Consumer Update: November 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, 

Undersecretary Palleschi

This month, and in particular this past week, is a time that we as Americans choose to be thankful. A time dedicated to reflection and remembrance of all that we are grateful for in this life. Thanksgiving upholds traditions dating back to the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. One of the oldest and best-known stories in American history began right here in Massachusetts, just over 400 years ago.

Last year celebrations with our loved ones may have been limited as a result of the global pandemic. As we cautiously return to a new normal this year, I know I will take pause for even longer in the thought of one of my favorite seasonal quotes by fellow Bay Stater, Henry David Thoreau; “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.”

I was reminded of this earlier this month when the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) gathered virtually to the honor the life of Courtney Hickson, former Counsel at the Department of Telecommunications and Cable who passed away tragically in 2018. That year, the Courtney Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award was created to recognize and show appreciation for an attorney nominated by their peers who works within OCABR and who emulates many of the same admirable qualities Courtney showed throughout her career and life.

I am grateful every day for the people like Courtney Hickson who always put others first; for their leadership, courage, compassion, heroism, and for their humanity.  It is my privilege to serve the Baker-Polito Administration with colleagues like Courtney and this year’s award recipient, Valerie M. Carbone of the Division of Banks. Like Courtney, Valerie’s dedication to her community, service to others, and volunteerism is unparalleled. We are lucky to have Valerie as a member of the OCABR team, and the Commonwealth is lucky to have her working on their behalf.

So, as I gathered with my family last week, and as we begin to plan for another holiday season, I truly am grateful for the lasting memories created.  Remember to check in on your friends and family, especially seniors, as temperatures drop and seasonal scams begin. This next month is the busiest time of the year for consumers and scammers, which is why OCABR along with it’s agencies have prepared the briefs in the newsletter below to give you the tools and knowledge to better protect yourself.

Finally, please take a minute to listen to my appearance on the Build Better Podcast with Anastasia Barnes of High-Profile Monthly where I discuss the importance of how regulatory boards and commissions ultimately impact consumers and uphold industry standards.

Wishing you and your family a safe and happy holiday season!

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

Holiday Shopping Deals for Smart Consumers

The turkey is gone and the pumpkin pie is stocked away in the fridge—the holiday season is in full swing.  According to a BlackFriday.com shopper’s survey, over 186 million Americans made purchases during the holiday weekend between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday in 2020.  As consumers line up to purchase holiday presents or scroll through online sales, it is important to keep in mind the rights that you as a consumer have to protect yourself while shopping. 

At the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR), we believe that the best consumer is an informed consumer, which is why we put together the below list of shopping rights you should be aware of this gift giving season.

  • Retailers can use the term “sale” when savings are at least 10% off of regularly priced items $200 or less, and at least 5% in savings for goods over $200. If you buy something at regular price and it goes on sale soon after, merchants are not required to refund the difference in price.
  • It is illegal for a salesperson to make false or misleading statements about a product or a service, or withhold information in order to make a sale.  These illegal statements also include “bait and switch” tactics by refusing to sell an advertised product, claiming to have sold out of a product, or denying delivery of the item within a reasonable time. The salesperson cannot misrepresent the price or claim that it is reduced or offered for a limited time only if it’s untrue.
  • There is no set law about return policies in the Commonwealth.  Retailers can have any return policy they want as long as it is clearly disclosed somewhere in the store.  Defective merchandise must be accepted for return, repair, replacement, or refund.
  • Gift cards and certificates purchased in Massachusetts are good for seven years and not subject to fees unless issued or backed by a federal bank.  In addition, gift certificates must be marked with an expiration date and date of issuance.  If there are no dates on the gift certificate or sales receipt, the gift certificate is good forever. 

For more information on your rights while you shop this season’s deals, visit OCABR’s Massachusetts Consumer Guide to Shopping Rights.

Residential Utility Protections Start This Month

We are gearing up for another New England winter here in Massachusetts, and staying warm is a top priority. Many individuals facing financial hardship may be worried about keeping the heat on as temperatures fall. Fortunately, there are protections in place to help Massachusetts residents during the winter months. Beginning November 15th through March 15th, your utilities cannot be shut off for failure to pay. 

Specifically, during this time between November and March, your utilities cannot be shut off if you are unable to pay your bill and your gas or electric cannot be cut off without the permission of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU). Residential customers of investor-owned companies, like Eversource and National Grid, are protected from utility shut off if the service is necessary to heat your home.  If your utility services are stopped between these dates, contact your provider directly.  Contact the Department of Public Utilities at 617-737-2836 if your utility company has not restored service.

There are utility protections in place for renters in Massachusetts as well.  Landlords must provide a heating system in good working order unless otherwise stated in your lease.  Some leases may include provisions that the property owner or manager control the heating temperature.  Between September 16th and June 14th, rooms must be heated to at least 68ᵒF from 7am to 11pm, and 64ᵒF at all other hours. If your apartment heating system is unable to meet these specifications, consider contacting your local Board of Health for more information.

Oil, propane, and wood are unregulated utilities and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the DPU. However, in many instances providers are willing to work with individuals facing financial hardship. 

In Massachusetts, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has options for residents in need of local fuel assistance.  Use the DHCD resource locator to determine which organization can assist you in various situations, including home heating in the winter.

Fuel Prices Heating Up

Many consumers are experiencing sticker shock this month when signing an annual home-heating contract or filling up their gas tank.  Inflation and limited supply are affecting fuel and oil prices across the country.  The Division of Standards (DOS), an agency within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR), helps to protect consumers purchasing fuel, firewood, food, and other products throughout the Commonwealth. This year consumer protections related to gasoline and home heating products are more important than ever.

The U.S. Department of Energy warned Americans to expect to pay "significantly" more to heat their homes this winter with natural gas prices up nearly 180% from last year. According to the fuel savings application, GasBuddy.com, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline was up to $3.32—a $1.10 increase since 2020.  Alternative heating sources like firewood are also experiencing price surges. 

In addition to enforcing accuracy requirements and other standards related to weighing and measuring devices and their use in the sale of certain types of products, the DOS oversees the sale of gasoline and set standards for lubricating oils and antifreeze.  The DOS also inspects fuel-dispensing equipment for required markings pertaining to grade and brand; and tests and approves motor vehicle and oil retailers.

While temperatures dip to near freezing, it is important to know how to protect yourself when heating your home and filling up at the pump.  Get to know your rights and discover resources within the tips from OCABR below:

Gasoline:

  • Motor fuel retailers must publicly display and maintain at least one clearly visible sign stating the price per gallon of each grade of gasoline sold from that pump or dispensing device.  These price signs may be updated after twenty-four consecutive hours of posting. It is important to report any discrepancies in gasoline sales to the DOS.

Firewood:

  • Massachusetts law requires that firewood sellers provide a delivery receipt including the amount of wood delivered in cubic feet, name and address of the buyer and seller, date of delivery, and the total price of the wood.  When you receive your firewood delivery, ask the seller to stack the wood (or stack it yourself), and measure the amount acquired before using any. If you believe that you received an incorrect amount of wood compared to your receipt, document the shortage and contact the DOS

Oil:

  • There are two types of home heating oil contracts available: a fixed price contract and a capped price contract.  Fixed price contracts allow you to lock in a set price for the duration of your agreement, even if the price increases.  Capped price contracts set a maximum price on the cost of oil per gallon, and the amount you pay may vary throughout the season up to the agreed upon amount.  The DOS inspects fuel oil delivery trucks to ensure that consumers receive accurate deliveries.  Massachusetts law requires oil delivery tickets be mechanically printed and must display the date, price per gallon, total gallons delivered, and the name of the seller/delivery person.  File a complaint with the DOS if you believe your oil delivery company is out of compliance.

For more information about current oil and wood heating prices and local heating oil dealers in Massachusetts, visit the Department of Energy Resource’s webpage.  Visit the DOS website for additional details on motor fuel retailers, firewood sales, and more related to weights and measures in the Commonwealth.

Courtney R. Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award Recipient Named

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 (DTC). Courtney was also a mentor, friend, avid runner, and an active member of the Chelsea community.  In 2018 at the age of 36, her life was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car accident. To honor her legacy, the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) established the Courtney R. Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award

The award recognizes attorneys within OCABR and its five agencies who display many of Courtney’s admirable qualities through excellence in their field of practice, leadership, teamwork, and dedication to their community.

This year’s award recipient is Valerie M. Carbone, an attorney at the Division of Banks (DOB).  Described by colleagues as an excellent team member that never shies from her commitment to correct outcomes for the community we serve.  Not only is Valerie a valuable member of the DOB legal team, she has coordinated events, such as agency wide blood drives, in her spare time.  Valerie personifies the characteristics celebrated by the Courtney R. Hickson Outstanding Attorney Award.

Undersecretary Edward Palleschi presented Valerie with the outstanding attorney award on November 3rd in a virtual ceremony attended by Courtney’s family, friends, and colleagues.  Valerie has been with the DOB for 16 years, and in her current role provides legal support to the Non-Depository Supervision Unit. Prior to joining DOB, Valerie served as the Assistant General Counsel at the Division of Insurance.  Congratulations to Valerie!

OCABR Licensee Recognized:

Pictured left to right: Boston Trust Realty Group Owner Robert Nichols and Undersecretary Edward Palleschi.

Pictured left to right: Boston Trust Realty Group Owner Robert Nichols and Undersecretary Edward Palleschi.

This month, Undersecretary Edward A. Palleschi visited Boston Trust Realty Group on Neponset Avenue in Dorchester to recognize them as shining example of the gold standard of licensees as part of The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) Licensee Recognition Program. Boston Trust Realty Group is comprised of an innovative team of real estate experts dedicated to providing the highest level of service. They have served the Greater Boston community since 2007 and have established a reputation as a leading Boston brokerage in several local markets.


OCABR is grateful for Boston Trust Realty Group's contributions to the community and to the consumers of the Commonwealth. The Division of Occupational Licensure (DOL), an agency within OCABR, oversees and supports the Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons and the board licenses over 70,000 salespersons, real estate schools, and businesses including Boston Trust Realty Group.

OCABR on the Move

Join OCABR for our November Events

 

View the OCABR Full Event Calendar

 

#ConsumerTip

Apple last week announced a Self-Service Repair program  that will launch early next year and allow customers to start fixing their products on their own with genuine Apple parts and tools with a provided how-to manual. 

Date published: November 29, 2021
Feedback