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

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer under Whistleblower 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.

FTC: Immigrants misled by firm

Posted by: Alejandra Matos under Businesses in hot water Updated: April 14, 2014 - 5:23 PM

A Baltimore couple and their company were ordered to pay back $616,000 to Spanish-speaking immigrants for immigration services that they were neither qualified nor authorized to provide, the Federal Trade Commission announced last week.

A federal judge in Maryland ordered Manuel Alban, his wife Lola Alban and Loma International Business Group to refund the money after they targeted immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras. They claimed they could help fill out citizenship applications, but the FTC noted more than 60 percent of the applications were denied.

According to the FTC, the Alban’s customers “suffered severely” for relying on their services. Several were deported and one was arrested and jailed for almost 11 months, the FTC said. 

Firm faces heat after “jerk” labels

Posted by: Alejandra Matos under Businesses in hot water Updated: April 7, 2014 - 4:39 PM

A company that allegedly labeled millions of Facebook users as a “jerk” or “not a jerk” is facing federal scrutiny after the agency said it improperly obtained information to create user profiles.

The Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint against Jerk.com and its Massachusetts owner, John Fanning, for creating profiles for more than 73 million people, including children, by using their Facebook profiles and then charging them $30 to change the info on the profile. The profiles often appeared in search engine results when searching for an individual’s name, the FTC said.

Jerk.com claimed other users created the profiles, but the FTC alleges the profiles were created from personal information that was improperly obtained from Facebook profiles.

CenterPoint, Minneapolis settle gas explosion lawsuits

Posted by: Alejandra Matos under Businesses in hot water Updated: April 2, 2014 - 1:50 PM

CenterPoint Energy has agreed to pay at least $192,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by the city of Minneapolis and various insurance companies in relation to a gas explosion near a south Minneapolis Cub Foods in 2011.

The majority of the settlement, $170,000, will go to Jerry's Enterprises, which owns the Cub Foods at 60th Street and Nicollet Avenue South. The company sued Minneapolis and CenterPoint last year, but the utility company is the only one required to pay. The remaining $22,500 of the settlement will go to insurance companies.

The March 17, 2011, explosion originated in a gas line running under 60th Street. No one was hurt, but it damaged the facade of the grocery store and dozens of cars parked in the area. Last year, Whistleblower reported how some of the owners of those cars were left in limbo because of the dispute between CenterPoint and the city over who was to blame.

The city of Minneapolis filed a lawsuit a year ago against CenterPoint Energy claiming the Texas-based natural gas company was negligent in maintaining and repairing the pipe. CenterPoint filed a countersuit, claiming the the city failed to maintain sewage and water lines running under the gas line, which created a washout that caused the gas line to bend.

Rebecca Virden, CenterPoint's spokeswoman, said the settlement "expressly provides that no party admits fault, and CenterPoint Energy’s position continues to be that the incident was caused by a washout under 60th Street as a result of the deteriorated and fractured state of the water and sewer system."

Minneapolis' only cost was $22,250 for expert fees, which will not be reimbursed by the settlement.
 

(above, Star Tribune file photo of the blast by Brian Peterson)

Mortgage firm targeted veterans

Posted by: Alejandra Matos under Businesses in hot water Updated: March 26, 2014 - 3:10 PM

A company accused of “mortgage scams” spent at least $2 million for a direct-mail campaign aimed at Minnesota veterans, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Mortgage Investors Corporation, also known as Veterans Information Department, was ordered to appear before an administrative law judge after the company violated a 2011 cease-and-desist order. The order alleged that the company’s advertising gave the false impression it was a government agency.

The company, based in Florida, allegedly took $1 million in advance fees from refinance transactions, a violation of Minnesota law, the department said.

Last June, the Federal Trade Commission levied a $7.5 million fine against the company for violating the Do Not Call registry.

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