Consumer Update

Letter from the Undersecretary

Dear Massachusetts Consumer, 

Undersecretary Palleschi Headshot

As April comes to a close, springtime in Massachusetts is in full swing and brings fresh beginnings for many residents. With the lack of snow and an increase in daylight hours, Spring is the perfect season for people looking to buy a new home or tackle home improvement projects that were delayed throughout the winter. However, in order to accomplish either, homeowners first need to establish a sound financial plan and a budget.

This month is Financial Literacy Month and mastering personal money management is a great achievement and vital life skill for all consumers. The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) supports this nationwide initiative to empower consumers through financial education. The Division of Banks (DOB) partners throughout the year with the Treasurer’s Office of Economic Empowerment to provide financial literacy grant opportunities across the Commonwealth.

Once your finances and budgets are in place, then you can establish your housing or home improvement goals. According to a recent study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, spending on home improvements is expected to rise between 7.6% and 23% in 2022 alone. This projection is based on the willingness of a homeowner to spend and invest more on home improvements to obtain and maintain a higher property value. 

If you plan on hiring a home improvement contractor this season, make sure to work with someone registered by OCABR’s Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) program. HIC registrants must follow certain requirements regarding contracts, payments, advertising, and business practices; all of which establish protections for homeowners. Whether you are interested in maintenance, improvements, or fixing to sell, verify your contractor’s registration before signing a contract for any home improvements.

While property values and home improvement projects are increasing more than ever, the housing inventory remains scarce. Buyers need to be financially prepared in order to act fast when putting in an offer. That means they should have a plan, get pre-approved before searching for a home, work with a reputable real estate agent or broker licensed by the Division of Occupational Licensure, look into securing home insurance by a verified company through the Division of Insurance as soon as you close, and visit the DOB’s Consumer Money Matters online resources to help you through the home buying process in Massachusetts.

In conclusion, whatever your Spring goals may be, remember that “the beginning is the most important part of any work” as the philosopher Plato once said. Slow down and take the time in the beginning to set yourself up for success. Make sure that you establish a plan, be financially ready, do your research, and hire the right people. An educated consumer is an empowered consumer.  

Please stay informed with all the latest consumer advocacy and updates across our agency by following OCABR on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Sincerely, 
Edward A. Palleschi
Undersecretary, Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation

Do Not Fall Victim to Tax Return Scams

Millions of Americans have filed their 2021 taxes and now that the paperwork is complete, it is not a time to let your guard down.  For scammers, tax season means there are countless new targets awaiting a return that they can potentially profit from.  Tax scams are on the rise with consumers reportedly losing almost $6 billion to fraud in 2021, a 70% increase from the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. 

Tax return fraud usually occurs in the form on an imposter scam.  Over $2 billion of the losses reported by consumers were due to imposter scams.  Fraudsters pretend to be government agencies or tax professionals offering to expedite your refund or bypass certain steps in the filing process in hopes of obtaining your sensitive information, money, or both. 

This month the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) compiled details on common tax related scams to be aware of after you’ve filed.

  1. Email scams

Phishing emails contain links redirecting the recipient to fraudulent websites impersonating agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After arriving on the fake website, you are prompted to input personal information that the swindler later accesses. Clicking on these bogus links may also download malware onto your device to gain access to more data.

Spot these fake messages by reviewing embedded link URLs and examining the text for any misspellings or inconsistencies.  If you are concerned that the details of a message may be real, contact the sender or organization using a verified phone number, email address, or website. 

  1. Telephone call scams

Scammers often pick up the phone or use automated robocall software to contact victims.  These callers may impersonate the IRS or other organization demanding immediate tax payment under the threat of serious consequences.  These fraudsters also encourage payment in untraceable forms like gift cards or cryptocurrency.

Government agencies do not contact citizens via phone to request payments, and more importantly do not deal in gift cards.  If you receive a call claiming to be the IRS, hang up and call back an official phone number listed on the IRS website.

  1. Text message scams

Similar to phishing email scams, fraudsters send texts with phony links to applications or websites in hopes of stealing your personal information.  However, these text scams may have a more positive spin than phone calls and convince the recipient they have won a prize or granted immediate access to tax return funds. 

The IRS does not use text messages to discuss tax issues, bills, or refunds.  Do not click on links within an unsolicited text message.  If you are concerned that the details contained in the message are legitimate, contact the organization that sent the message using a verifiable method.

If you believe you are victim of a tax scam, please report the fraud to the IRS.  For more information about identity theft, visit OCABR's Consumer’s Checklist for Handling Identity Theft.

Homeowners: Things to Know Before Installing Solar Panels

Reducing your carbon footprint while also saving money is something many consumers are looking for this Spring, and solar panel installation may be the answer.  For homeowners, turning to the sun to save on energy bills is a no-brainer, but working with a verified contractor and solar program is critical to the process. 

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) oversees the home improvement contractor program which requires all contractors, partnerships, and corporations that solicit, bid on, or perform residential contracting as a contractor, or subcontractor on an existing one-to-four-unit owner occupied residential property in Massachusetts to register as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC).  A HIC registration, in addition to other construction and trade licenses, are required to install home solar panels.

If you are in the market for solar panels, use the below tips gathered by OCABR to assist you with a successful project.

  1. Work with verified professionals

Installing solar panels in Massachusetts requires an HIC registration, Construction Supervisor’s License (CSL), and a building permit.  Verify a company or individual HIC registration status using OCABR’s online tool.  After locating the contractor you wish to work with, click on their registration number to view complaint history and other details.  Check the status of a CSL with the Office of Public Safety and Inspections using their web resource. For additional information on finding a solar installer visit the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC).

  1. Timeline for installation

Contractors should be able to provide a timeline of for the solar project. While installation can take as little as a few days, the MassCEC estimates that completion of a solar panel project takes an average of five months from signing the contract to electricity generation. Keep in mind that larger installs may take longer and should be noted in your contract timeline.

  1. Explore solar incentive programs in Massachusetts

The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) offers two incentive programs for solar panel users.  The first program is the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART), which provides for a long-term sustainable initiative promoting cost-effective solar development in the Commonwealth.  Second is the Municipal Light Plant Solar Rebate Program (MLPSR) available to customers in certain service territories.  While the MLPSR is currently not accepting new applications, continue to check the website for any program updates.

Visit the OCABR website for more information on the HIC program and contracting in Massachusetts.  Learn more about solar electricity, installation, and incentive programs from the DOER’s Renewable Energy Division.

Scam Alert: Facebook Marketplace

Facebook allows users to connect with friends, play games, find useful information, and make purchases in a single application. The Facebook Marketplace was designed by the social media platform as a virtual yard sale encouraging the sale of mostly used items for below retail price. Currently, there are over 1 billion users on the marketplace selling a variety of products including electronics, furniture, clothing, and vehicles.

Unlike Amazon or eBay, buyers and sellers have more direct communication which gives scammers an opportunity to manipulate their targets.  Increased communication is often appreciated when arranging pick-up or delivery of your purchases, but it is important to remain vigilant while browsing the marketplace.

Use the information below provided by the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) to help ensure you don’t fall victim to a Facebook marketplace scam.

  • Check the seller’s commerce profile and ratings.  Facebook lets you click on another individual’s picture within the marketplace and provides a list of other items for sale as well as ratings from previous transactions.  Look for any suspicious activity or negative reviews before committing to buy anything.
  • Review the item specifics, if it too good to be true, you may have clicked on a fraudulent post.  Brand new or luxury products listed for low cost or postings with highly edited images and descriptions should be a red flag.
  • Meet sellers in a public place and inspect the items before exchanging funds.  Consider meeting at your local police department or heavily trafficked parking lot for safety purposes and never go alone. 
  • Do not ship anything before receiving verified payment.  As a seller, you may be tempted to seal the deal by offering immediate shipping, but keep in mind that it is difficult to get your item back, or reimbursement from Facebook if a buyer never pays.
  • Keep an archive of all messages when coordinating a marketplace sale. These records can be useful in tracking down a scammer if necessary.

If you think you spotted a Facebook Marketplace scam or have fallen victim to this type of fraud, report it to Facebook immediately, and block the user. Under Facebook’s Purchase Protection polices you may receive a refund if you didn’t get the item, the item arrives damaged, the seller doesn’t uphold their return policies, or if the purchase was unauthorized. You can also report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission if you lost any money.

"The People's Court" 101

Small Claims Court, or “the people’s court” as it is commonly referred to, was created to provide effective, informal, and inexpensive resolution of disputes. The main purpose of Small Claims Court is to allow individuals the opportunity to recover claims of $7,000 or less without the need for an attorney.

It is important to carefully review the situation before deciding to file a small claims complaint. While going through Small Claims Court is informal, there are some steps you must follow.  In an effort to provide Massachusetts residents with information on critical consumer protection topics, the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) has curated the below details about the Small Claims Court purpose and process. Please note, this is for informational purposes only, and is not meant to include every step of the Small Claims Court process. For legal advice, consult with a private attorney.

Key functions of Small Claims Court

In Small Claims Court you can essentially sue or be sued without hiring a lawyer to represent you. Being represented by an attorney is not strictly prohibited, but may be limited. The individual filing suit is the plaintiff and, the party being sued is the defendant. Either party can represent themselves, provide their own evidence, and speak in layperson’s terms.

If the case is decided in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant is ordered to pay a judgement. Keep in mind that defendants have the right to appeal the court’s decision. However, plaintiffs may only appeal in very specific instances.

It is important to note that by choosing to file in Small Claims Court, you are precluded from bringing the same claim to any other court, and you waive all rights to a jury trial. There is also an exception made to the $7,000 maximum when the claim is the result of property damage sustained in an automobile accident.

Choosing the Right Court

Small claims sessions are conducted in every Massachusetts District Court, Housing Court, and the Boston Municipal Court. As the plaintiff, you have the option to file suit in the district court where either you or the defendant lives or has their place of business/employment. In landlord-tenant disputes, the plaintiff should file in the district where the property is located. You can view a full listing of courts in the Commonwealth on the Massachusetts Court System website.

Filing Your Claim

The easiest and most convenient way to file a small claims court is to online using the Small Claims Guide and File. This program uses plain language and assists you in filling out the forms and electronically filing them in the proper court. Find more information on Mass.Gov about how to file a small claim in the Boston Municipal Court (BMC), District Court, or Housing Court online.

To file your claim in person or by mail, you need to fill out and submit one key form: the Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial Form. This form can be obtained from the small claims clerk in your district.  You will also need to pay a Small Claims Court processing fee.  Fees are based on the amount of damages you wish to collect; a fee schedule can be found here.

Resources

Filing a suit in the Small Claims Court can be an overwhelming process if you do not know where to start. OCABR hopes to familiarize residents with the process and provide assistance in getting started. For additional information about the Small Claims Courts, check out the resources below:

OCABR Licensee Recognized:  International Nails

Pictured left to right: Chelsea City Council President Roy Avellaneda, International Nails Owner Kim Le, and OCABR Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi

Pictured left to right: Chelsea City Council President Roy Avellaneda, International Nails Owner Kim Le, and OCABR Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi

Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi recently visited International Nails in Chelsea to present the salon owner of over 20 years, Kim Le with the OCABR Licensee Recognition Program's Award of Excellence. Kim Le was nominated by Chelsea City Council President Roy Avellaneda. It was a wonderful event with many members from both the Chelsea City Council and Chamber of Commerce in attendance. Strong partnerships between city councils and local chamber of commerces across the Commonwealth are vital for small businesses, like International Nails, to thrive and succeed.

OCABR on the Move

May OCABR On the Move

 

View the OCABR Full Event Calendar

 

Make Ready Work Launches to Extend Broadband Access 

Roundtable

Pictured at the Front Table from Left to Right: Department of Telecommunications Commissioner Karen Charles Peterson, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and Governor Charlie Baker.

The Baker-Polito Administration recently celebrated a huge achievement with the completion of Make Ready Work, a four-year, coordinated effort to remove the largest obstacle to extending broadband access across 53 “Last Mile” communities in Western and Central Massachusetts.

During a roundtable event hosted at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Undersecretary of Community Development Ashley Stolba, and Department of Telecommunications Commissioner Karen Charles Peterson commemorated the milestone with executives from the utility companies, service providers, and construction contractors who comprised the Make Ready Working Group responsible for delivering high-speed internet access to the doorsteps of 28,000 households in these towns.

#ConsumerTip

Borrowing money to purchase a home is a complex process. While working through the home buying process you will need to at least involve a mortgage broker/bank/lender, title company, and an appraisal company. Buying a home is the biggest purchase you will make in your lifetime but before you begin understand interest rates, loan terms, and mortgage types, set a budget, and get your prequalification letter in hand prior to looking for homes. 

Date published: April 27, 2022
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