Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

December 2014 Archives

Top 10 Consumer Protection Legal Stories of 2014

As you probably know, 2014 was a big year for consumer protection legal stories.

From wide-reaching recalls to an uptick in the number of online scams being perpetrated by internet criminals, there were a number of news stories that hit home for consumers concerned with protecting their finances, privacy, and safety. And FindLaw's Common Law covered it all.

What were this year's most popular Common Law blog posts? Here are the Top 10:

  1. 'Cold Water Challenge' Warning: Injuries, 1 Death Reported -- Before the "Ice Bucket Challenge," there was the "Cold Water Challenge," in which teens recorded themselves jumping into frigid bodies of water. One Minnesota teen died while taking part in the challenge after jumping into an ice-cold lake.
  2. 'Court Case' Email Scam: Don't Click on Attachments -- Consumers nationwide were warned about a scam in which emails that appeared to be from court clerks or law firms actually contained malware or were attempts to scam consumers into paying nonexistent fines.
  3. Craigslist Scam Alert: 5 Signs a Con Artist Is Replying to Your Ad -- There are a few tell-tale signs that the person answering your ad on Craigslist may be up to no good.
  4. 'Gas Station Scam' Fueled by Fear of Prosecution -- Another scam reported this year involved scammers posing as gas station owners. The scammers spin a tale involving a declined credit card on the consumers' last visit to a local gas station and threaten legal action if the consumer fails to provide his or her credit card info.
  5. Was Your Car Recalled? Look Up Your VIN to Find Out -- NHTSA rolled out a new online database this year, allowing consumers to search by VIN to see if their vehicle is in need of any recall repairs.
  6. 5 Things You Shouldn't Keep in Your Car -- Although vehicle break-ins are never a good thing, consumers can make them slightly less painful by keeping essential or valuable items out of their cars.
  7. 'One Ring' Cell Phone Scam Rings Up Unwanted Charges, BBB Warns -- The BBB issued an alert regarding the so-called "One Ring" scam, in which automated calls are made to random cellphone numbers, ringing once before disconnecting. Consumers who called back incurred huge cellphone charges or got conned into a telemarketing scheme.
  8. Black Pepper, Chia and Flax Powders Recalled Over Salmonella Fears -- Among the foods recalled in 2014 were Costco's Kirkland brand black pepper and Organic Matters' sprouted chia and flax seed powder.
  9. Apple Security Flaw: Update Software to Thwart Wi-Fi Hackers -- Apple was forced to release a security update after a bug was discovered in the company's software. It potentially gave hackers the ability to trick Apple devices into thinking they were connected to a secure connection.
  10. Facebook Shortens Its Data Policy: 5 Things Users Should Know -- Social media company Facebook trimmed more than 6,000 words from its Data Policy in order to make the company's terms of use more understandable to users.

Learn more about protecting yourself from online scams, defective products, and retail fraud at FindLaw's section on Consumer Protection.

Related Resources:

Caramel Apples Recalled After Listeria Outbreak

The Missouri company that makes Happy Apple brand caramel apples has issued a recall after the Centers for Disease Control warned consumers that the apples could be linked to a deadly outbreak of listeria.

Happy Apple Co. announced the recall Wednesday involving caramel apples with a "Best Used By" date of between August 25 and November 23, reports The Washington Post. The apples were sold in grocery stores and at other food outlets in packs of one, three, four, and eight.

29 Infected by Listeria, 5 Dead

According to the CDC, as of Monday at least 29 people in 10 states have been infected by the strain of Listeria monocytogenes causing the latest outbreak. All 29 have been hospitalized, with five later dying, although only three of those deaths have been confirmed to be linked to listeriosis, the disease caused by listeria infection.

Listeriosis is caused by eating food contaminated with listeria and primarily affects pregnant women, newborn children, and adults with weakened immune systems. Symptoms of listeriosis include stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. In pregnant women, listeriosis can lead to miscarriages, still births, and severe infections in newborn children.

Apples No Longer Available in Stores

The apples subject to the recall are no longer available in grocery stores, but were sold in 31 states. Consumers who have recalled apples can return them to the store where the apples were purchased, or destroy them. Consumers with questions can contact the company by phone at (800) 527-7532 during normal business hours or by email at customercare@happyapples.com.

At least one product liability lawsuit has been filed related to the outbreak. Grocery store chain Safeway is being sued for the wrongful death of an 81-year-old California woman who died from listeriosis after purchasing a caramel apple from a Safeway store.

Related Resources:

Keurig Recall: 5 Things Consumers Should Know

Keurig has announced that the company is recalling more than 7 million of its MINI Plus Brewing systems after consumers reported being burned by hot liquid spraying from the machines.

The company has received 90 reports of burn injuries caused by the malfunctioning coffee makers, Reuters reports. Seventeen of those injuries occurred in Canada, which is included in the recall issued jointly by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada.

What are the facts behind this Keurig recall? Here are five things consumers should know:

  1. The recall is for the K10 MINI Plus Brewing System. The recall does not affect all Keurig brewing systems, only the MINI Plus Brewing System with the model number K10 marked on the product's packaging.
  2. Recalled units can be identified by serial number. The recalled brewers can be identified using the serial number printed on a white sticker on the bottom of the brewer. The recalled brewers have an identification number starting with 31. A full range of serial numbers included in the recall can be found at the CPSC website.
  3. The recall includes nearly 7.2 million units. About 6.6. million units are being recalled in the United States, with an additional 564,000 in Canada. The products were sold online and at major retailers including Walmart, Target, Kohl's, and Kmart.
  4. The injuries were caused by hot water escaping the brewer during use. The injuries that led to the recall were caused by hot water escaping the brewer during use. According to the recall notice on the Keurig website, the company has determined that this is more likely to occur when the system is used to brew more than two cups in quick succession. The company recommends that users avoid brewing more than two cups in succession until the unit can be repaired, and that users maintain an arm's length distance from the machine during the brewing process.
  5. Keurig is providing a free repair kit. Consumers with a recalled brewer can obtain a free repair kit by contacting Keurig. Consumers can call the company toll-free at (844) 255-7886 or email keurig@inmar.com.

Learn more about your legal rights for injuries caused by defective products at FindLaw's section on Product Liability.

Related Resources:

When Do Gift Cards Expire?

Gift cards have become a popular holiday gift. But what happens if you don't use a gift card right away? Do gift cards expire?

Uncertainty regarding hidden fees, expiration dates, and other restrictions on gift cards led the federal government to establish rules for gift cards in 2010 as part of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act.

Gift Cards Good for Minimum of 5 Years

Under the federal rules established in 2010, gift cards cannot expire earlier than five years after the date of purchase or the last date on which additional money was loaded onto the card. For cards with an expiration date earlier than either of these dates, any money on the card can be transferred to a replacement card at no additional cost.

The federal rules do permit businesses to charge inactivity fees. But these fees, also called dormancy fees, may only be charged after a card has not been used for at least one year and may only be charged once a month. Fees also may be charged to replace a lost or stolen card.

Both the card's expiration date and any fees that may be charged to consumers must also be disclosed on the card or the card's packaging.

State Law May Provide Additional Protections

In addition to federal rules, individual states may have rules that provide consumers further protection for money on gift cards. In California, for example, most gift cards issued for use with the gift card seller or its affiliates cannot contain an expiration date or charge a dormancy fee except under limited circumstances, according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs. California law also requires that gift cards with a cash value of less than $10 be redeemable for their cash value.

Learn more about your legal rights as consumer, including product warranties, defective products, and canceling a sale at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Consumer Transactions.

Related Resources:

Sprint 'Cramming' Lawsuit: What Consumers Need to Know

The federal government is continuing its crackdown against the so-called "cramming" of unauthorized charges on consumers' cellphone bills with a lawsuit against wireless carrier Sprint.

The lawsuit was filed Friday by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reports CNET. In the complaint, the Bureau alleges that Sprint allowed third parties to make unauthorized charges on Sprint customers' cellphone bills then failed to properly respond to customer disputes or warnings about the practice from consumer groups and government agencies.

The lawsuit marks the third action by a government agency against a wireless carrier for wireless cramming so far this year.

AT&T, T-Mobile Previously Accused of 'Cramming' Wireless Bills

The lawsuit against Sprint follows a similar lawsuit filed against wireless carrier T-Mobile earlier this year. In that lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission alleged that T-Mobile had crammed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unauthorized third-party charges on customers' bills, including subscription services for horoscopes, dating tips, ringtones, and other services that consumers often failed to notice were included on their monthly bills.

In October, it was announced that AT&T had agreed to a $105 million settlement with the FTC over allegations that the company also crammed unauthorized charges onto customers' wireless bills. In addition to the lawsuit filed this week against Sprint by the CFPB, the FCC is also reportedly planning to levy a $105 million fine against the company.

What is Cramming?

Cramming is the name given to unauthorized charges placed on landline telephone or cellphone bills, typically for services provided by third party companies. Consumers are often unaware that they are being charged a monthly fee for these services as the charges frequently go unnoticed on monthly bills. The government claims that this is often the result of deceptive billing practices on the part of wireless carriers.

In the lawsuit against Sprint, the CFPB is asking for civil damages and penalties against the company as well as restitution for Sprint customers who paid the unauthorized charges.

Related Resources:

BBB Warns About Work Email Scam

The Better Business Bureau has issued an alert regarding a new email scam targeting professionals through their work email accounts.

According to the BBB alert, the emails appear to be from your company's human resources department regarding your benefits. The emails are designed to look official and use urgent language regarding the cancellation, reduction, or suspension of your benefits to convince you to open the email and click on the links or attachments included.

Unfortunately, following the emails instructions may download harmful malware to your computer or direct you to a phishing website that may trick you into divulging personal information.

How to Avoid Being Scammed

The list of red flags for this particular email scam is also applicable to most other email scams. Although the targets of the scam and the methods used by the scammers may change, there are several general tips that can help you avoid getting ripped off by email scammers. These include:

  • Never opening unexpected, unfamiliar attachments. Even if the email appears to be from someone you recognize, you should always make sure the email is legitimate before opening any attachments that may be included with an unexpected email.
  • Watching for fishy URLs. Look closely at the URLs in any link included in an email; scammers often use web site addresses that look legitimate but may be one or two letters off or may actually be subdomains or different, unfamiliar websites.
  • Hovering over links. Scammers are often able to obscure the true destination of links included in emails. However, by hovering your mouse over the link without clicking it, you can usually see where a link will actually take you.

Social Security Email Scam

Scammers have found success targeting consumers with scams related to benefits. Earlier this year, the BBB warned about a different scam in using emails claiming that the recipient was eligible for new social security benefits. Those who clicked on an included link were directed to fill out a form in order to receive the new benefit. But the information was actually intended to allow scammers to redirect social security benefits into the scammer's own bank account.

Learn more about preventing identity theft and improving your online security at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Online Scams.

Related Resources:

What Are the ‘10 Worst Toys for Kids’ for 2014?

Consumer protection group World Against Toys Causing Harm (W.A.T.C.H.) has released its list of "10 Worst Toys" for kids for 2014.

In releasing this year's list, the group notes that many of the toys included are example of toys designed and marketed to increase sales at the expense of safety. Inadequate warnings or misleading instructions on products made for children can lead to injury or even death. The group also warns against assuming that toys purchased in stores are safe, even those from trusted toymakers or those purchased at major retailers. Many of these toys may have hidden dangers, such as small parts that may be detached and lead to choking or ingestion-related injury.

What toys made the list? Here are the group's choices for "10 worst toys" for 2014:

  1. Air storm firetek bow. This bow-and-arrow set is marketed as being able to shoot arrows "up to 145 ft." but then includes a warning in the instructions that "arrows should not be pulled back at more than half strength."
  2. Radio Flyer Ziggle. Made by the well-known maker of red wagons, this four-wheeled cycle includes a warning that riders should always wear a helmet, despite prominently featuring a photo of a child rider not wearing a helmet on the toy's box.
  3. Catapencil. This pencil-mounted slingshot sold online and in stores does not include any warnings or age recommendations but encourages children to use the device for "target practice."
  4. Alphabet Zoo Rock and Stack Pull Toy. With a 20-inch pull-cord, this toy presents the potential for strangulation or entanglement injuries.
  5. SWAT Electric Machine Gun. This realistic replica of an actual firearm includes a warning on the product's packaging that "[t]his product may be mistaken for an actual firearm by law enforcement officers and others." As the group notes, replica firearms have caused a number of deaths after being mistaken for the real thing by police, including the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice earlier this year.
  6. Wooden Instruments. These instruments are sold for babies as young as 12 months, despite including small parts that may lead to choking.
  7. Bottle Rocket Party. Although the instructions for this projectile kit instruct users to wear safety goggles, the goggles are not supplied.
  8. Lil' Cutesies - Best Friends. These dolls include decorative bows that may be detached from the doll, leading to choking.
  9. True Legends Orcs Battle Hammer. Recommended for children as young as three years of age, this two-foot plastic hammer can cause blunt impact injuries.
  10. Colored Hedgehog. Although not mentioned anywhere on the product or packaging, the long, fiber-like hair on this toy can easily be removed by a child, leading to ingestion or aspiration injuries.

Learn more about lawsuits for injuries caused by defective products or inadequate warnings at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Product Liability.

Related Resources:

Online Shoppers: Beware 'Order Confirmation' Email Scams

Online shoppers are being warned about a new scam involving fake order confirmation emails.

The emails in question ask consumers to confirm the purchase of online order or shipment of a package from a big name online retailer, reports Krebs on Security, timed to trick consumers who may have purchased holiday gifts online. Unfortunately, as with most email phishing scams, clicking the links or downloading the attachments included in a malicious email may give consumers an unwanted gift of their own: malware, viruses, and potentially compromised personal information.

How Does the Scam Work?

The emails are designed to look like they are being sent from trusted retailers including Target, Home Depot, Walmart, Amazon, and Costco and have been reported to use a variety of subject lines, including: "Acknowledgment of Order," "Order Confirmation," "Order Status," "Thank you for buying from [insert merchant name here]," and a "Thank you for your order." The text of the email typically references a vague order that is ready to be picked up or delivered and instructs consumers to click on a link or attachment in the email to find out more information.

Consumers who do click on the links or the attachments in the email may be exposing their computers to a malware bot known as ASProx, according to security company Malcovery. This malware not only harvests personal information such as usernames and passwords from infected computers, but also uses those computers as part of a botnet to relay junk email and perpetuate malware attacks on other computers.

Email Confirmation Scams

Email confirmation scams are becoming one of the more common forms of email phishing. In 2013, customers of Delta Airlines were warned not to click on a message purporting to be from Delta involving flight cancellations, as the emails were part of a phishing scam. Email scams can also be used for more old-fashioned forms of fraud. Sellers on eBay have reported receiving fake payment confirmation emails from PayPal. The emails are generated by buyers, hoping to induce the seller to ship the items before discovering that payment was never in fact made.

How to Avoid Being Scammed

To prevent being infected with malware or otherwise duped by fake confirmation emails, the best policy is to confirm orders, shipping, payment, and other steps in the online shopping process through a retailer or service provider's actual website. In most instances, phishing or fraudulent email confirmations also fail to stand up under close scrutiny, and grammatical errors or overly vague language should both be red flags.

Most importantly: Even when an email appears to be from a trusted source, if the email is unsolicited or seemingly out of the blue, avoid clicking any included links or opening any included attachments. An order confirmation from a legitimate business will almost always include references to order numbers or transaction information that may be used to confirm the order online or over the phone.

Related Resources:

Nissan Recalls 470,000 Vehicles Over Possible Fuel Leaks

Japanese carmaker Nissan has issued a worldwide recall for 470,000 cars and SUVs that may be affected by a fuel leak problem.

The recall includes both Nissan and Infiniti vehicles, reports The Associated Press, including about 134,000 vehicles in the United States and more than 230,000 in Japan. Model years affected by the recall range from 2012 to 2015.

Defective Fuel Pressure Sensor Installation

The recall was issued after it was discovered that fuel pressure sensors may not have been installed properly when the vehicles were manufactured. This can lead to a fuel leak over time due to heat and vibration, a potential fire hazard. According to Nissan, no fires or injuries caused by this problem have been reported to the company.

Owners of recalled vehicles will be able to bring the vehicles in to have the sensors tightened, which will fix the problem, according to Nissan. U.S. models affected by the recall include Nissan's Juke SUV and Infiniti's M56, QX56, QX70, and QX80.

Some of the vehicles subject to the latest recall were previously recalled in 2012. That recall involved 80,000 vehicles along with the same fuel pressure sensor issue. Though no injuries or fires were reported with the 2012 recall, vehicle owners had reported the smell of gas within the vehicles.

Vehicles that were repaired in the 2012 recall are not covered by this latest recall.

Is Your Vehicle Is Subject to the Recall?

Nissan plans to mail notifications to vehicle owners in January. Vehicle owners can also find out whether a vehicle is in need of repairs required by any vehicle recall within the last 15 years by using the NHTSA's Online Recall Search (although recently announced recalls may not immediately be included in the database).

Vehicle owners can enter a vehicle's VIN and see whether recall repairs have been completed. Vehicle makers are also now mandated to have recall information searchable be VIN on the manufacturer's own website.

Related Resources:

Honda Expands Takata Airbag Recall

Japanese carmaker Honda has expanded its recall of vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags.

The move comes at the request of the U.S. government, reports The Detroit News, and came after the manufacturer of the air bags, Japan's Takata Corp., refused to expand their own recall. The Honda recall also follows an expansion of recall efforts by Toyota last week linked to the same defective air bag issue in which the company added 50,000 vehicles to its own international recall.

So far defective Takata air bags have been linked to five deaths, four of which have been in Honda cars. Since 2013, more than 7.8 million vehicles with Takata air bags have been recalled in the United States, with millions more being recalled internationally.

Defective Inflator Mechanism May Explode Causing Death, Injury

The air bags in vehicles subject to the recall may have defective air bag inflator mechanisms. When the air bags inflate, these mechanisms have been reported to explode, sending metal fragments into the passenger compartment and causing serious injury or death.

Initial recall efforts in the United States were focused on areas with high humidity, as that was believed to be linked to problem with the air bags' inflator mechanisms. However, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently requested that five automakers -- Honda, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda, and BMG -- expand their recalls nationwide, with Honda being the first of the five to do so.

How To Determine Whether Your Car Is Included in Recall

Consumers can determine whether a vehicle is subject to this, or other recalls, by using the searchable recall database set up by the NHTSA. Using a vehicle's unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), consumers can go to the NHTSA's Safercar website and see whether a vehicle has had recall repairs completed for this or any safety recall issued within the last 15 years.

Related Resources:

Toyota Expands Dangerous Air Bag Recall

Japanese carmaker Toyota has added 57,000 more of its vehicles to the growing number of automobiles being recalled due to potentially defective Takata airbags.

Toyota is recalling Vitz (known as the Yaris in some markets) subcompact cars and RAV4 crossover models made in 2002 and 2003, reports Reuters. The latest recall includes 40,000 vehicles in Japan and 6,000 in Europe, with the remaining vehicles spread throughout the globe, not including North America or the United States.

However, a recall issued earlier this year by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration brought the number of vehicles in the U.S. recalled due to similar safety issues with Takata airbags to more than seven million, including 877,000 Toyota vehicles.

Airbag Defect Linked to Five Deaths

Toyota's recall came after a fifth death was linked to problems with airbags manufactured by Japan's Takata Corp. Defects in the airbags' inflator mechanisms can cause the inflators to explode upon deployment, sending metal shrapnel into a car's passenger compartment.

Worldwide more than 16 million cars have been recalled since 2008, reports Reuters. In the U.S., regional recalls were initially limited to cars in areas with high humidity, as the problem with airbag inflators was believed to be linked to high humidity. More recently, however, recalls have expanded to vehicles nationwide.

How to Determine If Your Call Has Been Recalled

To determine whether your car is included in this or other recalls issued by automobile manufacturers, the NHTSA has set up a searchable database. Consumers can search using a vehicle's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and see not only whether the vehicle has been subject to a recall within the last 15 years but also whether recall repairs have been made.

The NHTSA searchable database can be found at the Safecar.gov website. In addition, individual auto manufacturers are now mandated to maintain an online database of recalled vehicles searchable by VIN.

Related Resources: