“Grandparent scam” on the rise again

Aged woman talk on phone

via ‘Grandparent Scam’ on the rise again, clarionledger.com

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During the past few years, scammers have gotten better at figuring out ways around potential victims’ natural skepticism. Using a variety of lies and trickery, they steal millions each year from unwary marks.

In this column, I’ve written numerous times about a particularly odious form of thievery known as the grandparent scam. Unfortunately, seniors in the Magnolia State are increasingly getting calls like this — often in the dead of night.

Purveyors of this lie will call seniors pretending to be a grandchild in trouble, another family member or friend. Tactics vary, but a typical ruse is to pretend to be in jail, to claim they’ve had all their money stolen while traveling or say they’re been hospitalized in a foreign country. But it eventually gets around to a request for cash to be wired. Often, they’ll put someone else on the line to lend credibility to the call, pretending to be a police officer, lawyer or doctor. If you respond, your money will vanish without a trace. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a warning this week about this activity.

“Wiring money is identical to mailing cash,” Hood noted in a news release. “There are no protections for the sender and no way to reverse the transaction, trace the money, or recover payment from the telephone con artists. These scammers will try to convince their victims to send any amount — from several hundred to several thousand dollars — and they may even call back hours or days later asking for more money if they were successful the first time.”

Hood said his office has seen a recent uptick in reports about the scam, with Harrison and Hinds counties seeing the most activity. This variant of the scam requests the victim wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram, or in some cases, to provide bank account and bank routing numbers.

Nationally, the grandparent scam is a growing concern for law enforcement. In 2015, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging reported more than 10,500 complaint calls came in about people impersonating family members or friends in attempts to convince victims to send money. Many took the bait, resulting in millions being wired to scammers.

Hood offered this advice if your phone rings:

Don’t wire money unless you have properly assessed the situation or in some way verified with others close to your loved one that they are really in trouble.

Be suspicious if your loved one requests or demands that you keep the phone call a secret by claiming to be embarrassed and/or scared.

Avoid panic. If you receive communication from a “loved one” (scammer) who claims to be traveling and is in some sort of distress or financial bind asking you to urgently wire them money, be calm and think. Does the story sound plausible?

Call before doing anything. Immediately after receiving the call or message, try calling your “loved one” back, but at the telephone number through which you normally reach that person to see if he or she reached out or attempted to reach out to you using an odd or long-distance number. It’s also a good idea to check with others to check out the story. For example, if the person claims to be your grandchild, call their parents or siblings and ask them to verify the details of the story.

“Our goal is to help educate and make our senior citizens and loved ones aware of these kinds of unfortunate and disheartening scams,” Hood said. “I strongly urge you to never give out any personal identifying information or account numbers to anyone unless you are certain the individual is who they claim to be and will use the information for the reason they have requested it.”

If you’ve been victimized or been approached with a scam like this, immediately report it to local law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection Division at 601-359-4230 or 800-281-4418. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission at 877-FTC-HELP.

The attorney general’s office also has a publication called the Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding the Grandparent Scam. You can download it at http://bit.ly/2tBkOnP or call the Consumer Protection Division for a copy.

Correction to previous storyIn my column last week about the group Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) and their attempt to place an initiative on the ballot in Colorado, I misstated the number of signatures the group is seeking to collect. Many news outlets have reported the number as 300,000, but Dr. Tim Farnum, president of the group, emailed me to state that number was in error and the number is actually just shy of 100,000. We strive to verify everything, but occasionally we get it wrong. Our apologies for the error.

Business coaching schemes busted

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Starting a home-based business is difficult. While working from home or over the Internet can seem like a good idea because it’s cheap and easy to get off the ground, very few new home-based businesses live long enough to celebrate their first birthday. Such failures are not usually because of a lack of effort, motivation or even a good idea; the profit margins are slim, the competition fierce and the marketing landscape complex. Unless you’re very experienced at doing this, you’ll probably need some expert help.

To address this fast-growing market, “business coaching” services have popped up around the globe. This niche is different from “career” or “executive” coaching services, another fast-growing industry that especially caters to people trying to reinvent their careers. (Some experts note that the term “business consultant” is a more appropriate descriptor for the services provided by these businesses.) These folks are usually people with an established track record in a particular business, who put that experience to work helping others develop their own businesses. There is a good deal of crossover between the services offered, and no small amount of confusion.

Many of these are solid, relying on time-tested ideas and good advice. But there are also a lot of scams and shams among the thousands of opportunities.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced they’d taken down a complex web of companies that promised big results from its “personalized” business “coaching” services. A Utah-based company called “Guidance” is accused of hiring telemarketers — known as “sales floors” — to pitch its services to hopeful consumers. Once on the hook, hopeful entrepreneurs were charged thousands of dollars to help them start their own businesses.

One tactic was to use a videotaped testimonial to persuade potential customers. “I’ve grossed over $12,000 last month alone,” bragged the salesperson. “Everything gets better all the time. I’ve got a whole stack of orders over here to prove it. Right behind me, this laptop, I bought this to start my online business. Before that I never owned a computer, I never touched a computer.”

If a potential customer seemed interested, the marketers would encourage them to share their personal stories to get details they could use to convince them to invest. Many potential customers reported they shared details such as their financial status and personal hardships, which the seller then used to tailor the pitch. Interested customers were then routed to a “closer” who asked for a credit card number to pay the initial cost of the program at a cost of up to $10,000, and then were pitched additional products.

According to the FTC, most people who signed up didn’t get the promised benefits. “In fact,” noted FTC blogger Lesley Fair, “the FTC says that the overwhelming majority of people who bought the defendants’ business coaching services were never able to establish a business.”

When choosing someone to help start your new business, it’s easy to make the wrong choice and responding to a telemarketing pitch is steeped in risk. Writing in Entrepreneur magazine, Doug and Polly White gave some great advice. “Too many small-business people aren’t willing to ask for help when they need it,” they noted. “Entrepreneurs by nature tend to be independent risk-takers. They started the company and it is their baby. Obviously, they should know how to raise it. However, none of us knows everything about growing and managing a business.”

The Whites listed five things you should look for in a consultant: unimpeachable character, solid experience, creative problem-solving skills, outstanding communication skills and excellent interpersonal skills. To read their excellent and concise article on the topic, visit https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/238710.

811 averts underground utility disasters



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As I write this, I’ve been watching a crew working near my front yard, preparing for a fiber-optic cable being laid in our neighborhood. All around are colorful little flags, and the sidewalk, streets and even the grass are crisscrossed with spray-painted lines in various colors.

A large truck is parked in front of my house, and the crew has been using a high-pressure water stream to rapidly dig a hole near the street. As the workers blast the dirt and gravel, it’s all sucked into a large tank mounted on the truck and results in a deep hole with clean sides in just a few minutes. Soon, another crew will be pushing pipes through the ground to carry the new cables, and once the work is done, passersby won’t be able to tell all this activity has taken place.

It may seem tranquil on the surface, but below ground it’s a different story. Starting just inches below ground level is a maze of water and sewer lines, electrical lines, cable and fiber, telephone cables and other types of buried infrastructure used to provide services to our homes and businesses. Placing utilities underground has many advantages. Besides avoiding the eyesore of having pipes and wires running through the landscape, burying them can also keep them safe from damage, and keep us safe from them and their sometimes-dangerous cargo.

In most cases, this arrangement works pretty well. But occasionally, someone hits a buried pipe, wire or cable, with potentially deadly consequences. The Common Ground Alliance, an organization representing the underground-utility industry and which advocates for safe digging practices, reported in 2015 that 421 people had died and 1,906 people had been injured in the preceding two decades from striking underground utilities. The incidents had a financial cost as well, resulting in $1.7 billion in property damage.

The alliance produces an annual report called DIRT, short for Damage Information Reporting Tool. The report compiles data on damage to underground utilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The most recent report (covering 2015) was released in October, and noted an encouraging trend: Requests to locate underground utilities were up significantly during 2015, while estimated damages from hitting them were down.

That good news is likely the result of increased public awareness. Here in Mississippi, a nonprofit organization called Mississippi 811 has the job of ensuring that damage doesn’t happen. They’re the folks you (hopefully) call before you put a shovel in the ground. 811 President Sam Johnson told me that, in the past year, 648 reports of underground utility damages have been reported in the state. That number is nearly 20 percent lower than the previous one-year period. In the same period, requests to locate buried utilities has increased significantly. “Hopefully, the increase in locate requests is an indicator that the public is paying attention,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his staff have been working hard to get the message out. 811 runs awareness ads on statewide radio and cable networks, as well as billboards, and sends out instructors to conduct awareness activities and train digging crews. Those efforts are augmented by utility companies that conduct their own efforts through ads, billboards and other awareness programs.

Many people wouldn’t think twice about digging a hole in their yard to plant a tree or put in a flower bed, but even digging a few inches with a shovel can sever a power line, cable or gas line. A free 811 call can not only keep you from getting yelled at by the neighbors when you cut their cable TV, it could keep you from being electrocuted by cutting into a power line or blowing up your neighborhood after rupturing a gas line. It can also save you money because you may have to pay for the damage, and you could be subject to fines under the new state law as well. (If you are a contractor and don’t make the call, your insurance company will probably not cover you for the damages.)

When you call, a crew will be dispatched to mark underground utilities running through your property. Crews will use paint and/or flags to mark where utilities are buried. Each type of utility has its own color: red for electrical lines, yellow for potentially dangerous or toxic materials such as natural gas, petroleum or steam; orange for telecommunications lines; blue for water lines; green for sewer lines; purple for slurry pipelines; pink for temporary survey markings; and white for areas with proposed excavations.

There is also a lot more at stake now if you don’t call. A new law signed last year by Gov. Phil Bryant will authorize legal penalties to people who violate the state’s digging laws and cause damage to buried utilities. The law authorizes a fine, ranging from $500 to $5,000 per incident.

“Anytime you hear a friend or neighbor say something about a project that will involve any excavation, be sure to remind them to call 811 at least two working days before they start their project,” he noted. “If you see someone that you care about, excavating but you don’t see any signs that the utilities have been marked (flags, paint, etc.), ask them if they have taken advantage of the free service to have the utilities marked. It’s the law, and it’s just the right and safe thing to do.”

Proposed smartphone ban for kids reignites debate

Smartphone – A Threat or a Life Savior for Kids


via Proposed child smartphone ban reignites debate, clarionledger.com

PDF: Smartphones and kids

[Editor’s Note: Post has been updated to reflect accurate numbers of signatures being sought in the Colorado petition.]

Back in 2013, I posed a question to readers of this column: “Should young kids have their own cellphone?”

The answers back then were all over the map. Some readers said, “absolutely.” Others said, “absolutely not.” But most of the responses indicated something in between and reflected parents’ belief that it depended on their age and ability to be responsible with the technology. “Depends on the child” went the typical answer. “When they can pay for it” and “when they start driving,” said others.

In the four years since then, a lot has changed. Smartphones have almost completely eclipsed old-style cellphones in the marketplace, becoming much faster and accompanied by an explosion in the number of apps. Look around at any group of kids (of nearly any age) and most of them will have their eyes fixed on their device’s screen, their fingers a blur. They may be in a group, but they’re not interacting with each other — at least as they once did. In many ways, they’re just doing what all the rest of us are doing — leading distracted lives tethered to the ever-present devices.

Even toddlers are handed devices, often left to navigate cyberspace on their own. And just as those brains are developing, many are worried about the long-term effects. Furthermore, since the web is a virtual Wild West, children using the web unsupervised can be lured by predators, become the victim of cyberbullying and exposed to every type of pornography, violence and influence imaginable.

Many concerned parents have in recent years become alarmed at what they see as a vast, uncontrolled experiment on developing young minds, and some are turning their concern into political action. A group called Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) has had enough. The group has set its sights on Colorado, seeking to ban smartphone sales for kids under 13 in that state.

The group (www.pausamerica.com) aims to spread its message. “We are parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens standing together against the destructive force of easy nonstop internet access for children disguised as progress,” notes the group on its website. “We are willing to stand up and say what we all know in our hearts, that children do not need smartphones. There is very little benefit and so very much to be lost.”

The group’s Colorado measure has already gotten a lot of attention. The proposal aims to not only prohibit direct smartphone sales to kids 12 and under, but also requires retailers to collect information about who will use the phone. Retailers selling a phone to someone intending to hand it to an underage child will face a $500 fine for any infractions after the first one. Currently, the group is collecting signatures for a November 2018 ballot initiative, which will require just under 100,000 signatures.

Tim Farnum, a Denver-area anesthesiologist who founded the group, told the Coloradoan newspaper his goal is not to stop the use of technology, but to limit the potentially negative effects on developing brains. “Eventually kids are going to get phones and join the world, and I think we all know that, but little children, there’s just no good that comes from that,” he said, citing his own frustrations in dealing with his own kids’ phone usage.

The proposal has gotten a lot of response — both positive and negative. Some say it would constitute too much government intrusion in private life and would usurp parents’ authority in making such decisions. Others have pointed out that enforcement could be difficult, and that phones do have some positive benefits for kids.

Still, the initiative appears to have touched a nerve. A lot of parents worry about their kids’ smartphone use. Earlier this year, I wrote about how many teens are using their devices well into the night, disrupting their sleep patterns. Some in the tech world have gotten concerned, too. Back in April, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates told the London Mirror that he and his wife have a family policy prohibiting their kids from cellphone use until they turn 14, bans devices at the dinner table and limits his youngest daughter’s pre-bedtime screen usage.

Whether the group’s measure passes, they are growing. PAUS says it is expanding into 11 additional states and plans to start initiatives in those states soon.

Danger from detergent pods not limited to kids

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via Danger from detergent pods not limited to kids, clarionledger.com

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Technology can be a wonderful thing, and innovations that make everyday tasks easier can be profitable for companies selling them. But sometimes, new products can introduce new risks. Recent research has highlighted the dangers to adults with dementia about detergent “pods,” which package detergent so it’s easier to use.

But first, a little history: A few years ago, consumer products giant Proctor & Gamble introduced the Tide Pod, a concentrated little shrink-wrapped packet of laundry detergent that removes the need to deal with messy powders and liquid detergents. Users simply had to throw the little pod in with their clothes. The plastic wrap dissolved slowly in the water, releasing the detergent at just the right rate. The technology was soon also being used in dishwashing detergent, and promised a host of other uses. Soon, pods were sold with liquid detergents, as well as powders.

But it didn’t take long for a problem to become apparent. Since the pods were brightly colored and just the right size for toddlers to mistake for a tasty treat and pop into their mouths, calls to poison-control centers began to skyrocket. In addition, since the chemicals they contained were concentrated, they were more likely to cause poisonings than other types of detergents. The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that more than 500 kids that year had to visit emergency rooms after consuming or chewing on the pods. In some cases, kids were playing with them, causing the packaging to rupture and squirt detergent into their eyes. In others, ruptured packages led to kids accidentally inhaling the contents.

In response to the crisis, the industry began changing the products to make them less colorful and putting them in opaque containers. But that didn’t stop the problem from mushrooming in the next couple of years. By 2014, the CPSC estimated, at least 17,000 kids had been hurt. The Journal of Pediatrics studied the problem, and in 2014 issued its own warning, calling the pods a “serious poisoning risk to young children.”

In the years since, the number of products using “pod” technology has increased, with pods accounting for about 17 percent of the market. At the same time, pods accounted for nearly three-quarters of all calls to poison control centers from 2013 to 2015, according to Consumer Reports.

But now, a new danger has become apparent from the pods. Consumer Reports issued a report last week showing that, of the eight deaths directly related to laundry pods since 2012, two were children. The remaining six were senior citizens with dementia.

The report notes that people with dementia may often make the same assumption as a child when seeing the detergent pod: that it’s something to eat. Consumer Reports quoted an Alzheimer’s expert about how this process might work. “A hungry person with dementia foraging in a kitchen may misidentify a box of powdered detergent as cereal and still know to pour it in a bowl and mix it with milk from the refrigerator.”

The advice from the experts is simple: if you have an adult with dementia in the house, avoid having pods where they can reach them, and if possible avoid them altogether. “As a result of this new data from the CPSC highlighting the potential risks of laundry detergent pods to adults with dementia, we are amending our advice and recommending that family members caring for anyone who is cognitively impaired not keep pods in the home,” says Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer, James Dickerson. “We also continue to believe that manufacturers should modify the appearance of laundry packets, so they do not look like candy.”

For more information about the risk detergent pods pose to seniors with dementia, and what you can do about it, you can read the full report at Consumer Reports.

Pool safety could stem child drownings

via Pool safety could stem child drownings, clarionledger.com

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For many, it’s a rite of summer. Having access to a swimming pool means the kids can have some way to spend the long, lazy summers. Here in the South, having a place to take a cool dip can be a blissful way to escape our notoriously hot weather.

But despite all the poolside fun, there is a dark side. Every year, hundreds of children drown in swimming pools across the country, and thousands more are injured in pool-related accidents. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 346 kids under the age of 15 died in 2014 (the latest year for which statistics are available).

The agency notes that accidental drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death among children aged 1-4, and the second-leading cause among kids 5-14. For the years 2014 through 2016, an average of 5,900 kids 15 or younger were treated for non-fatal drownings at hospital emergency rooms — most were under 5 years of age. More than two-thirds of drowning fatalities are boys, and the vast majority (86 percent) of fatal pool drownings occurred at backyard or apartment-complex pools.

Although grim, that report contains some good news: The number of drowning deaths among kids has actually decreased since 2010. “Despite the positive decline in numbers, there are still far too many children who drown each year in pools and spas across the country,” said Ann Marie Buerkle, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Swimming should be fun and a great way for families to be active, so long as everyone knows how to pool safely.” (That’s not a misprint; the commission has been using the word “pool” as a verb for the purposes of its campaign.)

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies have stepped up their efforts to make people more aware of the dangers of pool drownings, and it appears to be having an effect. The commission’s “Pool Safely” campaign helps educate the public about pool safety and features an online “Pool Safely” pledge to identify your awareness level.

“Pool Safely” was started to help meet the requirements of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. Congress enacted the law after the 2002 drowning death of 7-year-old Graeme Baker (the granddaughter of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker), who died after being held underwater by a strong suction device at the bottom of a hot tub.

Kids can get into trouble in swimming pools in many ways. Even when there are lots of people around, a drowning can occur without notice in a noisy pool. Some drownings occur when kids accidently fall in after getting too close, and others happen when kids get into water that’s too deep, or get snagged by some obstruction. Tragically, some kids drown even when adults are nearby, or sneak into a pool unobserved. Swim lessons can help, but there is no replacement for constant (and undistracted) supervision by adults trained in lifesaving and CPR, as well as some common-sense safety features such as enclosing the pool area with a fence.

“As a mother, grandmother and registered nurse, I raised my kids, and now my grandkids, with a respect for water,” Buerkle noted. “Constant supervision, along with four-sided fencing, knowing how to perform CPR and teaching children how to swim are all important steps to continuing the decline in child drownings.”

Here are some other things to remember, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other sources. Visit www.poolsafely.gov for more information:

  • Install a four-sided fence (at least 4 feet high) with a self-closing, self-latching gate around all pools and spas.
  • Install alarms around the pool area. A gate alarm and floating alarms can let you know if a person or pet falls in.
  • Don’t leave toys or flotation devices in the water. They can be an irresistible lure for children.
  • Designate a Water Watcher to supervise children at all times around the water. This person should not be reading, texting, drinking alcohol, using a smartphone or be otherwise distracted.
  • Learn how to swim and teach your child how to swim.
  • Learn how to perform CPR on children and adults.
  • Keep children away from pool drains, pipes and other openings to avoid entrapments.
  • Ensure any pool and spa you use has drain covers that comply with federal safety standards and, if you do not know, ask your pool service provider about safe drain covers.

Protecting seniors against financial exploitation

via Protect seniors against financial abuse, clarionledger.com

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Financial exploitation of seniors is heartbreaking and tragic, and it happens every day. Occasionally, you’ll read about it in the news or see it mentioned on social media, but these reports usually are about large-scale crimes. Most incidents happen outside the glare of the public spotlight.

Financial exploitation robs seniors of the financial resources on which they depend to live. Increasingly, older Americans are targeted with scams, too-good-to-be-true sales pitches, outrageous fines and fees, theft of their bank accounts and credit cards by people they trusted and even victimization by their own caregivers. A retirement nest egg, accumulated over decades, can be gone in minutes and with it the hope of a happy retirement.

Earlier this month, the Mississippi attorney general’s office announced the sentencing of a 54-year-old Laurel woman after she pleaded guilty to three counts of exploitation of a vulnerable person. Lisa Byrd Mozingo, who was employed as a caregiver to an elderly person, was accused of transferring the victim’s money into her own account and using the victim’s power of attorney to buy cars, silver coins and other items. In all, the damage totaled more than $100,000. Under the plea deal, Mozingo will serve 10 years in prison (with an additional 10 years suspended, plus five years’ supervision) and will have to pay back the money and perform community service.

According to a 2011 MetLife study, an estimated $2.9 billion is lost annually to scams explicitly targeting seniors. It’s one of the most common forms of abuse committed against seniors, notes the American Bankers Association Foundation. And most experts agree that elder financial abuse is under-reported; some experts believe that only one case in 44 is ever reported to authorities.

The problem is twofold: First, seniors hold a lot of the money in the U.S. economy, making it a tempting target for those who would seek to get their hands on it. Secondly, as many seniors age, they become less able to make good financial decisions, and in some cases suffer from dementia or other cognitive issues.

“Older Americans currently hold more than two-thirds of all U.S. deposits, making them highly susceptible to scams, exploitation and abuse,” said Corey Carlisle, bankers foundation executive director. “It’s critical that seniors and their loved ones recognize the signs of financial abuse before it’s too late and get help immediately if they think they’ve been victimized.”

The financial industry is stepping up with tools to help combat elder financial abuse. Last year, the North American Securities Administrators Association started requiring financial advisers to report suspected financial abuses to states’ securities regulators and adult protective services departments. At the federal level, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will in February begin requiring its broker-dealer members to add a trusted backup contact person for all accounts and to allow members to put temporary holds on fund disbursements when financial exploitation is suspected. And the Investor Protection Trust is training physicians and attorneys to be on the lookout for warning signs of financial vulnerability.

These are all steps in the right direction, but they can’t solve the problem on their own. As the old adage goes, the best defense is a good offense. If you’re a senior, or are responsible for helping a loved one make financial decisions, there are some things you can do to reduce the risk of financial exploitation. The bankers foundation suggests these actions:

First, plan ahead. Talk to someone at your financial institution, an attorney or financial adviser about the best options for you in managing your money and assets.

Choose someone you trust to act as your agent. You may need to look beyond your family members; tragically, a substantial percentage of financial exploitation is committed by relatives of the victim.

Never give personal information, including your Social Security, account number or other financial information to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call and the other party is trusted.

Stay alert to common fraud schemes. There are many scams targeting seniors, and they know how to get past your defenses. In the past, I’ve written about the “grandparent scam,” in which a scammer purporting to be a grandchild calls you and says they urgently need your help. And seniors are targeted every day with travel scams, pitches for products and investments and scary warnings that the IRS or Social Security or law enforcement is coming after you if you don’t pay up.

Never rush into a financial decision. Ask for details in writing and consult with a financial adviser or attorney before signing any document you don’t understand.

Check references and credentials before hiring anyone. Don’t allow workers to have access to information about your finances and make sure to lock up your checkbook, account statements and other sensitive information when others will be in your home.

Pay with checks and credit cards instead of cash to keep a paper trail.

You have the right not to be threatened or intimidated. If you believe you are a victim of elder financial abuse, contact your local Adult Protective Services, tell someone at your bank or call your local police for help.

Dish Network case results in record telemarketing fine

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Satellite TV provider Dish Network will have to shell out $280 million to settle charges that it violated federal law when its representatives called millions of consumers to get them to sign up for Dish Network TV services.

The Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Justice announced the action Wednesday, in a stinging rebuke of the Colorado-based company’s sales practices that closed an 8-year-old case. A U.S. District Court in Illinois didn’t mince words in its statement, in which it accused the company of creating a situation in which “unscrupulous sales persons used illegal practices to sell Dish Network programming any way they could.”

The agencies were joined in the lawsuit by the states of California, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio, which will share in $112 million to address alleged violations in their respective states. In addition, the federal government will pocket $168 million from the settlement, the largest civil penalty ever obtained for violations of the FTC Act. Dish Network has a reported 13.5 million subscribers nationwide.

“The National Do Not Call Registry is a popular federal program for the public to reduce the number of unwanted sales calls,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “This case demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to smart enforcement of consumer protection laws and sends a clear message to businesses that they must comply with the Do Not Call rules.”

Specifically, the court found that “millions” of Dish Network-authorized calls violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule, The Telephone Consumer Protection Act and state law. (Sixty-six million of those calls on their own were found to be violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.) The complaint alleged in reference to the Telemarketing Sales Rule that Dish “initiated, or caused a telemarketer to initiate, outbound telephone calls to phone numbers on the DNC Registry, in violation of the TSR, violated the TSR’s prohibition on abandoned calls, and assisted and facilitated telemarketers when it knew, or consciously avoided knowing, that the telemarketer was engaged in violations of the law.”

“The outcome of this case shows companies will pay a hefty price for violating consumers’ privacy with unwanted calls,” said Maureen K. Ohlhausen, acting FTC chairman. “This is a great result for consumers, and I am grateful to FTC staff for their years of tenacious work investigating and developing this case. We and our DOJ and state partners will continue to bring enforcement actions against Do Not Call violators.”

The court’s ruling contained four provisions, which included requiring Dish and its primary retailers to ensure they are fully compliant with the “Safe Harbor” provisions of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (which protect you and me from certain calling practices); requiring Dish to hire a telemarketing-compliance expert to ensure compliance; requiring Dish to allow unannounced inspections of calling facilities or records; and prohibiting Dish from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule in the future.

Dish has gone on record as disagreeing with the verdict and said it plans to appeal. “The penalties awarded in this case radically and unjustly exceed, by orders of magnitude, those found in the settlements in similar actions,” a representative noted in a statement. “Dish has long taken its compliance with telemarketing laws seriously, has and will continue to maintain rigorous telemarketing compliance policies and procedures, and has topped multiple independent customer service surveys along the way.”

It wasn’t clear how much, if any, of the settlement money will be returned to affected consumers.

Feds, Fla. authorities shut down robocall ring that targeted seniors

via Feds, Fla. authorities shut down robocall ring that targeted seniors, clarionledger.com

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With millions of Americans deeply in debt, many are looking for a lifeline to help them deal with it. Statistics released around the end of 2016 showed that Americans’ personal debt had exploded by $460 billion, the biggest increase in nearly a decade and bringing total indebtedness dangerously close to the record-setting 2008 levels of $12.7 trillion.

Such debt makes some Americans vulnerable to promises of relief from their crushing load, and millions are getting robocalls and marketing pitches from both established companies and fly-by-night scam artists. Many of these schemes target seniors, many on fixed incomes who are already carrying heavy debt loads. But this week, the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida attorney general shuttered one tangled operation that pitched “worthless” credit card rate reduction programs to millions.

Orlando-based “Card Member Services,” doing business as Payless Solutions, allegedly set up robocalls that promised that consumers could pay off their debt faster and cheaper in exchange for up-front fees ranging from $300 to nearly $5,000. But, according to authorities, it was all too good to be true.

A federal district court judge last week signed eight orders against the operation, the agencies announced last week, stemming from a joint complaint against the operation, which ran from 2011 until the 2015 complaint.

The operation is accused of claiming that consumers could save at least $2,500 in a short period of time if they paid the fees, but many consumers reported they got no action in return for their money. Some consumers received a “package of financial education information,” and in some cases, found that the defendants had used their personal information to apply for new credit cards without their knowledge or consent. In addition, many of the numbers called were on the national Do-Not-Call Registry, and violated other telemarketing statutes.

Under the action announced last week, charges have been settled against 18 defendants, in some cases imposing financial penalties. Monetary judgments of $4.8 million were requested, but were suspended because the defendants said they couldn’t pay. The FTC’s news release noted the defendants were ordered to stop their illegal activities, but didn’t say whether any of them are going to jail or if any of the scam’s victims are going to be compensated.

If you get a call from someone claiming to be able to reduce your interest rate, or enroll you in a special program that requires up-front fees, it’s probably a scam. Giving your personal information to someone who calls you with such promises can result in identity theft, so be skeptical if anyone calls. If it’s a robocall, let it go to voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. That also gives you the option to check it out before returning any calls.

SSNs on Medicare cards soon to be a thing of the past

via Another path cut off for identity thieves, clarionledger.com

PDF: SSN Medicare 1SSN Medicare 2

Last week, I ran across an old scrapbook, full of little pieces from my past. As I meandered through the ticket stubs, cards and letters, each one dredged up memories and emotions I had packed away.

There was a stub from my first music concert, tickets to football games, a letter of acceptance to college and mementos from events the details of which were long gone. Some of the scraps went all the way back to my childhood, each holding its precious little cargo of memory.

Among the artifacts on those pages was my original green-and-white Mississippi driver’s license from 1980. Its edges were cracked and the print a little faded, but the plastic card was still pretty much intact. There was no photo; just the facts about my birthdate, my height and weight, my address and a few other nuggets of information. At the time, I gave no thought to the fact that my driver’s license number was the same as my Social Security number. In fact, almost no one did at the time.

But the use of the Social Security number has become a problem because it’s been used by criminals to commit identity theft. This week, one of the last major holdouts on using Social Security numbers on its cards has announced it’ll be phasing that practice out. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the two programs, announced the Social Security numbers will be replaced soon for its 57.7 million Medicare recipients. The action is being taken to meet a Congress-imposed deadline to remove Social Security numbers on all Medicare cards by April 2019.

In place of than identifying information, each Medicare beneficiary will be assigned a new, randomly generated number called a Medicare Beneficiary Number, consisting of a mix of upper-and lower-case letters. CMS will start mailing out cards with the new numbers in April 2018, and says it will work to educate participants about how to destroy their old cards and keep their information private.

“We’re taking this step to protect our seniors from fraudulent use of Social Security numbers, which can lead to identity theft and illegal use of Medicare benefits,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a news release. “We want to be sure that Medicare beneficiaries and health care providers know about these changes well in advance and have the information they need to make a seamless transition.”

Regulators, advocates and even members of Congress have urged CMS for many years to make the change, but it’s been long in coming. “The Social Security number is the key to identity theft, and thieves are having a field day with seniors’ Medicare cards,” Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, told the New York Times in 2015.

CMS officials have cited a variety of reasons for the delays, including the refocusing of resources to implement Healthcare.gov, the website that registers participants for services provided under the Affordable Care Act.

Although their use for identity theft has exploded in the past few decades, Social Security numbers have never really been very secure. Although the number was designed for a specific purpose — identifying participants in the Social Security System set up in 1935 — it began to be used as a more general identifier. Since nearly every American citizen had one, it was considered a sort of universal ID number. Financial institutions began to use it, as did government agencies, businesses and organizations of all kinds.

It didn’t take long, though, for people with nefarious intentions to abuse the new Social Security numbers. According to the Social Security Administration, in 1938 a national newspaper ad for wallets made by the E.H. Feree Co. (and sold widely by Woolworth’s department store) featured an image of a Social Security card fitting into one of its wallets. The problem was that the picture contained the real Social Security number assigned to Hilda Whitcher, who was the secretary for E.H. Feree’s vice president and treasurer. By 1943, at least 5,755 people were using Whitcher’s number for their own, and at least 40,000 people eventually claimed it. Although Whitcher was soon assigned a different number, people kept using the old one until at least 1977.

A more recent, but equally notorious case is that of Lifelock Founder Todd Davis, who famously published his own Social Security number in ads, websites and even on billboards, daring criminals to try to use it to commit identity theft. At least 13 crooks successfully took him up on the offer, though (and many more tried). What started as a brazen publicity stunt turned into real losses for several companies that had to write off the uncollectable debt racked up by identity thieves.

Although the number of ID cards with Social Security numbers continues to decrease and Medicare recipients will no longer be exposed to this particular threat, the Social Security number will still continue to be used internally for a variety of purposes. (By the way, Mississippi stopped using Social Security numbers on Mississippi driver’s licenses long ago; Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain told me the practice was discontinued during the mid-2000s.)

Protecting yourself from identity theft still requires a lot of vigilance and some caution. Social Security numbers are still a point of vulnerability. Often, people ask me whether they’re in danger carrying their Social Security card or other documents containing that number in their wallets or purses. Almost always, I relay the sage advice I got years ago: The best place to carry your Social Security number is in your head.