Scammers Target Utility RatepayersWed, Feb 10, 2016
Some Arkansas homeowners and small business owners are receiving phone calls threatening to shut off utility services due to an unpaid bill, but these calls are likely another way for scam artists to take money from hard-working Arkansans.
Utility companies across the State are reporting con artists posing as utility company employees and reaching out to consumers over the phone. These scammers attempt to convince unsuspecting Arkansans that the company has not received payment, and if the consumer does not pay the outstanding balance right away, the utility will be shut off.
Of course the person on the other end of the phone is not associated with any utility company, and the consumer will lose his or her money if they fall victim by wiring money or submitting a prepaid debit card.
Many will even take advantage of evolving technology and use spoofing to make a caller ID display the name of the utility company the scam artist is claiming to represent. Be cautious of unsolicited calls and consider hanging up and finding the company’s phone number from an independent source and calling them to confirm any outstanding balance.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge released today’s consumer alert to educate Arkansans about this scam.
“It is outrageous how these scammers are always looking for new ways to trick consumers out of their hard-earned money,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “Think twice before deciding to turn over personal or financial information to anyone over the phone, especially if the call is unsolicited. All consumers should be skeptical if the caller requests immediate payment through nontraditional channels, like prepaid debit cards or wire transfers.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following tips to ensure payment is sent to the utility company safely, securely and timely:
- Add your utility payment due date on your calendar when you receive the bill.
- Drop off the payment at the utility office or an authorized payment location.
- Pay online on the utility company’s website with a credit card or call the company directly.
- Consider participating in an automated draft system, if it is offered.
- Mail the payment to the company directly.
Some utility companies are making adjustments to how they conduct business because of this scam and are no longer accepting payments during courtesy calls to avoid confusion.
If you have been contacted by one of these scammers, notify the utility company. If you fall victim to one of these phone calls, file a complaint with the Attorney General.
Tax Refund Fraud on the RiseWed, Feb 3, 2016
The Federal Trade Commission reports a 47 percent spike in identity thefts in 2015, with the biggest contributor being tax refund fraud.
Tax refund fraud occurs when a Social Security number is stolen and used to file a tax return and the resulting refund is claimed by the thief. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that this fraud has occurred until they attempt to file their own taxes and discover that a return has already been filed using their Social Security number.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to educate Arkansans about this type of fraud and ways to protect financial information.
“Tax refund fraud is one more way scam artists line their own pockets with our money,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “But with the gigantic spike in tax-related identity theft in 2015, it is more important for Arkansans to be cautious with personal financial information. Arkansans must also remember that the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.”
Attorney General Rutledge released the following steps to take if you fall victim to tax refund fraud:
- File a fraud alert with one of the three national credit bureaus. The selected credit bureau is required to contact the other two bureaus, which will result in a fraud alert with all three bureaus. Once a fraud alert has been placed, if an application for credit is filed in your name and the prospective creditor checks your credit report, the prospective creditor will be alerted to the possibility of identity theft.
- File an identity theft report with a local law enforcement agency.
- Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Contact the company involved to dispute fraudulent transactions or accounts. Ask the company whether a fraud affidavit is required.
- File an identity theft complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or call (877) IDTHEFT (438-4338).
- Consider placing a security freeze on your credit report. A security freeze is designed to restrict access to your credit report and help prevent additional instances of identity theft.
- Consider requesting an Identity Theft Passport provided by the Attorney General’s office.
- Respond immediately to any IRS notification.
- Continue to pay taxes and file tax returns, even if it must be done by paper.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Rutledge encourages Arkansans to remember that not all data breaches result in tax-related identity theft. But if your Social Security number has been compromised and the IRS has alerted you to duplicate returns filed under your Social Security, you should immediately complete and submit the IRS’s Identity Theft Affidavit.
For more information on identity theft, to apply for an ID Theft Passport or other consumer related issues, contact the Arkansas Attorney General's office at (800) 482-8982.
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.