposed first-ever fuel standard for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Last Thursday, the comment period on the second round of rules closed, and it seems environmentalists and trucking industry officials like what they’ve seen.

On the day the president proposed standards, Rich Freeland, president of Cummins engines division, told reporters the target mileage figures were tough but supportable.

“This one lines up with what customers want, and they want fuel economy,” Freeland said.

The industry originally asked the Environmental Protection Agency to write the rules. Congress asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, to do it. Some industry officials worried manufacturers might have to adhere to multiple sets of rules if regulators worked separately. NHTSA and EPA spoke with one voice in writing the performance standards, and industry people say they worked in the real world.

When the second round of rules-writing began early last year, the president and CEO of the American Trucking Association called for a smart blend of science and economics. Bill Graves said better fuel standards will benefit the industry and consumers alike through lower costs.

“However, we should make sure that the new rules don’t conflict with safety or other environmental regulations, nor should they force specific types of technology onto the market before they are fully tested and ready,” Graves added.

Regulators listened and left out technology mandates. Trucking companies are expected to adopt changes that work best for them, likely starting with pollution control devices. Other changes may include more streamlined cabs, better — and possibly fewer — tires and direct injection engines.

At the time standards were first proposed, one trucking executive estimated fuel savings over the lifetime of a truck at $7,200. With cost estimated at $1,000, the math was clear. Getting more miles on less fuel and encouraging cleaner technologies add up to a triple win.

Not everyone’s cheering, though. Some environmentalists are calling for higher mpg targets. The Consumer Federation of America, or CFA, filed comments Thursday with NHTSA and EPA. The group said, while the agencies had done a good job analyzing the problem, the cost-benefit figure to reach proposed targets is still about 6-to-1.

As CFA’s research director Mark Cooper put it in a statement, “they are leaving a lot of fuel savings on the table. We urge them to further examine whether or not more savings are achievable.”

The proposed standards do not mandate hybrid engines in trucks. Some observers expect environmentalists to press for such a move in the future.

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

Can’t afford a phone? This program helps you stay connected


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted Sept. 13, 2015, at 12:38 p.m.

Click link for consumer information.

Officials with two state agencies say it’s critical for people to be able to reach emergency service providers and other important resources. For that reason, the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Office of the Public Advocate are calling on residents to have working phones so they “stay connected.”

The utilities regulatory commission and public advocate are joining forces again this year to promote Lifeline Awareness Week, Sept. 14-20. The Lifeline Assistance Program offers discounts to help residents with access to basic phone service.

The program has been around since 1985. The aim — explained on the website of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission — is “to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services.”

That last point can be critical, in a large, mostly rural state like Maine.

In a statement, PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said, “Access to local emergency services and community resources is vital to Maine’s low-income and elderly residents.”

Public Advocate Tim Schneider added, “We encourage customers who are eligible to take advantage of the Lifeline Program for a landline or cell phone, depending on their needs.”

Under the Lifeline Assistance Program, telephone customers who participate in or otherwise qualify for certain public assistance programs are eligible for a basic telephone service discount of $9.25 per month; that’s for a landline. Eligible consumers may instead choose a wireless option and receive a free cell phone with up to 250 minutes of free service each month.

The FCC sets the rules for the Lifeline Assistance Program and says a consumer may receive the benefit for either a landline or cell phone but not both.

Also, the FCC requires eligible customers complete and return a recertification form that’s furnished by their service provider. If they don’t fill out and return the form during the designated period, they’ll be dropped from the program.

Consumers can find out if they’re eligible for the program by using the Lifeline Eligibility Pre-Screening Tool on the Universal Service Administrative Company website at

Universal Service Administrative Company is an independent, not-for-profit company named by the FCC to administer universal service.

Consumers can sign up by calling either their local telephone company or one of the wireless providers that’s eligible to provide Lifeline service in Maine. People with questions about the program or who have difficulty enrolling can call PUC’s Consumer Assistance Division toll-free at (800) 452-4699.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau maintains a toll-free Lifeline fraud tip line, 1-855-4LL-TIPS (1-855-455-8477) where callers can report cases of possible 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 or email

New food-labeling rules aim to make Americans less fat


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,, 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 or email


Legal questions swirl about off-label use of medications


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 or email


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