Letter from the Undersecretary
Dear Massachusetts Consumer,
Is it me, or does it feel like the fall is flying by? Hopefully, October brought more treats than tricks for Massachusetts consumers. As we get ready to settle into November, we must remember it is a general election year here in the Commonwealth and throughout the Nation.
Residents will have a chance to vote for their candidates running for local and state-level offices on or before Election Day. With our vote, we will be able to decide our state’s next governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of the commonwealth, state auditor, and treasurer. Additionally, candidates for the legislature across the state will be on your ballot. There is nothing better than participating in the democratic process and seeing it unfold.
There will also be four state-level ballot questions and the results will impact current laws and regulations. Questions 2 and 3 are consumer-driven, which is why I want to highlight what a majority vote “yes” and a majority vote “no” would change for us all.
Question 2 is the Medical Loss Ratios for Dental Insurance Plans Initiative. A “yes” vote would introduce new regulations on dental insurance, requiring that at least 83 cents of every dollar an insurer gets in premiums be spent on patient care, rather than administrative expenses. The Division of Insurance (DOI), an agency within OCABR, would enforce the change in regulation and would require dental insurance carriers to submit an annual comprehensive financial statement. A “no” vote would make no changes.
Question 3 is the Expanded Availability of Licenses for the Sale of Alcoholic Beverages. A “yes” vote would increase the number of licenses a retailer could have for the sale of alcoholic beverages to be consumed off premises, limit the number of “all-alcoholic beverages” licenses that a retailer could acquire, restrict use of self-checkout, and require retailers to accept customers’ out-of-state identification. A “no” vote would make no change in the laws governing the retail sale of alcoholic beverages.
I know we all have busy lives and sometimes wonder if our one vote will make a difference. When deciding whether to head to polls, remember the words of our terrific Governor Charlie Baker who said, “a strong Commonwealth is built on a foundation of strong communities. Friendly, welcoming, bustling neighborhoods and downtowns. Great schools. Safe, accessible, attractive places to play. Growing local economies. And a belief that anything is possible.” So, do your part, help make Massachusetts a great place to live, and exercise your right to vote. Your opinion matters and will be recognized this November. Remember, if you can’t vote in person on November 8, voters can mail-in ballots prior to November 1 or vote early in person from now until November 4.
Please stay informed with all the latest consumer advocacy and updates across our agency by following OCABR on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and our brand new Instagram account, or by checking out our most recent posts on the Mass Consumer Affairs Blog on Mass.gov/OCABR. As always, an informed consumer is an empowered consumer!
Edward A. Palleschi
Undersecretary, Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation
Stay Safe This Halloween
Halloween is creeping up once again, which means there’s a spooky night of fun awaiting kids and parents alike! Some will go trick or treating, others will stay in and watch horror movies, but no matter what it’s a real scream of a night all around.
A thrill is only fun if there’s no real risk involved, so the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation is providing a list of tips on having a scarily safe Halloween!
- Be aware of your surroundings. Bring a flashing with you while trick-or-treating at night stay, even if you are in a well-lit area. Ensure that your flashlight or lantern lasts all night by installing new batteries before you leave.
- Travel in groups. No matter where you are headed, practice the buddy system, especially on Halloween.
- Remove makeup before bed. If you or your kids put on any makeup as part of your costume, take it off before going to sleep in order to avoid any irritation from prolonged wear.
- Inspect the candy. After trick-or-treating, and before eating, look at any candy or treats to be sure they are unopened and were not tampered with. Discard any opened candy.
- Stick to the route. Map out the way you or your family are going trick-or-treating, particularly if children are venturing out alone or with friends. Consider going on a walk or drive together along the route to become familiar with the neighborhood, and identify any landmarks in case a ride home is needed.
- Keep your eyes on the road. Remain vigilant while driving on Halloween. Many pedestrians may be dressed in dark clothing and walk across the street at unmarked crossings.
Remember to follow your city or town’s curfew hours and make sure young children are accompanied by an adult. Whether you are trick-or-treating or passing out candy, make Halloween safe for everyone this year!
Consumer Tip: Overdraft Fees
Unexpected expenses happen and are sometimes out of our control. Credit cards, personal loans, money borrowed from a friend, or overdraft protection are often used to pay for emergencies that can’t be budgeted for. Bankrate.com reports that less than 50% of Americans can cover an unexpected $400 expense, and only about 40% of Americans can afford a $1,000 unanticipated expense. The means used to pay for these unforeseen bills are costly, especially overdraft protection.
Overdraft fees typically occur when your checking account is overdrawn to cover a transaction that exceeds your available balance. That means that the financial institution is covering the cost, and you must not only pay back the transaction amount, but an overdraft fee as well.
Federal and state laws do not specify a maximum amount for fees that banks or credit unions can charge for overdrafts. However, the fees must be clearly disclosed to each customer. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, an overdraft fee may cost around $35 per transaction.
The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation in collaboration with the Division of Banks, gathered the below tips to help consumers avoid costly overdraft fees.
- Keep track of your bank account balance. Ensure there is enough money to cover transactions and reoccurring payments.
- Create a monthly budget and consider using cash for purchases.
- Review your financial institution’s overdraft policy. You likely can opt out of overdraft coverage.
- Try using a linked line of credit or savings account to cover any checking account overages instead of paying overdraft fees.
The Division of Banks offers an interactive online resource for consumers called ‘Consumer Money Matters’. With just a few clicks, consumers can locate resources to make informed financial decisions. For more financial information on one simple interactive platform visit: www.mass.gov/handbook/consumer-money-matters.
Applying for Federal Student Loan Forgiveness
Update: The Student Loan Forgiveness program is currently paused but still accepting applications.
When news broke of the national student debt relief plan, millions of Americans were eager to know how they could benefit from a decrease of up to $20,000 on student loans. The application is now open and should take users just minutes to complete.
Individuals with an annual income under $125,000, or married couples making less than $250,000, qualify for the program to cancel $10,000 of student debt. Eligible borrowers with a Pell grant may receive a cancelation of debt up to $20,000. While the application period just started, there is a lot of information and updates to take in. The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation gathered details on the loan forgiveness program for Massachusetts consumers.
How is the plan unfolding?
- Earlier this month, the US Department of Education published a short online application. The application can be found here and contains only a handful of questions, such as name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, phone number, and email address.
- After an application is submitted, the Department of Education will collaborate with the loan service provider to process the debt relief.
- Applicants may be contacted by the Department of Education to provide additional information, or income verification if necessary.
- The application period closes on April 30, 2023.
With this new plan in place, scammers are taking advantage of borrowers excited to obtain debt relief. Fraudsters may claim that your application will be cancelled without immediate back tax payment, or offer to expedite the process for a fee. The Department of Education or the Internal Revenue Service will never call or email you demanding payment. Further, the process cannot be fast tracked for any cost. Here are a few reminders if you receive any suspicious communications related to federal student loan debt relief.
- Do not provide personal or financial information to anyone over the phone, unless you have initiated the call with a verified agency representative.
- Never share your Federal Student Aid username or password.
- Refuse to remit payment to anyone contacting you about the student loan debt relief program. Loan forgiveness is free.
- Always used verified contact information from a legitimate website, or mailed bill from your loan servicer to ensure you are speaking with an authorized provider.
For more information about the federal student loan relief, or to apply for forgiveness visit www.studentaid.gov.
Winterizing Your Home This Season
The temperatures and leaves are falling, which can only mean one thing—winter is on its way. There is more to winter preparation than just tuning up your snow blower and pulling out warm clothes, homeowners should ensure that their property is prepared to withstand the elements.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an average winter in Massachusetts this year with about 50 inches of snow, everyone should be ready when the first flakes start to fall. So, in anticipation of the freeze to come, the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business regulation compiled steps that you can take to prepare your home.
- Assess your home’s heating and cooling systems. Change filters and consider hiring a professional to service your equipment. The Division of Occupational Licensure oversees refrigeration technicians and plumbers that may work on these types of maintenance projects. Check a license of a professional you want to work with before signing any contracts.
- Inspect the home’s exterior wood and trim for any chipping or cracking. Most exterior trim is not rot-resistant and needs to be fixed periodically. Hire a registered contractor to assess any deterioration or damage for repairs.
- Insulate any exposed pipes with wraps or sleeves to avoid freezing. Burst pipes and restricted water flow are risks that come with uninsulated pipes. Depending on the length of your pipes, you may need a fiberglass, plastic, or rubber tape pipe wrap, or even a full coverage foam sleeve. Before it gets cold, have exposed pipes evaluated by a registered contractor.
- Replace the batteries in your fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Ice dams and snow loads can backup against the home or air filters and potentially cause a disaster inside the home.
- Seal porches or decks around the property before any major rain or snowfall. Pour water on to your porch/deck to quickly test the seal; if the water beads, your deck is still sealed. If the water soaks into the deck, the seal should be redone to avoid mold or rot.
Some winterizing projects are do-it-yourself, and others require a professional contractor. All contractors, partnerships, and corporations that solicit, bid on, or perform residential contracting as a contractor or subcontractor on an existing one-to-four-unit owner occupied residential property in Massachusetts must be register with the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC). Visit the Office’s website for more information on the HIC program and hiring a contractor for your winterization projects.
DTC Commissioner Panels Federal Communications Bar Association Meeting
The Department of Telecommunications & Cable (DTC), a regulatory agency of OCABR, is always looking out for Massachusetts Consumers.
Earlier this month, Commissioner Karen Charles Peterson served as a panelist at the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA) meeting entitled, “New England’s Plans for Broadband Funding,” which was held at Boston University’s College of Communication.
Here, state and local government leaders, along with industry stakeholders discussed how New England is responding to the unprecedented funding for broadband deployment and digital equity that has been authorized by the Biden Administration and Congress.
OCABR on the Move
Follow Along: OCABR Is Now on Instagram!
|Date published:||October 31, 2022|