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Consumer Update: February 2021

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, 

On a recent snowy evening Governor Charlie Baker delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address from his State House office. Unlike in past years, there was no pomp and circumstance in the House Chamber, and no live audience. On that evening we were reminded of the quietness that has become part of our new normal during the pandemic.  

Speaking from the podium, Governor Baker addressed the Administration's COVID-19 response. His message was positive but cautionary, "The end is in sight – but for the next few months, we must continue to stay vigilant and take steps to stop the spread. Know this – we will beat this virus. And life will begin to return to normal." Calming and encouraging words from a true leader who genuinely cares about the people of our state.  
 
None of us knows for sure what this new year will bring. However, I cannot help but feel optimistic about the future fueled by the Governor’s strong leadership and the
Massachusetts COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan. The plan includes three phases designed to protect the most vulnerable populations first. My hope is that every citizen in the Commonwealth is able to obtain the vaccine this year. While I wait for my turn, I remain proud to serve in the Baker-Polito Administration and grateful for the opportunity to empower and protect Massachusetts consumers.   

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

Warning: Sharing COVID Vaccine Info Online Can Lead to Fraud

As more and more Americans become eligible for and receive COVID-19 vaccines, they not surprisingly want others to know. In a new social media trend that has been building momentum recently, photos of vaccination cards are being shared online. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns that this a bad idea.  

Inoculation cards, which are intended to help officials keep track of who has and has not been vaccinated, include your full name, birth date, and information about your vaccination location. This is valuable information to scammers who will use it to potentially steal your identity, and/or to create and sell fake vaccination cards. Criminals have already been doing just that in England where authorities have found fraudulent vaccination cards are being sold on eBay and TikTok. They believe fraudsters will target the U.S. and Canada next.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , more than 26 million people have received a vaccine with just under 6 million have received two doses. Two shots are necessary for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines - which are the only ones currently available in the U.S. 

If you have been vaccinated and want to share the news be cautious about what you share and where you post personal information. 

The BBB offers these suggestions on how to share safely on social media: 

  • Share a photo of your vaccine sticker or set a frame around your profile picture.  
  • Review your security settings on all social media platforms to see what you are sharing and with whom. If you only want friends and family to see your posts, be sure that’s how your privacy settings are configured.  
  • Avoid participating in viral personal posts, such as listing all the cars you’ve owned (including makes/model years), favorite songs, and top 10 TV shows. These things are often used as passwords or answers to security questions. 

The BBB's Scam Alert on Facebook quizzes and like farming give more information on social media privacy settings.
 

If you believe that you have been a victim of identity theft, see our Consumer Checklist for Handling Identity Theft

Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosure Extended

According to the White House, 1 in 5 renters and 1 in 10 homeowners with a mortgage are behind on payments. In an effort to mitigate the harm of COVID-19 President Joseph R. Biden and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have extended the federal eviction and foreclosure moratorium which was due to expire at the end of January. The extension protects millions of Americans struggling financially, due to historic unemployment levels caused by the pandemic, from becoming displaced or homeless at least through March 31st.

In addition, residents of the Commonwealth may qualify for protections through state programs. The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) offers two programs that can assist low-income households. The Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) and Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) programs provide emergency housing assistance during COVID-19. Information on these resources is also available in Spanish language.

Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) Program

The RAFT program helps keep households in stable housing situations when facing eviction, foreclosure, loss of utilities, and other housing emergencies caused by loss of income, increase in expenses, or both. RAFT helps all kinds of households by providing up to $10,000 per household to help preserve current housing or move to new housing.

Funding can be used for a variety of needs, including rent or mortgage arrears, security deposits, or other expenses to help households obtain or maintain stable housing. Households with incomes up to 50% of Area Median Income (AMI)*, or 60% of AMI for people who are at risk of homelessness because of domestic violence, are eligible for assistance.

Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program (ERMA)

ERMA can provide rental and mortgage assistance to low-income households who have been impacted by the crisis and may not be eligible for RAFT. This program is available for households within the 50-80% range of Area Median Income (AMI). Like RAFT, ERMA may provide up to $4,000 for eligible households to assist with rent or mortgage arrears accrued after April 1, 2020 and/or with upcoming rent or mortgage payments.

Use the agency lookup tool above to determine regional income levels to assess their eligibility. These can also be found here: ERMA Area Median Income Information.

RAFT/ERMA Financial Assistance:

Legal assistance is also available:

And, the Massachusetts Division of Banks (DOB) has compiled an extensive list of Frequently Asked Questions regarding the eviction and foreclosure moratorium for more detailed information.

Fraud Alert: Tax Scams

Tax season is upon us, and that means tax scams will be at their peak over the next few weeks. As you begin to assemble your tax documents and consider whether to file yourself, use a digital software program, or hire an accountant be cautious of predators who seek to gain your trust and exploit your personal information for their own gain. 

In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported consumers lost more than $1.9 billion to fraud. Trends show that overall scams and fraud are on the rise with over 275,000 COVID-19 related scams reported to the FTC between January 2020 and January 2021. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warns that this type of fraud increases not only during tax season, but in times of crisis. So, it is important to be especially vigilant during the pandemic emergency about sharing personal information with strangers.

Common tax related scams include phishing emails seeking personal information, calls demanding an immediate payment, social media identity theft, and ghost tax return preparers who do not sign or include their Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) on the tax returns they prepare. The most prevalent fraud currently is the imposter scam where the fraudster pretend to be an agent of the IRS to obtain information about you. Don’t fall for it. The IRS will never initiate contact with a taxpayer via email or by phone. And, neither the federal and nor state government will send a taxpayer a link to separate website or ask that sensitive information be shared online.

Known tax scams include:

  • Tax collection scams demand immediate tax payment often through automated robocalls or unsolicited mail. Payments are usually requested in the form of a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer. These phishing scams rely on intimidation and often threaten to arrest the victim on the other end of the phone.
  • Verification scams include e-mails and text messages you did not initiate requesting verification of your personal information. These messages often include hyperlinks or buttons to external sites. Do not engage with the sender or click on any links; report and delete these messages.
  • Fake charity scams exploit disasters or other situations, like the pandemic, and encourage taxpayers to donate a portions of anticipated refunds to bogus organizations. Scammers use all avenues to connect with victims, even social media. These scams are often elaborate and include illegitimate donation websites. Visit the IRS website for a list of legitimate and qualified charities.
  • Stolen Tax ID scams are usually identified after a fraudster has stolen your personal information. If you file your tax return electronically and are told that another return has been filed under your social security number, your tax ID may have been compromised.  In some cases, the IRS may send a 5071C letter to the identity theft victim notifying the taxpayer of the identity theft incident.
  • For a full list of tax scams visit the IRS website.

If you suspect a tax related scam, please report it to the appropriate organizations listed below:

DOB has a New Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel

Earlier this month, the Division of Banks (DOB) welcomed Barbara E. Keefe as its new Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel. Prior to this appointment Ms. Keefe spent 20 years at State Street Bank and Trust Company where she cultivated significant financial industry, regulatory, and legal experience. Most recently she was their Managing Director and Managing Counsel in the U.S. Bank Regulatory Legal Group.

Her background also includes practicing bank regulatory and consumer financial services law at the firms of Reed Smith and Goodwin where she worked with financial institution clients on product development and regulation as well as analyzed licensing and compliance matters arising under federal and state consumer financial services laws and regulations. In addition, Ms. Keefe has been an adjunct instructor at Northeastern University School of Law, teaching the “Law of Financial Institutions” course.

Ms. Keefe holds her Juris Doctor from Boston University’s School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Virginia.

Employee Spotlight: OCABR Welcomes 2021 Spring Co-Ops

2021 Spring Co-Ops

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business is proud to welcome a new class of co-ops from Northeastern University including Emma Somers, Richard Santamaria, Noah Cross, Savannah Mallon, Steven Chambers, Demi Pirrone, and Ananya Sankar.

Consumer Protection Panel, March 3rd

Date published: February 4, 2021
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