March 7, 2017
The best defense against scams is making consumers aware of them.
The Scam Tracker
The Scam Tracker is a free interactive tool online that gives consumers a place to report scams and fraud. The tool also allows consumers to warn others of malicious or suspicious activities at a grass roots level.
“These are consumers in your community letting you know that a scam has happened,” Better Business Bureau Public Relations Director Bryan Oglesby said, pointing to red dots on the BBB’s Scam Tracker website.
According to Scam Tracker data, there were more than 700 scams in Florida alone in 2016 — everything from email phishing to tax collection, travel scams, and on and on.
“Scam artists are good,” Oglesby said. “They know how to reach out to consumers. Tell them what they want to hear and really encourage them to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
Users can search using a variety of filters to see what scams are happening in their area, track a particular type of scam, or even see how much money has been lost.
The BBB collects the data and also shares it with law enforcement agencies for use in identifying and prosecuting scammers.
Millennials at Greater Risk
According to a BBB study, contrary to popular perception, it’s not mainly the elderly or uneducated who are victims of scams. We’re all at risk and, it turns out, millennials are the most common victims.
“Millennials are most vulnerable, because they suffer from optimism bias. They don’t think it’s gonna happen to them,” Oglesby said.
We asked a millennial, 24-year-old Dillion Wostbrock, if he would be surprised to learn that members of his generation are actually the most common victims of scams. His response: “Yeah, I would be.”
It’s true. The BBB survey shows:
- 69 percent of victims are under 45
- 78 percent hold college or graduate degrees
Another finding by the BBB: Men are actually more susceptible to scams than women.
Most Popular Scams
“Scammers are looking for ways to steal your money year round,” an IRS spokesperson said in an IRS produced video.
IRS tax scams are among the most common. That’s were scammers call you and claim to be with the IRS. They say you owe money and demand you pay now.
They claim that if you don’t you will be arrested or have legal action filed against you.
Oglesby says don’t fall for it.
“(The IRS) not going to use high pressure tactics. They’re not going to force you to pay now,” he said.
Another red flag is the method an individual tells you to use to pay them.
“If they’re asking you to pay via wire transfer or money card, to go to your local Walgreens, right now, get a money card, pay us over the phone, give us those numbers. Those are red flags,” Oglebsy said.
Other popular scams include:
- Employment scams: where you’re asked to buy supplies for a job upfront.
- Check scams: where you’re told you were overpaid and need to return funds
- Home improvement scams: where you’re approached, often after a disaster to have work done
Be On Guard
Scammers like to prey on people when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“When there’s a natural disaster or something happening in the news media, scammers see that as an opportunity to take advantage of their victims,” Oglesby explained.
Remember: Don’t think it can’t happen to you. The most important step to protect yourself against a scam is realizing we’re all vulnerable.
For ten steps on how to avoid scams, click here.
Check out the story on Bay News 9.
February 23, 2016
When you buy pre-packaged lettuce at the grocery store, most of us just eat it right from the bag without a second thought, but should you be washing your “pre-washed” produce? What about organic or homegrown fruits and vegetables? Even though you might not have to worry about pesticides, there are other factors you might want to consider.
Rewashing Pre-washed Produce
Pre-washed produce has been given a commercial bath in chlorinated water before packaging, so there’s no need to wash it again, unless it just makes you feel better.
Beware of Fecal Matter
As far as organic and home-grown fruit and veggies – yes, you should wash. It can be so tempting to bite into that vine-ripened tomato, still warm from the sun, picked in your backyard garden, but unfortunately, wiping it on your shirt, just isn’t enough.
While there may be an absence of pesticides on your home-grown and organic produce, there could be fecal matter in the compost-enriched soil which may have splashed up during harvesting, or even just plain dirt. Either way, the produce should be thoroughly rinsed off.
What about those wild blackberries you find? Is it safe to just pop a few in your mouth? That depends on whether the thought that a bird or critter may have peed on the berry bush bothers you. Consider, too, that contaminants may have washed down with the rain. Also, with organic produce from a market, you don’t know how much it has been handled, or how. Better to take the time than to take the risk.
When to Wash
Wait until just before you’re ready to use it, since bacteria can grow on produce while it’s stored in your refrigerator. Also, many, if not most, fruits and vegetables will spoil faster when they have damp skin. Return unwashed, unused produce to the fridge as soon as possible, wrapped to prevent as much air as possible from affecting it.
Best Technique to Wash
To wash: Rinse the produce under clear running water (doesn’t have to be hot or even warm), rubbing or scrubbing gently with a vegetable brush. Ordinary tap water has been shown to do a perfectly fine job and removes 98% of bacteria. If you’re concerned about your tap water, you can invest in distilled water. Chemical washes claim to do a better job, but it’s unclear whether the residues left after using them are safe to eat. Once it’s thoroughly cleaned, pat dry gently with a clean towel.
What About Produce That Will Be Peeled?
Always rinse the outside of the fruit or vegetable even if you don’t plan to eat the outer part (think: cantaloupe, cucumbers, squash) since you could spread bacteria from the outer shell to the inner fruit via your knife. When peeling, be sure to use a clean utensil that has not been used on other foods you’re preparing, especially raw meat.
Food For Thought
Now that you know your fruits and veggies are clean, think about how to eat them. Often the skin of produce contains valuable nutrients, so don’t always peel. An unpeeled apple has nearly double the fiber, plus more vitamin A and potassium than a peeled apple. A potato peel contains 20% of the vegetable’s nutrients, including B vitamins and fiber. If the peel and the inner part of a vegetable are the same color, like carrots, they have equivalent nutrients.
For more information on this and related subjects, visit ModernFarmer.com
February 15, 2016
For Nora and Bill Massaro, having a will gives them peace of mind.
“To me, it was kind of a relief that I was taking care of my children,” Nora Massaro said.
If you die without a will, there’s no guarantee who will inherit your assets. Basically, the court decides, distributing your property according to the laws of the state. It’s called probate, and it can be a costly and slow moving process.
Even more importantly, if you have young children, a will lets you designate specifically whom you want to get custody, so the court can follow your wishes.
“They would look to relatives of the deceased parents, but you might want your sister so and so in Baltimore and not your sister so and so in Brandon, you know, just preferences,” attorney Craig Hall said, who’s been creating wills for clients for 30 years.
If you DON’T have a will, this is generally how Probate plays out:
- If you were married with kids, your surviving spouse and children inherit your assets.
- If you had minor children, the state will choose their guardians.
- If you were single and childless, your state will likely determine which of your relatives will inherit your financial assets and property.
This is the second marriage for both Nora and Bill. They didn’t want any conflict between their kids from previous marriages, so they also created a revocable trust to try and avoid probate altogether.
“It can’t be contested. Period. End of story. It eliminates them going to court and having to fight back and forth. The trust dictates what our wishes are,” Bill Massaro said.
“The three sons get a long great,” Nora added, “We want to keep it that way.”
In the big picture, a revocable trust can be contested, but it is much more difficult. An individual who tries to challenge a trust must file a lawsuit and prove he/she has standing to make the challenge.
A revocable trust, also known as a living trust, gives you more flexibility and control over how your assets are distributed. For example, it allows you to avoid giving a minor child a big lump sum of money all at once. You can distribute allotted payments up to a certain age like 25 or 30, when they would receive the balance.
“That helps to give you peace of mind, because young adults often aren’t ready– responsible enough, to receive a large, lump sum of money,” said Hall. The revocable trust gives you more control to make sure that money won’t be squandered.
The “living” trust also gives you more control over your assets while you’re still alive should you become incapacitated. You designate how your property should be handled, by putting it into the trust.
“You don’t know what you’re going to need. You don’t just transfer it, because the kids are going to get it eventually. You need to protect yourself,” Hall explained.
Execute the Will Properly
If you don’t use an attorney, several websites, like Legal Zoom, offer programs to create a will yourself, but you do have to be careful.
Be sure to execute the will properly to avoid challenges. The minimum requirement in Florida is two witnesses.
Even better, create a ‘self-proving’ will by taking witness names under oath and notarizing.
“So that you need not go find a witness 20 years from now and have them go to the courthouse, to prove up the will,” Hall said.
Also, be aware, you can’t make any handwritten changes to the will once it’s been witnesses and signed. That will make the document null and void in a court of law.
The hardest part is often just getting started.
“Thinking it out, as far as, mine, hers, ours is a complicated situation,” said Bill Massaro, “So we had to really sit down and put it on paper.”
Take stock of everything you own from bank accounts to insurance policies to that cherished fishing pole you got from your dad.
Pick the Right Executor
It’s also important to name a ‘responsible person you trust’ as the executor of your will.
“That’s the person who would be handling the transactions, payment of your debts, satisfaction of your bills, and the distribution of your assets per your will,” said Hall.
It’s a big job, so choose carefully. This is the person who will oversee the process and make sure your wishes are carried out.
Store it in a Safe Place
Once it’s completed, store your will in a safe place in your home or a safety deposit box at the bank. And let the executor know where it is and how to get access to it, when the time comes.
So what’s the cost of a will?
- If you go to an attorney—expect to pay anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to more than a thousand, depending on the complexity of your assets.
- Sample forms online can cost as little as $10 to $20 for a basic will, while complete fill-in-the-blank templates average around $100 to $500, depending on the complexity of your personal circumstances.
Why don’t people have wills?
According to a survey by Rocket Lawyer:
- 57% said they “just haven’t gotten around to making one”
- 22% felt that making a will wasn’t urgent
- 17% didn’t think they needed a will
- 14% don’t have a will because they don’t want to think about death
January 21, 2016
Many of us take a vitamin or supplement (or several of them) every day hoping it will make us healthier. Unfortunately, when it comes to vitamins and supplements, there’s little regulation to determine if what you are taking is actually effective or safe.
It’s quite remarkable when you consider it’s a $30 billion dollar industry, but the Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate these products before they hit the shelves. Supplement manufacturers have few requirements placed upon them. The law prohibits them from selling products that are adulterated or mislabeled, and they cannot claim to cure things they don’t; but there is little oversight or enforcement.
Frontline also shared this information to help you decide whether to take supplements:
Here are five questions a consumer may want to ask when considering supplements.
1. Has the product triggered any health warnings or sanctions?
Searching for a product or its maker on the FDA’s website will unearth any safety advisories or sanctions issued against them. The agency also maintains a list of all recent recalls and market withdrawals.
Because the supplement industry is constantly releasing new products, a product may be dangerous even if there are no advisories against it. A few minutes of online research may reveal key concerns about a supplement or its producer; the FDA has tips for searching the Web for information on supplements.
Researching individual ingredients can also be productive. For instance, Consumer Reports compiled a list of the “dirty dozen”: Twelve ingredients linked to serious adverse health effects, but that remain on shelves. The Federal Trade Commission also has a list of substances that have raised safety concerns.
2. Has the product been tested by independent labs?
Gaps in regulation have led to lapses in quality, even among mainstream brands. For instance, the New York Attorney General’s tests found that pills labeled as medicinal herbs sometimes contained little more than fillers like rice or houseplants. In some cases, supplements were filled with substances that could be harmful to those with allergies. Similar results were reached by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada, who in 2013 DNA tested 44 herbal products from a dozen companies. They found that only two of the companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers in their products.
A handful of private, independent nonprofits have stepped in to partially fill gaps in regulation, inspecting some dietary supplements and reporting the results. The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) runs a voluntary program to inspect and certify the quality of a company’s products and facilities. Those that pass can place the organization’s yellow and black “USP Verified” seal on their product — less than 1 percent of all supplements on the market have this label. The international public health nonprofit NSF International runs a similar program aimed at sports supplements.
Two other organizations, ConsumerLab.com and LabDoor, randomly test dietary supplements and report their findings. Both groups provide general review information for free; full results are accessible to paid members. ConsumerLab has also aggregated a long list of health warnings and recalls for more than a decade.
3. Is the product too good to be true?
Supplement producers are prohibited from making unfounded claims of health benefits — which is why many avoid declarations like “cures disease” in favor of softer assertions like “supports immunity.” Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to find pills that make overzealous claims. Such instances are red flags that a product may be fraudulent in other ways, according to the FDA.
So before taking a supplement, consider what is being offered. Is it being sold as a miracle cure? A magic pill? A wonder drug? The FDA says consumers should beware of products that claim to do it all, and to do so instantly. Experts warn that products that primarily offer evidence in the way of personal testimonials are worthy of skepticism, as are products that use suspect medical jargon, like these examples offered by the FTC: “molecule multiplicity,” “glucose metabolism,” “thermogenesis,” or “insulin receptor sites.” And just because something is labeled “natural” is no guarantee that it is safe to consume.
There are millions to be made through medical fraud, so consumers are asked to consider how they heard about a product. If the person recommending or prescribing it stands to gain financially, they may not have a consumer’s best interest at heart.
Many manufacturers offer money-back guarantees, no questions asked. But getting that money back may prove difficult or impossible. “Marketers of fraudulent products rarely stay in the same place for long,” writes the FDA’s division of emergency preparedness. “Because customers won’t be able to find them, the marketers can afford to be generous with their guarantees.”
4. Is there evidence that the supplement does what it promises?
Thousands of studies have been conducted on the effect of various substances on the human body. The National Institutes of Health has summarized what is known about the most commonly consumed supplements — vitamins and minerals — in a series of fact sheets. These explain how each vitamin or mineral behaves in the body, and the scientific evidence behind its health impacts. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus has similar information about other drugs, herbs and supplements. For a deeper dive into the science behind a specific supplement, explore the Library of Medicine’s PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset. The database includes scientific literature on vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, ergogenic, botanical, traditional Chinese medicine, and herbal supplements in humans and animal models.
Resources are also available for certain groups: The Department of Defense offers information about the safety of specific supplements to service members. Older adults can find resources aimed at them created by the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, National Institute on Aging, and NSF International.
5. Do I really need supplements? If so, am I taking the right amount?
Health experts will say that your doctor is the best person to consult on whether vitamins or supplements are appropriate for you, and a pharmacist or registered dietitian may also have valuable input. People taking medications should exercise particular caution, since some supplements can interfere with their treatment.
As you research a supplement, think about dosage. Some otherwise safe vitamins and minerals can cause health problems if they are taken in excess. The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board produces recommended daily dietary allowances as well as tolerated upper intake levels.
Also worth considering is that a supplement may have considerably higher quantities of a vitamin or mineral than it says on the bottle. Because certain vitamins degrade over time, manufacturers often provide more than the labeled quantities, to ensure there is still the labeled amount at the expiration date. The federally funded Dietary Supplement Ingredient Database hosts a multivitamin/mineral calculator that estimates the true quantity of a vitamin or mineral in a pill based on its labeled quantity.
Click here to read more from Frontline.
January 11, 2016
For the 4th year in a row, the Department of Justice recovered more than $3.5 billion in settlements and judgements in False Claims Act cases for fraud against the government.
“The False Claims Act has again proven to be the government’s most effective civil tool to ferret out fraud and return billions to taxpayer-funded programs,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The recoveries announced today help preserve the integrity of vital government programs that provide health care to the elderly and low income families, ensure our national security and defense, and enable countless Americans to purchase homes.”
These recoveries are often made possible by private individuals who were employees of the companies responsible and had inside information on the fraud taking place. These so-called relators come forward to the government and file suit under the False Claims Act. They are entitled to a percentage of the recovery returned to taxpayers and are generally represented by whistleblower law firms.
Taxpayers Against Fraud, a non-profit which works to works to educate the public about whistleblower programs, noted that a higher percentage of successful cases were filed by whistleblowers in 2015.
- Of the $3.58 billion collected under the federal False Claims Act in FY 2015, a record $ 2.91 billion was awarded in whistleblower-initiated cases.
- Whistleblowers were awarded a record $597.6 million for their contribution in helping recover this $2.91 billion dollars.
- Of the total amount awarded to whistleblowers, $334.6 million was awarded to relators in declined cases – a record amount.
Patrick Burns, co-Executive Director of Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund, noted that the law was working exactly as it should.
“Government will never have all the resources it needs to find and pursue every act of fraud. That’s why the False Claims Act incentivizes whistleblowers to come forward with non-public information, and why it allows private lawyers, working for those whistleblowers, to pursue fraud cases on the government’s behalf,” said Burns.
February 27, 2015
When you have to have surgery, one of the most important decisions you make is choosing the right surgeon. It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly.
“This is a physician that’s gonna put a knife in hand and gonna cut you open. It’s important,” said Dr. Sharona Ross, a General Surgeon at Florida Hospital Tampa.
One of the first things to check is whether the surgeon is board certified in the specialty related to the procedure you’re having done.
It’s easy to find out. You can go to the American Board of Medical Specialties “Certification Matters” website. Just type in the doctor’s name. Hit search And it shows whether your doctor has a certification, and whether it’s up to date.
Click here to read more from Angie’ Moreschi’s Consumer Wise Report on Bay News 9.
October 7, 2014
The amount of money Americans spend on probiotics has tripled over the last decade. It’s become a billion dollar business— as growing research shows this so-called “good bacteria” can make us healthier. All of us have trillions of bacteria—good and bad — in our stomach, but life can sometimes take a toll on the good stuff.
“When we’re under stress or take antibiotics or eat certain foods that we shouldn’t be eating all the time, then we destroy that natural good defense mechanism that we have,” said Dr. Linda McClintock, Medical Director of Age-less Medicine in Tampa.
Dr. McClintock encourages her patients to take probiotics to add good bacteria to their system. She’s seen it help with many conditions—from urinary tract infections, acid reflux, immunity and digestion. Her patient Rose Rosanelli says it worked for her. “I didn’t really have bloating. I didn’t have gas. I didn’t have the negative things that tend to go with when you’re not digesting properly,” said Rosanelli.
Probiotics have also been shown to help with certain skin conditions like acne, eczema and rosacea. Dermatologists are encouraged by early research. Click here to read more from the American Academy of Dermatology.
With the growing awareness of the benefits of probiotics in the US, we’re seeing more foods on the shelves promoting them. The key is fermented food—everything from pickles to sauerkraut and miso soup and yogurt– all good natural ways to get probiotics.
If you’re not eating enough pro-biotic foods, supplements packed with millions of friendly bacteria can offer similar benefits.
You can watch Angie Moreschi’s Consumer Wise stories weekly on Bay News 9 in Tampa and News 13 in Orlando.
June 18, 2014
The consolidation of American companies is having a profound effect on the economy, leaving the middle class squeezed and struggling to maintain itself. A recent opinion piece in The Washington Post laid out the effects of how corporate America is impacting pretty much everything in society. Here’s an excerpt:
Since the early 1980s, executives and financiers have consolidated control over dozens of industries across the U.S. economy. From cable companies and hospitals to airlines, grocery stores and meatpackers, where once many small and mid-size businesses competed, today we see a few giants dominate. They use their power to raise prices, drive down wages and foreclose opportunity. Wealth is transferred from consumers, workers and entrepreneurs to affluent executives and shareholders.
The ongoing debate in America over economic inequality — as seen, for instance, in the Occupy movement and the success of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” — is a vital one. But it is incomplete. The challenge is not limited to the decline of organized labor, tax cuts for the well-off and the increased power of Wall Street. The lack of competition in many sectors of the U.S. economy is also a powerful driver of economic disparity.
Click here to read more from The Washington Post.
March 17, 2014
Here’s another reason to be wary of most things which are pre-paid. Washington Post reporter Brian Fung conducted a test recently which confirmed allegations that both AT&T and T-Mobile routinely over-charge pre-paid cell phone customers for minutes they don’t appear to be using. It’s a tricky little maneuver that the phone companies blame on complicated technology, that we mere mortal consumers could not begin to understand, or so they would like us to believe.
… prepaid customers on AT&T are routinely being billed extra for minutes they don’t appear to be using. If true, that means their available credit is being drained at unexpected rates — often without their knowledge — requiring that they buy more credit, more often. Critics allege the practice amounts to a subtle program of consumer fraud that, in the aggregate, delivers big bucks to wireless carriers.
According to the Switch’s hardware tests, as well as a formal complaint lodged with federal regulators, wireless companies are reporting longer call times than what a customer’s device will show. In the case of one AT&T subscriber, the network added as many as 33 seconds to his call after he hung up, allowing AT&T to bill him for an additional minute of usage. The Switch’s tests also turned up a similar phenomenon with T-Mobile’s prepaid phones.
Wireless operators generally charge customers a full minute’s worth of airtime for every fraction of a minute used. That’s uncontroversial. For example, a call that lasts for 1 minute and 10 seconds will be treated as 2 minutes. But it now appears that even calls that end before a minute is up are also getting treated as two-minute calls. Device testing shows the same holds true no matter how long you talk. One call that I made using an AT&T Go Phone should have been billed at two minutes. Instead, the account was charged for three.
Click here to read the rest of Fung’s report.
February 7, 2014
The end of the swipe is coming. With massive security breaches, like those at Target and Neiman Marcus, threatening the confidence of customers who shop at major retailers, American credit card companies are finally going to make the big change away from our traditional credit cards. We’ve all been used to the black strip on the back of a credit card that holds all of our personal information, but that makes it easy for hackers to nab the data and steal identities. So, the push is on to switch to a harder-to-crack, chip technology that will also require a PIN number to use your card.
The Wall Street Journal reports, that beginning later next year, you will stop signing those credit card receipts. Instead, you will insert your card into a slot and enter a PIN number, just like people do in much of the rest of the world. The U.S. is the last major market to still use the old-fashioned signature system, and it’s a big reason why almost half the world’s credit card fraud happens in America, despite the country being home to about a quarter of all credit card transactions.
The recent large-scale theft of credit card data from retailers including Target and Neiman Marcus brought the issue more mainstream attention, leading to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week. Executives told the senators that once the country transitions to the new system — which includes credit cards embedded with a microchip containing security data — these kind of hacking attacks will be much more difficult to pull off.
Click here to read more from the Wall Street Journal.