IRS scams starting early this year

via IRS scams starting early,

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As each new year begins, so does tax-scam season. Consumer watchdogs, regulatory agencies and consumer writers like me start warning people about tax cons. Usually, we start ringing the warning bells sometime in January. But this year, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is sending out an early warning about scammers seeking to swindle you out of your tax refunds or scaring you into sending money.

Few things strike fear into the heart of John Q. Taxpayer as a call or urgent letter from the IRS, demanding payment. And of course, crooks know this and are looking to cash in. This week, Hood’s office sent out a news release revealing that they’d received recent reports from Mississippi consumers who were contacted by people claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service or Treasury Department and demanding payment.

“These con artists are intimidating and sound convincing and can even alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling,” Hood warned. “The number one thing to remember is that if the IRS needs to contact you, they’ll do it by postal mail first, and they will not threaten to arrest or sue you.” Hood added that the callers usually use frightening language such as, “This is your official final notice — the IRS is filing a lawsuit against you.”

“The caller claims the consumer owes money to the IRS and insists that it be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer,” he said. “If the victim refuses to cooperate, the scammer threatens the victim by stating that he or she will be arrested or that a lawsuit will be filed against them.”

Hood recounted another version of the scam, in which the scammer claims the victim has a refund available, but need a bank account number or other private information to process and deposit it. Often, the caller leaves an “urgent” callback request. Crooks have also been known to use fake names and bogus IRS badge numbers.

If you think you owe the IRS any amount, call (800) 829-1040 to get advice on payment. If you get such a call, and know you don’t owe anything, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at (800) 366-4484 or visit

Here are some other tips, courtesy of Hood’s Office of Consumer Protection:

  • Don’t answer the phone for a number you don’t recognize or that shows up as your own. If you do answer, hang up as soon as you realize it is a scam. Even answering simple questions in the affirmative or negative could be used to try to scam you.
  • Be suspicious of anyone who is vague or evasive in identifying themselves.
  • Never wire or send money in any form to unfamiliar people or organizations.
  • Don’t give out personally identifiable information; it could expose you to identity theft.

If you suspect your personal information has been compromised or think you’ve been a victim of fraud, identity theft or any other scam, call the Consumer Protection Division at (800) 281-4418. For more tips, visit


Mississippi: A Love Letter

Happy 200th Birthday, Mississippi! On this date in 1817, you became the 20th state to be admitted to the Union. It has been a long trip to get to where we are today, hasn’t it? We all got together and bought you a couple of presents; you can find a couple of gleaming new museums in downtown Jackson.

You are a special place to me. You’ve wrapped your tendrils around my heart like the fast-growing kudzu, and have become as much a part of me as I am a part of you. I wasn’t born here, but you welcomed me as a child and you’ve been my home ever since. Five decades of living as one of your children has taught me to love you.

I love your natural beauty, from the rocky hills of the northeast to the hardwood thickets of the southwest, from the sandy beaches of the southeast to the deep, rich soil of the Delta. I love your tall pines and your stately oaks, your deep rivers and creeks, and your web of natural life, tenacious and strong. Driving your meandering country roads is like passing through a green, arboreal tunnel; paddling down one of your wild rivers feels like stepping back in time.

And how I love your people! They come in every hue, from every corner of the world, and are of an endless variety. Some of them have known you a lot longer than I; the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez lived off your bounty long before our forefathers dreamed of coming here. Some of us descend from people brought here against their will as slaves or indentured servants, while others came here looking for a new start, to carve a life out of your abundance.

My daddy and generations before him plowed your rich reddish-brown earth, and you gave them a sustaining abundance as a reward of cotton, of corn, of potatoes and every vegetable. My mother, and generations of women before, learned to provide for their families and carry on strong family traditions. My ancestors recognized God as the provider of everything, and they passed on that same sustaining faith to future generations.

Your people are special and unique. I admire their grit and determination, their faith, their hospitality, courage, deep feelings and willingness to help a neighbor.

You also gave your people something else: a creative spark or abilities passed on from the Creator himself. Perhaps you passed it to them through the whisper of the pines or delivered it on the mournful wind as they drove through a lonely, flat Delta landscape. Possibly it was in embedded in the song of a mockingbird or carried on the sweet whiff of a magnolia blossom or Cape Jessamine. Or maybe it was when their lips touched the clear, cool waters of a spring, bubbling out of the sandy ground. It seems you’re very generous with that gift of creativity. Your people have carried footballs and typewriters, platinum records, Nobels, gold medals, Emmys and Oscars. They’ve helped the world know you a little better, and maybe learn a little about themselves, too.

I’d like to be able to look back and say the past 200 years have been easy, but they haven’t. In battlefields large and small, the blood and bones of thousands are mixed with the soil, spilled as armies marched and cities burned. Though the cannons lie silent today, we can still hear their booming, nightmarish echoes if we listen on the hallowed battlefield, mingled with the haunting screams of the wounded and dying. Although 15 decades have passed, it’s something we just can’t forget. The cruelty of that war and its torturous aftermath still reverberate through the field and forest, bearing witness to unimaginable crimes and murderous injustices. Many of those are now forgotten by everyone except you; you remember it all.

We’re trying, but sometimes we don’t get it right or do right by each other. Sometimes, we own the bad press we get. For many of your children just a generation ago, it was a constant battle just to be heard, to be treated fairly, to put food on the table, to vote, to be free. The sad legacy still haunts us today, as it does our brothers and sisters across this nation. Perhaps that’s the most painful sting of all. I hope we have learned from that past, though, and many of us are trying put it behind us.

The world seems to misunderstand you, maybe even hate you and us. I defend you often, and sometimes I get a little too sensitive. Sometimes, on a plane or around a table, when people find out where I’m from, I see the looks, the furtive glances. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but sometimes, it upsets me. I get my back up when I hear people try to tear you down or repeat ignorant labels learned through movies made by people who don’t know you very well. I guess I want to defend you because I am one of yours. I think I’m not alone in that; we instinctively defend those we love.

I still believe, though, that once people get here and see you, and taste your food, hear your music and get to know your people, they will come to love you for the same reasons I do.

Maybe they’ll stroll around a picturesque town square, or walk through the fort at Ship Island, or catch a football game on a crisp October afternoon. Perhaps they’ll sit on a grassy bluff at Vicksburg and watch a string of barges ply the meandering Ole’ Muddy, or have dinner on the ground at an old country church. Perhaps they’ll weep as they visit the museums and hear about Emmett Till or Medgar Evers, or learn about the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Maybe they’ll follow in Elvis’ footsteps, or stay in a Delta shack for the night, after getting full at Doe’s. Maybe they’ll bag a turkey, or catch a big bass in the Res. Maybe they’ll find their tension relieved as they wind down the tranquil Natchez Trace, and learn a little about the history of this amazing place. In the middle of all that, maybe they’ll reconsider an opinion they had before, or think about how great a place this would be to raise a family.

I know what you’re thinking; that makes me a bit of a romantic or a little naïve. I don’t know, you may be right. But there is something about you that makes people want to stay, and raise their kids here. You feel like home. Those who really get to know you, are the ones who love you. Many have come here just to visit and found themselves wanting to stay…forever.

I don’t know what the future will be like for you and for us. But I do believe that God made something special when he brought us all together here, on the bank of the river that gave you its name.

So, Mississippi, relish your 200th birthday! We who love you, give our thanks to God for making us Mississippians; for you are a special place.

Do smartphones change your brain?

via Smartphones: Can you live without yours?,

PDF: Smartphones and your brain 1Smartphones and your brain 2

Just a generation ago, few would have predicted that by 2017, the world would be full of people staring zombie-like at flickering screens they hold in their hands, mostly unaware of what’s happening around them. This is a fact of our daily lives, but concerns have risen in recent years as to what effects these devices are having on our society. We’ve already seen that more people are dying from distracted driving (even walking), and while smartphones have their good points, no one really knows how they are changing us.

Since smartphones first hit the marketplace more than 25 years ago, humans have been unwittingly part of a vast, uncontrolled experiment, and science is just now beginning to discover that our brains are being rewired in unexpected ways as we use these devices. While “addiction” is a clinical term, many people believe we are becoming addicted to smartphones to a degree few thought possible.

In a recent Pew study, nearly half of Americans said they couldn’t live without their smartphones. A Common Sense Media study last year found that more than 80 percent of teens feel the need to check their phones at least hourly, and nearly three-fourths of them felt compelled to immediately respond to text messages and social media notifications. A famous 2014 study concluded that many teens would rather lose their pinky finger than their phone. The fear of losing one’s phone even has a name: “nomophobia”.

So, why is this happening? Scientists have long suspected that it has to do with the brain’s reward centers and the natural chemicals that help us feel good when we experience pleasure. While most studies to date have relied on anecdotal evidence, or have looked at self-reported behavior, a recent South Korean study was different because researchers used advanced MRI techniques to look at the brains of teenagers as they used smartphones. Teens who described themselves as “addicted” to their phones were found to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity, noted the study’s authors.

Probing further, the researchers found high levels of a brain chemical called GABA in the addicted teens, and the ratio of GABA to another chemical called glutamate seems to point toward chemical changes in teenage brains. While it’s just preliminary research, Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, the physician who conducted the study, notes that it could help scientists figure out just how device addiction can alter the brain.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Seo noted.

While this is one of the first conclusive studies to indicate that device use is actually changing the way our brains operate, there’s a lot of research ahead. But despite this disturbing news, Seo noted there is cause for optimism; levels of the brain chemicals seemed to decrease after cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s pretty clear smartphones are here to stay, in some form or other. But with so much at stake, perhaps it’s time we all stepped back and gave some serious thought to whether these devices (and the people behind the curtain) are serving us, or whether it’s just the opposite.

Holiday yard, package thieves hard to halt

via Holiday yard thieves and porch pirates are hazards hard to halt,

PDF: Porch pirates 1Porch pirates 2

A few years ago, thieves stole some of our Christmas decorations from our front yard. After carefully laying out our decorations, ensuring that all the lights worked and checking everything twice, we had a yard that (although a little more tasteful) was at least a little competitive with our local Clark W. Griswold (who lived just down the street).

One evening, we arrived home to find that someone had stolen a religious-themed sign that was the centerpiece of our decorations. Later, we found that police had busted some neighborhood kids who had stolen items from several yards, with no obvious motive other than meanness.

Apparently, we have a lot of company; an study found that nearly 23 million U.S. homes have reported stolen yard decorations in the past year.

The study highlights a disturbing fact: Grinches are among us and are increasingly targeting homeowners. And it doesn’t stop at stealing signs and lighted deer, either; thieves are also on the prowl for packages delivered and left on front porches. “Porch piracy” is increasing rapidly, with about 26 million police reports filed in the past year. put together its report, called Holiday Hazards by the Numbers, to reinforce the idea that we need to be more aware of the dangers that can come with the holidays and protect ourselves accordingly.

“During the holidays, certain crimes and home hazards increase. Homeowners need to take precautions and make sure they have the right insurance to protect their finances,” said Laura Adams, senior insurance analyst at insuranceQuotes.

Another holiday danger mentioned in the report is the increased danger of house fires, which may be caused by faulty wiring in Christmas tree lights, overloading of circuits, cooking, improper use of space heaters and other reasons. According to the study, 9 million Americans have had a house fire caused by a fryer or cooking accident; 7 million have had a house fire caused by lit candles and 5 million have experienced a house fire caused by a Christmas tree.

Porch piracy has reached epidemic levels in some areas and has increased as more Americans are doing their holiday shopping online. The recent “Cyber Monday” set a record as online shoppers spent $6.59 billion online (according to CNBC, it was the largest online shopping day in history).

All those packages being delivered to all those homes create a promised land for thieves, who have been known to follow delivery trucks around. Often, though, porch piracy is just a crime of opportunity as crooks see it as a way to jump out, grab a package and make a quick getaway.

Despite all these risks, though, there are some things you can do. To thwart porch piracy, many homeowners have installed security cameras linked to motion detectors and security systems. Others have found success by having their packages delivered to trusted neighbors who are at home.

Some are using hi-tech solutions such as Landport (a heavy metal box which is bolted down on your front porch, locked with a keypad). Landport costs between $500 and $800. Amazon Key (starting at $250, plus monthly subscription fees of $7 to $20 a month) uses a special lock that the homeowner installs on his door, and the homeowner supplies an entry code to the delivery driver. A security camera captures the whole delivery, then Amazon Key then relocks the door afterwards.

Although Amazon Keys are flying off the shelves, some security experts caution that the new technology could come with its own drawbacks (not the least of which is granting a complete stranger access to your home while you’re away.)

Stopping yard-decoration thieves is a little more difficult, the study warns, but motion detectors, more lighting and security systems can help reduce the risk. Some statistics I’ve found indicate homes without a security system are significantly more likely to be victimized than ones without one.

To read the study in its entirety, complete with tips, visit

Dietary supplements not always what they claim

via Dietary supplements not always what they claim,

PDF: Supplements 1Supplements 2

Americans spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements, touted to relieve everything that could possibly be wrong with you. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements estimates that, in 2014, Americans spent nearly $37 billion on these products, with much of that money going toward products promising to help you lose weight, build muscles, increase sexual function and ease pain (among many others).

But increasingly, consumer advocates and regulators are warning that the marketing claims made by some of these products are questionable, if not patently false. Recently, federal regulators put the brakes on schemes by three Florida-based companies that they accused of deceptively marketing and selling dietary supplements, promising relief for a wide range of ailments.

According to the FTC’s complaint, NextGen Nutritionals, Strictly Health and Cyber Business Technology and their owners made false or unsubstantiated representations for five dietary supplements including BioMazing HCG Full-Potency Weight-Loss Drops, Hoodoba diet pills, Fucoidan Force (touted to fight cancer, HIV/AIDS and even high cholesterol), Immune Strong (claimed to be able to strengthen the immune system), and VascuVite (for blood pressure). Ads for the products appeared on a variety of websites.

The FTC took issue with a number of specific claims for each product, accusing the companies of making unsubstantiated claims, not backed by adequate scientific evidence, and accused the companies of posting a “Certified Ethical Site” seal on several of their websites, which directed consumers to “click to verify.” “Consumers who clicked on the seal were taken to another website claiming that defendants’ website had been verified as ‘ethical’ and ‘trustworthy’ by Ethical Site, ‘the most reliable evaluator of trust in the online marketplace,’” the FTC alleged. In fact, the agency noted, Ethical Site was not an independent third-party certification program, but was in fact owned and controlled by the company’s owners.

In addition to ordering the companies to cease and desist from making false or unsubstantiated claims, the company was ordered to pay $29,030 out of a total judgment of $1,344,173, after claiming they didn’t have the money to pay.

If you are thinking about taking a dietary supplement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urges you to think carefully, check with your physician and consider these tips:

Avoid “one product does it all” claims. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases, the FDA advises.

Be suspicious of personal testimonials, even from trusted celebrities. Success stories such as “It cured my diabetes” or “My tumors are gone” are easy to make up and are not a substitution for scientific evidence, the FDA notes on its website.

Watch for claims of quick fixes. Unfortunately, most diseases and conditions take time to treat, even with established products. If a product claims to do anything “in a few days,” it’s a red flag.

“All natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe.” Just because some things are found in nature doesn’t mean they’re safe to consume, yet unscrupulous marketers have successfully used this claim for years. In fact, products sold with this claim might include toxins, allergens or even ingredients found in prescription drugs.

“Miracle cures” usually aren’t. If someone really found a cure for the common cold or cancer, it would be all over the news, wouldn’t it? Avoid products that claim miraculous results or that the product has been purposely kept from public use.

Doubt claims that products are “FDA-approved.” “Domestic or imported dietary supplements are not approved by the FDA,” the agency advises on its website.

To read the full story, visit The FTC’s complaint is available at

Protect yourself from holiday thieves

via Shopping? Protect yourself from thieves,

PDF: Protect yourself while shopping

With millions of shoppers preparing to hit the road and cyberspace in search of great deals post-Thanksgiving, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is warning Mississippians to watch out for criminals who are looking for easy prey.

The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will increase between 3.6 and 4 percent this holiday season, with consumers spending about $682 billion. NRF surveys predicted that about 164 million consumers were planning to shop on Thanksgiving weekend alone, and increasingly, they’re online. That’s a lot of shoppers, creating lots of targets for thieves.

Before the digital revolution made it easy to order online and have purchases delivered to your door, the main worries for holiday shoppers were pickpockets, purse snatchers and parking-lot crooks looking for tired shoppers with an armload of shopping bags. But now, bandits are also hiding in the bushes along the information superhighway, waiting to pounce on unwitting online shoppers.

“In the past, shoppers only had to worry about someone snatching their wallets to get their cash and credit or debit cards. Now, our account information can be stolen from us even when we are shopping online in the safety of our homes,” Hood noted in a news release. “Our credit and debit card payment information can be stolen by an invisible thief who may have hacked into the retailer’s payment system or even our own computer systems. During the holiday season, consumers should exercise extreme caution whether they are shopping at stores or online.”

Here are some recommendations, provided by the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division:

  • Be self-aware. Always park in well-lit areas and try to place purchases in the trunk so valuable items are out of view in your car. (It’s also a good idea to look around for security vehicles or cameras.)
  • Know when a deal is too good. “The old saying ‘it’s too good to be true’ has stuck around for a reason: “If it seems too good to believe, it probably is a scam,” Hood noted.
  • Keep up with your purchases by checking credit card and bank statements throughout and after the shopping season. Recognizing an unauthorized user will be more of a challenge during the high volume of the holiday season. Monitor your credit card and bank statements regularly, especially during and following the holidays.
  • Report theft of your cards ASAP. It can take seven to 10 days for a card to be reissued if it is compromised. As a result, shoppers need to be prepared to use cash in the event their card is compromised so they are not prevented from completing their holiday shopping or essential purchases.
  • Understand return policies. If you need to make returns, you want to be sure you do not get caught out of money for not following the return policies set by each store.
  • Only buy from trusted stores and salespeople. “It’s easy to get into a giving mood during the holidays, but don’t let a generous heart fog your commonsense when unscrupulous salespeople try to take advantage of your wallet,” Hood advises. “When shopping online, check feedback for particular sellers when applicable. Be wary of sites that have grammatical errors, broken links, or other signs that may indicate lack of trustworthiness.” And be sure you’re shopping at a secure site, indicated by an “https” or padlock symbol on the web address.
  • Watch out for card “skimming” at ATMs, gas pumps, or any other place you may use a debit or credit card. If you see a card reader that appears to have been tampered with, that could be a sign of “skimming,” where criminals install small devices in the machines that steal sensitive financial information.
  • Keep your computer’s security up to date. That means checking your anti-virus and anti-malware features. Never open links or attachments from unknown sources, since this is a way for criminals to steal identities, and don’t email financial information.

One more tip: If you order online, be aware that “porch package” theft has become a big problem in some communities. Thieves have been known to follow package delivery trucks, looking for boxes left on porches and entryways. To foil package thieves, arrange to pick up your packages, require a signature or have them delivered to a place where someone will receive them. Track your deliveries, and sign up for text delivery notifications. You might also consider installing a camera to monitor your front porch.

To report fraud or scams, contact the AG’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-281-4418 or

Skimming ring in 3 states busted

via Skimming ring in 3 states busted

PDF: Card skimming ring

As you gas up your car during holiday trips, the FBI is warning consumers to watch out for credit card skimmers on gas pumps, which could be used to steal your money and identity.

The FBI and a U.S. attorney this week announced they had busted a multi-state ring that had installed skimmers on gas pumps across Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Officers collared eight people in an operation that included more than 30 law enforcement agencies across the three states, after the thieves made off with more than 7,000 card numbers and about $3.5 million.

“This form of identity theft is causing untold losses to both financial institutions and individuals who are merely filling their tanks at the gasoline pump. As we begin the busiest travel season of the year, consumers need to pay special attention to where and how they pay for gasoline as criminals are using new and more sophisticated technologies,” noted U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman.

Skimmers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and thieves have gotten proficient at making them look close enough to the real thing to fool all but the savviest customers. Thieves install the devices over the card-swipe device on the pump, and in some cases, replace the pump’s original card reader. When unwitting customers swipe their cards to pay for gas, the device reads the card number and other information, which is then used to raid the customer’s bank account or steal their identity.

You may recall that police last year found a skimmer installed on gas pumps in the Clinton area, resulting in arrests and indications the activity was part of a larger ring operating across several states.

In the case announced this week, the FBI reported the thieves installed the devices inside the gas pumps, then later retrieved them. The stolen financial information was then re-encoded, transferred, or cloned on to the magnetic strip of other plastic cards that were sold or used to purchase merchandise.

Although skimming is not a new phenomenon, it is getting harder to detect. PC Magazine’s Max Eddy wrote about the technology last year, noting the devices are now smaller than a deck of cards, and can be placed on an ATM or point-of-sale terminal easily. Often, he notes, thieves will also place a camera nearby to record Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) of customers, but in some cases, they have installed fake keypads as well.

Spotting a skimmer is not always easy, but Eddy gives a few pointers:

  • Watch for mismatched colors or styles. If the overall color in the area where you insert your card is black, for example, but the card reader is yellow, that could be a sign that it’s fake. Also, watch for mismatches in lettering or the materials used.
  • Wiggle everything. Since readers have to be hastily installed so the thieves won’t get caught, they don’t usually have much time to make sure everything fits perfectly. Eddy advises pulling at the reader and keypad to ensure nothing moves.
  • Look around. Cover the keypad with your hand, to prevent anyone from seeing your fingers as they enter the PIN. Many devices now have a little shield over the top of the keypad to prevent someone seeing your fingers as they enter the numbers, or recording your movements from a distance. Still, covering the keypad as you enter can prevent thieves from getting the all-important PIN.
  • Use the EMV chip. Since most newer card readers accept EMV (Europay, Mastercard, Visa) chips that require your card to be inserted, this option gives you more security and requires thieves to install devices inside the reader.
  • Pay inside. It’s less convenient to pay inside the store, but generally more secure.

It’s also a good idea to keep up with your purchases. Most banks now have apps that allow you to keep up with transactions, so if you notice any activity you didn’t authorize, report it immediately.

Western Union fraud victims can file claims to get their money back

via Fraud victims of Western Union scams can file claims,

PDF: Westernunion relief 1

If you lost money to a scammer who had you send money to them via Western Union’s wire services, you can file a claim to get your money back. The Federal Trade Commission announced this month that consumers have until Feb. 12 to register claims as part of a $586 million settlement between the company and law enforcement agencies.

Back in January, Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to settle charges that the company had turned a blind eye toward scammers who had for years been using the company’s worldwide wire service network to receive payments from unwitting victims. The charges happened as part of a larger revelation that the company had allegedly duped millions of consumers through a company culture that encouraged agents to sometimes participate by getting a cut of proceeds from illegal activities.

In news articles, Western Union has admitted it “didn’t do as much as it should have” to stop scammers from using its services to solicit millions from scams such as fraudulent lotteries, fake family emergencies, advance-fee loans, online dating and other schemes.

“American consumers lost money while Western Union looked the other way,” said FTC Acting Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen, in a news release. “We’re pleased to start the process that will get that money back into consumers’ rightful hands.”

So, if you lost money to a scammer who had you pay via Western Union’s money transfer system between Jan. 1, 2004, and Jan. 19, 2017, you can file a claim by visiting before Feb. 12, and completing a claim form. (The Department of Justice may have to investigate your claim, so consumers are warned that it could be a year to get your check.) Whether you get all your money back will depend on how many claims are filed, and whether your claim can be corroborated.

“Knowing that its agents were involved in fraudulent schemes — and knowing that it had a legal obligation to detect and report this criminal conduct to the authorities — Western Union failed to act, leading to massive victim losses,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco. “Returning forfeited funds to these victims and other victims of crime is one of the department’s highest priorities. I want to commend our prosecutors, the FTC, and our law enforcement agent partners for their hard work that led to vindicating the rights of these victims.”

If you’ve already reported your losses to the Western Union, the FTC or another agency, you should be receiving a mailed form from the claims administrator, Gilardi & Co. The form will have a Claim ID and a PIN number to use when filing a claim online via

Filing a claim is free, so you should not pay anyone to file a claim on your behalf. No one associated with the claims process will call to ask for consumers’ bank accounts or credit card numbers.

Feds sue nation’s largest debt-relief provider

via Debt-relief provider deceived, misled consumers, feds say,

PDF: Freedom Debt Relief 1Freedom Debt Relief 2

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sued the nation’s largest provider of debt-settlement services, alleging that Freedom Debt Relief deceived and misled consumers about its services and fees.

The agency announced the lawsuit Wednesday in a news release, seeking compensation for consumers harmed by the alleged practices, as well as unspecified civil penalties and a court order to stop the company from providing services.

“Freedom took advantage of vulnerable consumers who turned to the company for help getting out of debt,” asserted bureau Director Richard Cordray. “Freedom deceived consumers about its clout with creditors that it knows do not negotiate with debt-settlement companies, made some customers negotiate on their own, and misled consumers about its fees and their accounts. Today’s lawsuit seeks to stop the deception and get compensation for consumers Freedom cheated.”

Debt-settlement companies are those that promise to reduce or remove consumers’ debt and negotiate more favorable terms for clients, usually in exchange for a set fee. Often desperate for help, debtors contact a debt-settlement company to help reduce their payments, stop collections and lower their interest rates. In many cases, debt-settlement companies work by getting creditors to charge off portions of a consumer’s debt.

But in the charges, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused the San Mateo, California, company and its principals for failing to “settle debts as promised,” making consumers “negotiate their own settlements,” misleading them about its fees and capabilities and failing to inform them of their rights. The bureau noted that, once a settlement is reached, the company charges consumers “between 18 percent and 25 percent of the amount of debt the consumer owed on the day they signed up for the program.”

On its website, Freedom Debt relief says it “takes a human approach to debt relief” and claims to have successfully negotiated and settled more than $7 billion in debts for more than 300,000 consumers. But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lawsuit says its practices deceive debt-burdened customers by promising to work with creditors, when some creditors won’t work with the company (or, in some cases, any debt-settlement company). In addition, the bureau says, Freedom “charges consumers its full fee even when creditors simply stop collection efforts in the absence of a negotiated settlement and consumer payment and when it takes no action on a consumer’s account.”

In a news release from co-CEOs Andrew Housser and Brad Stroh, Freedom Debt Relief challenged the bureau’s assertions, saying it will “vigorously contest” the agency’s lawsuit. “We firmly believe that the CFPB fundamentally misunderstands how debt settlement works and has acted without proper regard for the consumers it is charged with protecting,” the company noted in its response. “We’ve asked to sit down on a number of occasions with the CFPB, to no avail, so we are disappointed that they’ve rushed to judgment, seemingly putting the interests of a few of the largest creditors ahead of the interests of consumers who need help and support.”

To read the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s complaint, visit

Renters struggling to pay monthly rent face eviction and homelessness

via Renters struggling to pay monthly rent face eviction and homelessness,

PDF: Rental Insecurity

Many Americans who live in a rental property often struggle to get from one month to the next. While that fact is well-known to most people, it might surprise you to find just how many people are unable to pay their rent on a regular basis. According to a recent study released recently by, about one in five rental households reported they were unable to pay their monthly rent at least once in the past three months.

The study hints at what appears to be an alarming trend, even in the face of an improving economy. Missing rent payments often leads to financial penalties and eviction, which in turn can lead to homelessness and a variety of other social problems. In the study, Apartment List surveyed 41,000 renters, asking whether they’d missed a payment in the past year, whether they’d been threatened with eviction and whether they’d had a previous eviction.

While there are few reliable statistics about evictions (the study cited a “serious lack of comprehensive nationwide data on evictions”), it’s a very real issue for millions across the nation. About 3.3 percent of renters responding to the survey reported they’d been evicted in the past, and about 2.4 percent reported they were evicted from their most recent residence. While those numbers may seem small, the study’s authors concluded that — if the same percentage were applied to the general population of U.S. renters — it would mean about 3.7 million people had been evicted at least once. “If we assume that some share respondents fail to report informal evictions, this estimate is most likely understated,” the organization noted in its report.

The study seems to point out that rental insecurity has an uneven impact on American communities. Renters without a college education, for example, are more than twice as likely to face eviction as those with a degree. African-American households fared the worst among all demographic groups, while renters with lower incomes and single people with children more frequently reported inability to pay their rent. And there were geographic disparities, as well, with people in the South and Midwest facing greater rental uncertainty (Memphis renters reporting the highest eviction rates in the nation.)

As for the causes, there are many. Renting households often live paycheck to paycheck and have little or no savings. There are also economic causes; economists point out that as household wages have grown slowly or even stagnated in many parts of the country, rental rates have risen (often dramatically). For example, in Washington, D.C., household incomes rose about a third from 1980 to 2014, but rents jumped 86 percent in the same period. And in some cities, such as Houston, actual wages dropped during the same 34-year period, while average rents continued to climb.

“Evictions disrupt families and communities, imposing further harm on what are often the most vulnerable members of our population,” noted Apartment List’s Chris Salviati in the report. “Even when they do not face eviction, members of households that struggle to pay rent live with the fear of housing insecurity, which often means sacrificing other basic needs, such as food and transportation.”

To better understand how the law applies to landlord-tenant issues, visit the Mississippi Center for Legal Services’ website at