February 19, 2018

CT Watchdog: Beware Counterfeit $100 Bills

Most of us would gladly accept $100 bills, especially from banks.  Sasha Suto of Glastonbury is not sure after her experience with Bank of America’s West Hartford branch.

Suto went to the nation’s largest – and frequently criticized bank – on Jan. 31 to cash a $900 check that had been made out on a Bank of America account.  She received 9 $100 bills and promptly took them to her credit union, Franklin Trust, also in West Hartford, where she attempted to deposit them.

The clerk checked all 9 bills with a special pencil and found that when she drew a line across one of the bills it turned dark instead of yellow, a sign that its counterfeit.

The clerk refused to deposit the bill and suggested to Suto that she take it back to the Bank of America branch.

At Bank of America a clerk ran her pencil over the bill and also found that it turned dark. The manager told Suto that she would have to confiscate the money and turn it over to the Secret Service – as federal law requires. The clerk who told Suto to take the check to Bank of America was reprimanded.

That was fine, Suto said, “but can I have another $100 bill since I got the bill from there in the first place 15 minutes earlier?”

Absolutely not, Suto was told, since the bank had no way of knowing that Suto didn’t slip another bill in her pile.

That is when Suto contacted me and I contacted Bank of America, which claimed that it thoroughly checks all $100 bills and there is no way Suto could have gotten a counterfeit bill from them.

At that point I didn’t know who to believe. While normally banks don’t pass out fake bills, it does happen, as Chase was caught red handed last year trying to falsely blame a customer for a bad $100 bill.

So I figured I would test Suto and asked her to file a written complaint against Bank of America with the West Hartford police. If she did that I was going to assume that she was either a complete idiot or on the level.

Suto did file a written complaint and West Hartford police – who had not been told about the counterfeit bill from the bank – started their own investigation. At that point I was comfortable that Suto was telling the truth.

West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci was not sure. He said that his department was investigating a rash of fake $100 bills being passed in West Hartford.

He said that on Jan. 30 a bad check was passed at a gas station and $900 in bogus bills were passed at Price Rite. Another case had also just came in. 

The tale does have a happy ending. Suto was called by Bank of America last week and was told that the Secret Service determined that the bill was legitimate, it just had some kind of coating on it.

She went back to the bank, refused a $100 bill and instead walked out with five $20 bills.

Suto says she doesn’t blame Bank of America, but she hopes the bank does not pass the $100 bill off again on someone else who will also have a problem with it.

Bank of America said its policy is not to inform local authorities when a counterfeit bill is received and only contacts the Secret Service, which she assumes contacts local police. I suggested that the policy be changed.

You can reach The Watchdog at George@connecticutwatchdog.com and he will answer as many emails as he can. Please check out his site, www.ctwatchdog.com for comprehensive consumer, health, finance, media, internet, computer, travel and education tips.

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CT Watchdog: Bank Charges

As banks are forced by regulators to curtail overdraft fees where they have made billions of dollars in profits, they are using the old checking account to boost their income by eliminating free services or requiring higher minimum cash held in accounts.

One of the first to feel the effect of this change is William Norton of West Hartford, who until recently had been a happy customer of Webster Bank.

He took out a mortgage from Webster because the Waterbury-based bank had promised him a .25 percent discount on his mortgage as long as he had the mortgage payments withdrawn automatically from his free checking account.

However, he was notified in early October that the bank was unilaterally changing its policies and would begin charging $8.95 a month for his checking account unless he kept at least $1,000 in it, or used his debit card monthly.

Webster Bank spokesman Ed Steadham said the bank has every legal right to change its checking account policy, and he said Norton is still getting a good deal.

No question about it, but that is not the way Norton sees it, and he says he will end his relationship with Webster.

“To sign people up for something as significant as a mortgage under the terms they did and then “change the plan” seems like a bait and switch to me.  As far as it being a good deal, that is absolutely ridiculous.  I agreed to keep the free checking account open for the mortgage and they’re now charging a fee,” he wrote me. “What’s to stop the bank from saying that free account now has a monthly fee of $20 or even $30?”

He said he will  refinance his mortgage with another lender and move all his business to a bank that doesn’t charge a fee for having a checking account.

It’s a tactic that many others are likely to take as the large banks look to make money off their smaller customers, who they used to hammer by charging $35 every time they overdrew their checking accounts.

That trend was backed up by a study made public recently by Bankrate.com, which found a “reversal of an industry wide, nearly decade-long trend toward widespread adoption of free noninterest checking.”

Besides federal regulators requiring banks to get customers’ permission before overdraft protection can start, banks are also being limited on the interchange fees that they charge for debit card protection.

“It’s no surprise we’re seeing higher balance requirements and higher monthly service fees on the heels of this legislation that is really working to crimp these two revenue streams that banks have come to rely on,” says Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.

Besides those in the low-income group, children’s and students’ account are being impacted.

“We received notice that my children’s free checking account is switching from a totally free checking to a Webster Value Checking effective Nov. 5,” another reader wrote me. “They now want a minimum balance of $1,000 in the account or they will charge $8.95 a month.  I do not understand why they do not institute the change for new accounts only. What student can keep a minimum of $1000.00 a month, plus my son is in the Army and how will he change this?”

Hopefully some banks will use free checking accounts as a way to increase the number of customers, especially among young people. A quick Internet check shows that even now there are at least two banks in Connecticut that are offering free checking: Citizens Bank and Windsor Federal Savings. Check your credit unions also.

Aldi Debit System Hacked

Scores of Aldi grocery store customers are reporting having hundreds of dollars or more illegally taken out of their checking accounts after using their debit cards at an Aldi store, including ones in Connecticut.

One reader from West Hartford told me his account was hit for $3,500.

Many reported that they only learned recently that their accounts were targeted.

Some only learned about it when they attempted to use their debit cards believing there was still money in their accounts, and their purchases were declined.

Federal investigators have said that Aldi was victimized by repair workers who planted devices inside card readers to steal customer information.

If you shopped at Aldi’s in the last few months it would be worth your while to check your account to make sure you weren’t victimized.

You can reach The Watchdog at George@connecticutwatchdog.com and he will answer as many emails as he can. Please check out his site, www.ctwatchdog.com for comprehensive consumer, health, finance, media, internet, computer, travel and education tips.

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CT Watchdog: Propane Gas Supply

Mary Carnevalini is part of the 96 percent of Connecticut propane gas customers who are at the mercy of their propane suppliers because they don’t own their own tanks but instead rent them from the dealers.

While propane gas can be a great alternative to heating oil and electricity if natural gas lines are unavailable, Carnevalini and the estimated 200,000 other propane customers in Connecticut have learned or are learning that it’s easier to figure out how a nuclear plant works than whether or how much they are being ripped off.  Propane is used as fuel for stoves, water heaters, furnaces and other equipment. Carnevalini uses propane to heat a swimming pool.

Heating oil companies will quote you a price 24/7. Any firm that sells in your area will deliver to you. Comparison shopping is easy. Everyone owns their own tanks and anyone can fill them.

 Propane gas is the least transparent energy business in the country. Companies normally don’t list their prices, they frequently won’t give you a quote over the phone, and they all have different prices with different add-on charges, making comparisons impossible.

The biggest weapon propane gas companies have is a set of rules adopted in Connecticut and every state in the union that require the home or business owner to purchase the gas from the company that owns the tank at their home or business. The suppliers convinced the states to adopt the rule by claiming that the liability for filling a tank not owned by the dealer would be too great. So then why aren’t the four percent who own their tanks seeing those tanks explode every day?

 And propane gas companies do their best to discourage people from buying their own tanks by falsely claiming that their insurance will increase and that it’s less dangerous to rent than to buy your tank.

 Many also refuse to sell the tanks that customers have been renting from them, or charge what a new tank would cost.

Carnevalini, of Winsted, contacted me earlier in the month asking me what she should do about her propane supplier, Arrow Gas, which has offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The company – which in Connecticut operates from Waterbury and Windsor Locks, tacked on an extra annual charge of $100 for her swimming pool propane tank because she did not use the minimum amount that the company requires. She said she complained to Arrow but the company would not bend.

I sent her complaint to state Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell Jr., who agrees with my views about the propane business, and he turned it over to James Turner, supervisor of the Food & Standards division, who convinced Arrow to drop the charge, though Turner said he didn’t think they had to because Arrow followed state rules by claiming to have sent Carnevalini its “fee disclosure pamphlet.”

Arrow officials have not returned my phone call requesting comments, and I am not sure the company could have made its fee stick.

First of all Carnevalini never had a written contract with the company and she said she did not receive the fee disclosure pamphlet until this month. While the letter she received stating the firm will waive the fee states as long as she uses one tank of propane gas every year. The pamphlet it sent her does not specify how much gas is the minimum required. You can see the documents at www.ctwatchdog.com.

“It gets more confusing,” she said. If she waits to call the company after using the full tank she gets an extra charge because Arrow has to do extra work when a tank is empty. Normally firms require that 20 percent be kept in tanks as a minimum.

Second, the minimum order is 50 gallons for her 100 gallon tank, and even if she only needs 40, she says Arrow charges her for 50.

Despite all this, Connecticut consumer officials told her that Arrow’s prices were cheaper than other companies charge small users. Arrow only charged her $2.54 a gallon while some other propane gas companies are charging as much as $7 a gallon for small users.

Farrell has instituted rules requiring that propane companies be more up-front about their charges and provide customers with bill-of-rights statements. However, for those who rent their tanks, the propane companies still hold guns to customers’ heads.

My suggestion: Before buying any equipment that requires propane, check the real costs. If possible, buy your own tank and then shop around.

To get an idea on the level of propane costs, and for other tips from Consumer Protection, check out http://www.ct.gov/dcp/cwp/view.asp?a=1621&q=274434

You can reach The Watchdog at George@connecticutwatchdog.com and he will answer as many emails as he can. Please check out his site, www.ctwatchdog.com for comprehensive consumer, health, finance, media, internet, computer, travel and education tips

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CT Watchdog: Customer Service

When I judge a company’s customer service, I look not only at the number and kinds of complaints, but at how the firms respond.

 All companies make mistakes, employees have bad days, and there can be communication problems.

 But once someone at the top is made aware of a problem, it needs to be resolved real soon to get an A from me.

 The following are two examples of companies that deserve praise for the way they have handled complaints:

 Mike Bennett of Windsor Locks wrote to me about a beef he had with Puritan Furniture of West Hartford.

 Bennett  paid $2,000 for what the saleswoman promised was a large, well-built reclining sofa with a matching loveseat two years ago. A month later, a clip that had held a spring failed. Puritan sent a repairman out and fixed it. Sixteen months later the stitching began to unravel on one of the footrests, and then the recliner mechanism wouldn’t work.

 “Unfortunately, the sofas have only a one-year warranty on labor. Puritan does not fix sofas, nor do they involve themselves in the process, instead they give you the phone number for someone that does,” Bennett wrote me in his complaint. “I called the repairman and I was told that it was going to cost us $40 just to have someone come look at it, we would then have to pay even more on top of that to have them fix it. I realize that this is not the repairman’s problem and that he surely deserves to be paid for his time, but we do not have hundreds of dollars to spend on fixing our new couch.”

 “The people at Puritan were completely unbending when it came to offering any help. They are your best friend when selling you the furniture, but boy are things different when there is a problem! You’re on your own then,” he wrote asking for my advice.

 I looked up Puritan on the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) site and saw that the company, which has been in business for more than 70 years, had only a few complaints filed against it and had the highest possible rating.

 I suggested to Bennett that he write to the president of the company, Bruce Singer, and to give him a chance to make amends.

 “Well, as I expected, your advice was spot-on! I got a phone call from Mr. Singer and he was very pleasant with me. He apologized for my troubles and offered to replace the mechanisms on both sides of the couch, plus fix the stitching in the footrest, all at no charge,” Bennett wrote me.

 Town Fair Tire stores have an excellent reputation for customer service. My friend Denis Horgan recently had a relative visiting at his West Hartford home. The relative’s car had flat tire and Horgan, our travel blogger on CtWatchdog.com, took him to the West Hartford store. For $4.95, they fixed the flat; no charge for the two coffees Horgan had.

 But that is not the experience that Kevin and Melanie Logan of Colchester had at the Norwich store. The Logans, longtime customers, say they had a terrible encounter on July 30th when the two complained about wear on their tires.  They said they got into an argument with the staff and were treated rudely by an employee when they asked for a partial refund, which was denied.

 The couple wrote a letter to the company president:

 “You need to seriously consider sending in someone qualified to re-train your staff, because this behavior is unacceptable and we simply cannot be the only ones to have been abused by him or others in this location before. I would not be able to rest if I did not bring this to your attention as I not only felt like I was being verbally abused, but his physical demeanor was threatening as well. If I were there alone, without my husband, I would have been not only shocked, but also scared for my own well being. He was menacing, simple as that. He would not provide us with his last name… however he did wear a ring with skulls on it if that helps,” the couple wrote.

 No one responded so the couple asked me for my advice. I contacted Rich Allen, customer service coordinator in East Haven, who conceded that the letter did not reach the president. But he quickly reacted, apologized to the Logans for their experience, and offered them a refund much larger than is provided by the firm’s warranty.

 Frankly, I think the Logans are still so furious that they won’t be back to Town Fair, but I would recommend the company to anyone that asked.

You can reach The Watchdog at George@connecticutwatchdog.com and he will answer as many emails as he can. Please check out his site, www.ctwatchdog.com for comprehensive consumer, health, finance, media, internet, computer, travel and education tips.

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CT Watchdog: How to Protect Yourself Against ID Theft

The call from Tyler was scary. He had been in a car accident in a rental car in Montreal and needed money to pay an attorney and fly home.

Dorothy Cheo, 81, of Niantic, was so upset on hearing her grandson was in trouble that she couldn’t think straight.

She quickly went to a local grocery store and wired $935 to Montreal through Western Union.

It was only after receiving the second phone call asking for more money that she began to question whether she had really talked to her grandson.

Nope. According to East Lyme resident state police Sgt. Wilfred Blanchette, she was at least the second local victim of this type of scam in the past year.

Cheo contacted me, asking that I tell her story as a cautionary tale to other parents and relatives, and she had a suggestion that Sgt. Blanchette endorsed: create a secret word for the family to use only if they are in trouble.

Cheo said she fell for the scam because the boy identified himself as Tyler and was coughing so hard it was impossible for her to know that it wasn’t really him. And then, when a second person got on the phone explaining he was Tyler’s attorney, she knew she had to act fast.

“If he had said ‘this is your grandson’ I would have been suspicious,” Cheo told me. “But he said he was Tyler and he sounded sick.”

After wiring the money, Cheo said she called her son, but couldn’t reach him. And the more she thought about it, the less sense it made. Her grandson was only 16 and she wasn’t even aware that he had a driver’s license. And what was he doing in Montreal instead of being in Massachusetts.

So by the time the “lawyer” called back saying he received the $935 but needed more money, she said no.

“Somehow the caller knew my grandson’s name and relation to me, so pretended to be him with a bad cough and desperate sound. Then a so-called lawyer explained that he was in jail in Montreal due to an auto accident that was not his fault.”

She then got contacted her son, who reassured her that Tyler was safe at band camp and had never been in Montreal.

“It was dumb,” she said, “but I was so worried.”

She said if they had set up a secret code word, this would not have happened.

Cheo said she has no idea how the scammers knew her telephone number and her grandson’s name.

She filed a complaint with the East Lyme police, and Sgt. Blanchette said he wasn’t surprised.

With so much personal information on the Internet, he said, it’s easy for crooks to put family information together, especially using sites like Facebook.

But, he said, “so far, how they picked out this family is a mystery.”

He said the first complaint he saw was very similar, where the call also came from Montreal.

“This is the crime wave of the future,” he said, adding that similar scam take place with hijacked email accounts.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST ID THEFT

Thanks to Consumer Reports for its effective suggestions on how to diminish ID theft.

I will start with my personal recommendation, which may be counterintuitive for those who don’t trust the Internet to do on-line banking.

Use on-line banking to pay your bills. Its free (nothing is really free but most banks offer it as long as you meet other requirements like automatic deposits). Effective. You have all your documentation in one place.

And you can set up alerts – this is crucial – to tell you when a new payee is added or a payment is made. It’s a tremendous way to have instant knowledge of what is happening with your bank account.

Other suggestions from CR – the trusted place for consumer tips:

Do not fill out surveys on warranty cards beyond your name and address and product info.

Stop unsolicited pre-approved credit card offers at www.optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688.

Put your name on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call registry at www.donotcall.gov or call 888.382-1222.

When you move only fill out a temporary change of address with the U.S. Postal Service that lasts for six month.

To get your name off mailing lists, go to the Direct Marketing Association’s consumer web site, www.dmachoice.org. Click on “Register for eMPS” to opt out of unsolicited junk email.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lists data brokers that offer opt-out policies at www.privacyrights.org/ar/infobrokers.htm.

You can reach The Watchdog at George@connecticutwatchdog.com and he will answer as many emails as he can. Please check out his site, www.ctwatchdog.com for comprehensive consumer, health, finance, media, internet, computer, travel and education tips.

 

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