Net Neutrality Fake Comments: Find out if You’re Affected

What would you think if you saw your name and home address on a public comment addressed to a government agency – but… you never actually wrote a comment?

That is what has happened on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s website in the online public comment space on net neutrality. Attorney General T.J. Donovan has determined that perhaps hundreds or even thousands of Vermonters may be affected by “fake comments” submitted to the FCC on this vital issue. One such Vermonter, Montpelier resident Irene Racz, was shocked to see a comment submitted to the FCC in her name opposing net neutrality – a position contrary to her actual views.

Now, the Attorney General is raising awareness about fake comments on the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rule change. His efforts follow an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who first alerted the public about tens of thousands of possible fake comments using stolen identities on the site.

Since the public comment period opened last April, Americans have submitted millions of comments—the vast majority in favor of preserving net neutrality. However, the process appears corrupted by an onslaught of fake comments. For example, news reports suggest that almost half a million fake comments have been linked with Russian email addresses.

Attorney General Donovan is calling on Vermonters to see if their names were stolen for false comments – and to report it to our office using a simple web tool if you are affected. Please check the Consumer Assistance Program’s portal to search the FCC database and the reporting tool at: https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/fake-fcc-comments

Any Vermonters who do find fake comments issued under their names should report it to our office and contact the FCC directly to request that phony comments be withdrawn. Additionally, Vermonters who have not submitted comments and wish to do so should enter them before the planned FCC net neutrality vote on December 14.

Attorney General Donovan and 12 other Attorneys General submitted comments to the FCC in July in favor of preserving net neutrality rules for a fair, free and open Internet. The current rules protect consumers by ensuring choice, transparency, and fairness. For example, it bars service providers from establishing “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for consumers depending on partnerships or premiums.

Your voice is essential to this process.

Protecting Vermonters One Blocked Call at a Time

Before we get started, raise your hand if you’ve ever received a scam call. Everyone, right?

CAP is looking to get better solutions in the hands of Vermonters to fight robocalls. CAP is studying various robocall blocking options to protect Vermonters from this scourge.

First, CAP obtained a grant from The State Center to test call-blocking devices for seniors, who are often the targets of scams.  CAP provided 115 call-blocking devices free-of-charge to Vermont seniors.

CAP studied the effectiveness of these blocking devices in protecting seniors, who include some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Call-blocking devices help stop scam calls from coming through your phone line in two ways – many come preloaded with a list of recognized scam numbers that are automatically blocked from being able to call in; the devices also allow consumers to choose to block other phone numbers.

Vermonters who participated in the project reported that the call-blocking devices were useful in blocking scam calls – 72% said the devices were either “effective” or “very effective” in stopping unwanted calls. An overwhelming majority (89%) also said the devices were either “simple” or “very simple” to use. Another key finding from the project is that having a call-blocking device made the participants feel safer in answering their phones and helped to decrease the amount of stress and anxiety that scam calls had caused. You can’t put a price tag on peace of mind.

Second, in cooperation with the telecom carriers, CAP is also preparing a guide to robocall and scam call blocking options that will be released later this month.

Third, CAP continues to collect scam reports from Vermonters. CAP uses scam reports to identify the need for alerts, and to provide education and outreach. Scam reports also help CAP track the number and type of scams affecting Vermonters. Awareness is the best way to protect Vermonters from becoming victims of scams.

CAP also reports the information to the Federal Trade Commission, which has a task force on fighting robocalls. Occasionally, the information can lead to investigation of scams, but law enforcement has few tools to undertake these expensive cases.

Are you interested in call-blocking devices or other ways to stop unwanted calls? The FTC has information available at their web-site.

Our office has also set up a scam alert system to provide consumers with information about new scams and scam trends. If you would like to sign up, visit our web-site or give CAP a call.

Always feel free to contact CAP to report scam calls you are receiving. Our office can be reached at 1.800.649.2424 (toll free VT) or 802.656.3183.

 

5 Tips on Giving Wisely

Thinking about giving this holiday season? Here are five tips to help ensure that your contribution is going to a charity in need for a cause you support.

1- Research the charity. Understand how your money will be used by the charity before you donate. Websites like the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator make it easy to find this information.

2- Know who’s asking you for money. Ask if the person contacting you for a donation is a paid fundraiser. A paid fundraiser is paid to raise money on behalf of a charity, but is not an employee of the charity. These payment arrangements can vary widely. For information about the payment arrangement between the paid fundraiser and the charity, visit the “Charities” page on the Consumer Assistance Program’s website, or call 1-800-649-2424.

3- Don’t feel pressured to give over the phone. If you are interested in donating, but don’t want to give payment information over the phone, ask the charity to mail you information. This will give you more time to make your decision and research the charity.

4- Be cautious of scams. Fraudsters use the same contact methods as legitimate charities (phone, mail, email) and will try to trick you into “donating” money. Be wary of unsolicited emails asking you to donate, even if the email looks legitimate or you have heard of the charity. Stop and think before you click the link! Call the charity and ask if they are collecting donations by email. Or, hover your cursor over the link before clicking on it. If there is a redirected link that does not go to the charity’s website, it could be a scam. If you receive a request for a donation by phone, ask for detailed information about the charity, including the exact name of the charity and how your money will be used. If the solicitor refuses to give this information, or if they ask you to pay by wire transfer, cash, or prepaid gift card—don’t engage! It’s likely a scam.

5- Consider volunteering. Giving comes in more ways than just money. If you are interested in volunteering this holiday season, contact a charity in your community to see how you can help. Giving your time can be just as valuable as giving your money.

Vermonter of the Month: Tim Mathewson

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Tim has been running Little City Cycles in Vergennes since 2009. Two years ago, he started Green Mountain Foster Bikes with Tanya Bashaw to help save bikes and give the recycled bikes to kids in need.

After getting a technical degree in auto diesel in Florida, Tim decided to stay working with bikes. After having a bicycle shop in Tampa, he moved back to Vermont in the 80s.
While in Burlington he worked at several shops as a mechanic, service manager, bike buyer and parts buyer.

Tim also had a shop in Shelburne, as well as helped with the Chicago Bike Company.
He helped get Bike Recycle Vermont going with Ron Manganiello, and worked with Robert Coles on an all-terrain wheel chair for a non-profit in India.

Why bikes?

When I was 12 years old, I started fixing and racing bicycles. This led to a passionate career over the next 45 years in every area of the bike industry. I am a rider myself and use my bike for most of my transportation. All of this has helped me realize how magical the bicycle is in the way that it can transform lives and communities. I can’t solve the problems I see in the world, but I can help one bike at a time. When people feel better, they tend to be nicer and make better decisions for themselves and the people around them. People always feel better when they ride a bike.

How many bicycles have you given away through your various community projects?

I have always given away bicycles here and there over the years. This included fixing kids’ bikes up for Christmas for Toys for Tots every year. Total bikes was 32. The first real venture was Bike Recycle Vermont. I believe to date they have put close to 3000 bikes out there helping people get around. Green Mountain Foster Bikes has given away 35 bikes with helmets and will hit 100 by next year.

What impact has this had on your Vermont community? What have you learned?

While it’s hard to say exactly, I do know that the more bikes that there are the more issues around bikes and cars and general traffic patterns arise and those issues get resolved, making it better for everyone. I have had a lot of smiles and a lot of happy people because they can get around on a bike they might not otherwise have.

If people are happy because they have a bike, will it impact their community? I believe so, but I don’t know how to measure it. The biggest thing I have learned is how generous the community is in support. So much help from so many people, all you have to do is ask.

What advice do you have for others looking to impact their community?

Be clear on what to want to do. The more you map this out the easier it will be to make it happen. Asking yourself why you want to do something often helps. Remember that if there is a problem, there isn’t something to fix, there is something to learn.

What happened when I went to do a credit freeze……

Recently, I went to visit my grandmother. She is nearing ninety, sharp as a tack and financially savvy. She manages her own investments (and those of other family members), and has a keen grasp of marketplace trends. As our talk turned to my work, the recent Equifax breach came up.

Following the Equifax breach, our office has been recommending that folks consider placing a security freeze on their credit reports. A security, or “credit” freeze on your credit reports doesn’t affect your accounts, but it prevents any new accounts from being opened with your information. A security freeze is the most effective way to prevent unauthorized accounts. However, it’s not something most folks think about on a regular basis, even those who pay close attention to their finances and credit.

I asked my grandmother if she had placed a security freeze on her credit reports, and was unsurprised to learn that she had not. So, I offered to help my grandmother set those up, thinking that I would also gain some useful insight into the process I could bring back to my daily conversations with Vermonters as they struggle to respond to the breach.

We decided to try, first, to set up the freezes online. We logged on to the Consumer Assistance Program website, where I knew we could find links to the credit bureaus’ freeze pages in the Equifax information we have posted there. I launched a new tab for each, and we began entering the information they requested.

For all of these, some sensitive information is required. You will need to enter your Social Security Number. If you are not comfortable doing that online (which we totally understand), then you may wish to call the credit bureaus on the phone, or write to them through the regular mail. Once that information is entered, they will proceed to ask a number of questions to try and verify that you are, in fact, yourself.

A battery of questions about my grandmother’s past addresses, credit accounts and relatives came up. These were multiple choice questions, and sometimes confusing. We had to think carefully about each question, as a wrong answer would prevent us from completing the process. Some questions offered answer options that were all unrelated, and we had to be sure to select “None of these” where no answer was accurate.

After we got through these questions, we were able to submit the request. In three out of four, we successfully placed the freeze. One of the four (TransUnion), would not proceed, and required us to call an automated telephone line. We called the number, and completed the freeze process on the phone in just a few minutes.

Some folks may find that they cannot complete any of these online requests. You may have to send in what seems like a lot of supporting documents (like utility bills, mail, copies of ID, etc.). This is likely because there may be conflicting information, and the credit bureau wants to make sure you are who you say you are.

This process isn’t easy, but it is important. If you find you are having difficulty getting through the process, or have questions, give our office a call (800-649-2424). We may not be able to come for a visit, but we are happy to help!

-Jason, CAP Program Coordinator