Current Events in May 2004

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    Bogus Pharmacy Card Scam Hit Thousands

    The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit in federal court to halt a scam that drained millions of dollars out of thousands of consumers' checking accounts for "discount pharmacy cards" the consumers didn't know about, didn't order, and didn't get.

    The FTC estimates that as many as 90,000 consumers were victims.

    U.S. District Court Judge Robert Clive Jones has issued a temporary restraining order to halt the scam and freeze the defendants' assets. The FTC will seek a permanent ban on the scheme and request that the frozen funds be preserved for consumer redress.

    In papers filed with the court, the FTC charged that since January 2004, defendants using the name "" electronically debited thousands of consumers' accounts for $139, without consumers' knowledge or consent. Prior to the unauthorized debiting of their checking accounts, consumers had no contact with the defendants.

    According to the FTC, the defendants attempted to debit more than $10 million from consumers' checking accounts in less than three months. The FTC alleges that the defendants gained access to the banking system via third-party payment processors by claiming that they were engaged in a legitimate business selling pharmacy discount cards.

    Their Web site touted the benefits of their cards and advertised retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart that participated in the discount program. The Web site also listed a toll-free customer service number and a mailing address in Canada. According to the FTC, the major retailers' logos were hijacked they didn't participate in the program. The mailing address was false and mail sent to the address was returned.

    Some consumers received letters after money had been withdrawn from their account explaining the program and saying that because the consumer had previously purchased a product from one of the defendants' "marketing partners" using their checking account, the consumer did not need to provide the account number again. The letter said that consumers who were not interested could call the toll-free customer service number to cancel within five days of receiving the letter. By this time, the money already had been debited from their accounts.

    According to the complaint, the defendants provided consumers' checking account numbers to the third-party payment processors with whom they had contracts. One processor alone debited more than 72,000 checking accounts for the defendants, generating more than $10 million in attempted debits.

    While more than 50,000 of those transactions were cancelled or returned, many other consumers were unaware of the transaction or unable to have it reversed, and $139 was removed from their accounts without their authorization.

    The FTC alleges that the scam violates federal law and will ask the court to order a permanent halt to the practices and order consumer redress.

    The FTC advises all consumers to regularly review their bank statements and quickly dispute any unauthorized charges.

    Defendants in the case are 3rd Union Card Services, Inc., doing business as, a Delaware Corporation; Helmcrest Ltd., a company incorporated under the laws of Cyprus, doing business as; David Graham Turner, and Steve Pearson.

    The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit in federal court to halt a scam that drained millions of dollars out of thousands of consumers' checking accoun...

    Study Confirms Mold Causes Health Problems

    New research indicates that otherwise healthy people are more likely to develop symptoms of asthma and other disorders if their homes are damp and moldy

    New research indicates that otherwise healthy people are more likely to develop symptoms of asthma and other disorders if their homes are damp and moldy. Also, those who already suffer from asthma are likely to experience more symptoms in a moldy environment.

    The study by the National Institute of Medicine did not rule out the possibility that mold can also cause other problems, including sinusitis, skin disorders, gastrointestinal problems and fatigue though it did not establish a causative relationship.

    Authors of the study, requested by the Centers for Disease Control, said that anyone who has a mold of moisture problem in their home should address it immediately, even if they are currently healthy and have no symptoms.

    Although it's the first comprehensive review of the effects of mold and dampness, consumers have known for years that mold is a problem. Complaints to about mold include:

    Maytag washers Certain models collect mold faster than the dryers collect lint.
    Pacific Siding Dirk, Larry and many others literally have mushrooms growing out of their houses.
    Hotels Paul and his group stayed at a Choice Hotel in Galveston that was Mold City.

    Complaints about mold have led to a flurry of lawsuits around the country, especially in Texas, where one couple was awarded $32 million after they claimed they suffered serious health effects when their insurance company bungled a flood cleanup project.

    Unfortunately, while the report confirmed that mold can be a problem, it didn't have any easy answers about controlling it.

    While there is universal agreement that promptly fixing leaks and cleaning up spills or standing water substantially reduces the potential for mold growth, there is little evidence that shows which forms of moisture control or prevention work best at reducing health problems associated with dampness, the report notes.

    The researchers said they had insufficient information to recommend either an appropriate level of dampness reduction, or a safe level of exposure to organisms and chemicals linked to dampness. Better standardized methods for assessing human exposure to these agents are greatly needed, the report says. It calls for studies that compare various ways to limit moisture or eliminate mold and to evaluate whether the interventions improve occupants' health.

    New research indicates that otherwise healthy people are more likely to develop symptoms of asthma and other disorders if their homes are damp and moldy....

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      Smoking Harms Nearly Every Organ, Surgeon General Finds

      It's Worse Than You Thought

      Smoking causes diseases in nearly every organ of the body, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's comprehensive new report on smoking and health.

      Published 40 years after the surgeon general's first report on smoking -- which concluded that smoking was a definite cause of three serious diseases -- this newest report finds that cigarette smoking is conclusively linked to diseases such as leukemia, cataracts, pneumonia and cancers of the cervix, kidney, pancreas and stomach.

      "We've known for decades that smoking is bad for your health, but this report shows that it's even worse than we knew," Dr. Richard H. Carmona said. "The toxins from cigarette smoke go everywhere the blood flows. I'm hoping this new information will help motivate people to quit smoking and convince young people not to start in the first place."

      According to the report, smoking kills an estimated 440,000 Americans each year. On average, men who smoke cut their lives short by 13.2 years, and female smokers lose 14.5 years. The economic toll exceeds $157 billion each year in the United States -- $75 billion in direct medical costs and $82 billion in lost productivity.

      "We need to cut smoking in this country and around the world," HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and disease, costing us too many lives, too many dollars and too many tears. If we are going to be serious about improving health and preventing disease we must continue to drive down tobacco use. And we must prevent our youth from taking up this dangerous habit."

      In 1964, the Surgeon Generals report announced medical research showing that smoking was a definite cause of cancers of the lung and larynx (voice box) in men and chronic bronchitis in both men and women. Later reports concluded that smoking causes a number of other diseases such as cancers of the bladder, esophagus, mouth and throat; cardiovascular diseases; and reproductive effects.

      The new report, The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General, expands the list of illness and conditions linked to smoking. The new illnesses and diseases are cataracts, pneumonia, acute myeloid leukemia, abdominal aortic aneurysm, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, cervical cancer, kidney cancer and periodontitis.

      Statistics indicate that more than 12 million Americans have died from smoking since the 1964 report of the surgeon general, and another 25 million Americans alive today will most likely die of a smoking-related illness.

      The report's release comes in advance of World No Tobacco Day, an annual event on May 31 that focuses global attention on the health hazards of tobacco use. The goals of World No Tobacco Day are to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco use, encourage people not to use tobacco, motivate users to quit and encourage countries to implement comprehensive tobacco control programs.

      The report concludes that smoking reduces the overall health of smokers, contributing to such conditions as hip fractures, complications from diabetes, increased wound infections following surgery, and a wide range of reproductive complications. For every premature death caused each year by smoking, there are at least 20 smokers living with a serious smoking-related illness.

      Another major conclusion, consistent with recent findings of other scientific studies, is that smoking so-called low-tar or low-nicotine cigarettes does not offer a heath benefit over smoking regular or "full-flavor" cigarettes.

      "There is no safe cigarette, whether it is called 'light,' ultra-light,' or any other name," Dr. Carmona said. "The science is clear: the only way to avoid the health hazards of smoking is to quit completely or to never start smoking."

      The report concludes that quitting smoking has immediate and long-term benefits, reducing risks for diseases caused by smoking and improving health in general. "Within minutes and hours after smokers inhale that last cigarette, their bodies begin a series of changes that continue for years," Dr. Carmona said. "Among these health improvements are a drop in heart rate, improved circulation, and reduced risk of heart attack, lung cancer and stroke. By quitting smoking today a smoker can assure a healthier tomorrow."

      Dr. Carmona said it is never too late to stop smoking. Quitting smoking at age 65 or older reduces by nearly 50 percent a person's risk of dying of a smoking-related disease.

      In addition to the 960-page printed report, The Health Consequences of Smoking, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a new interactive scientific database of more than 1,600 key articles cited in the report, available through the Internet ( The database can be used to find detailed information on the specific health effects of smoking as well as to develop customized analyses, tables and figures.

      The database will be continually updated as new critical studies are published, allowing the surgeon general to determine on a regular basis whether the evidence supports a new definitive conclusion about smoking-caused disease. "Using this technology, once a threshold of danger is met, we can quickly alert the American people of new information related to smoking," Dr. Carmona said.

      The report found that for a number of diseases and conditions associated with smoking, the evidence is not yet conclusive to establish a causal link. For these illnesses, which include colorectal cancer, liver cancer, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction in men, additional studies are needed to reach the threshold of evidence required by the Surgeon General's strict causal criteria to declare that they are causally related to smoking. These criteria were introduced in the 1964 report and have been updated in the 2004 report using new uniform standards.

      For breast cancer, the evidence suggests that there is no causal relationship overall to smoking. However, the report notes that on a genetic basis, some women may be at increased risk if they smoke. More research is required to clarify the role of smoking in the cause and progression of breast cancer.

      Copies of the full The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General and related materials are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office on Smoking and Health, 1-800-CDC-1311, and on the surgeon general's Web site at

      Smoking Harms Nearly Every Organ, Surgeon General Finds...

      Minnesota Facility Commingled Sex Offenders with Vulnerable Adults

      Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch today filed a lawsuit against Concordia Care Center, a Minneapolis nursing home, alleging that it jeopardized the health and safety of its vulnerable adult patients by accepting multiple convicted sex offenders to its nursing home and by condoning the presence of other deplorable conditions.

      The lawsuit alleges that Concordia, a 94-bed nursing home, accepted referrals of convicted sex offenders from Minnesota prisons in 2002, 2003 and 2004, jeopardizing the health and safety of its vulnerable adult patients. For example, the lawsuit alleges that Concordia accepted referrals of the following convicted sex offenders:

      Sex Offender W.K. W.K. is a 44-year old male sex offender who was admitted to Concordia from the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Oak Park Heights on or about February 12, 2004. W.K., a Level 2 sex offender, was on supervised release under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

      In 1997, W.K. was charged with first and second degree criminal sexual conduct against a vulnerable adult. Within days of arriving at Concordia, W.K. developed a friendship with a female resident at Concordia. After the patient learned of W.K.'s criminal sexual history, she attempted to end the friendship. W.K. began to follow the female patient and one night was found in her room, hovering over her bed. He was discharged back to the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Lino Lakes in March, 2004 due to his behavior toward the female resident.

      Sex Offender J.A. Concordia admitted J.A., a 26-year old male sex offender, to the facility on July 30, 2003. J.A. was allowed to keep his Husky dog at Concordia.

      The dog was allowed to wander without a leash into the dining room and put its mouth on the food of other residents. J.A., a Level 2 sex offender under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, has a history of pedophilia. In the fall of 2003, N.M., a 43-year old female with diagnoses including mental retardation, borderline intelligence and schizophrenia, was admitted to Concordia.

      N.M. has been observed talking in a child-like voice, crying, and carrying a doll. Less than ten days after N.M.'s admission to Concordia, J.A. was found in N.M.'s room, fondling her private parts. A few days later, N.M. was taken to the emergency room for abdominal bleeding. J.A. admitted penetrating N.M.'s vagina. Witnesses observed J.A. grabbing N.M.'s buttocks. A picture of N.M. naked from the waist down, lying on her back with her legs spread apart, was found in J.A.'s wallet. Concordia instructed an employee of the facility to destroy this evidence, but he refused to do so. Concordia management thought the relationship between J.A. and N.M. was cute and talked about buying a ring for J.A. to present to N.M.

      Sex Offender A.S. A.S. is a 54-year old male admitted to Concordia from the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault. A.S. is a convicted sex offender with a history of oral sex involving a minor. At Concordia, A.S. fondled the breasts of a female resident, D.N. Although D.N.'s psychologist stated that D.N. was unable to make informed sexual decisions, Concordia's files indicate that it treated this incident as consensual sex.

      The lawsuit alleges that Concordia failed to inform its staff, residents, their families, and others that convicted sex offenders were residing at Concordia along with vulnerable adult patients. The lawsuit alleges that Concordia misrepresents to prospective residents, family members and others, that the facility is secure, safe and provides a high standard and quality of care, while omitting the material fact that accepts replacement convicted sex offenders.

      The lawsuit alleges that Concordia management condoned the presence of other unsafe and deplorable conditions, including the presence of rats, which Concordia instructed its staff to tell residents (many of whom had dementia and other similar conditions) were bunnies. The lawsuit also alleges that Concordia falsely claimed that its staff made regular, periodic compliance rounds; that Concordia acquiesces in sexual relationships between the convicted sex offenders and vulnerable adults pursuant to a permissive sexual contact policy; that Concordia staff members were observed sleeping on the job; and that Concordia failed to adequately train and oversee its staff.

      Concordia Care Center, which is located at 1620 Oak Park Avenue North in Minneapolis, is owned and operated by Benchmark Health Care of Minneapolis, Inc.

      The lawsuit was filed in Hennepin County District Court. It alleges violations of consumer protection laws preventing deceptive trade practices, false advertising and consumer fraud; Medicaid fraud; violation of the patients' bill of rights; and deceptive acts perpetrated against senior citizens and handicapped persons. The lawsuit seeks an injunction, civil penalties and other appropriate relief.

      Minnesota Facility Commingled Sex Offenders with Vulnerable Adults...

      Scam Artists Target Medicare Drug Cards

      May 24, 2004

      The Medicare drug discount cards have been fertile ground for scam artists around the country. The Illinois attorney general's office is investigating 13 complaints related to the new cards. Nine involved telemarketers looting up to $299 out of the bank accounts of seniors, who were tricked into thinking they bought legitimate Medicare-approved drug cards.

      The Massachusetts attorney general's office issued a warning after receiving complaints about a company that sent solicitations crafted to look like an official government mailer - it could fool people into believing the company was selling a Medicare-approved drug-discount plan.

      Medicare-approved card sponsors:
    • Aetna Health Management LLC;
    • Caremark Advantage, Inc.;
    • Catalyst Rx;
    • Medco Health Solutions Inc.;
    • PMB Plus Inc.;
    • PharmaCare Management Services Inc.;
    • Pharmacy Care Alliance Inc.;
    • Scrip Solutions LLC;
    • SXC Health Solutions Inc.;
    • United Healthcare Insurance Co. (with AARP);
    • WellPoint Pharmacy Management;
    • Express Scripts Inc.;
    • Argus Health Systems Inc.;
    • Computer Sciences Corp.;
    • WHP Health Initiatives Inc.;
    • AdvancePCS Health LP;
    • First Health Services Corp.; and
    • Long Term Care Pharmacy Alliance LLC.
    • "Anytime there is a new government program, unfortunately there are those out there who will try to take advantage of people," said Mark McClellan, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which along with the Office of Inspector General recently issued a warning cautioning people to be careful if they are approached to buy a drug-discount card.

      Reported cases of possible fraud have come from Medicare beneficiaries around the country, McClellan said.

      "We haven't seen large-scale fraud yet, but we've seen enough to make us want to make sure Medicare beneficiaries are protected," McClellan said.

      California Attorney General Bill Lockyer warned seniors to be on guard against fraudulent solicitations. Deceptive sales practices already have occurred in other states. Seniors should especially be careful about buying cards from non-Medicare-approved companies, said Lockyer, and about giving out personal identification information. He added consumers should never provide solicitors their bank account numbers or passwords.

      To avoid costly errors:

      • Don't give out any personal or financial information over the phone or face-to-face. Medicare-affiliated discount card providers will not solicit business by going door-to-door or by making phone calls.
      • Don't pay large sums of money up front. Medicare discount drug cards don't cost more than $30 a year.
      • Legitimate Medicare cards will have the official Medicare seal on them.
      • Don't rush into choosing a plan. The Medicare discount drug card is a voluntary program and benefits can be taken advantage of at any time after June 1.

      Card sponsors can advertise their cards on television, radio, in newspapers and via direct mail. But they can't make cold calls or send representatives door to door.

      If you're a Medicare beneficiary, you should not be getting a call out of the blue from a card sponsor unless you requested information based on an ad you saw or direct mail you received.

      For help in determining which cards are approved by Medicare, or if you need help selecting the most cost-effective card, go to or call the agency toll-free at (800) 633-4227.

      Scam Artists Target Medicare Drug Cards...

      Florida Court Orders AT&T; Refunds

      Stops AT&T "dead in its tracks," attorney general claims

      A Florida court has ordered AT&T to refund wrongful charges to Florida consumers no later than June 15. The long-distance company also faces legal action in Minnesota and it is named in a California class-action lawsuit.

      "This order will stop AT&T; dead in its tracks. This is a great victory for the people of Florida and only round one in our fight with AT&T;," said Attorney General Charlie Crist. "We will be relentless and unyielding in our fight against AT&T; on behalf of consumers until all appropriate damages are recovered. If AT&T; violates this court order, the company could be held in contempt of court."

      AT&T; attributes the improper billing to a computer problem that has affected about one million customers nationally, many of whom are not current customers of AT&T.;

      Under the interim stipulation, AT&T; must:

      • Cease and desist any wrongful billing practices;
      • Refund all wrongfully billed Floridians for monthly recurring long-distance and associated charges no later than June 15;
      • Refrain from pitching services when consumers call about billing issues unless information about additional services is specifically requested.

      Although this court-ordered interim stipulation does not resolve any of the allegations of unfair and deceptive business practices set forth in the original complaint by the Attorney General, it does provide immediate relief to Florida consumers who were wrongfully charged.

      AT&T; must address all billing inquiries and complaints in an expeditious fashion and provide written confirmation to the Attorney General's Office of credits and refunds made to consumers by June 15.

      According to the order issued by Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, AT&T; must process these refunds based on the company's internal records so that consumers do not have to call to request refunds. If, however, after June 15th Florida consumers believe they are still being improperly billed or unfairly coerced into additional services when calling AT&T; to request refunds, they should notify the Attorney General's Office immediately at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM (1-866-966-7226).

      A Florida court has ordered AT&T to refund wrongful charges to Florida consumers no later than June 15. AT&T also faces legal action in Minnesota and Calif...

      Medicare Boosts HMO Payments

      Critics lost no time attacking the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' newly announced Medicare Advantage (formerly Medicare + Choice) payment rates for 2005.

      "The Medicare Rights Center's analysis shows that the Administration is on track to subsidize private insurance companies with $83 billion in overpayments over the next ten years. The $83 billion is the excess payments above what it would cost Original Medicare to provide coverage to the same targeted populations," said Robert Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

      Medicare managed care plans will receive a 6.6% increase in payments in 2005 -- an additional $1.3 billion in payments over two years, when coupled with the 10.3% increase in 2004. An April report by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission revealed that the government was paying 7% more to Medicare managed care plans than costs for treating beneficiaries in traditional Medicare. In some cases, payments exceeded traditional Medicare expenses by more than 20%.

      "Medicare Advantage offers more comprehensive benefits at a lower cost for Medicare beneficiaries, leading to lower costs for our health care system," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said.

      "It's no wonder that millions of beneficiaries, particularly those with limited means and no access to subsidized Medigap coverage, depend on these plans. They struggle the most to pay for their medical needs, and they need our help in getting reliable, affordable health care options now more than ever," Thompson said.

      But critics said the higher rates accomplish nothing more than increasing insurance companies' profits.

      "It is senseless to continue extravagant over-payments to the for-profit insurance industry. It is absurd to defend these overpayments on the ground that private plans are more cost-effective than Original Medicare," Hayes said.

      "Seniors worry how to pay for their drugs, while HMOs continue to reap financial rewards," said Ruben Burks, secretary-treasurer of the Alliance for Retired Americans. "Increasing payments to HMOs to lure seniors will undermine traditional Medicare. This shameless corporate giveaway comes at the expense of America's seniors and they deserve better."

      Only 10% of Medicare's 41 million beneficiaries are enrolled in managed care plans. But Medicare officials hope the increased payments will encourage Medicare's managed care plans to maintain and expand their services, particularly since the 2003 Medicare prescription drug legislation requires a larger role for private insurance companies in Medicare.

      "The new funding is expected to help ensure that Medicare beneficiaries who count on Medicare Advantage plans will have reliable access to the additional benefits and significantly lower out-of-pocket costs typically provided by these plans," CMS said in releasing the payment rates.

      CMS also issued a report showing the impact of Medicare Advantage plans in Medicare and the plans impact on Medicare beneficiaries. The report claims that beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage spend, on average, 34 percent less than beneficiaries in traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

      Medicare Boosts HMO Payments...

      Minnesota Sues AT&T

      Charged customers for calls they didn't make, state alleges

      Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch has sued AT&T, alleging that the company violated Minnesota consumer protection laws by charging thousands of Minnesotans for long distance calling plans and related charges that were never ordered.

      The Attorney General's lawsuit echoes a class action filed last month in California.

      Hatch said he received complaints from consumers throughout Minnesota about erroneous AT&T; long distance charges appearing on their local telephone bills. The investigation revealed that an estimated 16,675 Minnesotans who are not AT&T; customers were assessed long distance calling plan charges by the company.

      The erroneous telephone charges apparently began in January 2004, when AT&T; started assessing a $3.95 monthly recurring charge to its long distance Basic Rate Plan customers. However, the $3.95 monthly recurring charge was assessed not only to AT&T; customers on its Basic Rate Plan, but also to consumers who did not obtain services from AT&T;, or who had other AT&T; calling plans.

      Attorney General Hatch says that AT&T;'s billing problems are only part of the story.

      AT&T; claims they made a mistake. Yet, when consumers called AT&T; seeking a refund, they were not helped, said Attorney General Hatch. Instead, they were placed on hold for extensive periods of time and then transferred to customer service representatives who tried to hard-sell them AT&T; services. Some consumers were even told they had to sign up with AT&T; to get their money back.

      Another problem is that AT&T; states they have credited consumer's accounts for the charges, said Hatch. In fact, our office is still receiving complaints from consumers who state they have not received their credit.

      The lawsuit seeks to stop AT&T; from wrongfully billing consumers for unsolicited services and from coercively marketing its services to consumers who call to contest or inquire about the charges. It also seeks an injunction, consumer restitution and civil penalties.

      Consumers should carefully check their telephone bills to make sure they are not paying for services they did not order. Because the amount in question is relatively small, consumers may not notice any added charges. In addition, many consumers also use automatic bill pay arrangements with their local telephone company so that the local telephone company deducts payment for charges automatically from their checking accounts. In this case, consumers should still carefully review their billing statement that comes in the mail for accuracy.

      AT&T is being sued for allegedly violating Minnesota's consumer protection laws by charging thousands of Minnesotans for unwanted long distance calling pla...

      Minnesota Sues Bernard Haldane

      May 18, 2004
      Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch has sued Bernard Haldane for misrepresenting the services it provides to job seekers, to whom it charges $5,000 to $16,000.

      Bernard Haldane represents to job seekers that it has exclusive access to a hidden job market with thousands of employment opportunities not available to the general public; that its fees are based on a purported market analysis and will likely be reimbursed by the hiring company; and that consumers who use its services obtain a job within 90 to 120 days.

      The lawsuit alleges that these representations, and others, are false, deceptive, and misleading.

      In a time where a high number of people are looking for employment and family budgets are tight, Bernard Haldane took consumer's money and their trust, said Solicitor General Lori Swanson.

      Our lawsuit hopes to help stop other consumers from being deceived by the misleading claims of this company and to help recover money for people who were taken advantage of by its promises.

      Over 1,000 Minnesota consumers paid Bernard Haldane between $5,000 and $16,000 for its purported career counseling program during the past two years, totaling millions of dollars. The lawsuit also names as a defendant Barry Layne, the president of Bernard Haldane.

      Illinois filed a similar suit against Haldane last October.

      The lawsuit cites the experience of two former Haldane clients.

      Susan Zimmerman-Rowe said she was promised exclusive access to employment opportunities and a large starting salary. Instead, I got a website address with old listings, a videotape of interviewing techniques, an outline to create my own resume with little guidance from Haldane, a couple of hours of false promises from a Haldane counselor,' and no response when I requested a refund of the unused portion of the exorbitant fee I paid to Haldane, said Ms. Rowe.

      There was a real disconnect between Haldane's representations about their database of jobs and the reality that I basically had to generate my own leads. I didn't pay Haldane nearly $14,000 to tell me to go around contacting my past business associates begging for a job, said former client Don Egan.

      The suit also charges that Bernard Haldane misrepresents its exclusivity. The company says it only works with a limited number of people. If a consumer did not earn at least $45,000 per year and have five years of experience, Bernard Haldane represents that the consumer would not be allowed to meet with a sales representative or be eligible for its purported services.

      In a further attempt to appear exclusive, Bernard Haldane states that it gets five hundred calls and resumes a week, but only works with ten people. In reality, Bernard Haldane's training materials indicate that it will accept anyone who has $5,000 to pay its fee, regardless of past work experience or whether the individual made less than $45,000 a year.

      Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch has sued Bernard Haldane for misrepresenting the services it provides to job seekers, to whom it charges $5,000 to $1...

      Cell Phones Blamed in Recent Fires

      Two recent fires at service stations may have been caused by cell phones

      Consumers often scoff at warnings that their cell phones may ignite fumes from gasoline pumps but two recent incidents lend credibility to the warnings.

      In New Paltz, NY, police say a student was burned when his cell phone started a fire at a Mobil station. Chief Patrick Koch of the New Paltz Fire Dept. said the 21-year-old student was filling up his car when his phone rang.

      When he answered the phone, a large flash occurred at the nozzle of the pump and started the fire. Fortunately, an employee quickly cut the gas supply, preventing the blaze from getting out of control.

      Chief Koch said he no longer has any doubt that cell phones can ignite gas fumes: "I'm positive today, that as of last night, 9:30 last night, I'm positive that a cell phone can ignite."

      And in Texas two weeks ago, three oil workers were seriously injured in a flash fire at an oil well site. A spokesman for the Gregg County Sheriff's Office said a cell phone was suspected of causing the fire. The three workers were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital Burn Center in Dallas.

      Capt. Ken Hartley of the Gregg County Sheriff's Office said that investigators believe that a cell phone sparked the blaze, either by ringing or by causing a static electricity discharge when the ringing phone was touched by one of the workers.

      Specially-designed "non-ignitable" cell phones are normally used in areas where flammable gases can accumulate. It's not known what kind of phone the workers may have been using.

      Reader Response

      Gary of Costa Mesa CA writes (6/18/04):
      As a highly trained and learned scientist (chemist) I have always doubted this assertion. The Discovery Channel recently ran an episode of Mythbusters in which this theory (and it's only a theory) was put to the test and was found untenable: a cell phone alone cannot initiate a fire in the presence of a flammable mixture of gasoline vapor and air.

      The Mythbusters' conclusion was that static discharge from person to car was the most likely initiator of any such fires reported. I know for a fact that a hydrocarbon such as n-hexane is extremely ignitable by static discharge; even pouring it from one container to another can generate enough static potential and a subsequent discharge, causing a fire (because of this, its use in industrial settings is highly restricted). The researchers' conclusions come as no surprise to me.

      It is most important to present ALL theories on these gasoline fires and to include a warning that consumers should touch a metal part of their car (e.g., the door) before they touch the gasoline nozzle, besides not using their cell phones while getting gassed up.

      Our response:

      The two cases we reported on were investigated by local fire and law enforcement officials. There are not urban legends; they are incidents that occurred and were documented. In both cases, it was thought that the cell phones' ringing was related to the explosion. If you have ever chanced to be holding a cell phone when it rings, you may have noticed an occasional static charge and perhaps even a spark arcing from the phone to your clothing or other nearby object.

      As you may know, there are in fact "safe" cellphones that are made for use in areas where flammable materials are presented -- refineries and the like. The reason for this is the possibility of static discharge when the phone rings.

      If you have ever worked around areas with intense levels of radio frequency, you may also have observed a high degree of static discharge. This is very common at the transmitter sites of radio and televison broadcast outlets, for example. You don't have to be a learned scientist to know that RF energy can contribute to static discharge.

      Your advice about discharging oneself is excellent.

      Consumers often scoff at warnings that their cell phones may ignite fumes from gasoline pumps but two recent incidents lend credibility to the warnings....

      "Balance Bracelet" Claims Challenged

      FTC charges company with making false and unsubstantiated claims.

      The Federal Trade Commission has charged California-based marketers of the Balance Bracelet, a purported pain relief product, with making false and unsubstantiated claims.

      In its complaint filed in federal district court in Los Angeles, the FTC alleges that Media Maverick, Inc. of San Luis Obispo violated the FTC Act by deceptively claiming that the Balance Bracelet is a fast-acting, effective treatment for many types of pain.

      According to the FTC, clinical testing has found that ionized bracelets, such as the Balance Bracelet, are no more effective at relieving muscular and joint pain than placebo (non-ionized) bracelets. The FTC is seeking permanent injunctive relief, including redress to consumers who purchased the Balance Bracelet.

      The Balance Bracelet is a C-shaped metal bracelet that is allegedly electro-polarized by an undisclosed process. The defendants promoted the bracelet through nationally disseminated 30-minute infomercials and on the Internet at Their advertisements allegedly claimed that the Balance Bracelet relieves arthritis pain, joint pain, back pain, and injury-related pain, among other things.

      The defendants advertisements also allegedly claimed that pain is caused by excess static electricity in the body, which purportedly comes from an imbalance of positive and negative energy, and that the Balance Bracelet returns the body to its natural ionic balance. The Balance Bracelet sells for $79.90, plus shipping and handling.

      In May 2003, the FTC charged the marketers of a similar product, the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet, with making false and unsubstantiated pain-relief claims as well as failing to honor their advertised money-back guarantee. The defendants in the Q-Ray case entered into a stipulated preliminary injunction halting the pain-relief claims for the product. That case currently is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

      The Federal Trade Commission has charged California-based marketers of the Balance Bracelet, a purported pain relief product, with making false and unsubst...

      Passport Strollers Sold at Babies R Us

      Baby Trend, Inc. is recalling more than 11,000 "Passport" baby strollers. The fold joint on the strollers can collapse unexpectedly, causing the baby to fall.

      Baby Trend has received four reports from consumers of the stroller collapsing. No injuries have been reported.

      These Baby Trend strollers have the word 'Passport' written on both sides of the canopy. Only 'Passport' strollers with Model Number 1514, SKN number 190554 and manufacturing dates between July 10, 2003 and November 26, 2003 are being recalled. This information is printed on the lower frame of 'Passport' strollers behind the seat.

      The strolles were sold by Babies 'R' Us nationwide from July 2003 through February 2004 for about $29.

      Consumers should stop using the stroller and contact Baby Trends, Inc. immediately. Baby Trend will ask the consumer to send a cut-out section of the seat with restraint strap attached. Baby Trend will send the consumer a new replacement stroller.

      Consumer Contact: Call Baby Trend toll-free at (800) 328-7363 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit Baby Trend Web site at

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

      Passport Strollers Sold at Babies R Us...

      Debt Collection Agency Fined $1.5 Million

      NCO Group violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act , FTC charged

      One of the nations largest debt-collection firms will pay $1.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by reporting inaccurate information about consumer accounts to credit bureaus.

      The civil penalty against Pennsylvania-based NCO Group, Inc. is the largest civil penalty ever obtained in a FCRA case.

      According to the FTCs complaint, NCO Group and affiliated companies violated the FCRA, which specifies that any entity that reports information to credit bureaus about a delinquent consumer account that has been placed for collection or written off must report the actual month and year the account first became delinquent.

      In turn, this date is used by the credit bureaus to measure the maximum seven-year reporting period the FCRA mandates. The provision helps ensure that outdated debts debts that are beyond this seven-year reporting period do not appear on a consumers credit report. Violations of this provision of the FCRA are subject to civil penalties of $2,500 per violation.

      The FTC charges that NCO reported accounts using later-than-actual delinquency dates. Reporting later-than-actual dates may cause negative information to remain in a consumers credit file beyond the seven-year reporting period permitted by the FCRA for most information. When this occurs, consumers credit scores may be lowered, possibly resulting in their rejection for credit or their having to pay a higher interest rate.

      The proposed consent decree orders the defendants to pay civil penalties of $1.5 million and permanently bars them from reporting later-than-actual delinquency dates to credit bureaus in the future. Additionally, NCO is required to implement a program to monitor all complaints received to ensure that reporting errors are corrected quickly. The consent agreement also contains standard recordkeeping and other requirements to assist the FTC in monitoring the defendants compliance.

      One of the nations largest debt-collection firms will pay $1.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the Fair Credit Reportin...

      Hybrids Don't Always Deliver on Low-Mileage Promise

      May 12, 2004
      Purchasers of hybrid cars are learning a bitter lesson -- those sky-high mileage estimates contain a lot of blue sky. Instead of getting 45 or more miles per gallon in city driving, many hybrid drivers say they're lucky to get better than 30 mpg.

      While Toyota Prius and Honda Insight owners understandably blame the manufacturer for overstating mileage claims, experts say the blame really lies with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its 19-year-old fuel efficiency test.

      Consumer Reports has found that hybrid cars get less than 60 percent of EPA estimates while navigating city streets -- the Civic Hybrid averaging 26 mpg in the city, the Toyota Prius 35 mpg, much less than their respective EPA estimates of 47 and 60 mpg. Highway mileage is typically closer to EPA estimates.

      A big part of the problem is that the 19-year-old EPA tests use vehicle emissions to derive an estimated fuel-efficiency rating. Since the hybrids produce very low emissions, the test doesn't measure their real-world fuel consumption accurately.

      Turbodiesels, now quite popular in Europe, may be a better answer for those seeking better mileage, although very few models are currently available in the U.S. and diesel fuel can be hard to find and expensive.

      The most gas efficient fuel-only car on the U.S. market today is the VW Jetta Diesel Turbo. It gets 45 miles to the gallon, but consumers in California and four other states can't buy it yet because it doesn't meet clean-air requirements for particulate emissions.

      That may change within the next few years, however. Diesel fuel sold in the U.S. will be required to have a lower sulfur content and thus burn "cleaner" beginning in 2006.

      Turbodiesels have a huge market share in most of Europe. Nearly one-third of the cars sold in the U.K. are diesel. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Peugeot, Citroen, Alfa Romeo, Volkswagen and all other major brands feature diesels in nearly every model segment.

      Hybrids Don't Always Deliver on Low-Mileage Promise...

      New York Closes

      Online home furnishing business was recently held in contempt for its persistent consumer fraud

      New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has obtained a court order shutting down the web site of an online home furnishing business recently held in contempt for its persistent consumer fraud.

      New York State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns of Erie County issued the order against, Inc., also known as, which is effective immediately.

      BeaverHome sold hardwood flooring over the Internet and accepted advance payments from consumers across the nation but failed to provide any merchandise in return. BeaverHome is owned and operated by Neal Martin and his son, Cole Martin.

      "This case demonstrates that my office will not tolerate Internet scams," Spitzer said. "Even if the perpetrators leave New York, we will pursue them and enforce court orders to protect consumers."

      After receiving numerous consumer complaints, Spitzer's office in July 2002 sued BeaverHome which then was located in Niagara Falls, New York. Pursuant to a court order, BeaverHome agreed to pay restitution to consumers and reform its business practices. Shortly after reaching the settlement, BeaverHome moved to Georgia and began violating the court order.

      Although the Attorney General's office was successful in obtaining $269,000 in restitution for consumers, BeaverHome did not make all the court ordered restitution payments. Also, consumers from across the country continued to complain to the Attorney General's office that BeaverHome was taking payments but not providing the flooring.

      In response to a motion filed by Spitzer's office, on April 7, 2004, Justice Burns found BeaverHome and Neal and Cole Martin in civil contempt of court. Justice Burns ordered that BeaverHome pay a fine of $285,000 and post to its web site a notice that it was not permitted to accept advance payments from consumers. Justice Burns also issued warrants of commitment for Neal and Cole Martin should they re-enter New York State until they come into compliance with court orders.

      When BeaverHome failed to pay the fine or post the notice to its web site, Spitzer's office made a motion to shut down BeaverHome's website. Justice Burns signed the order on May 4 and the website was closed down by its California-based host pending further order of the court.

      Individuals wishing to file a complaint against BeaverHome can do so by obtaining a complaint form on the Attorney General's website at or by calling the consumer help line at (800) 771-7755. Out-of-state consumers can contact the office at (716) 853-8400.

      NY Attorney General Spitzer has obtained a court order shutting down the web site of an online home furnishing business recently held in contempt for its p...

      Integrated Credit Solutions Settles Massachusetts Charges

      Consumers to get refunds of $200 to $500

      Massachusetts consumers who paid upfront fees to a Florida-based telemarketer for a referral to a credit counseling agency will receive a refund of between $200 and $500, under the terms of a settlement announced by Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly.

      The U.S. District Court settlement stems from a December 2002 lawsuit alleging that sales representatives from Integrated Credit Solutions, Inc., of Fargo, Florida, gave false and misleading information about benefits and savings to lure consumers into purchasing credit counseling services.

      Reilly's settlement requires ICS to pay more than $600,000 in restitution to an estimated 2,600 Massachusetts consumers who purchased credit counseling services through ICS in alleged violation of both state consumer laws and federal telemarketing laws.

      "This case illustrates how important it is for consumers to shop around and ask questions before signing on with a credit counseling agency," Reilly said. "I urge consumers to carefully weigh the pros and cons before enlisting the services of an agency that may just add to their financial woes."

      In 2001 and early 2002, ICS sent tens of thousands of pre-recorded messages to answering machines in the Commonwealth, promising lower interest rates and substantial savings for consumers with credit card debt. ICS telemarketers claimed that consumers would save significant amounts of money by using the help of a credit counselor, AG Reilly alleged in his original complaint. Those promised savings, however, were significantly diminished after monthly charges of $35 or more and an upfront "enrollment" fee of between $200 and $500 per consumer.

      Under the terms of the settlement, ICS will pay $400,000 to AG Reilly's Office to refund an estimated 2,000 Massachusetts consumers who paid ICS to enroll in credit counseling services and have since ended their dealings with the agency.

      For those consumers still enrolled in credit counseling, ICS will directly return the upfront fee when consumers terminate services or finish their debt management program. Those refunds paid directly by ICS are expected to provide at least an additional $200,000 or more in restitution to Massachusetts consumers. ICS will also pay a $50,000 civil penalty to the Commonwealth, bringing the total dollar value of the settlement to more than $650,000.

      ICS is now prohibited from collecting upfront fees from consumers and from using pre-recorded messages that solicit any money payable to ICS. AG Reilly alleged earlier that the for-profit company used pre-recorded messages to solicit money for itself in violation of the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which prohibits commercial use of pre-recorded messages. ICS moved to dismiss the Commonwealth's TCPA claim, contending that it was sheltered by the non-profit exemption. That motion was denied by Judge Joseph L. Tauro, the first such ruling addressing a governmental claim that a for-profit company was abusing the non-profit exemption to federal telemarketing laws. The settlement followed.

      ICS is a subsidiary of Flagship Capital Services Corp., which is also based in Florida and named in the 2002 complaint. ICS solicited clients for non-profit credit counselors, including Lighthouse Credit Foundation (LCF), a non-profit Florida-based corporation established in 2000 by a former Flagship executive.

      Massachusetts consumers who contracted credit counseling services through ICS should direct questions or inquire about eligibility with AG Reilly's Consumer Protection Hotline at (617) 727-8400.

      Integrated Credit Solutions Settles Massachusetts Charges...

      Falls Brand Wieners Recalled for Undercooking

      May 7, 2004
      Independent Meat Co., a Twin Falls, Idaho, firm, is voluntarily recalling approximately 12,000 pounds of hot dogs for undercooking, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

      The products being recalled are:

      • One-pound packages of "Falls Brand Old Fashioned Recipe Beef Wieners." Each label bears the establishment code "226" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each package bears a "sell by" date of July 4. The one pound packages are shipped 24 to a case bearing the code "64615."
      • Two-pound packages of "Falls Brand Old Fashioned Recipe Beef Wieners, TWIN PACK, 2 Sealed Inner Packages." Each label bears the establishment code "226" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each package bears a "sell by" date of July 4. The two-pound packages are shipped 12 to a case bearing the code "64625."

      The hot dogs were produced on April 20 and distributed to retail stores in Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California and Wyoming.

      The undercooking was discovered by the establishment, based upon results of a third-party laboratory. The establishment notified FSIS inspection program personnel upon receiving the results of the laboratory analyses. FSIS has received no reports of injury from consumption of the product.

      Media with questions about the recall may contact Patrick Florence, company CEO, at 208-358-0980. Consumers with questions can call Jeanne Bjornn, company HACCP coordinator, at 208-733-0980.

      Consumers with food safety questions can phone the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at l-888-674-6854. The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

      Falls Brand Wieners Recalled for Undercooking...

      Study Finds Health Care Substandard

      Patients in the United States are receiving substandard health care about half of the time, according to a recent RAND study in the journal Health Affairs. The researchers define substandard care as lack of preventive care or wrong or unnecessary care, including tests.

      The study was based on medical records of almost 7,000 people in 12 metropolitan areas. Researchers concluded:

      • Based upon treatment of 30 of the top chronic and acute conditions, patients received substandard care about 50 to 60 percent of the time.
      • Care for high blood pressure was ranked among the best, while care for diabetes ranked among the lowest.
      • Researchers also discovered that the causes were most likely to be inadequate record keeping, cultural bias toward expensive technology, and a system that rewards intervention instead of prevention.

      Some states are already taking steps to provide improved health care. Medical groups and hospitals in Minnesota, for example, are developing standard practice guidelines which will apply to all of the state's public health plans. In New York, increased monitoring and public reporting of deaths resulting from heart bypass surgery has helped to decrease death rates from the procedure.

      Patients in the United States are receiving substandard health care about half of the time, according to a recent RAND study in the journal Health Affairs....