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    Soldiers and Sailors Credit Relief Act

    Helps soldiers with auto loans, credit card debt, and mortagages

    As the nation prepares for war with Iraq, thousands of military personnel are being called to active duty, making them eligible for debt relief under a World War II-era law known as the Soldiers and Sailors Credit Relief Act. The protection applies to debt of all kinds -- including auto loans, credit cards and mortgages.

    The law provides that when you are called to active duty, your lenders are required by law to immediately reduce the interest rate on your loan to 6 percent. You must, of course, notify the lender in writing. The letter must be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, and should include a copy of your mobilization orders. Be sure to provide your full name and account number.

    Your letter should also include a brief description of why your income has been significantly reduced by the call-up.

    The lender is required by law to immediately comply with your request. The law provides that benefits must be retroactive. In other words, if you were called up in December 2002 and you notify your lenders in February 2003, they must credit you for payments you made in December and January at a higher rate.

    Also, the reduction in the interest rate must by accompanied by a reduction in your monthly payment. The lender can't require you to make the same monthly payment and simply apply more of the payment to principal.

    Note: the law applies only to debts incurred prior to reporting for active duty. If you buy a car while on leave, the law does not apply.


    There are also special protections for leases and rentals. If you entered into a lease before being called into active duty, you may terminate the lease before to its expiration. You must give 30 days notice and the rent must be paid up when the lease is terminated.

    As for evictions, if you or your dependants fall behind in lease or rent payments, you cannot be evicted without a court order. Only a court can order the eviction of military personnel and their dependants. You will have to satisfy the judge that military service has affected your ability to pay. The court may then order the eviction delayed for up to three months.

    Other Issues

    Private life insurance policies cannot lapse, terminate or be forfeited for nonpayment while you are on active duty -- and for two years thereafter.

    Garnishments, attachments A court may stay or vacate any attachments or garnishments against active duty military personnel during the period of active duty and for 60 days after the active duty ends.

    Other court actions If you are involved in other legal matters -- including divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure -- you may request a delay until you have been released from active duty.

    The statute of limitations is automatically extended to account for any delays you may be granted.

    Legal Assistance

    If you have any difficulties, questions or concerns about any of the matters mentioned above, you should consult with the legal assistance attorney assigned to your unit. Every unit has such an officer assigned to it.

    By the way, these protections apply not only to units of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines but also to the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and officers of the Public Health Service.

    The law provides that when you are called to active duty, your lenders are required by law to immediately reduce the interest rate on your loan to 6 percen...

    AT&T Will Run Do-Not-Call List

    AT&T Will Run Do-Not-Call List

    With much fanfare, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is launching a national "do not call" list that will let consumers opt out of most telemarketing calls. Of course, someone must administer the list so the government let the project out for bids.

    And who might the winner be?

    It's none other than a division of AT&T, the long-distance company that has probably interrupted more family dinners than any other telemarketer. Nevertheless, the FTC awarded a six-month, $3.5 million contract to AT&T Government Solutions. The contract is renewable for up to 10 years and the total price will depend on how many people sign up.

    There's little doubt the AT&T subsidiary has the know-how and resources to set up and run the database. After all, AT&T already has just about everyone's number and if it wanted to search its own records could probably find the consumers who've demanded that they be taken off the telemarketing lists -- a hunch that was confirmed today by The Washington Post.

    The Post reported that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data show that 5,714 consumer complaints were lodged against AT&T's telemarketing activities in 2001, 2002 and the first three months of 2003. That's 22 percent more than the number of complaints about MCI, AT&T's perennial Number 2.

    The Post said it had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data. the FCC publishes overall reports on complaints but does not list the complaints by company unless asked to do so.

    An FTC official admitted she was not surprised AT&T topped the complaint list but defended awarding the contract to the company.

    "AT&T had the best proposal at the best price," Eileen Harrington told the Post. She said the "irony of the fact that it was an AT&T subsidiary was not lost on us."

    There's another irony in all this as well -- as the rules are now written, AT&T is not required the observe the do-not-call list because, like other telecommunications companies, it is regulated by the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, not the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission.

    Congress has ordered the FCC to make a decision by September on whether the telecommunications firms should be bound by the do-not-call rules.

    With much fanfare, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is launching a national "do not call" list that will let consumers opt out of most telemarketing call...

    Copa Hair System Marketers To Pay $300,000

    GoodTimes Entertainment and GT Merchandising & Licensing Corporation (GTM&L) have agreed to settle federal charges that they made unsubstantiated claims for the Copa Hair System and placed unauthorized charges on credit cards of some purchasers of Copa and of Richard Simmons Blast Off the Pounds products.

    The Federal Trade Commission also charged the two New York City firms with violating the Commissions Mail Order Rule by failing to ship merchandise within the promised time period.

    In addition to requiring payment of $100,000 in civil penalties and $200,000 in consumer redress, the settlement prohibits GoodTimes and GTM&L; from making the challenged claims for the products without adequate substantiation, and from violating the Mail Order Rule.

    Copa is a popular hair-straightening product targeted primarily to African-American women and sold mainly through infomercials hosted by dancer Debbie Allen. It is also sold through the defendants Web site at www.copahair.com.

    The FTC alleged that defendants GoodTimes and GTM&L; marketed Copa as having unique hair-strengthening properties. Its active ingredient, however, according to the FTC, may weaken hair while it straightens it.

    Further, through the use of before and after pictures, the defendants allegedly implied that consumers would experience hair straightening with just one use. The FTC charges that, instead, multiple applications may be necessary to achieve the depicted results. In addition, the FTC alleges that the defendants did not ship the product within the promised time frames, and enrolled consumers in continuity programs without their consent.

    The defendants also marketed Richard Simmons Blast Off The Pounds weight-loss program consisting of videotapes and Blast & Go Vitamins,sold via television and Internet advertising. According to the FTC, the defendants on occasion charged consumers for additional products without their consent.

    The consent decree to settle the charges requires that the defendants obtain consumers consent before they are enrolled in any continuing program. It prohibits the defendants from billing or charging any consumer who has not specifically agreed to purchase the defendants products. The settlement also requires the defendants to have competent and reliable scientific evidence for any representations they make regarding the performance, benefits, or efficacy of a drug, food, cosmetic, or dietary supplement.

    The consent decree prohibits the defendants from, among other things, making unsubstantiated claims regarding Copas strengthening properties and requires the defendants affirmatively to disclose, in Copa advertising using before and after pictures, the number of applications needed to produce the depicted result.

    GoodTimes Entertainment and GT Merchandising & Licensing Corporation (GTM&L) have agreed to settle federal charges that they made unsubstantiated claims fo...

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      BMX Bicycle Recall

      WASHINGTON, April 17, 2003 -- Dynacraft Industries Inc., of San Rafael, Calif., is voluntarily recalling about 52,900 BMX bicycles. The stems on these bicycles can loosen during use, causing riders to lose control and fall.

      Dynacraft Industries has received 35 reports of stems loosening on these bicycles, resulting in one report of an injury (a broken finger).

      The recall includes two models of 20-inch BMX bicycles. The Next Voltage-model bicycles are metallic green, have model number 8535-99 and were manufactured between March 2002 and June 2002. The Vertical Street Blade-model bicycles are dark blue and chrome colored, have model number 8527-99 and were manufactured between March 2002 and April 2002. The model name is written on the bicycle frame, and a label on the frame near the crank housing shows the model number and manufacture date.

      Wal-Mart stores sold the Next Voltage-model bicycles nationwide, including Puerto Rico, from May 2002 through November 2002 for about $70. Pamida stores sold the Vertical Street Blade-model bicycles nationwide from April 2002 through April 2003 for about $80.

      Consumers should stop using these bicycles immediately and contact Dynacraft Industries for information on receiving a replacement stem. For more information, call Dynacraft Industries at (800) 288-1560 between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.dynacraftbike.com.

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      BMX Bicycle Recall...

      ShopNBC Fined $215,000 For Quackery

      Made unsubstantiated health claims for Physician's RX, a dietary supplement

      ShopNBC, the third largest television "home shopping" network retailer in the United States, has agreed to pay a $215,000 civil penalty to resolve allegations that it violated a previous Federal Trade Commission order by making unsubstantiated health claims for Physician's RX, a dietary supplement containing a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

      ShopNBC is owned by ValueVision Inc., based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The cable channel markets a variety of consumer products including jewelry, housewares and health and beauty products through live, 24-hour programming. It also operates a website, www.ShopNBC.com.

      In July 2001, the Commission issued an administrative complaint charging ValueVision with violating the FTC Act by allegedly making unsubstantiated health-related claims for a variety of weight loss, cellulite treatment and anti-hair loss products. ValueVision agreed to a proposed consent agreement settling the FTC charges.

      On August 24, 2001, the Commission issued the order, which requires ValueVision to have "competent and reliable scientific evidence" substantiating any claim that a food, drug, or dietary supplement "can or will cure, treat, or prevent any disease, or have any effect on the structure or function of the human body."

      The latest complaint alleges that ValueVision, through television advertising featuring testimonials for Physician's RX, made claims that the product reduces fatigue associated with taking prescription drugs, such as drugs for heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes; reduces fatigue associated with certain illnesses, including diabetes, lyme disease, sarcoidosis, and cancer; increases energy, stamina, and endurance within a week to 10 days; and relieves arthritis symptoms. The complaint also alleges that ValueVision did not have competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate these claims, thereby violating the 2001 order.

      ShopNBC Fined $215,000 For Quackery...

      "Married But Lonely" Spammer Nabbed

      Uses innocuous subject lines to expose consumers to porn

      The Federal Trade Commission has asked a U.S. District court judge to block an allegedly illegal spam operation that uses deceptively bland subject lines, false return addresses, and empty "reply-to" links to expose unsuspecting consumers, including children, to sexually explicit material.

      The agency alleges that Brian Westby of Ballwin, Mo., used the spam in an attempt to drive business to an adult Web site, "Married But Lonely." The FTC has asked the court to order a halt to the deceptive spam, pending trial. It will seek a permanent injunction at trial.

      According to the FTC complaint, the defendant sent spam with subject lines that would disguise the contents of the e-mail. For example, subject lines have included "Did you hear the news?" and "New movie info." When consumers opened the e-mail messages, they were immediately subjected to sexually explicit solicitations to visit the defendant's adult-oriented Web sites. Because of the deceptive subject lines, consumers had no reason to expect to see such material, the FTC alleges.

      In some cases, consumers may have opened the e-mails in their offices, in violation of company policies. In other cases, children may have been exposed to inappropriate adult-oriented material, the FTC complaint notes. The defendant's spam provides a hyperlink or an e-mail address for consumers who wish to "unsubscribe"or stop receiving e-mail in the future. According to the FTC, when consumers used the hyperlink or e-mail address in an attempt to get off the mailing list, they received an error message - they could not unsubscribe.

      The FTC also alleges that the defendant used false "reply to" or "from" information in the e-mail, making it appear that some innocent third party was the sender. This practice is known as "spoofing." As a result, thousands of undeliverable e-mails flooded back to the computer systems of these third parties, deluging their computer systems with an influx of spam that couldn't be delivered to the addressee. In addition, it unfairly portrayed these innocent bystanders as duplicitous spammers, often resulting in their receiving hundreds of angry e-mails from those that had been spammed, according to the FTC.

      In papers filed with the court, the agency says the deceptive practices violate the FTC Act. The complaint says the defendant and his businesses have and will continue to injure consumers, and that the defendant has been unjustly enriched as the result of his illegal scheme. The agency has asked the court to halt the scheme.

      The agency alleges that Brian Westby of Ballwin, Mo., used the spam in an attempt to drive business to an adult Web site, "Married But Lonely." ...

      WorldCom Morphs Into MCI

      Having scored the biggest bankruptcy filing and the biggest accounting fraud in corporate history, WorldCom Inc. is creeping off the world stage

      Having scored the biggest bankruptcy filing and the biggest accounting fraud in corporate history, WorldCom Inc. is creeping off the world stage. It's changing its name to MCI, which was one of the companies it purchased just a few short years ago when bluff and bluster were as good as gold.

      The company will also abandon Clinton, Miss., its unlikely corporate headquarters the last few years, returning to Ashburn, Va., near Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport. MCI was previously headquartered in Washington and maintains a large presence there.

      WorldCom says it expects to emerge later this year from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where it landed last July with $41 billion in debt and an accounting scandal that so far includes some $11 billion in bogus revenue and profits.

      As it tries to reinvent itself, MCI is launching an advertising campaign that portrays it as a leader in "the convergence of local, long-distance and data services." This concept has been around awhile -- and sounded a lot better a few years ago, when no one was quite sure what it meant.

      Now, with customers abandoning their wired telephone service and turning to the Internet for services once carried out over long-distance and leased network lines, it has less appeal on Wall Street and may fall on deaf consumer ears as well.

      Despite its troubles, MCI remains the second-biggest long-distance carrier, behind AT&T, and still provides a major portion of the Internet "backbone." The name is still thought to have mostly favorable associations for consumers, who perhaps recall its innovative break-throughs in the 1970s, when it fought its way into the long-distance market previously monopolized by AT&T.

      The company's switch to the MCI name in its advertising and promotion that there is no mention whatsoever of WorldCom. Normally, a "new and improved" campaign makes at least passing mention to the company's former identity.

      In this case, WorldCom's excesses are seen as so excessive that the company disdains even the slightest mention. "It's a cancer," one executive said.

      Having scored the biggest bankruptcy filing and the biggest accounting fraud in corporate history, WorldCom Inc. is creeping off the world stage....

      Montana Slaps Farmers Insurance for Credit Scoring

      Credit Scoring

      April 9, 2003
      Montana State Auditor John Morrison has filed an administrative action against Farmers Alliance Mutual Insurance alleging violations of credit scoring laws. Morrison said Farmers Alliance failed to provide a Bozeman consumer with specific reasons for increasing her insurance premiums after she had submitted a request in writing to the company.

      "Credit scoring is a consumer issue of national concern, but Montana law allows for its use," said Morrison. "If companies are going to use it, consumers have the right to know how it is being used and how it affects their premiums."

      The Bozeman insurance customer had questioned an increase in her auto insurance rate and was directed by her insurer, Farmers Alliance, to look to her credit rating and credit score as possible causes.

      A credit score is a number that insurance companies give consumers based on credit experience. They factor in the number and types of credit cards used, outstanding credit balances, the number of recent credit inquiries and the age of a consumer's credit accounts.

      Choice Point, a credit scoring agency used by many insurers, reported significantly different credit scores for the consumer and her husband. The woman's credit score was 188 points lower than her husband's.

      In the action, the state auditor's office asserts there has been no change to the couple's financial status over the past two years that could justify a change in financial stability as determined by the insurance company. The auditor's office found that after more than 20 years of marriage, credit reports for the consumer and her husband were very favorable and nearly identical.

      Choice Point informed the woman that consumers who use retail accounts to buy merchandise have more insurance losses. Retail accounts include clothing stores, jewelers, furniture, mail order and variety stores such as J.C. Penney's and Sears. Consumers who have established accounts with oil companies have better loss experience. This includes cards issued by gasoline and service stations such as Texaco and BP.

      The woman's lower score in 2002 apparently caused her insurance premiums to go up. Despite her written request, Farmers Alliance failed to provide the woman with any explanation for the rate increase as required by law.

      "Insurance companies sometimes adversely treat consumers based on the types of credit cards they carry," Morrison said. "It's important for consumers to know the specific credit factors that negatively impact their credit score."

      The company has 15 days to respond to the allegations.

      Montana Slaps Farmers Insurance for Credit Scoring...

      Minnesota Fines Qwest $26 Million

      State also ordered the company to provide discounts to competitors

      The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has upheld a $26 million fine against Qwest. It also ordered the company to provide discounts to competitors for making illegal secret agreements with local phone companies.

      Also, some of the PUC commissioners said they might refuse to support Qwest's bid to offer long-distance services in Minnesota if the company challenges the penalties in court.

      The decision came at a hearing which was Qwest's first opportunity to appeal the punishment, originally announced in February. Company officials said they were disappointed with the ruling, but have not decided whether to file a court appeal.

      The PUC found last year that Qwest had illegal secret agreements with two local phone competitors that helped those rivals while hurting others.

      Qwest had proposed a compromise under which it would accept some of the discounts and agree not to appeal a fine of $5 million. But PUC commissioners said the Qwest compromise did not go far enough.

      The commission must decide by April 17 whether to make a nonbinding recommendation to the Federal Communications Commission on Qwest's long-distance bid.

      Minnesota Fines Qwest $26 Million...

      Visa, MasterCard Ordered to Refund Currency Conversion Fees

      The 1 percent fee was not properly disclosed

      A California judge has ordered Visa and MasterCard to refund hundreds of millions of dollars of currency conversion fees. Judge Ronald Sabraw of California Superior Court said the 1 percent fee was not properly disclosed.

      The ruling would require the companies to refund the currency conversion fees charged to all California consumers since Feb. 15, 1996. An attorney representing consumers said the amount could reach $800 million.

      In making his ruling, the judge conceded that Visa and MasterCard have saved consumers millions by charging much lower currency conversion fees than other forms of payment. But he said that was "immaterial."

      The credit card companies said they would appeal the decision and many analysts said they expected the California Court of Appeals to overturn Sabraw's finding. Sabraw's ruling followed a six-month trial in Oakland.

      A similar case against American Express was recently filed on behalf of California consumers.

      Another, potentially more far-reaching case is about to go to trial in New York federal court. In that case, giant retailers including Sears and Wal-Mart allege that Visa and MasterCard force merchants to take their debit as well as credit cards. Opening arguments are scheduled for April 28.

      The currency conversion case is ironic in that few consumers are even aware that they were charged a fee for the conversions -- and many may have paid much more than one percent. The credit card companies do not itemize the fee on their statements and many banks routinely tack on another one or two percent, which might or might not appear as separate charges, depending on the bank.

      Consumers will have to dig out their service agreements to find out if they are paying an addition fee to the bank that issued their credit card.

      Both Visa and MasterCard are technically associations that provide transaction services to the banks who actually issue credit cards to their customers. The final decision on currency conversions and other fees rests with individual banks.

      Visa, MasterCard Ordered to Refund Currency Conversion Fees...

      Murray Lawn Tractor Recall

      March 6, 2003

      Murray Inc. is voluntarily recalling about 270,000 riding lawn tractors. The fuel tank can crack and leak fuel, posing a burn and fire hazard to consumers.

      Murray has received 101 reports of fuel tanks leaking. No injuries have been reported.

      The recalled lawn tractors were sold under the MURRAY and STANLEY brand names and have 38-, 40-, 42-, 46-, and 52-inch cutting decks. The brand name is printed on the front or side of the lawn tractor and the model number can be found on a nameplate under the seat. The following models are included in this recall:


      Retail and hardware stores, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, sold the lawn tractors nationwide from November 2000 through January 2003 for between $800 and $1,500.

      Consumers should stop using these lawn tractors immediately and contact the nearest Murray Service Dealer for a free replacement fuel tank. For more information, consumers should contact Murray at (800) 876-1634 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit the company's web site at www.murray.com.

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      Murray Inc. is voluntarily recalling about 270,000 riding lawn tractors. The fuel tank can crack and leak fuel, posing a burn and fire hazard to consumers....

      The Saga of the Redneck Alfa

      An eBay Adventure

      We hear from quite a few readers (like John and Sean) who buy cars sight unseen on eBay and are then surprised when the clunker is shipped in multiple cardboard boxes as a collection of rusted parts. OK, maybe it's not quite that bad but buying a used car is risky under the best of circumstances and treacherous beyond belief when it involves a total stranger hundreds or thousands of miles away.

      That being said, there are many people who happily buy and sell cars on the Internet every day. We decided to try it ourselves. We figured this would serve humanity, advance the cause of consumerism and give us an excuse to buy an Alfa Romeo Spider that we could subject to extensive testing on the back roads of the Blue Ridge mountains this summer. Thus began the saga of the Redneck Alfa.

      ConsumerAffairs.com's Jon Hood examines
      the specimen upon its arrival in Virginia.

      Know what you want
      Our first step was to begin daily perusals of eBay Motors to survey the market for 1970s vintage Alfas. We wanted an older version because they are noisier, easier to work on and have that neat wooden steering wheel. Also because in 1978 we had put down a deposit on a brand-new Spider but had to cancel the sale because of a job transfer from Northern California, which is prime sports car country, to midtown Manhattan, which isn't. Thus we had what economists call pent-up demand and what poets can unrequited love for Alfas of the 70s persuasion.

      The first thing we noticed was that most of the better specimens were in California and Arizona. That's not surprising but since we are currently confined in the Washington, D.C. area, buying a car from someone 2,500 miles away makes it too expensive and time-consuming to take delivery.

      There are really only two ways to buy a car from someone out of town:

      • Have it shipped. There are lots of auto transporters who, for a stiff fee, will load your heap on a truck and dump it in front of your house at some point in the future. Like all movers, these guys are largely unregulated and it can be difficult to find one that's at least mediocre. More importantly, it makes it rather hard to inspect the car before finalizing the purchase. More about that in a minute. If you choose this method, be sure to factor in the cost of having the car shipped. It can easily add $1,000 or more to the price.
      • Go get it. Don't trust the transporters? Fine, but that means you have to pick up the car yourself. Thus, you must have faith the thing will make it home ... or you will need a truck and flat-bed trailer to haul it on. Either way, this option can be expensive -- one-way airline tickets, rental cars, hotel bills, too much fast food, you name it.

      We decided early on that we had to find a car within a day's driving distance because we simply don't have the time to go chasing around the country in pursuit of flivvers and we didn't want to spend big bucks to take delivery of something we hadn't inspected personally. That restricted our search and saved us lots of time that otherwise would have been spent mooning after cars we wouldn't bid on.

      Who's the seller?
      There are several kinds of people selling cars on eBay: honest individuals, dealers, con artists and hobbyists.

      • Honest persons. While we have nothing against honest individuals, honesty alone isn't always enough. Many people don't know much about cars, after all, and the guy who has let his uncle's 1964 Porsche sit in the garage for 10 years may think he's taken good care of it, when in fact he's let it slowly decompose.
      • Dealers. Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, dealers aren't all bad. They are, at the very least, licensed in their state and subject to minimal regulation by their state and local yahoos. It's also possible to check them out with local and national consumer agencies and even call them up and grill the salesman responsible for the listing. Worst case, you can sue them in Small Claims Court.
      • Con artists. OK, con artists are bad but if they were easy to spot they wouldn't be con artists, now would they? Same rule applies here as in all other endeavors -- if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
      • Hobbyists. Fortunately, there are lots of people who are less motivated by money than by curiosity and the desire to spend time tinkering with stuff they enjoy. They tend to lavish attention on the object of their affection even when so doing does not line their pocket. The trick is to find one of these guys.

      Having pondered all of the above, we started making modest bids on cars in Florida (ok, not a day's drive but close), New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We tried to bid only on cars that appeared to be offered by dealers who specialize in Alfas or by enthusiasts -- guys who listed all the things they had done to the car and gave their appraisal of what else it would need.

      Then one day we noticed not one but two Alfa Spiders listed by someone in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. We studied the listings as intently as phrenologists would have pored over Albert Einstein's skull. Both cars -- one a 1980s model with electronic fuel injection and one a 1978 model with the classic mechanical fuel injection -- were on the shopworn side but the seller's description of each car and the work he had performed filled the screen. He had replaced all the filters, hoses and belts on the 1978 model, replaced the springs and shocks, lowered the car to Euro standard, replaced the motor mounts, tuned the notoriously touchy Spica fuel injection and so on. This glutton for touchy anachronisms claimed to have previously owned five other Spiders and four Alfa GTV-6's.

      This looked like the car for us. It met all our qualifications: it was old, it was not excessively restored, it was relatively nearby and the seller showed all the symptoms of being a chronic tinkerer. We waited until two days before the auction was scheduled to end, then entered our first bid, a whopping $1,500. (North Carolina is a little off the beaten path so the bidding was not as frantic as it might have been had the car been in New York or California -- another plus).

      We emailed the seller a few times, asking about rust, whether he thought the car would make it to Washington, etc. We liked the answers -- which were honest (he described the interior as "ratty") bordering on pessimistic ("it will need a brake job right away"). Also, this enabled us to get the seller's email address so that we could communicate with him outside of eBay's system.

      Things went languidly back and forth and although we were the top bidder ($2,200) when the auction ended, the reserve had not been met. The seller was not obligated to sell to us or anyone else.

      We e-mailed the seller, told him our offer stood and offered to send a cashier's check for $220, representing a ten percent non-refundable deposit. He accepted, we mailed the check (inscribed "non-refundable deposit to hold vehicle [VIN #] for 10 days") and made a date to come and look at the car a few days later.

      eBay might contend that we had scammed them, since this procedure eliminated eBay's fee but as far as we can tell, it's not illegal, unethical or fattening. Yes, it deprives us of some of the "protections" eBay has built into its system but we were willing to take that chance.

      And so it came to pass that a few days later we set off with a friend and fellow Alfista in an Avis Buick bound for Charlotte. Avis, which has never mistreated us in 30 years of business travel, had given us a one-way rental with no drop charge, although we also had the option of keeping the rental and driving it back to Washington if it turned out the Alfa had weeds growing through the floor.

      Keep your options open
      So far we were out $220 and $100 for the car rental. Sure, we had with us a cashier's check for the remainder of the price but legally, since the auction had ended inconclusively we were not obligated to complete the purchase.

      As dusk fell over Lake Somethingorother, we glided up to the seller's home, easily spotted by the fairly decrepit Alfas and BMWs littering its yard. Following our nose, we found the Alfa in question sprawled fetchingly in the garage, where the seller had been fiddling with the heater hoses. Much test driving, peering under the body and nosing through the engine compartment ensued.

      In summary, eBay is OK for some things, bad for others. If you're looking to buy a recent vintage Honda or Saturn, it's probably easier and safer to find one locally. If you're looking for something a little more exotic, ancient or quirky, eBay's nationwide market expands the selection. But remember -- if the car's too far away, you'll have trouble inspecting it personally and you'll have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get it home. Try to buy from an enthusiast or a specialist dealer ... and if possible don't commit to buy until you've seen it or had an independent third-party mechanic look it over.

      A word about inspections: there are inspection services who advertise on eBay but most of them do little more than check out the cosmetics. You want someone who can tell you if the engine, transmission and undercarriage are sound. That requires a mechanic.

      Whatever you do, be sure to run a title check on any car you're considering. It's the only way to learn of major accidents, verify mileage and get an accurate count of title transfers, etc. (Our Alfa was too old to be in the Carfax records).

      The seller, we learned over dinner, was an airline pilot furloughed a few months ago and thus free to fritter away even more time rescuing old sports cars and a bit more pressured to sell one now and then. We got the impression he didn't really want to part with ours but we were fairly insistent and finally persuaded him to let us drive it to the airport hotel where we would spend the night before dumping the rental car the next morning. (A "Welcome to South Carolina" sign was the tip-off that this car was capable of eating up the highway and taking one's mind off such petty details as one's location).

      Our drive back to Northern Virginia began gingerly the next morning as we probed for weaknesses in our new buggy. But by the time we hit Danville, Va., home of the Virginia International Raceway, we and the Alfa were feeling our oats. Just outside Tight Squeeze, Va., we stopped at Dan's Market to stoke up on hot dogs (2 for $1), picked up a blaze orange hunting cap, then headed for U.S. 60, a deserted highway that twists and winds for miles up the mountain and back down the other side (funny how that works).

      We blasted through a succession of such roads, engine screaming and tires smoking (sometimes vice versa), waking up bears and annoying the locals before hitting the brick wall of Washington traffic late that afternoon. We had given the Redneck Alfa what is known in certain circles as an "Italian tune-up."

      The next day, the wise old Commonwealth of Virginia was kind enough to give the car antique status, excusing it from meeting emission standards, but promptly flunked us (the car, not the driver) on the safety test. We made our way to the local speed shop to have the brakes reworked, just as the seller had predicted.

      The speed shop service manager, looking with undisguised avarice at our new relic and our checkbook, watched as we tried to get the Alfa key off our key ring.

      "Darned Peugeot keys are so big they block everything else," we mumbled.

      "You have Peugeots too?" he asked wide-eyed, as visions of superbills danced in his head.

      In conclusion ...
      To be brutally honest, we had a lot of fun with this project. It beats comparison-testing toasters any day. As a way to buy hard-to-find older cars, we'd say eBay is only slightly ahead of the newspaper classifieds and quite a bit behind the word-of-mouth readily available around car owners clubs, speed shops and, for that matter, traffic court.

      For any other form of transport, we'd beat it over to Honest Al's.

      Buying a used car is risky under the best of circumstances and treacherous beyond belief when it involves a total stranger hundreds or thousands of miles a...

      WebNet Fined $1.2 Million for Slamming

      The FCC said it and 14 state agencies began investigating WebNet in 2001

      The Federal Communications Commission has fined WebNet Communications $1.2 million for "slamming" -- switching consumers' long-distance service without permission. It's one of the larger recent fines for slamming and is the first time the FCC has launched a joint effort with state regulators to enforce anti-slamming rules.

      The FCC said it and 14 state agencies began investigating WebNet in 2001 after receiving complaints from 185 consumers.

      The FCC said WebNet's sales pitch was intended to confuse consumers about whether or not they were changing phone carriers. It released the following script of the company's pitch:

      "Thank you for choosing WebNet as your long distance and local long distance provider. You have been selected to receive $100 just for trying our new 7 cent calling plan for all your interstate calls in the continental United States for 180 days. Restrictions may apply, void where prohibited.

      "Please answer the following questions. Please state your name and address. Are you the decision-maker choosing WebNet as your long distance and local long distance provider? Please say 'yes' at the tone. For security purposes, state your date of birth or your mother's maiden name at the tone."

      The FCC said the script did not meet its criteria, which require that companies determine these six things:

      • the identity of the subscriber;
      • confirmation that the person on the call is authorized to make the carrier change;
      • confirmation that the person on the call wants to make the change;
      • the names of the carriers affected by the change;
      • the telephone numbers to be switched; and
      • the types of service involved.

      WebNet's sales pitches confirmed only one of the six requirements, the FCC said. It said the company's calls showed "a pattern of intentional and egregious misconduct."

      WebNet, based in McLean, Va., responded that the FCC was attempting government censorship by dictating the specific content of sales pitches.

      The states involved in the joint investigation were Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, missouri, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

      WebNet Fined $1.2 Million for Slamming...

      An Expensive Sports Car Raffle: Axces Fined for Slamming

      Company slammed more than 1,000 Missourians, state claims

      A Houston long-distance company has been ordered to pay $260,000 in restitution and barred from doing business in Missouri after being accused of "slamming" more than 1,000 of the state's residents.

      "Today brings a successful close to a five-year legal battle," said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who sued Axces in March 1998. "Our tenacity has paid off with the result that consumers who were ripped off by Axces are going to receive restitution checks very soon, and Axces wont be doing business in Missouri ever again."

      The Attorney Generals Office will be contacting victims by mail in order to provide them with full restitution. Any money remaining after restitution is distributed will be used to fund consumer education and protection efforts.

      The judgment against Axces Inc. is the largest slamming case in Missouri and one of the larger state cases in the nation, Nixon said. But it's nothing new for Axces, which has a long record of problems with state regulators.

      In November 2002, Texas ordered Axces to pay a $360,000 penalty for 72 documented cases of slamming phone customers. In 1998 the Texas PUC fined Axces $100,000 for slamming.

      The Oklahoma Corporation Commission filed a contempt action against Axces for nine violations of Oklahoma telephone laws and Corporation Commission rules. The complaint seeks the maximum fine allowed by law, the greater of $10,000 per occurrence or $500 per day per violation, and revocation of Axces's authority to resell telephone services in Oklahoma.

      Nixon said that the company switched Missourians' long-distance service by persuading them to sign contest entry forms for a supposed raffle on a sports car. At the bottom of the entry form, in very small print, was a sentence authorizing Axces to switch the consumer's long-distance service, raise their rates and add on various monthly charges.

      The scam was usually carried out at shopping malls, fairs and other locations with heavy pedestrian traffic, Nixon said.

      An Expensive Sports Car Raffle: Axces Fined for Slamming...