Answers to Your Questions

Below are the questions asked of the Panel of Experts - and their subsequent answers - from the Linn County "Take Charge" event held November 12, 2009. The panelists include:

Robert Schroeder - Federal Trade Commission
Kevin Anselm - Oregon Division of Finance and Corporate Securities
Det. Randy Voight - Linn County Sheriff's Office
Geoff Darling - Oregon Department of Justice
Ron Fredrickson - Oregon Insurance Division
Det. Cyndi Pichardo - Sweet Home Police Department


Why can't Western Union (and other money transmitters) be stopped from participating in scams?

Robert Schroeder: They can. The Federal Trade Commission recently announced a settlement with MoneyGram for assisting fraudsters. MoneyGram paid $18 million to settle FTC charges that the company allowed its money transfer system to be used by fraudulent telemarketers to bilk U.S. consumers out of tens of millions of dollars.


We own our home, are mortgage free. Any suggestions on special precautions we should take to protect it?

Kevin Anselm: If you decide to use the equity in your home, be sure to understand the risks involved. All loans and mortgages have fees. Be particularly cautious of reverse mortgages. Reverse mortgages are marketed to individuals at 62 years old. The pitches often sound great, and sometimes involve suggestions to 'withdraw' money out of the home, and invest it in other potentially higher paying investments, or withdraw smaller sums on a monthly or quarterly basis to supplement income. Be sure you understand all of the costs, including the cost for each withdrawal. Also be sure that you understand that if you decide to no longer live in the home, you may have to pay the reverse mortgage back before you can move or sell the home. AARP has a calculator on their Web site that may be helpful to you.


Re: online shopping credit that gives others a percentage - are these scams?

Detective Voight: Most retail websites offer an affiliate program. For example GNC.com, the health and fitness company most of us are familiar with, has an "affiliates" link on the main page. If person "A" has a website, you go to that site and find a link to GNC, open it and make a purchase, GNC will compensate person "A" for that referral based sale.

Geoff Darling: It is possible to generate donations to charitable causes by buying, or sometimes even searching, online. Here's some media coverage on the topic: http://www.goodsearch.com/press.aspx


Are there web sites to check the licensing of financial advisers and brokers in Oregon?

Kevin Anselm: Yes.

To see if a broker firm and its representatives are licensed to do business in Oregon, click here to access the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) web site.

To check on investment firms and advisers, click here for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Firms and advisers operating in Oregon - with certain exceptions - are required to be licensed with us -- the Oregon Division of Finance and Corporate Securities. Click here to check for if they are registered.

If you have any difficulty finding a person or firm, call us at 1-866-817-9710 or e-mail us at dcbs.dfcsmail@state.or.us.


What are the positives and negatives of online banking paying bills?

Detective Voight: Convenience and security, as long as you protect yourself. Make sure you have a secure password and that you don't forget to log off when you are done working on your accounts. Most banks have inactivity time limits meaning if you are logged in and there is no activity, it will automatically log you off.

Robert Schroeder: Online banking can save time and money (e.g., stamps). Any online transactions raise some risks. For example, if your computer has been infected, thieves may be able to steal your bank login and password and get access to your account. Therefore, it is important to make sure your computer is protected against viruses and hackers. It is also important to deal with banks and other merchants who you know have installed sufficient protections on their networks. Paper transactions can also create risks that you should protect against - e.g., don't put outgoing bill payments in your mailbox where ID thieves can steal them.


An agent contacted my 82 year old mother and recommended an annuity. Is this a good product for someone her age?

Ron Fredrickson: Typically, an annuity is a policy sold by an insurance company that pays a monthly income for the life of a person for a specified period of time. Often the annuity does not begin making payments for several years, and there are significant fees if the purchaser needs access to the funds. Although each person's financial needs are different, we believe this type of product is unlikely to be appropriate for your mom.

There are important safeguards in Oregon law to protect seniors from the sale of unsuitable products. The agent must make a reasonable inquiry concerning the consumer's insurance objectives, financial situation and needs, age and other relevant information. There is also a free look period of ten days for a new policy and thirty days for a replacement policy.

We suggest your mom contact our consumer advocacy team at 1-888-877-4894 so we may determine whether the agent and insurance company are in compliance with the law.


I've been contacted by an agent who says she is specially trained to help with investments that apply to senior citizens. Are there people with special training that specifically sell products to seniors?

Kevin Anselm: Salespersons may only use designations or credentials that they have legitimately earned and that meet certain educational requirements. Ask questions about the credential, and what the person had to do to receive it. Check with our office if you have any concerns: call toll-free 1-866-814-9710 or email us at dcbs.dfcsmail@state.or.us.

Ron Fredrickson: We are not aware of any recognized special credential for senior issues. We suggest asking the agent what's behind the special training. How much time did it take? What subjects were covered? What is the name of the training facility? You may also contact our consumer advocacy team at 1-888-877-4894. New rules regarding credentials have recently been adopted and may be viewed on our website, www.insurance.oregon.gov.


I just received a bill for my home insurance and it's gone up quite a bit. Home prices are falling. Why do I have to pay more for insurance?

Ron Fredrickson: No one should be paying for more coverage than they need, but sometimes consumers focus on the market value of the home rather than construction costs. You may have seen some of the news stories about the California fires where some homeowners did not have enough coverage to rebuild their homes.

Since the purpose of homeowner's insurance is to repair or replace your property in the event of a fire or other covered loss, most insurance companies and agents have tools available to them to calculate how much it would cost to rebuild your home in the event of a total loss. These tools use the square footage, type of construction and other factors. Many policies also include an inflation protection feature that automatically adjusts the amount of coverage annually.

Carefully review your policies when you receive your renewal billing. If you believe the amount of insurance is too high, you should contact your agent or the company for an explanation and an adjustment if warranted. Be sure you're taking advantage of any discounts available. Having your home and car insured with the same company, or having an alarm system for example, can save you money. A higher deductible can also save you money.

If you're still not satisfied, we recommend you shop around. We have a very competitive marketplace in Oregon with rates among the lowest in the country. Complaint information for all companies doing business in Oregon is available on our website, www.insurance.oregon.gov.


In general, what should we do to keep from getting ripped off?

Detective Pichardo: Never give out personal information over the telephone. Do some research on the services or goods that are being advertised. If it sounds too good to be true, It is!

Robert Schroeder: Know who you are dealing with and that they are reputable. Read the fine print before signing anything. Protect your personal and financial information and do not give it out unless you need to. Use common sense - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Geoff Darling: Resisting impulses is important. If it's a good deal today, it will be a good deal tomorrow or next week. Take time to do your homework, and check with the Department of Justice (1-877-877-9392) and Better Business Bureau for consumer complaints. And if it sounds too good to be true…


Are there legitimate jobs you can do from home?

Detective Voight: Yes there are. However there are no get rich quick from home jobs. If you are looking for a work-from-home program there are some key things to look at. First, does the company offer a product or service? If there is no product and no service, the company is not a business. Second, does the company have any history? What does the FTC or BBB say about them? Is there support; meaning, is there someone to contact if there are challenges or problems?

Back to what I first said there are no get rich quick jobs or businesses. Take your time and look into anything you are going invest time and or money into.

Geoff Darling: Yes. Medical transcription and home-based customer service agents come to mind. Never pay money for a work-at-home opportunity. Most offers that arrive via email are scams.

Robert Schroeder: There are legitimate jobs but there are not a lot of jobs at which unskilled people can make substantial money working from home. Most work-at-home job programs are not jobs at all but rather require the consumer to start their own business, which may or may not make money. Envelope stuffing or postcard stamping opportunities do not pay workers for each piece processed. They are usually chain letter scams or sales jobs for which the worker makes sales commissions (if there are any sales). Be very skeptical of claims that you can make easy money working from home.


Can anyone (an agency) stop the calls about credit card interest and car warranties?

Robert Schroeder: The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission have Do Not Call Rules that make many of these calls illegal. If you do not want to receive these or other telemarketing calls, make sure your phone numbers are on the Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov or 1-888-382-1222). If you are registered, and still receive calls, file a complaint with the FTC at the above website or phone number. The FTC brings enforcement actions against companies that violate the Do Not Call Rule.


What are some scams targeting small businesses?

Robert Schroeder: Toner and other office supply scams continue to operate. Protect yourself by knowing who you are dealing with - don't fall for free or cheap "trial offers." Yellow page directory and other advertising scams are also popular. Train your employees not to agree to a telemarketer's offer of a free copy of a directory. Many businesses are deceived into signing contracts for credit card processing that have onerous fine print terms and tie the businesses to long-term equipment leases. If you are signing a lease for equipment or services, make sure the company you are dealing with is legitimate and will be around for the full lease term to keep the equipment working and provide any other promised services.

Geoff Darling: Scammers are placing large orders for widgets and paying more than the cost of the goods with a cashier's check. They then ask the business to wire the balance of the money to their "shipper" who will pick up the goods. The check is counterfeit, and they're using the bogus order to launder money.


What recourse do people have if they feel they've been scammed? It doesn't seem like it does any good to report these incidences.

Detective Pichardo: Immediately report the incident to your local law enforcement agency. They will take a report and at the least, document the issue in case of future problems. Also most insurance companies and banks require a police report number before they will reimburse you for losses caused by fraud.

Geoff Darling: Most legitimate companies don't want a blemished record, and go out of their way to resolve complaints fairly and promptly. Even if an agency can't help resolve your immediate issue, filing a complaint serves to help identify a pattern and practice - often resulting in formal action being taken. You always have the option of taking the company to court and posting your negative experience on the Internet.

Robert Schroeder: Reporting a scam may not get your money back, but it may help stop the scam from stealing from others. The Federal Trade Commission monitors its complaint system to identify appropriate targets for law enforcement. The FTC returns to victims any money it does recover from scammers. To file a complaint with the FTC, go to www.ftc.gov.


How do I know which agency to contact if I've been scammed, i.e. my local law enforcement, the Attorney General's office, the Better Business Bureau, or the Division of Finance and Corporate Securities?

Detective Pichardo: A good place to start is with your local police department. They will also direct you to the appropriate services.

Robert Schroeder: Any of these agencies can take your complaint. If you are not sure which one is the best for dealing with the particular issue, there is no harm in filing a complaint with several entities.

Kevin Anselm: Call us toll-free at 1-866-814-9710; if we are not the right agency to help you, we will help you find the right agency to contact.

Geoff Darling: Start with a call to our Consumer Hotline 1-877-877-9392. They can direct you call to the appropriate agency. A copy of your concern to the Better Business Bureau always helps.


A local business charge the full amount - on my credit card - long before I had new windows installed. Shouldn't the customer only be charged a percentage of the full amount before completion? I heard this was legal in Oregon.

Geoff Darling: It varies with each contractor. You should discuss the payment terms before you sign a contract. You are best protected on installation and completion issues if you make a down payment and withhold the final payment until you sign off on the job.


Is the password I use with my credit union and bank safe?

Robert Schroeder: Computer security experts recommend using complex passwords, i.e. a mixture of small and capital letter, numbers, and special characters (@#$%_). Change your password regularly and do leave it where it can be seen by others. Also do not allow others to see you using it.


Are funeral plans - pre need - safe?

Kevin Anselm: Generally, yes. As with all 'investments', be sure you know where your money will be held, or if products are purchased, where the products will be held. Confirm that the pre-need plan sponsor is appropriately licensed by calling the Cemetery and Mortuary Board at 971-673-1500 and the Division of Finance and Corporate Securities at 1-866-814-9710


How can we recognize Internet scams?

Robert Schroeder: The same basic advice for recognizing other kinds of scams applies on the Internet: Know who you are dealing with and that they are reputable. Read the fine print before signing anything. Protect your personal and financial information and do not give it out unless you need to. Use common sense - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also be skeptical of "free" offers. They may simply be a ruse to get you to give your credit card number to pay for shipping and handling - before you know it, you will have unauthorized charges on your credit card.

Geoff Darling: Do an internet search on the company. Search the name of the company and the words fraud or scam. Check with the Department of Justice and the Better Business Bureau. Ripoffreport.com is one of several online complaint repositories.


Someone calls you saying he/she is from your bank and wants to verify your account and needs your number. Can you slow down a scammer a bit by give him/her a false
number?

Detective Pichardo: You can STOP them from scamming you by just hanging up.

Detective Voight: You can, however, you run the risk of unintentionally victimizing another person. Your best bet is to advise the caller you are going to have the police contact them. My experience has shown they typically stop calling.

Geoff Darling: The danger in doing so is that the number you make up might just be a legitimate number for someone else. If your bank calls you, they already have your account number. They might ask an additional question to verify they're speaking to the correct party.


Are there laws limiting or preventing the sale of personal information to other businesses?

Robert Schroeder: The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institutions to tell you each year what they intend to do with your personal information and give you an opportunity to tell them not to. The Federal Trade Commission's Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits selling or purchasing credit card numbers. Most legitimate companies post privacy policies on their websites so you can decide whether you feel sufficiently protected to do business with them.


Regarding scrap and gold: how do you find out if you are getting a good price for your scrap? Are there those who are ripping off people?

Geoff Darling: It's best to sell gold in a face-to-face setting, where you can see it being weighed and tested. Most consumer jewelry is 14k, which pays roughly 50% of the spot price for solid gold. Buyers will pay slightly less than the "spot price", because of fluctuating demand and dealer profit.


I had my handbag stolen on a college campus and went to the campus police to report it. Should I have also reported to the local police as well?

Detective Pichardo: Usually one police report is sufficient. Just make sure you get a business card from the officer who takes the report and the case number assigned to refer to if needed while following up with your bank and credit card companies.


Can you explain the use of a "different identifier" in place of the Social Security number?

Detective Pichardo: Sweet Home Police Department recommends you use your driver's license number or the digits from your home address to mark personal belongings.


Why are there fees for inactive credit cards?

Geoff Darling: Fees vary from card to card, and were explained in the "Terms of Service" when the card was issued.


Where should a homeowner put their insurance policies to keep them safe? A safety deposit box? At home?

Ron Fredrickson: We suggest keeping insurance policies away from the premises. In the event of a fire, valuable papers on premises are likely to be damaged or destroyed. We also suggest keeping photographs or a video recording to document high value items.


Are emails considered documents that can be used as evidence in a fraud or other crime?

Detective Pichardo: Yes, they can be used as evidence during the investigation and for prosecution. Police can also verify email accounts with a court ordered subpoena if necessary.

Detective Voight: Absolutely; print them, save them on you computer and/or email them to the law enforcement agent who is working on your case.


In Oregon, are tape recordings - made secretly in the course of an alleged scam [by a citizen] - legal?

Geoff Darling: Only telephone calls. Face-to-face conversation requires each party's consent.


How does an investor determine the validity of reports from a stock broker or securities salesman?

Kevin Anselm: Always review your statements when you receive them, comparing them to previous statements and to what you understand is happening in the marketplace. If you do not understand something, talk to your broker, or the compliance officer at the broker's firm. If appropriate, check with your accountant. If your questions are not answered satisfactorily, call our office - 1-866-814-9710.


Is there an effective way to report Nigerian scams, i.e. craig'slist replies?

Detective Voight: The best way is to first notify craiglist. They have been very good about removing posts once reported as a scam. Is there any repercussion for these guys from a criminal standpoint? Not typically, however you are doing your part to protect each other and cutting down on the bad guys' chance at making a profit off of someone.

Robert Schroeder: Report them to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC communicates information about foreign scams to the U.S. State Department, which works with foreign governments to stop fraudsters.

Geoff Darling: Report it to the Oregon Department of Justice. We don't need every bogus email, but do want to know if someone is victimized by any online scam.


How can I buy on-line or over the phone with a credit card and still be protected from identity theft?

Detective Voight: Only shop from sources and companies you trust. The web is a phenomenal tool for shopping, however use common sense. Only shop on sites you go to. Pay attention to links inside an email. If you click on it, look at the address bar, where did the link actually take you? Most retail sites offer contact phone numbers. call them and ask about the security of the website. Remember, most "scammers" talk you into giving them the information.

Robert Schroeder: There is a risk of identity theft no matter how you shop, even if you go to retail stores. See www.http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/ for information on protecting yourself.

Geoff Darling: Stored value - or prepaid debit cards - offer protection against credit card fraud, because you determine the dollar amount loaded on the card.
Learn more at www.ny.frb.org/regional/stored_value_cards.html or
usa.visa.com/personal/cards/prepaid/reloadable_prepaid_card.html
Regardless of what payment method you use, you should only divulge personal information sufficient for the merchant to ship your order.


How can we find out how our personal information is being used?

Robert Schroeder: Deal with reputable companies and read the privacy policies they post on their websites.

Are there better protections against fraud when using a credit card versus a debit card?

Robert Schroeder: My understanding is that both credit and debit cards are protected by the same VISA/Mastercard rules and Regulation E.

The Fair Credit Billing Act provides protection for consumers against unauthorized or incorrect credit card charges. The Electronic Funds Transfer Act provides protection for consumers against unauthorized or incorrect debit card charges. The protections are similar for unauthorized use but different for loss or theft of the card. The following information comes from the Federal Reserve website (including debit cards).

For transactions over the Internet, it may be a good idea to use a separate credit card and monitor that card statement very carefully for unauthorized charges. One common fraud is to place small unauthorized charges on consumers' accounts in the hope that many consumers will not notice them and will not file disputes with their card issuers.


What are the chances of someone retrieving papers containing personal information and using them against me?

Robert Schroeder: It would depend on the papers and where they were disposed. It is good practice, when disposing of papers, to shred anything that you are concerned about.


When you give your credit card to a restaurant waiter, what protection do you have that he/she will not copy the number and use it?

Detective Pichardo: There is no guarantee to this however, it is always best to pay at the counter so you can watch your card or keep your card within your sight at all times.

Robert Schroeder: Your protection is the hiring practices of the merchants you deal with. You can never eliminate the risk, which makes it important to monitor your credit card and bank accounts so that you see any unauthorized activity quickly and can take action to resolve the problem. The protections in the Fair Credit Billing Act only apply if you report unauthorized charges within 60 days of receiving your credit card bill.

Geoff Darling: Even the most reputable restaurants have employed unscrupulous wait staff. If possible, pay for your meal at the front counter or cash register. Ask the waiter if they have a portable card reader they can bring to your table.


We own rentals. Some utility companies ask me for my Social Security number when utility service is put back into my name. I've refused to give mine and my husband's to them. How should I, or can I, stop them or others from expecting me to supply them with our personal information?

Robert Schroeder: The Social Security number is the way into the credit reporting system for businesses who want to check your credit before dealing with you. Utility companies provide service before billing for it, so they may want to make sure customers are credit worthy. There is no law that prohibits them from requiring this information. You can, of course, refuse to provide the number and the company can decide whether it will do business with you.

 



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