To all Maine consumers, we offer a few thoughts for a Happy New Year:
Take back your phone
“John” from “Medical Alert Services” is the new Rachel, a robot caller who’ll try to scam anyone who presses a button confirming the number called is working. Since they can “spoof” their own numbers and fool your caller id, just let the answering machine pick up.
Alert your friends and family that you’re doing this and that you’ll call right back. The Federal Trade Commission says it’s stopped billions of fraudulent calls angling for ways to steal your identity, but it can’t stop them all. And make sure you’re on the federal Do Not Call list ( www.donotcall.gov).
Keep your identity safer
You already give personally identifiable and financial information only on secure websites you trust. You shred old documents, use strong computer passwords and use caution entering PINs. Take the next step, and offer up fewer details on social networking sites. Once on the internet, data can never really be deleted; that includes embarrassing photos potential employers might (and do) look at when considering new hires. Those photos may be tagged with GPS locations and other personal data.
Keep an eye on your credit
Find out how to check your credit report for free at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. That’s the truly free site that links to the three major credit reporting agencies. Check with each of them regularly (you’re entitled to one free report annually from each one, so you can get a report every four months). Get individual help with credit problems through the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection by going to www.credit.maine.gov or by calling 1-800-332-8529.
Beef up cyber security at work
Data breaches don’t happen just to the big chains. Find lots of user-friendly tips in a guide prepared by the University of Southern Maine’s Maine Cyber Security Cluster and Cyber Security Organization, a USM student group ( www.maine.gov/ag/docs/Small-Business-Cyber-Security-Guide.pdf).
Scrutinize health claims
Just in the last month, studies were published showing that taking multivitamins to prevent major health problems is a waste of money and that soap and water is just as effective as antibacterial cleaners. Look hard at advertising, and do your own research before buying.
Give until it feels good, not until it hurts
Charitable giving spikes around the holidays and after disasters, and so do the scams. If you’re donating, make sure your money goes to a real charity. Find information about charities at the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation ( www.maine.gov/pfr) or by calling the Department’s Charitable Solicitations Program at (207) 624-8525.
Get a second opinion
Find a buddy, a family member, friend or other trusted person, to help you with “offers that sound too good to be true.” If they are, trash them and have a good laugh together; you can be a sounding board for your buddy as well.
Be a good neighbor
Keep an eye out for signs that a neighbor who is homebound or has mobility problems may need help. Our letter carriers alert superiors when mail piles up, and we can look for other signs of possible distress.
Use your resources
Read parts or all of the Consumer Action Handbook online ( www.usa.gov and search “consumer handbook”) or order a free copy (by phone, 1-800-FED-INFO). The Handbook covers almost everything most consumers need to know. And visit our blog ( http://necontact.wordpress.com) for archived articles, consumer alerts and other helpful information.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.