Attorney General Alerts
What does the FOIA mean for you?Thu, Mar 19, 2015
As taxpayers who support governmental entities, Arkansans have a right to review an array of records at every level of government – state and local – and to attend the meetings of policy makers and private organizations that receive public funds and are intertwined with government.
That right is provided by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law enacted by the General Assembly in 1967 after a strong push from a coalition of citizens and journalists and with the support of then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. The bill passed the House and Senate without a dissenting vote. Governor Rockefeller later reflected that passage of the FOIA was one of the most significant achievements of his time in office.
Months later, in a landmark decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court was faced with interpreting the FOIA after a court challenge. In its opinion, the Court said: “We have no hesitation in asserting our conviction that the Freedom of Information Act was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved.”
The FOIA allows for access to most public records and meetings. The state’s FOIA, a law that is highly regarded across the United States as one of the strongest and most comprehensive, gains greater attention during National Sunshine Week. The annual week in mid-March works to highlight the importance of open and transparent government.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert in recognition of National Sunshine Week and to give consumers a greater understanding of the Arkansas FOIA.
“In Arkansas and across the country, the people must be armed with the power of knowledge and encouraged to be active, informed citizens,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “Arkansas has a strong FOIA that helps hold the government accountable and inform citizens about the issues that affect them. As the people’s lawyer, the Attorney General’s Office is committed to protecting the democratic ideal of an open and public government through the FOIA.”
For consumers seeking to gain a greater understanding of the Arkansas FOIA, the Attorney General’s Office joins with a number of other organizations to produce and distribute the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook. Print copies of the handbook are available upon request from the Attorney General’s Office and electronic copies of the handbook are available on the Attorney General’s website by visiting http://arkansasag.gov/media-center/foia/.
The FOIA gives the public access to public meetings and public records with some exceptions. The Act defines a public record as essentially any writing, sound or video that is kept and reflects the performance or lack of performance of an official function. Some public records are exempt from disclosure, such as personnel records whose disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of person privacy, or those records that are kept as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Requests for records may be made in person or by phone, but most requests are submitted in writing to the custodian of the records. Since most documents fall into the category of being in “active use” or in “storage,” most entities have up to three business days to produce the information requested.
Arkansans also have the right under the FOIA to attend most meetings of governing bodies. Notice of public meetings must be provided to anyone who has asked to be notified, and notice of special meetings must be provided to members of the news media who have requested notice of such meetings. Governing bodies may only enter into closed sessions for a limited number of reasons, one of which is for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of an individual officer or employee.
Consumers who want to learn more about the FOIA can contact the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office at (800) 482-8982 or visit http://arkansasag.gov/media-center/foia/.
Avoid Getting Swept Away in Fake SweepstakesWed, Mar 11, 2015
Consumer answers their phone and a stranger immediately says, “Congratulations, you are a winner.” Over the past several weeks, reports of these types of calls have increased. Arkansans are being targeted by con artists posing as representatives of sweepstakes companies promising cash prizes.
Every year, thousands of Arkansans are notified by mail, e-mail, or phone, that they are winners in a sweepstakes or lottery. These million dollar prize packages or new cars can be tempting, but Arkansans should resist. These scammers usually ask for a “processing fee” related to the prize but it is a ruse to pocket the “fee” and steal financial information.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert on this common scam to caution Arkansans not to fall victim to these sweepstakes con artists.
“Con artists are looking for quick and easy ways to steal consumers’ money,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “What better way to do that than to convince consumers that they have won a big sweepstakes prize and need to pay a small fee to receive it? Arkansans should always remember that if they have not entered a sweepstakes competition or lottery it is highly unlikely that they are indeed a legitimate winner.”
Callers to the Attorney General’s Office are reporting receiving unsolicited phone calls from an individual claiming to be with Publishers Clearinghouse, a well-known sweepstakes company to most Americans. These callers are promising that consumers are winners and that if they pay a one-time fee, a representative of Publishers Clearinghouse will be on the way to present the consumer with their “winnings.” Most of the time these “winnings” are described as cash, but sometimes are a car or vacation package. Almost all of these calls request the consumer to wire money to a location outside the United States or provide the scammer with the number of a prepaid debit card.
By indicating that the “winnings” are ready to be delivered, these con artists can sound legitimate, but it is highly unlikely that the scammer knows the consumer’s location.
Legitimate sweepstakes or lottery winners are hardly ever notified through an unsolicited call, and legitimate businesses, such as Publishers Clearinghouse, would never require winners to wire money to receive a prize.
Regardless of how the consumer is notified, once the consumer turns over bank account information or wires the funds, there is a good chance the consumer will lose more money when their personal financial information is compromised. When money is wired to a foreign country, it is very difficult, if not almost impossible, to get it returned.
Attorney General Rutledge offers the following tips to consumers to avoid falling victim to sweepstakes scams:
- Consumers should not try to collect winnings from a sweepstakes they don’t remember entering.
- Never give out personal financial information.
- Do not pay any money up front in an attempt to claim a prize.
- Always remember, if it looks or seems too good to be true, it most likely is.
Consumers should ignore the bogus sweepstakes prizes and immediately call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division to report the call and the number from which it originated. Consumers can contact the office via the Consumer Protection hotline at (800) 482-8982 or by visiting www.ArkansasAG.gov.
The Top 10 ListWed, Mar 4, 2015
National Consumer Protection Week, March 1 – 7, is a great time each year to remind consumers that con artists are seeking new ways to target consumers and steal their money. Sometimes these scams can lead to a monetary loss of a few hundred dollars or in some cases even more.
Thousands of Arkansans contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office every year to ask for assistance with legitimate business disputes and sometimes to report scams or suspected fraud. The dedicated investigators in this division work diligently to aid each consumer who files a complaint.
In conjunction with National Consumer Protection Week, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s Consumer Alert to announce the 10 most common types of complaints fielded by the Attorney General’s Office during 2014. The Office handled and closed 8,120 consumer complaints in 2014, recovering more than $1.9 million via informal mediation efforts.
“The hardworking lawyers, investigators and staff of the Consumer Protection Division work every day to provide information and reach positive outcomes on behalf of Arkansas consumers,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “By providing information on the most common types of scams, consumers can be better prepared to avoid these con artists.”
The 10 most common complaint categories from 2014 were:
1. Automobile sales, service, financing and repair
2. Credit services, credit repair, and other financial services
3. Health care
4. Wireless and landline telephone services
5. Debt collection
6. Home improvement, repair and construction
9. Mortgages, foreclosures and home financing
10. Payday lending and other predatory lending practices
For three straight years, automobile-related transactions have been the most common type of complaint reported to the Consumer Protection Division. Purchasing a vehicle can be one of the most significant purchases a consumer makes. Sometimes consumers quickly notice when things are not exactly as they should be, but because the purchase of a vehicle is complicated, the consumer may not even be aware that a problem exists.
These automobile-related complaints often involve consumers reporting financing errors, high-pressure tactics to buy add-on services at the time of purchase, such as gap insurance, credit life or extended warranties, and sales misrepresentations. The division also receives complaints in which a dealer has failed to disclose the condition of the automobile, such as salvage history and odometer problems.
Consumers also report falling victim to illegal “yo-yo sales,” a term used to describe when a car buyer drives a vehicle off the lot with an agreement that financing will be finalized at a later date, and then returns to find the terms of the agreement have changed.
The credit and financial services category is the second most common complaint for the second year in a row. This category includes credit repair complaints, issues with credit reporting, and complaints about credit cards and banking and financial services in general. For instance, credit repair companies may promise to “erase” bad credit, but many times the consumer turns over large amounts of money only to see it disappear and little to nothing occurs to improve the score.
The third most common complaint in 2014 was health care related disputes. Consumers report problems with medical equipment sales, medical billing from doctors, hospitals, and clinics, unauthorized Medicare enrollment and prescription drug costs.
The Arkansas Attorney General’s website, www.ArkansasAG.gov, contains information about every common complaint category, as well as other general tips. Consumers can also contact the office via the Consumer Protection hotline at (800) 482-8982.
Don’t Double-Down on Tax DebtWed, Feb 25, 2015
In many cases, tax-relief companies know when they contact consumers who owe taxes, that these consumers are desperate to find ways to settle their tax debt with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the State of Arkansas.
Tax-relief companies often claim they can reduce or even eliminate an individual’s tax debts and stop the collection of back taxes by applying for legitimate IRS hardship programs. The tax-relief companies don’t usually settle the tax debt and, in many cases, don’t even send the necessary paperwork to the IRS.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to caution Arkansans to avoid falling victim to promises that they are “eligible” for tax relief, and to inform consumers of tax relief programs offered by the IRS.
“Don’t panic. That’s the most important thing consumers should remember if they have tax debt,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “The IRS has tax-relief programs to help Arkansans who owe back taxes or are behind on their payments, but consumers have to communicate with the IRS, otherwise, penalties and interest will accrue.”
Consumers should view paying taxes just like paying other bills. It is often better to negotiate a payment plan with the creditor than to pay someone else to finalize those details. The same is true when back taxes are owed to the IRS or the State.
Consumers who are having trouble meeting their tax obligation should avoid the following:
- Companies that make promises that consumers are “eligible” or “qualified” for a tax-relief program. Only the IRS can make that determination.
- Programs that won’t allow for in-person meetings before discussing payment.
- Any program that asks for upfront fees or advance fees.
- Any program promising results that seem too good to be true. As with paying any debts, programs that offer massive reductions from a total bill, should raise a red flag.
The IRS offers the following tax-relief programs to help consumers who owe taxes:
- An Installment Agreement is generally available to people who can’t pay their tax debt in full at one time. The program allows taxpayers to make smaller monthly payments until the entire debt is satisfied.
- An Offer in Compromise (OIC) lets taxpayers permanently settle their tax debt for less than the amount they owe. The OIC is an important tool to help taxpayers in limited circumstances. Taxpayers are eligible only after other payment options have been exhausted and their ability to pay has been reviewed by the IRS.
- In very limited circumstances, the IRS may offer penalty abatement to consumers who haven’t paid their taxes because of an unusual hardship. If the taxpayer meets very narrow criteria, the IRS may agree to forgive the penalties. Interest abatement is even more limited and is rarely provided.
According to the IRS, Arkansans can apply for an Installment Agreement, OIC, or penalty interest abatement without the help of a third party. If third-party assistance is preferred in negotiating with the IRS, only certain tax professionals — Enrolled Agents (federally-authorized tax practitioners who can represent taxpayers before all administrative levels of the IRS), Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), and attorneys — have the authority to represent taxpayers. Their services should involve a face-to-face meeting where they explain all options and their fee structure.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS that provides free help to people who are experiencing financial difficulties or who need help resolving a problem with the IRS. Call (877) 777-4778 or visit www.irs.gov/advocate.
For more information about this and other consumer issues, visit the Attorney General’s website at www.ArkansasAG.gov or call the office’s Consumer Hotline at (800) 482-8982.
Don’t Get Stormed TwiceThu, Feb 19, 2015
Ice and snow can take a toll on trees and cause other property damage, and with the recent winter weather that moved across Arkansas, many are faced with the reality of cleaning up.
Some Arkansans will choose to make property repairs on their own, but others may seek assistance from home-repair professionals or tree-removal specialists. Although most contractors are reputable, others may attempt to take advantage of Arkansans in the wake of this week’s snow and ice by overcharging or under delivering on promised work.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s alert to urge consumers to be cautious as they seek professional clean-up help, and to be aware of scams related to debris removal.
“Cleaning up following winter weather can already be time-consuming and costly without a consumer being taken advantage of by con artists,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “After storms, scammers see an opportunity to take advantage of Arkansans. Many times, if consumers get estimates and speak with family, friends and neighbors, they can avoid falling victim.”
After the snow and ice melt, scammers typically target affected neighborhoods. Using high-pressure sales tactics, these con artists get quick buy-in from those in need of urgent help. They may charge higher than normal prices, or so-called “emergency” prices, and demand up-front payment for services. Oftentimes, these con artists leave jobs incomplete or fail to begin the work at all once payment is received.
The Attorney General offered the following tips to consumers who need home-repair or tree trimming services:
• Select a reputable contractor. Always ask family, friends and neighbors for recommendations, and never be afraid to ask the contractor for references.
• Always get multiple estimates. Consumers want to act quickly to repair damages or have a tree removed, but getting at least three estimates to compare prices will save money in the long run.
• Get it in writing. A contract should contain details about the price of the project and any agreement on financing. It should indicate the exact work that is to be done, the type and quality of materials to be used, and the expected completion date.
• Never pay in advance. One option that should be satisfactory for both parties is an arrangement where one-third of the expected cost is paid in advance, a third is paid during the work and the final installment is paid at the time of completion. Consumers should always inspect the completed project before making final payment to make sure the completed work meets their expectations.
• Always handle insurance payments directly. If insurance payments are involved, consumers should deal with the insurance company directly rather than authorizing a contractor to negotiate with the company.
For more information about this or other consumer issues, visit www.ArkansasAG.gov or call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division hotline at (800) 482-8982.
Bogus IRS CallsWed, Feb 11, 2015
Tax-return season is well under way in the Natural State and across the country, but with that comes scam artists looking to prey on consumers.
Recently, a number of Arkansans have contacted the Attorney General’s Office to report telephone calls from purported Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents demanding the consumer share private information in order to receive a refund or to pay taxes immediately to avoid being arrested.
These con artists who have likely altered the caller ID to make it appear that the IRS is calling are posing as IRS agents in an attempt to steal a person’s identity or take their money. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued today’s consumer alert to remind Arkansans to be cautious and to offer tips to help consumers recognize a scam.
“These scam artists can sound authentic and be very convincing, as well as demanding,” said Attorney General Rutledge. “But even the most sophisticated con artists will raise red flags alerting consumers to scams. Consumers should always remember that no government entity, including the IRS, will ask for your personal financial information through an unsolicited phone call or e-mail.”
The IRS recently reminded consumers how they can easily recognize scammers who call. Consumers should know the IRS will not do the following:
- Call to demand immediate payment or call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
- Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
- Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
- Threaten to contact local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said of these scams: “We have formal processes in place for people with tax issues. The IRS respects taxpayer rights, and these angry, shake-down calls are not how we do business.”
The Attorney General’s office again reminds consumers that the IRS does not use unsolicited e-mail, text messages or any social media to discuss a personal tax issue.
Arkansans who receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS or asking for money are encouraged to call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 or the Arkansas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division hotline at (800) 482-8982.