Consumer Update: March 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, 

It’s National Consumer Protection Week (Sunday, 2/28 through Saturday, 3/6), a week dedicated to helping everyone be an informed consumer. While the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) works diligently to keep consumers in the state apprised of schemes that seek to defraud them, we are making an extra effort to share information on ways to protect yourself against scammers this week. Details are contained in this newsletter and in this blog. We also advise you to remain extra vigilant in regard to pandemic related scams.

And in an exciting development, Governor Charlie Baker has announced that we are moving forward with the Commonwealth’s re-opening plan. As of today, restaurants in Massachusetts will no longer be subject to percentage-based capacity limits, as the state enters Phase 3, Step 2 of its reopening plan. Gov. Charlie Baker announced the news in his February 25 press briefing. Restaurants will also be allowed to host musical performances.  

The Governor hopes to move to the first step of Phase 4 beginning on March 22, which would allow for indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas, and ballparks to reopen. Capacity will be capped at 12 percent, limiting Fenway Park to an estimated 4,500 people, Gillette Stadium to 7,900 people, and the TD Garden to 2,350. We must all continue to be vigilant, wear masks, wash our hands, and so on, but there is a lot to feel encouraged about.

Another factor giving sports fans and others a reason to rejoice this spring is the news that a third vaccine, from Johnson and Johnson, has just been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use. Subsequently more Americans will be vaccinated sooner. This encouraging development gives us a lot to be hopeful about as we look to the coming spring and summer months. In the meantime, stay healthy, stay safe, and be an informed consumer!

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

How to Recognize and Avoid Scams

In celebration of National Consumer Protection Week (Sunday, 2/28 through Saturday, 3/6), the Better Business Bureau serving Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont along with the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR), AARP of Massachusetts, and the BBB Serving Central and Western MA and Northeastern CT will host a virtual consumer protection forum designed to empower consumers against known scams.

This one-hour forum will feature experts from each of the partner organizations as they discuss a gamut of frauds targeting seniors and others throughout the Commonwealth. Attendees will leave with information and resources for identifying and combatting common scams. This virtual event will be held on Wednesday, 3/3/21 at 3pm. It is free and open to all. Register here.

“The BBB is committed to investigating and exposing fraud against consumers, and to providing consumers with information that can help them make informed decisions about the businesses they hire and the purchases they make,” said Paula Fleming, CMSO of the Better Business Bureau Serving E. MA, ME, RI & VT. “We feel that by collaborating with the BBB of Central and Western Mass, AARP, and OCABR we will be able to reach and inform a larger group of consumers.”

During the forum, attendees can ask questions of the experts and receive real-time responses. The webinar will cover things like COVID-19 related scams, tax scams, and identity theft as well as inform consumers about resources that each agency offers from hotline phone numbers to how to check the reputation of a vendor. Participants will learn to recognize signs of common scams, empowering them to be better able to avoid falling prey to fraudsters.

“Our goal is to ensure that consumers have the facts they need to make informed decisions about those they plan to do business with,” said Nancy Cahalen, President of the Better Business Bureau Serving Central and Western MA and Northeastern CT. “We advise consumers to check for feedback on vendors and businesses they may engage to determine whether they live up to BBB’s Standards for Trust. These standards are not complicated and may even strike some as common sense, yet many businesses are unable to live up to these expectations and their reputations suffer for it!

“Most people over 50+ are on some form of social media and virtual communications, especially these days when all are adhering to social distancing mandates. So, it is more important than ever for everyone to be aware of vulnerabilities they may face communicating and/or doing business online,” said Mike Festa, AARP Massachusetts State Director. “The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a trusted source for resources and information and we are happy to host this event with our partner consumer agencies.”

As technology advances and the world continues to change, consumers will need to continually adapt and learn about how to protect themselves from new and evolving deceptions. The best way to do that is to have reliable sources like the BBB, AARP, and OCABR to turn to for guidance, resources, and training. The Consumer Forum on How to Recognize and Avoid Scams gives an overview of the most prevalent scams facing consumers today and offers tips to recognize a scam.

“We have seen an uptick in fraudulent activity since the start of the pandemic including sales of fake COVID-19 test kits, fee-based offers to move your name higher on the vaccination list, and phishing schemes in which victims are offered advance access to stimulus money when they share personal information and pay a fee,” said Edward A. Palleschi, Undersecretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. “OCABR seeks to inform and empower consumers throughout the Commonwealth and in doing so protect them from scams of this nature.”

Massachusetts Insurance Commissioner Leads Insurance Standard-Setting

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has again selected Massachusetts Division of Insurance Commissioner Gary Anderson to chair the International Insurance Relations (G) Committee for 2021.  Commissioner Anderson was also recently selected for another 2-year appointment to the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) Executive Committee (ExCo). 

As insurance has become increasingly global, having a voice in national and international standard-setting is vital to ensuring the protection of Massachusetts policyholders and the domestic insurance market.  Maintaining a competitive insurance market with a level playing field, not just domestically but also internationally, enhances the availability of products to protect consumers from financial loss. 

The NAIC, as part of the state-based system of insurance regulation, is the U.S. standard-setting organization governed by the chief insurance regulators from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.  The mission of the NAIC’s International Insurance Relations (G) Committee is to coordinate NAIC participation in international discussions on the development of insurance regulatory and supervisory standards and to promote international cooperation. The G Committee also coordinates on international insurance matters with the federal government, including the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and other federal agencies.  Commissioner Anderson’s re-appointment as Chair of G Committee marks the first time a U.S. commissioner has chaired it for three consecutive years.

The IAIS is the international standard-setting body responsible for developing and assisting in the implementation of principles, standards and other supporting material for the supervision of the insurance sector.  Commissioner Anderson is one of four U.S. commissioners to serve on the IAIS’s ExCo.  Beginning in 2020, he was also selected by the IAIS as Chair of its Policy Development Committee (PDC), one of two committees at the IAIS responsible for developing insurance supervisory policy.  The IAIS’s PDC is tasked with monitoring financial stability and systemic risk in the insurance sector and providing adequate standard-setting responses to developments within the industry, financial markets and business practices as well as to policyholders’ needs.

No Massachusetts insurance commissioner has previously held these leadership positions on international issues.  In these roles, Commissioner Anderson is recognized as a global leader on insurance regulation and supervisory measures.  His negotiations over the past two years have helped preserve the capital framework established and being enhanced in the U.S. for the protection of policyholders.  As insurance companies expand the boundaries of their operations, it is imperative that insurance regulators strengthen solvency regulation and ensure purchasers of insurance products are protected.  Commissioner Anderson’s role also aids in the development of policies that have global application, like climate risk and measures to ensure resiliency, as well as gives Massachusetts policyholders and Massachusetts-based companies an advocate in insurance matters that will affect them.

Commissioner Anderson recently participated in a virtual panel on Sustainable Insurance: Emerging Risks, Trends and Opportunities, with fellow leaders from around the world, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the insurance sector and the insurance protection gap.  The NAIC has announced that Commissioner Anderson will moderate a panel on SupTech – Embracing Innovation in Supervision at the International Insurance Forum to be held virtually May 25-26.  The panel will discuss how the pandemic has accelerated the use of technology to enhance and streamline supervision and how technology might continue to shape supervision in the future, including trends for further development of supervisory technology, potential lessons for the insurance industry, and possible market and consumer implications.

Buyer Beware: What to Know about Used “Smart” Cars

Nowadays we have apps to help us stay connected to almost everything, even automobiles. Newer vehicles have apps that are built right into the car. This technology allows us to download the manufacturer’s app onto our cell giving us the power to remotely start the car, link to our smart phone, unlock or lock the doors, flash lights, monitor travel speed, vehicle wear and tear, and more. But buyer beware: if your newer used vehicle had a previous owner that person could still have access to your car.

Smart, or connected cars, are the way of the future. And as technology continues to progress new concerns about privacy and security have come up. According to Finjan Cybersecurity, the majority of new cars sold in the U.S. possess the capability to record and/or transmit history back to the vehicle manufacturer. Experts say that 75% of new cars sold today are able to transmit data via the internet.

Why is this information collected? Who has access to it? Is it safe from hackers? Much of the information is gathered for maintenance purposes. However, manufacturers also use it to improve the performance, design, or safety of the car. Highway engineers and city planners use the information to assess road conditions, traffic, and safety. The rest of us use the information for better route planning, fuel-saving tips, and preventative maintenance.

While there are many benefits to all of this information gathering, though there are some risks involved as well. Hackers have proven that it is possible to hijack a car and take total control of the speed, breaks, and even steering of a car. And when apps are not wiped clean before the vehicle is sold, the former owner may be able to see things like where you have driven including locations and time, and even whether or not the doors to your car are locked.

With the pros and cons involved in buying a used or new car, what should a consumer consider in order to stay safe as well as connected? First, learn what the built-in security options are in the car. Turn off features that you know you will not use. Change all of the default passwords set up by the manufacturer. If you acquire a used car, disable all apps that might have been associated with the previous owner as well as existing passwords.

If you are unsure of how to disable the associated apps, or change existing passwords, call the 800 number for the manufacturer’s customer service department. Once they verify that you are the current owner, they can tell you if anyone else still has remote access to your car. At the end of the day, no matter how smart your car is, it takes the efforts of a human to wipe the remote access and ultimately protect your safety and privacy. 

New Lemon Law Coordinator

Arlenys Zoquier has joined the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) as Lemon Law Coordinator. She comes to us with considerable consumer relations experience including at Eastern Bank and North Shore Medical Center. Prior to that, Zoquier-- who goes by Leny-- was the Business Development Manager at Kelly Jeep Chrysler. The combination of customer service and automotive experience make her uniquely suited for this new role. 

The Massachusetts Lemon Laws protect consumers who buy a vehicle in Massachusetts that has serious defects (impairs your safety or your ability to drive it). 

  • The Lemon Law's protections cover new cars, used cars, failed inspections, private party car sales and customized wheelchairs if they meet guideline criteria such as mileage at purchase and days from purchase in which problem occurs.  
  • The Failed Inspection Lemon Law allows you to cancel a motor vehicle contract or sale and get a refund if your car fails to pass inspection within 7 days from the date of sale and the cost of repairs exceeds 10% of the purchase price. 
  • You must allow the dealer and the manufacturer a reasonable number of attempts to repair the defect. To be eligible for compensation, the problem must still be present after 3 or more repair attempts within 1 year or 15,000 miles of the original date of delivery of the car — whichever comes first. 
  • Owners of customized wheelchairs, who made their purchase in Massachusetts, may also apply for arbitration should their wheelchair be defective. 
  • The wheelchair must have at least one substantial defect that has been subject to repair four or more times, or  has been out of service for reason of repair for at least 30 days, during the first year of ownership.  

Learn more about the Lemon Laws here

Employee Spotlight

Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi was a recent guest on Laura Swanson’s 104.9 radio show North Shore Conversations. If you missed it, you can listen here:

Laura Swanson’s 104.9 radio show North Shore Conversations
Date published: March 1, 2021

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