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

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

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.