Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

December 2013 Archives

New Year’s Day Car Thefts: 5 Keys to Prevention

A staggering number of car owners ring in the New Year by reporting car thefts. Alas, New Year's Day is traditionally the number one holiday for car thefts. Unfortunately, this year will likely be no exception. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), New Year's Day topped the list with 2,228 reported vehicle thefts in 2012.

Here are five ways to help prevent your car from being stolen on New Year's Day:

  1. Leave your car at home. The best way to thwart car theft is to leave your wheels at home and take a taxi both ways. That way, you can indulge in some bubbly without risking a New Year's DUI and/or worrying about your car's safety. Win-win!
  2. Park in well-lit areas. If you must take your car and need to leave it somewhere, park it under a light, in a secure garage, or in a high traffic area. Even if you're not in a car theft hotspot, avoid parking near obstructions such as dumpsters, large vans or trucks, or anything else that could limit your visibility. The darker or more isolated the parking spot, the more attractive your car looks to thieves.
  3. Keep valuables out of plain view. During this time of the year, it's very common for criminals to spy on you while you're filling your car with holiday goodies, so be aware of your surroundings. Keep purchases and packages in the trunk, not in the back seat.
  4. Lock your doors. Make sure the car is locked and the windows are rolled up. You can also detach the battery cables before leaving the car overnight.
  5. Park in an attended lot. Finding a parking spot on New Year's is a nightmare as it is, so bite the financial bullet and opt for an (overpriced) attended lot. That being said, leave only the door/ignition key for valet parking. Never hide a second set of keys in your car.

If you think ol' Greased Lightning is safe and sound because she's past her prime, think again. Contrary to popular belief, older model cars are stolen the most.

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After Target's security breach, many customers are scrambling to make sure they are not victims of identity theft. As an apology for the massive security breach that affected 40 million credit and debit card accounts -- and an attempt to win back customers -- the stores are now offering 10 percent off total purchases and free credit reports.

Media sources like Miami's WFOR-TV are spinning the retail giant's offer of a "free credit report" as a special thing, but it isn't actually that big of a deal.

"Free" Credit Reports

In a statement released by Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, Target will offer a 10% discount that will last from Saturday, Dec. 21 to Sunday, Dec. 22. All shoppers are also entitled to a free credit report, directly, from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies.

But here's the thing: Target isn't actually doing consumers any favors. Under federal law, every consumer is entitled to a free credit report.

Federal law requires each of the three nationwide consumer credit-reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to give people a free credit report every 12 months if requested. Obtain a free copy of your credit report by going to the Annual Credit Report website or by calling 877-322-8228.

Checking Your Credit Report

Once you've obtained your credit report from any one of the three consumer credit reporting companies, review your credit report. Pay particularly close attention to the following information:

  • A list of reported prior addresses and phone numbers,
  • A list of bank accounts and loans in your name,
  • A month-to-month breakdown of each account, indicating whether payments were made on time or late,
  • An indication of whether an account is in collections or foreclosure, and
  • Which companies have accessed your credit information and their contact information.

Check your reports for anything that strikes you as incorrect or odd. Such information may indicate that you have been the target of identity theft.

As Target wrote on its website, "If you discover information on your credit report arising from a fraudulent transaction, you should request that the credit reporting agency delete that information from your credit report file." To give customers extra help, Target is offering affected customers free fraud monitoring services.

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Retail giant Target experienced a massive security breach involving stolen credit card and debit card information for 40 million of its in-store customers. If you made an in-store purchase with a debit or credit card at a Target store between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, your account may be compromised. Target urges all affected customers be vigilant in protecting their personal information.

Here are five signs of fraud and identity theft to look for:

  1. Your credit card bills are late.
  2. You get credit cards for an account you didn't open.
  3. You get denied a credit card, even though you think your credit history should have qualified you for it.
  4. You get a call about a purchase you didn't make.
  5. You don't recognize withdrawals or charges on your statement.

Steps You Can Take

If you're one of the many Target customers affected by the breach, look into the following steps to protect yourself against debit or credit card fraud:

  • Carefully monitor your financial statements and account activity. Look for inquiries from companies you didn't contact, accounts you didn't open, debts you can't explain, and inaccurate personal information. If you discover any suspicious or unusual activity on your accounts or suspect fraud, immediately report it to your financial institutions. REDcard holders should contact Target, others should contact their bank.
  • Get fraud alerts on your credit report. In addition to card-related fraud alerts, consider calling one of the three nationwide credit-reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- to add fraud alerts to your credit report. Such alerts can make it more difficult for someone to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures to protect you, but it also may delay your ability to obtain credit.
  • Place a security freeze on your credit report. Contact one of the above listed agencies regarding if and how you may place a security freeze on your credit report. Doing so can prohibit a credit-reporting agency from releasing information from your credit report without your prior written authorization.

For more help, check out FindLaw's free Mini-Guide to Online Fraud and Identity Theft.

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Michelin Recalls 1.3M Tires for Trucks, Vans, RVs

Michelin has issued a safety recall for 1.3 million of its LTX M/S tires that were produced between January 2010 to June 2012 at its Nova Scotia plant.

Owners of 2010 to 2013 Ford E-Series vans or other full-size heavy duty vans, light-duty commercial trucks, large pickups, and small RVs could be affected by the tire recall.

Anyone affected by the recall may be entitled to recall remedies.

What's a Voluntary Recall?

Michelin voluntarily recalled its LTX M/S tire because of tread/belt endurance issues that could result in tread separation, rapid air loss, or tread loss. According to the Chicago Tribune, the only tire size that's part of the recall is the LT225/75R16 115/12R LRE.

The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set minimum performance requirements for tires. Most recalls are voluntary and put in place by the manufacturer.

A recall is generally necessary when:

  • A motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment doesn't comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, or
  • There's a safety-related defect in the equipment or vehicle.

Tires are considered motor vehicle equipment. Since the problems with the Michelin LTX M/S tires are related to tread separation and rapid air loss, they're definitely safety-related issues that would urge the manufacturer to issue a voluntary recall.

What Should Consumers Do?

Because the Michelin recall is specific to certain tires, consumers should check their tires' size. The tire size number will be found on the sidewall of your tires.

The Detroit News reports that Michelin will send a letter to owners in early January and provide specific instructions on how to obtain replacement products and get reimbursed. If you're using the recalled tires, remove them as soon as possible. Authorized Michelin retail locations will replace those tires at no charge.

So far, no injuries have been reported and only 20 consumers have sought reimbursement, The New York Times reports.

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4 of the Most Common Passwords Are Also the Weakest

The recent discovery of a database of stolen login credentials reveals four of the most common passwords used by consumers.

And they're very easy to guess.

A botnet called "Pony" -- a form of keylogging malware that tracks users' keystrokes -- collected 2 million usernames and passwords for accounts associated with Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, and LinkedIn, reports CNET.

What's more, security company Trustwave discovered many of the victims -- who lived in as many as 102 countries -- had some of the weakest passwords ever.

'12345' and 'Password'

So what were the most common user passwords, as revealed by the stolen-credentials database? According to CNET, they were:

  • 123456,
  • 123456789,
  • 1234, and
  • The word "Password."

Believe it or not, we're being totally serious.

Though many companies -- including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter -- have reset infected users' passwords, users may want to take this incident as a reminder to create more secure passwords.

Stronger Password Tips

Remember, a password is only as secure as you make it. That's why you'll want to steer clear of bad examples like, say, the United States' Cold War-era "00000000" nuclear missile code. Instead, take the following password precautions:

  • Create a unique password. A strong password is long and contains numbers, upper-and-lower case letters, and special characters like $, !, and @.
  • Use memorable phrases. The trick is to have a password that is both unique and memorable (for your sake). Try the first letters of an idiom, poem, or song you like. As Firstpost suggests, "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch" can magically transform into ""J&jwU2^2F."
  • Increase the length. When it comes to passwords, size matters. Craft a password that is longer than eight characters.
  • Use a password generator. If you're all tapped out of good password ideas, consider using a secure password generator.
  • Change your password often. As annoying as changing a password is, it's a necessary evil. This is because even a strong unique password can be compromised. If possible, try to change your password every 90 days.
  • Use vernacular language. If you're bilingual, take advantage of that -- but use the vernacular to thwart dictionary software used by hackers. The password "thirst" quenches your security needs as "tEsht@%22" in Bengali.

The time has come to move on from "12345" and "password." Get creative, people.

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Top 5 Layaway Tips for the Holidays

With the holiday shopping season in full effect, many Americans will need some layaway tips.

Layaway plans are often considered by many shoppers who are in a financial crunch -- and why not? There's no interest, since there's no money borrowed, and you get to pay for your purchases over a set period of time.

However, layaway may not be the best plan for you. Before you turn to a layaway plan this year, here are the top five layaway tips for the holidays:

  1. Understand what a layaway plan is. Know what you are getting yourself into. A layaway is an installment purchase plan that allows the buyer to pay a chunk of his purchase as a down payment, and then make weekly payments. However, there are additional fees, and you may need to research those before you dive into the layaway option.
  2. Know the store or company's policy. Much like with returns and refunds, each store may have a different layaway policy. If you're shopping at different stores, don't assume that they're all the same.
  3. Get the terms of the layaway plan in writing. Make sure you get the terms of the layaway agreement in writing. This will be key in resolving any future disputes regarding payments that might arise. Also make sure that you don't sign anything without fully understanding what the terms are.
  4. Check for additional fees. Layaway plans may come with hidden additional fees -- for example, storage fees while your item is being held and paid for. Be sure that you know what you're going to incur and that you can still afford it.
  5. Do the math. Compare the cost of layaway with your other payment options. It just might not be worth it in the end. Sometimes, putting some last-minute items on your credit card -- as long as you remember pay them off in time -- may be a better option.

Holiday shopping doesn't have to be stressful. Regardless of what payment plan you opt into, remember that it's important to be prepared.

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Make the Most Out of 'Giving Tuesday': 5 Legal Tips

Following on the heels of "Movember," #GivingTuesday is all about celebrating the spirit of generosity.

#GivingTuesday is a movement to create a national day of giving to kick off the giving season added to the calendar on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. The second annual #GivingTuesday is today (December 3, 2013).

To make the most of your #GivingTuesday, keep these five legal tips in mind:

  1. Make sure the charity is legitimate. Beware scam artists trying to make a quick buck off your good will. Among the steps you should take to donate with caution is to look up the charity at the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Navigator.
  2. Read the fine print. Before making a charitable donation, find out how the organization will use your donated funds. More specifically, find out what portion of your dollars will go directly toward helping people and providing services. Your charity should be able to provide you with an annual report and financial documents that describe how donations are spent.
  3. Claim a tax deduction. You may be able to claim a charitable contribution deduction against your income tax if you itemize deductions made to a qualified charitable organization. Rest assured, most charitable organizations qualify for a charitable contribution deduction. Don't forget to retain your receipts and records.
  4. Amplify your employer's participation in #GivingTuesday. Find out if your employer will get into the spirit of charitable giving and match #GivingTuesday contributions. On some sites, you’ll see a list of participating employers, created by a company called Double the Donation. But make sure it doesn't interfere with your employment contract.
  5. Participate in #GivingTuesday crowdfunding challenges. Indiegogo will contribute $1 for every $20 raised to #GivingTuesday campaigns. In the Case Foundation's challenge, if you go to Crowdrise.com/givingtuesday2013 and make a donation, your favorite nonprofit could win a grant of $1,000, $10,000 or $25,000. As long as you do your due diligence, crowdfunding for charity is a great way to pay it forward.

As Winston Churchill once said, "We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give." Have a happy #GivingTuesday!

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