Consumer Update: March 2022

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, 

Undersecretary Palleschi Headshot

This month marks two years since Governor Baker declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Everyone quickly made adjustments in how we worked, shopped, celebrated, and received healthcare. Essential workers and first responders kept our industries afloat while life-saving vaccines were produced right here in the Commonwealth. Through it all, together, we persevered.

While I would never want to experience these years again because of the loss it brought to so many, there is one silver lining and lesson we have all learned which is that the human connection is stronger and more important than ever. As municipalities continue to loosen restrictions and mask mandates, it is a time to rejoice. I'm overcome with joy each day I see the smiling faces of my colleagues at our Boston office.  It is great seeing local businesses in the City and throughout the Commonwealth thriving and getting back to business as usual.

The Division of Occupational Licensure, an agency within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR), regulates about 15% of the state’s workforce through the approval and licensure of over 580,000 individuals in over 150 trades.  So as businesses reopen, I am proud of the way in which the OCABR team supports operations across Massachusetts. 

Most entities in recovery mode from recent challenges include small businesses.  Over one-third of small businesses in the Bay State are women-owned and almost 10 million small businesses are owned by women in the United States.  This month, and every March, we recognize Women’s History Month.  This special month encourages the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.  I will never forget the leadership and courage displayed during the state of emergency by my colleagues, which include three female commissioners.

These impressive women lead the Division of Banks, Division of Occupational Licensure, and Department of Telecommunications and Cable.  Each agency continues to protect the residents of Massachusetts and ensure a fair marketplace for the entities they regulate.  OCABR and our five regulatory agencies are responsible for overseeing financial services, licensing, weights and measures, insurance, and telecommunications and cable. Additionally, OCABR manages consumer programs including the Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) program, and administers the State’s Lemon Laws and the Data Breach Notification Law.

To every single staff member serving the Commonwealth, especially those at OCABR, thank you for your continued hard work and dedication. As the first female Secretary of State in United States history, Madeleine Albright, once said, “I really do think about the fact that every day counts. I believe that every individual counts, so I believe every day counts and I try not to waste it.”

Make every day count!

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

The Division of Standards Ensures Accuracy at the Pump

Consumers across the country are being met with a stark increase in gas prices at the pump this month.  Gasoline cost per gallon went up $0.26 compared to last month and $0.90 from this time last year. According to the American Automobile Association gas prices soared to an average of $4.35 per gallon in the Commonwealth.

The US Energy Department released a statement outlining a plan to release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to decrease oil and gas prices for American consumers. The energy agency board has attributed the rise of gas prices to stricter regulations and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The impacts of the US Energy Department’s decision to release barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve won’t be felt right away as it takes some time to convert crude oil into gasoline, and more time for distribution.

Filling up your tank may leave your wallet feeling light, consumers in Massachusetts can ensure that the amount of gasoline received for the amount paid is accurate.  The Division of Standards (DOS), an agency within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, enforces accuracy requirements and other standards relating to weighing and measuring devices and their use in the sale of fuel, food, and other products. The DOS also regulates the sale of gasoline and sets standards for lubricating oils and antifreeze, including the inspection of all fuel dispensing equipment for required markings pertaining to grade and brand.

During National Weights and Measures Week this March, the DOS conducted unannounced inspections at service stations to ensure the quality of gas, signage and price accuracy. In addition to checking all service station price signs for accuracy, the DOS inspection of the gas pumps themselves include: a visual inspection for defects; test of a sample of gasoline to check that the octane levels are as advertised; a 5-gallon volumetric test; and opening the pump to inspect for leaks, sealing, and other devices.

As the rise in price continues and the future of its stability is uncertain, it is important that you receive quality gas under the standards of the law. Contact the Division of Standards if you suspect that a service station is selling low quality fuel, has inaccurate advertising, or is not complying with the law.  You can reach the Division of Standards by phone at (617)-727-3480 or submit a complaint online. Visit the Division of Standards’ website for more information on motor fuel regulations enforced by the Division of Standards.

Charity Scams: What to Look Out for and How to Avoid Them

The state of the world right now seems bleak, and as the situation unfolds in Ukraine, it is understandable that many will want to do their part to aid those in need. One of the most accessible ways to help is through charitable donations, but for every person trying to aid in the efforts to help Ukraine, there are those trying to make a quick buck by exploiting your charitable nature.

Here are some common signs that a charity/donation is a scam:

  1. Asking for donations right away. Rushed donations are a sign of a scam as by applying the pressure to act right now the scammers are attempting to catch you off guard before you can confirm if the charity is a scam or not.
  2. Sending out a ‘thank you for your donation’ email or text message for a donation you do not recall making. Scammers are trying to lead you into a false sense of security with their fake charity and similar to rushed donation scams are attempting to catch you off guard.
  3. Not informing you on how your donation is going to be used. If they cannot describe exactly how your donation will be used, and they dodge your questions and keep their answers vague it is probably a scam. If they cannot answer ‘how much of the donation is going to be used for overhead and how much is going towards fundraising’ then it’s likely a scam.

Note: According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP) “at least 65% of a charity’s total expenses should go directly to its mission.”

These types of scammers follow the trends, and if a major event or disaster is happening, they will be attempting to scam those looking to help. Beyond knowing what to look out for, here are some tips to help you check the legitimacy and trustworthiness of a charity:

  1. Do your research. When you decide to donate, look for charities based on the specific issue you are interested in. For example, if you’re looking to donate to aid Ukrainians right now, you’d look up things like charities aiding Ukraine, or how to get involved in donations for Ukraine. You should also double-check the charities that you’re planning on using. Try searching the name of the organization and reviews, rating, scam, or fraud.
  2. Be aware of payment methods. Donations made by cash, gift cards, or ‘winning money’ are red flags that the organization is a scam. Try to pay by credit card or check, as this allows you to better protect yourself as you can dispute a charge with the credit company.
  3. Ask questions. Here are some questions recommended by the Federal Trade Commission to ask charity donations before working with them:
    • How is my money going to be used?
    • Where are you located?
    • Who exactly are you?
    • How much of my money is going directly to the program?
  4. Verify the charity. An easy way to verify if the organization you are donating to is legitimate is through charity watchdog sites such as:

Hopefully with these tips and things to look out for you can now go about finding a legitimate charity more easily. If you have been a victim of a charity scam or donation fraud report it to the Federal Trade Commission at this link: ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

What to Know Before Buying Gift Cards

The convenience and versatility of gift cards make them an irreplaceable present for any occasion.  Gift certificates or gift cards are not only convenient for both the buyer and recipient, but they are also often customizable and redeemable for a variety of products and services. The rise of technological payment solutions has made digital gift cards even more efficient, creating a one-stop-shop for purchase and redemption, all with the click of a button.

According to a recent report by Allied Market Research, the global digital gift card industry is projected to reach over $1,101.03 billion by 2030. This is a dramatic increase from its market size valuation in 2020, which Allied Market Research estimated at $258.34 billion. While this market continues to expand, make sure you know your rights as a consumer with the tips below:

  • Gift certificates purchased in Massachusetts are redeemable for 7 years. The expiration date and issuance date must be clearly marked, listed online, or printed on the sales receipt.  If no expiration date is included, the certificate is redeemable forever.
  • Gift certificates are not subject to any periodic or dormancy fees, as long as they are not backed by a federal bank. However, Visa and American Express cards are exempt from this rule.
  • Any purchase, activation, or cancellation fees must be provided to the consumer in writing on the gift certificate or its packaging.
  • Once you have used 90% of the gift card’s value (or have $5.00 remaining for bank cards), you may choose to redeem the remaining value in cash.
  • Gift cards are rarely ever accepted for payment of bills, violations, or other official invoices.  If an individual requests payment in this hard to trace format, evaluate the situation and consider that you may be communicating with a fraudster.

Understanding your rights surrounding gift certificates is an important component of your overall shopping protection as a consumer. For more information about consumer protection, visit the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation’s Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Shopping Rights.

Spring Flood Insurance Check

Spring is here and so are the storms, rainfall, and flooding associated with the change of seasons.  Typically, March and April have a high precipitation level in the Bay State.  Currently, about 400,00 residents in Massachusetts live in areas that are likely to flood.  If your home is located in a flood plain, your mortgage lender will require flood insurance. But just because your home is not in a designated flood plain, don't assume you will never have damage from flooding.

The Division of Insurance, an agency within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Regulation (OCABR), administers the state’s laws pertaining to the protection of the insurance consumer through the regulation of the insurance industry.  The good news for consumers in Massachusetts is you can purchase flood coverage at any time.

While we transition to yet another season in New England, it’s a great opportunity to evaluate your insurance plans.  OCABR compiled information about flood insurance in preparation of the weather on the way.

  • Flood insurance protects two types of insurable property: building and contents. The first covers your building, the second covers your possessions. Flood insurance does not cover the land that your building occupies.
  • Flood insurance is available to protect homes, condominiums, apartments and nonresidential buildings, including commercial structures. A maximum of $250,000 of building coverage is available for single-family residential buildings; $250,000 per unit for residential condominiums. The limit for contents coverage on all residential buildings is $100,000, which is also available to renters. Commercial structures can be insured to a limit of $500,000 for the building and $500,000 for the contents.
  • Depending on where your home is located in Massachusetts, you may be able to purchase flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Administered by the federal government, the insurance is available to renters, homeowners and business owners through approximately 85 insurance companies in more than 20,800 participating communities nationwide.

If you believe you are in a high-risk area, and are interested in flood insurance, contact your insurance provider to find out if your community participates in the NFIP.  Visit the Division of Insurance’s website on flood assistance and flood insurance in Massachusetts.

OCABR Licensee Recognized:  Pilgrim Bay Insurance Agency

Pictured left to right: Worcester Mayor Joe Petty, Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi, Pilgrim Bay Insurance’s Brent Andersen, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and Representative Paul K. Frost

Pictured left to right: Worcester Mayor Joe Petty, Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi, Pilgrim Bay Insurance’s Brent Andersen, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and Representative Paul K. Frost.

On Friday, March 25, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito joined Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) in a visit to Pilgrim Bay Insurance Agency located on Foster Street in downtown Worcester to present Brent Anderson with OCABR’s Licensee Recognition Certificate of Excellence. Pilgrim Bay Insurance Agency focuses on commercial insurance brokerage with an emphasis on surety, commercial construction, and real estate risk. With his over twenty-five years of commercial construction and insurance/surety experience Brent Anderson, founder of Pilgrim Bay Insurance agency has been providing personalized customer service to the Worcester community for years.

OCABR on the Move

April OCABR on the Move

 

View the OCABR Full Event Calendar

 

#ConsumerTip

Children 18 and younger are 52% more likely to have their social security numbers stolen and abused than adults. A fraudster knows that parents do not usually think to run a credit check for their children or freeze their child’s credit because a minor should not have credit. This is why parents should take action and freeze their children's credit until they are 18. To check and/or freeze your credit and your minor’s credit visit annualcreditreport.com or call 877.322.8228.

Date published: March 30, 2022
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