Articles Posted in Consumer Protection

ATM skimming

Take the right steps to protect yourself from ATM skimming. Many Massachusetts consumers have been targeted.

You insert your ATM card and out comes cash for the week. Simple, right? Next time, pay closer attention. Many Massachusetts consumers are being scammed – or skimmed – for their financial information, at a tremendous price.

ATMs – automated teller machines – are a convenient way to get cash or make deposits. Unlike banks, they are always open and accessible.

But they are vulnerable to ATM skimming, when thieves install hidden electronic skimming devices on an ATM to record a consumer’s financial information. Massachusetts has seen several recent cases.

Just this week, Cambridge Police issued an alert, seeking a man who fraudulently ran up $800 on a Cambridge woman’s ATM card. Police say he may have skimmed her financial information at an ATM in Boston. ATM skimming rarely claims just one victim, though. In June, the Lowell Sun reported on two men who pled guilty after ringing up over $100,000 on 100 credit card numbers they skimmed in the Boston area.  Other stories have also been reported in Framingham, Burlington and on the South Shore

The problem is skimming devices are often small and look like part of an ATM, so consumers may not notice them, even if they are looking.

Use caution at the ATM machine. We suggest the following tips to help you protect your financial information:

  • Examine the card slot before inserting your card. Look for anything loose, crooked, damaged or scratched. If you observe anything suspicious, do not swipe your card. We suggest you read this article, “How to Spot and Avoid Credit Card Skimmers,” by PC Magazine.
  • Thieves also need your PIN code. They often record your information through hidden cameras. When entering your PIN, cover the keypad with your other hand to prevent your PIN from being recorded.
  • Walk away from an ATM if you notice someone watching you or you sense something is wrong with the machine.
  • Avoid ATM machines with minimal supervision. For instance, try not to use stand-alone ATM machines in convenience stores, bars or parking lots.
  • Also beware of skimming devices when paying at gas stations.
  • If an ATM does not return your card when a transaction is over, report the incident immediately to your financial institution.
  • Never give out your bank account number or the PIN for your ATM card. If someone calls you and asks for your information, hang up and report the call to your local police department.
  • Monitor your account for unauthorized transactions and report them to your financial institution immediately. Most banks offer online access, which allows you to check your statements easily.
  • Set a daily cash withdrawal limit. Ask your bank and credit card company to notify you of transactions—these can be sent right to your cell phone.
  • Check in on senior citizens in your family or neighbors. Tell them you are concerned about ATM skimming. Remind them to check their bank accounts, and also, to never give their financial information out to callers over the telephone.
  • The most important step? Contact police and your bank if you suspect anything suspicious. The sooner police and your financial institution can start investigating, the better for everyone using the ATM machine.

If you do find yourself a victim, remember you have rights. Under Massachusetts law, consumers are only liable for up to $50 if they are the victim of credit card or debit card fraud. But you must report the fraud immediately to avoid any financial losses. Read this article to learn more.

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20160127-rising-health-care-costs-300.jpgState officials have not lived up to mandates to maintain a website for consumers to compare pricing for medical procedures and doctor’s visits.

The Boston Globe detailed the problems with the website development this week. Meanwhile, the state’s Health Policy Commission recently released its “2015 Cost Trends Report.” The report noted less competition is driving rising health care costs, not higher quality care or other common measures of value.

Attorney David White, consumer advocate, said, “It is unfortunate that the Commonwealth is failing to get basic information to consumers. Health care costs vary so significantly from provider to provider. Consumers need every bit of help they can get to reduce the costs of care.”

White also said, “A very serious issue is how steeply costs vary between facilities for the same procedures. The report demonstrates that the fancy, expensive hospitals do not, on average, deliver significantly better care.”

The Website
The state’s health care reform law of 2006 required a website be established to inform the public about health care cost and quality of care. The website was also included in 2012 legislation. While there have been websites launched, no website is currently available.

As a result, consumers have no central resource to research the costs of a medical procedure or a doctor’s visit at different medical facilities. Pricing cannot be a factor in their decision-making process. The state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis is still deciding what information to include in the website, The Globe reported.

What Consumers Can Do
Many consumers can access some pricing information through websites developed by their health care plans. Contact your health insurance company by telephone if you cannot find your plan’s site. Insurers were required to launch websites by the state, but only members can access these databases, which may be limited. Even the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans supports a state-run website to validate the information.

Consumers should also be able to contact a hospital or doctor’s office and request pricing in advance. This will take longer than simply searching a website, but it may be worth your time if you are scheduling a medical procedure or tests. Prices and the quality of care vary widely. For example, maternity care for low-risk pregnancies can cost $9,722 some hospitals compared to $18,500 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“You have the right to find out what your procedures will cost,” Attorney White said. “Be an advocate for yourself: Ask to see the price list that the doctors and hospitals are required to provide.”

Read more in the “2015 Cost Trends Report” and The Boston Globe.

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Important Questions After New York Man Was Forced to Pay $117,000 for Last-Minute Surgeon He Never Met

20140924_medicalbilling.jpgIt is hard enough to be in pain and need surgery. But it gets much worse if you are unfairly billed huge sums from doctors you never met and never knew would be “helping.”

The New York Times recently shared the story of a New York City man who received an unexpected $117,000 bill after a neck surgery. The story did not have a fair ending; the man had to pay the bill, though the reimbursement came from his health insurance company.

Peter Drier had done careful research on the costs before his surgery at a Manhattan hospital and thought he knew what to expect. But the bank technology manager was blindsided when he received a $117,000 bill for an assistant surgeon he had never met or knew was involved in his care. Before surgery, Drier’s primary surgeon, Dr. Nathaniel L. Tindel, had agreed to accept a negotiated fee determined by his insurance company, about $6,200. Drier had to pay $3,000 toward this as part of his health insurance deductible. But Drier was never informed about the assistant surgeon, Dr. Harrison T. Mu, who was outside of his insurance company’s network of covered providers, until after he was home and received the bill.

The primary surgeon’s office said he did not share in the billing and the assistant surgeon never responded to The New York Times. Drier questioned the charge, and at the same time argued with his insurance company to make the payment. They resisted the “out of network” charge, but eventually paid it, even though by now the patient was protesting the entire unfairness of the situation.

“I thought I understood the risks,” Mr. Drier told The New York Times. “But this was just so wrong — I had no choice and no negotiating power.”

The New York Times recently reported on the growing practice of consumers being charged for out of network doctors in many instances, even hospital emergency rooms, and later receiving unexpected bills. This is significant because an out of network physician can charge 20 to 40 times as much as an in network doctor and costs are not covered by health insurance. For example, an out of network doctor charges an average of $115,625 for a spinal fusion in the U.S., while an in network physician charges an average of $5,983, according to figures cited by the newspaper.

How Massachusetts Consumers Can Protect Themselves From Unexpected Charges
New York will implement a new law next March, which in part will require more advance disclosure of medical costs and seek to protect patients from unforeseen out of network fees. Hospitals and insurers will be directed to mediate and negotiate cases from there.

Massachusetts is also making changes. In 2012, the state passed a health care cost containment law, which called for patients to have access to medical costs before a procedure or care is delivered.

  • As of October 2013, health insurers have been required to provide information on cost estimates for office visits to physicians and specific tests and procedures. For the first year, insurers had two working days to provide the information. Starting October 1, 2014, they will be required to provide the information instantaneously. Consumers are expected to be able to search pricing online themselves.
  • As of January 1, 2014, hospitals and physicians also have to provide cost estimates.

What to request:

  • Under the law, your doctor or health care provider must disclose the “allowed amount” or charge of admission, procedure or service, including the amount of any “facility fees.” The allowed amount is the contractually agreed amount paid by a carrier to your health care insurer. The most important thing is to make sure you understand what your insurance company must pay and what you must pay for a deductible. If that is not written down for you clearly, ask questions – and keep asking questions until you have something in writing you understand.
  • They should provide you with CPT codes, or the billing codes.
  • As for out of network costs, the law also compels providers who participate in networks to provide sufficient information about the proposed procedure or service to allow a patient to use the network’s toll-free number and website to disclose the costs.

The key is that patients must request this information. Start by making sure you understand exactly what your medical treatment will include. Doctors may order panels of test for which expenses add up quickly; you may wish to control the extent of treatment being offered depending on its cost.

We suggest you take time over the next few months and become comfortable with the system before you have a medical crisis. Start by contacting your health insurer and asking for an estimate for your next medical appointment. Contact your physician’s office or hospital as well and compare the findings. Also, ask your health insurer what pricing information is available online too but do not rely on it until you learn about the system.

Be a wise consumer! Do not step into a doctor’s office until you have reached agreement on the price, what your health insurer will pay, and how much you will pay for your deductible.

Related:
After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill from Doctor He Didn’t Know, The New York Times.

Medical Price Transparency Law Rolls Out: Physicians Must Help Patients Estimate Costs, Massachusetts Medical Society Blog

Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation Infographic

Many unaware of new rules on health care costs, The Boston Globe.

Breakstone, White & Gluck consumer safety articles
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target-200.jpgIf you are a Target shopper, you are likely watching your debit or credit card account closely these days. This is a good start, but there are other important steps you can also take following the retailer’s massive data breach, now estimated to have impacted at least 70 million customers. The data breach occurred at Target’s retail stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. Hackers stole customer names, credit and debit card numbers, the card’s expiration date and CVV, the three-digit security code. Online holiday shoppers were not involved.

What to do if you were impacted:
Monitor your accounts. Be vigilant and monitor all your financial accounts regularly over the next 12 to 24 months. If you notice any irregular activity, notify the credit card issuer or your bank immediately.

Make contact now. Ask your bank or credit card company’s fraud department to also closely monitor your account.

New card and account number. Ask your bank or credit card company about changing your pin number and whether you should have a new card issued.

Contact Target. The company says customers have zero liability for any fraud resulting from this data breach and are offering free credit monitoring and identity theft protection for impacted customers. Learn more.

Obtain your credit report. You are entitled to one free credit card report each year from one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian or TransUnion.

One-call fraud report. Call any of the three major credit bureaus and place a one-call fraud alert on your credit report. This requires creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or increasing your credit card limits. The fraud alert will stay on your account for at least 90 days.

Extended fraud alert. If your credit report reveals suspicious activity, you can file a report with your local police department and have an extended fraud alert placed on your credit report. This will provide additional protection for seven years.

Security freeze. You also have the right to place a security freeze on your consumer credit report. This stops consumer-reporting agencies from releasing any information in your credit report without your express authorization.

Beyond the financial risk, identity theft can create many hours of work for victims trying to straighten out accounts and identify where breaches occurred. Read the resources below to learn how to protect yourself.

Related:
Identity Theft, Federal Trade Commission.

Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards, Federal Trade Commission.

Protecting Against Credit Card Fraud, Federal Trade Commission.
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jellybeadz-600.jpg

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced several product recalls last week, including one for a dangerous child’s toy which can cause choking and which has been involved in a death. Also recalled were a high-end bicycle with defective brakes and a flat screen television which can overheat and catch on fire.

Doodlebutt Recalls Jelly BeadZ Jumbo BeadZ and Magic Growing Fruity Fun Toys Due to Serious Ingestion Hazard
About 1,500 of these small water-absorbing toys have been recalled by the importer, Doodlebutt of Lehigh Acres, Florida. The Jumbo BeadZ toys are marble-sized water absorbing balls and the Magic Growing Fruity Fun toys are water-absorbing polymer shapes, such as apples, bananas, butterflies and cherries.

The CPSC is aware of one incident in which an 8-month-old girl ingested the ball and it had to be surgically removed and two cases outside the United States, including one resulting in death.

The CPSC warns children can mistake the toys for candy and when swallowed, they can expand inside a child’s body. The toys can absorb 300 to 500 times their weight and grow up to eight times their original size. Children can suffer vomiting, dehydration and life-threatening injuries. Another problem is similar toys have not shown up on x-rays.

The toys were sold through Amazon.com from February 2012 to September 2013 for about $9. Consumers are advised to take the products away from children immediately and stop using the product. They can contact Doodblebutt for a full refund. Read the CPSC recall notice.


Eight Retailers Recall 32″ Coby Flat Screen Televisions Due to Fire and Burn Hazards

Eight retailers have recalled the 32″ Coby Flat Screen Television due to fire and burn hazards. These retailers have initiated the recall because Coby USA, the product importer and distributor, has gone out of business.

The CPSC has received reports of six incidents involving televisions overheating, smoking or catching on fire. No injuries were reported, but there was some property damage. In two cases, televisions caught on fire and one also scorched a wall.

Consumers are told to turn off and unplug the televisions and contact their retailer. Retailers may offer different remedies, which may include a refund, store credit, gift card or replacement TV. About 8,900 of the televisions were sold through:

Sears/Kmart
Toys R Us
ABC Warehouse
Fry’s Electronics
h.h. Gregg
Nebraska Furniture Mart
P.C. Richard & Son.

Online retailers
BestBuy.com dealtree.com
techliquidators.com
bestbuy.dtdeals.com

The televisions were sold nationwide from August 2011 through November 2013 for between $170 and $260.

Read the CPSC recall notice for the model numbers involved in this recall.

Trek Recalls Madone Bicycles Due to Crash Hazard; Front Brake Can Fail
Trek has recalled several models of its year 2013 Madone bicycles after five reports of loose front brake attachment bolts. No injuries have been reported, but consumers are advised to stop using the bicycle and take it to a Trek dealer for a free replacement front brake system. The bicycles were sold nationwide from July 2012 through this month for between $3,400 and $6,300 and for custom models, up to $15,000. About 6,300 bicycles are involved in this recall. Read the CPSC recall notice.

Other Recalls:
Shaws Industries Recalls Carpet Due to Fire Hazard; Sold Exclusively at Lowe’s Stores

Hobby Lobby Stores Recalls Accent Chairs Due to Risk Injury
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Surge7seriesLARGE.jpgNow, as we head into winter, is a good time to test your home’s smoke alarms, check your appliances and inspect your electrical outlets and cords.

First, a good resource is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website, where you can search for recall news about products you may own. Recently, there have been several recalls involving products posing serious fire hazards.

One example is Schneider Electric IT Corp. recalled 15 million APC Surge Arrest surge protectors in early October. This followed 700 reports of property damage, including $916,000 in fire damage to a home and $750,000 to a medical facility. Another 13 reports were injuries, including smoke inhalation and contact burns. Another example is Gree Electric Dehumidifiers, which recalled 2.2 million dehumidifiers in the U.S. last month, after its products caused 46 fires and $2.15 million in property damage.

You can review the CPSC website to make sure you have no recalled products in your home. You can also take a look around your home for faulty cords or products.

Preventing Home Fires in the Winter
During a typical year, there are over 26,000 home electrical fires in this country, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. December and January see the most electrical fires. We share a few tips for preventing these fires:

1) Check your smoke alarms before the season.

2) Regularly check your electrical appliances and wiring. Replace any old or damaged cords; do not try to repair them.

3) Replace any appliance you feel may not work properly. If you do not want to replace it, call a repair service or visit the store where you purchased the product. Check electric space heaters every year as a rule.

4) Buy appliances which have the label of a recognized testing laboratory, such as UL.

5) Avoid using extension cords.

6) Use only surge protectors or power strips that have internal overload protection and have been tested by a national laboratory.

7) Keep clothes and flammables at least three feet away from all portable electric space heaters.

8) Use light bulbs that match recommended wattages for lamps.

9) Bring in an electrician if you are experiencing flickering lights or other problems.

Related:
Electrical Home Fire Safety, U.S. Fire Administration
Schneider Electric Recalls APC Surge Protectors Due to Fire Hazard, Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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Buckyballs

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has moved a step closer to taking two dangerous magnet toys out of the hands of children.

On April 12, six retailers voluntarily recalled Buckyballs and Buckycubes. The stores included Barnes & Noble, Brookstone, some Hallmark stores, Marbles the Brain Store and Think Geek.

Maxfield & Oberton Holdings of New York City, the importer and distributor, refused to issue a recall last year, prompting the CPSC to file a lawsuit against the company in July to stop sales. The rare legal action – one of just four taken by the CPSC in the past 11 years – resulted in the company discontinuing its products in October. It stopped doing business in December. 

The product was manufactured by Ningo Prosperous Imp. Exp. Co. Ltd. of Ningbo City in China.

Buckyballs and Buckycubes vary in size and color, but they are essentially a ball or cube of small powerful magnets. They were sold in containers of 10 to 216 magnets that can become loose. The first of the two products was introduced in the U.S. in March 2009. Since then, over three million sets of magnets have been sold in U.S. retail stores and online. 

Maxfield & Oberton initially marketed Buckyballs to children, calling it “an amazing toy.” It later rebranded the magnet toys as an adult desk toy and stress reliever. 

But while the magnets were being marketed to adults, the CPSC was still receiving reports that children were swallowing them. It has received 54 reports of injuries, all but one requiring medical treatment.

CPSC Complaint

The CPSC’s July 25, 2012 complaint alleged that the magnet products had defective labeling and warnings, defective design, and posed a substantial product hazard. 

The CPSC began working with the company on labeling three years ago, when the magnets were labeled for use by children “Ages 13+.” The agency said the magnets should have been marketed for age 14 and up.

Maxfield & Oberton changed the labeling and agreed to a voluntary recall of 175,000 magnet toys, but the CPSC said the injuries continued. In its complaint, it states, “…labeling and warning labels cannot guard against the foreseeable misuse of the product and prevent the substantial risk of injury to children.”

Company officials did not agree with the CPSC’s action. In October, they posted a statement on their website that read in part: “We’re sad to say that Balls & Cubes have a one-way ticket to the Land-of-Awesome-Stuff-You-Should-Have-Bought-When-You-Had-the-Chance.” 

Dangerous Toy

Over the past few years, the CPSC set up a Magnets Information Center on its website to educate the public about the danger of swallowing magnets.

The risk is that if a child ingests more than one of the powerful magnets, they can become attracted to each other while in the intestines, pinching tissue and damaging the intestinal walls. This can result in a wide range of symptoms, including vomiting, abdominal pain, infection and death. Surgery is often required and becomes more complicated because the magnets can stick to the metal surgical tools.

And in some cases children ingested more than one or two. CBS News reported the case of a 3-year-old Oregon girl who swallowed 37 Buckyballs. The CPSC complaint details cases of other young children who have swallowed numerous magnets.

Related:
CPSC administrative complaint
Recall information for consumers

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WaiverThe proposition is all too familiar: You or your children want to participate in an activity. It could be at school, for a sporting event, in connection with a walk-a-thon or bike-a-thon, or in some other activity where there is a risk involved. Maybe the event is really risky, such as learning to drive a race car, or learning how to rock climb. Part of the price of admission to all of these activities is your signature at the bottom of a release or waiver of liability.

The language of the typical release is usually very broad and even includes the requirement that you indemnify the organization against related claims. You will be binding not only yourself, but your family, and in the case of a wrongful death, your heirs.

Are they legal? Most of the time yes, though there are some important exceptions which will be discussed below.

Dumbells

If you exercise at a health club, you may not be aware that Massachusetts law protects you in many ways from unlawful club contracts.  But many local health clubs – yours may be included – are regularly violating the law.

Health clubs are serving larger numbers than in the past. Over 50.2 million Americans now hold gym memberships, a 10 percent increase over the past three years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The industry has been known to make it challenging for members to cancel or put their memberships on hold. Sometimes, after you sign the cancellation agreement, they require you to pay until month’s end, then another full “last month.” In addition to monthly membership fees, many are also now adding new fees for “annual” memberships and equipment maintenance. Some are even charging cancellation fees up to $200. This is still legal in Massachusetts, though not at all consumer friendly.

But did you notice the fees clearly posted the last time you visited your gym? If not, your gym is violating the law. The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation recently inspected 15 local health clubs and found none were displaying fees or informing consumers of their right to cancel within three days, according to WBZ-TV. The office is referring the results to the state Attorney General’s office.

Health clubs cannot ask a member to sign a waiver of liability but, surprisingly, many still do. While waivers of liability, also known as releases, are generally enforceable in Massachusetts, G.L. c. 93, Sec. 80 specifically states, “No contract for health club services may contain any provisions whereby the buyer agrees not to assert against the seller or any assignee or transferee of the health club services contract any claim or defense arising out of the health club services contract or the buyer’s activities at the health club.”

This means gyms have a duty to properly maintain their premises and equipment and make sure they are being used in a safe manner, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. If they do not, and they were negligent, they may be responsible for your damages. If you have been injured in a Massachusetts gym, the court should find the liability waiver void. Over the years, our injury lawyers have successfully challenged these agreements.

Gyms also cannot ask members to sign up for terms longer than 36 months or require that members agree to financing that lasts longer than one month beyond the membership period. Members cannot be required to agree to monthly automatic withdrawals from a bank account.

If you are joining a gym, the best thing you can do is read the fine print on your member agreement before signing. Research the organization online through your local Better Business Bureau website.

Consumer remedies for health club violations are limited. No health club will be permitted by the courts to enforce an illegal contract. A consumer may bring claims under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A, but damages will usually be  nominal, although attorneys’ fees would be available.

Recent Court Ruling

The possibility of class actions was virtually eliminated by the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in Tyler v. Michaels Stores, Inc., 464 Mass. 492 (2013). An invasion of a consumer’s rights may be a violation of G.L. c. 93A, but unless the consumer has suffered a separate, identifiable harm arising from the violation, there will be no remedy. This case put a disappointing crimp into collective consumer action to prevent violations of the Consumer Protection Act, leaving overworked state officials to take up the slack.

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smoke-alarm-200.jpgNov. 4 is when we turn back the clocks, the usual sad good-bye to another summer and fall. At Breakstone, White & Gluck, we suggest taking a few of the extra minutes you gained to replace the batteries in your home’s smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Check whether the devices are working properly and replace them if needed.

Smoke Alarms
Massachusetts requires a smoke alarm be installed on every habitable level of a residence as well as on the basement floor. The law requires two types of smoke alarms: photoelectric and ionization. Only photoelectric smoke detectors are to be installed within 20 feet of kitchens and bathrooms with showers. Ionization alarms are more sensitive and more likely to be disabled in these areas. Outside the 20-foot zone, both photoelectric and ionization alarms are required.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas which can emerge without any warning. In a home, it could be caused by a gas leak in a furnace or other appliance. Early symptoms may include headache and dizziness, though inhalation can quickly lead to serious injuries, seizures, comas and death.

In Massachusetts, residences are required to have working carbon monoxide alarms on every habitable level of the home or dwelling unit. You can purchase an individual carbon monoxide detector or a dual smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector.

If you have questions, your local fire department is a good resource for information, along with the manufacturer of your devices.
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