Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

May 2013 Archives

Problem With Your Credit Report? You're Not Alone

Nearly a quarter of Americans say they have noticed problems on their credit reports, according to a new FindLaw.com survey.

Among the most common problems: inaccurate information, identity theft, incorrect credit scores and being denied credit because of mistakes on a credit report.

The survey found that 23% of Americans have come across one or more of these problems.

Impact of Credit Report Errors

Mistakes and other credit-report inaccuracies can have huge personal, financial and professional implications. This can include your ability to get a mortgage, a credit card, a car loan, or other forms of credit.

In some cases, credit reports can also be used against you if you're applying for a new job.

That's why it's important to check your credit report from time to time and make sure the information is secure, accurate, and current.

What to Do If There's a Problem

If you're among the nearly 1 in 4 Americans who notices a credit report mistake, don't fret. The vast majority of surveyed people who had problems with their credit report say they were able to correct the problem.

In fact, 68% of people were able to completely fix their problem. Another 14% faced multiple problems but were able to get at least one of them fixed. However, 18% said they had no luck in getting their problem fixed.

In most cases, consumers do have options to clear up mistakes on their credit reports.

For example, under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, you are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.

Federal law also sets requirements for resolving disputes involving the accuracy of information in a person's credit report.

The number of people catching mistakes on their credit reports may seem surprising. But perhaps even more surprising, a similar number of respondents -- 22% -- admitted that they'd never checked their credit report to verify the accuracy of the information.

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It's 2013's "Click It or Ticket" week right now. What does that mean, exactly? It's the U.S. Department of Transportation's week-long, annual campaign to ensure stricter seat belt enforcement, this year with a focused emphasis on nighttime drivers. Basically, state and local law enforcement agencies are cracking down even more severely on motorists caught not wearing a seat belt this week.

According to USA TODAY, if they aren't buckled up, drivers can expect fines of up to $162 during the week, which will run until June 2nd, 2013. Nationally, the average cost per ticket is around $38. The campaign typically launches right before or around the Memorial Day weekend, which usually signals the start of summer vacation season, or at least a long weekend undoubtedly filled with more drivers on the road than usual.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says that, "When we started this campaign two decades ago, we knew that our roadways would be safer." Also, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 86% of drivers now buckle up when they get behind the wheel of their cars.

Still, though, this means that there are still those who don't click it, and thus run the obvious risk of a ticket. According to a report from USA TODAY, here's what seat belt tickets issued in 2010 looks like for the top ten states with the most citations:

California, Texas, and New York all unsurprisingly appear on this list. But, the states with the most citations are actually not one of these three heavy-hitters. Florida is the second most ticketed state for seat belt violations in 2010 with over 60,000 citations. While Illinois actually comes in first place with a whopping 74,364. The full list, below:

  1. Illinois, 74,364
  2. Florida, 63,586
  3. New York, 55,865
  4. Texas, 40,393
  5. New Jersey, 36,699
  6. Minnesota, 23,244
  7. Kentucky, 22,070
  8. Indiana, 20,818
  9. Wisconsin, 16,405
  10. California, 14,697

So, for those of you residing in or driving through these states, be warned. But, more importantly: be safe.

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Twitter's two-step authorization has finally come to town.

It's about time, too. From the Associated Press to The Onion, to E! Online, to celebrities, and then of course all the way down to the rest of any of us tweeters, it seems as though nobody on Twitter is safe from being hacked. It happens, and it happens often.

Let's hope that, by following in the footsteps of Apple, Google, and many others, implementing a two-step verification system can help Twitter protect you from getting hacked.

But what exactly is this new Twitter two-step authentication feature? And how will it protect you from being hacked?

How It Works

Two-step authorization is exactly what it sounds like. Twitter users logging in will have to verify their identity twice before they're able to successfully get into their accounts. Before this, it was just a matter of typing in your password.

Now, Twitter is adding that extra layer of authorization by requiring users to enter a unique code, sent via SMS text message. The phone number it'll be sent to will be the one that you entered when the account was first created.

This second step won't be required every time you open up a Twitter tab. Rather, it will be asked of you every time you log out and log back in. This will not affect apps that you've connected to Twitter. Apps will still require a one-time password.

How It Protects You

By adding that extra layer of verification, Twitter is ensuring that whoever enters your account is actually the authorized person to do so. This will also help to ensure that a number of factors that trigger hacks are minimized, such as:

  • Phishing. Phishing, or fishing for confidential information, is basically what many types of spam mail are: mass emails sent out in an effort to fraudulently obtain your personal information (in this case, your Twitter password).
  • Spear-phishing. Spear-phishing is a more targeted form of phishing. Essentially, they are fake emails addressed to you or your company that deceive the user by adding tailored, fake personal touches that often make them then seem like they are legitimate.
  • Identity theft. This occurs every day, and everyone is susceptible to it. But with two-factor authentication, even if a hacker is using your email address, he won't be able to log in to your Twitter account without the code that's sent to your phone.

There are of course still some inevitable kinks that need to work out with Twitter's latest feature -- multiple users on the same Twitter account, for one, and how that can be verified. But, the newest security enhancement will at the very least give users some added protection.

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After a Tornado, Top 10 Legal Tips for Storm Victims

With the devastation of Monday's Oklahoma tornado beginning to set in, victims are coming to grips with the daunting process of recovery. In this difficult situation, victims should take it one day at a time.

With a hat tip to the Dallas Business Journal, here are 10 legal tips for tornado victims:

  1. Don't re-enter your home unless it's safe. Even if your home is still standing, some damage might not be visible, so be very careful about entering any property or structure.
  2. Don't blindly sign anything. Never sign any documents that might do away with your legal claims unless you understand what you are signing. If in doubt, you may want to consult an experienced lawyer.
  3. Be careful about cashing settlement checks. Do not deposit any checks from insurers that have “settlement” written anywhere on them unless you have all of the facts about the value of your loss and are completely satisfied with the amount.
  4. Read your homeowner's policy. Keep receipts from emergency repairs and log any costs from temporary housing. This may be reimbursable under the "loss of use" portion of your homeowner's policy.
  5. Take notes and document everything you can. Document any damage with pictures, ideally. Written descriptions of the damage are also helpful.
  6. Keep an insurance phone log. Jot down all of your attempts to contact your insurance company; if you speak with someone, jot down his or her name and what you discussed. This could come in handy if you need to file a complaint or later need to talk to an attorney.
  7. Ask for proof. If your insurance company tells you that your policy does not cover the damage that occurred or you feel that the offer is too low, ask for proof.
  8. Do your research before hiring contractors. If you need to rebuild your home, use a contractor with good references and an long-standing presence in the area. Price several contractors, be firm about terms and deadlines, and do not sign any contracts that are heavy with legalese or force you into arbitration, which strips you of your right to trial. Be skeptical of out-of-town contractors.
  9. Look into FEMA assistance. Residents can apply for FEMA money to replace lost clothes and to pay for food, lodging, medical, dental and funeral costs.
  10. Look for free legal clinics. In the aftermath of previous tornadoes, local bar associations have offered pro bono services. In the wake of Monday's Oklahoma tornado, some businesses like U-Haul are offering free services to help storm victims.

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CDC: Poop in Pools Is a Potential Health Problem

Everybody poops -- and it's showing up in public swimming pools, apparently.

That's right: There's poop in pools, and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not happy about it.

A CDC report shows that swimmers frequently introduce fecal material (i.e., poop) into pools, which can spread germs to other people, the researchers wrote.

During the course of the CDC study, researchers found a variety of bacteria in the pools they tested last summer.

The Bacteria

The researchers found genetic material from E. coli bacteria in 58% of the tested public pools. E. coli bacteria are ordinarily found in the human gut and feces. Rest assured, there were no samples that showed E. coli O157:H7, a toxin-producing E. coli strain that causes illness, reports LiveScience.

In 59% of pools, researchers also found genetic material from bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause skin rashes and ear infections, according to the CDC report.

Two parasites, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, which also spread through feces and cause diarrhea, were found in less than 2% of samples.

The Cause & the Solution

The fecal matter ended up in pools from people not showering before getting into the water.

The off-putting nitty-gritty statistic is that the average person has 0.14 grams of poop on their "perianal surface" -- the technical word for a person's nether regions -- that can rinse into a pool if a person doesn't shower first, according to the CDC report.

"Chlorine and other disinfectants dont kill germs instantly," said Michele Hlavsa, chief of CDCs Healthy Swimming Program.

One solution might be upping the amount of chemicals in the pool. However, that could come with its own risks since swimming pool chemicals injure thousands yearly.

Homeowners associations and landlords could get a lot of hot water over swimming pool injuries. For the benefit of everyone, they should protect swimmers by closing the pool when a major "accident" happens.

Do things differently this summer: Before the you-know-what hits the fan -- or pool, for that matter -- take precautions. Don't swallow the water you swim in, and avoid swimming when you have diarrhea. Above all, always make sure to shower before taking a dip. For little poopers, the CDC recommends parents take them for a potty break once every hour.

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At least five Marines are the victims of a new online "sextortion" scam, one which threatens to report them to their commanding officers after luring them into simulated sex via Skype.

Criminal investigators at the U.S. Naval Base in Okinawa, Japan, have issued a warning to Marines to be on alert for Internet scams that are specifically targeting service members, reports the Marine Corps Times.

Sex scams are rampant online, and if you take the right precautions, you can avoid being "sextorted."

What Is 'Sextortion'?

"Sextortion" scams are perpetrated by hackers with a penchant for blackmailing victims using naked pictures and videos.

Once they have gathered naked or embarrassing photos of the victim, the culprits will either demand money or even force the victim to strip for the blackmailer via webcam.

Marines caught in this virtual web are often at great risk of being exposed, with potential conduct violations that could cost an officer his career, reports the Times.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

As its name implies, "sextortion" is extortion, and like all criminal forms of extortion, it is illegal for Internet perpetrators to gain property or money by threatening to harm the victim's reputation, business, or family life.

However, the nature of sextortion makes it very hard to report, as many victims fear going to the police would leave their personal or work life in shambles.

Victims, whether they are Marines or teenage girls, can avoid sextortion scams by:

  • Assuming your pictures can be seen by anyone. Just because you have privacy settings on Facebook doesn't mean that your pictures are safe from hackers.
  • Not sending "friends" naked videos or pictures. Hackers are clever enough to trick victims into thinking they are sending explicit pictures or video to someone they trust, according to the FBI, so just don't send them.
  • Staying clothed on Skype. Assuming that every Skype call could be recorded and then shared, it makes sense to keep your pants on.

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FDA Wants Tanning Beds to Carry Cancer Warnings

To the tanorexic mom and other leathery friends, listen up. The FDA wants to reclassify tanning beds and sunlamps, and require warning labels for young people, including warnings about cancer.

The FDA has regulated tanning beds and sun lamps for over 30 years, but for the first time the agency now says tanning devices shouldn't be used by anyone under 18, reports the Associated Press.

The bottom (tan) line of the FDA's tanning beds proposal is to increase awareness of tanning bed risks.

The FDA's Proposal

Many states, including California, have considered completely banning teens from using tanning beds, so the FDA's warning label move isn't actually that radical. But it is on the federal level, which is always a big deal -- especially since it could influence state laws.

The government's goal is to curb melanoma cases, the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 2.3 million U.S. teenagers tan indoors each year, and melanoma is the second most common form of cancer among young adults, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Unless you've been living under a rock (or a tanning bed), you know that ultraviolet radiation increases the chances of melanoma. But did you know by how much?

According to recent studies, the risk of melanoma is 75% higher in people who have been exposed to ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning, reports the AP. (75%! You guys, that's not that far from 100%!)

Currently the machines are classified as low-risk devices (Class I), in the same group as bandages and tongue depressors. The FDA's proposal would increase their classification to moderate-risk (Class II) devices.

That bump in risk level would give the FDA the ability to review sunlamp products' safety and design before manufacturers begin selling them.

Time for Public Comment

The "coolest" part about the proposal is that the FDA will take the public's feelings into consideration before publishing a final rule. Here's an excellent how-to video on how to offer a comment to the FDA. The agency will take comments on the tanning bed proposal for 90 days.

Dr. Mary Maloney of the American Academy of Dermatology calls the FDA action an important first step, but still wants a straight-up ban on indoor tanning for teens.

Keep your eyes (not your skin) peeled for more information.

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Throughout the Midwest, homes and families hit hard by flooding are now looking to their insurance companies to help them get back on their feet.

Fortunately, victims of floods can follow these four steps to start receiving compensation for damage to homes and businesses:

1. Contact Your Insurance Company ASAP.

This seems like a no-brainer, but the first step to filing your flood insurance claim is to call up your insurance agent or insurance company. You will need to be ready to provide them with your insurance policy number and the best ways to get in touch with you.

Remember, normal homeowner's insurance doesn't cover flooding, so you need separate flood insurance in order to file a claim.

2. Collect Evidence.

In order to prove that you have damage to your property and belongings, you need to make a list and take photographs of the flood-damaged portions.

Make sure to record any:

  • Water damage. This includes any walls, floors, ceilings, or belongings which have taken on floodwater.
  • Mold. Both toxic mold and the less-harmful varieties should be documented if you see them.
  • Foundation damage. Cracks in the foundation, uneven floors, bulges, and other structural issues can be incredibly expensive to fix and shouldn't be forgotten.

Make sure to take safety precautions when you are re-entering a flooded area to take photos. There may be toxic mold, water-borne bacteria and raw sewage to contend with.

3. Speak With Your Adjuster.

After contacting your insurance company, an insurance adjuster will schedule a time to visit your property and assess your claim.

When the adjuster arrives, make sure you have:

  • A list of damaged items (including photos);
  • An estimated value for each item and when it was purchased; and
  • A separate area for all damaged goods so that the adjuster can easily view them.

4. File a Proof of Loss Form.

Your adjuster will provide you this form after his assessment, and you have within 60 days of the flood to file this with your insurance company.

Some flooding disasters have prompted the deadline to be relaxed, but you cannot expect any compensation until you file this form. So earlier is always better.

Of course, if you run into any issues in dealing with your flood insurance company, an experienced insurance lawyer can help.

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