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    Texas Halts Foreclosure Rescue Scam

    Houston woman exploited distressed homeowners, state charges

    Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has won a temporary restraining order and asset freeze that stops a Houston woman from unlawfully exploiting distressed homeowners, some of them elderly, who face imminent foreclosure and eviction.

    The action cites Bobbie Heckard with fraudulently taking possession of the home of an 85-year-old Houston man under the guise of helping the homeowner prevent foreclosure. The man allegedly was led to believe he was only allowing Heckard to consult with his mortgage company, but in fact the transaction allowed her to take ownership of his home.

    "This is an alarming trend we are beginning to see in Texas, and I caution every homeowner to be wary of solicitations for foreclosure relief," said Abbott. "I will take every legal means to see that those who unlawfully strip homeowners of their right to own a home are brought to justice and these consumers property restored."

    The Attorney General acted after learning of this unfolding real estate deception. The order also challenges Heckards associate, Christopher Henderson, to whom she quickly transferred ownership of the property after the Attorney Generals office contacted her about its investigation. Henderson promptly established a $67,000 mortgage on the property fraudulently transferred to him from Heckard.

    Heckards scheme is designed to lure homeowners into transactions they would never consider if they knew the consequences. Heckard obtains a list of homes facing foreclosure, then tries to convince the homeowners that she offers foreclosure rescue services and will correspond with mortgage companies to resolve the problems.

    She then persuades homeowners to sign forms allegedly authorizing her to contact the mortgage companies on their behalf. In fact, the forms the homeowners sign are deeds transferring ownership in the homes to Heckard. Once Heckard obtains title to the property, she sells it, pockets the equity and threatens to evict the original homeowner.

    Abbotts lawsuit asks the court to force the defendants to relinquish all monetary gains derived from these transactions, return this money to all victims and restore their property to them. The suit also seeks a civil penalty of $250,000 if the court finds that the practices were calculated to exploit a person over age 65, plus $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

    Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has won a temporary restraining order and asset freeze that stops a Houston woman from unlawfully exploiting distressed ...
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    NHTSA Proposes New Child Safety Seat Rules

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new requirements for child safety seat manufacturers that choose to make booster seats for older and heavier children.

    The new proposal requires these manufacturers to build seats capable of protecting children up to 10 years old and weighing up to 80 pounds from death or serious injury in 30 mile-per-hour crashes.

    Also, under the proposal NHTSA would use a new, fully instrumented dummy simulating an 80-pound, 10 year-old child to make sure seats meet the proposed new requirements.

    Currently, NHTSA tests booster seats rated to accommodate children weighing a maximum of 65 pounds.

    "Americas kids come in all shapes and sizes, and car crashes are the leading killers of children in this country," said Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D., Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We need to make sure that child safety seats and booster seats protect our kids no matter how large or how small they are."

    The proposal is part of the agencys effort to comply Antons law, which required NHTSA to expand the scope of federal standards governing child safety seats, including booster seats.

    The law was named after Anton Skeen, a four-year boy who was ejected and killed in a car crash in Oregon in 1996.

    NHTSA Proposes New Child Safety Seat Rules...
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      Judge Refuses to Gag Trudeau Critics

      Trudeau's self-published book might not be scientifically impeccable but it is setting sales records

      A federal judge has refused to block the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) from asking television stations to withdraw misleading infomercials that promote the book, 'Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About.'

      Judge Gary Sharpe ruled that the CPB had given Kevin Trudeau the three days' notice Trudeau's attorneys had requested before the CPB contacts television stations about Trudeau's advertising.

      Trudeau's self-published book might not be scientifically impeccable but it is setting sales records. In the last three weeks, it's been second only to the latest Harry Potter novel. The 570-page collection of Trudeau's ruminations on natural cures is solidly in the #2 spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

      'We're pleased with the judge's decision and soon we will contact television and cable stations informing them of our belief that these infomercials are misleading and the book does not contain the cures that are claimed in these advertisements,' said Teresa A. Santiago, Chairman and Executive Director of the CPB.

      'Shamefully, Mr. Trudeau has been preying on the hopes and fears of people with serious illnesses,' said Santiago.

      Because the CPB has already given Trudeau at least three days' notice, Judge Sharpe said a temporary restraining order is not necessary.

      Judge Sharpe also said that this was his first ruling in the case. He noted that Trudeau had issued a press release on Aug. 18 that claimed that Judge Sharpe had issued a restraining order against the CPB. No such order was issued, Judge Sharpe said.

      Judge Refuses to Gag Trudeau Critics...
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      Gasoline Prices Spur Talk of Regulation and Price Controls

      Ever-rising gasoline prices have politicians thinking and talking about whether gas prices should be regulated

      Ever-rising gasoline prices have politicians thinking and talking about whether gas prices should be regulated.

      The Public Utilities Commission in Hawaii has imposed a cap on the price of gasoline, the first state in the nation to do so.

      The debate over possible regulation has come up in five other states. Politicians in Michigan, Oregon, California, New York and Connecticut have publicly debated and talked about price regulation.

      Many economists warn that prices caps and regulations could actually send gas prices higher.

      Federal investigations claim to a have pored over oil industry documents and transactions in search of illegal behavior. So far they have been unable to find any evidence of price fixing.

      The Service Station Dealers of America complain that wholesalers are limiting competition and thus pushing prices higher. They contend that gasoline is a commodity many consumers depend upon and as such ought to be regulated.

      The American Petroleum Institute, on the other hand, says regulating prices would be a disaster. API represents the oil and natural gas industry.

      The U.S. embraced price regulations following the 1972 Arab Oil Embargo. President Richard Nixon ordered the controls for on oil and gasoline that remained in force until 1981. The price controls were blamed for volatile prices, shortages and long lines at gas pumps.

      With gasoline prices now approaching historic record levels, the debate is beginning anew. The previous record high for gasoline occurred in 1981 when gas prices are adjusted for inflation.

      Gasoline Prices Spur Talk of Regulation and Price Controls...
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      Coffee A Health Drink?

      Perky Industry-Funded Research Says So; Others Not So Sure

      Could your daily coffee fix actually be doing you some good? A study funded by the cocoa industry suggests it might, showing that the beverage is a significant source of antioxidants, which can protect the body from cancer.

      The research, funded by the American Cocoa Research Institute, says coffee drinkers appear to have higher levels of antioxidants than those who dont drink the beverage. The findings were presented as a weekend conference of the American Chemical Society in Washington, DC.

      Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the findings were not surprising, but she cautioned that there's more to health than antioxidants. Most experts are looking beyond antioxidants to the combination of vitamins, minerals other nutrition in specific foods, she said.

      Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source. Nothing else comes close, said study leader Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton.

      Both caffeinated and decaf versions appear to provide similar antioxidant levels, he added.

      Study authors caution that their findings dont prove that drinking coffee is good for you, since they didnt make a determination about how many of the antioxidants from coffee are actually absorbed by the body. Researcher Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton also cautioned that coffee should be consumed in moderation. He said it is important to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, which are also good sources of antioxidants.

      Unfortunately, consumers are still not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are better for you from an overall nutritional point of view to their higher content of vitamins, minerals and fiber," he said.

      Antioxidants help the body ward off harmful free radicals, which can damage cells and DNA. Studies have shown them to have a number of other health benefits, including protection against heart disease.

      Vinson and his associates analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food items, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, oils and common beverages. The data was compared to an existing U.S. Department of Agriculture database on the contribution of each type of food item to the average estimated U.S. per capita consumption.

      Coffee came out on top, on the combined basis of both antioxidants per serving size and frequency of consumption, Vinson said. Java easily outranked such popular antioxidant sources as tea, milk, chocolate and cranberries, he says.

      Of all the foods and beverages studied, dates actually have the most antioxidants of all based solely on serving size, according to Vinson. But dates are not consumed at anywhere near the level of coffee.

      Coffee has been linked to an increasing number of potential health benefits, including protection against liver and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinsons disease, according to some recently published studies.

      In February, a team of Japanese researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that people who drank coffee daily, or nearly every day, had half the liver cancer risk of those who never drank it. The protective effect occurred in people who drank one to two cups a day and increased at three to four cups.

      Last year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that drinking coffee cut the risk of developing the most common form of diabetes.

      But theres also a downside: Java can make you jittery and cause stomach pains, while some studies have tied it to elevated blood pressure and heart rates. More research is needed, particularly human studies, to firmly establish its health benefits, Vinson said.

      While the findings would seem to encourage people to go out and drink more coffee, Vinson emphasizes moderation. One to two cups a day appear to be beneficial, he says. If you dont like coffee, consider drinking black tea, which is the second most consumed antioxidant source in the U.S. diet, Vinson said.

      Bananas, dry beans and corn placed third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

      Coffee A Health Drink?...
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      Judge Orders Ohio Travel Agencies To Pay Up

      Consumers left stranded by a pair of Columbus, Ohio, travel agencies may not be going anywhere but they'll have some walking-around money

      Consumers left stranded by a pair of Columbus, Ohio, travel agencies may not be going anywhere but they'll have some walking-around money.

      Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge John Connor has ordered Morena Tours Inc., Victoria Travel Inc. and their owners to pay civil penalties totaling $450,000, provide nearly $40,000 in reimbursement or restitution to their victims and cover court costs.

      Businesses have an obligation to deliver promised goods and services to consumers, Attorney General Jim Petro said. That didnt happen in this case, leaving some victims trapped out of town without a ticket home and others at home with ruined vacation plans and empty wallets.

      Specifically, the judge ordered the defendants to pay a $25,000 civil penalty for each violation of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (CSPA). That means Morena and its principal owner, Meibe C.S. Villumsen, must pay $125,000 each in civil penalties. Victoria and its principal owner, Jens Villumsen, owe $100,000 each.

      The defendants failed to show at a July 15 damages hearing, at which several of the victims testified about the nature and extent of their losses. At that hearing and in his filings with the court, Petro proved the travel companies and their owners violated the CSPA by charging consumers credit cards without authorization, making false or misleading statements to consumers and failing to disclose their restrictive refund policies.

      While Victoria Travel is no longer in business, Morena Tours continues to operate.

      FCCPC Judge has ordered Morena Tours Inc., Victoria Travel Inc. to pay civil penalties and provide nearly $40,000 in reimbursement to their victims and cov...
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      Salmonella Fears Prompt Spice Recall

      August 28, 2005
      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is advising processors and re-packers that Majestic International Spice Corporation of Montebello, CA, is voluntarily recalling its dried Extra Fancy Basil spice in 12.5 kilogram bags. The recall was initiated after FDA inspectors found the product contaminated with Salmonella Blockley.

      Salmonella is a well-known cause of both outbreaks and sporadic disease in various parts of the world and as such poses a potential health threat. FDA said it is issuing the advisory out of concern that the firm has not adequately alerted its consignees to the problem.

      The only identification on the 12.5 kilogram paper bags is a white paper label stating Extra Fancy Basil 12.5 KGS. The exact dates of sale are unknown but we believe the product was sold beginning in late April 2005.

      Salmonella is a microorganism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella bacteria often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the microorganism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections, endocarditis and arthritis.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

      The contamination was noted after routine testing by FDA revealed the presence of Salmonella Blockley. The recall was the result of the FDA sampling. The company has ceased the distribution of the product in question.

      The agency said processors or repackers who received this product should discontinue using it and contact their local FDA office.

      Salmonella Fears Prompt Spice Recall...
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      Protein-Rich Diet Boosts Benefit of Exercise

      Everyone knows that a good weight-loss program combines diet and exercise, but a new University of Illinois study reports that exercise is much more effective when it's coupled with a protein-rich diet.

      "There's an additive, interactive effect when a protein-rich diet is combined with exercise. The two work together to correct body composition; dieters lose more weight, and they lose fat, not muscle," said Donald Layman, a U of I professor of food science and human nutrition.

      A higher-carbohydrate, lower-protein diet based on the USDA food guide pyramid actually reduced the effectiveness of exercise, Layman said.

      Forty-eight adult women participated in Layman's 4-month study, published in the August 2005 issue of the Journal of Nutrition. One group ate a protein-rich diet designed to contain specific levels of leucine, one of the essential amino acids. A second group consumed a diet based on the food guide pyramid, which contained higher amounts of carbohydrates.

      Both groups consumed the same number of calories, but the first group substituted high-quality protein foods, such as meats, dairy, eggs, and nuts, for foods high in carbohydrates, such as breads, rice, cereal, pasta, and potatoes.

      "Both diets work because, when you restrict calories, you lose weight. But the people on the higher-protein diet lost more weight. Some people refer to this as the metabolic advantage of a protein-rich diet," said Layman.

      The study included two levels of exercise. "For one group, we recommended that they add walking to their lives. They usually walked two to three times a week, less than 100 minutes of added exercise," the researcher said.

      The other group was required to engage in five 30-minute walking sessions and two 30-minute weightlifting sessions per week. In both groups of dieters, the required exercise program helped spare lean muscle tissue and target fat loss.

      But, in the protein-rich, high-exercise group, Layman noted a statistically significant effect. That group lost even more weight, and almost 100 percent of the weight loss was fat, Layman said. In the high-carbohydrate, high-exercise group, as much as 25 to 30 percent of the weight lost was muscle.

      While this protein-rich diet works for everyone, it seems to be even more effective for people who have high triglyceride levels and carry excess weight in their midsection -- a combination of health problems known as Syndrome X.

      "The protein-rich diet dramatically lowered triglycerides and had a statistically significant effect on trunk fat, both risk factors associated with heart disease," he said. "Exercise helped dieters lose an even greater percentage of body fat from the abdominal area."

      The protein-rich diet works so well because it contains a high level of the amino acid leucine. Leucine, working together with insulin, helps stimulate protein synthesis in muscle. "The diet works because the extra protein reduces muscle loss while the low-carbohydrate component gives you low insulin, allowing you to burn fat," he said.

      "We believe a diet based on the food guide pyramid actually does not provide enough leucine for adults to maintain healthy muscles. The average American diet contains 4 or 5 grams of leucine, but to get the metabolic effects we're seeing, you need 9 or 10 grams," he noted.

      To achieve that leucine level, the researcher recommended adding dairy, meat, and eggs, all high-quality proteins, to the diet. According to Layman, losing weight doesn't have to mean relying on supplements to fill in nutritional gaps in your diet. "If you use a high-quality protein approach to your diet, you can actually improve the overall quality of your diet while losing weight," he said.

      Protein-Rich Diet Boosts Benefit of Exercise...
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      France to Publish Airline Blacklist

      The French Transport Ministry has announced plans to publish a list of airlines that have been banned from landing in French territory due to safety violations

      The French Transport Ministry has announced plans to publish a list of airlines that have been banned from landing in French territory due to safety violations. Transport Minister Dominique Perben also indicated that safety inspections of planes making stopovers at French airports will be increased.

      The move follows the crash in Venezuela last week of a charter airliner operated by Trans Caribbean Airways that killed 152 passengers from the French island of Martinique and 8 crew members.

      The Ministry's Internet site will also publish a list of authorized companies, including charter airlines. Switzerland and the U.K. began publishing similar lists in January 2004 and there is strong pressure for the European Union to create a Europe-wide blacklist.

      This would solve a big problem with airline safety in Europe. Each country currently conducts its own aircraft inspections, frequently without knowing what other countries may have found. Most authorities agree that such a continent-wide list is long overdue.

      The recent spate of fatal accidents has focused attention on the problem. Europeans are flying more and more airlines are being created to handle the traffic, especially low-cost charters. This puts a greater strain on the inspectors who have to certify that an aircraft is safe to fly. Inevitably there are lapses, often with fatal consequences.

      France to Publish Airline Blacklist...
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      Consumers Union Wants More Data on Mad Cow Testing

      Wants the agency to release details on the more than 400,000 cattle tested

      Consumers Union is raising questions about the credibility of the U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) expanded voluntary mad-cow surveillance program and is asking the agency to release details on the more than 400,000 cattle tested.

      In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the group cited serious deficiencies uncovered by the Office of Inspector General in the earlier years of the program.

      Consumers Union specifically requested data on:

      • The geographic location of sampled cattle (including the state where the cow was born, raised, and slaughtered);

      • The age of the cattle tested (CU currently supports testing of all cattle above 20 months);

      • The disease/high-risk status of the cattle (for example, did they show symptoms of central nervous system disease, which are common symptoms of mad cow.

      The government keeps telling Americans that they can trust that their beef is safe from mad cow, even going so far as to say that finding BSE is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Yet, since the agency has so far failed to publicly disclose any information whatsoever about the details of the program, it makes us wonder how meaningful their search for the disease is at all, says Dr. Michael Hansen, PhD, a Senior Scientist with Consumers Union.

      We want to know exactly which cattle were tested and whether or not they really represent the most valid scientific sampling of the highest-risk animals from across the country. If the USDA wants to truly reassure the American people, they should answer our questions. Their failure to do so would make us wonder what the agency is hiding, adds Hansen.

      Consumers Unions letter comes after the USDAs announcement last month that a cow originally pronounced last November to be negative for mad cow disease turned out upon re-testing to be positive.

      Consumers Union Wants More Data on Mad Cow Testing...
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      Higher Minimum Credit Card Payments Add to Consumer Queasiness

      Higher payments will pay off debt faster but may upset monthly budgets

      As if skyrocketing gas prices and housing bubble worries weren't enough, the one-two punch of stricter bankruptcy laws and rising minimum credit card payments may cause even more financial pain for consumers this fall.

      Under rules instituted by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in 2003 and phased in through the end of 2005, the minimum amount required for paying a credit card balance each month is increasing from 2 percent to 4 percent or more, depending on the bank that issued the card.

      The average American carries roughly $10,000 in credit card debt, and though raising the monthly minimum may help them get out of debt faster, those already struggling to make their payments may see this as more burden than blessing.

      If your debt is $15,000, for instance, and you pay $300 a month with an interest rate of 13 percent, it would take you nearly twenty years to pay off the debt, with nearly $9,000 in interest, according to the credit card information site.

      Doubling the payment to $600 would enable you to pay off the debt in 29 months, with interest of $2,3667.56.

      However, many Americans simply do not have the financial means to pay off their debts any faster. Retirees on fixed incomes, young adults just getting out of college, and low-income families may have a tough time adjusting their debt load to meet the new payoff rate, especially with rising gas prices and the high cost of housing.

      A Heavy Load

      In addition, the recently passed bankruptcy "reform" law makes it more difficult for Americans to liquidate their debts through filing bankruptcy.

      Rather than simply being able to file Chapter 7, under the new law, consumers must meet strict income and expense guidelines that determine how much they can pay towards their debt, and whether or not their debt load qualifies for bankruptcy. The law takes effect in October 2005.

      The housing market boom has been driven partially by the popularity of "creative" loans, such as adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and interest-only payments. Overextended consumers and highly-leveraged homebuyers may find themselves in a severe financial pinch if housing values flatten and monthly payments when principal payments kick in or interest rates rise.

      Combine that with the doubling of monthly credit card payments, and many consumers face financial disaster.

      Good News

      The news isn't all bad, however. A recent survey by the American Bankers Association showed that 42 percent of card owners paid their balances off in full each month, up from 39 percent in 2004.

      Consumers paying off their balances in full was a direct contributor to the massive profit shortfall experienced by financial services giant MBNA, leading to their buyout by Bank of America earlier this year.

      Individual bankruptcy petitions actually decreased in July 2005, as the race to file before the new laws took effect began to slow down. Nearly a million individuals have filed for bankruptcy so far this year.

      Some wonder if the timing of the new bankruptcy laws and the deadline to phase in new minimum payment rates is a coincidence.

      As one pundit put it, "Your credit card payment just doubled. Isn't that newsworthy? Don't you think this should be shouted from the house top?Profit loss is at stake if [those deeply in debt] can more easily declare bankruptcy and have this debt written off before the new law takes effect."

      Others applaud the higher minimum payments, even if they cause short-term pain for some consumers. Most economists agree that American consumers are saving way too little and carrying way too much debt.

      Higher Minimum Credit Card Payments Add to Consumer Queasiness...
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      Nexgrill Recalls Jenn-Aire Outdoor Gas Grills

      August 25, 2005
      Nexgrill Industries is recalling about 644 Jenn-Air Model 720-0100 Natural Gas Outdoor Gas Grills. A hose connecting the natural gas source to the grills main manifold may not have been supplied with these grills. Without this hose, the gas would be emitted into the air, creating a potential fire hazard. Consumers should not use the grill until the main burner hose is provided.

      Jenn-Air Outdoor Gas Grill Model Number 720-0100 NG, an outdoor gas grill with four main burners, a side burner and a rotisserie burner. It is made of stainless steel and is used with natural gas. Model numbers are located on the back panel of the grill. The brand name Jenn-Air is on a plate on the grill lid.

      The grills were sold at Lowes Stores nationwide from April 2004 through May 2004 for about $800.

      Consumers without a connecting hose should not use these grills, and contact Nexgrill to obtain a free hose. Registered consumers have received a notification of this recall.

      Consumer Contact: Contact Nexgrill toll free at (800) 554-5799 between 9 a.m. 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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

      Nexgrill Recalls Jenn-Aire Outdoor Gas Grills...
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      XPress Pharmacy Spammer Jailed In Minnesota

      A man some consider to be "public nuisance number one" when it comes to Internet spam is behind bars

      A man some consider to be "public nuisance number one" when it comes to Internet spam is behind bars. Christopher W. Smith was hauled before a federal judge this week on multiple charges relating to Xpress Pharmacy Direct, an online drug marketing business. He was ordered held without bond pending a hearing.

      According to the indictment, Smith generated millions of spam emails from March 2004 to May 2005, offering prescription drugs. He allegedly generated more than $20 million from illegal sales of drugs to people who did not provide proof of a prescription.

      Under the indictment, Smith is accused of several counts of conspiracy to dispense controlled substances, wire fraud, money laundering, distributing controlled substances and introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce.

      Smith is notorious among groups combating spam emails, who say he is one of the worlds largest producers of unwanted junk email. His spam operation was shut down earlier this year after federal officials seized the assets of Xpress Pharmacy and appointed a receiver.

      Indicted along with Smith were Dr. Philip Mach, of Franklin Park, N.J., and Bruce Jordan Lieberman, of Farmingdale, N.Y. The indictment charges Mach, at Smiths behest, wrote 72,000 prescriptions for controlled substances over a 14 month period. Its alleged Mach wrote prescriptions for consumers all over the U.S. without having any contact with them. Lieberman, Smith former accountant, is accused of helping to launder money from the operation.

      XPress Pharmacy Spammer Jailed In Minnesota...
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      AOL Agrees to Clean Up Cancellation Procedures

      Company Bows to Demands of New York Attorney General

      New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has reached agreement with America Online (AOL) that requires the internet service provider to reform its customer service procedures. Under the agreement, AOL will alter the incentives it offers to customer representatives who seek to persuade subscribers not to cancel their service.

      "This agreement helps ensure that AOL will strive to keep its customers through quality service, not stealth retention programs," Spitzer said.

      Technically, the agreement applies only to consumers living in New York but it provides ammunition for the thousands of consumers in other states who have had similar problems.

      For years, consumers have complained that they have been unsuccessful in canceling their AOL service despite numerous attempts.

      "I have tried time and time again to cancel my AOL account. They continue to draft monies out of my account unauthorized," said Dona of Columbia, SC, in a recent complaint to They currently owe me $51.85 that was drafted from my checking account and have yet to give it back to me.

      In response to approximately 300 consumer complaints, Spitzers office began an inquiry of AOLs customer service policies. The investigation revealed that the company had an elaborate system for rewarding employees who purported to retain or "save" subscribers who had called to cancel their internet service.

      In many instances, such retention was done against subscribers wishes, or without their consent.

      "My father passed away and I called America Online to cancel my internet service with them, since I really only used it to talk to my dad there was no reason to continue it," Rhonda of Lynchburg, VA, said. Three months later, money was still being taken from her checking account.

      Under the system, consumer service personnel received bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars if they could successfully dissuade or "save" half of the people who called to cancel service.

      For several years, AOL had instituted minimum retention or "save" percentages, which consumer representatives were expected to meet. These bonuses, and the minimum "save" rates accompanying them, had the effect of employees not honoring cancellations, or otherwise making cancellation unduly difficult for consumers.

      Many consumers complained that AOL personnel ignored their demands to cancel service and stop billing.

      The agreement requires AOL to:

      • Eliminate any requirements that its customer service representatives maintain a minimum number of "saves" in order to earn a bonus;

      • Record all service cancellation requests and verify action on the request through a third-party monitor;

      • Provide refunds to all New York consumers who claim harm based on improper cancellation procedures, up to four months worth of service;

      • Pay $1.25 million to the state in penalties and costs.

      The claim form for New York consumers seeking refunds is available at Attorney General Spitzers website.

      AOL Agrees to Clean Up Cancellation Procedures...
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      Pros and Cons Dog Long-term Aspirin Use

      Long-term benefits may be outweighed by possible side effects

      Women who took two or more aspirin or nonaspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) per week for more than 10 years significantly reduced their risk of colorectal cancer, according to an article in the August 24/31 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

      At the same time though, the researchers said there is a downside to substantially higher doses of aspirin than currently recommended for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

      Recent randomized intervention trials have demonstrated that regular use of aspirin in patients with a history of colorectal adenoma (benign tumor) or cancer reduces the risk of recurrent adenoma within 1 to 3 years. But, whether long-term use of aspirin similarly reduces the risk of colorectal cancer and, if so, at what dose, has been unclear.

      Andrew T. Chan, M.D., M.P.H., of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues examined the influence of aspirin and NSAIDs on the risk of colorectal cancer in a large group of women. The study included 82,911 women, enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, who have been providing data on medication use biennially since 1980 and followed up through June 1, 2000.

      Over the 20-year period, 962 cases of colorectal cancer were documented. Among women who regularly used aspirin (2 or more standard [325-mg] tablets per week), there was a 23 percent reduced relative risk for colorectal cancer compared with nonregular users. However, significant risk reduction was not observed until more than 10 years of use.

      The benefit appeared related to dose: compared with women who reported no use, the relative risk for cancer was 10 percent greater for women who used 0.5 to 1.5 standard aspirin tablets per week; 11 percent lower with 2 to 5 aspirin per week; 22 percent lower with 6 to 14 aspirin per week; and 32 percent lower with more than 14 aspirin per week.

      Women who took more than 14 aspirin per week for longer than 10 years had a 53 percent lower relative risk for colorectal cancer. A similar dose-response relationship was found for nonaspirin NSAIDs.

      The incidence of reported major gastrointestinal bleeding events per 1000 person-years also appeared to be dose-related: 0.77 among women who denied any aspirin use; 1.07 for 0.5 to 1.5 standard aspirin tablets per week; 1.07 for 2 to 5 aspirin per week; 1.40 for 6 to 14 aspirin per week; and 1.57 for more than 14 aspirin per week.

      "Our study supports a possible role for aspirin in cancer prevention, which has been demonstrated by prior adenoma recurrence trials. However, any substantial impact of aspirin on cancer necessitates early initiation and prolonged, consistent use. Many toxicities of aspirin, including gastrointestinal bleeding, are dose-dependent. Thus, future studies will need to thoroughly consider the risk-benefit profile for aspirin/NSAID chemoprevention among various risk groups and compare such a strategy with other potential prevention efforts," the authors conclude.

      Women who took two or more aspirin or nonaspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs per week for more than 10 years significantly reduced their risk of c...
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      Connecticut Blasts Sale Of Fake Air Bag Covers

      The state of Connecticut is attempting to stop an Alabama company from selling replacement air bag covers without the air bags

      The state of Connecticut is attempting to stop an Alabama company from selling replacement air bag covers without the air bags. Hicks Air Bag Covers markets its air bag covers nationwide as an inexpensive alternative to installing replacement air bags.

      "Selling fake air bag covers is likely illegal under state law and appallingly irresponsible under any standard," Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said.

      "The company's products pose a particular danger to passengers and second-hand car buyers unlikely or unable to know whether an air bag cover is fake. The result is vehicular Russian roulette, with losers facing possible death or severe injury. Devices so clearly sacrificing safety should be stopped, Blumenthal said.

      The attorney general, Sen. Leonard A. Fasano and the Auto Body Association of Connecticut (ABAC) also will push legislation imposing a total ban on the sale and installation of air bag covers without air bags. Florida, New York and other states have recently enacted similar laws.

      Federal law prohibits auto repairers or dealers from installing air bag covers without air bags in vehicles whose bags have deployed. Current law does not cover individual non-professionals.

      Once a cover is installed, a consumer many not know whether an air bag is underneath. One means of checking is to look for a manufacturer's logo, which is likely to be missing if the air bag cover is bogus.

      "My office will aggressively seek to determine whether legal action against Hicks Auto Body is warranted. I will also work with Sen. Fasano, other lawmakers and the ABAC to fully ban the sale and installation of phony air bag covers and to institute tough civil and criminal penalties against those who endanger the public with this deadly deception," Blumenthal said.

      "This is a major public safety concern, so I am hopeful that we can make Connecticut motorists aware of this dangerous practice. Right now, there may be citizens driving around who unknowingly purchased a used car whose airbag was not properly replaced," said Fasano.

      "It is unconscionable that any company would install fake airbag covers and put motorists at risk simply to earn a few extra dollars. I plan to aggressively pursue new legislation that specifically prohibits the sale of these 'fake' air bags so Connecticut drivers can rest assured that their air bags function properly."

      "I was shocked when I received an advertisement in the mail from this company," said ABAC representative Bill Denya, who owns a garage in Meriden. "As an auto repairer, my top priority is to fix vehicles so they are safe to drive. ABAC is always very concerned about safety issues. These fake air bag covers endanger public safety and should be outlawed.

      "When buying a used vehicle, motorists should check for the maker's logo on the bag cover. No logo is a good indication that the cover is a fake, and there's no air bag underneath."

      On its web site and in mailings to Connecticut auto body shops, Hicks Air Bags openly touts its product as a cheap substitute for new air bags in damaged vehicles. Its covers, which come in 50 colors and fit virtually every vehicle make and model, cost $75 to $85, compared with $600 to $700 for a new air bag.

      "Expensive air bags not for you? Here's an affordable alternative to restore your car's interior without them," reads a Hicks Air Bags mailer recently sent to a Connecticut auto body shop.

      Another piece of company promotional material reads, "Look good for less with our cosmetic, nonfunctional replacement covers."

      In 2003, Hicks owner Lawrence G. Hicks pled guilty in federal court to selling counterfeit General Motors air bag covers to individuals, auto body shops and used car dealerships for use in repairing damaged vehicles.

      Hicks admitted selling more 4,600 of the counterfeits in 1999 and 2000. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that air bags saved about 2,500 lives in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available.

      "Selling fake air bag covers is likely illegal under state law and appallingly irresponsible under any standard," Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said....
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      New Home Sales Set Another Record In July

      Americans appetite for new homes showed no sign of letting up in July

      Americans appetite for new homes showed no sign of letting up in July, with sales posting another record. The Commerce Department reports new home sales surged 6.5 percent, to an annual rate of 1.14 million units, bolstered by low interest rates and a solid job market.

      Mortgage rates may have been a determining factor driving the record increase. Despite Federal Reserve policies of boosting short term rates and worries about possible inflation, mortgage rates have fallen to a point near their 40-year low.

      Its one thing to break a record for sales in a month. Its another thing to totally shatter it. That is what happened in July as new home sales skyrocketed. The level of demand is so out of whack with history that it is hard to even comprehend, said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

      Sales were 17% above the July 2004 level, which at the time was considered high. Sales surged 36% in the western U.S., while demand was up over 10% in the Northeast. In comparison, sales fell sharply in the Midwest and eased back in the South.

      So, what is going on?

      Naroff cautions that the robust sales figures are not necessarily good news. There is, he says, a whiff of panic in the air.

      People are getting in before prices hit levels that they cannot afford. But there is also an awful lot of speculation going on, Naroff said.

      At the same time, the median price fell for the third consecutive month but economists say its not clear what that means. More newly built condos and co-ops may be on the market, which would explain some of the drop.

      As for supply, it inched up and is not out of hand, but only if demand remains in the stratosphere, Naroff added.

      Still, builders dont seem to have gotten too far ahead of themselves yet. With this latest report, new home sales are on a pace for the year to set a fifth straight record. Based on the first seven months of 2005, homebuilders are projected to sell 1.304 million homes this year. Sales were 1.203 million last year.

      New Home Sales Set Another Record In July: Americans appetite for new homes showed no sign of letting up in July, with sales posting another record....
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      Feds Snuff Smoke Away Claims with $1.3 Million Penalty

      Their Web site promises an end to nicotine addition with the purchase of a "Smoke Away" kit

      Their Web site promises an end to nicotine addition with the purchase of a "Smoke Away" kit. The government says the companys claims play fast and loose with the truth. The result is a $1.3 million settlement between the marketers of "Smoke Away" and the Federal Trade Commission.

      The FTC charges the company deceptively marketed the dietary supplement kits by claiming they would allow smokers to quit smoking quickly, easily, permanently, and without cravings or other side effects. The FTC charged the defendants did not have a reasonable basis for the claims they made about Smoke Away or for their claims that it is more effective than FDA-approved smoking-cessation products.

      The FTC also charged that two doctors who endorsed Smoke Away in advertisements did not properly use their expertise, and that one, a chiropractor, did not actually have the expertise she was represented as having.

      The company marketing Smoke Away and its owner have agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle the charges.

      They also are prohibited from making any claims about the benefits, performance, efficacy, safety, or side effects of Smoke Away or any other smoking cessation product or program unless those claims are true, non-misleading, and substantiated.

      All of the defendants are prohibited from making any claims about the benefits, performance, or efficacy of any food, drug, or dietary supplement unless those claims are backed by scientific evidence. If either doctor is endorsing one of those products as an expert, they must actually have exercised their expertise by examining or testing the product.

      The chiropractor cannot misrepresent her expertise, training, and experience.

      The FTCs complaint challenged a number of claims made about Smoke Away in a national television infomercial, 60- and 120-second national television ads, 60-second radio spots, and on Web sites. Specifically, the FTC alleges the advertising claimed that:

      • Smoke Away enables smokers to quit smoking in seven days or less;

      • Smoke Away enables smokers to quit smoking quickly, effortlessly, and permanently;

      • Smoke Away eliminates nicotine cravings;

      • Smoke Away users have no withdrawal symptoms or side effects, such as weight gain, insomnia, or tension; and

      • Smoke Away is more effective than nicotine patches, nicotine gum, and prescription medications for smoking cessation.

      The FTC filed a complaint against Emerson Direct, Inc. (doing business as the Council on Natural Health) of Naples, Florida, the corporation that marketed Smoke Away; its owner Michael J. Connors, also of Naples, Florida; Thomas De Blasio, M.D., a physician from Manalapan, New Jersey; and Sherry Bresnahan, D.C., a chiropractor from Algonquin, Illinois. Emerson Direct marketed Smoke Away, while De Blasio and Bresnahan appeared as expert endorsers in advertisements.

      Emerson Direct and Connors offered two versions of Smoke Away. Each version included various dietary supplements made of combinations of vitamins, herbs, and other ingredients.

      The FTCs complaint further alleges that those five claims made by Emerson Direct and Connors were false or unsubstantiated, and that Emerson Direct and Connors also misrepresented that they provide timely refunds to consumers who requested such refunds. The FTC also alleged that Emerson Direct, Connors, and Bresnahan misrepresented that Bresnahan was an expert in nicotine addiction or smoking cessation.

      Finally, the complaint alleges that Bresnahan and De Blasio both made the five claims listed above concerning Smoke Away, and that they did not have a reasonable basis for those representations or exercise their purported expertise in the fields of nicotine addiction or smoking cessation by adequately testing or examining Smoke Away.

      The order against Emerson Direct and Connors requires them to pay $1.3 million; if they misrepresented their financial condition, the full $61 million suspended judgment will be due. Finally, Emerson Direct and Connors must notify current and future distributors, resellers, and sales agents about the settlement.

      Feds Snuff Smoke Away Claims with $1.3 Million Penalty...
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      More Economists Worry About Housing Bubble

      Are home values floating merrily upward in a bubble that's about to burst?

      Are home values floating merrily upward in a bubble that's about to burst? Many of the economists who correctly predicted the bursting of the stock market bubble, including Yale University's Robert Shiller, think so.

      If the housing market should collapse as the stock market did, the impact could be even more painful, warns Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

      For one thing, Bartlett says, homeowners are much more leveraged than they used to be.

      According to the Federal Reserve, home equity has fallen to 56.3 percent of their real estate from 75 percent a generation ago. Another Federal Reserve study found that 16 percent of the money taken out in refinancings was simply consumed.

      According to Freddie Mac, people are taking more and more money out of their homes. Cash-out refinancings have risen to 18.1 percent of all refinancings from 7.2 percent in 2003. In the last four years, homeowners have taken $559 billion in equity out of their homes.

      More and more homeowners are buying and refinancing with unconventional loans, such as adjustable rate and interest-only mortgages, rather than traditional fixed mortgages.

      These loans offer low initial payments, but will rise automatically when interest rates rise, putting homeowners in a potential bind. The Federal Reserve says that 47 percent of all residential mortgages by dollar volume are now non-traditional.

      Economist John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute notes that housing has a powerful effect on economic growth through construction, employment, purchases of durable goods like refrigerators and in other ways.

      He estimates that if home prices simply level off and stop rising, it will cut 1 percent off the real gross domestic product growth rate.

      More Economists Worry About Housing Bubble...
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      Study Casts Doubt on Soy's Health Benefits

      If you chow down daily on tofu and other sources of soy protein in search of a healthier lifestyle, a new study suggests you may be a bit disappointed.

      While daily soy consumption result in a small reduction in low-density lipoprotein and triglyceride levels, a new evidence review supported by HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality says there's little evidence of major health improvements.

      It found the available studies on the health impacts of soy are limited in number, of poor quality, or their duration was too short to lead to definite conclusions.

      Bad Cholesterol

      Overall, across the 68 studies that examined the impact of soy on cholesterol levels, consumption of soy products resulted in a three percent reduction in LDL, known as "bad cholesterol," and a six percent decrease in triglyceride levels in the populations studied.

      Among these studies, a large variety of soy products, doses of soy protein, and doses of soy isoflavones were tested. The average dose of soy protein in the studies was equivalent to about one pound of tofu or three soy shakes daily.

      There was some indication that soy consumption may be more effective at lowering LDL among people with higher LDL levels. Also, larger amounts of soy protein, but not soy isoflavones, are more effective in people with abnormally elevated LDL levels. Similarly, soy consumption may be more effective at lowering triglycerides among people with higher triglyceride levels; however, there was no evidence of how much soy protein or isoflavones would be needed to affect triglycerides.

      Good Cholesterol

      Reviews on the relationship between soy consumption and high-density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol, levels and between soy consumption and blood pressure did not find significant effects.

      Among 21 studies evaluating the consumption of soy isoflavones for menopause-related symptoms, there was a net reduction in hot flash frequency ranging from 7 percent to 40 percent, however, these trials were mostly rated as poor quality. Among studies with statistically significant improvements in symptoms, the dose of soy isoflavones ranged from 17.5 to 100 mg/day.

      The evidence review completed by AHRQ's Tufts-New England Medical Center Evidence-based Practice Center also found insufficient data among the 200 human studies examined as part of this analysis to suggest that soy had an effect on bone health, cancer, kidney disease, endocrine function, reproductive health, neurocognitive function, or glucose metabolism.

      A wide variety of soy products were studied, including foods such as soybeans, soy flour, soy milk, tofu, miso, tempeh, natto, and okara; isolated and textured soy protein that is added to foods; and soy-derived isoflavone supplements.

      No Adverse Effects

      Aside from minor gastrointestinal problems reported in some short-term studies, consumption of soy products by study participants was not associated with adverse events. However, long-term safety data are lacking.

      "This report shows us that there is a lot we don't know about soy, and that more research is needed to determine if soy has any impact on a number of health conditions," said AHRQ Director Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. "An important role for AHRQ's Evidence-based Practice Centers is to identify gaps in evidence and knowledge that can be used to develop future research agendas."

      The researchers who conducted the evidence review, which was supported by the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Office of Dietary Supplements, considered the type of soy product used, amount consumed, frequency of consumption, and safety issues in their review of health effects.

      "The AHRQ report provides valuable information about the studies that have been done on soy for a variety of health conditions," said Stephen E. Straus, M.D., NCCAM Director. "It also highlights research needs in this area and will help inform NIH's research agenda."

      The AHRQ report notes that future studies of the health effects of soy need to better address the complex relationship between health and food components, including how variations in the diets, lifestyles, and health of participants might affect the results.

      Such studies should also be of better quality, include larger numbers of participants, and be of longer duration, the researchers said. In particular, studies that substitute practical amounts of soy products into people's diets would better address the question of whether people should make the effort to include more soy in their diet.

      If you chow down daily on tofu and other sources of soy protein in search of a healthier lifestyle, a new study suggests you may be a bit disappointed....
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      Mortgage Bankers Fret About "Creative" Loans

      They're the ones making the loans, of course, but ...

      Add the Mortgage Bankers Association to those who are worried about homeowners taking out home loans that feature low initial payments that can rise dramatically over time.

      But wait. Aren't the mortgage bankers the very people selling such loans? The answer is yes, but the MBA says the primary responsibility for being prudent in taking on debt rests with the consumer.

      "Borrowers need to be vigilant to be sure that they are prudently measuring and managing" the added risks many accept by embracing loans that minimize monthly payments in the early years but can require much-higher payments later, the trade group said in a 30-page report.

      The report echoes warnings from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, bank regulators and the National Association of Realtors about the risks of non-traditional loans.

      The worrisome mortgages include interest-only loans with rates that follow prevailing interest rates. With these loans, borrowers pay only the interest during the first few years but then monthly payments rise sharply as the borrower begins paying off the principal.

      If interest rates rise sharply over the next few years, many homebuyers could be in trouble, as their monthly payment could rise dratically as they try to cover higher interest rates as they begin paying on the principal.

      Many buyers taking out such loans are counting on continued double-digit increases in housing values, perhaps thinking that they will be able to refinance or sell their home before the higher payments come due. That's not likely to be the case if the run-up in housing prices turns out to be a "bubble."

      However, it's not just over-extended consumers that has the mortgage bankers group wringing its hands. Its report warns that "investor activity," meaning speculation, has increased in the hottest U.S. housing markets, primarily those on the East and West Coasts.

      "Lenders need to prudently monitor the level of speculative activity in such markets," the MBA report cautioned. Speculation is a factor in driving up housing prices to unsustainable levels. Also, speculators are quicker to walk away from investments gone bad than owner-occupants.

      Mortgage Bankers Fret About Creative Loans...
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      Collection Agency Agrees to Write Off Cross Country Debts Owed by West Virginians

      It's the latest skirmish in a long-running feud involving West Virginia Attorney General Darrel McGraw and Cross Country

      A California collection agency has agreed to release West Virginia consumers from $3.5 million in credit card debt turned over to it by Cross Country Bank. It's the latest skirmish in a long-running feud involving West Virginia Attorney General Darrel McGraw and Cross Country.

      McGraw said that Midland Credit Management, Inc. of San Diego purchased about 3,500 charged-off accounts from Cross Country Bank, based in Wilmington, Delaware.

      Attorney General McGraws office began investigating Midland in 2004 after receiving complaints from West Virginia consumers who had been sued or contacted by Midland to collect debts originally owed to Cross Country Bank.

      Cross Country Bank is a credit card bank that markets high interest credit cards to consumers with bad credit histories. McGraws office settled its lawsuit against Cross County Bank on June 21, 2005.

      McGraws office questioned the propriety of collecting the accounts based upon the same concerns that led to his lawsuit against Cross Country Bank.

      As a result of these concerns, the Attorney General requested that Midland close all of the accounts with a zero balance and notify credit bureaus to delete all references to the account from consumers credit records. Midland agreed to do so in the settlement announced by McGraws office.

      "I commend Midland for promptly doing the right thing after we brought our concerns about these accounts to its attention," McGraw said. "As a result of our agreement with Midland, approximately 3,536 West Virginia consumers have been relieved of all further obligations to pay $3,548,539.80 in credit card debt. Because the accounts have also been deleted from credit records, consumers will no longer be denied access to new credit as a result of these accounts.

      Collection Agency Agress to Write Off Cross Country Debts Owed by West Virginians...
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      Critics Say Proposed Roof Strength Standard Doesn't Go Far Enough

      Nearly 25% of Traffic Deaths Occur in Rollovers

      Critics say the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn't go far enough with its proposal to toughen its roof crush standards. "NHTSA is merely rolling over when people need its help the most," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.

      Safety advocates have repeatedly pressured NHTSA to toughen the roof strength standard to reduce deaths and injuries in rollover crashes. They also argue for testing standards that more closely reflect events that occur during an actual rollover.

      The proposed new government standard would extend roof strength requirements to all vehicles weighing up to 10,000 pounds, thus covering SUVs and other light trucks for the first time. The current standard only applies to vehicles up to 6,000 pounds.

      Critics immediately said the rule, under consideration since 1991, does not require enough testing and roof strengthening to prevent injuries and fatalities. Public Citizen's Claybrook, a former administrator of NHTSA, called the proposed rules "very insufficient" and said they don't do nearly enough to protect drivers and passengers.

      "It's really not going to protect people as they could and should," she said.

      "The long-delayed roof crush rule proposed today by NHTSA fails to comply with new safety mandates issued by Congress just last month. The highway funding bill requires roof strength be tested both on the driver and passenger sides of a vehicle. However, the proposed rule tests roof strength only on one side," she said.

      NHTSA is seeking comment on other aspects of its rollover protection strategy, including the possible use of improved safety belt technology to better hold a belted occupant in place during a rollover.

      The proposed new standard would require that a roof withstand an applied force equal to 2.5 times the vehicle weight while maintaining sufficient headroom for an average-sized adult male. The current requirement is that the roof be able to withstand an applied force equal to 1.5 times the vehicle weight, with a limit of 5,000 pounds for cars.

      "It will take a comprehensive strategy to reduce the staggering number of rollover deaths on the nations highways", said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge, M.D. "Improving roof strength is an integral part of that plan."

      Defending the proposal was Adrian K. Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, who said regulators had done a good job in crafting a rule.

      The agency estimates that, among belted occupants, about 807 serious injuries and 596 fatalities annually are caused by contact with a collapsed roof during a rollover crash. About 10,000 people die annually in rollover crashes; approximately 60 percent are unbelted.

      NHTSA estimates the new roof crush standard will annually prevent between 13 and 44 deaths and 500-800 injuries when fully implemented. The estimated cost per vehicle would be $11.81. The total average cost per year would be $88-$95 million.

      Almost 25 percent of all U.S. traffic deaths occur in rollover crashes. There were more than 42,000 people killed on U.S. roads in 2004.

      The auto safety agency will decide on a final regulation after a 90-day comment period.

      Critics Say Proposed Roof Strength Standard Doesn't Go Far Enough...
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      Bally's Customers Hope To Exercise Their Rights

      Trial period turns into three-year contract

      In April 1994, Ballys Total Fitness, a chain of exercise gyms, paid $120,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges of illegal billing, cancellation, refund, and debt-collection practices. But consumers writing to complain that little has changed in eleven years.

      In a consistent refrain, consumers from New York to California say they thought they were signing up for a trial period of 14 to 30 days, only to discover the trial had turned into an iron-clad, three year contract.

      Keith, of North Richland, Texas, signed up for what he thought was a one-month guest membership for a visiting friend. He says he was told his cost would be $5.00, which he paid on the spot with his debit card. But at the end of the month, he got a bill from Ballys. And the bills kept coming.

      I have been charged $55.17 every month, for a membership that I was told would only total $5.00, he told

      I called the Ballys customer service number and spoke to an operator about this and she said I was tied to a three-year contract and that I needed to write a letter to the Ballys main office in California about this. I wrote the letter and their response was that I needed to either pay $1,457.33 in full or continue on with my $55.17 a month payments.

      Heather, of Martinez, California, tells us she went to the Ballys Web site and enrolled in the two-week free trial membership so she could give the club a try. She said she was told she could cancel anytime during the two-week trial, or anytime within 30 days.

      When I realized that my schedule and the gyms times were not going to work I attempted to cancel the membership. That was when I was told that I could not cancel until I had gone to the gym 12 times, or if I moved to a location with no Bally's gym within a 25-mile radius, she told

      Several consumers who contacted mentioned they were specifically told to attend the gym 12 times during their trial period, though some said it was never presented as a requirement.

      The terms of that settlement mandate that the defendants (Ballys) more clearly inform both current and future members about their cancellation rights, in part, by replacing current membership contracts with contracts that contain clear explanations about how to exercise the right to cancel, and how refunds will be calculated. The agreement also:

      • prohibits the defendants from improperly charging consumers' credit-card accounts or debiting their bank accounts for health-club memberships;
      • prohibits them from using harassment or deceptive means to collect membership fees, and from collecting amounts not expressly authorized in contracts with members;
      • requires the defendants in the future to acknowledge cancellation requests within 10 days, and to cancel the contracts and mail appropriate fee refunds on properly-cancelled memberships within 20 days after that; and
      • requires them to inform credit reporting bureaus in writing about any erroneous delinquent-account information Bally's provided the bureau about any club member or former member who submits a claim form pursuant to the FTC settlement.

      At the time of the settlement, Ballys and its two subsidiaries agreed to refund membership or other fees to what the government estimated to be thousands of customers.

      Bally's Customers Hope To Exercise Their Rights: Trial period turns into three-year contract. Consumers writing to complain that little...
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      FDA Refuses to Ban Weight-Loss Drug Meridia

      The Food and Drug Administration has refused to ban the weight loss drug Meridia. The agency rejected a petition filed by Public Citizen, asking that the Abbott Labs drug be banned because of concerns that it caused heart attacks and strokes in some patients.

      In a letter to Public Citizen, the FDA said it believes that the drug's "overall risk-benefit profile supports it remaining available as a prescription drug for the treatment of appropriately selected obese patients."

      "Once again, the FDA is siding with a large drug company, much as the agency did several years ago with Merck concerning Vioxx, when it failed to demand a black box warning on that drug," said Sidney M. Wolfe, MD, Director of Public Citizens Health Research Group.

      "For a drug such as Meridia to be approved or for it to stay on the market, there must be evidence that its benefits outweigh its risks. Evidence prior to its approval and more than 50 cardiovascular deaths, many in young people, since its approval confirm that its benefits do not outweigh its risks and that it should be removed from the market despite efforts by the FDA/Abbott duo to keep the drug alive," Wolfe said.

      The FDA said it was continuing to monitor the drug's safety profile.

      The FDA said it couldn't conclude that the reports of heart attacks and strokes were caused by Meridia and noted that such events "are very common in patients with obesity." However, the agency said it is "plausible" that Meridia could raise the risk for some cardiac events.

      But in a prepared statement Wolfe questioned whether all of the deaths caused by the drug had been reported: "A 3/21/02-4/03/02 FDA inspection report of the Abbott Laboratories plant in Abbott Park, Ill., found that '[one] death associated with Meridia was not reported and several records [involving seven other deaths] reviewed showed that the adverse drug information reported to FDA was either not accurate, not supported by source data, or was missing additional information found in the source data.'"

      The FDA said it received 224 reports of nonfatal heart attacks and strokes from November 1997 through August 2003 among Meridia users. It received 54 reports of deaths, including 30 that were cardiovascular-related.

      Last year FDA scientist David Graham questioned whether Meridia was effective enough to stay on the market during congressional testimony about how the agency handled safety questions surrounding Merck & Co's Vioxx, taken off the market in September.

      Wolfe also questioned the drug's effectiveness, particularly when weight against its risks.

      "In one of the only independent reviews of this drug by researchers from the University of Washington, published a year ago but predictably not mentioned by either the FDA or by Abbott in their responses to our petition, the authors concluded that: 'Weight loss with sibutramine was associated with modest increases in heart rate and blood pressure. There was no direct evidence that sibutramine reduces obesity-associated morbidity or mortality. Thus, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to accurately determine the risk-benefit profile for sibutramine,'" Wolfe said.

      Clinical studies have shown the drug can help people lose 5% to 10% of their body weight when used in conjunction with a program of diet and exercise.

      FDA Refuses to Ban Weight-Loss Drug Meridia...
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      Study Ties Fries To Breast Cancer Risk

      The study involved more than 2,000 female registered nurses

      Girls who eat lots of French fries during their pre-school years grow up to have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, according to researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Their study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, categorizes the increased risk as "significant."

      The study involved more than 2,000 female registered nurses, and found that those who regularly consumed French fries when they were young had a higher incidence of breast cancer than those who did not.

      The authors said the study provides additional credence to the belief that early eating habits impact a womans health later in life.

      The study examined the diets of the women when they were between the ages of three and five. Mothers of the subjects were questioned about the frequency of consumption of about 30 specific food items.

      Upon reviewing the data, researchers say they found that for each additional serving of French fries per week when they were preschoolers women had a 27 percent increased risk of breast cancer later in life.

      Whats the connection? Researchers say more study is needed, but that its unlikely potatoes are the culprit. Instead, they suggest that frying the potatoes in fat and trans-fatty acids might play a role.

      Study Ties Fries To Breast Cancer Risk...
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      Texas Jury Convicts Merck in Vioxx Death

      Jurors Award $253 Million to Family of 59-Year-Old Triathlete

      Merck & Co. has lost its first Vioxx personal injury case. A Texas jury found the company negligent in the death of Robert Ernst, a 59-year-old triathlete who used Vioxx, awarding the man's widow $24 million in actual damages, plus $229 million in punitive damages, for a total of about $253 million.

      The jury of seven men and five women in Brazoria County, Texas, ruled that Merck failed to warn doctors of the Vioxx's danger, that the drug was improperly designed, and that Merck's negligence caused Ernst's death.

      Vioxx is the popular prescription painkiller used by more than 20 million Americans before it was withdrawn from the market after being linked to heart attacks. The case was the first of more than 4,000 to go to trial.

      Merck said it plans to appeal.

      "We believe that the plaintiff did not meet the standard set by Texas law to prove VIOXX caused Mr. Ernst's death," said Jonathan Skidmore of Fulbright & Jaworski, a member of Merck's defense team. "There is no reliable scientific evidence that shows Vioxx causes cardiac arrhythmias, which an autopsy showed was the cause of Mr. Ernst's death, along with coronary atherosclerosis."

      "This case did not call for punitive damages," added Skidmore. "Merck acted responsibly -- from researching Vioxx prior to approval in clinical trials involving almost 10,000 patients -- to monitoring the medicine while it was on the market -- to voluntarily withdrawing the medicine when it did."

      Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has sued Merck on behalf of the state's Medicaid program, said the verdict "validates why my office brought suit against this company in the first place."

      "The jury concluded that the untimely death of Mr. Robert Ernst was the direct result of his taking Vioxx."

      "The verdict also shows why Texas deserves to get its money back from Merck; the company purposely peddled a drug on the open market that it knew could harm people. Merck compounded this problem by giving false information to the states Medicaid program about the drugs safety," Abbott said. "I will continue to aggressively pursue this company in court and get justice for Texas."

      Texas Jury Convicts Merck in Vioxx Death...
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      Jamster Can Jam Up Your Cell Phone Bill

      The next time you feel like downloading the latest hot single as a cell phone ring tone, listen carefully. That sound you hear may be your wallet deflating, thanks to charges on your bill from services you didn't even know you were buying.

      Jamster, a subsidiary of Internet infrastructure provider VeriSign that specializes in custom content for mobile devices, has been accused of defrauding customers into paying for ring tones they didn't authorize, and using deceptive marketing to lure consumers into purchasing its products.

      One irate customer filed a lawsuit in San Diego alleging that applying for Jamster's "free ring tones" actually result in receiving "junk text" messages that subscribers get charged for.

      The lawsuit alleges that Jamster would promote free downloadable ring tones to any subscriber who registered with its site or responded to the advertisement by sending a text message with a special code.

      The subscriber would then receive multiple messages from Jamster stating that its content was available for download. However, the subscriber would be charged for every text message sent from Jamster, at a rate of $1.99 per message plus fees from their wireless carrier.

      The lawsuit also names wireless providers AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile as defendants. SBC Communications, which owns Cingular jointly with BellSouth, is a Verisign client, as was AT&T Wireless prior to its buyout by Cingular.

      "What we're seeing is a lot of people seeing these ads and thinking they can download a ring tone or wall paper for their phone, and suddenly they're signed up for a subscription," said Kate Hartman, one of the attorneys on the case.

      Hartman sees Jamster and wireless providers as "using your phone bill like a credit card," automatically charging customers for service without explaining or even identifying what the charges are.

      Another problem Hartman identified is that many frustrated customers cancel their plans in order to be rid of Jamster, thus incurring heavy "early termination" fees. Not only that, but phone numbers from canceled contracts are recycled and given to new customers, who suddenly have to contend with charges from Jamster without ever having used or encountered the service.

      Consumer Affairs.Com has received several complaints from cell phone subscribers wondering how they ended up with charges from Jamster on their bills.

      Leslie C., from Oakland, CA, signed herself and her husband for T-Mobile's Family Share plan, only to find that she received unauthorized charges from Jamster for the first two months.

      "It outrages me that a ring tone company can send him ring tones and charge [us] without some action required on his part to accept these charges. These charges were never permitted by myself or my husband and seem completely illegal."

      Steve from Cleveland, OH receives multiple text messages from Jamster on his phone each week. "I have tried e-mailing them through their web site but the spamming does not stop. [There is] no tangible damage, just severe annoyance and frustration over the fact that I have no way to stop getting spammed over and over by the same company."

      Jamster's terms of service specify that if a user downloads content from the company onto their phone, "yourepresent that you are at least 13 years of age and have the consent of the subscriber of a participating mobile communications carrier to sign-up for and use the Jamster service on behalf of the subscriber," and that the download constitutes an agreement to use its services.

      Critics of Jamster contend that the service advertises on teen-oriented television shows and channels such as Nickelodeon and MTV in order to convince young cell phone users to get the "free ring tone."

      An online petition entitled Stop is filled with tales of woe from defrauded customers, as well as vitriolic sentiment for the company's ubiquitous "Crazy Frog" ad and ring tone.

      "I'm tired of seeing commercials for stupid, useless add-ons for my phone that no one could possibly ever needand I want to kill that stupid frog," fumes one signer.

      Not only are Jamster clients irate. Cell phone content provider Jamdat Mobile has filed suit against VeriSign alleging infringement on its trademark.
      Jamster has been accused of defrauding customers into paying for ring tones they didn't authorize, and using deceptive marketing to lure consumers into pur...
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      Satellite TV Penetration Up Significantly

      The number of households subscribing to satellite TV service has increased dramatically over the past year

      The number of households subscribing to satellite TV service has increased dramatically over the past year, even as cable narrows the gap in customer satisfaction ratings, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Residential Cable/Satellite TV Satisfaction Study.

      The study finds that satellite TV service continues to erode cables market share, increasing every year for the past 10 years and making its most significant leap this year.

      Currently, 27 percent of U.S. households subscribe only to satellite service -- up from 19 percent in 2004 and 12 percent in 2000.1 Sixty percent of households subscribe only to cable service -- down from 62 percent in 2004 and 66 percent in 2000.

      "Although satellite providers continue to gain market share, overall customer satisfaction among satellite subscribers has declined while satisfaction among cable subscribers is up," said Steve Kirkeby, senior director of telecommunication research for J.D. Power and Associates.

      "Overall, satellite customers are still more satisfied with their service than cable subscribers, but if satellite providers want to continue to attract subscribers away from cable, customer satisfaction is a critical area where they cant afford to lose ground."

      For the first time since 2001, a cable service provider -- WOW! (WideOpenWest) -- holds the top carrier position in the customer satisfaction rankings. WOW!, which operates in major markets in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, ranks highest among 14 of the nations largest cable/satellite companies with an index score of 717 (on a 1,000-point scale).

      A predecessor company of WOW!, Ameritech New Media, was also highest ranked in 2001, which was the last cable company to do so since Cox held the top spot in 1996. The cable provider receives the highest ratings from customers in three of the six factors driving customer satisfaction: customer service, performance and reliability, and billing.

      Following WOW! in the ranking are DirecTV and Cox Communications, respectively. DirecTV leads the industry in cost of service, while Cox leads in offerings and promotions.

      The average amount consumers spend monthly on satellite TV service continues to be less than cable service. Satellite subscribers report paying an average of $57.72 per month for service, while cable subscribers pay an average of $58.51 a month.2

      Although both satellite and cable service providers have been actively promoting digital video recorders (DVR), which allow viewers to freeze and record live TV, only 12 percent of customers currently own a DVR system.

      However, despite low current usage rates of DVRs, 41 percent of consumers indicate that they are likely to use a DVR system in the future. Current usage of DVRs through cable companies (35% of DVR owners) outpaces usage through satellite companies (23%). Another 22 percent of DVR owners use systems by TiVo.

      "Both cable and satellite TV providers are beginning to see the benefits of bundling DVRs with their voice, video and Internet services," said Kirkeby. "Both cable and satellite can meet this anticipated customer demand, while improving customer satisfaction and increasing average revenue per unit (ARPU), by offering their subscribers efficient and convenient packages. All our research shows that customers prefer bundles from single providers for convenience, simplicity and a better price for their combined purchases."

      The study also finds that 21 percent of consumer report ordering a video on demand (VOD) program -- a decline of 1 percent compared to the prior year.

      "Clearly the industry needs to continue to educate subscribers about VOD," said Kirkeby. "One of the most compelling findings in the study is the significant increase in overall satisfaction exhibited by users of VOD services compared to non-usersnearly 30 index points. Service providers must do whatever it takes to ensure consumers know the ordering process and charges, if any, associated with VOD. In some instances, cable companies are offering free VOD programming that their customers are apparently unaware of."

      The 2005 Residential Cable/Satellite TV Customer Satisfaction Study is based on responses from 11,586 U.S. households who evaluated their satellite or cable service.

      The number of households subscribing to satellite TV service has increased dramatically over the past year, even as cable narrows the gap in customer satis...
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      There's No Escaping Simple Escapes

      If you do a Google search for Simple Escapes, you dont readily find the companys Web site. Instead, you get page after page of complaints from irate and baffled consumers who claim the company has billed them for services they never wanted, never asked for, and never received.

      Allison, of Pleasant Hill, California, tells I just received my credit card statement and found a charge for $9.95 from Simple Escapes. I have no idea what this is, nor have I ever used any service like this.

      Allison actually got off lightly. Other complaints to have told of $100 or more being deducted from bank accounts or showing up on credit card bills. Many are mystified as to how this company, about which they know nothing, got access to their credit card and bank accounts.

      Simple Escapes is a membership service company, operated by MemberWorks, a Stamford, Connecticut, direct marketing firm, that provides discounts on travel and entertainment.

      For example, after booking a trip on Orbitz, you might be offered an instant $10 discount on your purchase if you enroll in Simple Escapes. Other incentives, like a free Kmart gift card, might also be offered. Once enrolled, members are billed monthly, whether they get discounts or not.

      Others apparently find themselves enrolled in Simple Escapes without knowing it.

      Angela, of Baytown, Texas, tells us Simple Escapes has charged my bank statement $19.95 for the last four months. I don't know who or what this is. I looked on AOL since that appears with the charge, but I can't find a phone number to call to cancel this service. I can't keep throwing $20 bucks a month out the window for something I did not order.

      In fact, many AOL subscribers, going back to 2003, have complained about being blindsided with a Simple Escapes membership charge on their credit card bill.

      Dwight, of Salem, West Virginia reported to, I received my bank statement and it had a debit charge of $134.95 on it from Simple Escapes. I had never heard of them. When I called the 1-888 number they told me that I had ordered this by a pop-up on AOL. I said I had never done that and besides how did they get my checking account number to which they replied through AOL.

      Consumers are often taken by surprise by these charges because they never sent any information to the company directly. Their credit card number is often shared by other businesses with which they had a different transaction.

      Simple Escapes, in many cases, received the consumers credit card information from AOL, which had it on file for the consumers Internet accounts. AOL says it no longer shares customers credit card information with other firms because of a change in policy.

      States Cracking Down

      Meanwhile, states are beginning to crack down on this practice. In April 2000 the State of Minnesota settled a consumer fraud suit with MemberWorks, Simple Escapes parent company. The settlement followed numerous complaints from consumers that they did not believe they had authorized membership charges to their checking or credit card accounts.

      The settlement required MemberWorks to substantially change its business practices and provide refunds to consumers who did not fully consent to the MemberWorks charge.

      Last year the State of Florida reached a similar agreement. Yet most of the complaints has received about Simple Escapes have been since 2003, and they continue today; 180 were filed in the last 12 months.

      I have been billed $152.55 in unauthorized charges by Simple Escapes. I called the number listed for them from my bank statement. The rep stated that when I clicked on the ad I agreed to their services. I have no idea what Simple Escapes is, Patricia of Tarboro, North Carolina tells

      Simple Escapes is a membership service company, operated by MemberWorks, a Stamford, Connecticut, direct marketing firm, that provides discounts on travel ...
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      Marketer of "Free Credit Reports" Settles FTC Charges Must Refund Consumer Payments for "Free" Reports, Inc., doing business as Experian Consumer Direct, has settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceptively marketed 'free credit reports' by not adequately disclosing that consumers automatically would be signed up for a credit report monitoring service and charged $79.95 if they didn't cancel within 30 days, in violation of federal law.

      The settlement requires Consumerinfo to pay redress to deceived consumers, bars deceptive and misleading claims about 'free' offers, requires disclosure of terms and conditions of any 'free' offers, and requires the defendant to give up $950,000 in ill-gotten gains.

      'Consumers paid the price for ordering free credit reports from,' said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. 'It's unfair and deceptive to promise consumers something for free and then trick them into paying for products they didn't want in the first place.'

      According to the FTC complaint, the defendant drove consumers to their and Web sites with radio, television, e-mail and Internet ads that promised free credit reports and a bonus ' free trials of a credit-monitoring service. Ads made claims such as:

      FREE! FREE! FREE! Get Your FREE Credit Report Online in Seconds!!!! Click here to get a FREE copy of your online Credit Report Instantly! And that's not all. . . along with your INSTANT credit report, we'll give you 30 FREE days of the Credit Check Monitoring Service at no obligation.

      Consumers were required to provide detailed personal information and a valid credit card account number to get their credit report. They were assured that, 'Your card will not be charged during the free trial period. However, valid credit card information is required to establish your account.'

      According to the FTC's complaint, Consumerinfo's advertising and Web sites failed to explain adequately that after the free trial period for the credit monitoring service expired, consumers automatically would be charged a $79.95 annual membership, unless they notified the defendant within 30 days to cancel the service.

      Consumerinfo billed the credit cards that it had told consumers were 'required only to establish your account,' and, in some cases, automatically renewed memberships by re-billing consumers without notice. The FTC charged that the defendant's failure to adequately disclose the automatic billing and to get consumers' consent to bill their accounts violated federal law.

      The complaint also alleges that Consumerinfo misled consumers about their association with the annual free credit report program for which U.S. consumers are eligible by federal law.

      A federal law enacted in December 2003, gives consumers the right to get one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three national consumer reporting companies. This program began in western states on December 1, 2004, and will cover all U.S. consumers by September 1, 2005. Consumers can get their free reports by phone, mail, or at one authorized Web site,

      The FTC complaint alleges that Consumerinfo deceptively advertised and promoted its 'free reports' at its '' Web site, without disclosing that it was not associated with the official annual free credit report program.

      'Consumers also need to be alert about impostor sites ' sites that misspell or use sound alike names, but don't link to the authorized site. We are sending letters to operators of more than 130 impostor sites to inform them that we know they are out there and that attempts to mislead consumers are illegal,' the FTC's Parnes said.

      The settlement is designed to assure that the defendant's negative-option or 'free' offers do not contain misrepresentations, and that they disclose all terms and conditions of the offers.

      The settlement establishes specific disclosure requirements in promotions for the defendant's 'free credit report' offer. Among other things, the defendant must clearly tell consumers that they will be charged unless they cancel within the trial period, and that the offer is not related to the free credit report program mandated by Congress.

      Consumer Refunds

      The settlement requires redress for consumers who enrolled in Consumerinfo's credit monitoring program between 2000 and 2003, canceled the monitoring service and received a partial refund or filed a complaint about the charges for the service.

      Consumers who qualify for a refund should receive a notice from Consumerinfo by email or first class mail within the next few months. The FTC staff has released answers to frequently asked questions at to help Consumerinfo customers determine if they're eligible for a refund. It also has established an information hotline for consumers to call for information on refunds. The phone number is (202) 326-3457.

      In addition to the redress program, the settlement requires the defendant to pay $950,000 in ill-gotten gains to the Commission. The money may be used to provide consumer education.

      The settlement also contains record-keeping and bookkeeping provisions to allow the FTC to monitor compliance with the order.

      The FTC has published two consumer brochures: 'Want a Free Annual Credit Report? The Only Official Website is' warns consumers about imposter sites; 'Your Access to Free Credit Reports,' educates consumers about their right to a free copy of their credit reports, and discusses other consumer rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the FACT Act. Both publications are available in English and Spanish at

      The complaint named, Inc., doing business as Experian Consumer Direct, Qspace, Inc., and Iplace Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Experian North America, which is also the parent company of Experian Information Services, one of the three national credit reporting companies.

      This case was brought with the assistance of the office of California Attorney General, Bill Lockyer.

      Marketer of 'Free Credit Reports' Settles FTC Charges...
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      More Banks Using Universal Default to Hike Interest Rates

      In its new credit card study, Consumer Action (CA) uncovers the top reasons that lead banks to impose high universal default and penalty rates. It found that virtually everyone is vulnerable.

      "The factors cited by card issuers are very broad. It appears that anyone -- not just people in financial difficulties -- could be subjected to a much higher rate for very insignificant reasons," said CA's Linda Sherry, who coordinated the survey.

      Universal default

      Credit card companies impose "universal default" rate hikes based on the way customers handle other credit accounts. This year, 45% of banks surveyed by CA said they have universal default policies - a slight increase from last year's survey. According to customer service representatives, the following circumstances, in descending order of importance, can trigger a universal default rate hike:

      • Credit score gets worse: 90%
      • Paying mortgage, car loan or other credit obligations late: 86%
      • Going over credit limit: 57%
      • Bouncing a payment check: 52%
      • Too much debt: 43%
      • Too much available credit: 33%
      • Getting a new credit card: 33%
      • Inquiring about a car loan or mortgage: 24%

      CA found default rates as high as 35% (Merrick Bank). Runners-up for the highest default rates are Citibank and Providian at 29.99%.

      Eleven of the 21 banks with universal default policies are willing to reduce the higher rates if cardholders' credit histories improve. Three more banks said it was "possible." Twelve of them said that after six months of improved credit, the rate might be adjusted downward although not always to the original rate.

      Penalty rates

      Penalty rates are much higher interest rates triggered when you pay your credit card bill late - even once. Late payments are not the only reason issuers impose higher penalty interest rates. Going over your credit limit or bouncing a payment check can trigger a rate increase, too, in addition to hefty fees.

      The average penalty rate this year is 24.23%, up from the 2004 average of 21.91%. This increase may be attributable to the fact that many penalty rates vary with the Prime Rate, and from last year's survey to this year's the Prime Rate increased two percentage points (from 4% to 6%).

      Late payments result in higher penalty rates with 79% of the issuers - a drop from 85% of the issuers last year. But of the issuers who assess penalty rates, 43% said a penalty rate could be triggered by just one late payment. Last year just 31% assessed a higher rate after one late payment.

      More findings

      CA's yearly snapshot of credit card industry practices, conducted between April 1 and June 21, examines 146 credit cards from 47 banks. The average interest rate for all cards is 12.61%, ranging from 6% (Ranier Pacific, Town Bank and Wells Fargo) to 24.94% (Merrick Bank). Of the total, 118 cards have variable rates, with an average interest rate of 12.96%, and 28 cards have fixed rates, with an average rate of 11.15%.

      • Bounced check fees. If your payment check to your credit card company bounces, 42 (89%) of the surveyed banks will charge you a fee. The average bounced check fee at these banks is $28.61. The fees range from $15 (First Internet Bank of Indiana) to $38 (American Express).

      • Late payments. Of 146 surveyed cards, 138 (95%) carry late payment fees. The average late fee this year is $27.46, only a penny off the 2004 average. Thirty-two issuers (68%) assess a late fee immediately if the payment is not received by the due date.

      • Over-limit fees. Of the 138 cards (95%) with over-limit fees, the average fee is $30.18. The fee can be as high as $39 at Citibank and MBNA.

      • Cut-off times. CA found that 34% of banks set a cut-off time on the due date. Payment deadlines on the due date ranged from noon local time to 9 p.m. Eastern time.

      • Credit limits. Twenty-five (53%) surveyed banks said that they reduce cardholders' credit limits under certain circumstances, including late payments, going over limit or when your credit score declines.

      • Annual fees. Cards without annual fees are the majority at 68% (99 cards). Of the 47 cards with annual fees, the average fee is $43.27 - an increase of 16% from last year's $37.33.

      • Cash APRs. Of the 146 cards surveyed, 75% have a higher APR for cash advances taken with the card. The average cash advance rate on these 110 cards is 20.23%. On cash advances, the interest begins to accrue immediately, even if you do not carry a balance.

      • Cash advance fees. Among surveyed cards, 137 (94%) have cash advance fees that average 3.01%. The cash advance fee is limited to a maximum charge on 35 of the cards. Maximums range from $10-$75 and average $41.28. A minimum charge applies on 132 of the cards. The minimums range from $2-$15 and average $6.98.

      • Balance calculation. Five surveyed banks (11%) use two-cycle billing. Cards issued by Chase, Discover, National City Bank, Providian and First National Bank of Omaha employ two-cycle billing.

      • Arbitration. Twenty-one (45%) of the surveyed banks confirmed that they require consumers to settle disputes using arbitration. Of those banks, 15 (71%) insist on "binding" arbitration decisions, which prevent cardholders from appealing the decision.

      • Introductory rates. 70 cards (48%) offer teasers on new purchases, 91 (62%) on balance transfers and 22 (15%) on cash advances or credit card "convenience check" transactions.

      • Reward cards. Among the surveyed cards, 52 (36%) offer rewards such as cash, miles, auto purchase points, merchandise points and gasoline. The overall percentage of credit card offers from surveyed banks with rewards has increased sharply since last year's 23%.

      "We see a shift in the industry toward cards that give something back, because industry research shows that reward cardholders make more purchases, tend to use their rewards cards exclusively and are less likely to jump ship for lower-rate cards," said Sherry.

      Consumer Action, founded in 1971, is a non-profit education and advocacy organization based in San Francisco, CA, with offices in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA.

      More Banks Using Universal Default to Hike Interest Rates...
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      Tropicana to Change Labeling of Fruit-Flavored Drinks

      Very Little Fruit in Tropicana Fruit Drinks

      Tropicana Peach Papaya drink has no peach juice and no papaya juice. In fact, the very small amount of juice in the drink is pear juice from concentrate.

      While it's not adding any fruit, at least the company will make some changes to its labels, which will help consumers understand the drink is a flavored drink and not 100 percent juice. In response, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and two private lawyers have agreed to drop a lawsuit against Tropicanas parent company, PepsiCo.

      The lawsuit was originally filed by attorneys Mark Cuker and William Riback on behalf of a New Jersey consumer who purchased Tropicana Peach Papaya. CSPI, which in May announced its intention to use litigation more often to stop deceptive food labeling practices, joined the Tropicana case earlier this year.

      The new label will identify the product as Peach Papaya flavored juice drink/from concentrate with other natural flavors, and will drop the phrase Made with REAL Fruit Juice.

      The company will also do so for its Tropicana Strawberry Melon, which contains no strawberry juice or melon juice.

      There are important differences between real fruit juice on the one hand, and sodas and fruit-flavored drinks on the other, said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. Tropicana Peach Papaya and Tropicana Strawberry Melon simply are not 100 percent juice, and this settlement will help make that more clear.

      Were open to listening to legitimate concerns and this seemed like a reasonable concern, said Danielle Vona, director of juice and juice drinks, Pepsi-Cola North America. We want to take every opportunity we can to provide consumers with nutrition information about our products.

      The labels will still depict pictures of peaches and papayas. The actual ingredients of the drink are water, high-fructose corn syrup, filtered pear juice from concentrate, citric acid, phosphoric acid, potassium citrate, ascorbic acid, sodium polyphosphates, natural flavors, potassium benzoate, gum arabic, potassium sorbate, xanthan gum, ester gum, calcium disodium EDTA, yellow 6, and red 40.

      These changes will help consumers understand that the juice drink is only juice-flavored, with very little real juice, said Cuker. We are happy that PepsiCo agreed to these labeling changes and that we did not need to move forward with litigation.

      As part of this settlement, PepsiCo has agreed to make a $100,000 donation to the American Heart Association for its work in New Jersey, Riback added.

      In May, PepsiCos Quaker Foods unit agreed to resolve a similar dispute involving the labeling of several varieties of instant oatmeal and grits. New labels on those products make the words artificially flavored more prominent.

      Tropicana to Change Labeling of Fruit-Flavored Drinks...
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      Payday Loans Affecting Military Readiness, DOD Decrees

      Military Organizations Providing Zero-Interest Loans in Some Areas

      Military organizations and Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist have organized a program of low-cost loans to servicemen and women, as an alternative to the ruinously expensive payday loans increasingly used by hard-pressed military families.

      The problem has become so widespread that the U.S. Department of Defense has determined that the astronomical rates have an impact on military readiness. The debt resulting from these loans places a service member at risk of losing their security clearance, or worst case, being discharged from the military.

      In an effort to address the problem, the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society and counterparts serving the other branches are providing zero percent interest loans to assist servicemen and women trying to get out of debt and to those with emergency financial needs.

      Each week, servicemen and women and their families trying to make ends meet are victimized by payday loans with exorbitant fees that make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get out of debt.

      These loans, carrying actual interest rates of at least 100 percent, keep military members literally living from paycheck to paycheck while going ever deeper into debt.

      The practice of payday loans centers on advancing a serviceman or woman a portion or all of the amount of their upcoming salary. These loans normally require repayment at high rates within a short period of time. It is often impossible to repay the loan within a few days because most military installations pay on a twice-monthly basis.

      Despite this, the interest continues to effectively increase and the serviceman or woman is farther behind by the next payday than they were prior to obtaining the loan.

      Zero interest loans are a godsend and a financial lifeline for military families, said Crist. Thankfully there are organizations who care about the well-being of those who give so much to our country.

      Attorney General Crist urged the Florida Legislature to take a close look at the statutes to ensure that the men and women in uniform are being protected. Current Florida law allows an effective annual percentage rate of 390 percent. Some states have no statutory limits on payday loans.

      On June 30, the Attorney General issued a consumer alert to military families advising them to avoid predatory lenders and offered tips on how to avoid becoming involved with them. The alert also revealed another option for military families the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act which entitles personnel on active duty to more favorable loan repayment requirements.

      However, these protections are available only for loans received by personnel prior to the time they are called to active duty. The zero percent interest loans expands coverage to more members of the military.

      The June 30 alert also stated that certain payday loan providers were under investigation for possible illegal activity. The investigation is ongoing.

      Payday Loans Affecting Military Readiness, DOD Decrees...
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      North Carolina Stops Cash Grant Scam

      This company used enticing ads and claims of immediate grants to lure in customers

      A Raleigh company that took North Carolinians money but failed to help them win grants as promised has been stopped, Attorney General Roy Cooper said. 

      This company used enticing ads and claims of immediate grants to lure in customers, said Cooper. But once consumers paid their money, the grant offers disappeared and the promises proved hollow.

      Cooper filed suit last momth against Grant Quest, Inc. of Raleigh and its owner Aron Andrew Willis charging that they deceived North Carolina consumers into paying an upfront fee and then failed to help them secure cash grants as promised.

      Wake County Superior Court Judge Wade Barber last week granted Coopers request to temporarily stop Grant Quest and Willis from doing business pending a preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for today. Cooper is also asking the court to shut down Grant Quest permanently and to make the company pay refunds to consumers and civil penalties.

      As alleged in the suit, Grant Quest began placing advertisements in North Carolina newspapers in March of 2004 that claimed, Cash grants available immediately! The ads stated that as much as 30 million dollars in grants from private foundations and the government was available and that Grant Quest would show customers exactly how and where to win these grants.

      According to the ads, grants could be used for a variety of needs such as paying credit card bills and college tuition, starting a new business, and covering medical or housing costs. Grant Quest claimed that these grants were available without a credit check, co-signers or collateral and did not have to be paid back.

      According to Coopers complaint, more than 60 people responded to the ads. These consumers each paid Grant Quest $139 for help receiving grants. However, the suit alleges that Grant Quest and Willis failed to win grants for any of their customers. Some people received nothing in exchange for their payment, while others got some sketchy information downloaded from the Internet about how to apply for grants and loans. Despite offers of a full refund in the companys ads, Grant Quest refused to pay refunds when asked.

      Based on complaints from consumers, Coopers Consumer Protection Division repeatedly asked Willis to refund money to his dissatisfied customers. On July 6, Willis informed Coopers office that he had not paid any refunds and that he was continuing to take money from new customers.

      Willis is currently on probation on unrelated charges. He pled guilty in Wake County Superior Court on December, 17, 2004 to charges of obtaining money by false pretenses for taking money on behalf of The Children's Foundation and then cashing the check for himself.

      Con artists are always coming up with new ways to try to trick you out of your hard-earned money, said Cooper.

      If you see an ad that promises easy money, remember that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. Before you pay money to someone who claims they can help you get a grant or a loan, check out the company.

      A Raleigh company that took North Carolinians money but failed to help them win grants as promised has been stopped, Attorney General Roy Cooper said....
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      Sprint, Nextel Complete Merger

      Sprint and Nextel have officially completed their $35 billion merger

      Sprint and Nextel have officially completed their $35 billion merger, although subscribers won't see the effects for at least the next few weeks. Sometime next month, subscribers will be able to switch from one provider to the other without paying cancellation fees. 

      Also, customers whose plans include free in-network calling will be able to call free to both Sprint and Nextel customers sometime next month, the company said.

      The merger solidifies Sprint Nextel's hold on the #3 position among U.S. wireless carriers with 44 million subscribers. It trails No. 2 Verizon Wireless, with 45.5 million subscribers, and No. 1 Cingular Wireless, with more than 50 million subscribers.

      The merger creates a company with 80,000 employees nationwide. In a blow to the Kansas City area, where Sprint has been located since its founding, the new entity's headquarters will be in Reston, Va., where Nextel got its start. The new company will maintain its operations center in suburban Overland Park, Kansas.

      Sprint Nextel will concentrate on the wireless business, selling off the local telephone businesses Sprint operates in 18 states. The local telephone business has been steadily losing subscribers while Sprint and Nextel have each grown their wireless businesses nearly 10 percent in the eight months since the merger was announced.

      Sprint Nextel's combined networks cover approximately 268 million people.

      Sprint was founded in 1899 by Cleyson Brown under the Brown Telephone Company name in the small town of Abilene, Kansas. It was a landline telephone company that operated as a competitor to the Bell System. In the mid 20th century, Brown changed its name to United Utilities. That company changed its name to United Telecommunications in 1972, as it began to offer a more diversified product range.

      In 1986, the company launched its long distance services under the Sprint brand name. As more people became familiar with the Sprint name, the company changed its from United to Sprint Corporation in 1992.

      In 1995, the company began to offer wireless service under the Sprint PCS brand.

      NEXTEL was founded as FleetCall in 1987, promoting its "push-to-talk" feature. It changed its name to NEXTEL Communications in 1993.

      Sprint, Nextel Complete Merger...
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      Iowa Sues Vision Improvement Technologies

      "See Clearly Method" doesn't work, suit charges

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc., a Fairfield, Iowa, company that sells a so-called natural vision improvement kit called the "See Clearly Method."

      "We allege that the company made dramatic claims for its product that it could not substantiate," Miller said, "including representations that consumers who used the method could quickly and easily free themselves of having to wear glasses or contact lenses."

      The lawsuit described the "See Clearly Method" as a kit of manuals, charts, video-tapes and audio-tapes demonstrating eye exercises and other techniques. The company allegedly sold tens of thousands of the kits for about $350 apiece.

      "We allege that Vision Improvement Technologies uses a combination of misleading and unfair marketing tactics to sell their kits," Miller said. "The alleged illegal tactics include exaggerated claims of effectiveness, false implications of scientific validity, and misleading consumer testimonials in advertising."

      The lawsuit also alleges that a so-called "risk-free" 30-day trial period is deceptively presented and ends up obligating many consumers to pay hundreds of dollars apiece for a product that did not help them.

      "Our suit asks the court to halt the unfair and deceptive practices, assess civil penalties, and provide appropriate reimbursement for consumers," Miller said.

      The lawsuit alleges that Vision Improvement Technologies (VIT) has sold the "See Clearly Method" nationwide since 2001, through radio, television, and print ads, and a web site, Advertisements invited consumers to call a toll-free number for a free informational video, but consumers who called were urged to order the entire kit, which retailed for about $350, on a 30-day trial basis.

      According to the lawsuit, the company has shipped out as many as 5,000 to 10,000 kits a month. About half of the consumers who received the kit returned it within the 30 days and were not obligated to make the full payment, but many who did not return it within the 30 days still sought a refund for various reasons.

      "See Clearly Method" eye exercises and "techniques" included, for example, focusing eyes using special charts or props, facing a bright light with eyes closed at a distance of a few inches, covering eyes with hands for sustained periods, and applying hot and cold wash cloths over closed eyes.

      The lawsuit alleges that consumers have complained that they were misled about how well the "See Clearly Method" worked, the total price they would be charged, and how easy it would be to back out of the purchase.

      The suit says that VIT had set up a refund system that required consumers to phone VIT representatives and get a specially assigned authorization number. However, the suit alleges, many consumers who tried to avoid a charge of about $350 to their credit card complained that they tried to call in and get the special number, but were forced to spend very long periods on hold (20 or 25 minutes or more), or left repeated messages that VIT staff never responded to.

      "We allege that many consumers who sought to take advantage of the 30-day 'risk-free' trial period found that rejecting the product was no easy matter," Miller said.

      The suit noted that the company says its "See Clearly Method" is based in part on the work of William H. Bates, who promoted similar ideas and techniques in the early 1900s. But the suit alleged that Bates's ideas have been dismissed by mainstream eye care professionals for decades.

      "It is particularly important that a company be able to substantiate that its product works when there are so many challenges to the principles and techniques supposedly undergirding the claims," Miller said. "Iowa law requires a seller to be able to substantiate such ambitious claims, but we allege this company could not do so."

      The lawsuit also alleges:

      • Advertisements featured testimonials from people with undisclosed connections to the company, and ads continued using "no more glasses" testimonials, even after the people making such claims had quit using the product and were wearing glasses most of the time.

      • The "See Clearly Method" was claimed to have a scientific foundation, but in fact the only study testing the Method was performed by people with an ownership interest in the Method and was not conducted in accordance with scientific standards.

      • The company told consumers that their names and addresses would not be shared except for purposes considered by company doctors to be compatible with the "See Clearly Method," but, in fact, customer lists were rented out for unrelated marketing purposes.

      • The See Clearly Method was advertised as safe, easy, and even fun, without disclosing that some of the primary eye exercises could produce headaches, and did in fact produce headaches in some users.

      • VIT claimed that it received letters every day from satisfied consumers who had enjoyed tremendous improvement in their vision, but, in fact, positive letters were relatively scarce and were far outnumbered by letters from unhappy customers.

      • Although the See Clearly Method was promoted as an easy and effective way to rid oneself of glasses or contacts, a number of VIT employees and their families continued to rely on corrective lenses, a fact which was not disclosed to potential customers.

      The suit said the "See Clearly Method" materials have sold at different prices at different times, including for $379.89 during much of 2004, and $358.95 as of April 2005. The suit noted that 575 Iowans purchased the See Clearly Method between January 1 and August 27, 2004. About half of them apparently returned the product to the company.

      Miller said: "Our fundamental allegation is that the defendants represent that the See Clearly Method is generally effective in improving eyesight, that many or most Method users can reasonably expect to discard corrective lenses, and that the Method is scientifically grounded. We allege these representations lack substantiation, and are false."

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc., a Fairfield, Iowa, company that sells th...
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      U.S. Lags in Broadband Access

      FCC Paints a Rosy Picture But America Ranks 16th Worldwide

      Despite a rosy picture painted by the Federal Communications Commission, America's access to affordable, high-speed Internet lags far behind the rest of the digital world.

      A report released by Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union shows that a recent FCC assessment of broadband Internet access is misleading and glosses over serious problems behind an ever-widening digital divide.

      "Despite claims to the contrary, the digital divide in America remains large and will continue to grow unless some real changes are made," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. "By overstating broadband availability and portraying anti-competitive policies as good for consumers, the FCC is trying to erect a faade of success. But if the president's goal of universal, affordable high-speed Internet access by 2007 is to be achieved, policymakers in Washington must change course."

      A July 2005 report from the FCC hailed recent progress in improving broadband access in the United States. But upon closer scrutiny, the claims made in the report and a subsequent op-ed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin published in the Wall Street Journal are, at best, wildly optimistic.

      "Broadband Reality Check," a new report by Free Press research fellow S. Derek Turner, calls into question the FCC's conclusions. Among its findings:

      • The FCC overstates broadband penetration rates. The FCC report considers a ZIP code covered by broadband service if just one person subscribes. No consideration is given to price, speed or availability of that connection throughout the area.

      • The FCC misrepresents exactly how many connections are "high-speed." The FCC defines "high-speed" as 200 kilobits per second, barely enough to receive low-quality streaming video and far below what other countries consider to be a high-speed connection.

      • The United States remains 16th in the world in broadband penetration per capita. The United States also ranks 16th in terms of broadband growth rates, suggesting our world ranking won't improve any time soon. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay 10 to 25 times more than broadband users in Japan.

      • Despite FCC claims, digital divide persists and is growing wider. Broadband adoption is largely dependent on socio-economic status. In addition, broadband penetration in urban and suburban in areas is double that of rural areas.

      • Reports of a broadband "price war" are misleading. Analysis of "low-priced" introductory offers by companies like SBC and Comcast reveal them to be little more than bait-and-switch gimmicks.

      • The FCC ignores the lack of competition in the broadband market. Cable and DSL providers control almost 98 percent of the residential and small-business broadband market. Yet the FCC recently eliminated "open access" requirements for DSL companies to lease their lines, rules that fostered the only true competition in the broadband market.

      "The FCC is trying to put the best face on this problem it can, but the people who can't afford or don't have access to high-speed Internet know the truth," said Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America. "Affordable high-speed Internet means stronger economic growth, more educational opportunities and exposure to diverse points of view. If the FCC continues to ignore reality, the gap between the haves and have-nots will become too wide to bridge."

      The three groups call on Congress to take notice of these alarming trends and enact clear policies that will free the broadband market from domination by a handful of large cable and telecommunications companies.

      Their recommendations include ensuring open access to all high-speed communications networks, removing restrictions on public entities that seek to offer broadband services to consumers, and opening up more of the broadcast spectrum for wireless Internet applications.

      "Fudging the facts won't provide high-speed Internet access to those who need it most," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union. "If the FCC is content to let cable and phone companies control the broadband market, then consumers need a third option wireless broadband that is less expensive and which doesn't depend on DSL or cable modems. It offers the best and perhaps now the only way to close the digital divide."

      U.S. Lags in Broadband Access...
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      Automakers' Strategies Aggravate Global Warming

      Hybrid Sales Fail To Halt Rise In Carbon Burdens, Report Warns

      August 11, 2005
      Despite growing concern over global warming, major automakers still pursue product strategies that make the problem worse, a New York environmental organization says.

      Through 2003, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions -- a primary cause of global warming -- from U.S. cars and light trucks have increased 25 percent above the 1990 level. Both the total CO2 emissions and the average emissions per vehicle continue to rise, according to a new report from Environmental Defense.

      Analyzing federal data, the report examines what's behind the growing global warming pollution from cars.

      Among the six largest automakers, who account for 87 percent of U.S. sales, Nissan's new fleet-average CO2 emissions rate increased the most, rising 8.4 percent between 1990 and 2003. Ford's performance was second worst, with its average CO2 emissions rate rising 7.7 percent. DaimlerChrysler's rose by 6.8 percent and GM's did by 6.3 percent.

      Even as they pioneered hybrid-electric cars Honda's and Toyota's product strategies were still damaging overall, with their new fleet-average CO2 emissions rates rising 5.7 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2003.

      "What is remarkable is that we see no decline in automotive carbon burden trends over the past several years," said Environmental Defense automotive expert Dr. John DeCicco, lead author of the report. "Emissions keep rising despite factors that many people think should lower them, including market forces from higher gasoline prices and advances in technology such as hybrid-electric vehicles."

      General Motors and Ford still have the largest total new fleet CO2 emissions.

      "An automaker's carbon burden is the product of its sales and the average CO2 emissions rate of the vehicles it sells," explained Dr. DeCicco. "The greater a firm's carbon burden, the greater their responsibility for helping solve the problem." Over their lifetime, GM's model year 2003 vehicles will emit 6.4 million tons of carbon annually, the biggest carbon burden among automakers.

      Mainly because of its sales success, Toyota's total carbon burden rose substantially, increasing the company's responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Although the Toyota's fleet-average CO2 emissions rate worsened by 2.9 percent, less than other major automakers, it still reflects a harmful trend.

      "While the company cultivates a green image, Toyota is merely staying on top in what remains a race to the bottom in this crucial area of environmental performance," said Dr. DeCicco.

      A major factor for automotive CO2 emissions is the steady rise of light trucks in each company's product mix. The report finds no evidence that this trend is tapering off. Trucks comprised a staggering 74 percent of DaimlerChrysler's model year 2003 light vehicle sales and truck fractions continue to rise for all automakers. Because they are held to a lax fuel economy standard, new light trucks emitted 38 percent more CO2 per mile than new cars in 2003.

      "The auto industry is a massive roadblock to climate protection because of their emphasis on inefficient trucks combined with opposition to meaningful policies to cut their carbon burdens," said Kevin Mills, director of Environmental Defense's Clean Car Campaign.

      The report compares automakers' hybrid offerings to their broader product strategies and reveals that showcasing a few green products does little to protect the planet. Having reneged on its pledge for across-the-board improvements in the efficiency of its sport-utility vehicles, Ford would have to sell over 650,000 vehicles that cut CO2 emissions as much as the Escape Hybrid just to compensate for the increase in the company's new fleet-average CO2 emissions rate between 1990 and 2003.

      "Automakers should support a national greenhouse gas cap in order to create a context in which greener vehicles will flourish," said Mills.

      "The market alone can't solve global warming and even the best technology is worthless without the right policy," noted Dr. DeCicco. "Automakers hold the key to open the door to the political commitment needed for true progress."

      Automakers' Strategies Aggravate Global Warming...
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      NHTSA Investigates Uncontrolled Acceleration in Toyotas

      August 11, 2005
      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation of several Toyota models because of uncontrollable and unintended acceleration while the vehicle is in reverse.

      The agency has received 13 reports of accidents because of the uncontrollable acceleration.

      NHTSA has received complaints involving the Camry, Solara, Lexus, ES, ES 300, ES 330 losing throttle control while the vehicle is reversing out of a driveway. The vehicles were all manufactured between 2000 and 1005.

      There have so far been no fatalities associated with the problem.

      A defect investigation often but not always leads to a vehicle recall.

      NHTSA Investigates Uncontrolled Acceleration in Toyotas...
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      Cell Phone Customers Held Captive by Termination Fees

      Nearly half of U.S. cell phone customers would switch or consider switching cell phone service

      Nearly half of U.S. cell phone customers would switch or consider switching cell phone service carriers to get a lower rate and better service if they didn't have to pay an average penalty of $170 to cancel their service contract, according to a new economic analysis and survey released today by U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group).

      "Consumers are captives locked in a cell by early termination fees preventing them from shopping for better or cheaper cell phone service," said Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director. "No cell phone company has to honor its promises if its customers can't afford to shop around because of unfair penalties."

      The report's release coincides with a review by the Federal Communications Commission, of a petition from the cell phone industry that, if granted, could preempt, or eliminate, state oversight of Early Termination Fees.

      The fees range from $150- $240 depending on the company. The report also follows last week's Nextel/Sprint merger approval, leaving just four companies to provide more than 80 percent of the cell phone service in the U.S.

      The report is a follow-up to a March 2005 MASSPIRG report: "Can You Hear Us Now." That survey of 874 Massachusetts cell phone customers found that 42 percent of consumers reported having a billing problem with their provider and 68 percent reported dropped calls and other quality problems.

      "Not only does this new survey find that more than three out of four Americans want these unfair fees eliminated, but our economic analysis also shows that when you combine the penalties some consumers have paid with the benefits others have lost or can't afford, these penalties have cost consumers more than $4.6 billion in the last three years," said Mierzwinski.

      The new report, "Locked in a Cell: How Cell Phone Early Termination Fees Hurt Consumers" includes analysis of a phone survey conducted by the polling firm IPSOS North America of 1000 U.S. households in July 2005. Key findings include:

      • Nearly half (47 percent) of cell phone customers would "switch cell phone companies as soon as possible" or "consider switching cell phone companies" if early termination fees were eliminated.

      • More than one out of three (36 percent) of the respondents replied that the early termination fee had prevented them from switching.

      • Nearly 9 out of 10 (89 percent) of the consumers agreed that the early termination fee is "a penalty to discourage switching cell phone companies".

      • Combining the actual costs incurred by the 10 percent of consumers who switched in the past three years ($2.5 billion) with the potential benefits others have lost or can't afford ($2 billion), cell phone early termination fees cost consumers more than $4.6 billion from 2002 to 2004.

      • More than three out of four (77 percent) of the consumers either strongly support (57 percent) or support (20 percent elimination of the early termination penalties.

      In response to consumer lawsuits in several states, including California, Florida and Illinois, challenging these early termination fees as unfair, US PIRG says the cell phone industry has petitioned the FCC to treat ETFs not as penalties designed to restrict consumer choice, but as a part of the rates that the companies charge their customers for cell phone.

      "If the FCC were to grant the industry's petition, then the cell phone industry would try to have state laws inappropriately preempted from applying to early termination penalties," said Mierzwinski. "In short, the wireless companies want to stifle competition rather than compete for the customer's business."

      U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and 14 other members of Congress sent a joint letter today to FCC members saying they "strongly urge you to deny" the petition and "urge you not to take any action that would preclude states from enforcing their own laws to protect consumers from unfair and anti-competitive business practices."

      Cell Phone Customers Held Captive by Termination Fees...
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      Realtors See Market Coasting For The Rest Of The Year

      The people who sell real estate for a living predict a soft landing

      A runaway real estate market this year has many economists and even Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan fretting about the housing bubble. But the people who sell real estate for a living predict a soft landing for the red-hot market, not a crash that could wipe out homeowners' gains of the last three years.

      The Federal Reserve raised short-term interest rates for the 10th consecutive time today, lifting its short-term rate target to 3.5% from 3.25% and signaling that more increases are to come. The Fed ist rying to deal with strengthening economic growth, a slightly less favorable inflation picture and still-low long-term interest rates.

      The housing market is probably close to a peak right now in terms of sales activity, but there is tremendous momentum," said David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. "Sales are expected to coast at historically high levels into next year, but they will trend slightly downward.

      In other words, much of the years market gain has already been achieved. Lereah predicts existing-homes will end the year up 2.9 percent to 6.98 million units, while new-home sales will rise 4.8 percent to 1.26 million this year. Total housing starts -- single-family and multifamily -- should grow by 3.2 percent to 2.02 million units in 2005, the highest since 1978; single-family starts are projected to set a record of 1.67 million.

      Home sales should be fairly stable in the near term, Lereah predicts.

      Is now the time to buy? Its not often a real estate agent counsels patience, but thats exactly what it sounds like NAR President Al Mansell, a Salt Lake City broker, is doing.

      "It's a great time to sell, but it may be a better time to buy about a year from now when the market should come closer to balance, he said.

      Mansell says the risk in waiting is not that home prices will escalate, but that interest rates will be higher, making the cost of financing a home higher. But consumers who plan to put a sizable amount down might not be affected all that much.

      It all gets down to a buyer's needs, resources and time horizons, Mansell said.

      The national median existing-home price for all housing types is forecast to rise 10.5 percent in 2005 to $204,600, while the median new-home price should increase 5.2 percent to $232,400.

      The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is projected to rise slowly to 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter, and reach 6.6 percent by the end of 2006.

      Realtors See Market Coasting For The Rest Of The Year...
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      The Web's A Dangerous Place

      Consumer Reports Has Some Tips to Reduce the Risk

      Home Internet users have a one in three chance of suffering computer damage, financial loss, or both because of a computer virus or spyware, according to the conclusions of the 2005 Consumer Reports State of the Net survey of online consumers.

      The survey found that viruses, spyware and phishing are on the rise; but that spam is easing.

      Despite the fact that consumers spent more than $2.6 billion over the past two years for protection software, more than $9 billion was spent on computer repairs, parts, and replacement because of viruses and spyware. The unsettling findings are contained in the September issue of Consumer Reports.

      The nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 households with at-home Internet access indicate that the Internet is no longer the urbane information motorway it was five years ago. An individual consumer now faces assaults through e-mail, Websites, messaging services, and downloads. Among CR's survey findings:

      • 64 percent of survey respondents said they had detected viruses on their computer in the past two years.

      • 52 percent reported a spyware infection in the past six months; of those, 18 percent reported having had an infection so serious that they had to erase their hard drives.

      • Nearly 20 percent of spam recipients said spam interfered with their browser.

      • 17 percent of respondents said they don't use antivirus software.

      • 13 percent said that the need to avoid spam and email scams had induced them to shop online less; but, about 1.2 million online households helped keep spammers in business with purchases of products or services advertised through spam.

      • 10 percent of respondents with high-speed broadband access said they don't have firewall protection that would block online intruders. Nationally, that's the equivalent of 3.6 million unprotected households.

      • 6 percent of respondents had submitted personal information in response to a phishing scam. Financial losses were rare - only .5 percent - but expensive, costing $400 on average, and a few topped $1000.

      • Macs are safer than Windows PCs for some online hazards. Only 20 percent of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years compared with 66 percent of PC owners.

      • 8 percent of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54 percent of Windows PC users.

      Help Is on the Way

      Consumer Reports notes that the most immediate help for consumers is from some leading Internet service providers, notably AOL and EarthLink. They, along with MSN and others, provide antivirus protection and filter out spam and phishing e-mail before it reaches the user.

      Computer users who take the right precautions can greatly reduce exposure to online hazards. The experts at Consumer Reports recommend the following 13 steps and practices to safeguard computer security.

      1. Upgrade the operating system -- Windows XP users should enable automatic updates and install Service Pack 2. Mac users should update with the Software Update Control Panel.

      2. Use a firewall. Windows XP has one built-in and a router most likely has one built-in.

      3. Adjust browser security settings to medium or higher.

      4. Consider an ISP or e-mail provider that offers security.

      5. Use antivirus software.

      6. Use more than one antispyware program, which can boost coverage.

      7. Regularly back-up personal files which safeguards data in case of a security problem.

      8. Beware while browsing. Be wary of ad-sponsored or "free" giveaways. They probably include spyware.

      9. Avoid short passwords to foil password-cracking software.

      10. Use e-mail cautiously -- never open an attachment unless you were expecting it.

      11. Use multiple e-mail addresses so you can drop one when it attracts too much spam.

      12. Take a stand - don't buy anything promoted in a spam message.

      13. Look for secure Websites that show an icon of an unbroken key or a lock that's closed at the bottom of the page. Also the Web address should begin with "https:" when entering personal data.

      Tests and Ratings

      Consumer Reports also tested and rated antispam, antivirus, and antispyware programs. Among the various products tested, CR recommends Allume Systems SpamCatcher 4 ($30) and MailFrontier Desktop ($30) as the best choices among those tested as add-on antispam programs. Users running an older version of Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail should consider upgrading to Microsoft Outlook 2003 or Apple OS 10.4 Mail.

      Among antivirus programs, CR recommends Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2005 ($50) and Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus Personal 5.0 ($35) for consumers that have no antivirus programs. CR also notes that Alwil Avast Antivirus offers free full-featured protection and is easy to use but offers limited support.

      For an excellent main antispyware program with real-time protection, the experts at CR recommend Microsoft AntiSpyware. This free program is beta version and Microsoft says it will offer the final version to licensed Windows users.

      The Web's A Dangerous Place...
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      Aspiring Writers Trash PublishAmerica

      Want to be a published author? All it takes is money

      Aspiring Writers Trash PublishAmerica about Paying to Play for Prose, War of Words, A "Travesty" of Revenge, Dropping Dimes on a Dream Deferred...

      Surveys Often Not What They Seem

      Free Gifts Don't Materialize, Unexpected Charges Do

      Lots of consumers think they can make money or get valuable prizes by taking surveys. Others, well, they just like to answer questions or want to contribute something to the world of marketing.

      Unfortunately, surveys can wind up being very expensive. They're sometimes an identity theft ruse. Other times, they're a means of signing you up for something you didn't know you were buying.

      "Member's Edge LLC put charges on my phone bill saying I filled out a survey that gave them permission to do so," Lynn of Penfield, New York, said. "I started to fill out a survey and when it asked for a credit card number I stopped and got out of there."

      "It was supposed to be for a FREE $250 gift certificate if I filled out this form. I called when I got my phone bill and told them to get this off of my bill and again this month there are MORE charges. They said it is for some email service which we NEVER ordered or wanted. They get your phone number and charge it to your phone bill," Lynn said.

      The same thing happened to John of Cheektowaga, N.Y.

      "I called to inquire why my telephone bill had been charged $15.40 a month. It happened twice and apparently a 3rd charge is in transit. I was told that when I was completing a survey for a chance to win a $50 merchant gift card that I was automatically enrolled in Members Edge - an email service. The representative told me that she would cancel my account but that there are no refunds," John said in a complaint to

      "When I explained that I had never been to the website nor activated an Email account, the representative told me that I was SOL (shit out of luck - her words). I regularly take surveys online and have never had an experience like this before."

      By Phone

      Some survey scams start with a telephone call. "Nick called and asked if I would like to take part in a survey. For my participation, he would send me two free DVD's," said Chris of Portland, Oregon.

      "Once the brief survey was completed he told me that he would be sending me two free copies of 'Girls Gone Wild' and all I had to pay for these 'free' DVD's would be the shipping. He said that he would have to verify my age and this is done by credit card. I hung up."

      "I asked him, 'Do you really think I would give my credit card to some stranger who calls me?' He replied, 'Yeah, people do it all the time.'"

      By Mail

      "I received a "survey" from Columbia House through the mail. The cover letter reads that you can get 5 DVDs for 49 cents apiece with free shipping," said Kay of Enid, Oklahoma. "Nowhere in this letter does it say that you must join the club and be obligated to buy more DVDs."

      "There is no 'reward' for filling out the survey. The offer is the same for everyone, survey or not, even though the front of the packet reads, 'As a result of your participation [in the survey], you can choose 5 dvds for just 49 cents each,'" Kay said.

      "This packet is so misleading it's maddening. It's trickery of the worst sort. I wasn't stupid enough to fall for it, but many people might be."

      Internet Surveys

      Sandra of San Antonio ordered textbooks from "Then I received a bill from Simple Escapes in the amount of $29.85," she said.

      "I do not recall ever signing up for this service, but did do a survey about my purchase that may have been the cause of this charge. I never authorized this charge. The only company that had my credit card number was"

      Pam of Batesville, Indiana was booking at the Bed Bath and Beyond website when she came across an offer for free $50 gift card just for filling out a survey.

      "I thought, wow I love their store, that would be great," Pam recalled. "The so-called survey was a hoax! It was nothing but questions about if I would be interested in this credit card or that insurance company, or books or sunglasses and everything under the sun."

      "To top it off, I keep getting calls from salesmen on a daily basis. We have a unlisted phone number. Guess it's not unlisted anymore because Bed Bath and Beyond sold my personal information to who knows! I'll never shop in that store or trust them again!"

      Debra of Commerce, Georgia, says she takes Internet surveys everyday, sometimes as many as 50 surveys a day. Her luck ran out in May. "I was doing a survey, I was led to believe that this Sprint cell phone was my gift for finishing the survey, that all I would have to pay was shipping and handling," she said.

      "UPS delivered this phone to my house. I made a 16-second call and the next day I received a bill for $84.44. Now I have received another bill for $50.67 which totals $135.11 for a phone that I believed was free."

      John of Chicago thought he would get a free computer for answering a few questions. "Freegiftworld said to answer a few survey questions and get a $500.00 gift from Dell. Then it wants me to buy into four other companies for monthly prescriptions," John said.

      Marie of Laurel, Maryland, had hoped to become an author with the Dell laptop she hoped to receive.

      "I received an email from Incentiverewardcenter that if I participated in their survey and signed up for offers from two of their sponsors that they would send me a Dell Laptop as a gift and that all I needed to do once I received it was to answer a survey for Dell and the laptop would be mine to keep," she said.

      "I participated in their survey, signed up for two of their offers (Book of the Month Club which requires me to buy 15 books at regular club price over the next 2 years and Simply White teeth whitener.) I had to pay in advance with my credit card to be eligible."

      "I have rushed home each day since I completed this offer expecting to have my laptop waiting for me and have been constantly disappointed each day," said Marie. "The thousands of ideas that I have of things that I want to write about are trapped in my head and I have nowhere to put them because I have been lied to."

      Philip of Mojave, California, had a similar experience: "I tried to earn a free iPod from The initial deal was to sign up with three of their sponsors, complete a survey, and earn a free iPod. After doing this, I was then directed to sign up with two more of their sponsors."

      "So I did, and to my surprise, there was ANOTHER survey, then a direction to sign up with two more or their sponsors, which I ignored. I went to the next page, and was informed that all I had to do now, was to have five friends sign up and complete offers, and I will get my iPod," Philip said.

      "Last month I did a survey for Auto Advantage and they said thank you for doing the survey, and that I will get a card for my car, to use for either repairs, or whatever I need it for," said Deborah of Kansas City. "They also told me that would I get a package kit from them, including a $40.00 gas card to pay for the gas." She received nothing.

      "Make Money at Home"

      Patricia of Jacksonville, Florida, was unemployed when she saw a Gozings Survey ad promising she could be paid for taking surveys.

      "First 30 minutes are free. Then they charge $2.97 for the next three days. Then if you decide to stay you would be charged $19.99 every month. I decided within 30 minutes I did not want this membership," she said.

      "They charged me for two at $2.97 each. Very misleading. Thought I only signed up for one," she said.

      Some consumers go so far as to pay for survey software, hoping it will guide them to lucrative big-buck surveys. It didn't work out that way for Ginger of Quinton, Alabama.

      "I purchased the Opinion Paycheck online survey software for $25.00. When it was downloaded, half of the links they provided me were dead. They promise to pay you cash ranging from $4-$25 per survey. Most of the surveys don't pay cash, they offer you prizes. Also the surveys aren't completed until you sign up for trial memberships," Ginger said.

      "I filled out a survey that promised $10.00. After I filled it out it asked me to sign up for a membership, I checked "no" and it said my survey payout was $0.00."

      Danielle of San Francisco paid Survey Platinum $34.95 for access to paid survey websites. "Their policy was that if after 75 days you did not earn your $34.95 back from doing surveys that you would get a refund," she said.

      "So on October 10, 75 days later, I emailed them for a refund because I only made $5. They told me to check their refund policy, which changed without notification. Now it says that after 90 days all sales are final," Danielle said.

      Vacuum Cleaners

      Not all survey problems involve the Internet.

      "Two young men came to my door in the early evening stating they were doing a survey," Dena of Spencer, Wyoming, said. "One was supposed to be an intern learning the ropes and the other the teacher. They asked if they could ask me a few questions to which I responded yes. They also asked if I would look at a product and give my opinion of the presentation."

      "Much to my surprise, once they got in my house they began to set up a Kirby vacuum display! The '"teacher' left and the 'intern' gave his pitch." The pitch went on for more than an hour.

      "After asking them to leave at least 3 times and saying I wasn't interested, had no money, and would not buy a vacuum, the price came down to a whopping $1100! I said no one more time and after taking 30 minutes to pack up they finally left."

      The Jaguar Experience

      Not all survey outrages involve supposed freebies, work-at-home scams or door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen. Some are aimed at upscale consumers who've just dropped tens of thousands of dollars for a new luxury car, like Todd of New London, North Carolina.

      "After leasing a Jaguar, I was sent a customer satisfaction survey. As I was not very satisfied with the leasing experience, the survey reflected my displeasure. The next time I spoke with the dealership, Bob Dunn Jaguar, I was berated by the salesman for the poor marks I gave him on the survey," Todd said.

      "Following the next service, I received and filled out another customer satisfaction survey. Again I gave them a below-average rating. Again I was berated by someone, this time from the service department. When I refused to spend time discussing the survey, I was told that they would no longer service the vehicle ... which is under warranty."

      Wait, it gets worse.

      "After contacting the Jaguar customer service center, I was then informed that the dealership would service the vehicle, but that I had been banned from their property. Now the only way to get my car serviced is to find a third party to drive it in to Bob Dunn Jaguar, or I could choose to take it to another dealership myself," Todd said.

      "Obviously the results of my survey and my name went directly to Bob Dunn Jaguar. Moral of the story... don't fill out customer surveys, unless you plan to give out high marks."

      Surveys can wind up being very expensive. They're sometimes an identity theft ruse. Other times, they're a means of signing you up for something you didn't...
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      Consumer Agency Trashes Trudeau's "Natural Cures" Book

      The New York State Consumer Protection Board is warning consumers about Trudeau

      The New York State Consumer Protection Board is warning consumers that a fast-selling book by Kevin Trudeau does not contain the "natural cures" for cancer and other diseases that Trudeau is promising in a nationwide television ad campaign.

      The board says Trudeau is not only misrepresenting the contents of his self-published book, he is also using false endorsements to encourage consumers to buy 'Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About.'

      'This book is exploiting and misleading people who are searching for cures to serious illnesses,' said CPB Chairman Teresa A. Santiago. 'What they discover is page after page after page of pure speculation -- not the cures for cancer and other diseases that are promised.'

      These false endorsements extend to Trudeau's television infomercials, Santiago said, citing in particular the infomercial featuring the former Tammy Faye Bakker (now Messner). She appears in Trudeau's infomercial because she is suffering from a recurrence of cancer.

      The ad gives the false impression that Messner opposes chemotherapy in favor of the 'natural cures' in Trudeau's book. A representative for Messner said that is not true and that she is starting chemotherapy again.

      'We're asking Mr. Trudeau to pull this ad -- not only because of the misleading 'endorsement' by Tammy Faye -- but also because Mr. Trudeau advertises so-called 'cures' that are not even mentioned in his book,' said Santiago. In his infomercial with Messner, Trudeau cites only one specific cancer 'cure' -- a 'serum' allegedly invented by a New York City zoologist in the 1960's.

      'As unbelievable as it seems, the key to stopping many cancers has been around for over 30 years,' Trudeau said before claiming the government banned this serum. Although he mentions this anecdote in his television ad, there is nothing about this in his book, Santiago noted.

      Consumers in across the country are complaining that the book is just another commercial for Trudeau's website and monthly newsletters. Throughout the book, readers are told that the cures they are looking for, in many cases, are available if they spend more money and subscribe to Trudeau's newsletter or his website. Both cost $71.40 per year or $499 for a 'lifetime membership.'

      'This is not a matter of 'free speech' as Mr. Trudeau claims: if you advertise the contents of a book, it had better contain what has been promised,' said Santiago.

      On the back jacket, Trudeau begins a list of endorsements with a quotation from Dr. Herbert Ley, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Ley never endorsed or even read Trudeau's book because he died on July 22, 2001.

      The book also has a quotation from Dr. My Haley, widow of 'Roots' author, Alex Haley. Dr. Haley said her quotation (''it would be hard these days to find a better read') was not meant to be an endorsement of the book's health claims. Instead, Dr. Haley said she was only suggesting that the book was 'an exciting read.'

      'The hypocrisy surrounding this book and its advertisements is galling because people with real illnesses are being misled,' said Santiago. 'This book and its marketing machine are a cynical attempt by Mr. Trudeau to cash in on his legal troubles with the federal government.'

      Last year, Trudeau agreed to pay $2 million and to stop marketing 'coral calcium' as a cure for cancer to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ('FTC').

      The FTC sued Trudeau largely on the grounds that Trudeau could not substantiate his advertising claim that coral calcium can cure and prevent cancer. It is one of at least 10 products that Trudeau has sold or promoted before the government has leveled fraud charges.

      In addition, Trudeau pleaded guilty in 1990 to larceny in a Cambridge, Mass., state court after being charged with depositing $80,000 in worthless checks. The following year, he also pleaded guilty to credit card fraud in federal district court in Boston, resulting in prison term of nearly two years. The federal charges involved the use of credit-card numbers from customers of a memory-improvement course Trudeau was promoting at that time.

      'Trudeau cannot hide behind his frequent claims that this book simply contains his opinions and that the government is trying to censor him,' said Santiago. 'Throughout the book, Trudeau tries to fool readers into thinking he knows the cure for specific diseases when all Trudeau really offers are different theories on what causes an illness or a disease.'

      Another example, she said, is Trudeau's June 2005 newsletter, which carries the headline: 'The Natural Way to Cure Cancer.' In that newsletter, Trudeau wrote, 'The cure for cancer is: simply stop doing the things that are causing the cancer!'

      Among Trudeau's recommendations and 'opinions' are:

      • Breast milk has been poisoned by exhaust fumes from jets (p. 80)

      • People should not use antiperspirant or deodorant (page 135);

      • 'All tap water is poisonous' (page 144)

      • Microwave cooking poisons food --and causes cancer (page 145)

      • Baby food is 'poisonous;' (page 145);

      • 'Vaccines are some of the most toxic things you can put into your body' (page 131. Despite that statement, Trudeau's newsletter praises Jonas Salk and his vaccine for curing polio);

      • Avoid hot tubs, saunas and swimming pools (page 155);

      • Wear white ('The closer you get to white, the more positive energy you bring into your energetic field.' Page 167)

      • Driving in traffic causes stress and stress causes cancer;

      • Sunscreens cause cancer (page 152);

      • Eat only organic food and 'do not eat any food produced or sold by a publicly traded (page 142); and,

      • Don't take prescription or non-prescription drugs (This recommendation is cited throughout the book. Trudeau's website, however, recommends that drugs be used to cure TB and Parkinson's. In one commercial, Trudeau concedes that drugs and surgery are necessary when an illness is too advanced.)

      Consumer Agency Trashes Trudeau's 'Natural Cures' Book...
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      Acupuncture and Knee Pain

      Can acupuncture help relieve knee pain?

      Can acupuncture help relieve knee pain? According to an article published in the journal Lancet, Doctors divided about three hundred people with osteoarthritis of the knees into three groups.

      One received acupuncture, a second fake acupuncture and the third no acupuncture.

      The patients were allowed to use anti-inflammatory and other pain medicines during the study. After a couple of months, the acupuncture group did the best. About half had a 50 percent reduction in pain and stiffness versus 28 percent of the fake acupuncture group and 3 percent of the untreated group.

      Those in the acupuncture and fake group also took a lot less pain medicine. Six months after the treatments stopped everyone felt about the same.

      Conclusions. The jury is still out on acupuncture and knee pain. Some studies show it helps but other dont. Its probably worth a try along with exercise, stretching, heat and pain medicine.

      Acupuncture and Knee Pain | Dr. Henry Fishman on Health and Medicine...
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      Florida Motorcycle Deaths Soar After Helmet Law Repeal

      The number of fatal motorcycle accidents increased more than 81 percent

      Motorcyclist deaths in Florida have rapidly increased since Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law in 2000 repealing the state's mandatory motorcycle helmet law.

      The number of fatal motorcycle accidents increased more than 81 percent in the three years after the repeal took effect according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

      Throughout the country fatal motorcycle accidents increased 48 percent, in large part because of the growing number of aging baby boomers riding powerful motorcycles.

      Deaths among Florida riders 21 and under nearly tripled after 2000. Riders younger than 21 are still required by state law to wear helmets.

      ''The numbers are pretty compelling that Florida has paid a high price,'' said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the federal agency. ``There is enough here for any state contemplating a repeal to realize there are serious consequences.''

      While the report suggests that some of the increase in motorcycle deaths can be attributed to increased ridership in the state, critics of the Florida helmet law repeal point out that the non-helmeted fatality rate per 10,000 registered motorcyclists increased from 0.7 fatalities in 1998 to 6.1 in 2002.

      Medical costs for motorcycle riders involved in accidents in Florida followed the increase in fatalities. In 1998 and 1999, the acute care hospital charges for head-brain-skull principal injury cases per 10,000 registered motorcycles were $311,549 and $428,347 respectively.

      The comparable figures for 2001 and 2002 were $605,854 and $610,386, adjusted for inflation.

      The motorcycle group that successfully lobbied legislators in 2000 to lift the helmet requirement contends that NHTSA is biased against riders who do not use helmets. The group argues that the increase in deaths can be largely attributed to the increasing popularity of motorcycle riding.

      The lengthy study was conducted for NHTSA by Preusser Research Group, a Connecticut research firm that specializes in transportation and highway safety issues.

      The study does not fully blame the increase in deaths on riders without helmets, noting that alcohol use and speed also likely played a role.

      Florida Motorcycle Deaths Soar After Helmet Law Repeal...
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      Ameriquest Faces Blizzard of Suits and $325 Million Settlement with States

      30-State Task Force Alleges Deceptive Sales Practices

      Ameriquest, the nation's largest subprime lender, faces numerous lawsuits filed by customers who said the subprime lender charged them excessive fees or changed the agreed-upon terms on refinancing loans when they arrived to sign the final documents.

      The company disclosed last week that it had reached a tentative $325 million settlement with a task force of 30 state attorneys general over allegations of deceptive sales practices.

      At least eight of the pending lawsuits are seeking class-action status.

      Earlier this week, President Bush nominated Ameriquest founder Roland Arnall as the next ambassador to the Netherlands.

      Arnall and his wife, who live on a 10-acre estate in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, contributed $5 million to a pro-Bush committee in 2003 and chipped in $1 million for Bush's second inauguration party, The Los Angeles Times reported.

      Arnall also is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, a foreign policy group that advocates a hard line against Islamic terrorists.

      Ameriquest, founded by Arnall as Long Beach Savings in 1979, has faced off with consumer activists, regulators and private litigants in a series of disputes over its lending practices dating to 1996. The company has paid millions of dollars in restitution and for borrower education, and it has adopted a series of "best practices" improvements to its operating policies.

      In a case filed in Boston, borrowers said their loan fees and interest rates differed from what they had agreed to when they negotiated to refinance their homes, often to pay off household debts. California-based Ameriquest, the suit said, then ''uniformly promised" to refinance them a second time, sometimes within months, ''on more favorable terms," to recoup additional fees.

      According to, Ameriquest's parent company, ACC Capital Holdings Corp., is the nation's largest subprime lender, based on $82.7 billion in mortgage volume in 2004, including $3 billion in Massachusetts. Subprime loans are for people with credit scores too low for them to qualify for a traditional mortgage.

      The litigation parallels charges being brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and officials in 29 other states. Investigators found Ameriquest used ''bait and switch" tactics in often unsolicited phone calls to potential customers, did not disclose steep penalties charged for paying loans off early, and falsified borrowers' incomes to ensure they would qualify for the loan, The Boston Globe reported.

      Reilly's office said it has received 133 complaints about Ameriquest since 2002.

      In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, ACC Capital disclosed it set aside money for a tentative settlement with the states, but the company said there is ''no assurance such an agreement will be reached." Reilly's office said, ''any resolution will require a significant payment by Ameriquest, including restitution to harmed consumers."

      In July, Connecticut's Department of Banking reached a $7 million settlement with Ameriquest and two other ACC units, Argent Mortgage Co. and Town & Country Credit Corp. The company agreed to reimburse 350 customers whose loan fees exceeded limits set by state law by $3,000, on average, state officials said.

      Ameriquest Faces Blizzard of Suits and $325 Million Settlement with States...
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      Uninsured Kids Likely To Go Without Any Medical Care

      August 4, 2005
      A study by two research groups finds more than one-fifth of uninsured children in New York went without medical care for an entire year, while in Florida the percentage was even higher one out of four. Conversely, 92 percent of the insured New York Children, and 88 percent of Floridas insured children received care during the same period, according to the research.

      Uninsured children in New York were 12 times more likely not to receive needed medical care than New York children with insurance, while in Florida, they were 20 time more likely to go without medical care. The research was prepared by analysts at the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, located at the University of Minnesota, and the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

      The research also showed that in New York state, as well as nationally, more than seven in ten uninsured children are eligible for low-cost or free health care coverage through Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), but are not enrolled. There are more than 335,000 uninsured children in New York who are likely eligible for Child Health Plus, the state's low-cost or free health care coverage plan for children.

      Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) and the Child Health Now! Coalition, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Covering Kids & Families Initiative, have kicked off a series of local events that will take place in New York City and across the state to enroll eligible uninsured children in Child Health Plus.

      New York City is one of six cities in the United States selected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for an enhanced outreach campaign targeting families with uninsured children.

      Similar efforts are being carried out in Florida.

      "It is disturbing to know that children are not receiving the health care they need. They're even missing out on annual checkups that will prevent them from developing more serious medical conditions down the road," said Jodi Ray, Project Director for Florida Covering Kids & Families. "We owe it to the parents of these children to let them know that coverage is available for many uninsured children."

      Uninsured Kids Likely To Go Without Any Medical Care...
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      FCC Clears Sprint, Nextel Merger

      The Federal Communications Commission has unanimously approved the $36 billion union

      The Federal Communications Commission has unanimously approved the $36 billion union between wireless phone providers Sprint and Nextel. With the Justice Departments failure to find any anti-trust issues to pursue, the FCC action was the final hurdle for the deal, which solidifies Sprints position as the U.S. third largest wireless company.

      The FCC said the merger would lead to better service and a faster rollout of advanced services. In fact, the only condition the commissioners placed on their approval was Sprints commitment to begin offering service in the 2.5 (GHz) band by 2009.

      The new company, which will be called Sprint Nextel, also intends to spin off to its shareholders Sprint's local telecommunications business following the merger.

      Executives at both Sprint and Nextel said the merger combination will allow Sprint Nextel to:

      • Offer digital wireless service in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sprint Nextel and its affiliates and partners cover a total domestic population of 262 million.
      • Provide consumers more choice through investments in wireless multi-media, web browsing, messaging, gaming and music on the go.
      • Provide integrated wireless and IP-based wire line solutions to business.
      • Improve customer service and sales performance through joint capabilities.
      • Invest to deploy next-generation wireless data services.
      • Improve wireless network quality and coverage.

      FCC Clears Sprint, Nextel Merger...
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      Alternatives to Loyalty Cards

      Retail Chains Largely Mum About Their Policies

      As we explored in our previous article on loyalty cards, there are dangers in giving up too much information just to get a discount from your favorite supe..

      Celebrex Gets Black Box Label

      Similar warnings have been mandated for ibuprofen and naproxen

      Celebrex, the only COX-2 painkiller still on the market in the U.S., will carry the Food and Drug Administrations toughest warning. The FDA has announced the drug will carry a so-called black box on its label, warning consumers of increased cardiovascular risks.

      Similar warnings have been mandated for ibuprofen and naproxen.

      Celebrex has been under close scrutiny since late last year, when Merck withdrew another COX-2 drug, Vioxx from the market. The FDA then asked Pfizer to take similar action with its COX-2 drug, Bextra.

      "We have worked closely with the FDA to ensure that Celebrex's label provides physicians and patients with the information they need to make the most appropriate and most informed treatment decisions," said Dr. Joseph Feczko, Pfizer's chief medical officer.

      The new warning on Celebrex's label will recommend the drug be prescribed at the lowest dose and shortest time possible. Doctors are also being cautioned that Celebrex should not be used following heart bypass surgery.

      While toughening the warning label, the FDA has approved the use of Celebrex for treatment of ankylosing spondylitis, a rare form of arthritis in the spine. It continues as an approved pain reliever for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

      Pfizer says the recommended dose for Celebrex is 200 mg daily for osteoarthritis and 200 mg to 400 mg daily for adult rheumatoid arthritis. For the management of the signs and symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis, the recommended dose of Celebrex is 200 mg daily in single or divided twice per day doses.

      In a way, the black box warning marks a victory for Pfizers strategy of keeping Celebrex on the market. The pharmaceutical company came under strong pressure late last year to withdraw the drug, as Merck had done with Vioxx. A Toronto newspaper published documents in which Canadian health officials blamed Celebrex for 14 deaths in Canada.

      But Merck took a major financial hit when it withdrew Vioxx and Pfizer seemed determined to avoid that fate. In December company executives strongly defended Celebrex, but pulled all radio and TV advertising for the drug.

      Celebrex Gets Black Box Label...
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      FDA Urged to Crack Down on Tuna Mercury Levels

      "Time to Stop Protecting Fishermen's Profits, Start Protecting Children"

      The Food and Drug Administrations advisory urging limits on how much tuna children and some women should eat fails to provide adequate protection against mercury poisoning, according to an independent group studying the issue. The Mercury Policy Project says one out of 20 cans of white, albacore tuna should be recalled as unsafe for human consumption.

      "Our test results confirmed what FDA has known for well over a decade: white tuna has much higher mercury levels than light tuna, with samples at the 1 part per million FDA action level. This is the level FDA uses to recall fish from the marketplace," said Michael Bender, the groups director.

      "FDA's own food safety committee recommended that the Agency revise its advisory, but FDA has failed to act because of undue influence by industry," said Bender. "FDA should stop protecting the fishing industry's profits and start protecting children."

      Methylmercury -- the organic form mercury assumes in fish -- is a potent neurotoxin that poses the greatest risk to the developing fetus, infants, and young children. The latest data from the CDC indicates that 5.6 percent of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have unsafe mercury levels that may place the developing fetus at risk.

      Canned tuna is consumed in 90 percent of American households and accounts for over 20 percent of US seafood consumption.

      What should consumers know when they head down the tuna aisle at the supermarket?

      They need to know that white tuna has between three to five times as much mercury, on average, as the light can tuna, Bender told This has been demonstrated, not only by the testing that weve done, at Consumers Union, but also the testing that FDA did.

      "Pregnant women and young children should be advised to avoid consuming albacore white tuna, as the Rhode Island Department of Health recommends," Bender added.

      Albacore accounts for about one-third of all canned tuna sold in the U.S. The independent testing found that mercury levels in white canned tuna averaged over 0.5 ppm.

      How much fish a person can eat before exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) "virtual safe limit," called a reference dose (RfD), depends on body weight and mercury content of the fish. For example:

      • A 22 pound toddler eating only 2 ounces of tuna per week with a 0.5 ppm mercury concentration would have an intake over 4 times the EPA's RfD, according to the group.

      • If a woman with a typical weight of 132 lbs eats 12 ounces of canned tuna per week (the limit advised by FDA) with a 0.5 ppm mercury concentration, she will exceed by 4 times the EPA's RfD.

      • An 88 pound child consuming one 6 ounce can of tuna with a 0.5 ppm mercury concentration weekly would be exposed to 3 times the EPA's RfD standard.

      FDA Urged to Crack Down on Tuna Mercury Levels...
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      Atkins Diet Company Files Bankruptcy

      Low-Carb Diet Promoter Runs Out of Dough

      It appears the low-carb diet craze may be waning. Atkins Nutritionals, the company founded by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, has filed for bankruptcy. Atkins developed the Atkins Diet, which counseled dieters they could lose weight just by avoiding carbohydrates.

      The Atkins Diet and other low-carb regimens had a huge impact on the food industry. Some packaged food manufacturers were caught flatfooted, as consumers shunned their products that were high in sugars and other carbohydrates. Even many low-calorie diet food products suffered, since they were low in fats but high in carbohydrates. The Atkins Diet held that fat calories were preferable to carbs, saying the body could metabolize them more easily.

      Bread makers, potato farmers, and pasta producers all suffered as millions of consumers avoided carbohydrates and loaded up on protein, as called for in the Atkins Diet. But the diet has always been controversial, with many nutritionists saying a diet high in fat is simply unhealthy.

      It didn't help when the diet's founder and chief architect, Dr. Robert Atkins, died of what was widely reported to be cardiovascular disease.

      Atkins Nutritionals, which produces a line of low-carb convenience foods, supplements, snacks and condiments, has apparently felt the effect of consumers shifting tastes. The company listed assets of over $300 million and liabilities of $325 million in papers filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York. The company owes its lenders roughly $301 million under a 2003 loan, according to the papers filed other the weekend.

      The Long Island-based company has drastically downsized and reorganized in the past year, laying off some of its 370 employees and hiring a new chief executive and chairman.

      "We adjusted our organization to accommodate a smaller business and have begun to position the Atkins brand more broadly for consumers who are concerned about health and wellness," company CEO Mark Rodriguez said. Rodriguez said the company will focus more on its nutrition bars and shakes than the diet craze that made it a household name.

      Atkins Diet Company Files Bankruptcy...
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      Detroit Is Most Expensive Place to Own a Car

      Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are the most expensive places to own and operate a car

      It costs more to drive a car in Motown than in any other city in the country.

      Car Ownership Costs





      Los Angeles












      Topeka, KS


      Grand Forks, ND


      Sioux Falls, SD


      Knoxville, TN


      Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are the most expensive places to own and operate a typical 2006 mid-size vehicle, with yearly costs exceeding $10,360, according to Runzheimer International, a firm specializing in employee mobility reimbursement.

      Driving a typical mid-size car (represented by a 2006 Ford 500 SEL 4-door sedan) in the Detroit area costs $11,844 per year with Philadelphia next at $10,672, and Los Angeles in third place at $10,361.

      Expenses include operating costs such as fuel, oil, tires, and maintenance and ownership costs, defined as insurance, depreciation, and license/registration fees.

      In sharp contrast, driving this same vehicle in Knoxville, Sioux Falls, and Grand Forks costs the owner approximately $7,400, representing a difference of nearly $4,500 between the most and least expensive locations.

      The three highest cost cities all share one common factor -- high auto insurance rates. Detroit rates for liability, comprehensive, and collision insurance are nearly $5,162 annually; Philadelphia rates are $4,142; and Los Angeles rates are $3,225.

      Maintenance costs also vary. Assuming normal service, maintenance and tires for a vehicle driven 60,000 miles over four years range from a high of 7.35 cents-per-mile in San Francisco to a low of 4.69 cents-per-mile in Bismarck.

      Detroit Is Most Expensive Place to Own a Car: Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are the most expensive places to own and operate a car....
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