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Consumer Update: December 2020

A newsletter from the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. Read the letter from the Undersecretary, Consumer Briefs, and other agency features.

Table of Contents

Consumer Update

Letter from the Undersecretary

Dear Massachusetts Consumer, 

With 2020 coming to a close it’s hard not to reflect on the past year, and what a year it was! While it began rather innocuously, the arrival of the Coronavirus early in the year changed how we do business as everyone socially distanced, stayed home, and worked remotely. This year will definitely go down in the history books as one in which we all worked together from afar to combat the spread of the pandemic. 

As more and more of our daily activities moved to online platforms, we saw a jump in digital scams as criminals peddled COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. They even used the pandemic to come up with creative in-person cons such as going door-to-door wearing white lab coats and offering to do at home COVID testing. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has kept a record of COVID related scams and allows consumers to report any scams they may encounter.  Locally, the Massachusetts Command Center is a great resource which provides COVID-19 vaccine information

While criminals sought new ways to scam the public, scientists worked diligently to develop a vaccine. So it is fitting that we end the year with two U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vaccines, one by Pfizer and the other by local biotech company, Moderna. While vaccines will be given first to health care providers, vulnerable populations, and essential workers, it is comforting to know that in the next few months all Americans will have the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

Despite the cancellation of this year’s Boston Marathon, any resident of the Commonwealth can tell you that endurance is what it takes to get up Heartbreak Hill and reach the finish line. We are just passing through Newton now in our pandemic race and the finish line is within reach, so please adhere to Governor Charlie Baker’s holiday restrictions and celebrate only with those you already spend time with. There will be plenty of time in the future for large social gatherings and celebrations. 

 
Wishing you a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season and a very prosperous New Year! 


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

Fraud Alert: Vaccination Scams

The good news is that two vaccines have received FDA approval for use in the U.S. The bad news is that it could be months until you receive a vaccine unless you are a first responder, essential work, or older or immune-compromised American. And while this may be frustrating, a lot of planning by both the federal and local government was done to ensure that the most vulnerable are vaccinated first.

Earlier this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), along with other federal agencies issued a warning about fake vaccines. This on the heels of several bogus websites claiming to be Pfizer, or Moderna, being shut down by the government just this month. While everyone wants to move past the pandemic and get back to life as it was before, it is going to take time to get and distribute the vaccine to everyone. There is no legal way to jump to the head of the line by paying a fee, so if you see an ad offering access to vaccines for a cost it is likely a scam.

Here are some of the things that the FBI says could indicate fraud:

  • Ads that offer early access to a vaccine upon payment of a deposit or fee
  • Marketers offering to sell and/or ship doses of a vaccine in exchange for payment of a deposit or fee
  • Unsolicited emails, telephone calls, or personal contact from someone claiming to be from a medical office, insurance company, or COVID-19 vaccine center requesting personal and/or medical information to determine recipients’ eligibility to obtain the vaccine
  • Claims of FDA approval for a vaccine that cannot be verified
  • Advertisements for vaccines through social media platforms, email, telephone calls, online, or from unsolicited/unknown sources
  • Individuals contacting you in person, by phone, or by email to tell you the government or government officials require you to receive a COVID-19 vaccine

Keep these fraud prevention practices in mind when online:

  • Always verify the spelling of web addresses, websites, and email addresses that look trustworthy but may be imitations of legitimate websites.
  • Update anti-malware and anti-virus software and conduct regular network scans.
  • Do not communicate with or open emails, attachments, or links from unknown individuals.
  • Never provide personal information of any sort via email; be aware that many emails requesting your personal information may appear to be legitimate.
  • Use strong two-factor authentication if possible, using biometrics, hardware tokens, or authentication apps.

For accurate and up-to-date information about COVID-19, visit:

Report COVID related fraud to the government here:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ReportFraud.ftc.gov

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ic3.gov, tips.fbi.gov, or 1-800-CALL-FBI

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG) tips.hhs.gov, or 1-800-HHS-TIPS.

Open Enrollment and What You Need to Know

It’s Open Enrollment and the Massachusetts Division of Insurance (DOI) and Massachusetts Health Connector (Health Connector) are reminding consumers to carefully and fully review health coverage options and understand how they work before rushing into purchasing a health plan.

Open Enrollment, which runs from November 1, 2020 through January 23, 2021, is the period when consumers can start, stop, or change their health insurance coverage for any reason.  During the rest of the year, you can only enroll in or change your insurance if you have a qualifying event like a divorce or loss of your job. You can purchase a comprehensive health plan by contacting a licensed carrier, through a licensed broker, or by going through the Health Connector, the Commonwealth’s official health insurance exchange.

If you are in search of new coverage and meet the Health Connector’s requirements, be aware of less trustworthy options that may come up with an internet search.

  • Never purchase a plan without reading the fine print.
  • Take the necessary time to find an appropriate health insurance plan to ensure that coverage is in place if the unexpected occurs.
  • Having health insurance that works by providing access to vital services is more important than ever during the pandemic.
  • The Health Connector provides a trustworthy and easy-to-use marketplace for consumers.

Limited benefit health plans and plans purchased from an unlicensed insurance company do not comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), do not meet Minimum Creditable Coverage requirements, and typically do not provide comprehensive payments for medical treatment and services. Always use caution when considering alternatives to comprehensive health insurance plans, such as hospital indemnity insurance, discount health plans or health care sharing ministries, since these plans, while legal, they do not offer the same consumer protections as a comprehensive health insurance plan and may not guarantee payments for medical services and expenses.

When shopping for a new health insurance plan:

  • Be careful when looking at other websites when you are trying to learn about comprehensive health coverage available through the Health Connector. There are many websites on the internet that intentionally resemble the Health Connector’s website. Even if you don’t purchase a plan from one of these mimicking sites, you may be inundated with sales calls and text messages if you provide your contact information. The Massachusetts Health Connector can only be accessed by using http://www.MAhealthconnector.org/
  • Look for disclaimers on the website or policy documents such as “this is not insurance” or “does not meet minimum creditable coverage.” Take notes and ask careful questions of any agents with whom you speak. It is a violation of the state’s insurance consumer protection laws for a licensed agent or company to knowingly mislead or misinform a consumer about the product they are looking to purchase.
  • Always take a close look at plan benefits and limitations before you sign up or pay any fees. That way you can see in advance if the plan is right for you and your family. Remember to add up how much you will have to pay out of your pocket for deductibles and co-payments and items that are not covered. High out-of-pocket costs can soon wipe out the savings of lower monthly premiums. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (“NAIC”) Health Insurance Shopping Tool helps easily compare different health insurance policies. More information can be found here: https://naic.org/documents/health_insurance_shopping_tool.pdf
  • Avoid being pressured into providing personal or financial information. Legitimate insurance companies are very limited in what information they can ask of you.  In order to send you quotes, they only need to know your name, age, and contact information and whether you are looking for coverage for just yourself or if you have family members who would also be covered by the plan.  They cannot ask questions about your medical history, such as whether you have pre-existing conditions or what prescriptions you might be taking.

For information on purchasing a health insurance plan from the Health Connector, please call 1‑877-MA-ENROLL or visit www.MAhealthconnector.org.

Consumers with questions or concerns about the legitimacy of a health insurance plan or company are urged to visit the Division’s website at www.mass.gov/doi, or to contact the Division’s Consumer Services Unit at (617) 521-7794 or by email at CSSComplaints@mass.gov.

Shop Safely this Holiday Season

This is the busiest shopping season of the year, and consumers everywhere are making online and in-person purchases, donations to their favorite charities, and anxiously waiting for packages containing gifts from loved ones to arrive. While we are festively busy, so are scammers, making fake calls, sending fraudulent text messages or phishing emails, and even following the delivery truck in hopes of stealing your packages.

Give yourself the best gift of all by safeguarding against those seeking to steal your holiday spirit and more by following these tips:

  • Amazon is never going to call or text you if there is an issue with your account. You may receive an email from Amazon instead. If you do, be careful to click on any imbedded links, instead log in to your account, go to your recent orders and click on the order that may be in question.
  • If it is a business that you have not heard of before or an advertisement you saw on social media, make sure to verify a business before you purchase any goods.
  • When making purchases online, use a credit card and not a debit card. A credit card comes with more security and it can be easier to dispute fraudulent charges then trying to get your cash back via your bank.
  • Be wary of texts or phishing emails you may receive that appear to be coming from Amazon, FedEx, UPS asking you to “click here” to verify your address in order to receive a package.
  • Charity scams: one-third of all charitable giving is done in December, fundraising software company Network for Good reports. This means that there will be more scam charities trying to exploit the goodwill of consumers via fake websites or pushy telemarketers. Verify a charity at charitynavigator.org.
  • Look at the return and refund policies of any retail business you plan on using.

Buy gift cards online from the issuing business. If you have to purchase them at a store, examine the card for any signs of tampering.

Happy Holiday Returns

The holidays are here and as you both give and receive gifts it’s likely you will find some cases in which items are the wrong size or style or color, are damaged, or otherwise just not right. This means one thing—returns. Unfortunately, there is no set law about return policies in Massachusetts. Each retailer has its own policy. On the plus side, defective merchandise must be accepted for return, regardless of store policy, and you must be given the option of a repair, replacement, or refund. 

As you prep unwanted merchandise for return, you will not be alone. According to RetailWire, about 10% of purchases made at physical locations go back to the store, and about 30% of online buys are returned. Before swiping your card or clicking buy now, there are steps you can take to prepare for the inevitable return, refund, or exchange.

Understand the merchant’s return policy before completing your transaction. In Massachusetts, retailers make their own return policy but by law it must be clearly displayed in the store, and on their website so that you have a chance to read it before completing your transaction. Merchants may include time limits or packing requirements for returns, refunds, or exchanges be aware of those when you buy.

Save your receipts and packaging materials. Many merchants offer receipts via e-mail to help you avoid searching for crumpled paper receipts that can easily be misplaced. Some stores may require original receipts or packaging for a full refund. Return policies may include a “restocking fee” for missing or broken packaging. Returning items in good condition and with original tags may improve your chances of a full-refund.

Avoid frequent returns. Too many trips to the customer service return desk can get you blacklisted. Many retailers use systems to monitor consumer return behavior. These automated systems provide the merchant with recommendations to accept or reject customer returns based on past behavior. If you end up on a serial returner list, you may request a copy of the file from the business rejecting your return. This will allow you to review your file and request corrections if appropriate.

An informed consumer is empowered when making purchases and decisions. Know your rights before visiting your favorite local small business, department store, or online retailer this gift giving season. For more information on shopping in the Commonwealth visit our #MAConsumer Guide to Shopping Rights.

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Date published: December 24, 2020
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