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Consumer Update: November 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,

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday. The tradition dates back to a harvest feast held by the colonial settlers who came to Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower and the Native Americans who helped them brave their first winter here. 

The arrival of the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620 is one of the oldest and best known immigrant stories in American history. It reminds us that the United States is a melting pot, and that when we work together we can overcome almost anything. 
 

To commemorate this milestone anniversary, Governor Charlie Baker signed an Executive Order four years ago which reaffirmed the Plymouth, Massachusetts 400th Anniversary Commission. I have been honored to serve on this committee over the past couple of years. And while COVID has curtailed some of the plans, the Plymouth 400 Commemoration pays tribute to our story of exploration, our shared history with the Native people, innovation, self-governance, and thanksgiving.
 
Observance of this holiday will look different for us this year as Governor Baker and public health experts warn of the dangers around large gatherings, and urge everyone to stay home with members of their immediate family. Our colleagues at the Department of Public Health have posted Thanksgiving-specific guidelines to help us all stay safe this year. And, to foster holiday spirit and remind us of the things people love, DPH has launched #GetBackMass campaign. It reminds us that while things may be difficult now, there is still a lot to be thankful for and so much to look forward to in the coming year.  
 

So if you can, stay home this Thanksgiving. Maintain a connection with extended family by hosting a virtual celebration. Or if you must travel, take precautions and follow public health protocols: wear a mask, wash your hands often, sit outside when in groups. And consider Governor Baker’s appeal from earlier this week, "Protecting your family, and your friends, and your neighbors, and your Commonwealth should be your primary thought with regard to this holiday season. And that depends on the actions of all of us."
 
Wishing you and your family a safe and happy Thanksgiving! 


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

2020 Courtney Rose Hickson Award

Courtney Rose Hickson was a talented and energetic attorney who dedicated herself to public service through her work at the Department of Telecommunications and Cable. Her life was tragically cut short in 2018 when she was killed in a car accident at the age of 36.

The Courtney R. Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award was established to keep her memory alive by recognizing attorneys within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation and its five regulatory agencies: the Department of Telecommunications and Cable, the Division of Banks, the Division of Insurance, the Division 0f Professional Licensure; and, the Division of Standards who embody her spirit and compassion for others.

This year’s award recipient is Jessica Uhing-Lueddehas, an attorney at the Division of Professional Licensure (DPL). Described by colleagues as “kind and good-humored” Jessica is said to personify the traits celebrated by the Courtney R. Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award.

Jessica has been with DPL for more than 16 years, first as a Prosecuting Counsel and currently as a Hearings Officer. She is highly regarded at DPL where she has a reputation for mentoring new Hearings Officers and sharing her institutional knowledge with others.

Prior to joining DPL, Jessica served as a Judicial Law Clerk for the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania.  

Fraud Alert: Medicare

Medicare open enrollment time is here again. And so are the fraudsters, calling, and texting, showing up at your door, or emailing you. These swindlers will say anything to try to gain your trust. Some of them may have already obtained small amounts of information about you, such as your name, address, the last four digits of your social security number, or financial account information.

They will use that information against you to make themselves appear to be legitimate and to make you let your guard down. If you feel comfortable, you may disclose additional information like your full social security number, financial information, or other personal information.

Here are a few tips and red flags to watch for to help you avoid being a victim:

Phone Calls: If you receive a call and the caller is rude, pushy, and aggressive and is asking you for financial information so they can send you a new or updated Medicare card or update your file, hang up. A Medicare representative will never be rude or aggressive, and will not call you to ask for financial information. Never give any caller personal information if you have not initiated the call.

Door-to-door Scams: There have been reports of scam artists knocking on consumers’ front doors, claiming to be from Medicare, trying to sell the consumer a new Medicare prescription coverage plan, supplements, etc. Medicare does not make house calls. 

Medical Equipment: You may receive a call, letter in the mail, or see a television ad for “free or low-cost” back or knee braces. To qualify, they will say that all you have to do is disclose your Medicare information. If you give your information to the scammer, it will be used to fraudulently bill Medicare for the brace, or other medical equipment. If that happens it will use up your medical benefits, which may make it difficult or impossible to get the correct brace, should you need it, later. If you need a brace of some kind, or other medical equipment, contact your doctor directly. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises refusing medical equipment that is mailed unless your doctor has ordered it.

Free or low-cost genetic testing: If anyone offers you, via phone, letter, or email, a free or low-cost DNA test kit be careful. The scammer is after your Medicare information for identity theft, or fraudulent billing purposes. Medicare does not pay for random genetic testing.

Protect yourself from Medicare fraud by keeping these things in mind:

  • Medicare will never contact you for your Medicare number or other personal information, unless you’ve given them permission in advance.
  • Medicare will never call you to sell you anything.
  • Medicare will never visit you at your home.
  • Medicare cannot enroll you over the phone unless you call them.

For questions or more information you can go online www.cms.gov or call 1-800-633-4227.

Informed Consumer: Third Party Vendors

The pandemic has forced consumers to shop online with increasing frequency. However, when buying virtually, things are not always as they seem. Unlike when you enter a brick and mortar store, when you shop online-- even with brands you know and trust-- you are not always buying from the vendor whose store you are visiting.

Companies like Amazon, eBuzz, Kmart, or Walmart, set their own policies when it comes to how thoroughly they vet their third-party sellers. They may also have different return policies, shipping times, and warranty information for purchases made from third-party vendors. If you plan to shop online this holiday season, read on for some tips to help you make your online buying experience safer this season.

Determine who the actual seller is. You can ascertain which company is the actual seller by looking for “sold by” and/or “fulfilled by” on the product page of the item. From there, you can check the legitimacy of a third-party seller by locating their company website. Most scammers will not go to the trouble of building a fake website that would accompany their listing. A legitimate company on the other hand will often offer an easily accessible website that you can look at.

Research the third-party seller’s reviews by doing a simple Google search (seller name plus customer reviews) that may either bring up no company information (Red Flag) or extensive reviews, good and bad. Look for red flags such as repeated failure to fulfill orders, wrong items shipped, poor customer service, return policies not honored, etc. One suggestion is to periodically recheck the third-party seller’s policies, as they can and often change.

Check the manufacturer and product. Make sure there is nothing fishy about the company name, product name, description, or images. Are the photos clear photos taken of a real product? Do they look professional? In regard to the manufacturer, you can do a Google search for their name, see if their products are sold in the US and what other products they are selling.

For larger and more expensive items, take the extra time to find out if the seller is an authorized reseller (which often is indicated by a badge that indicates that, but is also verifiable on the manufacturer websites). If you buy an item and the seller is not authorized by the manufacturer, some manufacturers may not honor the warranty, even with proof of purchase, if something goes wrong with the item.

Finally, read the shipping and return policies of the third-party seller. They may vary from the umbrella retailer. For example, you may not be able to return the product to the physical store if you choose not to keep it. If you purchase an item and it breaks or does not work, you may be able to push back on the umbrella retailer. You should also check whether your payment method protects you from bad business practices. For example PayPal’s buyer protection or your credit card.

For other information on your shopping rights, visit www.mass.gov/consumer.

If you suspect bad business practices and you wish to file a complaint against a business in MA, please visit the Massachusetts Attorney General’s website.

Fraud Alert: Pet Edition

For many, a house is not a home without a pet. And in today’s world where almost everyone is at home due to the pandemic, it is not surprising to find that pet adoptions are up significantly. While this is a positive outcome in many ways, it means that those looking for pets are often shopping online for furry companions. Sadly, scammers are in the shadows waiting to take advantage of this phenomenon.

One scam that we have received a number of calls about on our hotline is for Bengal cats. In this scam consumers are shown images of cute Bengal kittens on websites that look legitimate. Once the consumer has chosen a kitten they are asked to send funds of $350-900 in advance of receiving their pet, but even after the money is received the animal is never delivered. While there are lots of legitimate shelters, breeders, and other pet industry businesses, as noted, there are also those who seek to profit off your desire to acquire a four-legged companion.

So if you are considering offering a fur-ever home to a dog or a cat, make sure you know who you are doing business with before you pay hundreds of dollars or more for a pet you may not get. The best way to avoid being deceived is to be an informed consumer. In other words, do your homework before you fall for a furry face and send payment to an unknown entity.

Steps to take to protect yourself against fraud:

  • Focus on online sellers that live in your geographic area, so you can physically see the animal before purchase. An in-person visit will allow your family to ask the seller important questions about the dog or cat and to see if the pet is a good fit for your household.
  • Ask the seller to take a video of the animal and say your name during the recording. This keeps the scammer from using video obtained elsewhere to seduce you into purchasing a pet that is not in the seller’s possession.
  • Most serious breeders are registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC), or the International Cat Association (TICA). If you are buying from a breeder, you can check their credentials through these organizations
  • When speaking with these organizations, verify the breeders contact information - name, phone number, website, and email address.
  • Tell the seller that you would like to speak to them  by phone, fraudsters do not usually agree to this.
  • Ask the seller for the name of their vet as a reference - most scammers will not be able to supply this information.
  • If the price for the pet is very low, or much lower than average, this is likely a scam.
  • Avoid sites like Craiglist when purchasing a pet.

Consider adopting from a local animal shelter:

If you do find yourself a victim of pet fraud, help protect others from falling prey to the scam by reporting the seller to these agencies:

Massachusetts Small Business Summit

The Massachusetts Small Business Summit was hosted virtually by the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, the Better Business Bureau, and the Small Business Administration. Edward A. Palleschi, Undersecretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation; Commissioner Mary Gallagher, Division of Banks; Commissioner Gary Anderson, Division of Insurance; and, Commissioner Layla D’Emilia, Division of Professional Licensure spoke about “Leading A Regulatory Agency During the Pandemic.”

MA Small Business Summit
Date published: November 23, 2020
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