Naughty debt collectors draw consumers’ ire

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted March 14, 2016, at 12:17 p.m.

Roll two of America’s top consumer complaints into one, and the result might wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I am a phony debt collector.”
The Federal Trade Commission just released its annual list of consumer complaints. Debt collection topped the list, and imposter scams came in third. Together, the two categories accounted for roughly 1.2 million complaints, 40 percent of all complaints the FTC received in 2015.

Nationally, the FTC last year increased its effort to protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. The agency coordinated a federal-state-local effort called Operation Collection Protection; through that program, more than 130 legal actions were brought. The FTC brought 12 actions against 52 defendants, and permanently barred 30 companies and individuals from the debt collection industry. The agency said in a recent statement that it obtained almost $94 million in judgments against debt collectors.

Among the bad practices that have drawn fire from regulators in recent years are these:

— One big bank robo-called a couple 700 times over four years and followed up with letters threatening foreclosure; a judge ordered the bank to pay the couple $1 million.

— A Georgia firm collected $4 million for nonexistent offenses, claiming it had been hired by the federal government; federal officials say these phony collectors have operated in all 50 states.

— A collector threatened a central Maine consumer, who recorded the phone conversation. A transcript of the conversation persuaded the company — which was licensed to do business in Maine — that it should let the employee find work elsewhere.

2015 Debt Collection Booklet.pub

Click image to read online.

David Leach, Principal Examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said more than 1,000 debt collection companies are licensed in Maine and that the majority of them abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, Leach said the number of complaints about scammers or unlicensed collectors is “enormous and growing.” Call the bureau at 800-DEBT-LAW with your questions about debt collection or to receive a copy of “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection” or read the guide online .

The Maine Bar Association reminds consumers that Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids bad language, calling people at work, telling others about someone’s debt and other harassment. It also prohibits using phony letterheads to imitate law enforcement and threats of legal action they can’t take. For general information (not legal advice), visit the Bar Association’s website, mainebar.org/lawyer-referral/legal-information/maine-fair-debt-collection-practices.aspx.

While we’ve written about debt collection before (see Consumer Forum, 12/7/2015 on our blog), some points bear repeating. If a collector calls about an old debt, don’t send money without question. Make sure the debt is really yours by having the collector detail the amount owed and to whom it is owed. Have the collector mail the details to you, and get a physical location of the collector’s place of business. If you do pay, send a check rather than sending funds by wire.

The FTC has published a list of companies that it has banned from further debt collection activities. You can see that list at ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/banned-debt-collectors.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some imposter 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 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to shop for good deals on insurance in Maine

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 07, 2016, at 12:31 p.m.

Many state-by-state rankings put Maine at or near the bottom. A new report by insurance commissioners across the country tells a different story.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC, ranks Maine third in terms of lowest average auto insurance premiums. The Pine Tree State achieved that ranking for the third straight year.

Maine’s third-in-the-nation ranking was no surprise to Eric Cioppa, the state’s insurance superintendent.

“The auto insurance market in Maine is healthy and competitive, which contributes to Maine’s consistently low average auto premiums,” Cioppa said in a statement last week.

“Maine’s ranking is especially noteworthy, given Maine’s coverage requirements, which exceed those in most other states,” he added.

The report noted that Maine tied Massachusetts for the lowest percentage of uninsured motorists, 4.5 percent.

Maine was ranked 10th in the nation in terms of lowest average homeowner insurance premiums. The state’s average premiums also were the lowest in New England.

The report was based on insurance rates in 2013, the latest year such figures are available. In releasing the rankings, NAIC noted that homeowner premiums rose an average of six percent nationwide. The group cited exposure to catastrophes, home values and construction costs for the rise.

The report includes a lot of data, but it doesn’t have all the answers. The U.S. was hit with an unusual number of hurricanes from 2004 to 2008; as builders made repairs, a shortage of drywall resulted. A number of consumers who had drywall from China installed began seeing problems, on average, a couple of years after installation.

The NAIC report offers no predictions about the impact of shoddy drywall on homeowner rates, stating “it is too early to tell” whether homeowners’ premiums will be affected.

Opinions abound about insurance companies. Some of the most objective reviews are likely found in the pages of Consumer Reports.

Homeowners insurance reviews can be found at consumerreports.org/cro/homeowners-insurance.htm.

CR’s auto insurance buying guide at consumerreports.org/cro/car-insurance/buying-guide.htm begins with results of a survey, which showed only 10 percent of the magazine’s subscribers who compared premiums found they would save money by switching companies.

More information on the NAIC report is available at the organization’s website at naic.org.

Maine consumers and business owners who have questions about auto, home, business or other types of insurance are encouraged to call the Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 or sending a message to Insurance.PFR@Maine.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.

Being a smart consumer starts with knowing when not to spend

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 29, 2016, at 1:44 p.m.

Last week, many financial and government agencies marked America Saves Week. Military Saves Week, focused on families of armed services personnel, took place at the same time.

The occasions reminded us of a hard reality of our economic lives: It’s never too soon, or too late, to start saving. The sooner the better, of course; but saving is a habit that must be learned, whenever the lesson comes.

For Karen Amador Lesetmoe, a single mom in the U.S. Navy, the lesson began eight years ago. Tired of living paycheck to paycheck, she made the checklist of income and expenses that most smart savers make. She cut expenses to the bone, paid off credit card debt first and socked away every spare cent in savings. She paid off loans as fast as she could.

Now, she’s well on the way to a secure financial future. She’s such a believer in saving as a way of life that she told her fiancé she would not marry him until he paid off his $18,000 in credit card debt.

“We got married last month!” she wrote triumphantly on the Military Saves website (www.militarysaves.org).

America Saves Week is an educational effort to raise awareness about saving; the program is managed by the Consumer Federation of America. Organizers hope that consumers will practice good budgeting and saving habits year-round.

Read more about the campaign at www.americasaves.org and www.AmericaSavesWeek.org.

The American Savings Education Council, or ASEC, is a program of the Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund. It’s a nonprofit coalition of public- and private-sector groups that strive to make saving and retirement planning priorities for everyone. Read more about the council’s efforts at www.choosetosave.org/asec.

Another observance comes along next week, with a broader focus. National Consumer Protection Week (March 6-12) reminds all of us that it takes a lot more than a fat wallet to be a good consumer. We need to take primary responsibility for our own economic well-being. And if we’re really responsible citizens, we’ll pass helpful information on to others.

There are plenty of helpful tips and links at the Consumer Protection Week website, www.ncpw.gov. One blog entry cautions consumers that promises to lower student loan or mortgage payments may instead be schemes to take your money and give you nothing in return.

Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions website includes a number of links on a range of consumer topics, from bankruptcy to unclaimed property. Visit www.maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/index.shtml and find “consumer library” under the Consumer Tools listing.

The U.S. Office of Comptroller of the Currency website includes updates, events and resources on financial literacy. Use the free resources you’ll find at the site (www.occ.gov/topics/community-affairs/resource-directories/financial-literacy/financial-literacy-update.html).

You may know all you need to know about saving and being a smart consumer. If so, pay it forward: Tell a friend or family member about the many, free resources that can help them be equally savvy.

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.

It often takes more than one call to get best cell phone deal

CONSUMER FORUM
Posted Feb. 22, 2016, at 10:52 a.m.

With all the competing claims about coverage, speed and contract terms, it’s easy to be confused when trying to get a good deal on cellular phone service.

A good place to start your research is the website of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate at maine.gov/meopa. There you’ll find basic advice on selecting a phone that meets your needs, choosing an appropriate service and so on.

click image to download

Download the latest Ratewatcher Guide to learn more. Maine residents may also call 207-624-3687 to request a free, printed copy.

You also can get advice on what to do if you get into a dispute with your wireless service provider by visiting maine.gov/meopa/consumer.

Under the section on wireless companies, the advocate puts the consumer’s task squarely on the line, saying, “Like cable companies, wireless companies are largely unregulated with respect to service quality and billing disputes with customers.” In other words, be ready to stand your ground when disputing a charge or service.

This doesn’t mean you should be nasty. Front-line customer service people are trained to deal with abusive callers, who don’t get very far. Consumer advocates advise being courteous and calling when you’re not rushed and the call center isn’t busy — perhaps on a Friday evening.

Mohammed Halabi was interviewed recently on the CBC-TV program “Marketplace.” Halabi runs a firm called Mybillsarehigh.com, which focuses on reducing Canadian consumers’ wireless bills. He urges his clients to keep records of their calls, to give their phone numbers to the call center worker in case of a disconnection and to keep track of a reference number for that call — it may take more than one call to resolve your issue.

To get the best deal possible, you may have to dig deeper. Front-line customer service people are trained to deal with issues quickly, get callers off the line and move to the next call. They often are not empowered to offer price breaks of 10 percent to 15 percent below the best advertised deal — but a manager may be, especially if you’re a longtime customer the company wants to keep. So, if you don’t think you’re getting anywhere with the first person who answers, ask to be transferred to a customer retention or loyalty specialist.

A New York Times blog half a dozen years ago contained some winning tips for getting good wireless deals, which you can read about at bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/how-to-negotiate-a-lower-cellphone-bill/?_r=2. Among the hints: act nice, play dumb, take good notes and, most importantly, say you’re prepared to switch to another carrier. You might call around first to see what other companies are prepared to offer; then you’ll have ammunition when you are ready to strike your best deal.

Similar advice comes from the website fivecentnickel.com. One writer advises consumers to talk about the fact that money is tight and ask, “What can you do to help me?”

Asking for a favor sometimes bring unexpected results; at a minimum, it sets you up for the follow-up question, “Is there anyone else — say, a supervisor — who could do any more to help me?”

If your research involves more nuts-and-bolts info — such as the difference between 3G and 4G — you might want to visit pcmag.com. The publication prints an annual story on which mobile networks are the fastest.

For Consumer Reports’ ratings and recommendations plus a buying guide, visit consumerreports.org and search “cellphone.”

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.

Why it’s a bad idea to hurry to holiday auto deals

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 15, 2016, at 6:59 a.m.

Here’s a quick quiz for consumers: What word is most often featured in those Presidents Day car sales ads?

Answer: “Hurry.”

According to David Leach, principal examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, that is the last thing consumers should do.

“It’s a great time for Maine auto dealers, both new and used, to market and sell a good number of vehicles in what generally would be a pretty slow time of year,” Leach told me.

Otherwise sluggish sales prompt dealers to create promotions designed to spur quick action by buyers.

“Hurry is the antithesis of what a consumer should be in,” Leach added. He said consumers should adopt a deliberative, thoughtful process in which they thoroughly research their needs and assess their budgets.

With that in mind, the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection has issued a special edition of its Downeaster Guide: Automobile Buying and Financing.

In his letter of greeting, Leach cautions that reforms in the mortgage lending industry have not yet reached the auto loan market. As a result, “it remains quite possible to purchase and finance a vehicle that you, the consumer, cannot afford.”

The guide goes on to list a half-dozen danger signs that a vehicle deal might go bad. One is title washing, in which damaged cars or trucks can be salvaged and resold, especially in other states.

A second tricky practice is called spot delivery, when a dealer allows a customer to drive a vehicle home “on the spot,” even if financing has not been formally approved. If that approval doesn’t happen, the buyer may have to pay the balance in full or return the vehicle.

A third area of concern is contract mistakes. Signing a contract means you agree its contents are correct. Signing could affect your rights in case of a dispute over the vehicle or loan. Certain clauses in a contract might cause problems; failing to maintain insurance on a vehicle might allow the creditor to repossess without sending a Notice of Right to Cure.

The guide also warns against title loans, when the consumer gives the lender a hard copy of the title so the vehicle is used as collateral. Such loans are illegal in Maine.

Watch out also for what are called “loaded” payments, which are monthly payments including add-on items the buyer did not request.

The guide offers a range of information about buying versus leasing, getting the best possible deals on loans and checking your credit reports. There also are tips on research you can and should do, and what to look for in the “closing room” before you sign on the dotted line.

The guide is available online by visiting the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection website, at credit.maine.gov, and looking under “consumer guides.” Maine residents can receive a hard copy by calling the bureau toll-free at 1-800-332-8529.

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.

Don’t buy a car if you can’t touch it first – Bangor Daily News

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 08, 2016, at 7:50 a.m.

Northeast CONTACT wishes to give a major thank you to all the financial professionals who keep consumers safe. Our thanks go especially to one bank official in the Ellsworth area.

The official was concerned when a customer wanted to make a sizeable withdrawal with plans to wire money for an antique car. What aroused the official’s suspicion was the money’s destination: London, England.

Scammers typically operate from bases overseas, and money that’s wired away never comes back. The official had heard of such schemes and gently urged the customer not to buy a vehicle sight unseen and definitely not to wire money to an unknown party. That advice probably prevented a $14,500 payment for a car that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

The customer had seen an ad in a local newspaper. Detective Dorothy Small of the Ellsworth Police Department said identical ads appeared in Rolling Thunder Express and Penobscot Bay Press.

The latter online publication is now running a scam alert on its classified page, noting that the ad that ran in its Jan. 14 and 21 papers “was submitted under false pretenses and is a scam.” The publisher went on to apologize “for falling victim” — even though the ad appeared to meet policy guidelines — and urged readers not to respond.

The look-alike ads are no coincidence. Scammers find appealing phrases (“1970 Chevrolet Chevelle 454, manual four-speed, red with black stripes”) and cut and paste in publications everywhere.

One online vintage car dealer has tips to avoid being scammed, including a nearly identical ad to those that appeared in Maine, athttp://nwcam.com/Helpful_Tips_About_Internet_Scams.html. Search a key phrase from the ad and find all kinds of “late husbands” and their treasured cars for sale, over several years.

The gist of all such ads is the same: you’ll be getting the deal of a lifetime. In fact, you’ll get nothing.

Small noticed that photos of the car “for sale” had been taken on different road surfaces, a tipoff that the pictures had been lifted from various Internet sources. Payment was to be made via Pay Safe, which is headquartered in Nevada … so instructions to wire funds to England were another red flag.

“If you can’t put your hand on the vehicle that you’re going to buy, then don’t buy it,” Small said.

senior-safe

Click image to access brochure

That probably echoed the urging of our bank teller, who was likely one of more than 300 front-line bank and credit union employees who have undergone training in what’s called Senior$afe.

The program is a partnership of Maine’s financial community and state government, all allied through the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. Training enables key employees to spot potential cases of fraud and, in many cases, stop them cold.

Partner agencies help with training and promoting what Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw called a “no wrong door” approach to referrals in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last year.

A spokesman for Shaw’s department told me it’s hoped Senior$afe will grow and further expand protections against financial fraud. You can find a brochure on the program at the Maine Bankers Association website, www.mainebankers.com/seniorafe/.

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 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.

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