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Consumer Update: October 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,

The days are getting colder and shorter, hallmarks that signify winter is coming. Here in New England these are also key indicators that flu season is upon us. According to medical professionals, it is more vital than ever to get a flu shot this year. In fact, for the first time, all children six months of age and up who attend Massachusetts childcare, pre-school, K-12, and those at Bay State colleges and universities, are required to have a flu shot by December 31st.

If school children can get a flu shot, the rest of us should be able to do our part. It takes just a few minutes in your doctor’s office or at any of the many clinics around the Commonwealth. Nothing to be anxious about, just a small pin prick and maybe a few days of a sore arm. Plus, doctors say this small preventative action will have big results in keeping the number of respiratory emergencies down at local hospitals which is helpful amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I got my flu shot earlier this month and support everyone doing the same.

To make sure that all residents of the Commonwealth understand how important this is, our colleagues at the Department of Public Health have developed a public awareness campaign that gives helpful facts about the flu and how to protect yourself from it. To learn more, visit the DPH web page or check out their videos on this topic.

Don’t delay, get a flu shot today!


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

Stay Connected, But Be Smart about Safety Precautions

These days, we are constantly connected to the internet, carrying our smart phones with us everywhere we go. Subsequently, the line between our real and online lives is becoming thinner and thinner each day. This is even more true in the pandemic world in which we live where telecommuting, home-schooling, and online shopping have become the norm - a norm maintained through online connections.

As the internet becomes a bigger and bigger part of our lives, it is important to take precautions to protect ourselves from cyber criminals. To help with that effort, October has been designated as National Cybersecurity Month to ensure that all Americans are aware of the importance of cybersecurity. This year’s theme set by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) is “Do your part. #BeCyberSmart.” The emphasis of the campaign is on the role that we each play in taking proactive steps to protect our online safety. 

According to the NSCA, the volume of fraudulent emails and text messages spiked by more than 660% at the beginning of the Coronavirus (COIVD-19) pandemic emergency. In recognition of National Cybersecurity Month here are a few steps you can take to keep yourself safe online.

  • Make strong passwords to increase security. Most of us have dozens of passwords to keep track of increasing the urge to use the same word, or phrase, more than once. Use unique passwords for each account. A typical keyboard has 94 characters. Use as many as you can, including upper-and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. To find out the type of security boost you can give your password, check out How Secure is My Password?
  • Look for the warning signs of a scam. Phishing and imposter scam e-mails and text messages may contain typos and fake URLs. These messages often pressure you to act immediately, urge you to click a bogus hyperlink, or ask for financial information. Remember that government agencies will never email, or call, to ask for personal information or to demand money.
  • Ask questions and report potential incidents. Most of us have set up work-at-home spaces, but have limited access to an IT expert. If you are worried about software updates, or have questions about your work network connection, follow your employer’s process for contacting your internal support department. It is important to remember that the more information you give to IT departments, the better their response can be. If you think an incident has occurred, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel, make sure you report it immediately.

Whether you are online working from home, applying for a job, checking your bank account balance, or searching for love, stay vigilant and do your part. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that about 9 million Americans have their identity stolen every year. Enhancing your cybersecurity can help keep your personal, and work, information secure. Visit our website for #MAConsumer cybersecurity tips and the Division of Banks for online financial protection information. For more information on National Cybersecurity Month or how you can become involved visit the NCSA. #BeCyberSmart

Tracking Data Breaches and What They Mean to You

What is a data breach?  

A data breach is the unauthorized acquisition, or use, of sensitive personal information that creates a substantial risk of identity theft, or fraud. Data breaches can be the result of criminal cyber-activity, such as hacking or ransomware, or be caused by consumer/employee error such as emailing information to the wrong person.  

In the state of Massachusetts the law defines personal information as a resident’s first and last name, or first initial and last name, in combination with one or more of the following data elements: 

  • Social security number 
  • Driver’s license number, or state-issued identification card number 
  • Financial account number, credit or debit card number, with or without any required security code, access code, personal identification number or password that would permit access to a resident’s financial account.  

Personal information does not include information that can be legally obtained from publicly available sources, such as a home address or a birthdate. 

When does a company need to report the breach to the state? 

The reporting entity must notify the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation as well as the Attorney General’s Office about the breach within a reasonable amount of time after either the discovery of a breach, or knowledge that personal information was obtained. 

What is important to note is that not every notification includes a social security number, credit or debit card number, or financial account information. In some cases, the information breached included: name, gender, date of birth, email address, phone number, donation history, and other personal information, like extracurricular activities, profession, employer, or education. When a fraudster obtains this type of data it can be just as dangerous to a consumer as other breaches. Armed with this information, a skilled fraudster could create a well-crafted spear phishing email that could yield a higher click-through rate and potential credential theft. The fraudster could also use the information in social engineering and make fraudulent phone calls to the unsuspecting consumer.  

What is a consumer to do if they receive a letter stating that their personal information was potentially involved in a data breach?  

If their social security number was involved, they are legally entitled to 18 months of complimentary identity theft credit monitoring through a service provider by the reporting entity. This provider will scour the dark web looking for information such as your email address or your social security number and alert you if someone attempts to open up a line of credit in your name.  

Consumers should also run a credit check with all three of the credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. https://www.annualcreditreport.com Read through each report to make sure that all of the information that is listed is correct: name, address, date of birth, lines of credit. If a consumer finds information that is not correct they can and should report it to the credit bureau and dispute the information. Once they have done this, a consumer can and should take it one step further and freeze their credit. This will not affect your current lines of credit, but it will make it nearly impossible for a fraudster, should they gain access to your social security number, from opening a new line of credit.  

For further precaution, consumers should be monitoring their financial accounts on a weekly or monthly basis. Look at all of your transactions, are they all yours? If a fraudster has picked up your credit or debit card number many times they will not go on a large spending spree, as they would be noticed by you or your bank. Many times they will simply charge a few dollars as a test to see if you or your financial institution are watching.  If you find a transaction that you do not recognize you should contact your financial institution immediately and dispute it.  

If you would like further information on Identity Theft, please visit our website. If you would like to see a list of data breach notifications that our Office has received, you can also check here.  

Winter is Coming, Are You Ready?

Talk of the first frost has us moving the items in our wardrobe around, pulling out our winter coats and storm boots in preparation for the change of seasons. This fall your closet should not be the only room in the house adjusting to the drop in temperature. October is a great time to prepare your home for the winter months ahead. Winterizing your house will not only help keep you warm during the coldest months of the year, but will also help you save money. 

Before the arctic wind chill hits, here are some things you can do to get your home ready for the frosty weather and all that comes with it:

  • Seal drafty spaces

Cracks and leaks around your home let cold air in, and drive heating bills up. According to Energystar.gov, homeowners typically save up to $200 a year in heating and cooling costs by air sealing their homes with insulation and caulking. You can also apply weather stripping to cracks around door frames and windows to seal them. A home energy assessment can help identify issues.

  • Perform duct system maintenance

Central heating and cooling system ducts can develop leaks, reducing your home’s energy efficiency. Check ducts in any crawlspace, attic, basement, or garage to evaluate them for cracks. 

  • Replace furnace filters

An emergency furnace repair visit in the middle of winter can be costly. Always try schedule maintenance appointments in the off season. And remember, a clean filter improves the function of your furnace. So, keep clean filters on hand and replace according to the directions for your furnace.

  • Insulate indoor piping

Exposed pipes are at higher risk of freezing, even a cold breeze from an unsealed window can cause ice to form. Using pipe wrap or tubular sleeves to insulate indoor piping will keep the water flowing and minimize the risk of a burst pipe. Pipe wrap comes in fiberglass, plastic, foil-backed natural cotton, and rubber tape. Longer pipes may need foam or rubber tubular sleeves for full coverage.

  • Clear outdoor gutters, drains and faucets

Gutters, drains, and outdoor faucets require maintenance as well. Debris can collect in gutters and drains causing ice and restricting drainage. Keeping these areas clear prevents water from entering your home causing flooding, or other damage. Disconnect garden hoses and drain outdoor faucets to keep water from pooling and freezing. And, don’t forget to winterize your outdoor sprinkler system, this can include blowing compressed air through the lines to remove any water.

Do-it-yourself or hire a professional?

Some winterizing projects like caulking an unsealed window, or draining outdoor faucets can be done easily on your own. If you need help  for larger projects, or furnace maintenance make sure the professional you hire has the proper licenses and registrations to do the job.

Use our database to locate registered home improvement contractors in Massachusetts or visit the Division of Professional Licensure to verify plumbers, electricians, and other licensed professionals. Making informed decisions protects you and your property. Consult our guide to hiring home improvement contractors before signing a contract.

Our consumer hotline is available to answer questions about the Home Improvement Contractor program, assist with verifying a licensed professional, and other #MAConsumer issues Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm by calling 617-973-8787.

Life Insurance Policy Locator Matches More than $1 Billion in Benefits & Annuities to Beneficiaries

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (NAIC) Life Insurance Policy Locator continues to connect consumers with life insurance benefits, matching over 81,349 requests nationwide with claim amounts totaling $1,028,479,262 since its inception in November 2016.

Each year, millions of dollars in life insurance benefits go unclaimed by beneficiaries who can't find their deceased loved ones' policies or, in some cases, may not even know the policies exist. A recent NAIC survey found that there is a clear need for better communication about life insurance policies across all generations, especially amongst those ages 24-39, with only 30% of respondents in that group reporting that they are aware of key information pertaining to life insurance policies for which they are the beneficiary, including where the policy is kept, the name of the insurance carrier, and the benefit amount.

The Life Insurance Policy Locator helps consumers who do not have all the information that they need to claim the benefits that their loved ones intended for them to have. The tool is free to use and available online, eliminating the need to contact multiple companies or agents to find a policy. If a requester is a beneficiary and is notified by the company that a lost policy has been found, typically, only a certified death certificate and company claim form must be submitted to the insurer which found a policy.

“Life insurance offers individuals and families a layer of financial protection following the death of a loved one,” said Division of Insurance Commissioner Gary Anderson. “For families coming to terms with a loss, the Life Insurance Policy Locator is a valuable resource to assist them in their time of need.”

While the Life Insurance Policy Locator is an effective tool, consumers and their loved ones should still have the difficult conversations about life insurance before the inevitable occurs. Consider these tips from the Division of Insurance to make those conversations a little easier.

Consumers considering purchasing life insurance should:

  • Review your needs and determine how much life insurance to buy. Consider your financial responsibility to your dependents and what expenses there might be after death.
  • Get quotes from multiple companies and research each insurer to make sure it is reputable. Life insurance is a competitive marketplace, and much of that competition is focused on price. Compare similar policies from different companies to find which one is likely to give you the best value for your money.
  • Never sign anything you don’t understand. If you are given illustrations or booklets, save these materials with your policy. Make sure you understand the guarantees in your policy and the surrender penalties if you choose to drop the policy at any time. Ask your agent or insurer about anything that is not clear to you.

Consumers who are the beneficiary of a life insurance policy should:

  • Know whether they are the primary or contingent beneficiary. The primary beneficiary receives the policy benefit (a portion or whole, depending on whether or not there are other beneficiaries) if they outlive the policyholder. The contingent beneficiary receives proceeds if a primary beneficiary dies before the policyholder. Note that naming an individual as a beneficiary rather than part of an estate allows the beneficiary to receive the proceeds immediately, and generally without taxation. As part of an estate, the proceeds will typically go through probate with the rest of the assets and might be subject to estate tax.
  • Know where the policy is and from which company it was purchased.

Once a policy is purchased, it should be regularly reviewed and updated. Keep up with changes to income and financial needs, and double-check that beneficiaries are still the same or whether they need to be updated. More information about life insurance, including a link to the Life Insurance Policy Locator, can be found on the Division’s website: https://www.mass.gov/life-insurance

Employee Spotlight

Each year the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation hires students participating in the cooperative learning program at Northeastern University. They spend three to six months serving as Consumer Information Specialists and Communications Specialists. In their time with us, the students get to see firsthand how our office operates while getting on the job training on our hotline and in our Communications Department. We are proud to welcome this fall’s students Thomas Un, Max Littlewood, Demi Pirrone, Steven Chambers, and Giancarlo Calvo, pictured here on a Zoom call.

OCABR Fall 2020 coop students in a virtual meeting
Date published: October 19, 2020
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