Archive for the ‘FTC’ Category

Rogues tap holiday spirit, disaster relief to steal in the name of charity

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 26, 2016, at 9:11 a.m.
Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations. Search Maine or your town

Your free directory of IRS-recognized charities and nonprofits: 9127 organizations found in Maine.

When soliciting donations from 2008 to 2012, fundraisers for four now-defunct “charities” said they spent 100 percent of their money on services including taking patients to chemotherapy sessions, buying pain meds for children and hospice care.

Instead, the money went for meals, rides on jet skis and cruises to the Caribbean.

In a lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission called all four groups “sham charities.” Officials from all 50 states and the District of Columbia joined in the suit, which accused charity officials of spending most of the $187 million they raised on themselves and their fundraisers.

The legal action led to the shutdown of the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society. Only a fraction of the millions of dollars the groups took from consumers was recovered.

The amount of money fundraisers were able to garner shows how willing consumers are to donate to causes they believe are genuine. Scammers know this, and for that very reason they create names for their fake groups that sound like real charities.

At this time of year, when many of us make donations to our favorite causes, let’s make sure we’ve done our due diligence. Be skeptical of cold calls or bulk mailings that you may receive, seeking donations that supposedly will benefit veterans and military families, sick children or police and firefighters.

Scam artists follow the news closely, and they look for items that will make readers respond emotionally. In June, crooks reacted quickly following a shooting rampage that killed 49 people and injured 53 others in Orlando, Florida. They set up phony charities pretending to help the victims and their families; in fact, the money they scammed lined their own pockets.

Pretending to help victims of floods, earthquakes and other disasters is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise. Before you decide to donate, ask questions to find out how your money will be used.

If you’re responding to an online appeal and preparing to click to “donate,” look at the name of the organization in your browser window. If the domain name is hidden, is not familiar or is different from the one in the text, think twice about clicking.

Treat all pleas for your money with a healthy dose of skepticism. Real charities welcome the chance to send you literature by mail. They know that informed consumers will support them and tell others about worthwhile causes. Scammers want a decision right away, and some ask for payment through gift cards or wire transfers — these clearly are scams.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has tips on giving to charities and avoiding getting ripped off in the process. Visit maine.gov/ag/consumer/charities/index.shtml for those suggestions.

The Federal Trade Commission has additional information at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0011-charity-scams.

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 scoundrels away from your holiday gift cards

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 12, 2016, at 11:06 a.m.

Gift cards are likely the most popular holiday presents, both for givers and recipients. However, experts estimate that $1 billion in gift cards go unredeemed every year.

Retailers try lots of ways to keep sales of gift cards up: adding worth above face value and tacking on reward points are two popular methods. It’s in businesses’ best interest for consumers to redeem gift cards, because they have to carry the value of unused cards on their books, sometimes for years.

A recent caller asked Northeast CONTACT if a gift card she purchased could be misused before being given. When buying gift cards at a store, remember that crooks seeking easy money may be nearby.

It’s probably wise to avoid cards on open display racks. Some criminals jot down the numbers of unsold cards and use illegal online software to determine when cards have been activated. When the number of a card you’ve bought becomes active, the crooks begin their spending spree.

Gift card makers have added security strips to the cards; you scratch off the strip to reveal a security code or PIN. Clever thieves open packages with razors and remove the strips, disguising the tampering with their own security strips — we found several sources from online sellers.

If you pick a card off a rack and can see the security code, pick another one. Better still, buy from a store employee and watch while the employee activates the card. Get a receipt and make sure the stated value matches what you bought.

There are several options for consumers who find unused gift cards with some funds left on them. You can find ideas on getting value from unused cards at carefulcents.com/unused-gift-cards/.

Federal law bans inactivity fees, unless a card has not been used for at least one year. Any fees and expiration date of a card must be stated clearly on the card or packaging.

In Maine, state law requires that gift cards be honored indefinitely, even if they are ruled to be abandoned property. You can read about unclaimed property at the Maine State Treasurer’s website, maine.gov/treasurer/unclaimed_property/.

Many of us have been frustrated when holding a gift card to a company that’s gone out of business. Before buying, check into the corporation’s financial health. The Federal Trade Commission has more tips on buying and using gift cards at consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0182-gift-cards.

The FTC reminds consumers not to comply when a seller demands payment through a gift card from iTunes or Amazon. Check the website giftcards.com/gcgf/giftcard-scams for tips on avoiding scams.

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 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.

Magazine renewal scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM 

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

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

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

We can’t say with certainty that either offer was bogus. All we can say is that anyone who is asked to renew well before an expiration date should examine the offer closely.

ConsumerAffairs.com has warned subscribers about phony renewal schemes. The perpetrators use materials that look real, but the ridiculously low prices are a tipoff that they’re often schemes to separate people from their money.

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

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

Why do some companies offer below-cost rates?

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

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

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

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

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

In doing so, the FTC signaled it wants the industry to police itself. You can read the guidelines that one trade group advises its members to follow at auditedmedia.com/resources/bylaws-and-rules/chapter-f-consumer-magazines/article-8.

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

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

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

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

PRESS RELEASE

June 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full details of the consumer program will be available online at VWCourtSettlement.com and www.ftc.gov/VWSettlement.

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

‘Student tax’ doesn’t exist, so hang up on demands to pay it

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 30, 2016, at 11:08 a.m.

Those nasty scam artists claiming to be Internal Revenue Service agents are at it again.

This time, they’re calling students — weary from finals and staggering under student loan debt — and telling them they’re in arrears on their “federal student taxes.”

A lot of students have recognized these calls as the hoaxes they are and hung up. Many then get another call with a “spoofed” caller ID, making it appear the caller is with a branch of law enforcement or other agency. The demand is the same: Wire money immediately or face arrest.

The warning signs are all there: cold calls from supposed authority figures, demands for immediate payment backed by phony threats of jail or sometimes physical harm.

The Federal Trade Commission warned consumers last week that there is no student tax and that attempts to collect are always scams.

“No one from the IRS will ever ask you to wire money, or pay by sending iTunes gift cards or reloadable prepaid cards,” the FTC news release read.

The agency’s advice is to hang up immediately, don’t believe fake follow-up calls and report the call to the FTC.

“And tell your friends at school. They might get the next call!” the release concluded.

It might seem like a waste of time to file a single report, considering the thousands of scams that occur. However, Sen. Susan Collins said last week that a complaint filed with her Special Committee on Aging had led to the arrest of five people in Florida. The five allegedly impersonated IRS agents and scammed victims of nearly $2 million.

The bottom-line message is that criminals don’t care about the age of their intended victims. They care only about stealing money.

All student loans in the U.S. total roughly $1.2 billion, so it’s no surprise that criminals target debtors. Because borrowers are always required to repay student loans, many seek ways to lessen the financial burden of their loans. Unfortunately, they often look for “quick fixes” that can turn into long-term headaches.

Offers to refinance, lower rates or abolish debt altogether are often bogus. Many services for which greedy sellers charge fees can be obtained for free, at least in the case of federal loans.

Get information on federal student loan programs at studentaid.ed.gov/sa/ or call toll-free 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). That website also contains toll-free phone numbers so that federal loan recipients can call their loan servicers directly.

For tips on avoiding scams involving federal student loans, visit studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/scams.

The Finance Authority of Maine also has information about student loans at famemaine.com/education or by calling 1-800-228-3734.

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.

Job hunters must beware of these new perils

Posted May 09, 2016, at 9:21 a.m.

As anyone who reads this column knows, we don’t like scam artists. But we really don’t like crooks who try to take advantage of people trying to make an honest living.

The latter group includes people who are job hunting. And the scammers include people who pretend they are pre-screening people for large employers.

Say you’re thinking of relocating to the Bay State in hopes of finding a job with state government. An item on Craigslist reveals “State agencies in Massachusetts offering new career opportunities.”

Light on generic advice, the website you reach provides only links to state human resources offices. The site is littered with ads for work-at-home “jobs,” career counseling and high-return annuity investments. These are all for-profit ventures of the advertisers; applicants’ results may vary.

Scam artists have made a bundle by pretending to perform pre-screening of job applicants. They often set up a website claiming that large employers are looking to do lots of hiring. The way to get in is to schedule an interview.

You do that, only to find that the “interview” is just a way for the “pre-screener” to gather information for its real clients. They, in turn, will hit you with a sales pitch. You might be asked to enroll in a college or a career training program.

The process is called lead generation, a legitimate business practice unless the lead generator wasn’t truthful about what it was doing.

The Federal Trade Commission recently settled charges against Gigats.com, which also did business under the names Expand Inc., EducationMatch and SoftRock Inc. {Google Search Results for FTC and Gigats}

Federal investigators determined that the operators of Gigats.com had gathered online job postings by multinationals, government agencies and other employers and summarized them on its website.

Most job listings were not current. Of those that were current, most had not been authorized by the employers. Gigats then allegedly steered applicants toward enrolling in education programs that had paid the defendants for consumer leads.

The FTC says many consumers also were referred to “education advisors” who claimed to be independent but steered people only toward the schools and programs that had agreed to pay the defendants. For leads meeting their education requirements the schools and programs paid $22 to $125 each.

The FTC also says the defendants never sent the information they collected to any employers.

The proposed court order hits Gigats with a $90.2 million penalty. The bulk of the penalty will be waived if Gigats pays $360,000. But the full judgment will be due right away “if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.”

The Maine Department of Labor’s Career Centers throughout the state have resources to help people find jobs and employers find workers at mainecareercenter.com or call 1-888-457-8883 Mon.-Fri. 8-4:30.

Maine state government has a website to help job seekers create a profile and find work in state government or in the private sector at maine.gov/portal/employment/jobs.html.

Both are free.

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: