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State consumer affairs office: Steer clear of refund anticipation loans

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State consumer affairs office: Steer clear of refund anticipation loans

The state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) and Department of Revenue (DOR) issued a warning to Massachusetts consumers Tuesday to be wary of refund anticipation loans (RALs).

“These short-term loans are backed by an individual’s tax refund and come loaded with fees and high interest rates,” the state offices said in a statement. “Advertised as a quick and easy cash infusion and targeted toward the lowest wage earners, RALs essentially encourage the people who can least afford it to borrow their own money.”

OCABR Undersecretary Daniel C. Crane called the RAL warning “a classic example of buyer beware,” noting that customers “should not be lured into paying a hefty price” — anywhere between $30 and $130 for the typical taxpayer — “to gain access to their own money.”

“The Office of Consumer Affairs advises Massachusetts consumers to steer clear of these loans in order to avoid burdening themselves with such an unnecessary expense,” said Crane.

The effective annual interest rates for RALs can range from about 50 percent to nearly 500 percent, the offices said, and the loans must be paid back even if a consumer’s tax refund is denied, less than expected or frozen. If a taxpayer is unable to repay the RAL, the lender may send the account to a debt collector.

The expedition of tax-paying by electronic filing methods and of the refund process through direct deposit options that can lead to taxpayers receiving refunds in 10 days or less should make RALs even less appealing, said DOR Senior Deputy Commissioner Navjeet Bal.

“Given the speedy nature of processing electronically filed returns with refunds, there is little cause to take out a refund anticipation loan … Taxpayers should think twice before agreeing to accept them,” Bal added.

Rather than resorting to RALs, the state agencies recommend tax-payers use the following filing strategies:
• If you don’t already have one, open a bank account and take advantage of direct deposit for your tax refund;
• File your tax return electronically with the refund deposited directly into your bank account, which you should receive in three to four business days;

• When you receive your tax refund, avoid check cashers, as they charge fees to cash RALs and tax refund checks;

• Reduce your income tax withholding so that you won’t have to wait for a refund next year;
• For free tax preparation, low- to moderate-income tax payers can take part in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program coordinated by the IRS. VITA sites can be found in libraries, community centers, local governmental offices, nonprofit organizations and other locations during tax season;

• If you earned $54,000 or less in 2007, you can use the IRS Free File program to prepare your taxes online at www.irs.gov/efile;

• The AARP Tax-Aide program at www.aarp.org/money/taxaide provides free tax preparation and assistance services to millions of low- and middle-income taxpayers, with special attention to those ages 60 and older.

New Mass. campaign calls on adults to get involved with youth

A new community engagement campaign unveiled Tuesday aims to encourage parents, neighbors, after-school providers, policy makers and everyone else in the Bay State to look at how they can “be there” for youth and inspire them to reach for success.

City and state officials, nonprofit youth workers and more than 600 community and corporate leaders joined the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley to kick off “inspire 4 life,” a new multi-year campaign intended to excite and engage Massachusetts youth and provide them with opportunities not only to express themselves and develop leadership skills, but also to build positive relationships with supportive adults.

The initiative was announced during a day-long youth summit held at the World Trade Center on the Waterfront. First lady Diane Patrick, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Department of Social Services Commissioner Angelo McLain, Department of Youth Services Commissioner Jane E. Tewksbury and Larry Mayes, chief of human services for the City of Boston, were among those in attendance for the launch.

“The investment we make in our young citizens today will reap innumerable benefits for them, and for the Commonwealth, tomorrow,” said Patrick.

A United Way statement cited research showing that youth who have positive adult relationships are more motivated to succeed in school and take responsibility for their actions, and are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

“Youth and more likely to stay in school and graduate when they have a solid relationship with a caring adult, attend school regularly and don’t repeat grades, are protected from harm and participate in high quality enrichment opportunities,” the statement said.

At the initiative’s Web site, adults can sign up to coach, mentor or tutor youth, get information abut how to become active in school groups or committees, and learn how to advocate for youth-focused policies through public actions like attending town meetings or writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
For more information, visit www.inspire4life.com.

Essence, Berklee announce teen hip-hop songwriting contest

Essence magazine and Berklee College of Music are again looking for the next generation of hip-hop stars, opening their third annual joint Take Back the Music Hip-Hop Songwriting Contest to find young artists whose work promotes balance in the messages of mainstream hip-hop.

Three contest winners will receive scholarships to attend a high school music program at Berklee this summer, and will perform at the 2008 Peace Hip-Hop Festival at Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Last year’s festival featured performances by rap legends Slick Rick and De La Soul.

Two runners-up will study online at www.berkleemusic.com at no charge.
The contest is open to students ages 15-19 who are unsigned songwriters and/or producers. Entrants have until March 10, 2008, to submit their original songs, which will be judged by a panel of hip-hop celebrity judges and Berklee music scholars based on the innovative and positive quality of their lyrics, as well as melody and composition.

Additional information, contest details and entry forms are available at www.essence.com/take
backthemusic
and www.berklee.edu.

Public comments welcome on MBTA police accreditation

A team of assessors from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. (CALEA) will arrive in Boston on Sunday to examine all aspects of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Transit Police Department’s policy and procedures, management, operations and support services.

As part of the on-site assessment, agency personnel and members of the community are invited to offer comments to the assessment team by telephone. Those interested in commenting can call 617-222-1103 on Monday, Feb. 4, 2008, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Telephone comments are limited to 10 minutes and must address the agency’s ability to comply with CALEA standards, which are available by contacting Sgt. Det. Robert Fitzsimmons at 617-222-1161, or at MBTA Transit Police Headquarters at 240 Southampton Street in Boston.

The assessment team is composed of public safety practitioners from out-of-state agencies. The assessors will review written materials, interview individuals and visit offices and locations where compliance can be witnessed. Once the CALEA assessors complete their review, they report back to the full commission, which then decides if the agency is to be granted accredited status.

Library of Congress acquires civil rights activist’s papers

At a ceremony held Monday in Washington, D.C., the sons of civil rights activist James Forman gave the Library of Congress their father’s papers. Their mother, Constancia Romilly, also attended the event.

Forman was born in 1928 and died in 2005. From 1961 to 1966, he served as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was instrumental in organizing many of the major civil rights campaigns of the era, including the 1963 March on Washington.

The Forman Papers — approximately 70,000 items — chronicle his life and role in the civil rights movement, the bulk of the collection dating from 1960. It includes correspondence, memoranda, diaries, speeches and other writings, notebooks, interview transcripts, subject files, scrapbooks, appointment books, photographs, and video and sound recordings.

The collection documents Forman’s activism, particularly his tenure with SNCC, the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP and the Black Panther Party.

After serving in the Air Force at Okinawa during the Korean War and graduating from Roosevelt (Ill.) University in 1957, Forman pursued advanced studies in African affairs at Boston University. He later returned to his native Chicago to work as an elementary school teacher and a journalist.

An assignment to cover the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School for the black Chicago Defender newspaper in 1958 ignited his interest in the burgeoning civil rights movement, leading him to become involved with CORE, the NAACP and later SNCC.

Later in life, Forman received a master’s degree in African and Afro American studies from Cornell University in 1980 and a Ph.D. from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. During the 1990s, he taught at American University, the University of the District of Columbia and Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“The James Forman Papers are a valuable addition to the library’s unrivaled resources for the study of the 20th century civil rights movement,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in a statement.

The Library also holds the personal papers of prominent activists such as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, Arthur Spingarn and former Massachusetts Sen. Edward W. Brooke.

MEMA, United Way team for new citizen helpline

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Council of Massachusetts United Ways (COMUW) recently agreed to utilize Mass 2-1-1 as the Commonwealth’s primary telephone information call center during times of emergency.

The easy-to-remember telephone number — 2-1-1 — will be utilized as a resource for human service and public safety/disaster response and planning agencies.

It was designed, in part, to reduce the number of non-emergency calls made to 9-1-1.

MEMA officials said 2-1-1 will provide the latest emergency information, and responses to rumors, access to post-disaster programs, interpreter services and other programs.

The 2-1-1 call center currently operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m., with the ability to provide 24-7 accessibility in times of emergency. For more information on the helpline, visit www.mass211.org.

Division of Insurance launches AgentFinder site to simplify insurance shopping

State Insurance Commissioner Nonnie S. Burnes last week announced the launch of “AgentFinder,” a Division of Insurance (DOI) Web site designed to make insurance shopping easier for Massachusetts consumers by connecting customers to insurance professionals based on criteria provided by the customer.

The site is available at www.agentfinder.doi.
state.ma.us
.

“Shopping for insurance can be a hassle,” said Burnes in a statement. “Our goal at the Division is to cut through the confusion and give consumers the tools they need to make informed choices.”

AgentFinder allows consumers to generate a list from a database of the Commonwealth’s 70,000 licensed insurance agents based on user-selected specifications, including geographic, product and company-related specifications.

Consumers can perform a general agent search by entering their ZIP code and choosing between automobile, homeowners, life or health insurance, or they can conduct a more detailed search by entering the agent’s name, business location, company or product.

Burnes said AgentFinder is the first of two products DOI plans to unveil to aid consumers looking for the best deal. The second, slated for a February launch, will aim to help consumers shop for the best auto insurance premiums under the state’s controversial “managed competition” system.

“These two resources promise to give consumers the information they need to make the right insurance decisions for themselves and their families,” said Burnes.

New Web site launched as online resource for African American history, culture

In time for Black History Month, entrepreneurs William Moss and Dante Lee have launched www.blackhistory.com, a Web site they are calling “the first … of its kind.”

“BlackHistory.com is a 100 percent free online encyclopedia that features information, pictures and video content about African American accomplishments,” the founders said in a Jan. 3 statement announcing the site’s launch.

“The site is also a social networking platform that allows African American visitors to chronicle their own contributions to black history and to connect in a way like never before,” the statement continues. “Members can interact with each other and post profiles, pictures and even history-related content.”

Prior to their team-up, both Moss and Lee explored their own independent Web ventures. Moss is the founder of www.hbcu.com, while Lee founded www.blacknews.com.

In its first month, www.blackhistory.com has welcomed more than 41,000 new users, numbers that Lee says puts the site on track for a successful 2008.

“We expect BlackHistory.com to be very huge, attracting millions of visitors this year,” he said. “This is bigger than anything we’ve ever done.”