If robots call to say you owe back taxes, don’t believe them

Posted Jan. 16, 2017, at 6:19 a.m.

Which of the following is a scam?

— You get a phone call saying you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and should pay by way of an iTunes card.

— A caller says she is an IRS official demanding immediate payment of overdue taxes, and the number on your caller ID appears to be from the local IRS office.

— A caller identifies himself as a law enforcement officer and says you face immediate arrest if you don’t wire money for overdue taxes.

— An email bearing an official-looking IRS logo asks you to “update your IRS e-file immediately.” The email mentions IRSgov — without a dot separating “IRS” and “gov.”

If you answered that all of the above are scams, you are correct.

The investigative arm of the IRS says that 1.8 million people have reported receiving impostor calls. More than 9,600 victims have been scammed out of more than $50 million.

Phishing and malware incidents rose roughly 400 percent during the 2016 tax filing season. Despite officials’ best efforts to curb the increase, it’s expected that the numbers of tax-related scam attempts will continue to grow.

Increasingly popular with scammers is the robo-call. The crooks leave urgent call-back requests, demanding payment of “back taxes” with gift cards. IRS officials say such demands are clear signs of a scam.

Other callers may ask for payment of a nonexistent “federal student tax.” People they call are told to wire money — another sure sign of a scam — with threats of legal action unless payment comes at once.

Another scheme involves a call saying the IRS “just needs a few details” to speed up the processing of your refund. The scammer tries to get personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers or other sensitive data such as credit card numbers.

Human resources and payroll professionals have been targeted as well, through requests for information about employees. A scammer posing as the company’s CEO requests personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers.

In an effort to catch scammers and identity thieves, the IRS is delaying refunds this year for anyone claiming the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC). That move is expected to give the IRS added time to weed out more sophisticated fraudulent returns. It may also hurt lower income taxpayers who file early and likely will be waiting at least until late February for refunds. Offers to “help speed up your refund” may be more scams.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairs the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which has published a guidebook on avoiding scams. Read it online at aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/217925%20Fraud%20Book%20Final.pdf. You also can call the committee’s fraud hotline (1-855-303-9470) for information or to report fraud attempts.

The IRS offers a summary of our legal protections in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights at irs.gov/taxpayer-bill-of-rights.

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.

Pillow seller’s puffed-up ad claims offer wake-up call to shoppers


Posted Jan. 09, 2017, at 6:42 a.m.

The first network news coverage we saw on the MyPillow flap told only half the story.

Yes, the headline was that the Better Business Bureau, or BBB, had pulled the company’s accreditation and lowered its rating from A-plus to F because of the firm’s advertising practices. The story cited the “buy-one-get-one-free” offer that runs continuously, meaning the “sale” price was actually the “regular” price.

The BBB said it acted because of a “pattern of complaints” over the BOGO offer, both on TV and online. MyPillow owner and CEO Mike Lindell said he was “terribly disappointed” and that his goal is still to give “as many people as possible the chance to have a great night’s sleep.”

What the initial network news story did not cover was MyPillow’s settlement last fall of a lawsuit brought by consumer advocacy groups in California. The groups took issue with health claims on its website that MyPillow could help sufferers of sleep apnea, fibromyalgia and insomnia.

While admitting no wrongdoing, the company paid just less than $1 million in civil penalties and promised another $100,000 for homeless shelters. It also dropped the health claims.

Earlier last year, the company settled a suit brought by the state of New York, which claimed that MyPillow had knowingly failed to pay sales taxes on purchases by New Yorkers. Again admitting no wrongdoing, the company entered into a $1.1 million settlement.

Lindell said he’s planning to change his advertising early this year but has not said how.

Consumer Reports bought three MyPillows last fall. Testers gave them mixed reviews (www.consumerreports.org/mattresses/should-my-pillow-become-your-pillow/).

Consumers should know that the BOGO offer applied to the firm’s “premium” series ($90 for two pillows). The pillows sold in retail stores have no gusset, fewer loft levels and retail for $49 to $69 each.

If companies make false health claims and are warned to stop, they “are going to pay the price if they don’t comply,” Bonnie Patton, executive director of Truth in Advertising Inc., said. The Connecticut-based nonprofit fights misleading ads and investigates complaints ( www.truthinadvertising.org).

TINA published a report on its investigation of MyPillow’s ads in February of 2016.

Consumers who sleep restfully may scoff at others who have paid millions over the years seeking a good night’s sleep. But they may be among the millions of consumers who spend billions of dollars on health products, many with dubious claims and sketchy performance.

It’s not too late for resolutions in the early days of this year.

Let’s all promise ourselves that we’ll look hard at ad claims, scientific research, real testimonials and the experience of friends or relatives. Let’s put our skepticism on high and our spending on low, which searching for the true bargains in the marketplace.

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.

State Consumer Protection Officials Announce ‘Top 10’ New Year’s Resolutions to Improve Financial Health


GARDINER – With a New Year approaching, it’s time for resolutions.  While most people think of resolutions related to their physical health, such as eating better and getting back in shape, staff at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection are encouraging individual and families to also resolve to improve their “financial health” in 2017.

Bureau Superintendent Will Lund announced a Top 10 list of Financial Health New Year’s Resolutions, based on the agency’s discussions with hundreds of consumers who called the Bureau’s hotline (1-800-DEBT-LAW) for assistance and advice during 2016:

1) I resolve to check my credit reports with each major credit reporting agency (Trans Union, Equifax and Experian) at least once this year, which I can do for free by going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228.

2)  I resolve to reduce or eliminate credit card balances, and to use cash or a debit card whenever possible. I resolve to consider doing business with banks or credit unions that have offices here in Maine, because then if a problem arises I can go visit a real live person to resolve it.

3)  I resolve to be suspicious of offers that involve romantic relationships with individuals I have “met” only online, and offers involving Nigerian finance ministers who claim to need my help moving large amounts of money out of their country.

4)  I resolve not to send funds in order to claim foreign “sweepstakes” winnings when I didn’t even enter the sweepstakes contest.

5)  I resolve to purchase a telephone Caller ID and an answering machine for my elderly relatives who are bothered by too many junk calls, and teach them how to use the system, reminding them that “real” friends and family who call will leave a message.

6)  I resolve to stay in touch with elderly relatives, encouraging them to tell me or their friends if they are presented with investment opportunities. Further, I will remember that investments are governed by the Maine Office of Securities, whose helpful staff can tell someone whether the investment they are being offered has been properly registered with the state.

7)  I resolve to take my time when making a big purchase like an automobile or major appliance, learning all I can about the product beforehand, visiting more than one retailer, negotiating the best price, getting all aspects of the deal in writing, and walking away if the sales pitch becomes pressured.

8)  I resolve not be intimidated by collection calls demanding payment for debts I do not owe. I will remember that debt collectors must be licensed by the state, and that the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection stands ready to provide assistance and to enforce the laws.

9)   I resolve to be suspicious of any phone call I receive from someone I don’t know, including callers who tell me that a virus has been detected on my computer and that I must turn on my computer and give the caller access in order to fix the problem.

10)  If I find myself providing credit card numbers over the phone to someone I don’t know on a call I did not initiate, or if I find myself at the Western Union window or purchasing prepaid cash cards to send money to someone I don’t know, I resolve to recognize that I am likely being scammed, and I will seek advice and assistance.

 Superintendent Lund urges people with questions about items in this Top 10 list, or any other issues related to consumer credit or financial concerns to contact the Bureau.  The website is www.Credit.Maine.gov and the phone number is 1-800-332-8529 (toll-free in Maine) or 624-8527.

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


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.

Deck the halls with vows of safety


Posted Dec. 19, 2016, at 1:22 p.m.

The greatest gift that you could give this season might be yourself, safe and sound, arriving for a visit with a loved one or a friend.

Safety messages are everywhere this time of year. However, we all seem to be so busy that we may dismiss the cautions. Here are a few suggestions for consumers who want to keep themselves and those close to them safe:

—  Replace batteries and smoke/carbon monoxide detectors. Many of us replace batteries when we set clocks ahead in the spring and back in the fall. If you forgot, do it now. Smoke and CO detectors need good batteries to save lives. They also don’t last forever. If the date of manufacture on your smoke detector is more than 10 years old, it’s time to replace the unit. CO detectors are generally effective from five to seven years.

— Decorate safely. Spun glass known as “angel hair” can irritate eyes and skin. Wear gloves when you’re using it or use non-flammable cotton instead. Decorate with children in mind. Ornaments with metal hooks should go high on the tree. Use a good step ladder for hanging decorations.

— Clear your path. Keep wrapping paper, decorations and toys out of areas where you walk. The National Safety Council has tips about avoiding falls at nsc.org/learn/safety-knowledge/Pages/safety-at-home-falls.aspx.

— Keep pets safe. Holiday plants such as mistletoe and holly may attract household pets, and eating some plants can cause harm. Don’t feed table scraps to the dog or cat. Carmela Stamper, a veterinarian with the Food and Drug Administration, says rich, fatty foods can cause a potentially lethal condition called pancreatitis. And be careful of alcoholic beverages and chocolate around pets.

— Be aware of toy recalls. Check SaferProducts.gov for recall notices to avoid things such as lead paint, laceration risks or other hazards.

Officials in the insurance industry offer a number of tips, beginning with indoor tree safety. Avoiding open flame (candles) and frequent watering head the list.

Careful inspection of lights is another must. Allstate advises that holiday lights may contain PVC and may be tainted with lead. After you’ve decorated, wash up and keep children away from lights they might handle before sticking fingers in their mouths.

You can look for labels reading “RoHS” (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) meaning lead was not used in making the lights.

Outside your home, most safety precautions revolve around shopping. Make sure purchases are safe and out of sight when leaving them in your vehicle. Keep close watch on your wallet or purse, and be cautious of prying eyes when entering a PIN.

Back at home, be careful when cooking; the festive season can distract us and might increase the risk of a fire. Party responsibly. Celebrate safely, and make the season bright.

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


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.

Magnet maker wins court ruling despite injuries to children

Posted Dec. 05, 2016, at 1:45 p.m.

In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a rule banning the sale of sets of small magnets. In November, the company that defied the agency won a federal appeals court victory; the firm’s website trumpeted, “Ban cleared. Game on.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s action came after reports of injury to some children who swallowed the powerful neodymium (rare earth) magnet balls. If they ingested more than one, children were at risk of having the magnets attach and tear internal tissues or organs. Surgery sometimes was needed to remove the magnets.

Most distributors heeded the urgings of the group to stop selling the magnets, despite the warning labels stating that the toys were meant for adults and not children. One manufacturer — Zen Magnets of Boulder, Colorado — refused first the urgings and then orders to stop selling magnet sets. It did so with the backing of lots of consumers, who liked the variety of patterns they could form using the magnets.

The safety commission’s research in 2011 had found that some magnets sold in sets were 10 times more powerful than allowed in standards for children’s toys. Manufacturers insisted that the sets were for adults only, but the agency pointed to a rising number of emergency room visits involving children who had swallowed magnets.

A 2015 news release from the safety group blamed the death of a 19-month-old girl on magnet ingestion and estimated that 2,900 ER visits between 2009 and 2013 resulted from swallowed magnets. That news release focused on a federal judge’s order that Zen Magnets — at the time the only known seller of small magnet sets — to stop selling recalled magnets. The Justice Department had charged that Zen bought 917,000 magnets from another company, comingled them with other magnets and sold them after the other company issued a recall. Federal law bans the sale of recalled products.

In November of this year, a federal appeals court overturned the ban on magnet sales and sent the matter back to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two of the three judges wrote that they found the safety group’s emergency room statistics did not show that the agency rule “is reasonably necessary to eliminate or reduce an unreasonable risk of injury.” Those judges wrote that they had “no opinion” on the number of injuries that would support issuing a new safety standard.

The minority judge on the panel wrote, “In my view, the record sufficed for the Commission’s finding of an unreasonable risk of injury.” A commission spokesperson told us “the hazard from these small, powerful magnets has not changed” if more than one is swallowed. The agency is “assessing its options and takes the matter very seriously.”

While the safety commission assesses its options, magnet sales abound on the internet. After doing his victory dance, the founder of Zen Magnets called for education over regulation. Shihan Qu wrote on his company’s website that swimming pools and toy balloons are more dangerous than his magnets and that education is the key to the safe enjoyment of most products.

They may not be toys, but that’s how magnet sets may appear to little eyes. Qu agreed with many critics when he wrote, “… high powered magnets should be kept away from any mouths and young children who don’t know better.”

In the same article Qu wrote, “Instead of driving Zen out of business, and pushing production further from the CPSC’s field of view, I’d rather use our resources to fight alongside the CPSC for successful educational and awareness campaigns focused on consumers and medical professionals.”

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.

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