Renting a car can be more dangerous than you think

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 04, 2016, at 10:31 a.m.

When renting a car, savvy consumers start the vehicle and let the air conditioning run while they check it over. Even if you’re planning a spring vacation in a normally cool place, it’s worth knowing at the outset that the AC works if you need it.

That’s just one part of a thorough inspection you should give that vehicle before renting. An unnoticed dent or ding at the outset might be found upon return, and you could be charged for damage you did not do.

Other things to do before you rent include the following:

— Have all ID with you, including your driver’s license and the credit card you used to reserve the vehicle.

— Read the credit card documentation to see if it includes insurance. If in doubt, pay for the additional insurance — instead of risking a whopping bill if you’re in a crash.

— Read the fine print. Tracking devices can prove you were speeding, incurred fees for driving out of state or exceeded mileage limits.

— Check that the keys open the trunk — and gas cap, if it’s the locking kind. Make sure there’s a jack, spare tire and lug wrench. Adjust all the mirrors and ask for another vehicle if a mirror is missing.

— Look for bugs, mud or debris on the windshield. If you find any, check under the seats for crawling things. You don’t want to share your ride with bugs.

Most consumer advocates advise against renting at an airport. You’ll generally pay higher rates than at nearby rental sites. If you’re just married and under age 25, make sure you can rent legally; otherwise you might spend your honeymoon at your destination airport.

Insurance coverage can be complicated and costly. Options at the rental counter could add up to more than $40 per day, equal to or greater than the cost of the rental itself.

Know what you have for coverage. Angie’s List found in a poll that 22 percent of respondents did not know if their auto insurance or credit card provided liability and collision coverage on a rental car.

Ask about a collision damage waiver, sometimes called a loss damage waiver. It holds the renter harmless if a rental vehicle is damaged or stolen. In most cases, the waiver will pay for the time the vehicle is out of service while it’s being repaired. The waiver will likely not apply if the damage was because of gross negligence, as in drunken driving.

Consumer Reports had some tips a couple of years back at consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/01/how-to-save-on-car-rentals/index.htm.

In summary, Consumer Reports recommended shopping early, shopping around and declining the “extras.” All consumer advocates agree you should pay for your rental by credit card, in case you need to dispute something. And return the car full of gas or you’ll likely pay high prices to have the rental agency fill the tank.

We’ve written before about recalls, and the rental industry is dealing with a new law requiring that rental cars be taken out of service after receiving a recall notice. The law takes effect June 1 and applies to fleets larger than 35 vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lets you search recalls by vehicle identification number, or VIN, at safercar.gov.

Visit the Consumer Affairs website at consumeraffairs.com/travel/car_rental.html for comparisons of 10 rental companies, including customer reviews.

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.

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

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.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

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.

Naughty debt collectors draw consumers’ ire

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted March 14, 2016, at 12:17 p.m.

Roll two of America’s top consumer complaints into one, and the result might wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I am a phony debt collector.”
The Federal Trade Commission just released its annual list of consumer complaints. Debt collection topped the list, and imposter scams came in third. Together, the two categories accounted for roughly 1.2 million complaints, 40 percent of all complaints the FTC received in 2015.

Nationally, the FTC last year increased its effort to protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. The agency coordinated a federal-state-local effort called Operation Collection Protection; through that program, more than 130 legal actions were brought. The FTC brought 12 actions against 52 defendants, and permanently barred 30 companies and individuals from the debt collection industry. The agency said in a recent statement that it obtained almost $94 million in judgments against debt collectors.

Among the bad practices that have drawn fire from regulators in recent years are these:

— One big bank robo-called a couple 700 times over four years and followed up with letters threatening foreclosure; a judge ordered the bank to pay the couple $1 million.

— A Georgia firm collected $4 million for nonexistent offenses, claiming it had been hired by the federal government; federal officials say these phony collectors have operated in all 50 states.

— A collector threatened a central Maine consumer, who recorded the phone conversation. A transcript of the conversation persuaded the company — which was licensed to do business in Maine — that it should let the employee find work elsewhere.

2015 Debt Collection Booklet.pub

Click image to read online.

David Leach, Principal Examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said more than 1,000 debt collection companies are licensed in Maine and that the majority of them abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, Leach said the number of complaints about scammers or unlicensed collectors is “enormous and growing.” Call the bureau at 800-DEBT-LAW with your questions about debt collection or to receive a copy of “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection” or read the guide online .

The Maine Bar Association reminds consumers that Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids bad language, calling people at work, telling others about someone’s debt and other harassment. It also prohibits using phony letterheads to imitate law enforcement and threats of legal action they can’t take. For general information (not legal advice), visit the Bar Association’s website, mainebar.org/lawyer-referral/legal-information/maine-fair-debt-collection-practices.aspx.

While we’ve written about debt collection before (see Consumer Forum, 12/7/2015 on our blog), some points bear repeating. If a collector calls about an old debt, don’t send money without question. Make sure the debt is really yours by having the collector detail the amount owed and to whom it is owed. Have the collector mail the details to you, and get a physical location of the collector’s place of business. If you do pay, send a check rather than sending funds by wire.

The FTC has published a list of companies that it has banned from further debt collection activities. You can see that list at ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/banned-debt-collectors.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some imposter scams.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to shop for good deals on insurance in Maine

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 07, 2016, at 12:31 p.m.

Many state-by-state rankings put Maine at or near the bottom. A new report by insurance commissioners across the country tells a different story.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC, ranks Maine third in terms of lowest average auto insurance premiums. The Pine Tree State achieved that ranking for the third straight year.

Maine’s third-in-the-nation ranking was no surprise to Eric Cioppa, the state’s insurance superintendent.

“The auto insurance market in Maine is healthy and competitive, which contributes to Maine’s consistently low average auto premiums,” Cioppa said in a statement last week.

“Maine’s ranking is especially noteworthy, given Maine’s coverage requirements, which exceed those in most other states,” he added.

The report noted that Maine tied Massachusetts for the lowest percentage of uninsured motorists, 4.5 percent.

Maine was ranked 10th in the nation in terms of lowest average homeowner insurance premiums. The state’s average premiums also were the lowest in New England.

The report was based on insurance rates in 2013, the latest year such figures are available. In releasing the rankings, NAIC noted that homeowner premiums rose an average of six percent nationwide. The group cited exposure to catastrophes, home values and construction costs for the rise.

The report includes a lot of data, but it doesn’t have all the answers. The U.S. was hit with an unusual number of hurricanes from 2004 to 2008; as builders made repairs, a shortage of drywall resulted. A number of consumers who had drywall from China installed began seeing problems, on average, a couple of years after installation.

The NAIC report offers no predictions about the impact of shoddy drywall on homeowner rates, stating “it is too early to tell” whether homeowners’ premiums will be affected.

Opinions abound about insurance companies. Some of the most objective reviews are likely found in the pages of Consumer Reports.

Homeowners insurance reviews can be found at consumerreports.org/cro/homeowners-insurance.htm.

CR’s auto insurance buying guide at consumerreports.org/cro/car-insurance/buying-guide.htm begins with results of a survey, which showed only 10 percent of the magazine’s subscribers who compared premiums found they would save money by switching companies.

More information on the NAIC report is available at the organization’s website at naic.org.

Maine consumers and business owners who have questions about auto, home, business or other types of insurance are encouraged to call the Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 or sending a message to Insurance.PFR@Maine.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.

Being a smart consumer starts with knowing when not to spend

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 29, 2016, at 1:44 p.m.

Last week, many financial and government agencies marked America Saves Week. Military Saves Week, focused on families of armed services personnel, took place at the same time.

The occasions reminded us of a hard reality of our economic lives: It’s never too soon, or too late, to start saving. The sooner the better, of course; but saving is a habit that must be learned, whenever the lesson comes.

For Karen Amador Lesetmoe, a single mom in the U.S. Navy, the lesson began eight years ago. Tired of living paycheck to paycheck, she made the checklist of income and expenses that most smart savers make. She cut expenses to the bone, paid off credit card debt first and socked away every spare cent in savings. She paid off loans as fast as she could.

Now, she’s well on the way to a secure financial future. She’s such a believer in saving as a way of life that she told her fiancé she would not marry him until he paid off his $18,000 in credit card debt.

“We got married last month!” she wrote triumphantly on the Military Saves website (www.militarysaves.org).

America Saves Week is an educational effort to raise awareness about saving; the program is managed by the Consumer Federation of America. Organizers hope that consumers will practice good budgeting and saving habits year-round.

Read more about the campaign at www.americasaves.org and www.AmericaSavesWeek.org.

The American Savings Education Council, or ASEC, is a program of the Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund. It’s a nonprofit coalition of public- and private-sector groups that strive to make saving and retirement planning priorities for everyone. Read more about the council’s efforts at www.choosetosave.org/asec.

Another observance comes along next week, with a broader focus. National Consumer Protection Week (March 6-12) reminds all of us that it takes a lot more than a fat wallet to be a good consumer. We need to take primary responsibility for our own economic well-being. And if we’re really responsible citizens, we’ll pass helpful information on to others.

There are plenty of helpful tips and links at the Consumer Protection Week website, www.ncpw.gov. One blog entry cautions consumers that promises to lower student loan or mortgage payments may instead be schemes to take your money and give you nothing in return.

Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions website includes a number of links on a range of consumer topics, from bankruptcy to unclaimed property. Visit www.maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/index.shtml and find “consumer library” under the Consumer Tools listing.

The U.S. Office of Comptroller of the Currency website includes updates, events and resources on financial literacy. Use the free resources you’ll find at the site (www.occ.gov/topics/community-affairs/resource-directories/financial-literacy/financial-literacy-update.html).

You may know all you need to know about saving and being a smart consumer. If so, pay it forward: Tell a friend or family member about the many, free resources that can help them be equally savvy.

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.

It often takes more than one call to get best cell phone deal

CONSUMER FORUM
Posted Feb. 22, 2016, at 10:52 a.m.

With all the competing claims about coverage, speed and contract terms, it’s easy to be confused when trying to get a good deal on cellular phone service.

A good place to start your research is the website of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate at maine.gov/meopa. There you’ll find basic advice on selecting a phone that meets your needs, choosing an appropriate service and so on.

click image to download

Download the latest Ratewatcher Guide to learn more. Maine residents may also call 207-624-3687 to request a free, printed copy.

You also can get advice on what to do if you get into a dispute with your wireless service provider by visiting maine.gov/meopa/consumer.

Under the section on wireless companies, the advocate puts the consumer’s task squarely on the line, saying, “Like cable companies, wireless companies are largely unregulated with respect to service quality and billing disputes with customers.” In other words, be ready to stand your ground when disputing a charge or service.

This doesn’t mean you should be nasty. Front-line customer service people are trained to deal with abusive callers, who don’t get very far. Consumer advocates advise being courteous and calling when you’re not rushed and the call center isn’t busy — perhaps on a Friday evening.

Mohammed Halabi was interviewed recently on the CBC-TV program “Marketplace.” Halabi runs a firm called Mybillsarehigh.com, which focuses on reducing Canadian consumers’ wireless bills. He urges his clients to keep records of their calls, to give their phone numbers to the call center worker in case of a disconnection and to keep track of a reference number for that call — it may take more than one call to resolve your issue.

To get the best deal possible, you may have to dig deeper. Front-line customer service people are trained to deal with issues quickly, get callers off the line and move to the next call. They often are not empowered to offer price breaks of 10 percent to 15 percent below the best advertised deal — but a manager may be, especially if you’re a longtime customer the company wants to keep. So, if you don’t think you’re getting anywhere with the first person who answers, ask to be transferred to a customer retention or loyalty specialist.

A New York Times blog half a dozen years ago contained some winning tips for getting good wireless deals, which you can read about at bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/how-to-negotiate-a-lower-cellphone-bill/?_r=2. Among the hints: act nice, play dumb, take good notes and, most importantly, say you’re prepared to switch to another carrier. You might call around first to see what other companies are prepared to offer; then you’ll have ammunition when you are ready to strike your best deal.

Similar advice comes from the website fivecentnickel.com. One writer advises consumers to talk about the fact that money is tight and ask, “What can you do to help me?”

Asking for a favor sometimes bring unexpected results; at a minimum, it sets you up for the follow-up question, “Is there anyone else — say, a supervisor — who could do any more to help me?”

If your research involves more nuts-and-bolts info — such as the difference between 3G and 4G — you might want to visit pcmag.com. The publication prints an annual story on which mobile networks are the fastest.

For Consumer Reports’ ratings and recommendations plus a buying guide, visit consumerreports.org and search “cellphone.”

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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