Consumer Advisory

From the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation:

Buy Bitcoins at Your Own Risk

Virtual currency is a high-risk payment option for consumers

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation advises consumers who may consider purchasing the digital or virtual currency Bitcoin to proceed with caution because of the high-financial risks involved.

Just last week, the largest Bitcoin exchange shut down resulting in hundreds of millions dollars’ worth of lost bitcoins.A couple of weeks ago, a Bitcoin “ATM” opened up in South Station. While this operation closely resembles an ATM, the kiosk performs quite differently. It does not provide cash, but instead allows consumers to load bitcoins onto a virtual wallet either accessed by an app downloaded onto a smartphone or through a code provided on a piece of paper that is unique to each consumer.

Proponents of Bitcoin make the point that this virtual currency allows for a faster, no-fee payment system, which is attractive to both merchants and consumers. While there is a demand for a faster and more efficient commercial payment system, the question is whether bitcoins are the most appropriate and safest alternative to satisfy that demand.

Before purchasing bitcoins either online or through a kiosk, consumers are strongly advised to consider the risks.

What are bitcoins?

Bitcoins are a type of decentralized virtual currency, meaning they are not issued or backed by the United States or any other government. They are also unregulated and uninsured, which means that consumers and businesses alike have limited recourse if they have a problem. Unlike the dollar, which is legal tender, no one is required to accept bitcoins as a form of payment.

While not tangible currency, bitcoins are bought by transferring real money through an exchange or to an individual, and are stored on computers or held by the purchaser or a third party in a so-called virtual wallet. Once the bitcoins are in your virtual wallet, you can use them to purchase items from any merchant willing to accept them or sell them to someone willing to buy them.

What risks should I be worried about?

Consumers should pay particular attention to the following risks:

  • You can lose your money or bitcoins on an exchange:Consumer ramifications were seen first-hand when one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox, abruptly closed down recently with no explanation. It was later revealed the exchange was hacked, and millions of dollars of bitcoins were stolen. Consumers were left hanging as to how they could recoup their lost money. Mt. Goxrecently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization in the Northern District of Texas, so consumers now have a process under which they can file claims.
  • Bitcoins can be stolen from your virtual wallet:Bitcoins are like cash – if they are lost or stolen, they are gone for good. If your virtual wallet is hacked, your bitcoins can be stolen. Also, if you forget your private “key” (similar to a PIN), your bitcoins are not replaceable.
  • The value of bitcoins can fluctuate rapidly:During the time it took Consumer Affairs staff to inspect the South Station kiosk, the value of the average of the four most common Bitcoin exchanges fell $20 — it has since fallen hundreds of dollars. This rapid fluctuation means it is a high risk investment for consumers. The value could even drop to zero, making bitcoins worthless.
  • There are no consumer protections:Bitcoins are not FDIC insured. Unlike credit cards, you have no right to reverse the charges if something goes wrong. The South Station kiosk also has no disclosures, leaving consumers without information about fees or where to go if there is a problem. The Massachusetts Division of Banks is currently revieweing the operation of this kiosk to determine if it requires licensing.

Should I buy bitcoins or should I stay away from them?

First and foremost, if you can't afford to lose the money you have, you should not buy bitcoins.

For other consumers who are thinking about buying bitcoins, you should do your due diligence, just as with making any investment and weigh all the risks. Understand how the currency works, know how much the currency is currently valued, and how (or whether) you will be able to retrieve that value at any time in the future.  After you purchase bitcoins, take proper precautions, including protecting your private "key" and not leaving large amounts in your virtual wallet.

How are bitcoins made?

Bitcoins are created through a sophisticated computer algorithm that requires extensive computer power. Creating new bitcoins is called “mining” and is something that is not available to the average consumer.

Basic Facts on Bitcoin:

  • It’s a high-risk currency because of the volatility in its price.
  • It’s not backed by any central banks worldwide and has no tangible value.
  • It’s an experimental concept.
  • It’s unregulated and does not provide protection for consumers.
  • Consumer disclosure rules and regulations are limited or nonexistent.
  • It is not insured or backed by any government or regulatory structure.
  • No company is required to accept bitcoins as a form of payment.

From the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation:

What you should know before renting a vacation property

As the temperature rises, school has ended and parents take a break from work, many families are making summer vacation plans. If you’re thinking about renting a vacation property this season, do your homework first.

Sometimes properties are not as they are advertised or could be a scam. 

Research and compare rentals online. Beware of ads posted on Craigslist and other online classifieds, as these websites are popular with scam artists. Scammers may use fake photos and names, often stolen from other websites. They entice consumers with attractive offers hoping that they won’t research the transaction further. 

Be careful if renting from an individual. It is safer to use a reputable rental company or a real estate agent. 

Check out the property owner. Get references from family or friends. Check with the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, Attorney General’s Office, and Better Business Bureau to see if there is a history of complaints on file. 

Get the address of the vacation rental and use an online map (e.g. Google or Yahoo) to bring up the address. If you can’t find it online, it probably doesn’t exist. Verify the condition and location of the rental property. Look at photos and take a virtual tour online. If possible, visit the property beforehand. Look for cleanliness and be sure that that everything works as it should (i.e. toilet flushes, lights turn on, no leaks, etc.). 

Get everything in writing. Always have a signed agreement, no matter how brief your stay. Make sure all verbal agreements are included in the rental contract including details about deposits, rules on pets, refunds, and what is included in the cost of the rental such as utilities, internet, etc.

Do not pay or put money down until you have carefully read and signed the rental agreement. 

Never pay via money wire (e.g. Western Union). This is a sure sign of a scam. If at all possible, pay with a credit card, which provides some consumer protection if there is a dispute. 

For more information about vacation rental properties, click on vacation and travel scams and avoid vacation rental horrors. 

 

Message from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Beware flood-damaged used cars

Don’t take a bath on a flood-damaged car -- By Holly Petraeus

Hurricanes and severe storms can bring misery to a lot of people. We’ve all seen recent images of houses and cars submerged in water. Have you ever wondered what happens to those cars once the floodwater subsides?

Unfortunately, a number of them will be turning up for sale on the internet or at car lots halfway across the United States, with no mention that they were saturated in dirty water not so long ago. Although some states require disclosure of flood damage or salvage on a car title, other states do not – so you may not be able to rely on the car title for that information. If you’re taking out a loan to buy the car, it’s important to understand the impact flood damage can have on the car’s value and consider whether it’s worth the amount you’re borrowing.

 

You should be a cautious buyer and check out the car carefully before you buy. (Since flood damage can be hard to spot, it’s a good idea to consider paying an expert mechanic to inspect it for you.) Below are a few simple steps you can take to help protect yourself.

Smell: the upholstery and the carpeting. Do they smell funky? Also, turn on the heat and see if there’s an electric/burning smell that might come from damaged wires. And turn on the AC and see if you get a blast of mildew-scented air.

Feel: the wires under the dashboard and in the engine (obviously when the car is turned off!). Do they feel brittle? That may be the result of immersion in water.

Listen: to the sound system/radio. If it sounds bad or isn’t working at all, that could be a sign of water damage. Ask why it’s not working.

Ask: the seller outright if the car was ever in a flood. While they may not have volunteered the information, they may be reluctant to lie when asked directly.

Consider: buying a vehicle history report that should tell you if the car’s been in a flood or issued a salvage title.

See: if there are any high-water or mud marks on the engine, the wheel wells, the trunk or even the glove box. Get a flashlight and take a look in those hard-to-reach places that might not have been cleaned. Lift up the carpet and look underneath for mud, rust or dirt.

Realize: this isn’t just an issue of a bad-smelling car. Floods can damage vital parts of a car like the air bag system, brakes, and electrical system – and the damage may not show up right away. Your safety could be at risk if you are unknowingly riding around in a flood-damaged car.

Buying a car is one of the biggest consumer purchases you’ll make. Don’t put your hard-earned money into a flood-damaged lemon. Once you’ve signed the contract you’re committed, so Know Before You Owe!

You can find more information from the U.S. Department of Justice and from the Federal Trade Commission’s about buying a used car and hurricane recovery.