Fake IRS phone scammers more aggressive, sophisticated

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 14, 2015, at 7:10 a.m.

Click image to report phishing and/or scams

Most consumers can spot a scam attempt almost as soon as they pick up the phone. However, one recent spate of calls has citizens and government officials concerned.

The callers pretend to represent the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. They claim they’re calling because taxes are past due; unless payment is made immediately, the caller threatens to file a lawsuit, seize property, even do them physical harm.

In the past two weeks, the Maine attorney general and Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, have issued warnings about these scams. Similar warnings from officials around the country show scammers are ramping up their efforts. And they’re doing so a lot earlier than usual.

The fake IRS scam usually hits high gear during the run-up to income tax season, that is, in February, March and early April. This year, however, crooks have been burning the phone lines pretending to be IRS agents, police officers, court officials and others who might be in the business of collecting delinquent taxes.

Except, they’re not. They’re just criminals trying to get you to wire them money you can never get back.

“It’s really unusual that they’ve started in December,” David Leach of BCCP said.

Leach said his office has received calls from across Maine. Many callers said they realized they were targets of a scam attempt; others said they didn’t realize they were being victimized until they had sent money they had no hopes of recovering.

As with most scams, the crooks demand that money be sent by wire transfer or prepaid cash cards. Both methods are untraceable, and crooks count on that fact — plus their scare tactics to make their scams work.

Aiding their schemes are electronic tactics, such as spoofing, which makes a phony number appear on caller ID devices. The criminals can make it appear they really are calling from an IRS office, when they may be halfway around the world.

The callers can make their threats sound real, but they’re as phony as the call itself. The real IRS never cold calls; it always sends a letter first — on real IRS stationery — and never asks for credit or debit card information or that money be sent by wire transfer or money card.

If a phone caller claims to be calling from the IRS office in Washington, at the very least the phone number should include a 202 area code. Ask for the agency’s exact name, physical address and the supervisor’s direct dial — not 800 — phone number. If you’re in doubt, locate the phone number of the real tax office and call to find out if you have taxes that are overdue. Don’t disclose personal information — date of birth, Social Security number, credit or bank account numbers — to unknown callers; you could become a victim of identity theft.

Report suspicious activity to the BCCP (1-800-332-8529), to an IRS office or to a federal law enforcement officer in Maine or Boston. The anti-scam guide Gone Phishing is available free to Maine residents who call BCCP at the number above or online at CreditMaine.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.

Ignoring debt collectors often leaves consumers defenseless

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 07, 2015, at 8:27 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 07, 2015, at 9:17 a.m.

A consumer from southern Maine was summonsed to court by a creditor seeking to collect a debt. The consumer failed to show up; he lost the case in what was termed an uncontested, default judgment.

By not going to court, the consumer lost his chance to present evidence that might have swayed the judge. The consumer could have demonstrated his precarious financial position and possibly been able to pay off his debt on more favorable terms.

People who deal with consumers in debt say that such stories are not uncommon. Because they’re afraid or don’t know the law, people can make debt repayment more difficult than it needs to be.

Help is available in the latest in a series of booklets from Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. It’s titled “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection.”

If you are in debt, you owe it to yourself (pun intended) to read the guide.

A cardinal rule if you are in debt is to keep lines of communication open. That advice comes from the guide and from one of its authors, David Leach. Leach also is principal examiner at the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.

“Legitimate, licensed debt collectors have a job to do,” Leach said. “Our experience is the majority of times the collector will work constructively with their debtor client if that consumer will work with them in good faith, offering a plausible repayment plan.”

It’s when debtors fail to return phone calls, answer letters or otherwise become unresponsive that things can get nasty. Collectors tend to dig in when that happens, turning up heat on the debtors and using legal remedies at their disposal.

Ignoring a court date could result in a judge’s order that a debtor’s wages be garnished, granting the creditor a chunk of the debtor’s pay until the debt is settled. The guide advises always filing a written answer to a complaint with the court.

The guide covers legal protections that debtors have under Maine law, including a statute of limitations. It says the statute of limitations is usually six years from the time a debtor last made regular payments.

Debts older than the statute-limit age are often called time-barred debts. The debtor is not off the hook for the amount of the debt; collectors can still try to get a debtor to pay at least a portion of the amount due, but they may not have all the legal tools allowed in cases of more current debt.

Then there’s something called the “re-aging” of old debts. In the case of a really old debt, the statute of limitations clock can reset if you make even a single, small payment.

The guide suggests either ignoring demands to settle ancient debts or fighting such claims with the aid of an attorney; the attorney can help with language for a letter saying you don’t recognize the debt and asking for verification including the last date a payment was made.

There’s a lot more advice in the guide, available at maine.gov/pfr/consumercredit/publications.htm.

Consumers in Maine can request a printed copy by calling Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 800-332-8529 or writing to Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, 35 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333. The bureau also maintains a list of debt collectors who are licensed to do business in Maine.

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.

Even Maine’s attorney general can’t avoid online thieves

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 30, 2015, at 9:47 a.m.

Maine’s attorney general knows firsthand what debit card fraud means.

Last month, a debit card belonging to Attorney General Janet Mills was breached. A spokesman for Mills said her credit union luckily spotted unusual activity and alerted Mills before the thief racked up too many charges.

CardHub says unauthorized use of debit and credit cards totaled $11.27 billion in 2012.

Card issuers and merchants absorb virtually all losses involving credit cards. Prompt reporting is critical to minimize a consumer’s liability in case of debit card breach or loss.

On Oct. 1, new rules made merchants liable for losses if they had not installed new card processing equipment. The aim was to make chip-embedded cards universally acceptable and to get outdated, magnetic stripe cards out of circulation. Card issuers embraced the chip, but many continue to require a signature as supposed authentication.

Technology known as chip-and-PIN, or personal identification number, boosts security sharply. A consumer can’t vary his or her signature; the consumer can change a PIN at will, and that’s an ability that consumers in about 80 other countries already have.

Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Retailers Federation, said recently that “continued reliance on an illegible scrawl isn’t good enough to protect American consumers when the technology of a secret, secure PIN is readily available.” Duncan’s remarks supported efforts by Mills and eight other attorneys general to get card issuers to embrace chip-and-PIN.

On Nov. 16, the eight attorneys general wrote to top officials of American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Citigroup, Discover, JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard and Visa. Their letter calls for swift adoption of chip-and-PIN.

“Absent this additional protection, your customers and our citizens will be more vulnerable to damaging data breaches,” they wrote. “This is something we cannot accept, and nor should you.”

Debra Berlyn is president of the Consumer Privacy Awareness Project, an effort to educate consumers about online privacy issues. In an OpEd in this newspaper on Nov. 23, Berlyn echoed the attorneys general’s call, charging that “the big banks and credit card companies are cutting corners to cut costs, forgoing the added PIN feature to reduce the amount they would have to invest in new cards.”

Critics contend that requiring PINs could cause confusion among some consumers. Given the need for a PIN in many modern transactions, we doubt serious problems would arise.

An official of the Federal Reserve Bank wrote in 2013 that signature verification in the U.S. was likely to continue for some time. Fraud on lost or stolen cards would likely not drop as a result.

“Fraud may even rise,” Richard J. Sullivan wrote, “as fraudsters, unable to commit fraud on counterfeit cards, begin to target payments with relatively weak security, such as transactions that allow signature authorization.”

The attorneys general say they’re not interested in mandating any particular technology in law. Instead, they call on the executives “as good corporate citizens” to use and continue using available technologies that offer the best protection to consumers.

A spokesman said Mills will be receiving a new debit card, one that includes chip-and-PIN technology. She’s hoping more institutions will make similar shipments in the near future.

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.

Heating season increases carbon monoxide poisoning risk

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 23, 2015, at 8:50 a.m.
During the past week, the Maine Emergency Management Agency issued two safety tips, each involving carbon monoxide detectors.

As colder weather sets in, Maine emergency management officials want consumers to be sure they have an early warning system in case of a buildup of carbon monoxide. Any heating appliance can release carbon monoxide. If it reaches dangerous levels, our human senses will not detect this colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

Placement of the detectors is key. They should be in a central location outside each sleeping area of your home. If bedrooms are widely spaced, each area should have a carbon monoxide detector.

The agency also urges prompt action when the detectors sound an alarm. Maine Emergency Management Agency advises getting quickly to a place where there’s plenty of fresh air — probably outdoors — and staying there until emergency personnel say it’s safe to return.

Having emergency phone numbers near the phone also is critical, in case someone in your home is in trouble.

False alarms used to be common in older carbon monoxide detectors. As technology has improved, they’ve become less of a problem. It’s important to know what different sounds from a detector mean. Short beeps at regular intervals might indicate it’s time to replace the battery instead of a carbon monoxide problem. Periodic beeping might also indicate the detector is coming to the end of its useful life.

Many detectors contain an electrochemical cell that reacts when carbon monoxide is present. The chemical can degrade over time, making the detector less reliable. That’s why Underwriters Laboratories set a national standard that requires manufacturers to build in a system to alert consumers when a detector gets to the point where it can no longer detect harmful levels of carbon monoxide.

At the end of its useful life, the detector will chirp or make another sound to alert the consumer it’s time to buy a replacement. That also is a feature of smoke and heat detectors, which also are a must for staying safe.

Jake Johnson of the Bangor Fire Department says those types of detectors should also be replaced regularly; he says it’s good practice to buy new ones every 10 years.

Pushing the “test” button will sound an alarm showing that the detector has power and that the alarm works. Johnson says that sound does not necessarily mean the sensor is still reliable.

Some fire departments have smoke detectors available for people who cannot afford them. Jake Johnson says department members are more than willing to install them.

“We want to make sure if we’re giving these things out that they’re in the right place and that they work,” he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a lot of information about carbon monoxide at cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Carbon-Monoxide-Information-Center/Carbon-Monoxide-Questions-and-Answers-/.

If you have questions about either type of detector, call your local fire department.

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.

Susan Collins leads Senate push against medication “price gouging”

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 16, 2015, at 9:20 a.m.

Click image to reach Senate Special Committee on Aging

Recent news reports about sharply rising drug prices — some of which have followed mergers — have raised a lot of questions. Now the leaders of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging say they want answers.

Last week, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, announced a bipartisan investigation into the pricing of pharmaceuticals. They said in a statement that sudden, steep price increases — often on drugs that have been around for years — could inflate the cost of health care by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“Given the potential harm to patients across the country who rely on these drugs for critical care and treatment, the Senate Special Committee on Aging considers these massive price increases worthy of a serious, bipartisan investigation into the causes, impacts and potential solutions,” Collins said.

McCaskill said some of the pharmaceutical industry’s hikes “have looked like little more than price gouging.” She said consumers deserve to know the reasons for the big increases “that seemingly have no relationship to research and development costs.”

To get answers, the committee has asked Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin Inc. and Rodelis Therapeutics for information about price hikes.

The committee is especially keen on finding out why certain drugs, which until recently had been under patent protection, suddenly cost a lot more when another company acquired the rights to manufacture them.

For example, in their letter to Turing the senators asked about the price of a drug used to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis, a cost that rose from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. In their letter to the chairman and CEO of Valeant, they asked about three drugs. The senators wrote that the cost of those three drugs rose between 312 percent and 2,949 percent.

Critics of big pharma contend that a recent flurry of mergers is heating prices. Defenders say the industry is reeling from a kind of perfect storm. The expiration of patents on big-name products, lower productivity from research and development and the outcry of consumers for lower cost drugs are prompting more mergers. The mega-companies that emerge hope to gain traction in R&D while cutting costs and broadening their geographic presence.

Fortune magazine put the value of phama mergers at $221 billion for the first half of 2015, three times the figure for the same period in 2014. Companies may be hurrying to join forces while interest rates remain low, as well as to meet investors’ expectations.

Collins and McCaskill say they want to make sure consumers aren’t paying an unfair share of pharma’s growth. They’ve asked for relevant documents as soon as the four companies can compile them but no later than Dec. 2.

Senate hearings are tentatively set to start Dec. 9. You can reach staff at the Senate Special Committee on Aging online at aging.senate.gov/contact or by calling 202-224-5364.

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.

New federal budget bill unleashes torrent of collection robocalls

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Nov. 09, 2015, at 8:54 a.m.

There’s probably nothing more annoying than a pre-recorded call (robocall) asking you to buy something.

Unless it’s a robocall demanding you pay off a debt you might owe. Congress has just made it possible for some debt collectors to add robocalls to mobile phones to their toolkits. And a number of people and groups are unhappy.

Until passage of the latest federal budget, collectors placing robocalls or sending texts needed advance consent of those receiving such calls. That provision was part of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

Section 301 of the new budget bill repealed the advanced consent requirement for collectors of debt that’s owed to or guaranteed by the federal government. The change allows robocalls not only to student loan and mortgage borrowers, farmers, veterans and others with federally backed loans but also to their relatives, references and even unrelated people who get a reassigned cell phone number from such borrowers.

“They sneaked Section 301 in there. Nobody even knows how it got in [the budget bill],” said Tim Marvin of Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of the organization that publishes Consumer Reports.

Click image to access petition

Consumers Union had launched a campaign in February to pressure phone companies to help curb robocall excesses. When we checked its website, endrobocalls.org, more than 568,000 people had signed an online petition of support.

The outrage of consumers was matched by that of 10 U.S. senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to overturn Section 301. The bill is called the HANGUP (Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls) Act. Seventeen groups supporting the bill drafted a sample letter consumers can mail to their senators, in an effort to give the bill traction.

Critics say allowing robocalls to mobile phones will flood consumers with nuisance calls, and they contend the calls will generate relatively little in repaid debt. Such calls also offer consumers little recourse if they’re targeted unfairly.

Banks often sell bad loans to collection companies for pennies on the dollar — hard-to-collect loans might be sold several times.

The proper paperwork is supposed to accompany such sales, but that doesn’t always happen. As a result, people with similar names or Social Security numbers may receive dunning robocalls over debts they don’t owe, and it may not be easy to find a live person to straighten things out.

Consumers Union’s Tim Marvin says the Senate bill gives supporters of robocall reform “a great opportunity to mobilize all that support we’ve been building.” Despite what seems like popular backing, supporters of the bill aren’t predicting quick passage.

For help with particular debt collection issues, call Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection 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.

New website compares cost, quality of health care in Maine

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted Nov. 02, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

Click image to connect to website

Consumers in Maine have known for some time that there’s a lot of information about health care. However, it has often been difficult to use available data to make meaningful decisions about the quality and price of various medical procedures.

The quest for meaningful comparisons became easier last week. The Maine Health Data Organization, or MHDO, launched a new website, CompareMaine.org. The keyword MHDO acting Executive Director Karynlee Harrington uses to describe the site is “transparency.”

The organization put together a consumer advisory group about 18 months ago. The agency asked consumers what they would like to see in a user-friendly website.

“One of the things they said over and over is there is information out there, but nobody’s asked consumers what they want,” Harrington said last week.

What the consumers wanted was a single site comparing common medical procedures, in terms of cost and patient ratings. The MDHO working group looked at various websites — private and governmental — to see what information was available and how well organized it was. The result is the website, which was launched last week.

The site allows users to compare average costs of more than 200 medical procedures at more than 170 health care facilities around Maine. In many cases, users also can compare quality ratings for facilities. Florida is the only other state in the country where Harrington says people can find side-by-side cost figures and quality ratings. Maine users can compare costs by facility and by health insurance companies.

Users of the website should remember that figures they find are averages — a number of factors can affect actual costs of a given procedure.

“It’s not like going out and buying an appliance,” Harrington said.

The MHDO urges consumers to consult their health care providers and insurers to get a personalized estimate.

The website was developed through grants from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Over time, more procedures will be added and the number of health care facilities will be increased. The website also will be accessible on additional devices.

Harrington describes the current website as a starting point. “It allows consumers to begin the conversation (with providers and insurers),” she said.

The MHDO is looking for feedback from people who visit the site. You can take a survey online when you visit the site, letting the agency know if it’s helpful.

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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