Tuesday, January 07, 2020

WV Legislative Session begins 1/8/2020

Our state legislature meets for its 2 month regular session starting Wednesday January 8, 2020. That night Governor Jim Justice will deliver his 4th State of the State address You can watch and listen live on West Virginia Public Broadcasting tv and radio stations, the legislature's internet live stream, the Governor's YouTube channel , and the Governor's Facebook page.

Monday, January 06, 2020

12 Days of Scams Day 12: Never Surrender!

Are Americans becoming scam-weary?

If so, that can actually make it much easier for the scammers.

So staying vigilant and remembering that if something comes your way that sounds too good to be true, it could be a scam.

The top tips from the Federal Trade Commission on how to avoid being the next victim are available at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0060-10-things-you-can-do-avoid-fraud.

To stay current on scams, the FTC provides a service that sends alerts to you via ftc.gov/scams. Also, AARP has a series of podcasts on scams that hit seniors at https://www.aarp.org/podcasts/the-perfect-scam/.

12 Days of Scams Day 11: I Am the H.A.L. 9000, You May Call Me Hal.

What are robocalls?

They are computerized calls that can be the least costly way to scam the unwary.

If you answer the phone and hear a recorded sales pitch, hang up and report it to the Federal Trade Commission at https://donotcall.gov/.

Don’t press 1 to speak to a person or to be taken off the list. That actually often tells the scammer’s computer to call you again.

There are ways to block various kinds of unwanted calls, depending on whether you are using a landline, mobile phone, VOIP. Learn more about how fro the Federal Trade Commission at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-block-unwanted-calls

Friday, January 03, 2020

12 Days of Scams Day 10: Mass Market Consumer Scams

Are we getting better at avoiding scams?

The Federal Trade Commission’s 2017 mass market consumer fraud survey report, at https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/mass-market-consumer-fraud-united-states-2017-update/p105502massmarketconsumerfraud2017report.pdf, found that 40 million U. S.adults were victims of various kinds of such fraud that year. That’s almost 16% of the adult population.

These surveys are done periodically, and the scams with attendant losses are increasing. Some even became double victims of scams since almost 62 million scam efforts were reported as successful.

Of the victims in the 2017 survey, 62% purchased fraudulent products via the internet. Always checking for the security lock on the line with the website address is a way to lower the effectiveness of the scam.

Fraudulent weight loss products and computer repairs were the top areas for scams. The fake weight loss products also had the most repeat victims.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

12 Days of Scams Day 9: Heartbreaking Romance Scams

Romance in the air -- and on the internet. But so are the scams.

Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about romance scams have risen significantly in recent years, as have the financial losses associated with them.

Learn more about the $143 million in reported losses during 2018 from such scams at https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/02/new-ftc-data-spotlight-details-big-jump-losses-complaints-about?utm_source=govdelivery

Those victims age 70 and over reported losing the most -- a median loss of $10,000. Ouch!

The scammers were able to make the victim feel important and were often viewed as the most compassionate and helpful person in their life. But the scammer also needed help with rent, car repairs, medical emergencies, transportation or family situations and didn’t hesitate to ask the victim for help.

As the victims learn, the scammers were not who they said they were. They use other people’s photos and fake identities. And they can pocket around $10,000 per older victim. That’s not romantic!

Monday, December 30, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 8: Reporting scams can make a difference

The British Museum contains the world’s oldest documented consumer complaint: a 3,800-year-old Babylonian tablet from the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia — now known as Tell el-Muqayyar in Iraq. The clay tablet recorded the complaint of an unsatisfied copper ore customer written to his supplier.

Sad to say, 6,000 years of crooks robbing others hasn’t helped us all avoid being taken to the cleaners.

Many feel after suffering financial loss from a scam that they can’t do anything.

But reporting the scam to the Federal Trade Commission could lead to a prosecution of the scammer and refunds to the victims. Debt management, credit counseling, health care frauds, revenge porn, work-at-home plans, diet products, business opportunities, vocational training, and third party debt collection are just some of the recent scams that were halted and refunds to victims made, as discussed in Appendix A at https://www.ftc.gov/reports/2018-annual-report-refunds-consumers?utm_source=govdelivery.

But watch out for the scammers who can swoop in and scam victims a second time during the refund prosecution process -- https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2019/10/ftc-refunds-real-deal-or-not?utm_source=govdelivery

For those who want to make such a complaint, https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt&panel1-1 is the place to start. There are seven categories to choose from to help stop the crooks!

Friday, December 27, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 7: Scammers International

We may think that fraudulent scams mostly originate in American “boiler rooms,” as they are called. Instead, they are growing on the international scene. Many of the operations are thought to be funded by drug cartels.

The federal government has bigger and bigger problems to deal with these criminals operating in other countries.

Recently, two defendants operating from call centers in Costa Rica were convicted in federal court of posing as representatives of the Federal Trade Commission and Securities & Exchange Commission to defraud older Americans out of millions of dollars. The defendants told victims they had won substantial sweepstakes prizes but had to make up-front payments to collect them. The scam defrauded victims out of $10 million in total. The two defendants were sentenced to 25 and 20 years in prison respectively.

The Department of Justice has extradited four Peruvian residents to the United States, where they face charges of operating a large-scale extortion scheme from 2012 to 2015. The defendants are alleged to have run Peruvian call centers that contacted Spanish-speaking individuals living in the U.S. to threaten them into paying fraudulent settlements or nonexistent debts.

These prosecutions, discussed at https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USFTC/bulletins/246ccf0, illustrate just how much money there is in fraudulent schemes, whether they originate in China or India or elsewhere.

Unfortunately most international telephone fraudsters like these never get caught or prosecuted. Most victims of these kinds of scams never get their money back. Since prevention is our best hope, sharing warnings about such scams with your friends and family might be a truly valuable holiday gift.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 6: Free Medical Alert Scams

Showing just how heartless scammers are, elderly consumers have recently been bombarded with over a billion unsolicited robocalls to pitch supposedly “free” medical alert systems. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/06/ftc-law-enforcement-partners-announce-new-crackdown-illegal?utm_source=govdelivery

The calls were often made to numbers on the Do Not Call Registry and typically “spoofed” caller ID information so that the consumer thought they were dealing with a local company.

The internet even contains scripts for such calls, so anyone can start such a scam.

Some scammers used pre-recorded messages, which were meant to sound like a live person, that falsely told consumers that a $400 medical alert system had been purchased for them, and they could receive it “at no cost whatsoever.” However, telemarketers would not answer questions about who bought the system for them.

Many messages claimed falsely that their medical alert system had been endorsed or recommended by reputable organizations like the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, National Institute on Aging, or the AARP.

The callers also told consumers they would not be charged any monitoring fee on the device until they activated the system, even though their credit or debit cards were charged immediately. The consumers were also often falsely reassured that they could cancel their service at any time.

When an unsolicited caller tells you that something will be free, don’t believe it. It definitely won’t be! Comparing prices and purchasing something you need at your own pace is not what the scammers had in mind, so outsmart them!

Monday, December 23, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 5:. Credit Card Interest Rate Reduction scam

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission filed a case in Florida federal court against three individuals who had set up a maze of interrelated operations that used illegal robocalls to contact financially distressed consumers, many of whom were seniors, across the nation with offers of bogus credit card interest rate reduction services.

They were told that, for a fee, they could lower their credit card interest rates to zero for the life of the debt to save them thousands of dollars on their credit card debt. Too good to be true? Definitely!

Using the ploy of confirming consumers’ identities, many were tricked into providing their personal financial information, including their Social Security and credit card numbers.

If consumers did not buy the services, some later found out that fraudulent credit cards had been applied for without their knowledge or consent. Those consumers were able to do that through checking their free annual credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action

When it’s too good to be true, hang up fast!

Friday, December 20, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 4: Government imposter scams

Many of the federal government’s consumer protection efforts are handled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC reports that scammers pretending to be from the federal government reached the highest levels on record in spring 2019, and this is the most commonly reported fraud the FTC deals with..

Consumers were contacted by phone or email by someone falsely claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, or another government entity.

These scammers may tell people that their Social Security number has been suspended, which does not happen, or that they are facing arrest because they owe back taxes and demand payment from the consumer to avoid getting into trouble. Often, they demand that a consumer pay with a gift card -- which is a dead giveaway that the consumer is dealing with a scammer.

This scam doesn’t actually work all that well any more, but it does haul in victims of all ages. The scammers are willing to use a high volume of computerized calls or emails just to haul in a few gullible folks. Watch out for it! More information is available at https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USFTC/bulletins/253a8d4.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 3: A new twist on the old grandparent scam

“Grandma, something bad has happened, and I need your help right now!” is often the start of a scam phone call. No grandchild’s name is included for her to identify, so Grandma often fills in the blanks, “Tommy, is that you?” (If Grandpa answers, the spiel quickly switches to a plea to him.)

The reason for the emergency assistance will often be sketchy and playing on emotions is also how it works. It is frequently “I am in jail” or “I was in a car accident.” The scammer often requests that Grandma not notify the parents, playing on her loyalty. “What more natural alliance is there than that between a grandparent and grandchild?” says AARP WV President Rich Stonestreet.

The help requested is often money from gift cards Grandma is to purchase at a specified store or a wire transfer to a specified company. The amount is usually in the hundreds of dollars, and Grandma is convinced it’s a legitimate call.

But it’s not, so be careful when answering any phone call. If you hear such a plea from the caller, stay calm and get suspicious immediately!

More details are available at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0204-family-emergency-scams.

Interestingly, robocallers don’t leave this type of message for Grandma or Grandpa, so pre-screening calls through letting the call go to voicemail can avoid such a scam and make a lot of sense.

The new twist is that 25% of victims of family imposter fraud victims who reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2018 were asked to send cash rather than gift cards.

Monday, December 16, 2019

12 Days of Scams Day 2: Job offer scams

Currently, one of the most effective online scams deals with job offers. Taking advantage of those needing to find a way to earn more income, those bogus job offers from a so-called employer generally involves paying a fee for further assistance in securing the possible job. Often, the money is needed for “training” or “equipment.” But there are no jobs, just people willing to hook new victims.

An alternate version is when the fake employer sends a bogus paycheck that cannot be cashed. In the meantime, more money will be solicited from the victim.

Learn more at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0243-job-scams and tell family members and friends about this heartless scam that often results in losses in hundreds of dollars because the victims desperately need a job.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Tis the Season for Online Purchase Scams

Online purchase scams are still out there!

When a person wants to sell items on Craigslist, eBay, and other seller-to-buyer websites, they are often pleased to hear that someone is interested in buying. When the seller receives a worthless check that can’t be cashed and they’ve already shipped the item, they realize they’ve been scammed.

Others shopping online find out the hard way that the seller is fraudulent. They forgot to look for the special web address of https: or the small lock near the web address which shows there is security for the transactions. The scammers won’t usually bother with security, and the victim finds that they have a worthless item – or nothing -- for their trouble.

This helpful Federal Trade Commission site explains more -- https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2017/03/some-online-deals-charge-dont-deliver Also, don’t use debit cards for online purchases, it puts your back account balance at risk. With a credit card, the unhappy buyer can at least dispute the charge with their credit card company, which is exactly what the consumer should do next.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Medicare costsharing figures for 2020

Medicare has premiums, deductibles, and copays, like other health insurance. And virtually all those costs are going up in 2020. The standard Part B premium will go up almost $10 a month to $144.60 in 2020. The costsharing figures are calculated based on the previous year's spending and formulas in the Social Security Act. According to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this year's increases are largely because of increases in the costs of physician-administered drugs in 2019. See the table below for other Medicare out-of-pocket costs beneficiaries will have to pay in 2020.

Medicare A & B Premiums, Deductibles, Copays 2020

Part A (hospital) Beneficiary pays:
Hospital Deductible $1,408/benefit period
Hospital Copay $352/day for days 61-90
$704/day for days 91-150
Skilled Nursing Facil Copay $176/day for days 21-100
Part A Premium $458/month for those with fewer than 30 quarters of Medicare-covered employment
$252/month for those with 30-39 quarters of Medicare-covered employment
Part B (doctor, outpatient services, etc.) Beneficiary pays:
Annual Deductible $198
Part B Premium for those with incomes below $85,000 or $170,000 married couple $144.60/mo Under the "hold harmless" provision a small number of beneficiaries will pay less than the standard premium
Most covered Part B services 20%

Friday, October 25, 2019

Used car challenges from a new law

Buyers beware!
As of July 1, 2019, West Virginia Code sec. 46A-6-102(4) allows dealers to sell “as is” any vehicle that has more than 100,000 miles on it or is seven or more years old or is being sold for $4000 or less.
The old days of assuming that there is a warranty on the vehicle because you’re buying it from a dealer are gone.
Dealers do not need to provide any warranty at all for those older, high mileage, or low cost vehicles, and the old implied warranty of “good working order” is no longer applicable to them.
Further, West Virginia’s lemon law has not ever applied to used vehicle purchases.
This change makes a test drive and an examination by a knowledgeable mechanic more crucial in finding a car that will function well and be worth the money.
Many find that having a savvy buddy along helps to make a hard choice easier and more rational.
The new law does permit the buyer to return the vehicle for a refund within three business days by taking it back to the dealer lot. This could be hard to do if the vehicle isn’t even in running condition; you might have to pay to tow it back.
Many purchase a used car from a dealer for the convenience of multiple cars to choose from and immediate financing.
Some consumers are not aware that they pay a higher interest rate when the car dealer arranges the financing, regardless of their credit score. Dealing directly with the bank or credit union is likely to save money.
The alternative of looking for used vehicles online or arranging a private sale from someone nearby can result in paying less. No warranty will be available from those sales either, but at least the buyer is aware of that in advance. In this situation also, having a good mechanic check out the vehicle before purchase can save considerable money and frustration.

Friday, October 18, 2019

New estate closing requirement

For those handling estates, the clock is ticking.

A new law which became effective in May 2019 WV Code §44-2-19(a) requires that all estates that have been inactive for three years or more be closed by action of the County Commission.

To handle an estate, a person or financial institution representative must qualify as executor (because the decedent left a valid Last Will and Testament) or administrator (no will is available for the deceased person or there is property not covered by the will). Also, two reports about the assets and debts must be filed with the County Clerk before distributions to heirs can be made.

It turns out that sometimes a will is entered in the county courthouse records and the executor/administrator never completes all of the steps. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of questions about what happened and can cause property ownership issues at a later time.
The new law will close the estates officially.

Around the state, County Clerks’ offices are working on having inactive estates closed.
Some County Clerks are notifying by letter all of the executors, heirs, and creditors listed in the first estate report, the appraisement, about the potential closure and deadline for further activity.
For those handling an estate that hasn’t been fully resolved and closed and there has been no activity for three years or more, it’s appropriate to find a way to resolve the open matters as soon as possible. Completing the final estate report is required by law to do that.

If an attorney or other person is handling an estate with no activity for at least three years, the new closure law is a way for known or potential heirs to urge the attorney or executor to focus more attention on it.

Many heirs wonder how much information they are to be provided while the estate is open. There is no legal requirement for doing that, but the will and any related documents are placed in the public records at the courthouse and can be viewed by anyone. Some counties also have online records, including wills and estate reports.

Going forward, estates will be subject to the same requirement to be closed by official action if there is no activity for at least three years.

If an estate has been closed, state law allows it to be reopened by the executor or administrator under appropriate circumstances.

Those working in the County Clerk’s office can answer questions about procedures and requirements but may not provide a legal opinion on a specific situation.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Medicare open enrollment 10/15/19 to 12/7/19

What is it?
Medicare open enrollment is the time you can choose and enroll in Medicare Advantage plans (optional private insurance HMO or PPO plans you can choose instead of getting your Medicare benefits through the government) and Medicare Part D Prescription Drug plans (all private insurance plans, there is no government option). Changes you make during this period take effect 1/1/2020.

Where to get help
Your county senior center can get you connected with a SHIP (State Health Insurance Assistance Program) counselor trained to assist you with Medicare open enrollment. Our state ADRN (Aging and Disability Resource Network) can also help 1-866-981-2372. Medicare's Plan Finder tool online at medicare.gov offers comparisons of Medicare Advantage and Part D prescription drug plans, or you can call 1-800-MEDICARE to get list of plans in your area and then find out from each plan directly what they offer.

Tips about Medicare open enrollment
Keep notes when you talk to anyone: when, who you spoke to, what you asked or told, what they told you in response, what next steps they said they would take, what next steps they recommended you take, etc.

Verify what anyone tells you by checking online or written materials, address conflicting info you find before making enrollment changes.

Changing plans? Enroll directly through Medicare rather than through the insurer. That increases your likelihood that Medicare will have the right plan enrollment information for you.

What's new this year:

Planfinder searches
Personalized searches require you to log into your www.mymedicare.gov account, or create one if you don't already have one. You can do a basic anonymous search by giving some personal information.

Medicare Advantage
Expanded benefits may be available with Medicare Advantage plans, including some non-medical services and services for beneficiaries with chronic conditions like nutrition services, home modification, in-home supports.

As always, Medicare Advantage plans have networks of covered doctors, hospitals, and other providers. Those networks can change providers during the year, too. Whether you are changing or staying in the same plan you may as well check to be sure your providers are covered in your 2020 plan, though that network may change later.

For those who want to leave their Medicare Advantage plan and go back to original Medicare we used to have a separate Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period. Now instead we have Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment period Jan 1 through March 31 every year. You may make one change during this period, either leave to go back to original Medicare, or switch from one Medicare Advantage to another.

Part D Prescription Drug plans
The average premium for 2020 is $32.74, down a little from last year. The donut hole gap of coverage starts once you reach $4,020 in drug costs in 2020, and catastrophic coverage picks up after you pay out $6,350.

As always, the formularies of covered drugs change so whether you are changing or staying in the same plan check to see if your regular prescriptions are on the list and what your copays will be.

Medicare beneficiaries who get Extra Help (the Low-Income Subsidy also called LIS) can change their Part D plan once a calendar quarter.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Just kidding, even though Equifax owes you $125 you're apparently not going to get it

According to this Bloomberg Business article published yesterday, the FTC's Equifax settlement website has been changed to say you won't get the full $125 previously offered in the cash compensation option, and they are encouraging claimants to choose the credit monitoring option instead.

Hey FTC, what's up with that?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Equifax owes you $125+, here's how to get it: The Equifax Data Breach Settlement

This is reposted from the Federal Trade Commission's webpage https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2019/07/equifax-data-breach-settlement-what-you-should-know July 22, 2019
by Alvaro Puig
Consumer Education Specialist, FTC
In September of 2017, Equifax announced a data breach that exposed the personal information of 147 million people. Under a settlement filed today, Equifax agreed to spend up to $425 million to help people affected by the data breach. If you were affected by the Equifax breach, you can't file a claim just yet. That's coming. But you can sign up for FTC email alerts about the settlement at ftc.gov/Equifax.

(Not sure that you were affected? The breach claims site will have a tool to let you check. Sign up for an FTC email update to find out when that tool is up and running. ftc.gov/equifax)

Here’s what you need to know about the settlement:

Benefits Available To You
If you were affected by the breach, you may be eligible for benefits.
1. Free Credit Monitoring or $125 Cash Payment
You can get at least 4 years of free credit monitoring of your credit report at all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). On top of that, you can get up to 6 more years of free credit monitoring of your Equifax credit report. That’s a total of 10 years of free credit monitoring. (Minors affected by the breach are eligible for even more free credit monitoring.)

If you have credit monitoring that will continue for at least 6 months and you decide not to enroll in the free credit monitoring offered in the settlement, you may be eligible for a cash payment of $125.

2. Reimbursement for Your Time and Other Cash Payments
You may be eligible for reimbursement and cash payments up to $20,000 for:

time you spent protecting your identity or recovering from identity theft, up to 20 hours at $25 per hour
money you spent protecting your identity or recovering from identity theft, like the cost of freezing or unfreezing your credit report or unauthorized charges to your accounts
up to 25% of the cost of Equifax credit monitoring or identity protection products you bought between September 7, 2016 and September 7, 2017

3. Free Identity Restoration Services
You are eligible for free identity restoration services for at least 7 years that you can use if someone steals your identity or you experience fraud.

Next Steps
The claims process will start after court approval. To learn more about the settlement, go to ftc.gov/Equifax. We’ll update that page when there’s new information.

You can also sign up to get FTC email updates about this settlement.

If you were affected by the breach, you may also receive an email notification after the court approves the settlement. The notification will provide more information about the settlement, the benefits available to people impacted, and how to request the services offered under the settlement.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Landmark Court Decision on Surface vs. Mineral Rights

Many West Virginia landowners own the surface rights of their property, but not the mineral rights.

In recent years there has been a boom in drilling for natural gas in some sections of the state, increasing the importance of mineral rights.

When landowners don’t own the mineral rights, do they have any protection against an energy company sending workers and machinery onto their property without permission to drill wells that are intended to access the gas under adjacent properties?

That question was the focus of a case decided recently by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

In a landmark decision, the court affirmed that using one property’s surface area, without permission, to access minerals under neighboring properties qualifies as trespass.

In earlier times when shallow wells were drilled around the state, the surface owner who did not own the minerals generally was given free gas and often a portion of the royalties. The energy company was cooperative about well site location and intrusion on the land, especially on farms. But current deeper drilling operations are much more complex, and the companies have not sought out the cooperation of the surface owners. Free gas is gone too.

Approximately 350,000 mineral rights owners in West Virginia don’t own the surface rights, so there’s significant potential for conflicting rights. A majority of the mineral rights, but not the surface rights, in the southern part of the state are owned by corporations.

Current West Virginia law permits an energy company to occupy the surface to extract minerals under that specific property even though the surface rights’ owner has not given permission.

The new technique of deeper drilling combined with underground shale hydrofracturing (known as fracking) has been used to reach greater distances horizontally and extract more gas from each well. In West Virginia, Doddridge County has become a center of extensive gas extraction.

When EQT, Inc., based in Pittsburgh, began drilling operations on the properties of two Doddridge County surface owners in 2013 as a way to reach the gas under adjacent properties, EQT did not have their permission to use their land and had been warned by the landowners’ attorney not to engage in drilling.

There was a 1901 shallow well lease still in effect for the properties which EQT used for their right of entry for the gas under their land, but the landowners disputed that the old lease gave EQT a right to drill using fracking methods to reach underground to access surrounding properties’ gas.

Over 16 months, EQT used 20 acres for the well area and the drilling and operation of nine wells.

The surface owners sued in 2014. A jury trial resulted in $190,000 in damages for the landowners from the company’s trespass in order to access other properties’ gas and resulting property losses.

EQT appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, and the court’s recent decision upheld the rights of surface owners to block the use of their surface area when the company wants to reach adjacent lands’ minerals.

As the landowners’ attorney, Dave McMahon, said, “...we won and we won big time!”

Numerous landowners around the state do not want the extraction or well operation on their property because of the potential for environmental harm and have organized to oppose fracking.

This case is ground-breaking, and there will be ongoing financial and operational ramifications for both gas companies and landowners in the Mountain State.