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Consumer Update: May 22, 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,

Monday is Memorial Day - the unofficial start of summer here in New England. This federal holiday, once known as Decoration Day, originated after the Civil War. It is a time of reflection for honoring and mourning military personnel who have died while serving our country.

The day is often commemorated with patriotic events and parades. In the shadow of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic there will be fewer celebrations this year in memory of our brave soldiers due to social distancing mandates. To commemorate the fallen, poet Will Carleton wrote: "Over all our happy country – over all our Nation spread, is a band of noble heroes – is our Army of the Dead."

Years later, another poet John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies with his poem Flanders Fields. In 1915, after reading the poem a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

While we may not be able to gather together to honor those we have lost, let’s remember the courage and the sacrifice of all American military with gratitude and perhaps a red poppy.

Please join me in saluting all of our fallen heroes this Memorial Day!

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

Scam Alert: Unemployment Edition

Unemployment is rising daily in the U.S. as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency. More than 36 million unemployment claims have been filed nationally in the past two months. And now, the Secret Service is warning Americans about a sophisticated international crime ring from Nigeria that is targeting state unemployment programs.

According to the Secret Service these overseas criminals are registering for unemployment benefits using stolen social security numbers and personally identifiable information. As states rush to make funds available for constituents hardest hit by the economic downturn, more and more people have become eligible for unemployment. The sheer volume of applicants has caused processing delays which in turn have led to the need for speedy payments prompting waivers of waiting periods and other screening processes intended to protect against this sort of crime.

The scammers use information obtained from identity theft victims to open claims, in some cases the victim is still employed. Several government agencies have received inquiries from citizens who received unsolicited paperwork in the mail about their unemployment benefits. In other cases, those who are legitimately unemployed have been told a claim has already been processed in their name.

If you suspect that you are a victim of identity theft, do the following:

  1. File a police report with your local authorities, and obtain a copy for your records. You will need to provide a copy of this report when you report ID theft to the three credit reporting bureaus, the FTC, and the FBI.  
  2. Place a fraud alert on your credit cards: to do this contact one of the three credit reporting agencies. This will reduce the risk of accounts being opened in your name without your knowledge or permission. Call Equifax at 888-766-0008, Experian at 888-397-3742, or TransUnion at 800-680-7289 to initiate the alert. If you place the alert with one agency, they will notify the other two for you.  
  3. Run a credit report from all three of the credit reporting bureaus. Look for anything suspicious or open lines of credit that do not belong to you. Dispute any unauthorized transactions on the report. Close any accounts opened by someone else in your name.
  4. Consider freezing all three of your credit reports. It is free to freeze and unfreeze and will help prevent a fraudster from potentially opening up any new lines of credit in your name.  
  5. Contact all of your financial institutions to alert them of the suspected ID theft. They can in turn keep a close watch or red flag your accounts for you. 
  6. File a Complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can file online, or by calling the FTC Identity Theft Hotline at (877) IDTHEFT, or (877) 438-4338.
  7. File a complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center

Check your computer for viruses: if manage financial data online, malicious computer programs could allow a hacker to steal sensitive information. If you believe your computer is infected, run an anti-virus program to scan for any viruses and remove them.

Compliance Strong Banking

The Division of Banks (DOB) launched a special Compliance Strong COVID-19 series of their financial industry webcast program, DOB Connects, to inform, support, and bring together financial industry professionals during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Leaders from the DOB partnered with senior executives from across the financial services industry to discuss innovative ways to provide banking services, loan modification assistance, and enhance outreach to their customers and members during this crisis.

DOB Connects frequently covers regulatory developments and consumer-related topics for financial institutions and community organizations. It was natural for the DOB to adapt this series to address the challenges facing regulated entities as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Topics covered in the DOB Connects: Compliance Strong/COVID 19 series include customer crisis response, mortgage modifications, fair lending, and lessons from a community bank.

The Coronavirus emergency accelerated the digital transformation for the world – this included moving from traditional in-branch banking transactions to essentially 100% online banking overnight. Most banks and credit unions have also found creative ways to continue to meet the banking needs of their customers.  During this time, lenders find themselves in a unique situation playing a key role in processing government relief in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small businesses.  As of May 16, 2020, financial institutions in Massachusetts have funded over 104,000 loans for a total of $14.2 billion in PPP loans.  Community banks have played a pivotal role in the success of this program in the Commonwealth.

“We are changing the trajectory of the lives of members in the community we care so much about,” said Edward Manzi, Chairman and CEO, Fidelity Bank, in this week’s webcast Staying Strong for Our Employees, Customers, and Community - Lessons from a Community Bank. “It matters who you bank with.”

Overall, the financial industry remains strong while developing innovative ways to work with customers, and engage with employees. If you missed an episode, all DOB Connects webcasts are available for download at your convenience. Registration is free and required for all sessions. Don’t forget to follow the DOB Connects page for information about how to sign-up for future  Compliance Strong/COVID-19 webinars.

Safe Measures for Grocery Retailers and Consumers

Everyday throughout the past few months as most of Massachusetts has sheltered at home, grocery store employees have worked daily through the state of emergency. These essential workers have done all that they can to make sure we have access to food and other needed supplies for ourselves and our families. In many cases, grocery retailers have been among the only people we have had face-to-face contact with. So, for their safety and our own, measures are being taken to protect everyone who enters a grocery store during the current health crisis.

In March, and again in April, as part of the response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) the Baker Administration issued guidance for grocery stores in the Commonwealth. This includes a mandate for an hour a day to be designated exclusively for shoppers that are 60 and older. It also suggests one-way traffic in all merchandise aisles, and, separate entrance and exit doors to help enforce social distancing. The advisory bans reusable bags (139 cities had banned plastic bags which are now in use), and suspends ordinances that require consumers to pay for plastic or paper bags. Food bars are discouraged, everyone is required to wear face masks, and occupancy is limited to 40% capacity - this includes staff and customers. And, if lines form outside the entrance, social distancing of 6-feet is expected.

While you are likely aware of much of this, what you may not know is the part that the Division of Standards (DOS) played in these policies or the Division’s role in regulating grocery stores. The Massachusetts Item Pricing Law requires food and grocery stores to individually price-mark most items with the actual selling price. The law also requires food and grocery merchants to sell any item at the lowest price indicated on an item, sign, or advertisement. Recently, restaurants began selling groceries to consumers as a way to help make needed supplies available while giving them an added source of revenue. When this happened, the DOS weighed in literally and figuratively setting making sure these establishments are adhering to regulations on how food is weighed, measured, and packaged for consumers. By enforcing the pricing law, the DOS is protecting consumers by making sure pricing is accurate and that you are getting what you pay for even during a pandemic emergency.

Telehealth for Pets

Social distancing may be hard for your dog or cat to understand, but your veterinarian knows the importance of keeping apart during the pandemic emergency. Like with other industries, those in animal medicine are finding ways to operate during these difficult times. This has required a commitment to safety coupled with innovation and forward thinking.

Fears over safety for staff, consumers, and animals - especially as cats, dogs and zoo animals have been diagnosed with Coronavirus (COVID-19) - is a real concern. Adhering to safety protocols has led some vets to offer a version of curbside service where animals wait in the car with owners until a vet tech comes to get them and bring them inside for treatment. And for the first time in the Commonwealth, telehealth is available for your pet.

Consistent with the Governor Baker’s declared state of emergency regarding COVID-19, the Board of Registration of Veterinary Medicine, which is regulated by the Division of Professional Licensure (DPL),  has issued guidance to veterinarians on best practices to protect the patient, patient owners, and veterinarians and their staff. Among other things, it authorizes veterinarians in Massachusetts to administer care via telemedicine.

Guidance policy regarding telemedicine for pets has been authorized through the state of emergency; details are posted on the DPL website by the Veterinary Board, here are the links:

Remember, animal hospitals remain open during pandemic emergency. So, while telehealth is a great alternative if your pet requires onsite care that is also available.

Employee Spotlight

OCABR proudly acknowledges three active duty employees serving in the U.S. military: Marine Lance Corporal Michael Collins who is a Bank Examiner with the DOB, Army National Guard Second Lieutenant Lauren McShane who is a Chief Investigator with DPL, and Army Lieutenant Colonel Chris Lee who is a Compliance Officer with DPL.

We are grateful for your service!

AARP Teletown Hall, May 29th

 

Join Undersecretary Ed Palleschi and Deputy Bank Commissioner Andrea Cipolla for an AARP Teletown Hall on Friday, May 29th from 2:00 - 3:00 pm. Call in number: 877-229-8493, Pin:  114946.

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