Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

How to get help if your identity is stolen

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Having your identity stolen means starting a recovery process that can take months, even years.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, last week announced an upgrade of its efforts to help the millions of consumers who are victimized every year.

Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, told participants on a conference call that complaints about identity theft to her agency rose by nearly 50 percent last year. Ramirez said, while that’s shocking enough, the true scope of the crime is not known because it is “vastly underreported.”

What is known is that thieves are illegally opening new accounts, getting access to existing accounts fraudulently and filing phony tax returns, all while using other people’s names and personal information.

The FTC says victims can ease the task of getting their financial lives back in order by visiting the agency’s secure recovery website at identitytheft.gov.

Visitors can browse the range of recovery tips or jump right in by entering as much relevant data as possible that led to their identities being stolen. The FTC thinks the upgraded site will give consumers a one-stop means of filing a complaint about identity theft and beginning the process of recovery.

Victims are asked to first enter basic information about the type of identity theft to which they were subjected. Then the site walks the victims through a checklist geared toward that type of crime.

The site will generate affidavits and automatically fill a lot of information in letters and forms to be sent to police, businesses, credit bureaus, debt collectors and the IRS. If a recovery effort hits a snag, the site will suggest other ways to proceed.

To minimize further risks, the site will not ask victims for sensitive information, including dates of birth and Social Security numbers. There will be follow-up emails from the site, and consumers can go back to their plans later — through two-factor authentication — as their recovery continues.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 17.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2014. Ramirez said the crime is one that will be with us for quite a while.

“We’re all doing more online. We’re all using mobile technology,” she said. “It’s going to expose people’s information to breaches,” if we’re not increasingly vigilant.

Ramirez made the announcement on Data Privacy Day, designated in 2008 by the National Cyber Security Alliance. Read tips from that nonprofit about keeping your data to yourself at staysafeonline.org.

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.

Protect yourself against scams before filing taxes

CONSUMER FORUM

 

Posted Jan. 25, 2016, at 11:18 a.m.
Federal officials have termed them the biggest scams ever. Together, they cost consumers billions of dollars every year. And they use people’s fear of the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon.

The first starts with an unexpected phone call. You’re told that you owe taxes and must pay immediately or you’ll be jailed. What do you do?

An IRS official says, just hang up … it’s a scam.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have received multiple calls from different people, all posing as either IRS officials or law enforcement agents. All the callers claim that legal action is certain, unless they receive money via wire right away. A demand for immediate payment is the second tipoff that it’s a hoax.

The first was the threat of imprisonment.

The IRS does not typically call a taxpayer; the agency begins by sending a letter. It also does not seek payment by way of prepaid cards, and it does not have agents standing by with arrest warrants in case the taxpayer hesitates.

The criminals who use these techniques can be abusive, even threatening to hurt their victims. These hoax calls may originate halfway around the world — although a spoofed phone number may make them appear nearby — and any threatened action rarely happens.

The second major hoax involves the filing of a phony tax return. If a thief steals your name, birthdate and Social Security number, he or she can file a bogus return in your name. If the IRS doesn’t catch it, the agency might send a refund to the crook; it may not be until you file your legitimate return that the fraud is discovered.

The IRS has trained thousands of employees to help possible victims. It has also put in place a number of preventive measures, most of which it won’t discuss in order not to assist the scammers. In a public message last week, the IRS said it has teamed up with the states and tax preparers to “stop fraudulent returns at the door.”

One new piece of information from tax software providers will be the amount of time it took to prepare a return. That could be a tipoff when computer-generated returns are fraudulent and have been filed by the hundreds or thousands.

You can read about the new measures at IRS.gov/uac/IRS,-States-and-Tax-Industry-Deploy-New-Safeguards-for-2016.

Tax season brings with it a rash of scam artists trying new ideas. Crooks might point to last year’s hack of IRS computers, which compromised some information of about 200,000 taxpayers. They might pose as “IRS counselors” or “credit advisers” while their real goal is to steal more personal data.

IRS officials suggest that tax preparers do a “deep scan” of all their computer drives and devices to find malware and viruses that may hide in places that a “quick scan” can’t find. Firewalls and antivirus software also should be up to date; if you use a tax preparer, don’t be shy about asking if security systems are robust.

If you store your tax filings on your computer, make sure there’s a backup in case your hard drive crashes. If you store paper copies, keep them under lock and key (ideally in a fireproof container). Find more security and identity protection tips at IRS.gov.

If you get a phone call you suspect is a hoax attempt, call 800-366-4484 to find out if the caller is a real IRS employee with a legitimate reason to reach you. If a piece of mail seems suspicious, call 800-829-1040 to see if it’s legitimate.

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 the new federal spending plan affects consumers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 28, 2015, at 9:41 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2015, at 10:14 a.m.

The omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this month included $1 billion for a destroyer. Maine’s congressional representatives hope the contract goes to Bath Iron Works.

Passage of the 1,600-page, $1.1 trillion bill headed off a possible government shutdown, prevented another of the stopgap spending plans our lawmakers have made famous and it allowed the national debt to go up. It also included a number of added-on spending items, known on Capitol Hill as “riders.”

Our thanks to writers at The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Atlantic for spotting these items of interest to many consumers.

— A 1 percent pay raise for federal employees, starting Jan. 1, 2016. President Barack Obama ordered the increase and the omnibus bill retains it. Military service personnel will receive a similar raise, while pay for generals and flag officers are subject to a pay freeze.

— Multi-employer pension plans. The benefits of potentially millions of retirees could be cut to try to save some pension plans that are in financial trouble. There are about 1,400 such plans, most of them in good shape.

— More money for food safety. Funding for the Food and Drug Administration goes up $37 million from last year. The Food Safety Modernization Act gets $27 million in new funds, and there’s a $5 million increase for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

— Some Dodd-Frank reforms reversed. The financial reform bill had required that banks “push out” some derivatives trading into other entities that did not have the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Banks won a reversal of that rule; Democrats say that, in exchange, they received more funding for enforcement efforts by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

— Internal Revenue Service cuts. Funding for the IRS drops by $345.6 million. The agency also is barred from singling out organizations that cite ideological beliefs to get tax-exempt status.

— School lunch programs. Flexibility goes to school districts that can “demonstrate a hardship” when buying whole grain products. There also are less rigid sodium standards until they are supported by “additional scientific studies.”

— WIC and potatoes. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for low-income families gets $6.6 billion, down $93 million from the last fiscal year. But WIC will have to guarantee that “all varieties of fresh vegetables, including white potatoes, are eligible for purchase.”

— Tired truckers. The trucking industry won a round in the fight to require that drivers get two nights sleep before going back to work. That Department of Transportation regulation would have cut a typical driver’s workweek from 82 hours to 70. Maine Sen. Susan Collins had pressed for suspension of that rule in favor of more study.

— Safer tracks. The omnibus bill includes $3 million to expand inspection of about 14,000 miles of track used by trains that include oil tanker cars.

— Veterans reform bill funding. The bill that was passed last summer gets $209 million to deal with new costs, including added medical staff and expanding facilities. The Veterans Administration’s Office of the Inspector General receives an additional $5 million to keep investigating the “wait list scandal.”

— Light bulb choice. The spending bill limits enforcement of a 2007 law to end use of incandescent bulbs. While many consumers have switched, others may be able to find the older style a while longer.

— Saturday mail delivery. It continues, courtesy of the omnibus bill, despite years of efforts to cut the service to save money.

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.

Fake IRS phone scammers more aggressive, sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 14, 2015, at 7:10 a.m.

Click image to report phishing and/or scams

Most consumers can spot a scam attempt almost as soon as they pick up the phone. However, one recent spate of calls has citizens and government officials concerned.

The callers pretend to represent the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. They claim they’re calling because taxes are past due; unless payment is made immediately, the caller threatens to file a lawsuit, seize property, even do them physical harm.

In the past two weeks, the Maine attorney general and Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, have issued warnings about these scams. Similar warnings from officials around the country show scammers are ramping up their efforts. And they’re doing so a lot earlier than usual.

The fake IRS scam usually hits high gear during the run-up to income tax season, that is, in February, March and early April. This year, however, crooks have been burning the phone lines pretending to be IRS agents, police officers, court officials and others who might be in the business of collecting delinquent taxes.

Except, they’re not. They’re just criminals trying to get you to wire them money you can never get back.

“It’s really unusual that they’ve started in December,” David Leach of BCCP said.

Leach said his office has received calls from across Maine. Many callers said they realized they were targets of a scam attempt; others said they didn’t realize they were being victimized until they had sent money they had no hopes of recovering.

As with most scams, the crooks demand that money be sent by wire transfer or prepaid cash cards. Both methods are untraceable, and crooks count on that fact — plus their scare tactics to make their scams work.

Aiding their schemes are electronic tactics, such as spoofing, which makes a phony number appear on caller ID devices. The criminals can make it appear they really are calling from an IRS office, when they may be halfway around the world.

The callers can make their threats sound real, but they’re as phony as the call itself. The real IRS never cold calls; it always sends a letter first — on real IRS stationery — and never asks for credit or debit card information or that money be sent by wire transfer or money card.

If a phone caller claims to be calling from the IRS office in Washington, at the very least the phone number should include a 202 area code. Ask for the agency’s exact name, physical address and the supervisor’s direct dial — not 800 — phone number. If you’re in doubt, locate the phone number of the real tax office and call to find out if you have taxes that are overdue. Don’t disclose personal information — date of birth, Social Security number, credit or bank account numbers — to unknown callers; you could become a victim of identity theft.

Report suspicious activity to the BCCP (1-800-332-8529), to an IRS office or to a federal law enforcement officer in Maine or Boston. The anti-scam guide Gone Phishing is available free to Maine residents who call BCCP at the number above or online at CreditMaine.gov.

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.

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

CONSUMER FORUM

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

Heating season increases carbon monoxide poisoning risk

CONSUMER FORUM

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 cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Carbon-Monoxide-Information-Center/Carbon-Monoxide-Questions-and-Answers-/.

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

Where to find help in fighting fraud from abroad

CONSUMER FORUM 

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, econsumer.gov. 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 ec.europa.eu and search “consumer centres.” File complaints that are U.S.-based with the FTC online at ftc.gov.

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

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