What happens when the feds issue a product recall order

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 24, 2016, at 9:02 a.m.

A recent column dealt with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s settlement with Best Buy after the retailer sold goods that had been recalled.

Northeast CONTACT asked attorney Regan A. Sweeney of Portland, a former trial attorney with CPSC, for some insights into the agency’s actions:

NEC: Does CPSC have a standard procedure when negotiating recalls, or is each case unique?

Sweeney: Your question raises a good point, which is that 99.9 percent of CPSC’s recalls are negotiated with the companies and are voluntary; they are not unilaterally decided by CPSC or forced on the companies. The procedure’s generally the same: the CPSC gets incident reports for a product, evaluates the hazard, opens an investigation, and where it finds a substantial hazard, it negotiates with the company for a recall. Because products are unique, recalls are tailored to the product, the hazard and the remedy being addressed.

NEC: In the Best Buy case, the sale of recalled products went on for some time. Why couldn’t CPSC act more quickly to stop those sales?

Sweeney: Because civil penalty cases are negotiated confidentially between the company and the CPSC, we’ll likely never know the details of the case. The settlement agreement tends to indicate that there were a very small number of recalled products that were similar to non-recalled products currently for sale, and a few were sold to consumers due to poor record-keeping and product tracking on Best Buy’s part. The settlement agreement is intentionally short on details, so we’ll never know what the CPSC knew when.

NEC: What about consumer products made overseas?

Sweeney: Federal laws require that a U.S.-based entity be responsible for imported products and for any recall, if necessary. Internet sales create a wrinkle in this, as they’re not considered sales in the U.S. Products purchased online directly from a foreign manufacturer or distributor wouldn’t be covered by CPSC’s laws, so consumers should always buy from a reputable, U.S. based distributor or retailer whenever possible.

NEC: How can consumers be sure they’re not buying recalled items at yard sales or flea markets?

Sweeney: CPSC maintains a database of all recalls announced, sortable by product type, brand, etc., but there’s currently no efficient way of checking that list short of running searches and looking through the listings. When shopping at places like that, use a smartphone to take a picture of the product and do an internet search for the product name and/or model number. Search CPSC’s site, www.saferproducts.gov, for the same things.

Even then, here’s a short list of products you should never buy used at a yard sale or flea market:

— Cribs. Federal crib standards and laws changed drastically in 2011, adding a lot of new safety requirements and making it illegal to resell any crib made before then. More importantly, a crib in a yard sale may not have been properly assembled, may have been subject to abuse that caused damage you can’t see, may have been fixed with unsafe homemade repairs, or have other potential problems. Using a replacement mattress in an old crib can create entrapment and asphyxiation hazards.

— Car Seats. It may be impossible to tell by sight if it’s already been in a car crash, thereby significantly reducing its ability to absorb another impact. Many are designed to work only with specific components and parts from that manufacturer; trying to pair it with other parts may render it unsafe.

— Soft Plastic Child Care Articles and Toys. CPSC’s rules over the years have evolved to prohibit certain plastic compounds — phthalates in particular — as they can migrate from the material to a child. These are relatively new rules and testing for these components is complex, not something recognizable by eye or touch, so steer clear of these items as they may not meet the new requirements.

Sweeney says companies that agree to a recall are required to have a website and a toll-free U.S. number for consumers to call to get the recall remedy and usually have to make the remedy available indefinitely. People who can’t get through on a toll-free number, don’t get a response from the website, or can’t readily get the remedy should visit CPSC online at www.cpsc.gov or call 800-638-2772.

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.

Homeland security starts at our keyboards

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 17, 2016, at 6:47 a.m.

Here’s one of those too-good-to-be-true offers — except it’s true.

Small businesses can get access to free tools to help keep their computer data — and their customers’ information — secure. Those tools are found on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or DHS.

Owners of some businesses may think they’re too small for hackers to care about. DHS says quite the opposite may be true. Small businesses have customer information that cyber criminals want: bank account information, employee and customer records, and access to the finances of the business.

Perhaps most troubling is potential access to larger computer networks.

Smaller businesses can be tempting targets for crooks because they likely have fewer staffers skilled in cyber security. While the payoff for the thieves may be smaller, ransomware may work its nasty wonders on many small businesses — in 2012, DHS estimates half of all cyber attacks were aimed at firms with fewer than 2,500 employees.

To shop for those free tools, visit dhs.gov/publication/stopthinkconnect-small-business-resources.

Yes, it’s a long address. No, don’t Google “safeguard computer data” and shop from the ads that appear. The resources on the DHS site are free.

At the homepage you can begin with a frank look at what DHS calls the “threat environment.” It’s a one-page overview that doesn’t talk down to people who are not versed in computer lingo, while giving security-rich companies a road map to further reducing vulnerabilities.

Each business owner can choose the tool that works for that business. There’s a half-hour introduction to securing data in small businesses at sba.gov/tools/sba-learning-center/training/cybersecurity-small-businesses.

The Small Biz Cyber Planner covers insurance, advanced spyware and ways to install protective software at fcc.gov/cyberplanner.

Global problems need global solutions. DHS, the National Cyber Security Alliance and the Anti-Phishing Working Group have joined forces in an awareness campaign they call Stop, Think, Connect at stopthinkconnect.org.

The campaign has focused on educating computer users to think twice or more before clicking on anything. They also urge users to trust their instincts; if it seems too good to be true, it is.

Closer to home, the Maine Emergency Management Agency, or MEMA, has been observing National Cyber Security Awareness Month. MEMA has offered a series of tips which you can read at maine.gov/mema/prepare/prep_tips.shtml?id=23914. You can also sign up for daily email tips on preparing for all kinds of emergencies.

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.

Guard against buying recalled items that are sold as safe

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 10, 2016, at 7:35 a.m.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission or CPSC came down hard last week on Best Buy. The retailer agreed to a $3.8 million civil penalty for distributing and selling products that had been recalled earlier.

Selling goods that are subject to “voluntary corrective action,” including a recall, is a violation of federal law. While agreeing to settle the case, a CPSC statement said “Best Buy’s settlement of this matter does not constitute an admission of CPSC staff’s charges.”

The commission said that between September 2010 and October 2015, Best Buy sold about 600 recalled items, including more than 400 Canon cameras. Other sales included recalled notebook computers, TVs, kitchen appliances and audio gear. Problems that prompted the recalls included overheating and skin irritation.

The CPSC statement said sales continued even after Best Buy told the agency that it had taken steps to reduce the risk that recalled products would be sold.

“While the number of items accidentally sold was small, even one was too many,” Best Buy’s senior director of external communications Jeff Shelman told Fortune.

Best Buy says it will set up a program to make sure that it complies with the Consumer Product Safety Act, including a system to appropriately dispose of recalled products.

You can find a list of the recalled products Best Buy sold at the CPSC website cpsc.gov/Recalls/2014/recalled-products-sold-by-best-buy-and-liquidators-after-recall-date.

The list includes contact information for the companies involved in the recalls; check with them regarding remedies.

Last November, CPSC and Home Depot issued an alert that 28 different products had been sold by the home improvement chain. A total of just more than 2,300 items may have ended up in consumers’ homes; about 1,300 were sold by Home Depot, and 1,000 were sent to salvagers or recyclers who could have sold them to consumers, according to CPSC.

See that list at consumerist.com/2015/11/19/home-depot-continued-to-sell-28-products-after-safety-recalls/.

Keeping up with recalls can be a challenge for businesses and consumers, but you can be notified about some of them. Six federal agencies list recall information at recalls.gov, where you can sign up to receive email notification of new recalls involving four of the agencies — CPSC, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Marden’s Surplus and Salvage is likely the major source of salvaged consumer goods in Maine. Harold “Ham” Marden is the primary buyer for many items. He said, “We don’t have a formal protocol [for tracking recalls] but we are constantly checking the lists.”

Marden said his co-workers are especially concerned about recalled baby clothes but that they do their best to check all stock against published recalls.

“Our people are watching as closely as they can,” he said.

Consumers who buy used goods from smaller dealers or at flea markets and yard sales need to do their own checking.

Another federal government website has links to agencies that track recalls involving food, medicines, medical devices, vehicles (including devices such as child car seats) and a wide range of other consumer products. Get started at usa.gov/recalls or call toll-free 1-844-USA-GOV1 (1-844-872-4681).

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 having adult kids or aging parents move in affects insurance coverage

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Oct. 03, 2016, at 9:43 a.m.

A growing number of households in the U.S. are home to more than one generation of a family.

There are several reasons for this trend, which accounts for roughly 4.3 million families, or roughly 5.6 percent of all households.

Leading the list is likely the financial crash of 2008-2009, which prompted many young adults to head for the home where they grew up. Also, more grandparents are assuming the role of primary caregivers for children.

Ethnic factors prompt some families to welcome multiple generations under one roof. A couple may find it easier to care for an aging parent in their home rather than at the parent’s residence.

Insurance experts say it’s worth a look at your policies if family members move in or return home. Look first at personal property coverage. Relatives bring things with them. Because there’s often a cap on contents coverage, your policy may not insure everything.

The solution might be to buy a rider to cover the additional items. However, if the returning grandparents bring an art collection or other valuables, the insurer may want an appraisal. Also, there could be a lower policy cap on such items even if you increase your total coverage.

ConsumerAffairs.com recently advised consumers who will be welcoming aging family members into their homes to ask several questions:

— Are your payments current on health, auto and life insurance?

— Are you covered by Medicare?

— Should we look into long-term care insurance?

Dealing with insurance questions up front can help families avoid a financial crunch later on. That’s true when adult children move back home. They should be asked questions as well:

— How will health insurance be covered?

— If we combine auto policies, will driving records affect premiums?

— Will expensive electronics or other items increase homeowners insurance premiums?

Maine law, 24-A MRSA § 2742-B, requires individual and group health insurance policies to continue coverage for a dependent child up to age 25 if the child is dependent upon the policyholder and the child has no dependents of his or her own. If other “extended” family members move in, determine who is covered by what means.

The website of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners includes a model contract that families can use when their living situations change. You can find it at InsureUonline.org and search “welcome contract.”

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 protect yourself from the Yahoo hackers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 26, 2016, at 9:22 a.m.

At this writing, the full impact of the massive Yahoo data breach announced Sept. 22 was not known. However, it appears that hundreds of millions of consumers have had private information exposed in what’s believed to be the biggest data breach to date.

Yahoo said hackers had stolen information from at least 500 million users’ accounts, including names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and encrypted passwords. Yahoo said the breach took place in 2014. Technology reporters had written earlier that stolen data from millions of accounts were being sold on the dark web.

This latest breach comes at a time when cybercrime is booming. For years, crooks have opened phony accounts to buy all sorts of things using other people’s good credit records. The thieves don’t pay their bills, and the law-abiding consumers are left to dispute the charges. It can cost time and money to straighten out a credit report following such an incident.

Click to access site

All of this leaves millions of consumers with another reason to review their credit reports. William Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection or BCCP, said recently all consumers should look for signs of trouble and act quickly.

“A single phone call for an alleged debt that’s not yours should be looked into since it may be the tip of a larger iceberg. Start by checking your credit reports,” Lund said.

Federal law says that each of the major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is required to provide every consumer with a free credit report once per year. Consumers can call each company’s toll-free phone number to request a free report.

To start the process online, go to the truly free website AnnualCreditReport.com. Don’t deal with online websites that promise “free” reports; you might be pressured into buying a credit report, credit monitoring or other services.

Anyone with concerns about her or his credit should pick one of the three reporting agencies and ask for a free report right away. In four months, ask another agency; four months after that, ask the third agency. Rinse and repeat forever.

If your credit report shows accounts were opened that you did not authorize, you may be a victim of identity theft. In fact, accounts may have been opened in the name of any family member. You can freeze your account, meaning no one else can open an account in your name. Get help from Maine’s BCCP by calling toll-free 1-800-332-8529.

Privacy experts say too many of us use too few passwords. A breach that reveals a password securing one account may put other accounts at risk. For that reason, it’s wise to change ALL of your passwords at least once per year. If you know an account has been breached, change right away.

Get more tips on safeguarding your personal and financial information from the U.S. Department of Justice at justice.gov/criminal-fraud/identity-theft/identity-theft-and-identity-fraud.

The nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, privacyrights.org, is another good resource.

Find details of the Maine law covering consumers’ rights when data breaches occur at maine.gov/pfr/insurance/faq/data_breach_faq.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.

 

Answering these text messages could lead to empty bank accounts

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 19, 2016, at 9:55 a.m.
gone-phishing

Click to access booklet

Customers at some Maine banks and credit unions have been receiving fraudulent text messages. The messages are from scammers falsely claiming that there’s a problem with the customer’s account or debit card.

You can guess at the rest. There are frantic-sounding instructions to click on a link or phone number contained in the message. Failure to do so will cause some horrendous problem with the account, card or the customer’s credit rating.

The fix is easy, says the text. Just type in your account or card information and any passwords that you can remember. The sender will take care of everything — like emptying your account or running up bogus charges.

The message seems to come from a customer’s financial institution. On its website, the Maine Credit Union League said members of at least two credit unions in eastern and central Maine appear to have been targeted.

The phony text message said their debit cards had been compromised and to call either 844-334-6152 or 844-611-0709. People who called either number were asked for their card numbers and CVV codes. Divulging that or other personal or financial information is a bad idea.

The superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions says consumers should not fall for the hoax.

“Banks and credit unions will not text, call or email customers asking them to divulge account numbers, PINs or Social Security numbers,” Lloyd LaFountain III said.

LaFountain said if a consumer believes he or she has received a scam text, the consumer should:

— Not return the text or call the number provided.

— Never provide personal or financial information following such a request. Banks and credit unions will never request personal account information that way.

The Bureau of Financial Institutions has a consumer library containing hints about spotting and avoiding financial scams. There’s also a consumer specialist on staff who can answer questions about scams or accounts in general.

If you’re unsure after receiving an unsolicited email, call someone at the bureau, instead of clicking on anything in the message. The bureau’s phone number is 207-624-8570, and its website is maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/index.shtml.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection has published the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Gone Phishing. It also contains tips to detect and avoid scams.

Find it online at Credit.Maine.gov; it’s listed under “Consumer Guides.” Call the bureau (1-800-332-8529) with any questions about protecting your credit.

The Federal Trade Commission also has a wealth of information on its website. Learn about phishing and other scams at consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts.

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.

Free speech law doesn’t always protect social media bashing of bad service

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Sept. 12, 2016, at 10 a.m.
A pet-sitting company in Texas allegedly overfed a customer’s fish, allowing tank water to become cloudy while the customer was on vacation. Not a big deal, most of us might think.

But the owners had several other complaints, and on their return they wrote up a negative review and posted it on Yelp. The couple claimed they had been unable to talk directly with company officials, so they went to social media with their concerns.

The company struck back, filing a lawsuit claiming the couple had violated the nondisparagement clause in the contract they signed. A judge recently dismissed the $1 million lawsuit, ruling the clause was not enforceable.

This is news in the consumer world because it appears to be the first case in which a nondisparagement clause in a consumer contract has been ruled unenforceable. The company had tried to stifle bad publicity by including the clause; now the firm is on the hook for attorney fees.

Other attempts to silence consumers in advance have caused uproars. In an Aug. 10, 2014, blog post, we wrote about one case in which a hotel that hosted weddings threatened a “$500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review” written about the hotel. The media firestorm prompted the hotel to remove the stipulation from its website; the hotel said later it had been published as a joke.

Other businesses have used nondisparagement clauses with mixed success. Consumer advocates have advised people entering into contracts to look for terms such as “negative review,” “no-review policy” and “public comment” before signing.

Lawyers had been advising clients to tighten up their definitions of “disparagement” and to include language in contracts stating that exclusion of such clauses amounts to a deal-breaker. Momentum seemed to being going pro business and anti-free speech. Last fall, the issue made it to the halls of Congress.

A bill titled the Consumer Review Freedom Act was introduced, aimed at banning speech-stifling language from contracts. One of the Senate sponsors, Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said the bill would ensure free speech “and ensure consumers are free to share their views, free from intimidation.”

Because the nature of internet reviews is global, enforcement of nondisparagement provisions can vary greatly by location. Unless and until the Consumer Review Freedom Act becomes law, a wise consumer might think twice before publicizing any harsh reviews of businesses. Even if it is passed, the act would not shield bloggers or others from unfair or libelous statements.

Use the writer’s approach to any statement that’s questionable: “When in doubt, leave it out.” As too many users of social media have found out the hard way, once something goes online, it almost never disappears.

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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