Digging Out From the SnowWed, Jan 27, 2016
The Natural State has mostly avoided the winter weather, until the most recent storm hit bringing nearly 7 inches of snow in parts of Arkansas. Both snow and ice can cause property damage to homes, businesses, vehicles, trees and other property, and clean-up efforts may require some Arkansans to seek assistance from contractors or repairmen.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge released today’s consumer alert to encourage Arkansans to use caution as they enter into contracts with people and companies to make repairs.
“Most Arkansans are ready to help where they can as communities recover from winter weather,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “But too often, unscrupulous contractors try to turn a hefty profit on clean-up and repair efforts. It is important for Arkansans to know their rights to keep a bad situation from turning worse by being taken advantage of by an illegitimate business or shady contractor.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following tips to consider when entering into a contract to avoid getting scammed:
- Comparison shop by getting at least three quotes from different companies. Avoid “drive-by” offers from door-to-door solicitors who use high-pressure sales tactics to secure debris-removal or repair jobs. A reputable contractor or professional will never try to pressure you to obtain your business.
- Deal with reputable firms. Do not do business without getting the company’s background information. Get recommendations from friends and family and ask the business for references. Consider contacting the Arkansas Contractor’s Licensing Board to verify that the contractor is licensed and has not had any complaints filed against it.
- Put the contract and all details in writing. A contract should indicate exactly what is to be done, the quality of materials to be used and an expected completion date. The contract should always include details about the price, payment schedule and any required financing.
- Do not pay for the work up front. The Attorney General recommends a payment plan that involves paying a third in advance, a third while the work is ongoing and a third at the end of the job. Consumers should always be able to inspect the completed work before final payment.
- For any payment that requires funds from an insurance carrier, the consumer should deal with the insurance carrier directly, rather than authorizing the contractor to negotiate with the insurance provider.
- Make sure all warranties and guarantees are in writing.
For more information about tips for home repairs and other consumer-related issues, call the Arkansas Attorney General’s office at (800) 482-8982 or visit ArkansasAG.gov or facebook.com/AGLeslieRutledge.
Military Tax ProtectionsWed, Jan 20, 2016
Active duty U.S. military service members and their families are entitled to some additional protections during tax season under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
A service member’s property cannot be seized or sold to pay off unpaid, back taxes that come due and remain unpaid before or during a period of military service, except by court order. The government entity will notify the service member in writing before the potential seizure of property.
A court order allowing the sale of the service member’s property will only be issued if the court finds that the service member’s military service does not materially affect his or her ability to pay the unpaid tax. A court may stay proceedings to enforce the collection of a tax for the sale of property that runs for the duration of the service member’s military service and up to 180 days after his or her release from military service.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to educate military families across Arkansas about this safeguard when they are facing the insecurity of deployment or active duty as tax season approaches.
“The brave men and women who fight for our freedoms deserve special consideration, especially while on active duty,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “Military service can cause financial and emotional stress on families, but the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act was enacted to provide some relief. It is important that we all remember their sacrifices and do what we can to help these heroic families.”
Attorney General Rutledge released information on the additional SCRA tax provisions below to remind active-duty military service members and their families of protections available to them this tax season:
- State tax relief: The SCRA provides that a nonresident soldier's military income and personal property are not subject to State taxation if the soldier is present in the State only due to military orders. For example, if your State of legal residence is Arkansas and the military sends you to Colorado, you will not have to pay Colorado’s State income tax on military earnings. However, income taxes may be charged on any non-military income earned.
- Tax rates: The SCRA prevents states from using the income earned by a service member in determining a spouse’s tax rate when they do not maintain their permanent legal residence in that State.
- Military spouses residency relief: This provision to the SCRA has been added to extend similar tax protections to military spouses who meet certain qualifying factors such as accompanying the service member to a duty station State to comply with military orders. The spouse must also be in the duty station State solely to be with the service member, and the spouse’s home State is the same as the service member. If these requirements are met, the income earned by the non-military spouse while in the duty station State is not subject to taxation in that State.
- Tax deferment: If a service member’s inability to pay their taxes was caused by their military service, service members can defer owed taxes for up to 180 days after release from service.
The IRS provides a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which offers free tax help to military service members. Contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office if you suspect SCRA rights were violated.
Arkansas military service members, veterans and families should file consumer complaints with the Attorney General’s office on ArkansasAG.gov or by calling (800) 482-8982.
Nursing Home ChecklistWed, Jan 13, 2016
Moving a family member into a nursing home or assisted living facility is a big, and sometimes scary, step. Your loved one deserves respectful and safe care, and you are placing your trust in caregivers and the facility you choose. But how do you know which choice is right for your family?
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to educate Arkansans about questions and items to consider when selecting a facility and to alert them to a new checklist created by her office to support families with this difficult decision.
“Families have to consider the type of care their loved one would receive, the amenities of the facility and so much more,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “This can be very overwhelming, but my office has compiled an easy-to-use checklist to help determine which facility best accommodates your loved ones’ needs.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the checklist that includes the following questions family members should consider when choosing a nursing home facility:
- Is the needed level or specialized care available?
- What equipment do they have for patient safety?
- Is the noise level comfortable?
- Is the staff polite and respectful?
- Are licensed professionals available 24/7?
- Does the facility complete background checks on staff members?
- Is storage space available for the residents?
- Are residents allowed to bring personal belongings?
- Does the facility accommodate special diets?
- Is preventative care available to patients, like flu shots or hearing and vision tests?
- Do they invite residents and family to care-plan meetings?
- What about planned activities for residents?
The Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Arkansas Attorney General’s office investigates and prosecutes violations of State and federal law involving Medicaid providers and the abuse or neglect of nursing home residents. Physical abuse or neglect includes anything from striking to sexually assaulting a resident, to withholding necessary and adequate food, physical care or medical attention. Additionally, Medicaid fraud occurs when Medicaid providers use the Medicaid program to obtain money they are not entitled to by billing for services not rendered, double billing and more.
To report Medicaid fraud or abuse or neglect in nursing homes, call the Attorney General’s Medicaid fraud hotlines at (866) 810-0016.
Refund Anticipation Loans Could Be CostlyWed, Jan 6, 2016
As tax season looms, Arkansans will see offers for tax refund anticipation loans or checks. These offers of immediate cash are often attractive to consumers in difficult financial situations, but the products could ultimately reduce the total amount of the consumer’s refund and may even cost extra money.
Refund anticipation loans (RALs) and refund anticipation checks (RACs) are high-interest loans that must be repaid by the actual tax return proceeds, essentially borrowing your own money. If the actual tax refund amount is less than estimated, the buyer is on the hook for the difference.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to warn Arkansans about these products that take advantage of vulnerable Arkansans.
“Some businesses will encourage Arkansans to allow them to estimate a tax refund to be used as a down payment for a vehicle, furniture or other large purchase,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “But these practices are simply a loan until an official tax refund is provided by the government. Consumers must remember that the loan amount is only an estimate, so you are responsible to pay the difference.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following options for Arkansans to consider before agreeing to have your taxes prepared as part of a refund anticipation loan or check:
- Consider the free or low-cost options such as the online Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Free File program or the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.
- Electronically filed returns can be deposited in bank accounts in as few as eight days.
- The IRS can also provide refunds by check or prepaid debit card.
- Always get a written list of fees before entering into any agreement or having any tax preparation services performed.
RALs and RACs may seem attractive because tax preparation fees can also be covered, but many Arkansans can obtain free tax preparation services. The IRS provides a Free File program online that is a federal tax preparation and electronic filing program for approximately 70 percent of taxpayers who earn less than $62,000 in annual adjusted gross income. Eligible consumers can go to IRS.gov and choose from multiple private companies that will file federal returns at no charge.
Some Arkansans may also be eligible to receive free help through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Meanwhile, seniors can contact AARP to learn more about the tax preparation services they provide.
For more information about refund anticipation loans and checks, tax preparation and other consumer-related issues, call the Arkansas Attorney General’s office at (800) 482-8982 or visit ArkansasAG.gov or facebook.com/AGLeslieRutledge.
Resolving to Get Fit in 2016?Wed, Dec 30, 2015
The holiday season is in the rearview mirror, and now it is time to put our sights on 2016 and New Year’s resolutions. Holiday meals, parties and sweets often disrupt healthy eating and fitness routines, but now is the time many individuals resolve to get back on track to a healthy lifestyle. StateOfObesity.org recently announced Arkansas has the highest adult obesity rate, at almost 36 percent, followed closely by Mississippi and West Virginia.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge released today’s consumer alert to help Arkansans if they choose a gym to start or enhance a fitness regimen in 2016.
“The new year always seems like the perfect time to start a new hobby or kick a bad habit,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “Many Arkansans will vow to get healthy in January and exercise is one of the best steps to living a healthier lifestyle, but I encourage you to research your options to make sure your choice meets your needs without breaking the bank.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following tips for Arkansans to consider if you think a gym is the best choice for you:
- Visit the gym during the hours you would normally use it to see if it is overcrowded. Notice whether the facilities and equipment are clean and well-maintained.
- Consider the hours of operation when deciding on a gym membership.
- Ask if the facility provides instructors or trainers. Many gyms will provide trainers for an additional cost.
- Find out if the membership includes fitness classes and childcare and if they are included or require additional costs.
- Inquire about the fees and schedule and if the facility requires a contract and auto-draft payments.
- Ask about trial periods. Is there a time to sample the services and equipment for free and without any obligation to join?
Many gyms offer incentives to join during this time of year, but be cautious of high pressure sales tactics or opportunities that seem too good to be true. Do the math to ensure the monthly and annual costs are affordable. And make sure everything discussed with the sales representative is stated in the written contract before signing on the dotted line.
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion encourages adults to do aerobic physical activity about 30 minutes, five times per week, and muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week.
For more information about consumer-related issues, call the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office at (800) 482-8982 or visit ArkansasAG.gov or facebook.com/AGLeslieRutledge.
Don’t Let Returns Make For a Blue ChristmasWed, Dec 23, 2015
Finding the perfect gifts for family and friends can be an overwhelming task, and sometimes no matter how much thought is put into gifts, the recipient needs to return or exchange it. When this happens, consumers need to know the company return policies.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge released today’s consumer alert to help both gift givers and recipients this Christmas season, should gift returns or exchanges be necessary.
“Gift giving and receiving can be fun,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “But a problematic return policy can spoil the moment. Some retailers allow shoppers to make returns regardless of the reason, which leads consumers to wrongly believe they are entitled by law to a full refund or credit.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following tips for gift recipients needing to make a return or exchange:
· Ask the gift giver about the store’s return or exchange policy.
· Keep all gift receipts.
· Do not open the box or remove the tags if you may return it.
· Some online retailers allow purchases to be returned in store, while others require the item be shipped back. Check with the company ahead of time.
As a gesture of goodwill, most companies offer in-store exchanges if the customer has the receipt and the item is promptly returned. However, others have an “all sales are final” policy for deeply discounted or clearance items and do not allow returns or exchanges. Return policies not only differ from store to store but can also differ for items purchased in-store and items bought online or by mail-order.
Some retailers that allow returns may charge restocking fees for certain products. Consumers can sometimes pay a fee of 10 to 25 percent of the price of the item if the package is not in the condition in which it was purchased. Meanwhile, items like computer software, CDs, DVDs and Blue-Ray discs are not generally returnable after the seal has been broken.
Retailers are not required to accept at-will returns, and even in the case of a defective product, consumers may be required to contact the manufacturer. Sometimes retailers will require consumers to deal with the product manufacturer directly, rather than simply returning the item to the place of purchase.
The National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend an average of $463 on family members this holiday season, up about $5 from last year, and holiday spending is expected to increase 3.7 percent to $630.5 billion.
For other consumer related issues, call the Arkansas Attorney General’s office at (800) 482-8982 or visit ArkansasAG.gov or facebook.com/AGLeslieRutledge.