How to protect yourself from credit card skimmers


Posted July 04, 2016, at 2:25 p.m.

Three people were arrested recently in southern Maine, facing charges relating to a scheme to “clone” credit cards at gas pumps.

Police say the three had installed a machine called a skimmer, which steals card data that can then be transferred to a blank card and used for illegal purchases.

Those phony charges will show up on the true owner’s monthly statement, so it’s up to all smart consumers to check those statements closely. Disputing them will take time, and so will the process of getting a new card.

A better idea is avoiding any card machine that appears to have been altered.

Look around the card slot. If you see scrapes, scratches or torn labels that raise your suspicions, make your purchase the old-fashioned way: Pay with cash. You might see that one pump seems to stick out farther than the rest. That can be a sign that it’s been tampered with.

Thieves can install a skimmer in a matter of seconds. Even with attendants on duty, they can’t watch every pump every second. The crooks often use double-stick tape to put their skimmers in place. If the card slot looks odd, give it a wiggle. It might just drop right off the pump.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has classified skimming at gas pumps as an “emerging threat.” In Eagan Minnesota, police and most local gas station operators have teamed up in an effort to defeat the skimmers.

Stations that take part in the SkimStop program place stickers on their pumps, warning potential thieves that the pumps are checked daily. The stickers bear serial numbers, so they can’t be easily duplicated. If the seal on the security label is tampered with, the pump can be checked to make sure a skimmer hasn’t been installed.

Eagan police say thieves in one case captured the data of 157 victims. They used the data they stole to buy gift cards and made some $21,000 in illegal purchases.

“For the cost of some stickers, we can solve a lot of problems,” Officer Aaron Machtemes told me.

The SkimStop program began in March. “We haven’t had a skimming device in our city since,” Machtemes said.

At least one Maine chain of convenience stores tried another version of sticker, but company officials declined a request for an interview. Some stickers do not carry a serial number and are readily available for purchase online. Thieves can buy a roll of 500 stickers for about $70, do their dirty work and slap a new sticker on a pump, leaving consumers — and likely most store employees — none the wiser.

William Lund is superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Lund said the arrest of the three suspects in the Brunswick case shows that some thieves consider Maine as ripe for ripping off as anywhere.

“It all boils down to people in Maine realizing that we don’t get a free pass when this technology becomes common,” Lund said. He urged consumers to be observant and cautious when using credit or debit cards in any public setting. More on this topic next week.

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 or email

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


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 and

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.

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 or email

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

How to be sure your support for veterans actually helps them 


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 13, 2016, at 7:13 a.m.

We received two letters in less than two weeks. Both were addressed with the same misspelling of our last name, a tipoff that we had not supported this charity in the past.

The appeal was ostensibly to help disabled veterans and included a calculator, notepad, window sticker and a check for $2.50, made out to me. Why any group gives money then asks for it back is unclear; because we’d never requested anything, we don’t have to donate or send their stuff back.

The “ask” was for $15, or I could opt to hand over our credit card number so the Disabled Veterans National Foundation could take more donations automatically, month after month. We declined to cash the check or divulge our card number.

click image to research charity

We researched the group on Charity Navigator, one of the top charity rating organizations. The foundation’s website says it “exists to provide critically needed support to disabled and at-risk veterans who leave the military wounded — physically or psychologically — after defending our safety and freedom.”

Charity Navigator says the group’s most recent tax filing shows 19.4 percent of its total expenses went to those programs to help vets. Some 72.8 percent of the total expenses went to fundraisers.

CharityWatch — formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy — using different scoring methods, gave the group an F rating in December 2015.

Looking at the most recent tax filing and audited financial statement, CharityWatch found that, of $8.6 million in expenses, 7 percent went to programs. Of the $8.7 million in total contributions, 89 percent went to fundraising.

CharityWatch rates 53 charities in its “Veterans and Military” category; 26 of them get a grade of F.

People who donate to charities want their money to help those the charity says it’s helping. We believe donors don’t usually think of fundraisers as especially deserving, but we may be wrong. As with all consumer decisions, research comes first.

The nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, at, recommends a 2013 report titled “Serving Those Who Served” for people who want to make effective donations supporting veterans in need. It can be downloaded at the above website as a free PDF or ordered in print or digital formats from various vendors.

There’s also a website about all things military. It lists several questions, at, which donors might ask themselves before giving.

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 or email


Here’s how to get help reducing Medicare costs


Posted June 06, 2016, at 7:19 a.m.
The Bangor Daily News performed a real public service in publishing the article headlined, “Not junk mail: This Social Security letter can cut Medicare costs.”

Many of the 2 million seniors who received the letter last month surely were skeptical. Their fraud detectors went off after reading, “you can get help paying your Medicare costs.”

But the letter was legitimate.

Social Security officials sent the letters to seniors telling them they might be eligible for a program called Extra Help. The program can cover up to 75 percent of prescription drug costs.

Other seniors may be eligible for a partial subsidy of drug costs. Still others may qualify for a Medicare Savings Program in the state where they live.

Betty Balderston is the statewide coordinator of Maine Senior Medicare Patrol, a program of Legal Services for the Elderly. She says Area Agencies on Aging generally advise Mainers to apply for Maine’s Medicare Savings Program. If they qualify, Medicare beneficiaries automatically are enrolled in the Part D Extra Help program.

“That way, Mainers not only get help with their prescription drug costs but also help paying for their Part B premium and possibly with co-pays and deductibles (depending upon which Medicare Savings Program they qualify for based upon income and assets),” Balderston said.

People with questions can get help from their Area Agency on Aging. A toll-free call (1-877-ELDERS1 or 1-877-353-3771) will direct seniors to their nearest agency.

Dyan Walsh, executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging or EAAA, told me it’s often difficult for seniors to tell the difference between scams and genuine offers of help. She said the agency has volunteers who can visit seniors who request help in sorting the good mail from the bad.

When people call EAAA, one of the first things they’re asked is whether they might qualify for the Extra Help program. Seniors who may have discarded their letters about the program should not feel embarrassed. Just call your Agency on Aging, and people there will be glad to help.

Many questions can be answered online. Visit and search “extra help.”

The Medicare site ( also has detailed information about the program.

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 or email

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


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 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

The Finance Authority of Maine also has information about student loans at 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 or email

Get ready now for an active hurricane season


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 23, 2016, at 6:15 a.m.

Click image for info

If you missed Hurricane Preparedness Week (the third week in May), it’s not too late to take precautions that could save lives and/or property. The hurricane season begins officially on June 1 but serious storms can happen any time.

In Maine, consumers often think that the end of severe winter weather means we can all relax. In fact, the same diligence we practice in keeping ahead of ice and snow serves us well when severe storms strike.

Several forecasters are predicting the most active hurricane season since 2012, with 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three major hurricanes likely.

There’s no guarantee that all of those storms will hit the United States. But many of us can recall a hurricane that has visited Maine. And most of us would agree, it’s better to be prepared than to be unprepared.

Emergency officials remind us that updating our insurance coverage is important. Whether you own or rent, it’s worth meeting with your insurance agent before hurricane season really ramps up.

Maine’s Bureau of Insurance has a number of resources to help both homeowners and renters prepare. Call the bureau, 1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or visit its website,, for a home inventory checklist, insurance guide for natural disasters, advice on making claims following storms and more.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners website has more information at

Most homeowners’ and renters’ insurances do not cover flood damage. Flood insurance must be purchased separately, if you live in a floodplain where you need coverage. There also is a waiting period before it takes effect.

Contact the National Flood Insurance Program by phone at 1-800-427-2419 or online at for detailed information.

Consumers should put together emergency supplies. Nonperishable food, a nonelectric can opener, cooking utensils, drinking water, flashlights with good batteries and a battery-powered radio are basics. Extra clothing, blankets and a well-stocked first aid kit are also needed items.

Imagine what the loss of important papers in a storm could mean. Consider keeping copies at home and original documents in a safe deposit box or other secure storage site. If you keep your only copies of insurance policies at home, be sure you can get them in a hurry if you have to leave.

Get your home ready by keeping trees trimmed to minimize danger from broken branches. Shop ahead for materials to cover windows; they may be hard to find a day or two before a big storm.

If a hurricane approaches, put vehicles in garages or other secure places. Bring loose items inside and secure all doors; garage doors are often the most subject to damage. Good preparations should help to settle an insurance claim more quickly.

After a major storm, beware of “deals,” especially involving used vehicles. Hidden flood damage that’s not revealed in a private sale might cause big headaches.

Damp goods sold by salvage specialists may or may not be bargains; shop carefully.

If you’re vacationing in an area that’s been hit by a hurricane in the past, pay attention to weather forecasts. Be ready to alter your travel plans if there’s danger of a serious storm. Find out if there are evacuation routes you should know about and how people are alerted about using them.

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 or email


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