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Consumer Update: July 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,

There is no place I would rather be this time of year than in the Bay State. And while this summer may be different than any other we have experienced, it is still a wonderful time of year to be in Massachusetts. To paraphrase author Charles Dickens, who spent some time in our great state, it has been "the best of times and the worst of times."

Whether you vacation on the North Shore or the South Shore, spend time on Cape Ann or Cape Cod, or travel to the South Coast or the Berkshires, or any place in between, our state has so much to offer. In may ways the pandemic has given us the opportunity to enjoy simple pleasures like spending time with family.

Yet while these are unusual days, I am confident we will get through them together and come out stronger on the other side.  So, enjoy the warm weather, long sunny days, and all that summer in Massachusetts has to offer because it goes by way too fast! 

Stay safe and healthy, and please continue to follow the CDC's social distancing protocol and Governor Baker's guidelines for Phase 3 of the re-opening.

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

Stimulus Payment Debit Card

A trip to the mailbox often ends with a pile of junk mail that gets tossed into the recycling bin. But if you did not receive your government stimulus funds via check or direct deposit, look at your mail carefully. The Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have sent millions of Americans their stimulus payments in the form of a debit card. If you are one of them, do not throw your money away by discarding it when it arrives by post.

The Economic Impact Payment (EIP) Card comes in a plain white envelope with the return address “Money Network Cardholder Services” from MetaBank in Omaha, NE. When you open it, you will find a navy blue Visa card with white stars resembling the United States flag. To access your funds, you will need to activate your EIP card. This requires sharing personal information including the last six digits of your Social Security number. Once activated you will hear the balance on the card which is the amount of your stimulus payment.

You can use your EIP Card without incurring fees to make purchases wherever Visa cards are accepted, to withdraw cash from in-network ATMs, and to transfer funds to your personal bank account. The prepaid EIP Card also provides consumer protections available to traditional bank account owners including protection against fraud and loss.

If you are unsure of the status of your stimulus, the IRS online tool allows you to track your payment at www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment.

If you believe your EIP Card was lost, or stolen, contact MetaBank at 800-240-8100 to deactivate the missing card and report the loss.

For more information about stimulus card payments visit www.eipcard.com.

EIP Card - navy blue with white stars

Fraud Alert: Unemployment Benefits & ID Theft

Driven by the economic downturn brought on by pandemic related restrictions, unemployment across the U.S. is at a historic high. While the national average dropped from 14.7% down to 11.1 % in June, unemployment in Massachusetts rose to 17.4% - the highest rate in the country.

For many the unemployment benefit is a lifeline. Unfortunately, for some bad actors it is an opportunity. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), unemployment fraud is up significantly and there is suspicion that the culprits are based overseas. Officials say the fraud is affecting tens of thousands of Americans, slowing the delivery of benefits to those in need, and costing states hundreds of millions of dollars.

Whether you have lost your job, or not, you could be a victim of identity theft related to this unemployment scam. Authorities report that criminals are filing for unemployment benefits online using stolen information of people who have not lost their jobs. Stolen identities can be bought online, or obtained from data breaches, email phishing schemes, or from physical theft. Fraudsters also exploit public websites and social media accounts. Many victims are unaware of the identity theft unless they are notified by a state agency, the IRS, or their employer that a claim has been filed in their name.

The federal government advises consumers to be on the lookout for red flags like communication about unemployment when you have not applied for benefits, unsolicited inquiries related to unemployment, or postal delivery of a debit card for receipt of benefits. More than 58,000 fraudulent unemployment claims have been filed in Massachusetts alone, and officials have stopped payment on more than 158 million dollars of benefits as a result.

If you have been a victim of identity theft related to a fraudulent unemployment insurance claim, notify your local law enforcement, the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), the IRS, and the credit reporting bureaus. If you are currently employed, you should notify your employer’s human resources department.

The FBI encourages victims to report fraudulent or even suspicious activities to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov. You may also want to consult www.identitytheft.gov for help in reporting and recovering from identity theft.

In an effort to protect claimants, employers, and their personal information, the DUA has posted alerts for known scams related to collecting unemployment benefits on their website at www.mass.gov/info-details/unemployment-insurance-scams#scam-red-flags-.

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation offers a Consumer’s Check List for Handling Identity Theft: www.mass.gov/doc/a-consumers-checklist-for-handling-identity-theft-0/download.

Calling All Landline Users

In today’s world of Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and video conferencing, landline telephones are still essential technology for many who use them for daily communication. Depending on your landline service provider, it is important to know that the technology used to carry your voice communications can differ. For example, cable providers offer landline telephone service over their networks using a digital transmission technology, commonly known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).  In some communities, the traditional copper-wired telephone network is being updated and replaced with fiber optics. 

If you are a Verizon landline customer with traditional copper-wired service, you may have received a letter from them notifying you of plans to upgrade service in your area from the older copper network to fiber-optic technology. The letter states that you must schedule an appointment before the deadline to avoid any disruption or cancellation of service. The appointment is required to install new equipment in your home to enable the fiber technology to work and operate your telephone service.

Despite the network upgrade, Verizon continues to have the obligation to provide regulated telephone service to consumers in Massachusetts. If you would like to maintain your current consumer protections after the upgrade to fiber technology, including certain shutoff protections for elderly or seriously ill customers, you should make Verizon aware of your desire to remain on regulated service when you schedule your appointment. Verizon should continue to provide your current calling plan at the same price you were paying prior to the transition unless you choose to make any service changes.  After the fiber upgrade, check your next bill to ensure that no changes were made to your phone service without your authorization. 

Massachusetts regulated landline telephone service is subject to certain consumer protections, including:

  • In households where all adults are 65 years of age or older, consumers can notify Verizon and request “over 65” protection from service termination in cases of payment delinquency;
  • If a consumer is disabled or over the age of 62, they can receive an exemption from charges for local Directory Assistance (411) calls. All consumers are entitled to up to ten (10) free, local directory assistance (411) calls per month;
  • If a consumer is unable to pay their telephone bill due to a serious medical emergency, they can be afforded up to 90 days of basic telephone service prior to service termination by providing a statement by a registered physician.
  • Depending on a consumer’s payment history, a company may allow up to an 8 month payment plan for an outstanding debt.

Please Note: Some of the protections detailed above do not apply to VoIP telephone service or Verizon’s FiOS Digital Voice product.

Know what’s happening:

  • Stay informed: Technologies vary by service provider
    • Ask your provider about their technology and what options you might have. Different technologies could mean different prices and different consumer rights and protections.
  • Stay connected: Technologies may not operate the same
    • Ask your provider about how their technology operates your telephone during electrical power outages and whether a battery back-up unit is required when power goes out.

The Department of Telecommunications (DTC) wants all consumers to be aware of these newer telephone technologies and changes occurring to remain connected to our communications network.

For more information, contact the DTC at 1-800-392-6066, or visit www.mass.gov/DTC.

Digital Currency

Contactless payment applications allow friends and family to split bills, meal costs, ride share payments, and more without ever exchanging cash or making a trip to the ATM. While we continue to social distance, contactless payment requests have expanded to restaurants, companies, and professionals we all do business with. If you’ve never used these platforms before, selecting which applications to trust with your personal information is a big decision. Consumers are encouraged to seek out mobile payment applications that have built in protections to minimize errors, unauthorized transactions, and fraud. Popular money transfer application services include, but are not limited to: Apple Pay, CashApp, PayPal, Venmo, and Zelle.

The process for registration varies by application. Most money transfer applications require a user account linked with a personal bank account or credit card. Depending on which application you choose, you may have the option to send money to anyone with an email address or use a unique account identifier (phone number, username, etc.) to send money to another registered application user.

If you are sending money to someone for the first time, ask that they send you a request if that option is available, scan their unique application code with your smart phone camera, or confirm the e-mail or personal information before completing the transaction. This helps ensure that you’re sending funds to the right person.

The Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Transmittal Rule governs mobile payment applications, disclosures and requires responsible financial institutions to investigate errors reported by consumers.  Additional requirements are detailed in Massachusetts State Law regarding transmitting money overseas.  Always read the disclosures and terms associated with any contactless payment applications that you decide to use and understand your bank’s protections when sending money.

For more information visit the support pages for the contactless payment application you are interested in: Apple Pay, CashApp, PayPal, Venmo, and Zelle.  Additional resources can be found at: www.mass.gov/consumer-money-matters.

Spotlight

The Division of Banks recognizes Merrimack College students who participated in the National Community Bank Case Study Competition.

For more information, click here.

2020 Merrimack Team
Date published: July 31, 2020
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