Archive for the ‘FTC’ Category

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.

How to detect scammers posing as government agents

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 02, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

It has been nearly 10 years since a phishing scam targeted Social Security recipients. That followed announcement of a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

As with many other messages asking consumers to reveal their personal information, this attempt was pegged to a headline. Following details of the increase, copied from a genuine Social Security Administration, or SSA, news release, the crooks inserted their falsehood: “We now need you to update your personal information” or see your checks stop.

Instructions to “confirm your records” by clicking a link only took victims to a bogus website, where many surrendered personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers, bank account and credit card information.

The thieves used that data for their own gain.

SSA officials reacted then as they have recently, with reminders that the agency never asks for personal or financial information by email or over the phone. Such attempts to get your information are always scams.

The agency urges consumers to do the following:

— Never divulge a Social Security number or account number to someone who calls or emails.

— Never wire money using a prepaid debit card, and never pay anyone who calls “out of the blue.”

— Check their status of disability benefits (if you have them) regularly and review your statements to be sure they’re correct.

If you’re called and pressured to provide information, perhaps by someone saying he or she is with law enforcement or other authority figure, hang up and report the call to the Social Security Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Report suspicious activity to the Social Security fraud unit online at oig.ssa.gov/report and to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1. The FTC can’t resolve individual complaints but can advise what next steps a consumer should take.

Medicare recipients also are frequent targets of scammers. Callers from “Medicare” tell consumers they need to verify information because new cards are being issued.

“Medicare will never call you asking for personal information,” said Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for the Maine Senior Medicare Patrol at Legal Services for the Elderly.

While Congress has ordered that Social Security numbers no longer be used on Medicare cards, the change won’t be fully implemented for a few years.

“In the meantime, Medicare consumers should continue to protect their Medicare numbers, just as they protect their credit card and bank account information,” Balderston said.

In the past, we’ve advised consumers to take Medicare cards during an initial visit to a health care facility; from then on, take a photocopy with your Social Security number blacked out; that avoids the need to carry your card which might get lost or stolen.

Another recent hoax email urged recipients to “get protected” and touted ways to help monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Both are lies, designed to prompt your click on links that might download computer malware or divulge your data.

You may spot a scam attempt by hovering your cursor over the address link of the fake email. That likely will show an address ending “.com,” instead of “.gov,” which it should.

If you found the message in your spam folder, ask yourself if your email program didn’t catch the fraud attempt and divert the message appropriately.

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

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

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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