Consumer Protection: Advice from The Bucks County Consumer
Free Credit Report
Q. One of the neighbors that live down the block from me was telling a few of us about a situation where his identity was stolen. It seems someone got a hold of his personal information and purchased car insurance, a cell phone contract, and a credit card. He was telling us how long it was going on and that he had no idea it was happening until the collection agencies started hounding him. What can we do to become a watchdog over our personal information? P.G., Southampton
A. First and foremost, consumers should be getting a copy of their credit report every year. This can be done for free by contacting Annual Credit Report Request Service by mail at P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281, by phone at 1-877-322-8228 or you can request a copy through the Internet at www.annualcreditreport.com. The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees you access to your credit report for free every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit bureaus which are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. A way to remember when to order is to do it around a date that is special to you such as your birthday, then you will know every time your birthday comes around it’s time to order again. When you get your copy of your report look to make sure the information on it is correct. If you see accounts you don’t recognize or information that is inaccurate, contact the credit reporting agency. There will be information on how to dispute with your report. If you suspect identity theft, you may need to place a fraud alert on your credit report, close compromised accounts, and contact your local police to file a report. Consumers can obtain more information about identity theft by going to the Federal Trade Commission website at www.ftc.gov or contacting the FTC Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-382-4357.
Grandparent Scam Fraud Alert
Bucks County elderly and concerned relatives beware! Bucks County Consumer Protection is issuing a fraud alert to warn consumers that scammers have updated one of their old favorites, the grandparent scam. As previously reported, scammers have been known to target seniors by calling and posing as a grandchild in distress.
They'll typically bait the intended victim by saying "this is your favorite grandchild" or asking "do you know who this is?" Unwittingly seniors fill in the blanks by providing the name of a relative who sounds most like the person on the other end of the line. The scam's subsequent publicity has led fraudsters to make a few minor adjustments to their pitch. Most notably, they are now providing their intended victims with detailed information regarding family members. They lace their conversation with correct references by name to other family members, increasing their credibility.
Fraudsters are also targeting relatives of the identity they are assuming, such as aunts, uncles and parents, not just grandparents, and the most recent reports of the scam include requests that money be wired to Mexico. In its previous incarnation, the phony relatives had gotten in a car accident in Canada, asking for some cash to get out of trouble. Now, the back story is that they are being detained in a Mexican prison, with the incarceration serving as an excuse to not contact additional relatives to confirm the whereabouts of whomever the scammer is purporting to be.
Law enforcement officials have not discovered how these scammers obtain phone numbers and personal information about their victims. They also said the latest victims are not related and live in different communities, so the problem is not just a localized one.
There have been recent reports in Bucks County of this scam being attempted. The Bucks County Department of Consumer Protection was contacted by a very astute senior, Who serves on the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging advisory council , He reported that he almost became a victim of this scam. He contacted Bucks County Consumer Protection to alert us of the scam surfacing in our area so we may alert the public. He stated that they are very persuasive and having a granddaughter living in California the situation was plausible. He stated that the woman claimed to be his granddaughter needing $2,800 to be released from a Mexican prison after being involved in a DUI accident. Sensing a possible scam he told the woman to contact her father and he immediately called to verify his granddaughter’s location and safety.
Anyone who believes they have fallen victim to this scam recently is being urged to file a report with their local police department. They should also file a complaint with the FBI office in their region. For any questions or concerns please contact Bucks County Consumer Protection for assistance.
Bucks County Consumer Protection advises anyone contacted by a distressed relative to verify his or her whereabouts before wiring money. As an overall precaution, the organization urges consumers to limit the amount of information they share on social networks and refrain from accepting friend requests from people they don't know.
Additionally, families may want to come up with a code word that can be used if they do find themselves needing to reach out over the phone in an emergency. Asking a specific question that only your family member would be able to answer correctly is also a good way to verify the caller’s identity. Tweaking an old scam is a common trick among fraudsters. Thieves are very crafty these days. They keep updating old scams with new twists.
Concerned seniors can find out what other scams thieves are known to try against them by contacting Bucks County Consumer Protection and requesting a copy of our Scams, Cons and Flim-Flams: A Guide for Seniors and Families. Please contact our office at 1-800-942-2669, 215-348-7442 or view the brochure on our website at www.buckscounty.org on the Consumer Protection page.
BC Task Force
Q. I was recently at a senior expo that one of our state representatives put together. I saw numerous tables that had some government agencies represented, along with private vendors offering a number of services for seniors. It was also a great way to meet my state representative and let him know my overall concerns.
My reason for writing is that the Consumer Protection table had a great guide for senior citizens. Your office also introduced me to a free fraud alert that is sent periodically to individuals and to organizations like churches, civic groups and even community associations. I was hoping you could explain in more detail what everything is about and help educate more of our seniors. I.R., Richland
A. The guide that you are speaking of is called “A Guide for Seniors and Families”. Our hope is to create an awareness of the many ways people are scammed. The guide covers a good portion of potential problems that everyone including seniors may get involved with. It also may help loved ones to identify the many different forms of abuse. Financial, emotional, physical abuse and neglect are some of the most dangerous and serious. Our office is partnered with the Bucks County District Attorney, Area Agency on Aging, Coroner’s Office, Recorder of Deeds and Network of Victims Assistance (NOVA). The partnership is called The Bucks County Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force. The task force is constantly training professional organizations to identify abuse. The task force is also available to speak to community groups at no cost about the issues stated above. To set up a speaking engagement or to learn more about the mission of the task force, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact NOVA at 215-343-6543.
The free fraud alerts are a small part of getting particular information out into the hands of individuals and groups who will email them to their individual members. We have churches, community centers, senior centers and various other organizations that have signed up for the alerts and have agreed to forward the alerts to all their members. Individuals can also receive the alerts. If you or your organization would like to receive the current alerts or any previous alerts please go to the website at www.crimesagainstolderadultsbucks.org or to sign up for the free fraud alerts call 215-343-6543. The website is a very useful tool and contains valuable information for everyone. Remember you can help stop elder abuse. Silence is not golden. If you suspect elder abuse, please call the 24 Hour Elder Abuse Hotline at 1-800-490-8505. To receive a free copy of the “Guide for Seniors and Families” booklet, call the Bucks County Office of Consumer Protection at 1-800-942-2669.
Q. We’ve had the same local telephone service for years. My husband and I were talking about seeing if we could get a better plan for less. We are senior citizens and don’t have a lot of money. The problem is we do not know where to start. Can you give us some suggestions on what we should be looking for? R.G, Levittown
A. In this day and age you have several choices in local telephone providers. So it is important to ask questions and shop around. Ask the provider for the price of the least expensive local basic service plan they have, and what it includes. Find out what they charge per minute/per call. Ask if they have a flat monthly rate and if so how many calls you can make for that rate. Make sure you understand what the range of their local calling area is. Compare it to your present local calling area. You may want to find out if there are any fees for switching or canceling the service that you already have and if there are any fees for the service that you are interested in. You should also check to see if there is a deposit and if so, how much? Decide if you are interested in any of their optional services, for example, call waiting, caller ID, or voice mail. Check to see if they have a package price for these services. You may want to look into any low-income assistance programs they may offer that you might be eligible for. Remember, the front of your phone book has a wealth of information for consumers to utilize.
Instant Tax Refund
Q. My wife and I disagree with how to handle our tax refund. We, like most folks, would like to get our tax refund as soon as possible. We have several bills that the refund would pay and take some pressure off of us. She wants to use a nationally-known tax preparer and, as she puts it, get an “instant refund”. I reminded her that the instant refund is a loan for our own money. It does not make any sense to pay for my own money only to receive it a couple weeks early. She thinks the charge is fair but I told her to read the fine print. Anyway, I think people should be wary of this practice, especially during tax season. S.P., Warrington
A. Many tax preparers, whether independent or part of a national firm, offer many services for a fee. Instant refunds or rebates are really a straightforward loan and because they are a loan the consumer is entitled to full disclosure about any fees and the interest rate that will be charged. What many consumers do not understand is that if there are additional fees wrapped into the loan the Annual Percentage Rate increases dramatically. These loans are usually referred to as a Refund Anticipation Loans (RAL). While we understand that it is very attractive especially in these tough financial times to want to get your money immediately, it is really not a financially prudent thing to do. The loan is based on your refund. If there is a problem with the refund there will be a problem with your loan. The rates for these loans vary from 36 percent to predatory levels. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), taxpayers who file electronically or by mail are given the option to have their refund directly deposited into their bank account. It is quicker than waiting for the processing and mailing of a physical check and there is no fee or interest charged. It is, after all, your money. Since most of these loans are bank loans secured by the taxpayer’s expected refund, the loans last about 7-20 days until the actual IRS refund repays the loan. That alone is a good indication of just how needless most RAL’s really are.
The IRS has issued several warnings for this tax season. One alert is for a phone scam which states that it is the IRS calling and advising that the taxpayer is entitled to a rebate and that all they need to do is provide bank account information. The IRS does not call taxpayers on the phone. Any phone call should be viewed as a scam. They also want to warn consumers that bogus emails continue to be a problem. The emails have many variations. Some are directed at a specific refund, others are bogus email audits or notices that tax laws have changed and that they require further information. With all these scams the important thing to remember is that the IRS will not email any taxpayer. If a consumer answers any of these emails they will be directed to a specific site that will ask for financial and personal information. The bottom line is to check with the IRS before providing any information.
Q. I bought a new 2011 car for my wife for a Christmas present. When my wife and I talked about it we decided we really could not afford the payments. When I tried to return the car I was told that I couldn’t. The only mileage on the car is what I put on it to bring the car home. The dealership said that it doesn’t matter, that I signed a contract and they would hold me to it. I thought that I had three days to cancel the contract. Can you explain this “Cooling-Off-Rule”? D.A., Newtown
A. The “Cooling-Off Rule” does not apply to vehicles that are purchased at the dealership. In most cases when buying a vehicle consumers do not have three days to cancel. You drive off the lot, the car is yours. The three day right to cancel or “the cooling-off rule” applies if the contact was signed at your home. The cooling-off rule would also apply if the purchase of $25 or more took place other than at your home, but not at the business’ address, such as a convention center or a restaurant where someone could rent space to hold a seminar. The cooling-off rule requires a salesperson to tell you that you have three business days after the sale to change your mind. At the time of the sale the salesperson must give you a copy of your contract or receipt showing the salesperson’s name and address and explaining your right to cancel. The salesperson must also give you two dated copies of a cancellation form, one for you to send back and one for you to keep. If you wanted to cancel a purchase you would sign and date one of the cancellation notices and send it by certified mail postmarked before midnight of the third business day following the sale. Saturday is considered a business day, but Sunday and legal holidays are not. If you were not provided with the cancellation form at the time of the sale, your three days do not start until after you receive the form from the seller. You may also write your own letter to cancel the order. Keep a copy for your record.
Department of Consumer Protection /
Michael D. Bannon
50 North Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901