How to avoid panic when disaster strikes

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 21, 2015, at 2:30 p.m.

Click image for daily tips

Every day we read about some new disaster somewhere in the world. The sidebar stories warn us to prepare, in case a similar calamity strikes near us.

The best piece of advice we’ve heard lately comes from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA. That advice is simply this: don’t try to do it all at once.

MEMA advises us to put together those items we have on hand for a basic emergency kit. If we’re list makers, we can start by writing things down. Then, we can gather what we have and decide what’s missing. We can buy a few things at a time when we’re out shopping, and we can wait for sales on things such as batteries and canned goods and stock up.

We like MEMA’s common-sense approach for a couple of reasons. It allows us the luxury of time to prepare in a methodical way. We knew during the middle of last week that a storm named Bill was likely to wash over Maine several days hence; some of us checked our emergency supplies then and put together replacement stocks as necessary.

MEMA’s piecemeal approach treats disaster preparedness as a process, rather than a single task. As such, that process will tend to keep emergency preparations on our radar; keeping those thoughts banging around in our brains allows us to add supplies, make plans, practice drills and do a number of other things that we might otherwise overlook.

Here’s another handy hint from MEMA: write down important phone numbers. Many of us can’t recite those numbers from memory, because our cellphones store them for us; one touch and speed dial does the rest.

When the phone battery dies and the ice storm takes down the cell tower, Grandpa’s old rotary dial phone can look mighty good … if we know what numbers we want to call.

Write down the numbers of family members, close friends, your insurance agent, financial pros and others you may want to reach in case of trouble. Drag out that list every couple of months and update it.

After getting things together and writing down key numbers, you might take the next step and talk this all over with your neighbors. MEMA advises that we get together over coffee and talk about ways we can support one another during an emergency. A neighbor set up a generator when the ice storm of 1998 knocked out one of our relatives’ power; at some point, we’d like to pay that favor forward.

You can read all of MEMA’s preparedness tips online. Visit www.maine.gov/mema and click “To learn more, visit Maine Prepares.” You can sign up to receive a daily tip by email or through social media.

For people who are not comfortable using computers, Kathleen Rusley of MEMA says local emergency management directors are great sources (that person is often the local fire chief).

“They are a fount of information; they’ll go out and talk to groups or contact the county or state offices for speakers,” she said.

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.

Elder abuse costs $2.9 billion each year

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 14, 2015, at 11:44 a.m.

Click image for list of aging and disability services

You may have seen news reports noting that June 15 is Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s appropriate to focus this column on elder abuse because it is probably the most under-reported of all abuses of consumers.

So, this is a call to action. People who suspect that our older neighbors or friends are being abused need to speak up.

On top of the huge physical and emotional toll of abuse and neglect are the financial costs, estimated at $2.9 billion per year. Cases of investment fraud targeting seniors are well documented; still, Mainers are victimized almost daily.

“Victims can quickly see their entire life savings depleted with little opportunity to recover financial stability,” said Judith Shaw, Maine’s securities administrator. Shaw, who also co-chairs the Maine Council on Elder Abuse, added that such losses can lead to physical and emotional health problems.

Shaw attended last Thursday’s Scam Jam, an awareness event that drew more than 300 people in Augusta. Shaw was among the speakers, and she came away with a renewed conviction about fighting elder abuse: We are all in the fight together, and collaboration among groups seeking to end abuse is critical.

Shaw said part of the natural aging process is a decreasing ability to understand complex financial concepts. Scam artists prey on this fact and use sophisticated social engineering tricks to try to separate seniors from their funds.

In marking this day of awareness, Maine officials listed warning signs of possible abuse or exploitation:

— Social isolation, depression and/or recent loss of spouse or partner.

— Declining health and ability to provide one’s own care.

— Inability to deal with complicated finances.

— Dependence on others for basic care and services.

— Willingness to listen to telemarketers or respond to solicitations from unverified charities or businesses.

In proclaiming Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Gov. Paul LePage urged Mainers to report suspected abuse of older Mainers. The governor noted in his proclamation that abusers are often family members or caregivers.

“Each of us has a responsibility to speak up and report concerns about potential abuse,” LePage said.

That’s especially true when seniors may be too embarrassed or afraid to speak up for themselves.

Suspected abuse can be reported to Adult Protective Services (maine.gov/dhhs/oads/aging/aps) by calling 800-624-8404

Another key agency is the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services (maine.gov/dhhs/oads), reachable by phone at 800-262-2232.

Legal Services for the Elderly (mainelse.org) can offer free legal help to socially and economically needy Mainers age 60 and over. Call the helpline at 800-750-5353. You can find links to Maine’s area agencies on aging at maine.gov/dhhs/oes/resource/aaa.htm.

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.

 

Home equity loan payback crunch looms as next housing crisis

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted June 07, 2015, at 12:18 p.m.

Click image for Federal Reserve publication

Home equity loans offer homeowners a line of credit based on the value of their dwellings. A lot of homeowners opened home equity lines of credit, or HELOC, between 2005 and 2008, when the housing market crashed.

Today, HELOCs from that period total about $265 billion. Those loans are about to enter what’s called the drawdown period, when they have to be paid back. And while many of those loan arrangements allowed borrowing for interest-only payments over a 10-year period, borrowers will face principal-plus-interest payments that could be sharply higher.

Experian, one of the big three credit reporting agencies in the U.S., released a report not long ago citing concern over the end-of-draw issue.

“Between 2013 and 2014, there was a 307 percent increase in the number of 90-day delinquencies on HELOC loans for borrowers that were end of draw, compared to just 29 percent that were not end of draw,” Experian said in its report.

The report noted that the percentage of HELOCs that are 90 to 180 days past due, termed “late stage delinquent,” has dropped 0.5 percent from its peak of 1.81 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, more homeowners have been using HELOCs; new loans in the fourth quarter of last year were up 81 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010.

Experian’s report doesn’t predict either good or bad results of this increased borrowing, but its study does caution consumers to do their homework.

Michele Raneri, Experian’s vice president of analytics and business development, put it this way: “This analysis is critical, as we want to not only help lenders prepare and understand the payment stress of their borrowers but also give consumers an opportunity to understand what the impact may be to their financial status and how to be better prepared for it.”

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or OCC, sounded the alarm back in 2012, when about $11 billion in HELOCs reached the end-of-draw period. At that time, OCC predicted the figure would be $29 billion in 2014, $53 billion in 2015 and as much as $111 billion in 2018.

The crunch for borrowers could come when the Fed loosens its grip on interest rates.

The Experian study concludes that, if there is a significant balance on a consumer’s HELOC and that consumer must start repaying, those new payments could put the borrower in a financial squeeze.

Banks that finance the HELOCs generally reach out to consumers six to 12 months before the end of the draw period. They remind consumers of the approaching change in payments and offer to discuss options. Many of those consumers likely will turn to refinancing. Such programs usually operate on a variable interest rate; as an official of TD Bank recently was quoted as saying, “Nobody knows what rates will do a year from now.”

Consumers may want to talk with their loan officers or a financial adviser before deciding. You can read more about HELOCs in the Downeaster Common Sense Guide to Finding, Buying and Keeping Your Maine Home, published by Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Read it online at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/documents/MortgageGuide.rtf. Help also is available from the Bureau by calling 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.

Send flowers, not other people’s credit card numbers

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 31, 2015, at 2:26 p.m.

Until a couple of years ago, Florists’ Transworld Delivery Inc. and Classmates.com were affiliated companies. Now they’ve settled charges by the Federal Trade Commission that they engaged in misleading advertising and billing.

Maine is among 22 states that took legal action against the companies. A big part of the investigation focused on accusations that the companies used “negative option marketing” to snag customers who didn’t know what they were buying. Investigators looked at tactics, including subscriptions to Classmates that renewed automatically.

The probe also looked at the companies’ dealings with third-party marketers, including travel rewards programs, insurance plans and discount buying clubs, whose ads would “pop up” during transactions.

The states charged that Classmates and FTD shared consumers’ personal information, including credit card numbers. This practice, known as “data pass,” allowed customers to be charged for third-party offers if they did not opt out.

Congress put an end to data pass in Internet dealings by approving the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act in 2010.

In reaching the settlement, which will cost the two firms $11 million, FTD and Classmates admit no wrongdoing. FTD officials say they voluntarily stopped a third-party marketing program in early 2010.

Classmates also denied any wrongdoing. Part of the settlement statement deals with the companies’ denial: “The defendants are confident that if any of the alleged misconduct were to be litigated, the defendants would prevail on each and every claim asserted by the plaintiffs. However, to avoid the substantial burden and expense on the defendants that would result from continued investigation into these issues or litigation, the defendants have elected to resolve this matter through a consensual resolution.”

In the future, both companies say they will keep customers’ information from being passed on to third-party marketers without the consent of those customers.

Classmates also said it would work to make it easier for customers to end their subscriptions.

Both firms must be clear whether membership programs they may offer are their own or those of third parties. They also can’t use terms including “free” or “risk free” if a program will switch to a paid subscription.

Part of the settlement includes $3 million set aside by Classmates for refunds to customers who had signed up and later had problems canceling.

FTD will pay $8 million to the 22 states, including Maine, involved in the suit.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh used the announcement of the settlement to caution people. “Consumers should always carefully review service agreements and other add-on offers when making a purchase to ensure there are no strings attached,” Frosh said in a statement.

Consumers are advised that, to be eligible for restitution from Classmates, they must have purchased subscription services from the company between Jan. 1, 2008, and May 26, 2015

The deadline to file claims is Aug. 24. Mainers may file through Classmates or with the Maine Attorney General by writing to 6 State House Station, Augusta, ME, 04333, or by going online at http://consumer.mediation@maine.gov. If consumers have questions, they may call the Maine attorney general’s office at 1-800-436-2131.

Businesses and consumers can expect more enforcement actions in the future. FTC Guardian is a Georgia-based company — not affiliated with the Federal Trade Commission — which has suggestions for other entities that do online marketing. You can read this company’s advice at ftcguardian.com/articles/tragic-legal-mistake-4-continuity-programs-in-the-ftc-crosshairs/.

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.

What to do if you think your car qualifies for the massive air bag recall

Posted May 24, 2015, at 10:06 a.m.

Good news and bad news time: I’m average.

The average age of a vehicle on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, so my 2004 Ford Taurus station wagon is right on the median (or is that mean? I never got those two straight). That’s not good news in light of last week’s massive recall of automotive air bags.

Federal law says manufacturers do not have to report suspicious accidents in vehicles more than 10 years old. There’s a bill in Congress to change that, but for now, there may be a lot more cars needing recall work than anyone can imagine.

At last word, we were still looking for the full list of vehicles involved in the recall of those Takata air bags, which could deploy with excessive force, shatter the housing and send shrapnel into the people whom the bags were intended to save. The recall is expected to cover 34 million vehicles, about one of every seven cars in the country. That’s the largest recall ever involving motor vehicles and one of the biggest recalls on record.

Many consumers who have tried to check their recall status have found there are no easy answers. They are anxious, and with good reason; six deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the faulty air bags, and owners will likely be impatient while regulators and manufacturers sort things out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been fining Takata $14,000 per day for failing to cooperate with its investigation. Federal regulators and Takata agreed last week on the expanded recall, and some observers predict the fines will disappear as Takata absorbs the high costs of both the recall work and inevitable lawsuits.

For the moment, consumers need to be prepared. Consumer Affairs’ checklist goes as follows:

— Find your Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on the vehicle or registration.

— To see if you are eligible, go to www.safercar.gov/vin and type in your VIN.

— If your vehicle is among those recalled, go to any dealer of your vehicle right away and schedule a recall repair appointment.

— Ask your dealer (or the vehicle manufacturer) for a “loaner” vehicle while waiting for parts to become available.

Manufacturers are not required to give you a loaner, but some will. And if your vehicle is not on the recall list, it might be added in the future. It’s important to keep checking.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website is another place to check (www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/index.html). Last week, that site was reporting very heavy usage, so be patient.

Experts are still looking for exact causes of the air bag problem, but excessive humidity is suspected to cause chemicals to deteriorate. Factor in climate when thinking of buying a car from Florida or other warm places.

You can check the safer car site to see if your vehicle has been recalled for other work as well. Carfax, which tracks all kinds of vehicle data, estimates 3.5 million cars for sale online in 2013 had undone, or “open” recalls. If a consumer sells a vehicle with an open recall privately, the buyer is unlikely to know about the needed recall work.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an email notification system for vehicles, tires and child restraints. Before signing up, look at the sample email message on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ’s website (www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/subscriptions/index.cfm#) so you’ll know what the real thing looks like. Expect scammers to exploit the recall for their own purposes.

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.

The perils of not reading terms, conditions

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted May 17, 2015, at 6:50 a.m.

Dear Company X:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding my inquiry about your negative option policy. I understand your policy states that “purchases and renewals are non-refundable” and that it was in effect when I signed up for your “club.”

I’m confused because your response states “membership cancellation can only be completed prior to the next renewal date.” Lucky me, I have plenty of time, since this membership I’m trying to get out of lasts until next February.

And, yes, when first signing up I checked the little box that says I understand and agree to all the stuff that’s in your policy. For your convenience, at the bottom of this letter I’ve included a checkbox that says you understand that most consumers wouldn’t read these things if trapped alone on a desert island with nothing else to read.

Here’s what gets me, Company X. A request to cancel has to be made at least five days before my plan expires. Even if I do that, with about nine months of “service” left on my current membership, I get nothing back?

I got into this situation because I was looking for a renewal notice before my last membership ran out. I noticed the renewal charge on my credit card bill, which arrived too late for me to cancel. Why don’t you guys do what the magazine companies do and send renewal notices eight or nine months before our subscriptions run out? Why instead is your policy to say nothing and be signed up and charged again?

Click to read: Tragic (Legal) Mistake 4: Continuity Programs: In the FTC Crosshairs

I’m told this is called a negative option policy. This practice by your company and many others has drawn attention from some people in high places. Six years ago, the Federal Trade Commission had its staff look at four kinds of negative option plans. The staff examined automatic renewals, including mine. They also looked at pre-notification negative option plans, such as book or music clubs that send a periodic notice that a consumer will receive another selection. If the person does nothing, the company ships the selection and charges for it. The staff also looked at continuity plans, where consumers agree up front to receive goods or services until they cancel the agreement. There also are free-to-pay or nominal-fee-to-pay plans: After a trial period, sellers automatically start charging a fee — or increased fee — unless consumers affirmatively return the goods or cancel the services.

Then, Company X, there’s the upsell. Some companies pitch their negative options, seal the deal, then offer an additional product or service for a few dollars more. Or they bundle offers, so two or more products or services may only be purchased together.

The FTC staff work led to passage in 2010 of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, or ROSCA. As you know, ROSCA bans negative option deals unless the seller does the following:

— Clearly and conspicuously discloses all material terms before getting the consumer’s billing information.

— Gets the customer’s express informed consent before making the charge.

— Sets up a simple way to prevent recurring charges.

I’m sure you folks at Company X wouldn’t diminish my consuming experience by failing to comply with the law just to make a few dollars more.

DirecTV incurred the FTC’s wrath by allegedly failing to make clear what the rates were when a nifty introductory offer was up. There apparently was some concern about the fees people were paying to get out of the deal, too.

Your company and others may be watching to see if DirecTV appeals. Or maybe you think it’s better for all businesses to be clear and conspicuous with their offers so we all know where we stand. Please check here if you agree — uh, that’s called affirmative consent.

Have a nice day.

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.

FTC Launches New Resource for Identity Theft Victims

IdentityTheft.gov Helps People Report and Recover from Identity Theft

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

May 14, 2015

The Federal Trade Commission has launched IdentityTheft.gov, a new resource that makes it easier for identity theft victims to report and recover from identity theft. A Spanish version of the site is also available at RobodeIdentidad.gov.

The new website provides an interactive checklist that walks people through the recovery process and helps them understand which recovery steps should be taken upon learning their identity has been stolen. It also provides sample letters and other helpful resources.

In addition, the site offers specialized tips for specific forms of identity theft, including tax-related and medical identity theft. The site also has advice for people who have been notified that their personal information was exposed in a data breach.

Identity theft has been the top consumer complaint reported to the FTC for the past 15 years, and in 2014, the Commission received more than 330,000 complaints from consumers who were victims of identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook(link is external), follow us on Twitter(link is external), and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

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