The Whistleblower blog was started in 2008. Look for posts by these contributors: James Eli Shiffer, Jane Friedmann, Brandon Stahl, Eric Roper and Alejandra Matos. | Check out the Whistleblower archive.

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Posts about Whistleblower

Looking beyond Whistleblower, after six years and 7,000 tips

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: April 21, 2014 - 9:41 AM

In case you missed it, what follow is the final Whistleblower column, courtesy of Alejandra Matos, who's moving to the Star Tribune's Minneapolis team. In the coming weeks, look for a new blog and column focused on public records and government accountability, written by yours truly.

Six years ago this month, Whistleblower launched online and in your Sunday paper as a way for readers to tell us what the Star Tribune should investigate. Oh, did you deliver.

We received over 7,000 tips since then, ranging from overbilling by cellphone companies to contractor horror stories to conservators taking money from the vulnerable. The column has helped hundreds of taxpayers and consumers understand their rights and get their problems addressed.

The Star Tribune remains committed to investigating the tips sent in by readers, but our approach is changing. After today the Whistleblower column and blog will be retired. A new column focused on public records and government accountability will replace it in the coming weeks.

As always, we want your story ideas. Send them to whistleblower@startribune.com.

I wanted to leave you with a list of agencies and tips to addressing some of the top complaints Whistleblower has received over the years.

Robocallers: Many readers, especially seniors, want to know how to stop the incessant telemarketing calls. You have tried pressing 1 to remove your number from the call list. You put your number on the Do Not Call Registry, but to no avail. Your best option is to report the calls to the Federal Trade Commission (1-888-382-1222), although there is no guarantee that the calls will stop. If you have caller I.D., write the number down, and don’t answer those calls anymore. Don’t press 1 either. That’s just inviting more calls.

Contractors: Whistleblower received many complaints from homeowners who were scammed by contractors, licensed and unlicensed. Before hiring a contractor, check with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (651-284-5005). You can search their enforcement actions to see if the contractor has been penalized in the past. You can also ensure the contractor you hire is licensed. If you hire a licensed contractor and he leaves your home in disarray, the state Contractor Recovery Fund may help homeowners recoup their money. But that recourse isn’t available if you hire an unlicensed contractor.

Cellphone complaints: Consumers are often baffled by their experience with major cellphone carriers, mostly over their bills. The Federal Communications Commission calls this “bill shock,” described as “a sudden and unexpected increase in monthly bills that is not caused by a change in service plans.” The commission says at least one in six mobile users have experienced this in the past. The commission recommends trying to settle the claims with the provider first, but if that’s unsuccessful, you can call the FCC’s Consumer Center (1-888-225-5322).

Senior scams: Those phone calls offering “free” medical alert systems are anything but. Some of our older readers want to know if these calls are legitimate. They also called about timeshare scams and other solicitations that seem (and are) too good to be true. Last year the federal government set up a tip line (1-855-303-9470) for seniors to report fraud.

Financial scams: The tips and stories about financial scams have ranged from credit repair companies to work-at-home schemes to mortgage offers. Depending on the scam, you can seek help from the Minnesota Department of Commerce (651-539-1500), Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office (651-296-3353) or your local police department.

As for me, I’m joining the Star Tribune’s Minneapolis team. Feel free to contact me at 612-673-4028 or amatos@startribune.com.

Have you been a target of health care scams?

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: September 9, 2013 - 5:23 PM

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota said consumers across the nation are receiving scam phone calls telling them that because of the Affordable Care Act, they need to provide personal or financial information to receive health coverage or to keep the coverage they currently have. 

Star Tribune reporter Jackie Crosby wrote about the agency's warning last week. The BBB of Minnesota told Crosby they didn’t know of any specific scams targeted at Minnesotans.

Some of you have reported to Whistleblower that swindlers posing as Medicare representatives have called seeking personal information, including bank account numbers, that they need before sending out a replacement insurance card.

Whistleblower wants to know if you have received any calls from people who claim they need your personal or financial information for health care coverage. Call reporter Alejandra Matos at 612.673.4028 or send her an e-mail to amatos@startribune.com. 

Introducing the Star Tribune's new Whistleblower

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 5, 2013 - 11:09 AM

I'm pleased to announce that Alejandra Matos is the new Whistleblower columnist. That probably doesn't come as a complete surprise, since you've seen her byline on Whistleblower stories and columns all year. But now she has officially taken the helm of our reader-driven investigative project, currently in its sixth year. 

Ale is a native of El Paso, Texas, who joined the Star Tribune as a health team intern in the summer of 2011. She returned in September 2012, and quickly distinguished herself by her talents at data visualization. She joined the watchdog and data team in January and has produced a steady stream of powerful investigative stories and interactive graphics, most recently Sunday’s “Price of a legislative seat” campaign finance tool.

Ale previously interned at the Boston Globe and The El Paso Times. She has a degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Texas at El Paso.

Ale is eager to hear about your story ideas. You can reach her at 612 673-4028 or, as always, whistleblower@startribune.com.

 

Real estate company fined for charging upfront fees

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: August 19, 2013 - 3:03 PM

 A California-based real estate brokerage company engaged in unlicensed mortgage modifications in Minnesota and charged upfront fees for services that were never rendered, according to a Minnesota Department of Commerce enforcement action issued last month.

Commercial Loan Solutions LLC and its owners Charles T. Heppner and Benjamin Ackerman of Los Angeles were fined $25,000 for promising to modify mortgages in Minnesota and charging upfront fees in 2010 and 2011. The loans weren't modified, and the homeowners were denied a refund, according to the documents.

Commercial Loan Solutions is the latest company to be fined for failing to deliver on loan modifications and charging upfront fees, which is illegal in the state.

In May the Star Tribune reported the Department of Commerce had taken enforcement action against 36 individuals for violating mortgage modification laws.

Heppner and Ackerman were not licensed real estate brokers or loan originators, the documents said. A loan originator license is required to modify loans in Minnesota.

 

 

Bogus travel vouchers landing in Minnesota

Posted by: Alejandra Matos Updated: August 14, 2013 - 11:57 AM

Travel vouchers from American TAD, based in Arizona, are landing in mailboxes across the Midwest, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The letter, which states this is a "final notice," informs recipients that American TAD has been attempting to contact them on several occasions."Enclosed is your Travel Check Voucher. This Travel Check Voucher can be redeemed for a certificate for 2 round trip airline tickets anywhere in the continental US from any major international US airport," the letter says.

A Star Tribune reporter received one of these vouchers at her home and alerted Whistleblower. The supposed voucher had a $1,198 value.

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota issued an alert on these vouchers in July, saying airlines such as US Airways and American Airlines are not affiliated with the offer in any way. In Arizona, 37 complaints have been filed with the BBB, and the consumer agency could not confirm a physical address for the company.

Dan Hendrickson, spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota, said a volunteer with their organization called a number listed on the vouchers and was told she would have to attend a presentation to redeem her travel certificate, and the offer was only good for couples.
 

Here is a look at the voucher:

 

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