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    Prius Owners Still Miffed about Mileage

    Toyota has sold more than 500,000 of the Prius hybrids, setting the mark in October amid continuing complaints about gasoline mileage claims. While the Japanese automaker is developing a loyal band of Prius owners, it's also amassing a gaggle of angry Priusians.

    Feelings run deep among people who have endured waiting lists and additional premiums, particularly those who feel they were sold a pig in a poke.

    Deborah H. in Louisville, Kentucky is angry. "I feel there was false advertising by Toyota stating there was 50 miles per gallon on the highway and 60 miles per hour in the city driving my Toyota Prius hybrid," she wrote.

    Deborah was one of thousands of Prius buyers who paid the dealer a "market adjustment" or extra money for her new hybrid.

    "They jacked up the price $8,000 from sticker stating it was a car that was hard to come by and that was their price. They said I would actually save money on gas."

    But Deborah writes that gas mileage results her Prius achieves continue to be disappointing: "After six months of tracking, the best mileage I ever got was 43 miles per gallon. Most often my mileage is between 30 and 36 miles per gallon."

    The mileage, she complains, is "no better than cars I have had in the past. I am very disappointed in Toyota's advertising and the money I have shelled out."

    A Toyota spokesman contacted by ConsumerAffairs.com insists that 30 to 36 miles to a gallon is not possible with a Prius unless driver error or a mechanical problem is involved.

    Laurie K. in Folsom, California finally concluded her mileage problem must be driver error with her Prius. She solved the nagging mileage issue by paying close attention to the onboard computer in her hybrid.

    "I have owned a Toyota Prius since 2004. I too was getting poor mileage," she wrote. "However, after many months I finally discovered the secret to getting higher mileage. I keep the computer screen on that shows how many miles per gallon I'm getting."

    The computer tracks mileage every 15 to 30 minutes, Laurie said.

    "I just watch the gauge and keep my foot lightly on the gas pedal. I have averaged 60 miles per gallon when I do this. However, if I am in a rush, I get lower gas mileage because I do not have time to gently take off from a stoplight or drive slower by easing up on the gas pedal."

    Laurie says that if driven correctly, her Prius now averages 60 mpg.

    "My husband and I finally figured it out, she wrote. "Now we have a goal to try and keep the average, but it takes practice and a visual of the computer screen to make sure you are driving appropriately."

    Irene S. in Montebello, California, wrote that the mileage drop-off in her 2005 Prius was almost immediate.

    "When I started driving the car, I got 44 mpg on the street. Presently, I am still driving the car on the street and getting about 24 mpg and the odometer reads 780 miles."

    Dave B. in Laguna Woods, California, reports similar problems with his 2004 Prius but he knew the cause. The gasoline engine is running too much: "The last two times I filled the tank I got 25 miles per gallon. Not acceptable. The gasoline engine runs continuously."

    Dave's Toyota dealer where he purchased the hybrid has been unable to help after three trips to the service department. "They agree the gasoline engine should not start up until the car gets up to 20 miles per hour, but cannot correct the problem," he wrote.

    Prius Owners Still Miffed about Mileage...
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      Scottrade Gets Hacked

      The Scottrade online brokerage firm has notified many of its clients that their personal information may have been hacked, due to a data breach from a partner company's payment processing system.

      It's the latest in a seemingly endless stream of customer data breaches. The TROY Group, makers of the "eCheck Secure" online checking application, stated that a hacker had breached the servers containing the personal information of eCheck Secure users.

      The company was sparing in its details of the incident, saying only that it had notified the FBI and its customers, and had hired a "professional forensic services firm" to investigate the incident.

      eCheck Secure enables users to submit data from their checking account and have transactions automatically debited without using credit or debit cards, via ACH (Automated Clearinghouse) transfer.

      The TROY Group had boasted in a press release that eCheck Secure "utilizes a multi-level server system with the latest in encryption technology to ensure the integrity of the data transmitted over the Internet."

      St. Louis-based Scottrade handles over 1.3 million accounts for its brokerage service, and claimed $223 million in revenue for 2003, though it still pales alongside rival online brokerages Ameritrade and E*Trade. The company has been in business with the TROY Group since 2000.

      Scottrade notified affected customers via mail on Nov. 11th of the incident, which apparently occurred in late October. The letter stated that "[S]ome of your personal information, including your name, driver's license or state ID number, date of birth, phone number, bank name, bank code, bank number, bank routing number, bank account number and Scottrade account number may have been compromised. If you used your Social Security number as your driver's license or state ID number, your Social Security number may have been compromised as well."

      Many Scottrade customers did not get the letter for several days or a week, leading to complaints that the company took too long to report the incident. Said one disgruntled customer, "It's inexcusable that it took them one month to notify us of this breach."

      The Scottrade breach is the latest in a year full of expensive, dangerous, and embarrassing data losses for major companies, including Bank of America, ChoicePoint, Lexis Nexis, and DSW. Irate consumers have been pushing lawmakers to enact stronger safety standards for data brokers, and require immediate notification of affected customers in case of theft.

      Many Scottrade customers did not get the letter for several days or a week, leading to complaints that the company took too long to report the incident....
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      Retailers' Return Policies Getting Tougher

      When determining a store's return policy, it's always best to ask for it in writing

      You want your gifts to be perfect, but not all of them are. Sometimes they're the wrong size or color, and the recipient will want to return the item for something else. As you shop you might do well to consider a store's return policy before making a purchase.

      When determining a store's return policy, it's always best to ask for it in writing. Don't just take the word of an employee. Consider the experience of Julie, from Renton, Washington, who recently purchased a jacket at Burlington Coat Factory.

      "When checking out, I asked the clerk about their return policy, she told me 14 days with the receipt and tags and/or package it came in. When I got home, I realized it was the same jacket I bought at season end last year, just a different color," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      After Julie drove back to the store to return the jacket, the customer service office took the jacket back and handed her a gift card in the amount of the original purchase but would not give her a cash refund.

      "I was told the 'return' policy is 14 days with receipt and the tags and/or packaging the item came in. I asked where that policy was posted, she pointed to the ceiling. There was every kind of policy except a 'return' policy."

      Returns can be slightly more complicated when you purchase items online. The transaction must be resolved by telephone and email, and when a third party is involved, it can get even more complicated.

      "I paid $914 for patio chairs for my restaurant from Overstock.com. I paid for them using PalPal," said Phillip, of Portland, Oregon.

      "A week later Overstock.com informed me that they were not in stock. I asked for a refund but they claimed they only issue store credits. I have since found another product and have no use for a store credit for a product they do not have."

      Stores find it to be a costly annoyance when consumers return merchandise. Some retailers have begun using a computer database operated by The Return Exchange of Irvine, California, to track customer returns.

      Stores swipe the shopper's driver's license each time a return is being made, and if the store-set return limit is exceeded, the customer's tendered return is denied. Most stores' posted policies do not warn shoppers of a cap on frequent returns.

      The Return Exchange boasts that its "Verify-1" system offers retailers "a measurable reduction in your return rate without disruption of your business, delays for customers, or added burdens on IT operations."

      The company says it does not share details of a consumer's return history with multiple retailers. Instead, it says that information is based only on previous transactions with each retailers. In other words, Target would learn only of other returns to Target.

      According to the company's Web Site, information provided to retailers includes:

      • Characteristics of your current return, such as the time since you purchased the item, the number of items, the total dollar amount, and the time since your last return.

      • Characteristics in your return history, such as the number and kind of returns you have made, if you have provided receipts or not, the duration between your returns, the dollar amounts of your returns, and the number of stores in which you have made returns.

      • The performance of consumers who have return characteristics similar to yours.

      The company's Website offers an email address consumers can write to for a copy of their return record: ReturnActivityReport@TheReturnExchange.com. Consumers who do not receive a satisfactory response should file a consumer complaint with ConsumerAffairs.com, the Federal Trade Commission and their state attorney general.

      Some large retailers presumably maintain their own, proprietary databases of similar information.

      Besides using return records, stores are using increasingly strict but conventional means to curb returns. Items such as computers, digital cameras, and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shortened return periods, or no refunds at all. When purchasing these items, it is always wise to check the stores written policy.

      Tips for Hassle-Free Returns

      To improve your chances of getting a full refund, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, and return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all original packaging material. Returns without a receipt are subject to the retailer's posted return policy, which might result in receiving only a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for in recent weeks, or possibly no refund or exchange at all.

      If the item to be returned is defective, some states, such as Massachusetts, require the store to give the consumer his or her choice of one of the three "R's": repair, replacement or refund, irrespective of the store's posted return policy.

      Consumers who have a problem returning a gift, should first contact the store manager or customer service department of the retailer.

      Some credit cards also offer a "return guarantee" benefit whereby the card issuer will refund your money if a store will not within 90 days of purchase. If a satisfactory resolution is not obtained, then a complaint can be filed with the state Attorney General's office or local consumer agency.

      To improve your chances of getting a full refund, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, and return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all origin...
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      Connecticut Probes Wal-Mart Pricing

      Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says he will investigate Wal-Mart's pricing practices in the wake of studies showing significant discrepancies between the chain's posted and checkout prices.

      Studies by the University of Illinois' Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development and the University of California-Berkley revealed that items purchased at Wal-Marts in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and California scanned the wrong price as often as 8.3 percent of the time. That far exceeds the federal standard, a 2 percent error rate.

      Errors recorded in the studies were both greater and less than the posted prices, so they sometimes benefited the consumer, other times the company.

      Consumers have also complained to ConsumerAffairs.com about pricing issues. Janice of Ellington, Mo., said the Poplar Bluff, Mo., Wal-Mart frequently has incorrect prices on its items.

      "Checkers and managers get very nasty when you correct them. Why don't they fix the problem and correct the price?" she asked. "You can go back a week later and it most times is not taken care of so why get ugly with the customer?"

      "I see this at Walmart all the time on all different types of products," said Maggi of Bloomington, Indiana. "How can they get away with that?"

      Blumenthal will determine whether similar discrepancies exist at Wal-Mart stores in Connecticut.

      "This data shows serious discrepancies between the prices posted and the amounts actually charged -- meriting prompt investigation -- because Wal-Mart has a legal obligation to be always accurate, not always low," Blumenthal said.

      "Nothing is more fundamental to fair pricing than keeping promises about prices. Consumers should be spared a sweepstakes system when they come to the cash register. They deserve reliable, rock-solid price guarantees. The price they are given should be the price they are charged, he added.

      "Consumers should take nothing for granted while shopping at Wal-Mart this holiday season. Check the register price with the shelve price and report any discrepancies to my office. Shoppers can be our eyes and ears, as we begin this investigation, according . to Blumenthal. "I will take appropriate action to protect consumers and assure the integrity of Wal-Mart's prices if my investigation uncovers unacceptable price inaccuracies in Connecticut."

      The studies found that almost 85 percent of Wal-Mart stores surveyed in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan failed to meet the federally standard of a 2 percent error rate. In California, 87 percent of Wal-Marts surveyed exceeded the standard. The error rate was also highest in California -- 8.3 percent -- compared with 6.4 percent in the other three states.

      Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says he will investigate Wal-Mart's pricing practices in the wake of studies showing significant discrepanc...
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      Is Black Friday Going Green?

      "Black Friday" is the nation's number-one shopping day, with an estimated $8 billion spent on shopping in 2004. The day after Thanksgiving was coined "Black Friday" as the day businesses started to show profits on their books, i.e. "going into the black."

      Many major retailers are now referring to the day as "Green Friday," in order to avoid the negative connotations of using the word "black."

      Another source calling the day "Green Friday" is Mitch Goldstone. The online photo shop owner and credit card reform activist has been promoting "Green Friday" as a "day without credit cards."

      Goldstone has been urging shoppers and activists to use cash to pay for gifts on Nov. 26th, in order to draw attention to the high merchant fees banks and card issuers charge stores when consumers buy goods with credit and debit cards.

      "We've been drawing a lot of attention," Goldstone said. "It's being observed by a lot of big companies."

      Goldstone is part of a class action lawsuit against Visa, MasterCard, and major banks over the issue of interchange fees.

      The nonprofit group Americans for Consumer Education and Competition (ACEC) has come out against Goldstone's crusade, saying that consumers prefer the convenience of using debit cards over cash.

      "We are in a technological age where consumers want to streamline the process of purchasing, better track their own expenses, and maintain a certain amount of security -- which becomes challenging when they carry a wad of cash as opposed to one plastic debitcard," ACEC's national chairperson, Susan Molinari, said.

      It's just not practical and it's not what consumers or retailers want."

      Molinari cited as evidence another poll conducted by the NRF in 2004, which cited debit cards overtaking cash -- and credit cards -- as the chief purchasing tool for holiday shopping.

      Many major retailers are now referring to the day as "Green Friday," in order to avoid the negative connotations of using the word "black." ...
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      Restaurants Still Pouring on the Trans Fats

      Supermarkets, Food Processors Cleaning Up Their Act

      While many of America's biggest food manufacturers and supermarket chains are busily replacing trans fats with more healthful substitutes, the biggest restaurant chains are still frying French fries, chicken nuggets, and other fast foods in trans-fat-laden, heart-attack-inducing partially hydrogenated oils, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

      Trans-fat labeling on packaged foods becomes mandatory on January 1, 2006. That approaching deadline has been a powerful incentive for supermarkets and food manufacturers to switch to healthier oils, but CSPI found that the lack of any nutrition labeling or disclosure requirements for restaurant chains has caused them to lag far behind.

      While several major restaurant chains, including Yum! Brands, corporate parent of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, told CSPI they are testing healthier oils, only a few chains have already taken action. They include:

      Au Bon Pain, a 220-location caf chain based in Boston, has eliminated trans fat from all of its cookies, bagels, and muffins, and is now using a non-hydrogenated margarine;

      Jason's Deli, a 137-outlet sandwich and salad chain, has stopped using partially hydrogenated oils in all of its products;

      Panera Bread, a 773-outlet caf chain that was formerly part of Au Bon Pain, is in the process of replacing all partially hydrogenated oils and plans to be trans-free by year's end;

      California Pizza Kitchen has removed trans fat from deep-fried foods and is working on eliminating it from all other foods.

      Last year, Ruby Tuesday, with some 700 table-service restaurants around the country, began deep-frying in heart-healthy canola oil, though its suppliers still par-fry some items in partially hydrogenated oil.

      Chik-fil-A fries in peanut oil in its outlets, though its suppliers also par-fry French fries in partially hydrogenated oil.

      Among companies that responded to CSPI, Starbucks, ice-cream chain Friendly, and fried-chicken chain Popeyes indicated they had no plans to remove or reduce trans fat in their foods.

      In 2002, McDonald's famously promised to reduce and ultimately eliminate the trans fat in its cooking oil, but in 2003 it quietly retreated from its pledge. McDonald's settled a lawsuit against it on the matter by giving $7 million to the American Heart Association and by promising to spend more money informing its customers about the "delay."

      Although McDonald's has reformulated Chicken McNuggets and a few other products to have a little less trans fat, its fried foods are still very high in trans fats overall.

      A meal including a 5-piece Chicken Selects and a medium order of French fries has about 9.5 grams of trans fat -- five days' worth of trans fat if one were following the recommendations of the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

      McDonald's outlets in Australia, Denmark, and Israel all fry in trans-free oil.

      Meals at other restaurants also are loaded with trans fat. KFC's Chicken Pot Pie contains 14 grams of trans, and Taco Bell's Nachos BellGrande has seven grams.

      "Selling food cooked in or with partially hydrogenated oils is like selling a car without seat belts," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Partially hydrogenated oil causes thousands of avoidable premature deaths, and the restaurant industry's reluctance to change is absolutely reckless."

      Processed food manufacturers have made much more progress than restaurant chains. According to CSPI's survey, seven of the 10 top-selling cracker brands have been reformulated to contain zero grams of trans fat per serving. (CSPI warns, however, that the FDA lets companies treat amounts of trans under half a gram per serving as zero. Someone eating several servings of foods that contain just less than half a gram of trans could easily reach their daily limit without knowing it.)

      Food manufacturers making headway on trans fat include:

      Kraft has eliminated most or all trans fat from Triscuts, Wheat Thins, Chips Ahoy, Mallomars, Reduced Fat Oreos, Boca products, Honey Maid low fat Cinnamon Grahams, SnackWell's Cracked Pepper crackers, and other products;

      Gorton's has replaced partially hydrogenated oils with healthier oils in its entire line of fish sticks and fillets;

      George Weston Bakeries plans to eliminate trans fat in all Entenmann's and Freihofer cake and danish products;

      McCain now uses canola oil for all of its grocery and retail frozen potatoes and one line of its food-service French fries.

      Supermarket chains are also making progress, according to CSPI.

      Whole Foods has never sold foods with partially hydrogenated oil, and nine of 11 chains that responded to CSPI's queries say they have already made changes or plan to do so for their store-brand products.

      Wegman's has been making gradual changes for years; the Raley's and Giant chains have asked suppliers to make changes and have switched to trans-free McCain for store-brand frozen French-fries.

      "Including trans fat on food labels has had a much greater positive effect that most people imagined," said Jacobson. "Nevertheless, the federal government should do what several Denmark has done, and actually require companies, including restaurants, to send partially hydrogenated oils down the garbage disposal of history."

      Denmark limits trans fat to 2 percent of the fat or oil content of foods.

      Although small amounts of trans fat occur in meat and dairy foods, 80 percent of trans fat in the diet comes from partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat is the most harmful of fats in the food supply, since it both raises LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and lowers HDL, or "good" cholesterol. Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and his colleagues estimate that trans fat in food causes at least 30,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year.

      Although CSPI has been aggressively urging food companies to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils, the group does not want companies to switch to palm oil.

      That oil is generally produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where oil palm plantations have replaced rainforest teeming with orangutans, tigers, and other endangered species. Moreover, it promotes heart disease, though not to the same extent as the typical partially hydrogenated oil.

      CSPI's survey included 38 major food manufacturers, 100 restaurant chains, and 25 supermarket chains.

      Restaurants Still Pouring on the Trans Fats...
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      Consumer Group Sues Sony BMG

      EFF Says Company Should Repair Damage to Customers Caused by CD Software

      November 22, 2005
      The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit against Sony BMG, demanding that the company repair the damage done by the First4Internet XCP and SunnComm MediaMax software it included on over 24 million music CDs.

      The state of Texas and several private class-action attorneys have also filed suit against the company.

      EFF said it was "pleased that Sony BMG has taken steps in acknowledging the security risks caused by the XCP CDs, including a recall of the infected discs" but said the measures "fall short of what the company needs to do to fix the problems caused to customers."

      EFF also charged that Sony had "failed entirely to respond to concerns about MediaMax, which affects over 20 million CDs -- ten times the number of CDs as the XCP software."

      "Sony BMG is to be commended for its acknowledgment of the serious security problems caused by its XCP software, but it needs to go further to regain the public's trust," said Corynne McSherry, EFF Staff Attorney. "It is unconscionable for Sony BMG to refuse to respond to the privacy and other problems created by the over 20 million CDs containing the SunnComm software."

      The suit, to be filed in Los Angeles County Superior court, alleges that the XCP and SunnComm technologies have been installed on the computers of millions of unsuspecting music customers when they used their CDs on machines running the Windows operating system.

      Researchers have shown that the XCP technology was designed to have many of the qualities of a "rootkit."

      It was written, EFF says, with the intent of concealing its presence and operation from the owner of the computer, and once installed, it degrades the performance of the machine, opens new security vulnerabilities, and installs updates through an Internet connection to Sony BMG's servers. The nature of a rootkit makes it extremely difficult to remove, often leaving reformatting the computer's hard drive as the only solution.

      When Sony BMG offered a program to uninstall the dangerous XCP software, researchers found that the installer itself opened even more security vulnerabilities in users' machines.

      EFF said Sony BMG has refused to use its marketing prowess to widely publicize its recall program to reach the over 2 million XCP-infected customers, has failed to compensate users whose computers were affected and has not eliminated the outrageous terms found in its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA).

      The MediaMax software installed on over 20 million CDs has different, but similarly troubling problems, said EFF. It installs files on the users' computers even if they click "no" on the EULA, and it does not include a way to fully uninstall the program.

      The software transmits data about users to SunnComm through an Internet connection whenever purchasers listen to CDs, allowing the company to track listening habits -- even though the EULA states that the software will not be used to collect personal information and SunnComm's website says "no information is ever collected about you or your computer."

      If users repeatedly requested an uninstaller for the MediaMax software, they were eventually provided one, but they first had to provide more personally identifying information. Worse, security researchers recently determined that SunnComm's uninstaller creates significant security risks for users, as the XCP uninstaller did.

      "Music fans shouldn't have to install potentially dangerous, privacy intrusive software on their computers just to listen to the music they've legitimately purchased," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "Regular CDs have a proven track record -- no one has been exposed to viruses or spyware by playing a regular audio CD on a computer. Why should legitimate customers be guinea pigs for Sony BMG's experiments?"

      "Consumers have a right to listen to the music they have purchased in private, without record companies spying on their listening habits with surreptitiously-installed programs," added EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl, "Between the privacy invasions and computer security issues inherent in these technologies, companies should consider whether the damage done to consumer trust and their own public image is worth its scant protection."

      Both the XCP and MediaMax CDs include outrageous, anti-consumer terms in their "clickwrap" EULAs, according to EFF.

      For example, if purchasers declare personal bankruptcy, the EULA requires them to delete any digital copies on their computers or portable music players.

      The same is true if a customer's house gets burglarized and his CDs stolen, since the EULA allows purchasers to keep copies only so long as they retain physical possession of the original CD.

      EFF is demanding that Sony BMG remove these unconscionable terms from its EULAs.

      Consumer Group Sues Sony BMG...
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      Study: Most Women Don't Need Hormones for Menopause Symptoms

      Risks outweigh the benefits of most hormone treatments

      While medicines containing the female hormones estrogen and progestin are highly effective at reducing the symptoms of menopause, risks associated with taking them outweigh the benefits for most women, according to a new report from Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

      It's the latest in a series of reports that compares commonly used prescription drugs on effectiveness, safety and price. All reports are available free at www.CRBestBuyDrugs.org.

      Studies evaluated for the Best Buy Drugs report show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of women who have hot flashes or night sweats experience an average 75 percent reduction in these symptoms within a few months of taking hormones medicines.

      The drugs also effectively reduce vaginal dryness and help with sleep disturbances.

      Hormone treatment, however, increases the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, blood clots, stroke, urinary incontinence and dementia. Although the increased risk is relatively small, it adds on to already-existing risk factors for tens of millions of women.

      For example, a woman who has high blood pressure and diabetes is already at elevated risk for heart attack and stroke. Taking hormones adds to that risk.

      Similarly, a woman who has high cholesterol and a family history of early heart disease and breast cancer would add to existing elevated risk if she took hormones.

      For that reason, the report recommends that the vast majority of women who have an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, or cancer of the breast, ovaries, or uterus not take hormones. This represents 35 percent to 50 percent of all women aged 50 and older.

      In addition, studies show that while 70 percent of women entering menopause will have some symptoms, most will have mild symptoms that can be managed with lifestyle changes and adjustments. Only about 20 percent of women have severe symptoms that significantly disrupt their lives or reduce their quality of life.

      The reports states for such women, hormone treatment may be warranted. Treatment should be with as low a dose as possible for the shortest duration possible. The risk associated with such use appears to be quite low, but definitive studies on that are not yet complete.

      Hormones should not be used at all, the report says, to treat mood swings, irritability, depression, anxiety, mental lapses, forgetfulness, cognitive difficulties, reduced libido, urinary incontinence, back pain, chronic pain, joint pain, stiffness, or fatigue. They dont help these conditions and could make them worse.

      The report also recommends caution in using herbs, supplements, and bioidentical hormone products as alternatives to estrogen and progestin for women who do require treatment. These products are widely touted but lack proof of effectiveness and safety.

      Taking effectiveness, safety, the choice for mode of delivery, and cost into account, the reports chooses the following as Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs for treating menopausal symptoms:
      • Generic estradiol pills
      • Gynodiol pills (estradiol)
      • Estratab or Menest pills (esterified estrogen)
      • Generic medroxyprogesterone pills (when a progestin alone is needed)
      • Generic estradiol patch
      • Alora patch (estradiol)
      • Vivelle or Vivelle Dot patch (estradiol)
      • Premarin Cream (conjugated equine estrogen)
      • Ogen Cream (estropipate)
      • FemRing (estradiol, vaginal ring)
      • Estring (estradiol, vaginal ring)

      Most of these products are used to treat all menopausal symptoms. The creams and FemRing are used primarily to treat vaginal dryness.

      All the Best Buys are as effective as other hormone drugs, but less expensive. In particular, the two estradiol pills could save consumers $300 to $450 a year out-of-pocket compared to brand name Premarin. Similarly, the generic estradiol patch could save women $200 to $400 a year over higher-priced products.

      Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs is a grant funded public information project administered by Consumers Union.

      Study: Most Women Don't Need Hormones for Menopause Symptoms...
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      Prius Owners Question Mileage Claims

      A desire for fuel economy is the reason most consumers plunk down big bucks for a Toyota Prius or one of the other gas-electric hybrids that are consuming a fast-growing slice of the American auto market.

      But while most hybrid owners at least claim to be happy with their pricey acquisitions, some Prius buyers are troubled by nagging indications that Toyota's gas mileage claims for the hybrid may have a little fiction mixed in with all of the facts.

      Toyota, of course, insists that all of its mileage claims are based upon standardized Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests.

      But for Sandra C. of Bloomington, Indiana, the figures just don't add up. In fact, she says she was told the onboard computer in her car is programmed to provide high mileage numbers that may exceed the miles per gallon the car actually achieves.

      Sandra bought her new Prius in the spring of 2005. I've been watching my gas mileage and have consistently gotten around 34 miles per gallon, she wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com. That is far below the sticker information and hype.

      The Toyota Prius advertises on its sticker that the EPA has determined through testing that the car achieves an average of 60 mpg in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway.

      Sandra took her Prius into the dealer for a check-up and was initially told that she was getting 46 miles to a gallon, which is less than the amount claimed by Toyota for city driving but still a pretty enviable figure. The service technician turned on the gas mileage icon of the onboard computer for her to prove his point.

      The computer did say 46 miles per gallon, Sandra wrote. I asked them why it is that when I divide the miles from fill-up to fill-up by the gallons I put in, I get 34 or 33 miles a gallon?

      The service technician admonished Sandra that she probably had her math wrong. I said no and I wanted an answer, she said.

      Finally the service department manager told Sandra, Yes, you are right, you probably are getting 34 miles to a gallon.

      When Sandra asked why the computer spit out the higher inaccurate, number the service manager told her, That is a number Toyota has programmed into the car which accounts for wind resistance and other factors, she said.

      Voodoo Math

      Susan did not buy the service managers story which she says is nothing more than voodoo math.

      I said to him that is fuzzy math and dishonest. His reply was every car dealer does this, Sandra said.

      Needless to say, Sandra is disappointed and unhappy with Toyota.

      I've been screwed by Toyota. I don't actually blame my local dealership because this isn't their problem. Toyota has pulled this over on the public to sell their car. This must be happening to everyone else too.

      Sandras mileage problems with her new Prius continue.

      I filled it up after using half of my last tank of gas on the interstate and half in town. This time I got 47 mpg. So this looks like I am getting better mileage on highway than in city! That is the opposite of what Toyota advertises.

      Other Complaints

      Sandra is far from alone. Prius owners around the country are questioning the Toyota/EPA mileage claims.

      Winternet.com displays the site owner's Prius fuel consumption records dating back to 2002. The lifetime average as of Nov. 20, 2005 is 43.2 mpg, a bit worse than Sandra's experience.

      • On another site, randyrathbun.org, a person we'll assume is Randy Rathbun displays his log dating back to March 31, 2002. His lifetime average: 47.332 mpg.

      • On the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association Website, a consumer identified as RJF has posted his Prius log, starting July 14, 2005. His lifetime average to date: 49.221 mpg.

      This comes as no surprise to automotive experts. Data from Consumer Reports indicates that hybrid cars get less than 60 percent of EPA estimates while navigating city streets. In Consumer Reports' real-world driving test, the Civic Hybrid averaged 26 mpg in the city, while the Toyota Prius averaged 35 mpg, much less than their respective EPA estimates of 47 and 60 mpg. Hybrid cars performed much closer to EPA estimates in Consumer Reports'

      highway tests.

      Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer Gabriel Shenhar says that while the EPA test is a lab simulation, Consumer Reports puts the cars on the streets and measures the fuel consumed to more accurately reflect gas mileage.

      Denials All Around

      But back to the other half of Sandra's complaint. Does the Prius onboard Computer fudge the mileage numbers?

      Asked if the Prius onboard computer is programmed to take anything into account when calculating mileage other than distance traveled and gallons consumed, a spokesman for Toyota said, I have never head of anything like that.

      Toyota environmental engineer Dave Hermance says the EPA city test for the Prius includes 19 stops of at least a few seconds, which take up a "non-trivial" amount of the test and could cause hybrid cars to rate even higher than conventional cars because of their reliance on electric motors, which provide the biggest mileage boost in stop-and-go driving.

      Hermance says customers who drive less than seven miles per trip will get fewer miles per gallon, as will drivers who speed. There's a huge range of customer behavior and limited resources to collect data, so there's no perfect test, according to Hermance.

      As it turns out, drivers of all kinds of vehicles dont often achieve the mileage EPA finds in its tests. Most drivers get between 75 to 87 percent of the EPA rated estimates with variations based on driving habits and traffic.

      A generally accepted rule of thumb is that if a new car gets less than 75 percent of its EPA rating, then there is something amiss. Sandras Prius is just at the limit of the 75 percent rule.

      If this is true, then the EPA needs to change the way they do business for hybrids and Toyota knows the figures are incorrect and are creating false advertising, Sandra said.

      Indeed, Sandra is not alone in her assertions. Some independent test data suggests hybrid cars routinely get less than 60 percent of EPA estimates while navigating city streets.

      The Prius has averaged only 35 mpg in some city driving tests, inidcating that there may be nothing out of the ordinary with Sandras Prius, suggesting instead that the EPA numbers and Toyota mileage claims based on them are in error.

      About That Computer

      While the test data can explain the actual mileage Sandra was able to obtain, the Toyota information does nothing to explain why the onboard computer in her Prius provided inaccurate information at her dealership.

      Toyota spokesman Sam Butto flatly denies that his company programs any fuzzy math into the Prius onboard computer.

      I can tell you that Toyota does nothing to have a preset fuel economy figure and does not take into any account the wind. The meter simply calculates the fuel level and the distance driven, Butto told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      He once again pointed a finger at the car owner stating that it would be extremely difficult to have fuel economy figures that low on a Prius."

      "I'm not saying it is impossible. Extremely aggressive driving habits can definitely contribute to lower fuel economy but 34 mpg would be really tough to achieve on Prius," he said.

      Butto had another scenario for the low gasoline mileage. What we think may have occurred, is the customer could have possibly reset the fuel monitor before refilling.

      Prius Owners Question Mileage Claims...
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      Whistleblower Claims DuPont Failed to Act on Food Contamination Danger

      Former executive says the company knew for years about problems with its non-stick coatings

      A former DuPont Company employee charges the company knew for years about higher than expected food contamination from one of its non-stick coatings, but failed to act.

      Appearing at a news conference with the Environmental Working Group, Glenn Evers claimed DuPont covered up the risks from a chemical the group says is now found in the blood of most Americans.

      According to the group, Evers was a DuPont employee for 22 years, working as one of the company's top technical experts and the chairman of an invitation-only committee of its 40 best scientists and technical experts. He reportedly holds six patents, and his work has, to date, made the company an estimated $250 million in after-tax profits.

      He also worked in chemical engineering, involved with designing and developing new uses of grease-resistant, or perfluorinated, chemical-based coating for paper food packaging.

      Breakdown chemicals from these coatings and related sources are now in the blood of 95 percent of Americans, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent the last several years trying to determine how they get there, the group said in a release.

      DuPont has denied the claims of both the Environmental Working Group, and Evers. Evers was fired from the company in 2002.

      But Evers charges his former employer hid for decades that it was polluting Americans' blood with a hyper-persistent chemical associated with the grease-resistant coatings on paper food packaging. The environmental group released a set of documents it says are internal DuPont documents that back up Evers account.

      Evers said that in the mid-1960s, the company negotiated with the Food and Drug Administration for a weak standard for how much of the paper chemical coating, which is applied to give packaging grease or liquid resistance, could contaminate food. The FDA at the time normally required a two-year study for chemicals it wasn't familiar with, but agreed to base DuPont's approval on a 90-day test with a 1,000-fold safety factor added.

      Evers said that standard, which remains in effect today, was based on the premise that the chemical would leave the body quickly.

      But Evers said the company knew, at least by 1981, that another class of perfluorinated chemicals -- PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) -- accumulates in people. It is unclear whether or not the company ever provided the FDA this information, but Evers said the company continued to worry about this information throughout the 1990s.

      Documents released by the group purport to show that:

      • DuPont conducted a toxicological study in 1973 in which it was unable to find a safe level of exposure in lab animals, and that the chemicals were toxic to the kidneys, liver and blood.

      • A 1984 internal company memorandum raised the question of which of these crucial findings, if any, from the 1973 study were provided to the FDA.

      • In 1987, DuPont's Dr. Richard Goldbaum found that the company's marquee paper packaging coating chemical, Zonyl RP, could contaminate food at over three times the federal safety standard, while two effective alternatives contaminated food at half the federal maximum level.

      Evers said he realized with time that the company had not ordered a standard, internal process hazards review to find out why the chemical was above FDA approved levels. He said the company did not provide the information to customers, federal health officials or the public.

      EWG said it has sent the documents to the FDA's acting commissioner, as well as the inspector general of its parent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), requesting the officials act on the new information. The group is also referring documents to relevant EPA officials.

      "These documents indicate a failure to disclose critical public health information about a toxic chemical that never breaks down, that gets into our bodies and stays there," said EWG Senior Scientist Tim Kropp.

      "If we ever needed a reason to reform the nation's toxic chemical laws, every American now has one, courtesy of DuPont."

      Whistleblower Claims DuPont Failed to Act on Food Contamination Danger...
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      Beta Blockers and Women

      Beta blockers help women with heart failure, a study finds

      Beta blockers help women with heart failure, according to an article published in the journal Circulation.

      If you have heart failure, your heart doesnt contract hard enough to pump blood to your body. Beta blockers help by calming the heart down and lowering blood pressure so the heart does not have to work so hard.

      Studies show beta blockers work in men but we didn't have many studies about them in women until now.

      Doctors studied a group of 900 women and 300 men with heart failure. Some of the patients received a beta blocker called Metoprolor, brand named Lopressor.

      The beta blocker reduced the death rate in women by 21 percent and in men a bit more.

      When researchers combined the result with the results of two other studies on two other beta blockers, Corguard and Zebeta, the results were about the same in both men and women.

      While Lopressors maker paid for this study and it did not include a lot of minority women, both men and women with heart failure should ask their doctors about beta blockers.

      Beta Blockers and Women | Dr. Henry Fishman on Health and Medicine...
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      Car Title Loans the Latest Predatory Lending Tactic

      Cash-strapped consumers are being pushed into expensive, high-risk loans, using their automobiles as collateral

      Cash-strapped consumers are being pushed into expensive, high-risk loans, using their automobiles as collateral, according to a new report by the Consumer Federation of America. CFA says car title lenders charge consumers 300 percent annual interest for small cash loans secured by the title to cars owned free and clear.

      Loans are for a fraction of the cars value, but failure to pay in full at the end of the month can lead to late-night repossessions by lenders holding a duplicate set of keys.

      Title loans trap borrowers in perpetual debt through unaffordable balloon payments, high interest costs, and the threat of repossession, said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for Consumer Federation of America.

      Title loans for up to half the value of the consumers car cost ten times more than it would to get an auto loan to finance the purchase of the same car.

      CFA said a survey of title lenders in eleven states and online found almost half of the states permit predatory title lending, either through weak authorizing laws or failure to close consumer loan loopholes.

      In California and South Carolina, lenders only make loans that are large enough not to trigger rate caps. In Virginia, Iowa and Kansas, lenders claim their loans are open-ended to get around state limits for small loans.

      The industry is reportedly pushing for state laws to legalize title loans without rate caps or adequate protections.

      CFAs study, Driven into Debt: CFA Car Title Loan Store and Online Survey, documents that lax state laws result in the most abusive loans. Tennessee and Mississippi permit loans up to $2,500 to be due in thirty days. Georgia permits title lenders to keep all the proceeds earned from selling a repossessed car. Online lenders are entering the title loan market, claiming to use the lax regulatory environment in New Mexico or Delaware to market loans nationwide.

      Title loans are extremely expensive. Title loan stores charge a median 25% per month finance charge which translates to 300% annual interest, plus additional fees average $25 per loan.

      CFA urges states to close loopholes being exploited by title lenders and to reject industry-backed model legislation to legitimize predatory title loans, Fox said. States that fail to protect their consumers from one-sided title loans should repeal or reform their laws, as Kentucky and Florida recently did.

      Car Title Loans the Latest Predatory Lending Tactic...
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      Air Pollution and Asthma

      Air pollution may cause asthma, not just trigger it, according to an article published in the journal Lancet.

      Researchers followed 3,500 9 year of children in 12 Southern California towns for five years. Half of the towns had clean air and half had polluted air. All of the children led active lives participating in sports like baseball, basketball and soccer.

      During the study, 265 of the children developed asthma, the vast majority of them from the polluted towns.

      These results support the idea that pollution may cause asthma, not just trigger it. That is a big change in our thinking about this epidemic disease.

      Asthma affects about 20 million Americans. Nearly half are kids and the number is growing. The disease costs billions of dollars in lost time from work and school as well as medical costs.

      Rules and regulations have cut pollution in lots of cities, but there may still be enough dirty air to cause asthma.

      Air Pollution and Asthma | Dr. Henry Fishman on Health and Medicine...
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      Hospital Sloppiness Costing Taxpayers Billions

      Taxpayers are being forced to pick up the bill for infections patients pick up while in the hospital

      A health policy group charges taxpayers are being forced to pick up the bill for infections patients pick up while in the hospital. The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council says the federal Medicare program and Pennsylvania's Medicaid program were billed for 76 percent of the 11,668 hospital-acquired infections reported by Pennsylvania hospitals in 2004.

      According to the report, Medicare and Medicaid were billed for 7,870 and 1,028 hospital-acquired infections, respectively. As a result, taxpayers footed the bill for $1 billion in additional hospital charges for Medicare patients and $372 million in additional hospital charges for Medicaid patients.

      "The financial toll of potentially preventable hospital- acquired infections is staggering," said Marc P. Volavka, executive director of PHC4. "Our health care system is hemorrhaging money."

      The average charges for Medicare patients with a hospital- acquired infection were about $160,000, compared to $32,000 for Medicare patients who did not contract an infection. For Medicaid patients, the average charges were approximately $391,000 for patients who contracted an infection while hospitalized, compared to an average of $29,700 where an infection did not occur.

      PHC4 says private-sector commercial insurers, where the health care bills are paid primarily by businesses and labor unions that provide health insurance, were billed for almost 23 percent -- or 2,633 -- of the reported hospital-acquired infections, which added $604 million in extra hospital charges.

      The average charge for a hospital admission in which a commercially insured patient contracted a hospital-acquired infection was almost $258,000, compared to $28,000 for admissions where an infection did not occur. The average charges for a stay in which uninsured patients contracted an infection reached almost $230,000, compared to $21,000 for uninsured patients without an infection.

      "Assuming that Pennsylvania hospitals are no better or worse than those anywhere else in the country, we can estimate that at least $20 billion was charged to Medicare to pay for hospital- acquired infections in this country during 2004," said Volavka.

      "Given that hospitals underreported the 2004 data, this number is undoubtedly low."

      Hospital Sloppiness Costing Taxpayers Billions...
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      Nordstrom, Wal-Mart Top Customer Service Rankings

      Wal-Mart Ranks First Among Discounters

      Though the retail industry will be flooded with promotions and discounts this Christmas shopping season, customer service will also play an important role for shoppers when deciding where to buy gifts, according to a new survey by the NRF Foundation, an arm of the National Retail Federation and the American Express Company.

      According to the survey, conducted by BIGresearch, the importance that shoppers place on customer service should not go unnoticed by retailers, as 85 percent of consumers said that they spend and shop more at retailers who provide good service. Another 82 percent are likely to recommend these retailers to friends and family.

      Retailers know that consumers spend more time and money in a store when they have a pleasant shopping experience, said John Theiss, Vice President, Retail Industries, American Express Establishment Services. Through excellent service, retailers have an opportunity to retain and build on their customer base.

      A nationwide poll yielding more than 8,600 consumer responses put Nordstrom at the top of the customer service list of retailers, followed by Coldwater Creek, Marshall Fields, Kohls, and Boscovs.

      Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), JC Penney, Lane Bryant, Best Buy and Eddie Bauer round out the top 10.

      The survey also ranked the top direct merchants, whose customer service front-runners included: L.L. Bean, Blair, Amazon.com, Overstock.com, and NewEgg.com.

      Consumers Have Highest Expectation at Restaurants

      According to the survey, consumers expect the highest level of service from restaurants, which had a 4.39 rating out of 5.0. Consumers also have high service expectations from specialty stores (4.32), department stores (3.94), and drug stores (3.92).

      Shoppers have average expectations from grocery stores (3.77) and Internet retailers (3.71), and have the lowest expectations of service at membership warehouse clubs (3.58) and discount stores (3.21).

      As the retail environment becomes more competitive, customer service is taking a front seat in helping retailers maximize sales, said NRF Foundation President Tracy Mullin. Retailers are investing heavily in employee training to ensure that the people who represent their companies during the holiday season are as knowledgeable and professional as possible.

      Wal-Mart Ranks First Among Discounters

      When looking at the top stores for customer service by segment, a variety of retailers emerge as front-runners in their sector.

      For discount chains, Wal-Mart holds the number-one spot for customer service, while Nordstrom is at the top of the list for department stores.

      Womens apparel retailer Coldwater Creek ranked first in the specialty apparel category and outdoor gear company REI took the top spot among non-apparel specialty stores.

      Additionally, family-owned Wegmans Food Markets ranked first in the grocery category.

      Nordstrom Picked as Best Retailer for Customer Service...
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      Lawsuit Challenges New Bankruptcy Law

      Suit claims the law unnecessarily restricts the ability of bankruptcy attorneys to interact with their clients

      A Minnesota law firm has filed a legal challenge to the new bankruptcy law, claiming that it unnecessarily restricts the ability of bankruptcy attorneys to interact with their clients, and violates both the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.

      Robert Milavetz and Barbara Nevin, of the Milavetz, Gallop, and Milavetz firm, issued a complaint for a declaratory judgment against the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on Nov. 14th.

      The complaint alleges that the BAPCPA's rules regarding "debt relief agencies" are so vaguely worded that attorneys are also included under the rules, which may limit their ability to advise their clients on how to proceed with bankruptcy petitions.

      In their argument, Milavetz and Nevin contend that the BAPCPA specifically prohibits any sort of "debt relief agency" advising their client to incur more debt while "contemplating" bankruptcy, or to "pay an attorney or bankruptcy petitioner fee or charge for services" in the course of their duty.

      Following this logic, they argue, they cannot ask their own clients to pay them, nor can they advise them to make any kind of payment for services that might cause a debt.

      Milavetz and Nevin say this "chills attorneys' federally protected rights and ethical obligations to properly advise and counsel their clients." This would deprive the lawyers of their First Amendment right to free speech, and their clients of their Fifth Amendment right to prevent their loss of property without due process.

      Nathalie Martin, resident scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI), says the complaint is the result of "overly broad language" used by the bankruptcy law's authors.

      "There were many debtors' lawyers and consumer bankruptcy attorneys who didn't know what they were doing," she said. "In attempting to eliminate bad practices, [the Senate] drafted this so broadly that it hurts the good guys as well."

      One bankruptcy court judge has already held that attorneys should not be considered "debt relief agencies." Judge Lamar Davis of the Georgia U.S. District Court believed "[I]f Congress meant to ensnare attorneys in the thicket of [the new bankruptcy regulations], it would have used the term 'attorney' and not 'debt relief agency.'" Milavetz and Nevin referred to Davis' decision in their complaint.

      The new bankruptcy law has come under heavy fire for being too punitive and restrictive towards consumers, particularly in terms of the heavy paperwork and filing requirements it involves. Martin says that clients filing for bankruptcy themselves, or relying on petition preparers to do it for them, are taking a huge risk.

      Some parts of the new law have already been waived due to potential problems. The Justice Department temporarily waived bankruptcy filing requirements for victims of Hurricane Katrina, as they would have been unable to file properly due to the loss of personal documents and records from the storm.

      Members of Congress in both houses had introduced bills designed to ease many of the filing rules for victims of Katrina, but House Judiciary Committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner refused to hold a hearing on the matter.

      Lawsuit Challenges New Bankruptcy Law...
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      Prius Runs Amok After Stalling, Hits Tow Truck

      A Toyota Prius suddenly stalled, then unaccountably took off and smashed into the tow truck that had come to remove it

      A Toyota Prius suddenly stalled, then unaccountably took off and smashed into the tow truck that had come to remove it. Toyota has warned Prius owners of a software glitch that can cause the hybrid cars to suddenly stall or shut down and federal safety regulators are looking into the problem.

      The warning from Toyota did not carry a sense of urgency. The sudden stall, however, can be extremely dangerous and frightening when it occurs, as a ConsumerAffairs.com reader discovered.

      Venu I. was driving along the Dumbarton Highway near Fremont, California, when his 2004 Prius suddenly shut down.

      The Dumbarton at that point, Venu explains, is a bridge. Luckily I was in the slow lane, he writes. My car froze all of a sudden with four or five warning lights coming on. I couldn't turn the car off and could not drive it either.

      Venu says that if he had been driving in one of the other fast lanes he might have been the cause of a serious accident or worse.

      I would be dead by this time. The situation was real panicky. None of the controls worked. I left the car with emergency lights on.

      Toyota explained in its warning to owners that the stalling problem may cause several of the warning lights in the vehicles to come on, prompting the Prius to enter a fail-safe mode that will cause the gasoline engine to stall.

      Toyota also reassured drivers that the electric motor in the vehicles would have sufficient power to allow the driver to pull the vehicle over and away from traffic.

      But Venu was unable to drive his Prius to safety.

      Again I would like to reiterate that I left the car as is with all the warning indicators on as I couldn't do anything with them as all the controls froze. My car was towed to a nearby safe place.

      Then something very strange happened which was not covered in the Toyota warning to Prius owners. The moment my car was detached from the tow truck, I saw the car moving forward and it hit the truck. My car was damaged on the front fender.

      Venu is about to give up on his hybrid. I am now very scared and have totally lost confidence in this car.

      The vehicles involved in the Toyota service notice to owners are from the 2004 and 2005 model years. Toyota sold 53,991 of the Prius in 2004 and more than 100,000 so far this year.

      The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) is compiling complaints about the 2004 and some 2005 Toyota Priuses that have shut down while driving. Several owners have told NHTSA that the car completely loses power at highway speeds.

      Prius Runs Amok After Stalling, Hits Tow Truck...
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