Western Union $586 million claims deadline extended to May 31

Ripped off by scammers who accepted payment by way of Western Union? The deadline has been extended to May 31 to file a claim in a $586 million settlement, federal officials said this week.

Western Union agreed to settle charges it failed to protect consumers adequately from scams and discipline problem agents.

The settlement goes way back. It covers scam payments between January 1, 2004 and January 19, 2017. The deadline to file claims was earlier announced for later this month, but is now May 31, 2018.

What kind of payments? This is about money transfers related to fake lottery prizes, phony family emergencies, fraudulent online romance and other scams. Such schemes generated more than 550,000 complaints.

Western Union said in a statement last year it was “committed to enhancing our compliance programs to prevent illicit activity on our network.”

Where do you file your claim? The Federal Trade Commission says start here:

FTC.gov/WU

You may be asked to provide documentation and your Social Security number, according to an FTC statement. It may take up to a year to verify and process the claims, officials said.

Reminder: Do not pay any money to file a claim, the FTC said. That means you’re in the wrong place and risking exposure to another scam.

 

 

 

South Florida psychic sentenced in $3.5 million case

Maybe this was an unforeseen development. A South Florida woman who promoted herself as a psychic has been sentenced to 26 months in prison for evading taxes and ordered to repay more than $3.5 million to an elderly Martha’s Vineyard resident.

Among the services court records say she promised: Ridding the client of “demons.”

Sally Ann Johnson, 41, also known as Angela Johnson, Angelia Johnson and Sally Reed, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper in Boston last week.

In an interview, Johnson’s attorney said she is very good at her job, if not always at financial paperwork.

“It might be easy and convenient to lump Ms. Johnson in with bad actors who have come before, but she’s not one of them,” said Miami attorney Paul Petruzzi.

He described her “one of the best spiritual healers or psychics around.”

He added, “Unfortunately Sally wasn’t very skilled at making sure her taxes were filed properly.”

Between 2007 and 2014, Johnson performed “cleansing” and “healing” services for a Massachusetts woman then in her 70s, according to documents filed by prosecutors. At times Johnson resided with the woman, referred to as Jane Doe, and at other times lived in Florida, New York and Illinois, records say.

Johnson arranged for the woman to wire payments to at least three different bank accounts in an effort to “evade the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service,” prosecutors alleged.

Federal officials said Johnson owned and operated businesses including Flatiron Psychic, Psychic Match Inc. and Psychic Spiritual Salon Inc. At least two of the firms listed South Florida addresses, in Hallandale and Aventura, according to state corporate records.

“Johnson filed no individual or corporate tax returns reporting the income she received from Jane Doe and paid no individual or corporate federal-income tax on that money,” a federal complaint said.

 

 

Government shutdown: Veterans exchange remains open

A tax-free online shopping exchange opened to veterans last fall including more  than 91,000 in Palm Beach County will remain open during the government shutdown, officials said Saturday.

Former US Air Force pilot Gregg Matous holds a photograph of himself with a U-2 spy plane at his home in Jupiter. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

“Though the Exchange is part of the Department of Defense, the organization is a nonappropriated fund entity, with nearly 100 percent of its operating budget coming from the sale of goods and services,”  a statement said.

The exchange is at https://www.shopmyexchange.com

The government shutdown began after midnight Friday as Congress failed to agree on a budget to fund operations.

Payday lenders get big win after contributions to Trump pick

A consumer agency taken over by an appointee of President Donald Trump who took more than $62,000 in contributions from payday lenders while in Congress said it will suspend landmark rules aimed at alleged predatory abuses in that industry.

Mick Mulvaney serves as the Trump administration’s budget director and acting consumer bureau director. (CNBC).

Florida consumers paid more than $2.5 billion in fees that amounted to an average 278 percent annual interest rate on payday loans over a decade, groups calling for regulatory changes said in 2016.

The move announced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Tuesday represented welcome relief for an industry that insisted the previous administration was going too far, but it came under immediate fire from consumer advocacy organizations.

“As a Congressman, Mick Mulvaney took thousands of dollars from the payday industry,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Washington, D.C. -based Allied Progress. “Now, as ‘acting director’ of the CFPB, he is returning the favor by sabotaging these important protections that would have guarded against predatory lenders and protected struggling consumers from falling into the cycles of debt with sky-high interest rates.”

The consumer bureau said in a statement Tuesday it will engage in a rulemaking process to “reconsider” the “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” rule. That rule would have started Tuesday, though some provisions would not kick in until August.

Payday lenders gave more than $62,000 in campaign contributions to Mulvaney when he was a congressman, according to gift-tracker opensecrets.org. That included more than $31,000 in the 2016 election cycle, when the South Carolina Republican ranked among the top 10 congressional candidates in contributions from the sector. Also in the top 10 in that cycle: Florida Democrats Alcee Hastings and Patrick Murphy, though GOP candidates got about 70 percent of the giving nationally.

While in Congress, Mulvaney called the CFPB a “sick, sad” joke. Trump made Mulvaney his budget director and then asked him to serve as acting director of the consumer bureau last year.

Improper influence or conflict of interest? “I don’t think so, because I am not in elected office anymore,” Mulvaney said in December. He noted different administrations often diverge on key issues.

Industry groups have fought against the rule they slam as a prime example of over-stepping by the CFPB, the consumer agency created by financial reform laws passed during the administration of former president Barack Obama.

“Millions of American consumers use small-dollar loans to manage budget shortfalls or unexpected expenses,” Dennis Shaul, CEO of the Community Financial Services Association of America, said in October. “The CFPB’s misguided rule will only serve to cut off their access to vital credit when they need it the most.”

Payday loans often run between $200 and $1,000, due when a borrower receives the next paycheck. Borrowers average a $15 fee for every $100 borrowed, industry officials have said.

Officials in the Obama administration said payday lenders collected $3.6 billion a year in fees on the backs of low-income people who frequently became trapped in endless cycles of debt. About four out of five borrowers soon took out additional loans with mounting fees, officials said. For many, costs soon approached the equivalent of a 390 percent annual interest rate, they said.

The proposed rules would have required lenders to take greater pains to “vet” borrowers, limit how many loans they could take out in succession and cap penalty fees.

As Frisch sees it, “The CFPB thoroughly and thoughtfully considered every aspect of this issue over the course of several years. There is no reason to delay implementation of this rule – unless you are more concerned with the needs of payday lenders than you are with the interests of the consumers these financial bottom-feeders prey upon.”

 

Equifax tops Florida gripes. Knives are out for credit-freeze fee

Florida officials are pushing to eliminate a $10 fee to freeze a credit report after hacked credit reporting agency Equifax emerged as the most complained-about company in the state in 2017,  in beefs to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

RELATED: Advice to freeze your own credit aims at hot problem in Florida

This fall Equifax acknowledged a data breach that exposed the personal data of more than 145 million U.S. consumers, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and more.

In the wake of that episode, state officials including Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis are pushing legislation to eliminate the $10 fee to freeze credit reports. Such freezes can make it more difficult for fraudsters to establish new credit in a victim’s name.

Indiana, South Carolina, Maine and North Carolina “do not charge this fee and we want to add Florida to that list this year,” Patronis said last week.

Florida law allows credit reporting agencies to charge a fee of up to $10 to freeze credit reports, he noted, “and data breach victims are required to submit paperwork to prove their identity is in jeopardy to avoid paying the fee. No one should have to jump through hoops to get a fee waived.”

Bills including SB 1302 and HB 953 aim to make it so.

Equifax did not respond to a request for comment, but the head of an industry trade group raised concerns.

“We in general oppose the removal of all fees from credit freezes,”  said Francis Creighton, president and CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit reporting agencies. “This is a process that costs the credit reporting agencies money. They have to have call centers and staff to do that.”

A security freeze placed on your credit file will block most lenders from seeing your credit history, as Consumer Reports has described it. That does not eliminate all fraud but makes it harder for a bad guy to get credit in your name, making a freeze “the single most effective way to protect against fraud,” the publication figured.

But it has drawbacks. Unless you are prepared to do a lot of unfreezing and refreezing on the fly, it also shuts out companies you may want to see your report to get a used car or a new smartphone, buy insurance or get approved as tenant.

Another option is a fraud alert, a notice placed on your credit report warning prospective lenders that you are a victim of or concerned about identity theft. That means they should take “reasonable extra steps to verify your identity,” according to Consumer Reports.

The terminology can get confusing, as there are also a variety of “credit monitoring” services companies offer, sometimes with monthly fees.

In any case, credit reporting and repair companies represented the top category of CFPB complaints from Florida, according to lendedu.com, which calls itself a marketplace for finance products including student loans, personal loans and credit cards. The next biggest categories were debt collection and mortgages.

Creighton said complaint numbers should be kept in perspective, because sometimes consumers are unhappy with other parties involved in the process, not necessarily or exclusively credit reporting  agencies like EquifaxExperian and TransUnion.  These can include lenders who deny credit or charge more. Or they can include outside “credit repair” firms that may offer to improve credit scores by challenging adverse information in a consumer’s report, not always with lasting success if the smudges have a legitimate basis.

Meanwhile the CFPB itself, created by financial reform laws enacted during the administration of former President Barack Obama, faces an uncertain future under President Donald Trump.

The bureau oversees rules for banks and other financial companies. It has produced $12 billion for 29 million consumers in refunds and canceled debts.

Big companies have complained the agency goes too far, has too much independent power and hurts the economy.  U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has called it “a rogue agency.” Trump has named his budget director Mick Mulvaney as its acting director. Uncertainty extends to the continued public availability of its complaint database.

“For quite possibly the last time ever (because of rumors of President Trump’s shutting it down), LendEDU has downloaded and analyzed every consumer complaint that was filed with the CFPB in 2017,” lendedu.com said.

Florida 2017 complaints to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Total Complaints: 21,905
Top Company: Equifax Inc. (2,716 complaints)
By Category
Credit Reporting/Repair Services: 8,701
Debt Collection: 4,819
Mortgage: 2,600
Credit Card/Prepaid Card: 1,850
Bank Deposit or Checking/Savings Account: 1,790
Student Loans: 1,074
Source: lendedu.com

Drive Avis, Budget, Payless? File by Sunday for Florida toll refunds

Sunday’s the deadline for refunds under a state settlement on Florida toll charges that involve more than $1 million with Avis, Budget and Payless.

For a claim form, click here by Jan. 7. For questions during business hours:  850-414-3840.

Who’s eligible? Renters between Jan. 1, 2010 and July 10, 2017 who were charged for e-Toll services and who have not already received a refund.

Many drivers were unaware of the $3.95 daily fee or how to avoid it, only to get a bill for it four to six weeks later, according to the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The fees were charged as a means to pay for cashless tolls, but consumers could avoid these if driving on routes without tolls or on those that accept cash.

Under a settlement, Avis and related companies agreed to clearly disclose relevant fees and train employees not to tell consumers the only way to pay is through their e-Toll system.

 

Credit card debt jumps 9%. Bad sign? Depends on your credit score

The average debt on U.S. credit cards has climbed 9 percent in two years after a big pullback following the financial crisis nearly a decade ago, a new federal report says. Total revolving debt has increased very close to pre-recession levels of about $1 trillion.

Slouching toward a new debt crisis? Depends on where you fall in the great credit-score dividing line around 720. If you’re above it, on a typical industry scale that runs up to 850, a close look shows not all of the increased charging likely means “new” debt.

Why? People with good credit scores are increasingly likely to put more things on plastic that they would pay anyway, like routine shopping formerly paid by cash or check or monthly charges for utilities, consumer services, and so on. That’s because it’s a golden age for credit card rewards, and those with the good fortune and discipline to pay it off monthly can come out ahead.

Average credit balances topped $4,800 by the end of 2016, a high since the last recession, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But that does not mean all of it is “new” spending, CFPB figured.

“This high is driven in substantial part by an increase in the average debt level of consumers with superprime credit scores,” meaning 720 or above, the CFPB report released Wednesday said. “Given that these consumers are very likely to transact on their credit cards, this likely represents less a shift in consumer indebtedness patterns than in purchase behavior.”

For example, the report said, “consumers who cease making purchases with cash or check, instead migrating their purchase volume to a credit card that they pay off in full each month, may double their average monthly credit card balance without actually altering their personal balance sheet meaningfully.”

Consumers with “prime” scores, 660 to 719, actually carry the most credit card debt, more than $8,000 per cardholder in the four most recent quarters.

But they pay a steep price if they don’t pay off balances each month. At a typical 19% interest rate, they pay about $127 in interest charges each month.

In contrast, the “superprime” cardholders hover around $4,000 in debt (that they often pay off each month) and folks with “deep subprime” scores, 579 or less, average less debt, about $2,700.

Delinquency and charge-off rates are ticking upward slightly, even with the unemployment rate low and no obvious signs of problems in the larger economy.

“Total outstanding credit card debt has continued to grow since our last report and is now at pre-recession levels,” the report notes.

Whether that’s a problem seems to be a tale of two pools of credit scores.

For folks with scores above 720 — about 56 percent of the scored population, according to this report — the growing debt isn’t necessarily a worry and may not even represent new debt, but a shift in how they pay for things.

Those with “prime” or lower scores, however, run the greatest risk of paying sky-high interest charges and sinking into trouble when debt loads rise.

Credit score tiers

Group/Share of U.S. population with a credit score

Superprime (scores of 720 or greater) 56%
Prime (660 to 719) 17%
Near-prime (620 to 659) 9%
Subprime (580 to 619) 7%
Deep subprime (579 or less) 11%

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Aflac, State Farm reach life insurance settlements

More than $10 billion in life insurance benefits have gone unclaimed in recent years. And the darndest memory problems at insurance companies seemed to keep popping up.

Some insurance companies managed to check death rolls quietly but quite efficiently to stop paying annuities, an investigation spearheaded by Florida officials found. But then whoops, it slipped their minds to look very hard for beneficiaries who might not know they were named in life insurance policies.

Settlements with two insurers announced this week highlight continuing efforts by regulators to help make sure beneficiaries get what they are due.

Curious if you might be due something?  One place to check is a state unclaimed-property website, www.FLTreasureHunt.org, or call 1-88-VALUABLE or (850) 413-3089.

Settlements have been reached with Aflac for $350,000 and State Farm for $250,000, regulators said Thursday.

The announcement comes in the sixth year of a multi-state national effort that has returned more than $8.7 billion in proceeds directly to beneficiaries, and sent more than $3.25 billion to the states, where unclaimed-property programs continue efforts to locate and pay beneficiaries, officials said.

Neither company admitted wrongdoing in the settlements, which mean  30 of the top 40 companies have now reached deals or seen investigations concluded on the issue. Previous agreements have sometimes involved much larger sums. Insurer AIG, for example, agreed to make available $25 million in unclaimed life insurance benefits in Florida in 2013.

An investigation by Florida insurance officials in 2009 found  “companies were using information from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File to stop paying a deceased person’s annuity, but not using it to search for beneficiaries of a life insurance policy and initiate an investigation as to whether benefits were due.”

Florida’s share of the settlements with the two companies is about $42,000, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, the state’s Department of Financial Services and Attorney General.

In statements, the companies emphasized long-running efforts to address the issue.

“Since 2012 Aflac has incorporated the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File to identify individuals who might otherwise be unaware that they are eligible for benefits,” said Jon A. Sullivan, director of corporate communications. “The DMF has become a useful resource as it enables us to better serve our policyholders and facilitate our goal, which is to deliver needed benefits during difficult times.”

A statement from State Farm said, “The State Farm Life companies became aware of this issue when questions surfaced in the life insurance industry eight years ago.

“At that time, State Farm independently began to review how unreported deaths could be located where the life insurance beneficiaries had not presented a claim.

“This effort helped us locate and provide policy benefits to beneficiaries in advance of statutory changes and the requirements of this settlement. We continue to apply this process in all states.

“The recently announced settlement included a monetary payment for the examination, compliance, and monitoring costs associated with the Multi-State Examination.”

Premium gasoline? You’re wasting money unless you vehicle requires it, AAA says.

Is premium worth the price? AAA tested vehicles to find out.

Do you buy premium gasoline when you don’t need to? Some motorists think it might help their vehicle’s performance, even if it isn’t required.

AAA released new research Tuesday that shows paying-up for premium –91/93 octane vs. 87 octane for regular — may not be worth the extra money, unless your vehicle absolutely requires it.

“Sometimes consumers think they are giving their vehicle a boost by buying a higher-grade gasoline than what is required,” said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. “AAA already proved that there is no benefit to using premium gasoline in cars designed to run on regular. Now we can confidently say that unless the vehicle manufacturer requires it, or you drive in demanding conditions, motorists who buy premium are wasting money at the pump.”

Some motorists may consider the additional torque and horsepower to be worth the extra money. Individual drivers – particularly if their driving style can be described as “spirited” – may find an improvement in vehicle driving performance for off-the-line acceleration, highway passing, hill-climbing when loaded with luggage, or towing a trailer; and may determine that their personal driving benefits from the use of premium gasoline.

While some vehicles are designed to run on premium octane gasoline, others simply recommend it. So AAA set out to determine the effects of using premium gasoline in vehicles that recommend it, and whether the benefits in fuel economy and horsepower are worth the higher price at the pump.

The Price of Premium

  • On average, this year in Florida, there has been a 20-25 percent  (57 cent) price gap between regular and premium octane fuel ($2.37 vs. $2.94)
  • On Monday, the state average price for a gallon of regular was $2.41 vs. $3.00 for premium. (Click here to view today’s averages)
  • In Palm Beach County on Tuesday, regular averaged $2.53, while premium was $3.15.

Putting Premium Fuel to the Test

  • AAA tested a variety of vehicles that recommend, but do not require the use of premium (91 octane or higher) gasoline.
  • A series of tests were conducted to determine whether the use of premium gasoline resulted in:
    • Improved fuel economy
    • Increased performance (horsepower)
  • Although AAA has already proven that these vehicles are unlikely to see any benefit from using premium gasoline during typical city or highway driving, a combination of laboratory and on-road tests were performed to simulate extreme driving scenarios such as:
    • Towing
    • Hauling cargo
    • Aggressive acceleration
  • Test vehicles included: Ford Mustang GT, Jeep Renegade, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Cadillac Escalade ESV, Audi A-3, and the Ford F150 XLT
  • Key Findings
  • Most vehicles showed a modest improvement in fuel economy and performance.
  • Fuel economy for test vehicles averaged a 2.7 percent improvement. Individual vehicle test result averages ranged from a decrease of 1 percent (2016 Audi A3) to an improvement of 7.1 percent (2016 Cadillac Escalade).
  • Horsepower for test vehicles averaged an increase of 1.4 percent. Individual vehicle test result averages ranged from a decrease of 0.3 percent (2016 Jeep Renegade) to an improvement of 3.2 percent (2017 Ford Mustang).
  • Premium gasoline costs 20-25% more than regular.
  • The fuel economy improvements recorded during AAA testing do not offset the potential extra cost to purchase premium gasoline.
  • Click here to read the full report

 

Premium Gas – Recommended vs. Required

  • Last year, nearly 1.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States recommend, but do not require, premium gasoline.
  • The trend toward recommending or requiring higher-octane fuel continues to rise as manufacturers work toward meeting stringent CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards.

“By offering a choice, automakers can market modest gains in fuel economy and performance, and car buyers are less likely to hesitate about buying the vehicle, because their operating costs will be lower,” Jenkins continued. “Unfortunately, by only recommending premium fuel, the engine cannot be calibrated to take full advantage of the higher octane, because it also needs to perform adequately with lower octane (regular) fuel. Therefore, the fuel economy and performance gains are only minor.”

AAA Recommends

  • Drivers of vehicles that require premium gasoline should always use it.
  • For those vehicles that do not recommend or require premium gasoline, AAA suggests drivers opt for the lower priced, regular fuel.
  • Any vehicle that makes a “pinging” or “knocking” sound while using regular gasoline should be evaluated by a AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility and likely switched to a higher-octane fuel.
  • AAA urges drivers who use premium gasoline to shop around for the best price, as it could vary dramatically between gas stations in any given city.
  • The AAA Mobile app, is a free tool to help drivers identify the least expensive premium gasoline near them.

Higher Octane Does Not Mean “Higher Quality”

  • AAA found no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that only requires regular-grade fuel.
  • In a study released last year, AAA found that consumers wasted nearly $2.1 billion dollars fueling vehicles with higher-octane gasoline.
  • Drivers seeking a higher quality fuel for their vehicle should consider using one that meets Top Tier standards. Previous AAA research found it to keep engines up to 19 times cleaner.
  • The study noted the difference in fuel quality was dependent on the various detergent packages in gasoline, which vary by retail brand.

Florida citrus crop estimate shrinks again post-Irma

Florida citrus groves were severely damaged by Hurricane Irma. Provided.

Hurricane Irma continues to haunt Florida farmers as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday once again decreased its monthly estimate of the state’s 2017-2018 citrus crop.

The USDA now says Florida will produce 46 million boxes of oranges, down 4 million boxes from November and 8 million boxes from October. The USDA makes its first estimate in October of each year and revises it monthly until the end of the season in July.  For more information go to https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Florida/Publications/Citrus/

   “This is exactly what we thought would happen as the true damage begins to rear its ugly head in the groves across Florida,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower organization. “Unfortunately the situation is going to get worse before it gets better; we think the actual size of the 2017-2018 crop will not be known until the season is over and all the fruit is picked.”

“Clearly, this lower estimate provides stark evidence that Congress needs to pass a citrus relief package so we can start to rebuild and put the industry on a path to sustainability while saving the communities that rely on citrus,” Sparks said.

On September 10  Hurricane Irma moved through the center of the state pounding Florida’s major citrus producing regions with up to 110 mph winds and 15 inches of rain. The hurricane blew fruit off the tree and caused widespread tree damage. A FCM survey of growers conducted post Irma pegged total fruit loss at almost 60 percent with some reports of 100 percent fruit loss in the Southwest part of the state.

Tuesday’s forecast represents a decline of more than 80 percent since the peak of citrus production at 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 season.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday, “While much of the state has recovered and moved on from Hurricane Irma, Florida’s citrus growers continue to grapple with the unprecedented damage, which is still unfolding in many groves. Florida’s growers need support and they need it as quickly as possible. I will continue to work with Governor Scott and leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the support and relief they need to rebuild.”

After Irma, Putnam announced that Florida citrus sustained more than $760 million in damages.

For more information about the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit FreshFromFlorida.com.