State seeks consumer volunteers … Door-to-door warning … All about gift certificates
Submitted by Harold Moldoff
(This is another in a series of public-service columns. Information for this article has been prepared by the staff of the New Hampshire Bureau of Consumer Protection.)
Attorney General Kelly A. Ayotte has announced that her office is accepting applications for committed volunteers to work as Consumer Affairs Specialists for the Consumer Protection Bureau’s Mediation Program.
According to Ayotte, the Consumer Affairs Specialist Program was initiated by the Attorney General’s Office in 1992 in an effort to help resolve the thousands of complaints received annually by the Consumer Protection Bureau concerning business practices affecting New Hampshire citizens, and consumers of New Hampshire products and services. The program trains volunteers to answer the consumer protection hotline and assist with the resolution of disputes between consumers and businesses through informal mediation.
Program volunteers handle a wide array of issues ranging from minor disputes concerning undelivered mail order merchandise to problems involving thousands of dollars of home improvement repairs.
Adults of all ages are encouraged to apply. Volunteers are asked to commit six hours per week for one year, and will receive mandatory instruction. Volunteers will learn how to provide basic information about consumer rights and responsibilities in response to telephone inquiries and letter contacts, and will actively mediate, by telephone and letter contact, complaints and disputes between businesses and customers.
Anyone interested in exploring this rewarding opportunity may write to Denise Costello, Paralegal or Cathy Lord, Paralegal, Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau, Office of the Attorney General, 33 Capitol Street, Concord, New Hampshire 03301-6397, call the Bureau at (603) 271-3643, or visit the website at www.doj.nh.gov to receive a description of the program, an outline of the volunteers’ duties, and an application form.
'Tis the Season for Pavers
The Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau would like to remind consumers about the dangers of hiring pavers who solicit work door-to-door. These "traveling companies" often cruise around neighborhoods telling residents that they have material left over from a previous job. They claim they can pave your driveway for a discounted price with the material from the previous job. Consumer Protection Bureau Chief Lauren Noether says, "Watch out for them". They typically fail to provide a written estimate up front and they then try to collect more than the verbal estimate provided. These asphalt companies offer to do the work cheaply, but it's often sub-standard and costs you more in the long run. Here's what you should watch out for: Unsolicited door-to-door offers to pave your driveway or paint or fix your home; and companies who go door to door looking for work and pressure you to make a quick decision, often stating the offer is "only good for today". If they come to your door, call the NH Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau at 1-888-468-4454.
Have you ever discovered a long lost gift certificate, one that had been buried in a drawer or at the bottom of a "to-do" pile of paperwork? Did you get excited about the prospect of cashing it in only to discover that it had expired? Don't toss the gift certificate away quite yet, because you still may be able to use it. In New Hampshire, a gift certificate of less than $100 value cannot have an expiration date.
If the business tries to tell you that you cannot use your gift certificate (that is worth less than $100) because it has expired, politely tell them that such expiration dates are illegal in New Hampshire. The business should be willing to oblige you since most businesses care about their community images. If the business won't accept your "old" gift certificate, you can take the business to Small Claims Court. By showing the court that the business violated the law by putting an expiration date on the gift certificate with a value of less than $100, you may be entitled to your actual damages or $1000, whichever is more.
Gift certificates of $100 or more expire when they become abandoned property, currently after 5 years. If this type of large value gift certificate goes unused for more than 5 years, the business is required to turn that money over to the State as "abandoned property." The Abandoned Property Division of the NH Treasury Department lists the names of anyone with abandoned property on its Internet site, and in occasional newspaper ads. Anyone whose name appears on the list can contact the Abandoned Property Division to have his or her money returned (as a check, not as a gift certificate). You can call the Abandoned Property Division at 1-800-791-0920 (toll-free) or 271-2619, or access the abandoned property list through the New Hampshire homepage at www.nh.gov/treasury/Divisions/AP/APindex.htm
NOTE: This law does not apply to season passes or non-refundable coupons. This law does not apply to gift certificates:
* For which you did not pay (or the person who gave it to you did not pay),
* Given to you by a business for promotional purposes.
Watch Out for Unscrupulous Agents Selling Annuities
Consumers need to be wary of unscrupulous sales agents using deceptive sales techniques to market annuity products to seniors. Sales agents have a tremendous incentive to push sales of annuities, as they often result in high commissions for the agents. Such incentives have led some agents to employ unscrupulous tactics to trick seniors into moving their savings into annuities.
In some cases, unscrupulous sales agents generate leads through free seminars advertised as retirement planning or living trust seminars. At these seminars, with the expectation that the information will be used to help them in their estate planning, seniors fill out worksheets with their personal financial information. Later, sales agents can use this personal financial information to target those seniors who have liquid cash available. The seniors are then misled as to the advantages of annuities and coerced into making inappropriate annuities purchases. For example, some seniors have purchased annuities that left their money largely inaccessible for 10 or more years. Sometimes, on the advice of these deceitful sales agents, seniors cash out their existing, financially appropriate investments and incur large penalties in order to purchase inappropriate annuities.
Other times, unscrupulous sales agents purchase the names of seniors from marketing companies. These marketing companies obtain seniors' names by tricking them into believing they are providing information for estate planning purposes. Later, sales agents purchase these leads and contact the seniors directly. These sales agents may inform the seniors that they are certified retirement planners, estate planning experts or senior investment specialists. A senior is thus led to believe that the agent is making recommendations based on the senior's own best interests; actually, the sales agent's goal is to sell an annuity and earn a hefty commission. A senior may also be discouraged from talking to trusted family members prior to making the purchase. An unscrupulous sales agent may convince the senior that these family members do not actually have the senior's best interests in mind.
Sometimes unscrupulous sales agents use scare tactics to persuade seniors to purchase annuities. Sales agents may falsely warn seniors of the purportedly devastating tax or Medicaid consequences that will occur with their existing investments. In some cases, seniors pay substantial penalties to switch out of their existing, financially suitable investments into inappropriate annuities.
Another tactic used by unscrupulous sales agents is to mislead seniors as to either the product being purchased or the terms of the contract. Seniors should carefully read all sales paperwork and not rely just on the word of the salesperson. It is not uncommon for a senior to claim that the sales agent said the annuity would not have a surrender charge, while at the same time the paperwork signed by the senior indicates otherwise in the fine print. In some cases, the sales agent has told the senior not to worry about the surrender charges, because the agent would "take care of it." When the senior tries to recoup the loss from the sales agent, the agent is unwilling to follow through on his or her promise.
The bottom line is that seniors should not allow themselves to be pressured into purchasing any financial product and should always consult with their own trusted financial advisors or attorneys prior to purchasing any annuity. Seniors should be very suspicious of any sales agent who pressures them for a quick sale or discourages them from talking to family members or their own trusted advisers prior to the sale.
Seniors who may have experienced similar problems with annuity contracts or who have experienced shady sales practices should contact the New Hampshire Insurance Department at 1-800-852-3416 or visit the Department's website at www.nh.gov/insurance
The N.H. Consumer Protection & Antitrust Bureau
The Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau protects citizens from unfair or deceptive business practices in New Hampshire. When a business misrepresents, does not provide promised services or products to consumers, or engages in a pattern of deception, the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau may question the business's practices and attempt to seek appropriate measures to remedy the situation on behalf of the State of New Hampshire. Legal action, if taken, is filed on behalf of the State of New Hampshire and the public good. The Bureau cannot represent individual consumers. Nevertheless, some legal actions do produce restitution for individual consumers.
The staff of the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau handle consumer questions by phone from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each weekday. The Consumer Hotline can be reached at (603) 271-3641 or toll free at 1-888-468-4454. Volunteer Consumer Affairs Specialists staff this hotline. Formal complaints are required to be submitted to the Bureau in writing. These can be submitted on line at www.doj.nh.gov/consumer
. While this Bureau cannot offer legal advice, we may be able to offer suggestions to help resolve complaints between consumers and businesses, and we have a list of referral offices that are helpful with specific types of complaints.
Written consumer complaints filed with this Bureau may form the basis of an investigation into a company's business practices. In some cases, complaints may give rise to an investigation or legal action, not on behalf of the individual complainants, but to enforce state law. The decision to investigate or file a lawsuit is based on a variety of factors.
BE AWARE OF FRAUDULENT ATTEMPTS TO STEAL MONEY FROM YOU! If you have questions or concerns on offers of solicitations, we encourage you to Contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection at (603)271-3641, or 1-888-466-4454, or Rye Police Department at(603)964-5522.
Harold Moldoff is a volunteer Consumer Affairs Specialist with the Bureau of Consumer Protection and Antitrust, Concord. NH. He is a resident of Rye Beach.
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