Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

February 2013 Archives

Cleaning Up Mistakes on Your Credit Report

Your credit report is an incredibly important document, but that doesn't mean it's immune to mistakes.

Some of those mistakes might be due to human error or carelessness when entering data. But problems can also crop up on your credit report if you're the victim of identity theft. All of those fake purchases can really hurt your credit score.

You have the right to contest entries in your credit score and remove fraudulent information. But to do it takes some work.

The first thing to know is that you can request a copy of your credit report once a year for free from any of the major credit bureaus. That's different from your credit score, but you can at least see what's on there.

The report includes past jobs and homes, loans and other debts, and your credit card and bank history.

You're also entitled to a free credit report after a company takes "adverse action" against you. That means denying you credit, insurance, or employment because of your credit. That applies even if you've already gotten your yearly report.

If you've been the victim of identity theft, it's likely that you racked up some debt that wasn't really yours. Once you settle it with your banks and credit card companies, you have to tackle your credit report.

The first step is to let the credit reporting company know that the report is inaccurate.

It's best to put that in writing so that you have proof that you notified them. You can also then include any documents that help prove your claim.

That might include communications with your bank or credit card about the fraud, proof of canceled charges, and other evidence of identity theft.

But if the credit reporting company refuses to respond? At that point, you should consider getting a lawyer to fight your battles.

It's not about whether you can or can't handle the process. The company is just more likely to respond quickly to a lawyer's requests rather than to yours.

No matter how you do it, it's important to keep on top of the issue. Mistakes on your credit report can be a big problem.

Disclosure: LegalStreet and FindLaw.com are owned by the same company.

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Officials from the Peanut Corporation of America have been charged with fraud and conspiracy after the 2009 salmonella outbreak, reports Wired.com.The indictment comes from a Georgia court. The peanut officials have been charged with knowingly distributing salmonella-contaminated products.

The outbreak killed nine people. A total of 714 people were infected with salmonella in 46 states. This was not necessarily the largest outbreak of salmonella, but it was one of the more egregious cases, particularly because of the allegations that the higher-ups at the PCA knew about the salmonella and turned a blind eye.

Prosecution is unrealistic and uncommon in most food borne illness cases. But this case isn't like most cases. There was not only negligence here but wanton misconduct according to authorities.

To begin with, there were unrepaired roof leaks and throngs of rodents and insects. In addition, the machinery wasn't properly calibrated to ensure safe handling and conditions in the plants were overall unsanitary. Those violations amount to negligence or even gross negligence -- not necessarily the types of things people get prosecuted over.

But the false labels and fake lab results take it up to a whole new level. When lab results were pending on a particular box, PCA president Stewart Parnell ordered the box to be shipped regardless, allegedly saying "[expletive], just ship it. I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer."

In addition to the peanut boxes that were shipped without proper lab results, there were also boxes that were shipped after lab results showed the contents to be contaminated.

The PCA officials are facing criminal charges of fraud. The idea behind fraud is that the offender had the intention to mislead another, resulting in detrimental reliance on that misleading statement. Detrimental, indeed, as the PCA's fraud led to hundreds of hospitalizations and nine deaths.

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Beware FBI, Justice Dept. ‘MoneyPak’ Virus: It’s a Scam

Beware of the FBI / Justice Department "MoneyPak" virus. It may look legally threatening, but it's actually a scam.

Two versions of a computer virus are now going around, each of which displays a fake notification pretending to be from the FBI or the U.S. Justice Department, reports Malware Tips.

The virus will lock you out of your computer while notifying you that this is due to "unauthorized cyberactivity" such as the use of your computer in the distribution of porn, spam, or copyrighted content. To appear official, the virus will also display a fake case number and a fake agent's name who is purportedly investigating the case.

The kicker to the virus is that to unlock your computer and avoid criminal prosecution, you will be asked to pay $200 in the form of a MoneyPak code. You're then directed to stores such as Walmart to purchase a MoneyPak.

Again, you should be aware that this notification is a virus and a scam. If your computer has been infected, here are some steps to remove the virus, as provided by Malware Tips:

  1. Restart Your Computer in "Safe" Mode. Start your computer in Safe Mode with Networking, and scan for malware. You may need to press and hold the F8 key as your computer restarts to get into Safe Mode. If the virus does not allow you to start the computer in Safe Mode with Networking, you can try to restore Windows to a previous state using System Restore.

  2. Perform a System Scan. After your computer has started in Safe Mode with Networking, you’ll need to perform a system scan to identify the malicious files on your machine.

  3. Remove the Malicious Files. After you have performed a system scan, you will be presented with a screen showing you the malware infections that have been detected. Click on all the infected files and click "remove."

For further details on the process to remove the "MoneyPak" virus, see the full instructions here.

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Several batches of Kellogg's Special K "Red Berries" cereal have been recalled due to potential contamination, reports NBC News.

The recall was announced Tuesday after glass pieces were found in one batch of the ingredients used to make the cereal. So far, no injuries have been reported.

By issuing a recall before anyone gets hurt, Kellogg is trying to play it safe. The costs and inconvenience associated with a recall are a lot less than the costs of defending a potential lawsuit.

A recall is a measure taken by a company when its product is deemed unsafe. The key legal issue with a recall is the danger of ending up in a product liability lawsuit. That's when a consumer sues for an injury that arises after using a defective product or a product that is inherently dangerous.

The Special K "Red Berries" recall extends to the following packages:

  • Regular 11.2 ounce retail packages with the UPC code of "38000 59923" and with the date December 2, 2013.
  • 37-ounce club store packages with the UPC code "38000 20940" and a date of November 30, 2013.
  • The 22.4-ounce twin-pack boxes with the UPC code "38000 78356" and the date of November 30, 2013.

Consumers who bought these batches of Special K "Red Berries" can call the Kellogg consumer center at (800) 962-1413 or visit the company's website. Kellogg is offering coupons to those consumers in lieu of replacing the cereal.

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5 Ways to Protect Yourself From Tax Identity Theft

You've heard of identity theft, but let's take it up a notch and talk about tax identity theft.

Tax identity theft is when scam artists use stolen Social Security and Tax Identification numbers to file false refund claims.

It's pretty scary, if you think about it. Nobody wants to land in hot water with Uncle Sam. But if you're not careful, you might find yourself in an inconvenient back-and-forth game with the IRS, based on a mistake so tiny that it could easily have been prevented.

While many cases involving tax ID thieves couldn't have been prevented (how would you know that the hospital's financial services representative is selling information to scammers, as suggested in a recent Forbes article?), there are some ways to protect against tax ID theft.

Steps you can take to protect yourself include:

  • Not responding to electronic IRS communications. Never respond to the "IRS" if contacted via email or Facebook. The IRS does not use text messages, social media or send emails to tell you about audits or refunds.

  • Protecting your Social Security Number. Don't keep your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. Be careful about documents that state your SSN or your TIN.

  • Being careful when surfing the Internet. Websites belonging to the IRS should begin with www.irs.gov. Anything else is likely not the IRS.

  • Taking letters from the real IRS seriously. If your receive a letter from the IRS saying that you have filed two returns or that you have not reported income that you never received, call the IRS. It's likely that someone filed a tax return using your name or other personal information.

  • Keeping tabs on your credit report. Your credit history should tell you if you've been a victim of identity theft. If that's the case, report it to the IRS preemptively.

The IRS has a hotline for identity protection. Feel free to call them at (800) 908-4490. You can also report tax identity theft at the IRS Identity Theft Protection Page.

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American Airlines has announced its merger with US Airways. The move is part of American's attempt to climb out of debt after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011.

American's creditors will end up with a majority share of the combined carrier and will also have five of 12 seats on the company's new board. Four of those seats will go to US Airways representatives, and the rest will be held by AA reps.

If the merger is approved it would create the world's largest airline, both in traffic and capacity. But would it be good for consumers?

What Happens Next?

Whether the merger will be beneficial for consumers is a big question and opinions differ. But the answer is important.

The move will provide American with the resources it needs to compete with other U.S. carriers. The airline will have more routes and economies of scale will keep overhead down, reports CBS News.

According to some experts, fares are only projected to go up slightly and it's possible those prices would have gone up anyway, without the merger. But there are other concerns for passengers.

In the short term, it could mean lost luggage, flight delays, and potentially reduced schedules for people who planned to fly on either airline, reports Forbes. Those growing pains could be a significant source of frustration.

Is This Merger Allowed?

The more important issue, legally speaking, is whether the merger will stifle competition.

U.S. law prohibits monopolies, which happen when a single company or a small group of them dominates the market of a particular industry. Allowing one company to take over drives down competition and disadvantages consumers, especially in markets served by only a few airlines.

That's why the merger of companies within the same industry is generally subject to approval. Federal regulators check the deal to determine if it is anti-competitive. A deal that makes one company too big and could stifle the industry won't be approved.

But will that happen in this case? Probably not.

It's true that this merger will cut down on the choices passengers have, especially when it comes to international business class travel. But in most markets, there are still lots of options for low cost travel within the United States from discount airlines.

Some think this might even boost competition because now that most major airlines are making some profit, they can work on improving amenities to woo customers.

If the merger goes through, American says both lines will continue flying their routes as expected. But the big change: they'll both fly under the American Airlines banner.

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You may want to check your credit report for errors, because they're apparently quite common. And in some cases, consumers are paying the price for those discrepancies, according to the FTC.

A new study by the Federal Trade Commission reveals that 1 in 20 American consumers had a mistake on their credit reports that could have increased their interest rates on things like home loans. The mistakes could also affect insurance premiums, reports Reuters.

In its report, the FTC encourages people who check their credit reports from the three largest agencies -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- to check for mistakes.

Overall, the FTC found about 26% of consumers found a mistake in one of their three credit reports; 21% successfully requested their report be revised, writes Reuters.

For about 5% of consumers, the mistake on the credit report was so significant that it affected how they were viewed as a credit risk, thereby affecting loan terms.

Experian's response acknowledged that while there were mistakes in the reports, in most cases they did not affect credit scores and sometimes they even benefited consumers. It's doubtful that those negatively affected by these credit-report mistakes took any comfort in this statement.

Your credit report and score has taken on a growing importance. For example, if you apply for a car or home loan, the loan officer will request your score and the amount of interest you pay will be directly linked to your score.

So you will want to ensure that your score is accurate. Some steps you can take can include:

  • Checking your score on an annual basis.
  • Contacting the credit reporting agency immediately if you notice any discrepancies.
  • Reviewing your bank and credit card statements regularly.

If you have been harmed by a mistake on a credit report or discover that you have fallen victim to fraud, you may want to contact a consumer protection attorney. An attorney can help assess your case and figure out how to get your situation resolved.

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Blizzard of 2013: Top 10 Tips to Prepare for Nasty 'Nemo'

The blizzard of 2013 may have a cute name -- Nemo -- but that doesn't mean it will do any less damage. For those in its path, it's important to prepare for the worst.

Nemo is expected to hit the East Coast hard and dump a significant amount of snow. That means people will be housebound and potentially without power while the mess is cleaned up. You'll need to be prepared to get through it.

Even if you aren't about to get hit by Nemo, severe weather happens every year, all over the country. Follow this checklist and you'll be prepared before the brunt of the storm hits:

  1. Fill up your car. It's a good idea to keep some snacks, a blanket, and flares in your car in case you get stranded during the storm. But don't keep the motor running; it could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning if the snow blocks your exhaust.

  2. Cut down on perishables. A big storm means it's likely the power will go out. You could be at risk of food poisoning from everything that's left in the fridge. Buy shelf-stable goods instead.

  3. Stock up on alternative lights. Whether you prefer candles or battery-powered lights, make sure you have enough to last through the storm. Just be careful and don't place candles too close to flammable objects.

  4. Stay warm. When the power goes, so does the heat. Get extra blankets and clothes to keep you warm and don't forget to eat enough (hunger can make you feel colder). Landlords may be required to fix your heating system in the event it stops working.

  5. Keep the fire extinguisher handy. As mentioned above, alternative light and heat sources are great but they can also be fire hazards. Don't let the flames get out of control.

  6. Get enough water. In some cases, loss of power means you also won't have fresh water. Purchase some water jugs, both for drinking and for flushing.

  7. Charge your phone. The power is out and you need to call for help. But wait, your cell phone is flashing "low battery" and dies. Don't let that happen to you; charge your phone until the power goes out.

  8. Stick together. It can be dangerous to be alone during a storm. No one can come to help you if you fall or have a medical emergency. If you live alone, consider having a prolonged sleepover with friends to keep an eye on one another.

  9. Buy an extra shovel or two (or three). Once the snow stops falling, you need a way to get rid of it or face potential liability and fines. Get an extra shovel just in case your old one breaks.

  10. Know your local shelter. Sometimes you just can't ride out the storm at home. If you run low on food or water or it gets too cold in your home, find another place to stay. This isn't a time to be proud. Spending the night in an emergency shelter could save your life.

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5 Things You Should Never Keep in Your Car

Car break-ins aren't always just about vandalism or theft. If your car has been broken into, you may be facing some more serious consequences that hit much closer to home.

People tend to leave all sorts of items in their cars -- items that contain confidential information that could be dangerous if it ends up in the wrong hands.

With that warning in mind, here are five things you should never keep in your car because of potential security risks:

  1. Title and registration. These documents have identifying information on them -- namely, your address. That can be a huge problem if thieves learn where you live and use that information to burglarize your home. These documents should especially be removed from your car if you're leaving it unattended in an airport parking lot, or any other long-term lot. If you must leave these items in your car, try to find a less obvious location than the armrest or glove compartment.

  2. Your cell phone. Many people's smartphones now contain their entire address book, complete with phone numbers, addresses, and email contact info. Sometimes, people even have their spouses or significant others listed as "wife" or "husband." This information can be used by criminals -- they could potentially text your spouse or other relatives to get personal information like PINs or account numbers.

  3. A GPS device programmed with your home address. Be careful about programming your home address into your GPS, and then leaving it in your car. If a criminal gets his hands on your GPS, it could lead him and his cronies right to your doorstep.

  4. Your garage door remote. If your garage remote is kept in your car and criminals get their hands on your address (through the paperwork you left in your car or through the GPS), then you've essentially given them a key to break into your home -- or at least your garage.

  5. Mail. Again, your mail has your address. And if you leave credit card statements or other sensitive correspondence in your car, then you're potentially leaving yourself wide open to identity theft.

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