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Tainted Dog Food Kills 23 Animals
Sold Under Diamond, Country Value and Professional Brands12/31/2005ConsumerAffairs
Tainted Dog Food Kills 23 Animals...
The Food and Drug Administration reports contaminated pet food sold in 23 states killed almost two dozen animals and caused another 18 to become sick.
The FDA has traced the deaths to pet food processed at the Diamond Pet Food Company in its Gaston, South Carolina, manufacturing plant.
Diamond Pet Food issued a recall of 19 varieties of dog and cat food on December 21 because some of the pet food made at the Gaston plant was discovered to contain aflatoxin, which comes from a fungus sometimes found on corn and other crops
Aflatoxin can cause severe liver damage.
The recalled Diamond Pet food was sold in 23 states under the brand names Diamond, Country Value and Professional, and bears the date codes of March 1, 2007, through June 11, 2007.
Consumers are warned to immediately stop using the product.
In a December 20 press release, the company said it had notified distributors to hold up further sales of the pet food and a recall was issued the next day.
The company is still attempting to isolate specific lot numbers that were contaminated and provide the information to distributors, retailers and consumers.
The recalled pet food was distributed in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Vermont, and Virginia.
Top 10 Phone Scams of 2005
Whatever happened to the old days when a con artist only wanted to steal a few bucks?12/30/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
"The American consumer and especially every senior citizen must realize that a scammer doesn't play by the rules. In fact, the people that perpetrate these...
Whatever happened to the old days when a con artist only wanted to steal a few bucks? Today's telephone scams will still empty your bank account, but the scammers of today are after a more lucrative payoff -- your identity.
"Consumers simply cannot let down their guard" says David Wood, consumer advocate and founder of the Phone Scam Watch, a free service to warn consumers about telephone scams. "The American consumer -- and especially every senior citizen -- must realize that a scammer doesn't play by the rules. In fact, the people that perpetrate these scams have no rules."
DialingForDeals.com, which tracks phone scams as they appear in the United States, defines the phrase "phone scam" as a telemarketing scam. Not included are incidents of "phone fraud", such as using a stolen mobile phone, slamming, etc.
The top 10 phone scams for the period January 1 to December 15, 2005, are:
10. Foreign Lotteries: Although these scams typically occur through the mail, the phone scam version is still alive and well. You should be advised that playing any international lottery by phone or mail is a violation of U.S. federal law. This includes Canadian lotteries.
9. Veterans Scam: Numerous veterans received calls claiming their personal information was required because of a supposed change to the V.A. drug coverage plan. However, there were no changes to the plan.
8. Stolen Account Numbers: There were a few variations of this scam, but generally you will receive a call from someone claiming to work for a "security firm" associated with your bank. The caller will claim that your account numbers have been stolen; therefore before the caller can assist you, you will need to verify your numbers.
7. College Credit Card Offer: Many university students reported a scam where the caller offered a special "college credit card offer". The caller will ask for your Social Security number so the application can be submitted over the phone.
6. Gift Certificate Scam: Typically the caller claimed to be awarding a $500.00 Wal-Mart or K-Mart gift certificate. To claim the "prize", you will be asked to pay a $4.95 "processing fee" by providing your checking account or credit/debit card numbers.
5. Medicare Part-D: Scammers saw an opening to take advantage of seniors with bogus signups for the new Medicare Part-D plan. Seniors not only received fraudulent calls but also had unwelcome guests at the front door.
4. Jury Duty: A widespread scam where the caller claimed that you missed jury duty. One version of the scam said that an arrest warrant had been issued, and when you would insist that you didn't receive a notice for jury duty, the caller would ask for your personal information to verify they were speaking to the correct person. Another version of the scam would ask you to pay a fine by using your credit card or checking account.
3. Shopping Spree: A popular scam where the caller would claim that you won a shopping spree. To receive the shopping vouchers, you will be asked to pay a "processing" or "shipping" fee, typically by providing your checking or credit card numbers over the phone.
2. Account Numbers Online: A very widespread scam where the caller claimed to work for a "security firm". You will be informed that your checking account numbers have been found posted on the Internet. Before the caller can help you get these numbers out of the public eye, you'll be asked to verify your account numbers.
1. Government Grants: This was the most common scam in 2005. A typical version of the scam worked like this: The caller claimed that you won a $12,500.00 federal grant and all you must do is pay the taxes, either by wiring the money or by providing your checking account numbers over the phone.
Common names used in many of the above scams include: Advantage America; American Grant Information Center; Department of Government Grants and Information; Government Grant Info Guide; Information Verification Agency; International Verification Department of Missouri; National Advantage Group; Patient Care Group; Public Computer Systems; and Star Communications.
Rain Checks May Extend Holiday Bargains If You Ask...
Flu Outbreak Jams California Emergency Rooms
Flu Activity Also Picking Up in New York City12/29/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Flu Outbreak Jams California Emergency Rooms...
Emergency rooms and doctors' offices throughout California are jammed by victims of a sudden surge in influenza cases. This "California Flu" epidemic has nothing to do with the "bird flu;" it is a regional outbreak of the yearly flu onslaughts that sweep the country.
"This human flu now invading California and contiguous states is part of the annual flu season and is not a harbinger of pandemics yet to come," said Gilbert Ross, M.D., Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health.
Flu activity is also picking up in New York City. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said daily monitoring of emergency department visits showed a growing number of flu cases.
"The growing number of New Yorkers experiencing cough and fever over the past several days - signs typically associated with the spread of community-wide flu - is a reminder for New Yorkers to get vaccinated for influenza," Frieden said.
The best way to avoid coming down with the annual flu is to get a flu shot. Although it takes a few weeks for the vaccine to become effective, that may be enough time for most Americans, depending on how fast the California outbreak spreads.
The vaccine is not foolproof. Some individuals, especially seniors, do not make protective antibodies to the flu virus, even after a shot.
Ross said that while the bird flu is a theoretical threat, the annual flu is very real.
"The yearly flu epidemics kill up to 40,000 Americans. The 'bird flu' has killed about 70 people. No Americans have died of bird flu," Ross noted. "We should get more upset about this real threat and not pay so much attention to that somewhat over-hyped one, for now."
Ross noted that Tamiflu, the most effective antiviral drug, is in short supply this year, thanks to hoaring by those fearing a bird flu outbreak.
"Some people may actually die for want of this drug, which works well within the first 48 hours of flu infection," he said. "There is another effective drug, the inhaled Relenza, which may be available in sufficient quantities to help right here in the U.S. for this flu season."
Ross and other medical authorities noted that it's important to immunize children, as a means of protecting older Americans.
"Children also get the flu -- indeed, they are the main reservoir of influenza virus, and they generally don't get very sick from it. But, they do transmit it to their grandparents, who do get quite ill, and sometimes even die," he said.
The parents of all toddlers are advised by the CDC to get their youngsters vaccinated against the flu.
"I believe vaccinating all schoolchildren as well would help to reduce the toll among the elderly, and this should be considered as an added indication by vaccine specialists at the CDC," Ross said.
California to Try Again With Telecommunications Bill of Rights
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will vote in January on a proposal to create a "Telecommunications Consumer Fraud Unit"12/29/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
California to Try Again With Telecommunications Bill of Rights...
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will vote in January on a proposal to create a "Telecommunications Consumer Fraud Unit," part of the latest version of the state's controversial Consumer Bill of Rights.
Also in the new Bill of Rights is a proposal for a consumer-education campaign as well as a proposal to extend the CPUC's toll-free consumer hotline.
"With traditional regulation it takes years to bring a case against a company that is ripping off consumers -- that won't work in today's fast-paced telecom world," said CPUC Commissioner Susan Kennedy. "This proposal gives the CPUC the tools to protect consumers against fraud in real-time, and provides consumers with the tools they need to protect themselves."
Kennedy, regarded as a pro-business Democrat, drafted the measure with CPUC President Michael Peevey but she won't be around for the January vote. She's leaving the CPUC to become chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who opposes additional wireless regulations.
Peevey and Kennedy both voted to suspend the original Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights in January 2005 after cell phone companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying efforts.
The latest version isn't being very well received either. Verizon Wireless was the first to issue a broadside against it.
"Verizon Wireless believes that state regulation aimed at the highly competitive, high-tech wireless industry, such as the new burdensome rules, is unnecessary and inappropriate," said Michael Bagley, Verizon Wireless West area executive vice president of public policy.
"California already boasts the toughest consumer-protection laws in the nation, and those laws apply to all competitive industries, including the wireless industry. Adding an extra layer of regulation at the CPUC will hurt and cost consumers," Bagley said.
The new rule's prospects are murky. Passage will require a majority of the five-member CPUC. With Kennedy gone, and possibly not replaced by the time the vote takes place, a majority may be hard to come by.
The new guidelines cover wireless and wireline carrier disclosure, marketing, service initiation and changes, billing and other business practices. The guidelines were crafted through compromise by CPUC Commissioner Geoffrey Brown (D) and were supported by consumer proponents, disability rights advocates and others.
Besides throwing money around in Sacramento, the wireless industry is heavily lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to further pre-empt state regulation of wireless phone operators. The wireless industry would like to see Congress do away with any remaining state rules affecting wireless and broadband services.
Guilty Plea in ChoicePoint Data Theft12/28/2005ConsumerAffairs
ChoicePoint Data Thief Pleads Guilty...
The alleged culprit behind the ChoicePoint data breach, which compromised the personal information of 145,000 people, has entered a guilty plea to charges of conspiracy and grand theft.
Nigerian-born Olatunji Oluwatosin, of Los Angeles, is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 10. Oluwatosin is already serving a 16-month prison term for a previous felony count of identity theft, to which he pleaded no contest.
Oluwatosin was considered part of a larger conspiracy, one of several individuals who gained access to ChoicePoint's database of consumer records. However, Oluwatosin refused to give up his accomplices and remains the only individual charged in the theft.
ChoicePoint's new privacy and compliance officer, Carol DiBattiste, expressed satisfaction with Oluwatosin's plea.
"Since this investigation is ongoing, we are limited in the comments we can make," she said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com. "We look forward to continuing our relationship with Los Angeles County authorities to see that justice is done."
ChoicePoint is an information broker that specializes in providing records of consumer activity to government agencies, employers, and third party businesses. The company has nearly 20 billion records on individuals, including motor vehicle registrations, license and deed transfers, military records, addresses and Social Security numbers.
Despite its blunders, ChoicePoint continues to act as the government's prime supplier of information and records on individual citizens, providing its databases to help federal law enforcement and financial institutions enforce the Patriot Act.
Although the ChoicePoint data breach was not the first or the largest identity theft case in recent years, it was the lightning rod that brought the issue to public light, and provoked calls for stronger consumer protection and federal legislation against identity theft and online fraud.
Consumer activist groups and legislators alike demanded more accountability and options for individuals whose records may be tampered with or stolen by hackers or thieves, including "credit freezes," full disclosure of information about thefts, and greater restrictions on sharing of Social Security numbers and addresses.
ChoicePoint changed its business practices after the theft, modifying its reports to allow customers to see their own data, and restricting sales of reports that contain Social Security numbers, except to government and law enforcement agencies.
"Since [the data breach] occurred," DiBattiste said, "We have strengthened our credentialing, security procedures and made unprecedented changes to our business model to ensure that the sensitive, personally-identifiable information of consumers remains safeguarded."
However, since the initial breach, the company discovered another 5,000 records may have been viewed without authorization, this time by a pair of private investigators and a Miami, Fla., police officer.
Airline Maintenance Questioned
Outsourcing Critical Repairs Already Blamed for One Fatal Crash12/27/2005ConsumerAffairs
Outsourcing Critical Repairs Already Blamed for One Fatal Crash...
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to be more aggressive about policing critical airline maintenance work performed by noncertified shops, a report by the Transportation Department's Inspector General concludes.
Cost-squeezed airlines are increasingly farming out more and more aircraft maintenance to independent contractors -- many of them in foreign countries -- that are not FAA-certified.
The practice has already been blamed for one fatal accident -- the January 2003 crash of a US Airways flight in Charlotte, N.C. Investigators said the non-certified mechanics who worked on the plane the day before the crash incorrectly adjusted a flight-control device that contributed to the accident, which killed all 21 people on board.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the operator of the plane floying under US Airways colors, Air Midwest, did not provide the proper level of oversight.
It is the airlines' responsibility to oversee the work being done by the contractors but the report says that the level of scrutiny is not high enough to ensure that all work is up to FAA standards.
The report warns that non-certified facilities are "performing more significant work than anyone realized."
The Inspector General's office studied six U.S. airlines, which are not named in the report. It found that none were providing an adequate level of training. One airline provided 11 hours of classroom and video training while another simply provided a one-hour video. One airline simply mailed a workbook to each shop and required mechanics to sign a form saying they had read it.
JetBlue, Southwest, America West, Northwest and United are among the carriers who outsource major maintenance of their aircraft to contractors in other countries, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier.
To provide a broader overview, the Inspector General reviewed 19 airlines and found that one of then outsourced just 1 percent of its total maintenance while another outsourced 39 percent. At one unnamed airline, noncertified contractors performed 74 percent of critical repairs, those that require an inspection before the airplane goes back into service.
The Inspector General said the FAA needs to determine whether it should be allowing noncertified mechanics to perform so many critical maintenance functions. In response, the FAA said it believe its practices had had "no adverse impact on safety."
GM May Find Consumers Unforgiving If It Files for Bankruptcy12/27/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
GM May Find Consumers Unforgiving If It Files for Bankruptcy. There's been talk in automotive circles that General Motors may be on the road to bankruptcy ...
GM Expands Recall to Fix Truck, SUV Brakes12/23/2005ConsumerAffairs
GM Expands Recall to Fix Truck, SUV Brakes...
General Motors is expanding a recall of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks to include another 553,000 vehicles because of potential problems with brakes.
In August the automaker recalled 804,000 full-size pickup trucks and SUVs in 14 states for the brake problem.
In all 1,357,000 pickups and SUVs are now part of the GM recall.
The anti-lock brake system in some vehicles can malfunction and cause an increased stopping distances during low-speed braking.
The expanded recall includes pickup truck and SUVs in Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
GM vehicles affected by the recall include the Chevrolet Avalanche and Silverado pickups and the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe SUVs. The GMC Sierra pickup and Yukon and Yukon XL SUVs are also affected. All the vehicles are from the 1999-2002 model years.
GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received reports of more than 200 crashes, some minor injuries, involving vehicles linked to the recall.
Ford Loses Data on 70,000 Workers...
Maytag Shareholders Approve Merger With Whirlpool12/23/2005ConsumerAffairs
Maytag Shareholders Approve Merger With Whirlpool...
The Maytag repairman will be lonely no more. By an overwhelming vote, Maytag shareholders have approved a proposal to join forces with rival appliance maker Whirlpool.
Maytag said the proposal was ratified on a yes vote by nearly 70 percent of the voting shareholders. The proposal only required the approval of 50 percent of the shares outstanding.
The merger is currently under review by the Justice Department. In order to facilitate the review, Maytag and Whirlpool have agreed not to close on their deal until February 27, 2006, unless the department concurs before then. Both companies say they believe the deal will be ratified in the first quarter of the year.
Maytag is a $4.8 billion home and commercial appliance company focused in North America and in targeted international markets. The companys primary brands are Maytag, Hoover, Jenn-Air, Amana, Dixie-Narco, and Jade.
By joining forces with Maytag, Whirlpool will hold about 46 percent of the market for major appliances, well ahead of General Electric, which currently controls about a quarter of the market. The acquisition is likely to get a close review by the U.S. Justice Departments anti-trust regulators.
Maytag is based in Newton, Iowa, with about 20,000 employees. Whirlpool has 68,000 employees, and produces kitchen and household appliances under the Whirlpool, KitchenAid, Roper and Admiral brand names.
Consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com have consistently complained about some Maytag appliances, including dishwashers and washing machines.
In April of this year Maytag settled a consumer class action suit alleging odor, mold and mildew problems with Maytag Neptune Washers. More than two million consumers were included in the class, and may receive repair reimbursements, replacement costs up to $500, and/or washing machine purchase certificates up to $1000.
Polaroid Portable DVD Player Batteries Recalled12/23/2005ConsumerAffairs
Polaroid Portable DVD Player Batteries Recalled...
December 23, 2005
Petters Consumer Brands LLC is recalling about 165,000 Polaroid portable DVD players. The battery can overheat and melt the plastic case while recharging, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers.
Petters Consumer Brands has received eight reports of batteries overheating, melting the plastic case, or units smoking during the recharging process. No injuries have been reported.
The recall involves external battery packs used with the Polaroid-brand portable DVD players in 7-inch and 8-inch screen sizes. The 7-inch DVD player has model number PDV-0700 and 8-inch player has a model number of PDV-0800. The players and battery packs are silver in color. The battery packs attach to the bottom of the DVD player and have the following serial numbers:
|DVD Model Number||Battery Pack Serial Number Range|
|PDV-0800||060300020000001 through 060300020018000|
070300020008001 through 070300020020000
|PDV-0700||04170303070001000001 through 04170303070001005000|
04270303070001005001 through 04270303070001010000
05040303070001010001 through 05040303070001014000
05150303070001014101 through 05150303070001016100
05190303070001016101 through 05190303070001020100
05260303070001020101 through 05260303070001024100
06010303070001024401 through 06010303070001024900
060300010024101 through 060300010033523
060300010033524 through 060300010050100
070300010050101 through 070300010114100
080300010114101 through 080300010159100
090300010159101 through 090300010193100
The players were sold at various electronics and department stores nationwide from May 2003 through March 2004 for between $150 and $350.
Consumers should stop using and stop recharging the battery packs immediately and contact Petters Consumer Brands for a free replacement battery pack. Consumers can continue using the portable DVD player without the battery, by detaching it from the unit, and plugging in the DC Cord or the AC Power Adapter.
Consumer Contact: Consumers should contact Petters Consumer Brands toll-free at (866) 866-6292 anytime to arrange for a replacement battery pack, or visit the companys Web site at www.Polaroid.com to sign up for the recall.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Too Much Technology, Too Fast?12/23/2005ConsumerAffairs
Fully half of the respondents said they couldn't live without Internet access, as they depended on it for news, information, and simple communication....
As the holiday shopping frenzy reaches its annual climax, buyers are agonizing over the latest high-tech trinkets on the market. iPod nano? Treo 650? Xbox 360? To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, why are people getting these wonderful toys?
As our society becomes ever more information-centric and "connected," Americans are seeing more of a need for constant access and shiny new gadgets to connect with.
A recent poll found as many as four in ten Americans consider their high-speed Internet connections "essential" to their daily lives, and two in ten felt the same way about their DVD and CD players, as well as digital cable subscriptions.
Fully half of the respondents said they couldn't live without Internet access, as they depended on it for news, information, and simple communication.
Another poll conducted by DoubleClick found that 55 percent of the respondents look at their work e-mail at home, and 54 percent did so on the weekends. The survey indicated that the majority of the respondents had multiple e-mail addresses, and many used one address primarily for online shopping.
Even granting that polls can say whatever the pollsters want them to, the simple truth is that the world is becoming more wired, and Americans are placing more and more importance on high-tech gear for both everyday needs and as symbols of success and status.
Not only that, the desire for high-end gadgets cuts across economic and gender lines. Men favor high-end consumer goods far more than women do, and those with annual incomes of $50,000 and higher were generally more disposed to spend their earnings on gadgets and appliances.
A fear of many Web analysts and observers is that today's teenagers, who have never known a world without the Web, will become fixated on instant communication for all their socializing. Teens and young adults are increasingly turning to real-time communication tools such as blogging, podcasting, and instant messaging over e-mail.
Not only that, many businesses are turning to commercial instant messaging clients and editable online workspaces such as "wikis" for instant communication and productivity, all in the name of getting things done faster.
In reality, there may not be much to fear from the high-tech wave. It was barely a generation ago that parents complained their kids didn't read or write. Now they spend all their time tapping away at the keyboard.
Despite the ongoing concerns of identity theft, viruses, spam, and fraud, most people successfully use the Web to meet their wants and needs.
The danger may come from simply having too much of a good thing. As useful and enjoyable as our new technologies are, humans still need time to "unplug," and to interact face-to-face, relax, and minimize the stresses of modern life.
Overly concerned parents and legislators have tried to attack video games as bad influences on today's youth, promoting violence and lenient attitudes towards sex and drugs.
However, there has been no definitive correlation between video games and behaviors in teens, and a federal judge in California recently blocked enforcement of a ban on selling violent video games to minors due to potential violations of the First Amendment.
Rather than banning technology, hiding from it, or attempting to cripple it (as in the case of Sony and its DRM woes), a better solution might simply be to emphasize the need for more basic communication between people, and to set aside times when connectivity isn't necessary or desired.
The National Association of Theater Owners recently appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to consider banning cellphone transmissions in movie theaters, as an effort to entice disgruntled movie fans who currently prefer DVD's and cable over the theater experience.
Ultimately, the new connectivity can be both help and burden to those who use it. Just as with any habit, too little can leave you starved of the essentials, and too much can be an overdose. Balance your Web surfing and game playing with some "offline" activities, like exercise, reading, volunteering, and you'll surely lead a fuller and healthier life.
Tax Firm To Settle More Payday Loan Suits12/22/2005ConsumerAffairs
Tax Firm To Settle More Payday Loan Suits...
California Dumps Zip Code-Based Auto Insurance Rates
Consumer Advocates Hail Decision Implementing Prop 10312/22/2005ConsumerAffairs
California Dumps Zip Code-Based Auto Insurance Rates...
Consumer advocates hailed California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's announcement that he will issue regulations requiring insurance companies to set premiums based on how a motorist drives, not where he lives.
Proposition 103, the sweeping 1988 insurance reform initiative, requires that insurance companies count a motorist's driving safety record, miles driven annually and years of driving experience more than any other factor, including ZIP-code, when they set auto premiums. Implementation had been hung up for years by industry challenges.
"This is an important milestone in the long-standing effort to make auto insurance more affordable, fair and just for Californians," said Harvey Rosenfield, the author of Proposition 103, on behalf of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
"Under the arbitrary and outdated zip code-based system, good drivers across the state often pay higher insurance premiums than bad drivers. Today's decision means that a motorist's auto insurance premiums will be determined by how carefully a person drives and how much they drive, not where they live," Rosenfield said. "That's the only fair way to set rates in a state where people are held responsible when they cause an accident."
Under the current system:
When a good driver moves from ZIP code 90045 in Los Angeles to ZIP code 90044 in Los Angeles, one major insurer increases her annual premium from $2,522 to $4,066.
One insurer charges good drivers in the rural town of Terra Bella in Tulare County 20% higher premiums than drivers in the far more densely populated Thousand Oaks.
A San Diego driver with a perfect record living in the tourist mecca of Coronado 92118 who moves to nearby San Diego 92102 faces a rate hike on their basic liability auto insurance of 33% from a major insurer.
One insurer charges a 45-year-old good driver living in Placerville $349 more per year if he is single or a widower than if he is married.
Commissioner Garamendi's decision came after a lengthy investigation urged by citizen and community groups in 2003. That petition was filed by FTCR, Consumers Union, Southern Christian Leadership Council of Greater Los Angeles; Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights; National Council of La Raza; Spanish Speaking Citizens' Foundation; City of Los Angeles; City of Oakland; and City and County of San Francisco.
Though a recent industry study acknowledged that zip codes are a poor way to set insurance premiums, insurance companies have bitterly fought Proposition 103's "good driver" requirements since the initiative was first proposed.
In their $80 million campaign, insurers claimed that rates would go up, rather than down, if the reforms were implemented. But an exhaustive, eighteen-month study by the Department of Insurance found that if Proposition 103 were properly implemented, throughout the state good drivers and motorists who drove fewer miles per year would see lower rates.
Approved in 1988, Proposition 103 applies to all forms of property-casualty insurance. It mandated rate rollbacks that resulted in $1.2 billion in refund checks; regulates the profits and expenses of insurance companies under a "prior approval" system that by 2001 had saved Californians $23 billion in auto insurance increases alone; allows consumers to challenge insurance company abuses in the courts; applies the antitrust and civil rights laws to the insurance industry; and made the commissioner an elected position.
ConocoPhillips Agrees to Reduce Cigarette Sales to Minors12/21/2005ConsumerAffairs
ConocoPhillips Agrees to Reduce Cigarette Sales to Minors...
ConocoPhillips has agreed to reduce sales of tobacco products to minors at 10,463 company-owned and franchise retail outlets across the country. It's the latest nationwide retailer to reach agreement with a coalition of states seeking to reduce teen smoking.
"Our children are our future, but what kind of future will they have if they start a habit that kills?" asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "We, as a society, have a shared duty to protect our kids from cigarettes and other tobacco products. To its credit, ConocoPhillips has recognized its responsibility and taken an important step to become part of the solution."
The agreement was signed by the company and the Attorneys General of 40 states. It applies to outlets that operate under the Conoco, Phillips 66 and 76 brand names in 31 of the signing states. The Attorneys General of nine states that currently do not have ConocoPhillips outlets signed the agreement. If the company opens stores in those jurisdictions, the outlets will be covered by the agreement."Few things are more important than enforcing regulations designed to protect our children from the hazards of tobacco use," Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said. "Government cannot reduce youth smoking by itself, and this agreement with ConocoPhillips will play an important role in the effort."
The ConocoPhillips "Assurance of Voluntary Compliance" (AVC) is the eighth such agreement produced by an ongoing, multi-state enforcement effort which Lockyer has helped lead. Previous agreements cover, in the signing s! tates, all Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Rite Aid and 7-Eleven stores, and all gas stations and convenience stores operating under the Exxon, Mobil, BP, ARCO and Amoco brand names.
In addition to the multi-state AVCs, Lockyer and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo in December 2004 reached a similar, court-approved settlement with Safeway, Inc. That agreement covers 538 Safeway, Vons, Pavilions and Pak N Save stores in California. The settlement resolved a lawsuit brought by Lockyer and Delgadillo that alleged Safeway violated state laws designed to prevent tobacco sales to minors.
Combined, the AVCs and Safeway settlement cover roughly 55,000 retail outlets across the nation. The AVCs provide measures to reduce sales of tobacco products to minors by the nations top retail chain (Wal-Mart), number one drug store chain (Walgreens), largest oil company (ExxonMobil) and biggest retailer of tobacco products (7-Eleven).
Launched in 2000, the multi-state enforcement effort by a group of 32 Attorneys General focuses on retailers with poor records of selling tobacco products to minors. State laws prohibit such sales.
The enforcement programs goal is to secure the companies agreement to take specific corrective actions. The agreements incorporate "best practices" to reduce sales to minors, developed by the Attorneys General in consultation with researchers, and state and federal tobacco control officials.
The retailing reforms of the ConocoPhillips AVC explicitly apply to company-owned stores. The agreement, however, also calls for ConocoPhillips to take steps to ensure its franchisees comply with state laws governing the sale of tobacco products. For example, ConocoPhillips will revise its franchise contracts to specify that tobacco-product sales to minors can result in loss of the franchise.
The AVC limits in-store advertising of tobacco products to brand names, logos, other trademarks and pricing. Additionally, the agreement bans self-service displays of cigarettes and all other tobacco products. Aside from the advertising and self-service restrictions, the AVC also requires ConocoPhillips to:
Check the ID of any person purchasing tobacco products when the person appears to be under the age of 35, and accept as proof of age only valid government-issued photo ID.
Prohibit the following: use of vending machines to sell tobacco products, distribution of free samples, sale of cigarette look-alike products and the sale of smoking paraphernalia to minors.
Hire an independent entity to conduct random compliance checks twice each year at all company-owned stores in the signing states.
Train employees on state and local laws and company policies regarding tobacco sales to minors, including explaining the health-related reasons for laws that restrict youth access to tobacco.
The Attorneys General have long recognized that youth access to tobacco products ranks among the most serious public health problems. Studies show more than 80 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18. Research indicates that every day in the United States, more than 2,000 people under the age of 18 start smoking and that one-third of those persons ultimately will die from a tobacco-related disease. Young people are particularly susceptible to the hazards of tobacco, often showing signs of addiction after smoking only a few cigarettes.
Do Flu Shots Really Help Seniors?
Researchers Suggest Healthy Seniors Are More Likely to Get Flu Shots, Thus Skewing Statistics12/21/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Researchers Suggest Healthy Seniors Are More Likely to Get Flu Shots, Thus Skewing Statistics...
Studies of influenza vaccine effectiveness in elderly people substantially overestimate vaccine benefits, according to new research from the US published in the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE). The study echoes the findings of research published earlier this year in The Archives of Internal Medicine.
Research by Dr. Lisa Jackson and colleagues at Group Health Co-operative, Seattle, found evidence of serious bias in estimates of influenza vaccine effectiveness in seniors.
Their study suggests that the association between vaccination and risk of death is influenced by the fact that relatively healthy seniors (that is, those already less at risk from dying) are more likely to get vaccinated.
However, the research does not indicate that there is no benefit in vaccinating the elderly, just that the differences in health between seniors who receive vaccine and those who do not make it difficult or impossible to tell what benefit is being derived from the vaccine.
A commentary on the papers also published in the IJE argues that there are reasons to seek ways to augment current vaccination strategy, for example, vaccinating health care workers, nursing home personnel and school children, who are the major spreaders of flu within the community.
This would further decrease flu deaths in the elderly by reducing transmission of the virus. It could be done while better vaccines for the elderly are developed along with the use of new technologies to better evaluate effectiveness.
Dr. Jackson and colleagues studied 73,527 people aged 65 and over during an eight year period. They evaluated the association of flu vaccination and risk of death, and the association of flu vaccination and risk of hospitalization for pneumonia, in periods before, during and after flu season.
Since a protective effect of vaccination should be specific to flu season, they would expect to find reductions in risk of death or hospitalization during the season. However, they found the greatest reductions in the period before flu season when there should be no true vaccine effect.
The reductions in risk before flu season suggest the presence of bias -- due to preferential receipt of vaccine by relatively healthy seniors -- on the estimates of flu vaccine effectiveness observed during flu season.
The researchers then looked at 252 people aged over 65 who had died during a flu season and 572 age-matched controls. Using the subjects' medical records, they identified people with "functional limitations," such as requiring assistance to walk or bathe.
They found that functional limitations were associated with both an increased risk of death and a decreased likelihood of influenza vaccination, and so may confound the association of influenza vaccination and risk of death.
In a commentary on the studies, Professor Paul Glezen of Baylor College of Medicine, Houston said: "During the period from 1989 to 1997 the vaccination rate for people aged over 65 in the US increased from 30 to 67 per cent. Despite this increase, mortality and hospitalization rates continued to increase rather than decline as would be expected if the vaccine were optimally effective.
"The study by Dr Jackson and her colleagues concludes that elderly people who choose to take the vaccine are, contrary to the findings of earlier cohort studies, in better health than those who fail to get the vaccine. This suggests that better studies of the benefits of flu vaccine in elderly and other high-risk groups are necessary to guide strategies for flu control.
"In the meantime, other strategies should be considered in addition to vaccinating the elderly. Many studies have shown that school children have the highest rates of flu infection each year and that they are the major spreaders of flu in the community and introducers into the household. Immunization of school children, therefore, would reduce exposure of vulnerable patients to flu.
"One of the problems with current vaccination strategy is that high-risk persons are relatively inaccessible; no improvement in vaccine coverage has occurred since 1997. School children could be accessible through school-based vaccine clinics allowing rapid administration of vaccine to large numbers, representing all socioeconomic groups, within a short period of time."
Legacy Propane Heaters Recalled12/20/2005ConsumerAffairs
Legacy Propane Heaters Recalled...
December 20, 2005
CFM Corp. is recalling about 10,200 Legacy propane heaters because of a carbon monoxide hazard. A non-specification gasket around the heating plaques could allow heater carbon monoxide emissions to leak into the area in which the heater is being used.
No injuries or incidents of property damage have been reported.
The heaters are propane infrared plaque space heaters sold after September 1, 2005. The units are rectangular in shape and the casing has a white finish. The heaters can be mounted on walls or stand on the floor. The name "Legacy" is centered on the front of the heater immediately below the grill. Affected units have one of the following model numbers:
The model number is located on the right side panel of the unit. All of the heaters were listed by the Canadian Standards Association.
The units were sold by heating and hardware retailers, and HVAC dealers in the U.S. sold these heaters from September 2005 through November 2005 for between $156 and $290.
Consumers should stop using the heater and immediately contact CFM to arrange for a refund of the purchase price or replacement of the product with an equivalent unit. CFM Corporation already notified known purchasers about this recall.
Consumer Contact: For more information, contact CFM Corporation toll-free at (866) 333-4833 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, visit the firms Web site at www.cfmcorp.com or contact the retailer from which you purchased the heater.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Aussie Gas Grills Recalled12/20/2005ConsumerAffairs
Aussie Gas Grills Recalled...
December 20, 2005
Meco Corp. is recalling about 98,000 Aussie Gas Grills. The regulators can leak propane when the propane cylinder is connected and open, and the grill is not in use. This poses a risk of fire and burn injuries.
There have been 10 reports of gas leaks. No injuries have been reported. There has been one report of a fire causing property damage.
The recall involves certain Aussie Gas Grills in the Bonza, Bushman and Bondi series, which have Aussie found on the front panel and the series name found on the control panel. Regulator assemblies on these grills have date codes of 2704 and lower. The regulator is attached to the side of the grills. The model number and serial number of the grill can be found on the back of the grill or on the sides of the control panel. The recall includes grills with the following model numbers and serial number ranges:
|Model Numbers||Serial Number Ranges|
|7362K3XM11||0000001 through 0000760|
|7720.1.641||0005559 through 0055583|
|7462K3XB11||0000001 through 0000155|
|7830.3.641||0000001 through 0006492|
|7462K3XM51||0000001 through 0000917|
|7710.1.641||0071582 through 0089666|
|7820.3.641||0001801 through 0018329|
|7362K3XB41||0000001 through 0000289|
|7362K3XG51||0000001 through 0003804|
|7362K3XM51||0000001 through 0000860|
The units were sold at grocery, department, hardware and other retail stores nationwide from December 2003 through December 2004 for between $100 and $480.
Consumers should immediately stop using the grill and contact Meco for instructions on receiving a replacement regulator assembly.
Consumer Contact: Call Meco toll-free at (800) 251-7558 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. Consumers also can visit the companys Web site at www.meco.net.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Little Chinese Car Headed to Detroit
Geely Sedan Expected to Sell for Under $10,00012/20/2005ConsumerAffairs
Geely Motors will become the first Chinese automaker ever to display a made-in-China car intended for sale in the United States at the Detroit auto show....
It is pronounced JEE-lee and spelled Geely and is made in China. The Geely is a car and it is not a toy car youll find on the shelf at Wal-Mart. In fact, you may buy a Geely from a car dealer not far from the Wal-Mart in the near future.
The plain-Jane midsize sedan is going to be the star of the 2006 Detroit auto show. The not-so-little car is intended for sale in the United States and will retail below $10,000 when the sedan hits the market, probably in late 2008.
Geely Motors will become the first Chinese automaker ever to display a made-in-China car intended for sale in the United States at the Detroit auto show.
The silver sedan is named the Geely 7151 CK. The 7151 CK will be the lowest-priced model in the midsize U.S. car segment, providing more competition for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group.
Turnabout is fair play. GM and Ford have been building and selling cars in China for several years and making lots of money along the way.
This is serious competition though. American consumers and workers alike ought to take a long hard look. Geely's average cost for workers in China is $3.50 an hour. That compares with hourly labor costs of $73.73 for GM.
The competitive advantage available in China is so great that some analysts predict that established automakers such as Honda Motor Co. or even GM will eventually sell Chinese-made vehicles in the United States.
Geely plans to begin selling their sedan and a two-seater sports car in 2008 in Puerto Rico and expand to the U.S. mainland by late 2008 or 2009.
U.S. car dealers already are lining up to sell Chinese vehicles. They're all looking for the next Toyota.
DHL Loses ABN AMRO Customer Data12/20/2005ConsumerAffairs
ABN AMRO Mortgage Group says it has recovered a computer tape that was lost last month while being transported by DHL Courier to a credit reporting service...
December 20, 2005
ABN AMRO Mortgage Group says it has recovered a computer tape that was lost last month while being transported by DHL Courier to a credit reporting service. The company is offering its customers one year of free credit monitoring.
The company said the tape included the names, account information, payment history and Social Security numbers of about two million of its customers. It was being shipped from ABN AMRO's Chicago data center to the credit reporting company Experian on Nov. 18 when it was lost. The company said today that the tape was recovered yesterday.
DHL said the package was found without the original airbill. DHL staff opened the package, found the return address on the tape, and repackaged the tape with a new airbill.
"We deeply regret that this situation occurred and are keenly aware of how important your personal information is to you," Thomas M. Goldstein, Chairman and CEO, said in a letter to customers dated Dec. 16, before the tape was recovered.
Goldstein's letter said that the company was offering affected customers 90 days of free credit monitoring by TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, to help ensure that the missing data was not misused. The offer was later extended to one year after customers protested.
"We are pleased that the tape has been located and returned to us," Goldstein said in a statement. "Although we have no reason to believe that the tape was compromised, we feel it is always a good practice for consumers to monitor their credit activity on a regular basis and we continue to encourage customers who received written notification of this incident to sign up for the free credit monitoring service we have arranged."
"As we learned about this situation, we immediately began an investigation and asked DHL to search for the tape and to investigate the loss. We also alerted federal law enforcement," Goldstein said. "We are carefully reviewing this incident and will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that it does not happen again."
ABN AMRO Mortgage Group, Inc. is one of the largest loan originators and loan servicers in the United States. It has about 3,000 employees located throughout the United States.
Breast Implant Complications Frequent, Study Finds
Almost one-third of women who underwent reconstructive breast implantation after mastectomy had at least one short-term complication12/19/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Breast Implant Complications Frequent, Study Finds...
Almost one-third of women who underwent reconstructive breast implantation after mastectomy had at least one short-term complication in the chest or breast area, with one in five women requiring additional surgery, according to a study in the December issue of Archives of Surgery.
The most common complications were infection, blood clotting, seroma (collection of serum in the tissues) and skin perforation. Forty-nine percent of these complications occurred within three months and 67 percent within six months.
"Surgical or medical intervention is commonly required during the reconstructive course, but reconstruction failure (loss of implant) is rare," the authors report.
Women with breast cancer and their physicians often face several choices in the course of treatment, including whether to remove the breast (mastectomy) or undergo breast-conserving therapies, when and whether to reconstruct the breast following mastectomy and what materials to use in doing so.
Surgeons performing postmastectomy reconstruction can form the new breast from flaps of skin and other tissue from the womans body (autologous tissue) or insert an implant, and sometimes use both techniques at once.
Many women choose implants alone because the procedure is simpler and requires less operation time than those using autologous tissue, and it can preserve the color of the skin of the breast and possibly some of its sensitivity.
Trine F. Henrikson, M.D., of the Danish Registry for Plastic Surgery of the Breast (DPB), Copenhagen, Denmark, and colleagues analyzed data from 574 women in the registry who underwent postmastectomy breast reconstruction between June 1, 1999, and July 24, 2003.
The patients surgeons reported the dates and details of each implantation and filled out follow-up forms when the women returned for subsequent visits. The women, ages 21 to 78 years with a mean (average) age of 51 years, were monitored through Sept. 15, 2003.
Following their first implantation, 31 percent of the women developed at least one adverse event, 16 percent developed two complications and 8 percent experienced three or more during the course of the study.
Additional surgery was required for 21 percent of the women, while 3 percent underwent additional nonsurgical treatment. Surgery was most often needed to correct asymmetry of the breasts, displacement of the implant or capsular contracture, when the capsule-like scar tissue that forms around the implant tightened and hardened.
The researchers also examined data on the 302 women in the study who had reimplantations, usually to exchange or replace the existing implant.
These women had similar rates of complications -- 36 percent of them developed at least one adverse event and 21 percent required additional surgery.
"When evaluating benefits and risks associated with breast reconstruction, the surgeon and patient should consider that the reconstructive process often requires additional surgical interventions to treat local complications or to achieve the desired cosmetic result," the authors conclude.
"Detailed information on the likelihood of local complications associated with the given indication (cosmetic vs. reconstructive) should be an essential part of adequate informed consent for women seeking breast implantation."
Minimum Credit Card Payments Going Up
A change in banking regulations will mean higher minimum credit card payments for millions of consumers beginning in January12/19/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Minimum Credit Card Payments Going Up...
A change in banking regulations will mean higher minimum credit card payments for millions of consumers beginning in January. At the urging of federal banking regulators, credit card companies are boosting the minimum payment on balances from two percent to four percent.
The idea is to help consumers. By increasing the minimum payment, the feds reason, consumers will pay down their balances faster, with a greater percentage of their payment going to principal instead of interest. But many cash-strapped consumers may find themselves overwhelmed.
"I have certain funds allocated for certain expenses and if that nearly doubled I would definitely have to realign my budget," Chicago consumer Cetrina Williams told WBBM-TV.
But Justin McHenry, Research Director for IndexCreditCards.com, says the new rules will probably be less burdensome to consumers than they fear. Hes seen the media reports of "double credit card payments" and thinks its overblown.
"While the government is requiring credit card companies to increase monthly minimum payments, the goal is to help credit card customers pay off balances without undue hardship," McHenry said.
Specifically, where most credit card issuers previously required customers to pay off 2% of their outstanding balances each month, most will now require customers to pay all monthly interest and fees, plus 1% of the outstanding balance.
What does that mean for monthly payments? McHenry said significant monthly increases will occur in only the most extreme cases, those in which very large credit card debt is combined with very high interest rates. Even then, he says the result is not as scary as you may think.
For example, he says, imagine a person with a $10,000 credit card debt and a 19 percent annual interest rate, both higher than the average consumer is carrying.
Using the two percent minimum balance calculation, this person would have a required monthly payment of approximately $203.16. Under new requirements, the monthly payment would be $258.33 ($158.33 in interest, plus $100 of the outstanding balance). This is a difference of roughly $55 on a balance and interest rate that exceeds what the average consumer is carrying. Most credit card customers will have much smaller minimum payment increases, if any, he said.
"Unless a credit card company has specifically announced raising their minimum payment from two to four percent, its almost impossible to think of a realistic scenario in which payments will double," says McHenry.
The upcoming change in minimum payments is a result of guidance from the governments Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which told banks they must require minimum payments that allow customers to pay off their debts in a reasonable amount of time.
Under the current industry-standard two percent minimum payment, customers with high balances can conceivably "meet the minimum" without even paying off a full months interest, much less taking a chunk out of the principal balance.
"While 'this is for your own good' generally should be met with skepticism," says McHenry, "in this case it's true."
Florida Sues Spammer Touting Bogus Fuel Saver
Fuel Saver Pro falsely claimed to increase automobile gas mileage and decrease harmful pollutants and emissions12/16/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Florida Sues Spammer Touting Bogus Fuel Saver...
Florida has sued an Indian River County man for allegedly running a bogus email operation touting a bogus fuel saver.
The complaint alleges that Rik Rodriguez, 47, is responsible for sending thousands of illegal emails that linked recipients to websites selling a device called Fuel Saver Pro that falsely claimed to increase automobile gas mileage and decrease harmful pollutants and emissions.
The lawsuit filed by Attorney General Charlie Crist's office joins Federal Trade Commission efforts against "button pushers" - paid spammers who inundate email in-boxes for commissions on product sales.
In October 2004, the FTC sued the Nevada-based company that manufactured and marketed the bogus fuel-saving device, as well as those who acted as resellers of the product online. Through the litigation, spammers who steered consumers to the websites selling the bogus products including Rodriguez were identified.
"Spam is a pervasive and growing threat to unsuspecting computer users everywhere," said Crist. "While spam is annoying, it is even worse when used to encourage recipients to spend their hard-earned money on bogus products."
Rodriguez allegedly sent or assisted the sending of more than 1,100 illegal emails to over 2,500 recipients. Many messages used false information to disguise the origin of the email, while others wrongfully concealed the sender's address by instead substituting innocent persons' names or invalid email addresses.
Rodriguez allegedly used several different computers to avoid detection, and in one instance used over 100 different computer addresses in a single day.
The spam emails were captured by Microsoft through its MSN Hotmail trap accounts and were referred to the Attorney General's Office to assist the investigation.
The emails that are the subject of this action were sent before Florida's Anti-Spam law was enacted, so the lawsuit against Rodriguez alleges violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
In addition, the emails are said to have violated the Federal CAN-SPAM law. Rodriguez faces penalties of up to $10,000 per violation of Florida law. The lawsuit will be litigated by the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division.
Ford Settles Class Action Over Plastic Manifolds
Ford has settled a class-action lawsuit over the troublesome plastic intake manifolds on certain Ford and Lincoln-Mercury models12/16/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Ford Settles Class Action Over Plastic Manifolds...
Ford has settled a class-action lawsuit over the troublesome plastic intake manifolds on certain Ford and Lincoln-Mercury models from the 1996 through 2002 model years. The settlement was reached in June but needed final approval by the court.
Owners who have already replaced the manifolds will receive full reimbursement. Owners without a receipt will receive $735 for repairs, according to attorneys handling the case.
The company is also extending the new-vehicle warranty on the nylon composite part to seven years to cover vehicle owners who haven't yet replaced the manifold.
The class-action lawsuit covers about 1.8 million vehicle owners. The settlement is expected to cost Ford more than $100 million.
Vehicles included in the settlement are the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car from the 1996-2001 model years; 1997 Mercury Cougar, Ford Thunderbird and Ford Mustang; some Mustangs from 1998-2001; and some Ford Explorers from 2002.
Plaintiffs in the case claimed the intake manifolds are prone to premature cracking, which could lead to coolant leakage and expensive damage to the engine.
The San Francisco law firm Levy, Ram & Olson represented consumers in the case.
Sen. Trent Lott Sues State Farm over Katrina Damage12/16/2005ConsumerAffairs
Sen. Trent Lott Sues State Farm over Katrina Damage...
Like thousands of other homeowners, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) lost his home when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. And like thousands of his constituents, Lott has not been able to get his insurer to pay for replacing his house.
So, like thousands of his constituents, Lott has sued his insurer, State Farm, which has stonewalled Lott and other South Mississippians who lost their homes on the grounds that their homeowners policies do not cover flood damage.
Home insurance typically does not cover floods but the homeless Mississippians contend that it was wind and wind-driven water that destroyed their homes. Wind damage is covered by homeowners policies.
Lott's suit adds powerful political muscle to the dispute. The state's attorney general, Jim Hood, sued five large insurers in September seeking to override the exclusions and there are numerous individual and class-action lawsuits pending in the courts.
"Today I have joined in a lawsuit against my longtime insurance company because it will not honor my policy, nor those of thousands of other South Mississippians, for coverage against wind damage due to Hurricane Katrina," the former Senate major leader said in a statement.
State Farm and other insurers vehemently deny that they are liable for the damages and say that the lawsuits "threaten the foundation of the economy of the state" by trying to undercut legal contracts.
While Republicans in Congress are quick to bash plaintiffs' lawyers who file class-action suits on behalf of consumers, Lott had no trouble turning for legal help to his brother-in-law, Richard Scruggs, a famous and enormously successful plaintiffs' lawyer who has won huge judgments against tobacco and asbestos companies, among others.
Lott and Scruggs were neighbors along the Gulf Coast in Pascagoula and both lost their homes in the storm.
The suit alleges that State Farm wouldn't cover Mr. Lott's total loss because it was caused by a "storm surge" from the Gulf, rather than by wind. It argues that the policy is supposed to cover losses from "storm systems" and that damage from storms typically includes not only wind but also storm surges.
All Eyes On You: How Spy Chips Are Quietly Reshaping Privacy
All Eyes On You12/15/2005ConsumerAffairs
All Eyes On You: How Spy Chips Are Quietly Reshaping Privacy...
You may not realize it, but that pack of disposable razors you just bought can enable you to be tracked wherever you go. Same with that discount card you used to buy the razors in the first place.
Somewhere, a computer is collating and tabulating all of your information from the moment you step into the store, and using it to generate a "profile" of you for unknown purposes.
Not only that, but one day in the near future, you could have a little microchip implanted in your body. Like something out of "Blade Runner" or "The Matrix," you could be electronically "tagged" and identified in order to build a record of your medical information, accessible anywhere in the world -- and for other purposes you may not know about.
Sound like cyberpunk at its most clich? Far from it. Radio frequency identifiers (RFID) -- more commonly known as "spy chips" -- are a reality in everything from retail business to medical records.
And that's just the beginning. In the words of Alex Eckelberry, president of Florida-based Sunbelt Software, "The problem with RFID[is that] we are headed toward a state where privacy will be a thing of the past."
Brave New World
RFID works on a deceptively simple principle. An object is implanted or "tagged" with a small computer chip. The chip is monitored wirelessly by a "reader" that identifies its unique signature, and whatever information is on the chip is automatically stored in a linked database.
What makes this different from classic "bar codes" is that the data storage capacity for RFID enables each and every tagged item to have its own unique identifier, whereas the bar code system has one code for an entire class of item.
Business was quick to jump on the concept of millions of products that could be individually identified and tracked. Wal-Mart has led the way in using RFID tagging, investing $250 million in RFID technology and requiring their distributors to mark high-end items such as consumer electronics with RFID tags.
Walgreens recently partnered with marketer Goliath Solutions to track promotional displays in its 5,000 stores nationwide using RFID tags. The tags will be used to track how long displays are made available in stores, group displays by regional interest, and so on.
"With the GOLIATH system, we'll have unprecedented insight into marketing data collected daily from every store," said Robert Kral, Walgreens vice president of purchasing in a press statement.
RFID tags are used in the EZ Pass toll-charge system popular throughout the Northeast. EZ Pass users prepay a certain amount and install a transponder in their car.
When passing through tolls that use the EZ Pass system, a reader in the toll booth identifies the transponder and automatically deducts the amount of the toll from the driver's account.
The government is also getting in on the RFID action. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is testing the use of RFID-tagged cards for visitors to and from the United States. Border guards would "read" the cards each time a visitor to the U.S. crossed the divide.
The Defense Department has issued several big-ticket contracts to RFID suppliers in order to tag their shipments of food, clothes, and weapons around the world.
Investment in RFID is booming. A study by the Gartner research group found that worldwide spending on the technology was $504 million in 2005, with total spending expected to increase to $3 billion by 2010.
"Businesses are beginning to discover business value in places where they cannot use bar coding, which will be the force that moves RFID forward," Gartner's vice-president of research, Jeff Woods, said.
The Body Electric
The most controversial aspect of RFID technology usage is the concept of installing RFID tags in living beings, humans and animals alike. A rabies scare in the Bordeaux region of France in September 2004 motivated the Digital Angel Corporation to distribute 50,000 of its RFID tags to implant in pets in the region.
A year later, Digital Angel supplied 2,000 chips and 28 readers to identify pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina, both to read chips that had already been implanted in pets, and to create a database of information about the animals in order to identify them.
Digital Angel is a subsidiary of Applied Digital, Inc., a company that specializes in "information and security solutions." Another Applied Digital subsidiary, VeriChip, has championed the usage of implanting RFID tags in humans for medical database tracking.
VeriChip's "VeriMed" tracking solution would enable doctors to identify medical patients who may be unable to provide proof of who they are or who can't communicate effectively. The patient would have an RFID chip implanted on their body, which the physician could then track with a handheld reader.
The patient's medical information would be stored, according to VeriChip, "[in] a designated secure healthcare information database, allowing [the physician] to immediately take the safest course of action."
VeriChip has currently deployed the VeriMed system in 68 medical facilities, including 65 hospitals.
Applied Digital is taking advantage of recent publicity about RFID to file an initial public offering for VeriChip, scheduled to close in late 2006.
According to the press release announcing the IPO, "Offering proceeds will also be used for enhancing the growing sales of the infant protection systems, wander prevention systems and asset tracking systems both in the United States and internationally."
VeriChip got a huge publicity boost from the support of former Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) chairman Tommy Thompson. Thompson serves on the board of directors of VeriChip, and publicly exhorted the virtues of using RFID for medical information tracking.
In an interview with CBS MarketWatch, Thompson compared the technology's growing usage to that of the iPod.
"Today everybody knows what an iPod is," said Thompson, "and the same thing as with a chip in your arm that is placed there instantaneously, and is going to be able to help you secure your medical records which will be able to allow you tobe able to get immediate care."
Thompson also said that he himself would be willing to get "chipped" in order to demonstrate how quick and easy the procedure is. However, when asked about it on December 5th, VeriChip spokesman John Procter said that Thompson had yet to undergo the procedure.
According to Procter, The procedure is "very quick and painless," but Thompson has to fit it into his schedule. In an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Procter said that "it will be handled in an appropriate fashion."
Procter emphasized that all uses of the chip are "completely voluntary." "We will not have [the chip] imposed on people who don't want it." The best uses for the chip would be for patients who may be mentally ill or have prior conditions that require constant care, he said.
Legal guardians of patients who may be unable to communicate their desires may have the authority to "chip" someone without their permission. The data would be stored in a "secured, password-protected, firewalled database" maintained by Applied Digital, except in cases where hospitals maintained their own databases.
Although Procter stressed that the database would meet conditions required by the Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which governs the collection and protection of medical records, he could not verify if the administrators would themselves be HIPAA-certified.
No one has done more to bring the issues surrounding RFID technology to the public than Katherine Albrecht.
Albrecht is the founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), which regularly reports on the potential abuses of loyalty cards and discount card memberships in retail stores, and has become a tireless foe of spy chips.
Albrecht and her chief partner, Liz McIntyre, have repeatedly exposed the surreptitious usage of RFID in everyday life.
Albrecht recently told Mother Jones magazine, "The problem with RFID has to do with the fact that the RFID tags can be so easily hidden into products -- things people buy and carry -- and the reader devices can be so easily hidden into aspects of the environment. This makes it extremely easy for someone who wants to observe and watch people in these surreptitious ways to do so."
CASPIAN's efforts have led to such findings as the insertion of tiny RFID tags into Gillette razorblade packages and the usage of spy chips in discount cards for the METRO "future store" in Rhineberg, Germany.
Albrecht and McIntyre recently published "Spy Chips: How Major Corporations and Governments Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," which details their investigations of RFID usage and its implications.
In an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, McIntyre was skeptical that the total amount of spending on RFID was $504 million. "That's pretty low," based on their findings, she said.
McIntyre said that Walgreens and Goliath could use their new RFID system "not just to track displays, but customers as well." She noted that Goliath has emphasized the ability to hide the RFID readers in light fixtures and other unobtrusive areas, "so customers couldn't see them."
McIntyre obtained patent and trademark information filed by Goliath regarding the usage of their RFID tracking information.
According to the patent filing, tracking store displays with RFID tags would "monitor and report exposure of particular shoppers to marketing materials that are being monitored by the system. The system will therefore allow companies to monitor and remedy compliance problems during an advertising program, which will improve overall compliance and increase the effectiveness of the advertising program. It will also allow fee-based marketing programs that are conditional upon certain retail conditions being present at a particular time to be executed with more precision, reliability, and verifiability.
"Furthermore," says the filing, "it will allow the flow of specific shopper traffic within a store to be monitored and analyzed. In addition, the system will allow subsequent marketing programs, such as coupons or direct mail, to be tailored to or made conditional on shopper interests, shopping patterns, or prior exposure to marketing materials."
Who Watches The Watchmen?
A concern expressed by opponents of RFID chips is that identity thieves and criminals may be able to use their own readers to "tag" the data in a chip. McIntyre believes that while that is a concern, the major issue should be with businesses and government agencies who have the capability to collect this information and who are already doing so without the public's consent.
"The Pentagon has been in talks with VeriChip" over using these technologies, said McIntyre. "We're looking ata government-held database of medical information records on every American."
Alex Eckelberry thinks that the usage of RFID for surveillance presages an erosion of individual privacy, and individual liberty with it.
"One of the founding tenants of our society is the belief that freedoms and privacy are interconnected. We have fundamental freedoms that are vital for our nation to continue to succeed, and we have seen a slow whittling down of these freedoms that pose a real danger to our future. Freedom and privacy are critical to a healthy society."
In the landmark Harvard Law Review article, "The Right to Privacy," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis laid out the case for privacy being an essential right.
"Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right 'to be let alone,'" Brandeis wrote.
Though he was speaking of "instantaneous newspaper photographs" and an increasingly invasive press, he could just as easily have been speaking of spy chips when he said, "The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury."
FDA Warns of Phony Bird Flu Drugs
FDA said it is not aware of any scientific evidence that demonstrates the safety or effectiveness of these products12/14/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
FDA Warns of Phony Bird Flu Drugs...
The Food and Drug Administration has issued warning letters to nine companies marketing bogus flu products behind claims that their products could be effective against preventing the avian flu or other forms of influenza.
FDA said it is not aware of any scientific evidence that demonstrates the safety or effectiveness of these products for treating or preventing avian flu and the agency is concerned that the use of these products could harm consumers or interfere with conventional treatments.
"There are initiatives in place to deter counterfeiters and those who sell fraudulent or phony products to prevent or treat avian flu," said Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, Acting FDA Commissioner.
"The use of unproven flu cures and treatments increases the risk of catching and spreading the flu rather than lessening it because people assume they are protected and safe and they aren't. I consider it a public health hazard when people are lured into using bogus treatments based on deceptive or fraudulent medical claims."
FDA issued warning letters to nine firms marketing products making unproven claims that they treat or prevent avian flu or other forms of influenza.
Eight of the products purported to be dietary supplements. Examples of the unproven claims cited in the warning letters include: "prevents avian flu," "a natural virus shield," "kills the virus," and "treats the avian flu."
These alternative therapies are promoted as "natural" or "safer" treatments that can be used in place of an approved treatment or preventative medical product.
In the warning letters, the FDA advises the firms that it considers their products to be drugs because they claim to treat or prevent disease. The warning letters further state that FDA considers these products to be "new drugs" that require FDA approval before marketing.
The letters also note that the claims regarding avian flu are false and misleading because there is no scientific basis for concluding that the products are effective to treat or prevent avian flu. The companies have 15 days to respond to FDA.
Study Describes Dangerous Heart Condition in Young Athletes
Fainting In Connection with Exercise a Warning Sign12/13/2005ConsumerAffairs
Study Describes Dangerous Heart Condition in Young Athletes...
A Johns Hopkins study has provided the most comprehensive description to date of people most likely to develop a relatively rare heart condition, called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), known to be among the top causes of sudden cardiac death among young athletes.
Estimates from researchers and the Heart Rhythm Society suggest that ARVD accounts for up to 5 percent of the 300,000 deaths each year in the United States from sudden cardiac death.
"Our results are a sobering reminder that if a young person faints, especially in association with exercise, their physicians should evaluate them carefully for cardiac diseases, including ARVD," says study lead author Darshan Dalal, M.D., M.P.H., a cardiology research fellow at Hopkins.
A family history of sudden cardiac death at a young age is considered a major risk factor for the disorder. Athletes are also at particular risk, but the precise biological reasons for this remain unknown.
According to senior study investigator and cardiac electrophysiologist Hugh Calkins, M.D., "physicians need to know that this is a serious disease, and they should be on the lookout for its early signs and symptoms because it is an important cause of sudden cardiac death in apparently healthy young individuals.
"Preventive treatment with an implantable defibrillator appears to eliminate the risk of sudden death," he adds.
Calkins, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart Institute, notes that the disease frequently strikes people who are relatively young and that symptoms may appear up to 15 years before diagnosis. Initial symptoms include palpitations, dizziness and fainting.
Researchers found that symptoms usually appear after puberty and before age 50. Eight of the 31 patients who died before diagnosis had shown signs of the disease when alive, including five who had passed out, suggesting they could have been treated and saved, the researchers say.
In their study, published in the journal Circulation online, the Hopkins scientists analyzed characteristics of 100 ARVD patients, including 69 while still alive and 31 diagnosed postmortem.
The subjects, who included men and women of many ethnic backgrounds, with a median age of 31, were part of Hopkins' registry of U.S. patients with the condition, which appears on MRI scans as either a protruding or pouch-like bulge from the right side of the heart or a dilated, poorly functioning right ventricle.
ARVD is composed of a range of symptoms, including irregular heartbeat and the presence of excess amounts of fatty tissue in the heart's right ventricle, the lesser known of the heart's two main pumping chambers and the one that pumps blood to the lungs.
As a result, the abnormal and often weakened and scarred right ventricle dramatically increases the risk of harmful ventricular arrhythmias and possible sudden cardiac death.
Diagnosis of ARVD is based on a four-point scale, and up to 10 cardiac tests are required to confirm a diagnosis.
Electrocardiograms, or EKGs, and echocardiograms are performed to verify the origins of arrhythmia, and MRI tests -- backed up by tissue biopsy -- are done to confirm the buildup of fat and fibrous tissue in the right ventricle.
According to Calkins, who founded Hopkins' ARVD registry in 1998 and is also director of its arrhythmia programs, these confirmatory tests are important because the illness is often misdiagnosed if physicians rely on a single diagnostic test, such as MRI.
His earlier research, in 2004, showed that more than half of patients are misdiagnosed, with physicians correctly diagnosing only 27 percent of true cases of ARVD.
In the new study, of the 47 patients who were diagnosed early and implanted with defibrillators that shock the heart to correct irregular rhythms, only one died of cardiac arrest, when the heart suddenly stops functioning from a runaway heartbeat.
Twenty-nine of the patients' defibrillators "fired" within two years. This was, says Dalal "the good news that most patients do quite well if protected by a defibrillator."
Of 22 patients without defibrillators and maintained on drug therapy alone, two died of cardiac arrest, in addition to the 31 who died before diagnosis.
While the exact cause of ARVD remains unknown, the scientists believe it to be an inherited syndrome and that improved awareness and better diagnosis are steps toward their goal of developing a screening test for those at risk.
DirecTV Fined $5 Million for Do-Not-Call Violations
Settlement Comes One Day After A $5 Million Settlement of State Charges12/13/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
DirecTV Fined $5 Million for Do-Not-Call Violations...
It's turning into a bad week for DirecTV. Yesterday the satellite broadcaster agreed to pay $5 million to settle a 22-state investigation of its marketing practices and today, the Federal Trade Commission fined the company $5.35 million for violating the national do-not-call registry.
It's the agency's biggest fine to date over telemarketing.
"This multimillion dollar penalty drives home a simple point: Sellers are on the hook for calls placed on their behalf," said Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "The Do Not Call Rule applies to all players in the marketing chain, including retailers and their telemarketers."
The FTC's complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Los Angeles, named DirecTV and five telemarketing firms. It alleges that the telemarketers contacted consumers on the National Do-Not-Call registry.
In addition, the complaint alleges that one of the telemarketers Global Satellite, directly or through another entity abandoned calls to consumers by failing to put a live sales representative on the line within two seconds after the called consumer completes his or her greeting, as required under the law.
Finally, the complaint alleges that DirecTV provided substantial assistance and support to Global Satellite, even though it knew or consciously avoided knowing, that Global Satellite was violating the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule.
The court order requires DirecTV to pay $5,355,000 in civil penalties. It also prohibits the company from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule in the future.
The proposed settlement also requires DirecTV to terminate any marketer of its products who the company knows or should know is making cold calls to consumers without express, written authorization from DirecTV.
Lexus Leads in Customer Loyalty
Lexus leads the industry in retaining the highest percentage of new-vehicle owners12/13/2005ConsumerAffairs
Lexus leads the industry in retaining the highest percentage of new-vehicle owners, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Customer Retention Stud...
Lexus leads the industry in retaining the highest percentage of new-vehicle owners, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Customer Retention Study. The study, now in its third year, measures the percentage of new-vehicle buyers and lessees who replace a vehicle that was previously purchased new with a new vehicle from the same nameplate.
With a 3.5 percentage-point increase from 2004, Lexus ranks highest, retaining 63.0 percent of its customers. The industry average is 49.6 percent.
Lexus is followed in the rankings by Toyota (62.6%), Honda (59.9%), Chevrolet (57.3%) and Hyundai (56.3%), respectively.
"By satisfying its customers on many different levels, Lexus consistently enjoys high retention rates," said Neal Oddes, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates.
"Customer retention is extremely valuable in the auto industry because it costs manufacturers less to keep existing customers than to attract new ones, and strong retention fosters favorable word of mouth," Oddes said.
Although Suzuki retains just 28.6 percent of its customers, the brand records the greatest improvement, increasing its retention rate by 38 percent from 2003, which was the inaugural year of the study.
Acura is also enjoying strong increases in retention rates, improving 25 percent from 2003 to retain 45.7 percent of its customer base in 2005.
"Suzuki has made tremendous strides in better retaining its customers, due partly to the fact that it has expanded its lineup to include more segments of the market, which offers buyers a wider variety of models in different segments as their needs and wants change over time," said Oddes. "Suzuki has also been focusing heavily on quality, improving its performance in the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study by 35 percent over the past five years."
The study finds that quality and customer service experiences play key roles in influencing customer retention.
About 23 percent of respondents did not buy a vehicle from the same brand because they felt that too many things went wrong with their previous vehicle.
In fact, the nameplates with the fewest customers leaving for this reason also performed relatively well in the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures problems experienced during the first three years of ownership.
Experiences with the dealer service and sales departments also have an important impact on whether customers return to the brand when they are in the market to buy a replacement vehicle.
Nameplates performing well in the firms 2005 Customer Service Index (CSI) Study, which measures satisfaction with the service department, and the 2005 Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study, which measures satisfaction during the new-vehicle sales process, tend to have relatively few customers who cite poor service as a reason for defecting to another brand.
"Although acquiring new customers is an integral part of any OEMs strategic plan, strong nameplate retention is essential to grow and expand its customer base over time," said Oddes. "Manufacturers cannot underestimate the power of excellent service and short- and long-term quality in convincing their customers to come back to the brand time and again."
New Jersey: Good News & Bad12/12/2005ConsumerAffairs
The most densely-populated state in the Union, New Jersey also ranks first in cost of living, price of auto insurance, and property taxes....
As a lifelong resident, I know that New Jersey is much more than the meat of a sandwich between New York and Philadelphia. The most densely-populated state in the Union, New Jersey also ranks first in cost of living, price of auto insurance, and property taxes. But there are many good things about the Garden State too. Consider these:
The first brewery in America opened in Hoboken in 1642.
Hoboken was also the site of the first baseball game with nine innings, nine men per team, and three outs per inning (1846).
Hoboken was also the birthplace of Frank Sinatra.
Nearby Union City has more Cubans than Havana all packed into one square mile.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are both located in New Jersey
Inventor John P. Holland launched the first submarine on the Passaic River
Famous for its tomatoes, New Jersey is the world leader in the production of both cranberries and blueberries
Nearly 80 per cent of all American imports come through Elizabeth, the nations largest seaport.
New Jerseys water quality control testing is more stringent than any other seaboard state
The states 50+ resort communities include Atlantic City, Cape May, Seaside Heights, and the Wildwoods
New Jersey has more racehorses than Kentucky but also more cars and the nations densest system of highways and railroads
Rural Highlands, NJ has the highest elevation on the Eastern Seaboard
Though called the Garden State, New Jersey is the only state where all of its counties are classified as metropolitan areas
The state has the most diners in the world and the most shopping malls in one area (seven major malls in a radius of 25 square miles)
Both the New York Giants and New York Jets play in North Jersey
Streets in the game Monopoly are named for real streets in Atlantic City
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, movie projector, and phonograph (record player) in his Menlo Park laboratory
Other NJ firsts: first radio station, AM broadcast, and FM broadcast; first airmail service, first underwater tunnel, first medical center, first college football game, and first drive-in movie theater
Natives include Abbott & Costello, Jason Alexander, Grover Cleveland, Connie Francis, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep, Loretta Swit, and Woodrow Wilson
New Jersey has WaWas (convenience stores), jughandles (highway turns), towns that sound like citrus (the Oranges), and national recognition from TVs The Sopranos
Palisades Amusement Park is history but New Jerseyans are still prohibited from pumping their own gas (the only state with such rules) ---
Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is president of the North American Travel Journalists Association, and a frequent contributor to AAA Traveler and USAirways Magazine.
New Law Makes It Tougher To Buy Cold Medicine
It will take a little more effort to purchase Sudafed and similar over-the-counter cold remedies12/12/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
The new legislation, part of the renewed Patriot Act, require consumers to show an ID and sign a log book when they buy products containing the nasal decon...
It will take a little more effort to purchase Sudafed and similar over-the-counter cold remedies, thanks to an act of Congress.
The new legislation, part of the renewed Patriot Act, requires consumers to show a photo ID and sign a log book when they buy products containing the nasal decongestant, pseudoephedrine.
The law is designed to make it harder for criminals to obtain pseudoephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamines.
But law enforcement officials are divided over whether it will do any good. While some think it will limit the availability of precursor drugs for small meth labs, others point out that most meth labs smuggle their supplies of precursor drugs from Canada.
Retailers, meanwhile, say they're concerned the new law will have a bigger impact on their operations. Grocery and convenience stores, especially, say requiring customers to show ID and sign a log book for cold medicine will diminish their efficiency.
However, some large drug store chains, in anticipation of the law, have already begun stocking their over-the-counter cold medicines behind the pharmacy counter.
The National Association of Chain Drug Stores has voiced the concern that the new law limits individual sales of pseudoephedrine to 3.6 grams per day and 9 grams per month within 30 days of the bill becoming law. But the bill gives retailers until Sept. 30, 2006, to implement the log system.
Mary Ann Wagner, senior vice president of the group, says until the log book system is in place, it will be impossible to keep up which how much of the drug individual customers have purchased.
The legislation?s supporters say they understand the law will be an inconvenience for some retailers and drugstores. But they point to recent laws in Oklahoma and Iowa limiting access to pseudoephedrine, saying they led to sharp declines in the local production of meth.
DirecTV Will Reform Ad Practices, Pay Millions in Refunds
DirecTV has agreed to make sweeping reforms in its advertising practices12/12/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
DirecTV Will Reform Ad Practices, Pay Millions in Refunds...
DirecTV has agreed to make sweeping reforms in its advertising practices, to make restitution to consumers who complained and to pay $5 million to the 22 states who banded together to investigate the issue.
"Consumers must be provided clear and complete information about offers, prices and services in order to make wise purchasing decisions," New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said.
The states commenced an investigation in March 2003 based upon consumer complaints that:
• Advertised programs were not always viewable;
• Sports programs in DIRECTVs "Sports Package" were, at times, blacked-out;
• All local programming was not available as advertised;
• Many subscribers got poor reception; and
• Cancellation policies were unfair.
Specifically, the Attorneys General raised concerns that small unreadable print in advertisements modified DirecTV's offers and that consumers were locked into contracts before learning exactly what their monetary commitments to DirecTV were.
As part of the settlement, DirecTV has agreed to pay restitution to consumers who complained because:
(1) they were charged a fee for not activating DirecTV in a timely way;
(2) they paid for but did not receive all local channels they expected to receive; or
(3) they were assessed a fee for terminating service before the "free programming offer" period expired.
In settling the investigation, DirecTV agrees that it will clearly inform each of its customers as to the total scope and costs of the consumer's obligation in the event the consumer accepts a DirecTV service and/or equipment offer in its advertisements.
DirecTV also has agreed to improve its advertising by clearly disclosing: additional monthly charges for receivers; any obligations when accepting promotional offers, such as long term commitments and early termination charges; any obligation to activate service or maintain certain levels of service in order to obtain discounted equipment; limitations on availability of local channels, if promoting local programming; and whether blackouts may apply to sporting events offered through sports packages.
The states Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia are parties to the agreement with DirecTV.
Fun facts about Fabulous Phoenix12/12/2005ConsumerAffairs
The advent of air-conditioning and airplanes has turned the Valley of the Sun into one of America's hottest vacation destinations - especially when most of...
It's hard to believe that Phoenix was once a sleepy desert town populated only by cacti and cowboys.
The advent of air-conditioning and airplanes has turned the Valley of the Sun into one of America's hottest vacation destinations - especially when most of the country is cold. Consider these facts:
With 1.4 million residents, Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the USA.
More than 13 million people visit annually, arriving on more than 20 airlines.
There are 55,000 hotel rooms, 200 golf courses, and almost no rain (7.66 inches of annual rainfall, an average annual high temperature of 85, and 325 sun-filled days per year).
Though Phoenix sits in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, its elevation is 1,117 feet (much higher than any point in Florida) and six lakes are within a 75-mile drive.
The city is home to the world's largest municipal park: South Mountain Park covers 20,000 acres and includes more than 1,700 acres of traditional park land.
The nine major-league baseball teams that train in Phoenix for six weeks (starting in mid-February) are the Angels, Athletics, Brewers, Cubs, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, and Royals.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, who train in Tucson, play an 81-game home schedule in Phoenix.
Other area sports include three pro golf tournaments, the annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (college football), and occasional Super Bowls (2008 is next).
The area has teams from all of the Big Four sports plus arena football and the WNBA.
City museums feature Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, Native American art, area history, the world's largest collection of desert plants, and the largest collection of fire-fighting equipment on the planet - in something called the Hall of Flame.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International, the world's sixth-busiest airport, also has one of the largest airport art collection (200 permanent pieces).
By 2008, Metro light rail service will link the airport to the convention center and athletic facilities via a 20-mile arterial route, with another 27.7 miles of suburban track to be completed by 2028.
For further information, contact Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, One Arizona Center, Suite 600, 400 E. Van Buren, Phoenix, AZ 85004 (Tel. 877-CALL-PHX or 602-253-4415, Fax 602-254-6500, www.visitphoenix.com).---
Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is president of the North American Travel Journalists Association, and a frequent contributor to AAA Traveler and USAirways Magazine.
Tyson Foods Wants to Be "Faith-Friendly"
Tyson Foods is betting it can make a buck on a chicken wing and a prayer12/10/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Tyson Foods Wants to Be 'Faith-Friendly'...
It might be hard to see how marketing meat has much to do with religion, but Tyson Foods is betting it can make a buck on a chicken wing and a prayer.
"People are not just buying our products, they're buying us and they're spending more and more time looking on the Internet and elsewhere to find out, 'what does this company stand for,'" said Bob Corscadden, Tyson's Chief Marketing Officer.
Trouble is, what consumers are likely to find when they research Tyson on the Web is a rather tawdry catechism of political manipulation, labor violations and workplace safety problems.
By wrapping itself in a cloak of piety, Tyson is hoping to sell more chicken, beef and pork while diverting attention from pork barrel politics, like the $7 million grant it received earlier this year from the Texas Enterprise Fund in exchange for its promise to hire 1,600 Texans at a new slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Sherman.
Among Tyson's efforts is the "Giving Thanks at Mealtime" booklet, for those unable to say grace without a script. About 25,000 have been sent out since late August, when the program made its debut. Tyson concedes its urge to help consumers give thanks was based largely on market research that found prayer books were appetizing to its meat-loving customers.
The company would like to get into bed with some faith-based organizations but it doesn't take an expensive pollster to discover that teaming up with one religious group is a good way to alienate rival sects.
Or, as Corscadden put it in an interview with Advertising Age, "It's a sticky wicket."
The company insists it comes by its piety honestly. Chairman-CEO John Tyson is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian and admits to having battled against drug and alcohol addiction.
One of Tyson's guiding lights is Faith Popcorn, a marketing strategist who helped craft the religion-on-the-sleeve "Power by Tyson" campaign. The future success of food companies rests on selling their ideologies as much as their food, Ms. Popcorn believes.
Based in Springdale, Arkansas, Tyson is the world's largest producer -- not to mention slaughterer -- of chicken, pork and beef, with more than 114,000 employees at more than 300 facilities and offices around the world. The company says it has 128 chaplains in those plants.
Identity Theft Fears: Underreported or Overblown?12/10/2005ConsumerAffairs
A study commissioned by America Online and the NCSA found that 8 of 10 home personal computers lack the basic security protections needed for Web surfing....
For every new incident of identity theft, data loss, or online fraud, it seems as if a study has been commissioned to verify if this is a first-class threat or an exaggerated nuisance.
Depending on what you read, credit card fraud is a minor inconvenience, but cybercrime is a bigger cash crop than all illegal drugs combined.
That last statement came from Valerie McNiven, former security specialist for the World Bank and currently advising the U.S. Treasury Department on combating cybercrime. While addressing a conference on Internet security on Nov. 29th, she claimed that Internet-related crimes such as "phishing" and hacking netted over $105 billion in profits in 2004.
Major media outlets picked up on McNiven's remarks and reported them largely uncritically. But are they accurate?
A September report to the United Nations stated that the global drug trade generated $322 billion worldwide for 2004.
It's obviously difficult to effectively track profits from criminal enterprises, but if the $4 billion profit California marijuana growers enjoy is any indication, drug sales are still far and away a top-shelf source of income.
A study released on Nov. 8th by ID Analytics, a San Diego firm that specializes in fraud detection and risk management, claimed that in a compiled study of four data breaches totaling 500,000 victims, only 1 of every 1,100 customers actually had their data stolen.
The firm's co-founder, Mike Cook, claimed that alerting customers to every potential breach of their data was costly and unnecessary. Cook said that thieves actually focus on small breaches of a few hundred names, and that the larger the breach, the less likely it was that individual data records are at risk.
"If you're in a breach of 100, 200 or 250 names, there's a pretty high probability that your identity is going to be used," Cook said.
Perhaps not coincidentally, ID Analytics recently announced partnership endeavors with Visa and the Equifax credit bureau. Equifax is employing the company's "ID Score" identity verification assessment, while Visa is using a customized version of the system for authorizing its transactions.
The "ID Score" system utilizes "an empirically-derived risk assessment score that determines the likelihood of whether applicants are who they claim they are," similar to credit scores, auto insurance scores, and rental screening scores.
Given that creditors and businesses stand to lose serious profits as consumers shy away from credit and online shopping, it's not unreasonable to assume the industry will do all it can to minimize the threat of identity theft or fraud.
It's also highly lucrative to sell customers "ID theft protection" such as fraud alerts. But as in the case of the "spam charges" that hit thousands of Visa and Mastercard users recently, all the fraud protection alerts didn't stop the thieves in question from making potentially huge amounts of money in a nearly undetectable fashion.
Yet another study claims that Americans are woefully unprotected from online threats. A study commissioned by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) found that 8 of 10 home personal computers lack the basic security protections needed for Web surfing, such as a firewall, antivirus software, or a spyware detector.
The study also found that, "Nearly a quarter of online people in the United States have found themselves the target of the online con artists, and roughly one in five knows a friend or family member who has been duped."
The NCSA is a nonprofit institution that combines federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and companies such as Microsoft, eBay, and Symantec. The stated goal of the NCSA is to "[provide] tools and resources to empower home users, small businesses, and schools, colleges, and universities to stay safe online."
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the NCSA's charter members have had their own problems with data theft and online fraud, not to mention error.
eBay had to halt an auction of a "vulnerability" in Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program. The vulnerability could compromise the safety of a PC if utilized.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a subsidiary agency of DHS, recently admitted to having mistakenly placed the names of 30,000 airline passengers on a watch list for potential terrorists.
It's essential that consumers employ smarts and skepticism when it comes to online shopping and credit card scams.
It is just as essential to not assume that studies commissioned for a particular topic are objective, that the outcome isn't engineered, or that the agencies who called for the study are infallible.
The smart Web surfer is the one who takes customer surveys the same way they use their personal information -- very carefully.
Iowa Legislature Urged To Cap Car Title Loans
Loans are so expensive they drive people deeper into debt, advocates say12/09/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Iowa Legislature Urged To Cap Car Title Loans: Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has campaigned against car title loans, only to see consumers continue to f...
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has campaigned against car title loans, only to see consumers continue to fall victim to them. Now he's urging the Iowa legislature to crack down on these loans, which charge what he called "astronomical and unjustified interest rates."
"Car-title loans are so expensive they just drive many people deeper into debt," Miller said. "On top of that, they pose the major threat of causing people to lose their vehicles as well."
Miller is lobbying the state legislature to stop the abusive loan practice.
"Car-title loans are secured loans, but secured loans should be much cheaper because they are backed by a vehicle as collateral. There is no justification for such astronomical interest rates. The Legislature should prohibit such abusive and unconscionable rates for car-title loans," Miller said.
The Iowa Senate approved a car-title loan law last year that would have capped car-title loan rates at 21 percent - but the bill died when House leaders refused to debate or vote on it.
"It's a simple and fair approach to solve this problem," Miller said. Millers appeal was made in a State Capitol news conference with Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, who led the effort last year to pass the car-title legislation, and Des Moines Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
"Meanwhile, I hope consumers will resist appeals to get into car-title loans, for the holidays or anytime. We've heard of interest rates up to 360%, and right now there is no limit whatsoever. "It's expensive and it's risky," Miller said.
"For example: If a person borrows $300 for the holidays at 360% interest, he or she will have to pay $44.55 of interest in just fifteen days, and have to pay it again and again each fifteen days, if he or she doesn't pay off the $300 principal," Miller said.
"What's worse, if a payment is missed, the lender can start the process of repossessing the borrower's vehicle. Repossession and loss of transportation to work and health care is a very severe threat to these Iowans."
Miller encouraged consumers to try to work to get ahead by saving small amounts steadily, and, if necessary, by going to banks and credit unions that offer loans at far better rates.
California Spammer Ordered to Pay $3.4 Million
Order against AvTech Direct came as a result of Washington state's first lawsuit under the federal anti-spam act12/09/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
California Spammer Ordered to Pay $3.4 Million...
A California marketing firm has been ordered to pay $3 million in civil penalties and $375,000 restitution to the Seattle School District for sending junk e-mails. The U.S. District Court order against AvTech Direct came as a result of Washington state's first lawsuit under the federal anti-spam act.
The Attorney General's Office sued AvTech Direct last year for allegedly sending unsolicited e-mails targeted toward employees of nonprofit organizations such as schools and hospitals.
The order of default was entered against AvTech after the company failed to obtain legal counsel or respond to the lawsuit.
AvTech was ordered to pay a total of $3 million in civil penalties -- $2,000 for each of 1,500 unsolicited commercial e-mails sent to the Seattle School District between May and July 2004. Each deceptive e-mail constituted a violation of the state Consumer Protection Act and the federal anti-spam act.
AvTech was also ordered to pay $375,000 restitution to the Seattle School District and $67,882 in attorneys' fees and costs.
"The Attorney General's Office alleges that AvTech Direct blanketed Seattle School District employees with at least 1,500 unsolicited commercial e-mail messages in just two months," Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said. "Not only were the advertisements deceptive, but the company continued to send them to consumers who requested to opt-out of future solicitations.
"This is Washington's first lawsuit filed under the federal anti-spam act and is a reminder to spammers that deceptive e-mails are not only irritating, but illegal," McKenna continued. "Violations will be taken very seriously."
AvTech Direct also goes by the names AvTech Computers and Educational Purchasing Services.
According to the state's complaint, the company marketed the sale of desktop computers to consumers in Washington and nationwide since at least 2003 through unsolicited e-mails.
The e-mails offered a "limited allotment of brand new, top-of-the-line, name-brand desktop computers at more than 50% MSRP." The company targeted its e-mails to employees of nonprofit organizations, including the Seattle School District.
The Attorney General's Office alleged that AvTech altered or concealed header information to make it appear the messages were sent from other sources and used deceptive subject lines such as "Staff Bulletin."
The company also continued to send e-mails to recipients who requested not to receive future solicitations via an "unsubscribe" link or by phone.
Additionally, the complaint contends that AvTech claimed the computers, which were priced at $297, featured "the latest Intel technology" when they did not.
The stoves are great, but where are the pellets?12/09/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Pellet-Burning Stove Owners Have a Problem: No Pellets...
Alcohol Tax Hikes Prove Popular in Poll
Seventy-one percent of Americans support a five cent per drink increase in federal alcohol taxes12/08/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Alcohol Tax Hikes Prove Popular in Poll...
Seventy-one percent of Americans support a five cent per drink increase in federal alcohol taxes, according to new survey research commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
As lawmakers consider slashing popular social programs to bridge the federal budget gap, CSPI says they should instead consider raising taxes on beer, wine, and spirits -- which could raise more than $20 billion in desperately needed revenue over the next five years.
When asked whether they prefer raising alcohol taxes or cutting social programs as a way of offsetting the budget deficit, a whopping 79 percent of respondents favor the alcohol tax increase. Even 68 percent of Republicans surveyed and 70 percent of drinkers would support raising alcohol taxes over cutting programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and drug benefits for the elderly.
"Raising alcohol taxes alone may not balance the budget, but it would boost revenues in a way that's popular, fair, and provides real money," said George A. Hacker, director of CSPI's alcohol policies project.
"In past decades, alcohol interests have too often beaten back any across-the-board increases in booze taxes. But with an expensive war being waged, and with painful cuts in popular social programs on the table, we can't let one politically powerful industry keep evading its fair share," Hacker added.
In recent decades, federal taxes on alcoholic beverages have effectively fallen dramatically due to inflation. That's because such taxes are typically assessed not as a percentage of the purchase price, but as a flat dollar amount.
Those levies have been raised only once for beer and wine, and only twice for liquor in the past 55 years. Had the federal tax on beer merely kept pace with inflation, it would be more than triple what it is today. Liquor taxes would have increased sixfold.
Most Americans would be largely unaffected by increases in alcohol taxes. More than one-third don't drink at all, and most others drink only occasionally. Eighty percent of the alcohol consumed in America is downed by twenty percent of the drinkers. According to the Adams Beer Handbook, more than half of beer and liquor drinkers have incomes above $60,000 a year.
"Cutting social programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps is an absolutely unconscionable way to cut the deficit so long as lawmakers are leaving billions in alcohol tax increases off the table," said Hacker.
"Especially when one considers that the $18 billion in current state and federal alcohol tax collections barely cover a tenth of the $185-billion price tag of underage drinking, alcohol abuse, and drunk-driving. Congress last found the courage to raise alcohol taxes in the Reconciliation Act of 1990, and it should follow that precedent today."
Last May, 59 prominent economists, including four Nobel laureates, called on Congress to raise alcohol taxes to help offset the massive economic and social costs of alcohol.
Henry Aaron, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said that lawmakers "would be well advised to increase a tax that would help close the federal deficit and discourage the continued epidemic of alcohol abuse."
In its 2005 budget options report for Congress, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the tax on distilled spirits to $16 per proof gallon from the current rate of $13.50 and equalizing the rate of tax on the alcohol in beer and wine to that level would yield $27 billion in new revenue over the next five years.
Numerous researchers have concluded that higher taxes would lead to slightly less drinking, and could cut the incidence of alcohol problems and their costs. A nickel-a-drink tax increase might save as much as $5 billion per year.
Earmarking some of the revenues for alcohol treatment, prevention, and public education could further reduce the societal toll of alcohol problems, according to CSPI.
CSPI's survey was of a nationally representative sample of 512 American adults. The survey was conducted in mid-November via telephone by the Global Strategy Group polling firm. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percent.
Retin-A, a skin cream used to treat acne and prevent wrinkles seems to help diabetic foot ulcers heal12/08/2005ConsumerAffairs
Healing, Feet, Retin-A, Dr. Henry Fishman on Health and Medicine...
Cingular Rolls Out High-Speed Wireless, Verizon Promises Live Video
Santa is coming early to cell phone users, with a bagful of new goodies, each pricier than the next12/08/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Cingular Rolls Out High-Speed Wireless, Verizon Promises Live Video...
Santa is coming early to cell phone users, with a bagful of new goodies, each pricier than the next.
Cingular Wireless is launching a high-speed Internet service similar to those already offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel. BroadbandConnect is being introduced in 16 U.S. cities and will be expanded to 100 metropolitan areas by the end of 2007.
The new service offers connection speeds similar to DSL and costs $60 per month, roughly the same price charged by Verizon and Sprint. German-owned T-Mobile does not have the technology on its network and has not announced any plans to add it.
Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, says its cell phone customers will soon be able to use their phones to watch live TV. The company has signed a deal with Qualcomm to use its new network, currently in development. Verizon Wireless users can already use their phones to watch short video clips but not live broadcasts.
The two companies say they expect to launch the new service in approximately half of the markets already covered by Verizon Wireless broadband network. They say they hope to make the service commercially available in 2006.
Cingular also says it plans to launch a push-to-talk phone service which integrates walkie-talkie and cellular technology across its network. It's intended to compete with Sprint Nextel's push-to-talk service available under the Nextel brand of phones. It's likely that, like Sprint, Cingular will initially target business customers.
Cingular also said it will begin selling a new line of so-called "smart phones" early next year that offer faster access to the Internet than Cingular's existing cellphones. Other hand-held devices that will specialize in music and video will also be available next year.
The new offerings from the cell phone companies are intended largely as a response to the growing popularity of Wi-Fi technology, which provides high-speed access from "hot spots," usually within a few hundred feet of the transmitter.
Google has announced plans to build a free Wi-Fi network throughout the San Francisco area and storm-battered New Orleans hopes to build a public Wi-Fi network to lure businesses and residents back to the Crescent City. Philadelphia was considering a similar plan.
Telephone companies have vehemently opposed municipal Wi-Fi networks, saying they encroach on its business and they are expected to file legal challenges against New Orleans and Philadelphia if the cities move ahead.
"With our 3G service, almost any spot in a city is a hot spot," said Ralph de la Vega, chief operating officer for Cingular Wireless.
But in fact, the service is spotty at best. A continuing ConsumerAffairs.com test of Verizon Wireless' service finds it improving in the Washington, D.C. area, but still too unpredictable for everyday use.
At $60 per month and with laptop plug-in cards costing more than $200 each, the wireless broadband services so far are attractive mostly to business customers.
Cingular's new service is available in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. The company says it will extend the network to cover most major cities next year, and service 100 metropolitan areas by the end of 2007.
Cingular claims its service won't drop connections when customers leave coverage areas. Instead, its service will transfer such connections to its slower nationwide network, they say.
FDA is advising consumers not to use Miracle II Neutralizer and Miracle II Neutralizer Gel products because the products are bacterially contaminated....
Thousands Mistakenly End Up On Terrorist Watch List12/07/2005ConsumerAffairs
Thousands Mistakenly End Up On Terrorist Watch List...
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) mistakenly put thousands of unsuspecting airline passengers on a "terrorist watch" list, according to one agency official.
The individuals were "selectees," meaning they were singled out for additional screening and verification before boarding an airplane.
CNET News reported that Jim Kennedy, TSA's director of "redress," revealed the error at a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "privacy and integrity" committee meeting on Dec. 6th.
Kennedy said that 30,000 people were categorized as "selectees" for various reasons, including "fitting a certain profile, flying on a one-way ticket, or being selected randomly by a computer."
Passengers who have been repeatedly detained and screened in error can submit a "Passenger Identity Verification Form" to get their names removed, Kennedy said.
Much like the process for fixing credit report errors, the correction can take as long as 60 days, and involves sending numerous personal documents to TSA, including notarized copies of one's birth certificate, passport, and driver's license.
TSA has been advocating the implementation of the "Secure Flight" passenger screening program in order to more easily distinguish normal passengers from possible terrorists or saboteurs. The "Secure Flight" program has been criticized by privacy watchdogs and government auditors for not properly protecting the privacy of passenger records, and for relying too heavily on commercial databases for its information.
The TSA was forced to abandon using commercial databases in order to push the plan forward.
A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit against JetBlue for selling the data without passengers' consent.
Despite the millions of dollars spent on improving airline security and screening, there has been no clear indication that travelers are any safer or at any greater risk than they were prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The TSA recently relaxed its rules on carrying small cutting tools such as scissors on board planes, in order to focus more aggressively on detecting explosives.
Government Report Indicts Food Ads Aimed at Kids
SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek May Have to Clean Up Their Act12/06/2005ConsumerAffairs
Government Report Indicts Food Ads Aimed at Kids...
December 6, 2005
A government report accuses food marketers of using billions in marketing dollars to lure children away from good diet choices. The Institute of Medicine report is billed as "the most comprehensive review" of existing scientific studies and could be a watershed similar to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking.
Television advertising strongly influences what children under 12 eat and the food industry should spend its marketing dollars on nutritious food and drinks, and if voluntary efforts don't work, Congress should take action, the report said.
"The foods advertised are predominantly high in calories and low in nutrition -- the sort of diet that puts children's long-term health at risk," said J. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar at the institute and chairman of the report committee.
Marketing and food industry officials called the report a "flawed study" and disputed its conclusions. But the findings came as no surprise to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who requested the report.
"We like to think that SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek and the pretty little princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they're being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices," said Mr. Harkin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "The industry must stop pushing junk food on our kids."
"Ample information and studies [indicate] that television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests and diets at least of children under 12 and is associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth," the report charges.
"The Institute of Medicine's report on food marketing to children is a milestone that marks the beginning of the end of junk-food marketing to kids," said Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The report sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business."
"Lawmakers should look at the IOM report as a roadmap to help improve kids' diets and address childhood obesity," she said.
"Getting junk food out of schools, promoting fruits and vegetables, putting nutrition info on chain restaurant menus, and scrutinizing food ads on children's television programming are four things Congress could consider right now to advance the IOM's recommendations," Wootan said.
The report urges the food industry to work voluntarily with the government to forge "an agenda to turn beverage and marketing toward better diets." But if such action doesn't yield substantial results within two years, the report calls for legislative action.
Industry executives contend the report fails to take into account recent changes in food marketing, is based on no new research, and doesn't explain how food marketing can be a culprit in childhood obesity even as food ads aimed at children are declining while obesity rates among children continues to rise.
The advertising industry was quick to react.
"It's an enormously radical proposal that if the advertising is not adequately balanced, the government will step in to force the desired balance. How would that be determined? Based on what? Who would be deciding what is and isn't balance, what foods are good and which aren't and based on what?" he told Advertising Age.
Such arguments were ignited by the Surgeon General's report on tobacco as well. But, like it or not, Joe Camel and other tobacco-licensed characters were pulled off the street and put into rehab programs as a result of the landmark report.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said its members have already taken steps to implement many of the report's recommendations. "The marketplace is already responding and legislation is costly, complicated and really not necessary," said Richard Martin, a GMA spokesman.
Company Failed to Protect Sensitive Customer Data12/05/2005ConsumerAffairs
DSW Inc. has agreed to settle FTC charges that its failure to take reasonable security measures to protect sensitive customer data was an unfair practice t...
Warning To Fast Food Consumers: Actual Calories May Vary12/05/2005ConsumerAffairs
Warning To Fast Food Consumers: Actual Calories May Vary...
Fast food restaurants are beginning to post the caloric content of their food so consumers can do a better job of watching their waistlines. But a British consumer group charges the four largest fast food chains in the UK are consistently underestimating those calories.
According to Consumer's Association, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut are off by 100 calories or more on some of their calorie calculations. Researchers for the group's magazine, Which, purchased 20 food items from the four restaurant chains. The items as received were tested by an independent, accredited food laboratory.
The researchers say they found that a Big Mac and medium French fries meal, which McDonald's says contains 786 calories, actually had 900 calories. A Whopper and regular French fries meal, which Burger King says contains 13 grams of saturated fat, was found to actually have 19 grams. KFC's Zinger Crunch Salad, which was supposed to contain 2.4 grams of saturated fat, actually had 6.7 grams.
The reason for the discrepancies, according to the restaurants, is the portions reviewed by the Which researchers were larger, or different than the ones the company tested to determine caloric content.
In one case the restaurant staff over portioned the order. In another, the restaurant staff used a high-fat salad dressing and added croutons.
The consumer group suggests people watching their calories should take the restaurant's posted calories with a grain of salt, keeping in mind the sandwich they're eating could have a more generous serving of condiments than the one the company tested.
Though he welcomed McDonald's recent announcement that it will add nutrition labels to food packaging, Which editor Malcolm Colms said, restaurants should give people accurate information on the amount of fat, sugar and salt in foods, prominently displayed so customers can see it before they order.
Christmas Carol 2005: Crunch Time for the Middle Class
Christmas Carol 200512/05/2005ConsumerAffairs
Christmas Carol 2005: Crunch Time for the Middle Class...
Melanie Kovacs is as all-American as one can be. Blonde and blue-eyed, with a winning smile, she works a quiet government job in the suburbs of Maryland while raising a baby girl by herself.
She likes to go to concerts in D.C. with friends, wonders if her daughter will start walking soon, and exercises regularly to get rid of her (largely imagined) excess poundage.
And like many other Americans, Melanie (not her real name) is climbing her way out of a quicksand trap of credit card debt and rising prices for goods, while trying to provide a good education for her daughter and a decent living for herself.
Melanie's solution was to refinance her new home in Maryland using a two-year adjustable mortgage, and cash out the equity to pay off her credit card debt.
"It got to the point where it felt like I was getting nowhere," she recalled. "I'd make these big payments each month, but the interest just kept getting bigger and bigger, so my debt never really changed."
By consolidating her debt via the refinance, Melanie is taking a risk, due to the possibility of her mortgage payments increasing, but she sees it as a good deal.
"My total payments will only be $100 more a month -- it's worth it to get rid of those awful credit cards, and housing prices in this area are just fantastic." Melanie plans to sell her home before her payments increase, counting on the continuing appreciation of homes in the D.C. area to offset her closing costs.
Melanie's story illustrates several key points about the American economy. Americans are carrying more debt on their backs than ever before, and are saving less and less money for the future. High gas and energy prices and record levels of credit card debt are frightening consumers away from spending more money, while the slowing housing market is putting an end to the frenzy of using "creative mortgages" and "bubble" pricing to cash out money from homes.
Pundits and statistics keep telling us that the economy is performing solidly. Growth is up, productivity is up, and stocks are bullish. Yet everyday people like Melanie have had to take drastic steps just to get out of the downward spiral of debt, often shifting their debts from one avenue to another just to ease the burden.
What's really happening to the American economy, and what can we expect down the road?
The Gas Price Seesaw
Drivers are breathing a sigh of relative relief at the pump, as prices for regular unleaded gas have fallen to a national average of $2.12, down from record highs of $3.50 and better circa Labor Day 2005.
Although the damage to Gulf Coast oil platforms from Hurricane Katrina is massive and will take many months to fully repair, many drilling rigs are coming back online and pumping millions of gallons of crude to eager markets.
Yet consumers are still angry over what they see as blatant profiteering by the major oil companies, taking advantage of the war in Iraq and America's worst natural disaster to pull in record profits. Many state Attorneys General are investigating claims of gouging at the pump, a charge that oil executives flatly deny.
This is not a new development by any means, as gas was topping $2 a gallon in early 2004. Jason Toews, creator of Gasbuddy.com, a nationwide gas price monitoring Web site, correctly predicted that prices would continue to rise.
"Any time supply goes down, prices go up," Toews said in an interview at the time. "In the interim, it doesn't seem like we're going to see lower prices." Toews credited the increases in 2004 to OPEC's raising continual increases on crude oil prices, and low oil and gas inventories in America.
In 2005, President Bush was forced to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to ease oil prices in the wake of Katrina, and the International Energy Agency released two million barrels of oil a day for 30 days after the hurricane struck. Once the reserve and emergency supplies are used up, there is every possibility that gas prices will climb to $3 a gallon again.
The instability of oil prices doesn't just affect how often we drive. Home heating costs are expected to skyrocket throughout the winter.
Households heated by natural gas are expected to pay $350 a month this year, an increase of 48 percent from 2004. Homeowners using oil for heating will be paying $378, an increase of 32 percent. The average American may be spending 20 percent of their take-home pay on energy costs this year, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
The one-two punch of high gas and heating prices has pushed many Americans to cut their holiday shopping and pull back from purchases in order to save money, which will cut into retailer profits and further darken the economic picture.
Many surveys and polling organizations have reported that Americans plan to spend less this holiday season. Retailers were forced to resort to massive discounts and early openings to get customers spending this year.
Using Homes as ATMs
One of the biggest growth areas for the economy over the last five years has been the real estate market.
Boom markets such as California's Bay Area, the greater Washington, D.C. metro region, and the greater Boston area, led sellers to frantically increase prices to astronomical levels, and buyers to use increasingly risky mortgages just to "lock in" and grab hold of a plum property.
Now there are signs that the housing market is cooling off. Inventories are increasing, sellers are cutting prices, and buyers are increasingly wary of taking a dip into the pool. Although a nationwide housing price crash seems unlikely, the slowing of home sales in major markets has analysts worried about the economy's reliance on housing to drive national output.
For many consumers, the biggest benefit of the housing boom was the ability of owners to tap their homes' equity via loans or lines of credit, essentially using their homes as ATMs to fund their spending and pay their bills. Economy.com reported that equity cash-outs in Massachusetts jumped from 4 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2004.
In order to best take advantage of the astounding price appreciation of their homes, many owners followed the same route as Melanie Kovacs, and refinanced using a "creative" or "alternative" mortgage to the traditional 30-year fixed mortgage.
Interest-only mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), and negative-option amortization loans have gone from arcane buzz phrases on realtors' lips to common means of financing homes. These mortgage products are all designed to take advantage of short-term interest rates, and with the Federal Reserve Board continually raising interest rates to combat inflation, many buyers are going to be in for a bad case of "sticker shock."
Although many homeowners used equity cashouts to buy expensive goods and take vacations, just as many did what Melanie did and used their equity to manage or pay off other debt, such as college tuition costs and credit card charges.
This may seem like a smart move in the short term, but with interest rates rising and the market cooling, the possibility exists that homeowners who refinanced with the intent to sell before the rates change may find themselves unable to move their house.
This can trap a homeowner in a home they can't afford, with massive debt still hanging over their head, and the threat of foreclosure in the future.
The reliance on home sales and equity to power the economy isn't just a case of regional "bubbles." The Economist reported recently that the principal cause for the housing boom didn't come from Wall Street or K Street, but from Beijing.
The emergence of China's army of cheap labor workers helped multinational corporations see much higher returns on investment and profit. Companies could pay workers less in America due to the threat of outsourcing, and buy goods made in China much more cheaply, leaving them flush with excess capital.
This capital was circulated back into the market in the form of "asset bubbles," specifically putting money into the real estate investment market.
The upshot is that the housing boom will last only as long as rates stay low and consumers can continue to spend, and as long as China is willing to continue to buy millions of U.S. Treasury bonds, keeping interest rates at record-low levels.
With consumer skittishness increasing along with short-term rates, as the Economist put it, "[t]he fate of American house prices could thus be determined by unelected bureaucrats in Beijing rather than the unelected central bankers of the West."
Credit Card Chaos
No overview of America's economy can overlook the enormous power of the credit industry. Card issuers and the banks they partner with have been claiming chart-busting revenue from the usage of plastic.
Visa recorded revenue of 2.4 billion in 2004, and scored a victory on "Black Friday" in 2005 through increased numbers of shoppers using Visa cards for purchases -- up 11.6 percent from 2004. Visa also leads the overall credit market, holding 53.9 percent of an incredible $2.7 trillion in overall consumer card charges for 2005 so far, according to Cardweb.com.
Those charges include $1.9 trillion in credit card charges, and $800 million in debit charges.
The high gas prices from Hurricane Katrina's wake created a windfall for card issuers as well. Credit card companies were bringing in almost $20 million a day from increased processing fees incurred when customers used their cards to pay for gas, averaging $2.2 billion a year, The Washington Post reported.
That's a lot of money to be throwing around, and most of the profit comes from late fees, over-limit-fees, balance transfer fees, and so on. As Melanie Kovacs found to her dismay, trying to pay off her Bank of America card was akin to running in place.
"Every time I charged something to the card," she recalled, "the charges would appear instantly, but when I tried to pay it off, the payments would always be marked 'late.' Even by just one day. Then I'd get hit with late fees, the balance would go up to the maximum, and they'd instantly switch my interest rate to something terrible!"
Melanie's story is all-too-common among cardholders, as we've reported so frequently this year. The average American carries $10,000 in credit card debt, spread out among as many as four cards, and each one of those is a plastic time bomb that can ruin a cardholder's credit rating, lead them to bankruptcy, and so on.
Why are we becoming ever more reliant on credit?
Many naysayers simply chalk it up to a lack of personal responsibility. "If they'd only live within their means and not splurge on SUV's and dinners at fancy restaurants, they'd be able to save more!" goes the cry.
There's a lot of truth to that. Many Americans are so driven by the "money equals happiness" mindset that they will finance themselves to the max just to keep up with the Joneses.
But just as many are using cards not for luxuries, but for basic needs such as food, clothes, child expenses, and health care costs. What has gone wrong when we're forced to use plastic to finance things we should be buying with cash?
It's all connected
Hale Stewart, a Houston, Texas tax lawyer and accountant, sees the American financial picture boiled down to a few basic elements -- "weak job growth, lack of meaningful upward mobility, and an explosion of consumer debt."
In his view, because "people are making the same [money] as they did five years ago," they've turned to things like credit cards and home equity to finance their lifestyles and cover basic needs.
Stewart, who regularly blogs on economic issues under the pseudonym "Bonddad," believes the American consumer is "almost maxed out on debt. Eventually they'll get to a point where they just can't take any more [debt] on, voluntarily or otherwise."
"The economy is standing up on sticks. Something's just not working right."
The economic "recovery" that armchair pundits have been crowing about has come at the loss of America's manufacturing base. 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have been cut in America since January 2001, and nearly 600,000 information technology-related jobs have followed suit. What job creation there is has been in specific areas such as housing construction and health care.
In fact, housing-related occupations such as realtors and brokers have accounted for almost 40 percent of the job market, according to Stewart. "When housing goes," he says, "we're gonna be in for some real problems."
Why aren't we saving more? Why aren't we putting money aside into retirement accounts, CD's, or just not spending it as soon as we get it? The answer, says Stewart, is the influx of cheap money and cheap labor from abroad that allows us to keep interest rates low, and enables consumers to finance large cars and larger homes using their equity and credit cards.
"Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of gross domestic product," said Stewart. "If you could get something at an interest rate of 3 percent, what would you do? I know what I'd do -- I'd buy the damn thing!"
But, as the Gulf Coast storms remind us, the good times don't roll on forever. Eventually, the market will start to correct itself. All of America's major financing options, from homes to credit cards, are facing potential profit shortfalls and "adjustments."
The credit card industry, in particular, is in for a "perfect storm" caused by consumer defaults, natural disasters, and, ironically, by the very laws the industry worked so hard to pass.
Payback is Hell
Credit card companies and banks lobbied furiously to pass bankruptcy "reform" legislation for many years, and finally succeeded in May 2005.
The "Bankruptcy Reform and Consumer Protection Act" was a love note to creditors (and a pornographic e-mail to consumers), with its complex rules for filing, punitive financial restrictions, and mandated credit counseling that would cost debtors money and time. At the time, it seemed that MBNA had won the war.
However, Americans filed bankruptcy in record numbers to beat the implementation of the new law and get their cases heard under the old rules. 200,000 Americans filed bankruptcy in September 2005, prior to the new laws taking effect on Oct. 17.
Since all of those cases will be arbitrated under the old laws, card issuers and banks are expecting record levels of default. HSBC recorded an additional $100 million in defaults in the third quarter of 2005, relating to the bankruptcy filings.
In addition, the devastation from Hurricane Katrina caused many financial institutions to charge off high levels of loss. J.P. Morgan Chase alone recorded $100 million in losses from Katrina, while Capital One saw a charge of $44 million.
The credit industry is also facing more potential defaults from increased mandatory minimum payments, and many fed-up customers are simply paying their debts off and closing their cards faster. MBNA was so shaken by its cardholders' account closings that its profits fell by 94 percent, leading to its takeover by Bank of America.
If there is any positive news to take from America's grim financial picture, it may simply be that consumers are becoming more and more aware that we, as a nation, can't live on borrowed money.
People are waking up to the idea of saving more, spending less, cutting up the cards, and finding economic alternatives to gas-guzzling SUV's. Although Hale Stewart is pessimistic regarding the country's outlook, he concedes that "we're not over the cliff, but we're damn close to it...I've been dead wrong before."
Melanie Kovacs doesn't pretend to understand the ins and outs of economics, GDP, or housing bubbles. All she knows is that she is paying off her debt as quickly as she can and building a better life for herself and her daughter.
"I look at all that debt I accumulated and I think, 'What happened, man? Where did it all come from?" she says. "Now I'm just glad to be getting rid of it all."
The State of Colorado has sued a company it said defrauded people interested in their family tree12/05/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Colorado Claims Genealogy Book Is Bogus...
Maxi-Heat Oil-Filled Radiators12/02/2005ConsumerAffairs
Maxi-Heat Oil-Filled Radiators...
December 2, 2005
King of Fans Inc. is recalling more than 200,000 Maxi-Heat oil-filled radiator heaters. Welds in the heating fins can break, allowing oil to leak. This poses a burn and fall hazard to consumers.
King of Fans Inc. has received 81 reports of incidents involving leaking oil. Two minor burns were reported, along with two reports of falls in the oil.
The portable electric radiator-style heaters have seven fins, one of which has the control panel attached to it. The units are gray with a black control panel. Maxi-Heat is printed below the handle indentation on the control panel. The model number 70030 and date codes 0705 and 0805 are printed on the UL label on the lower right side of the control panel. The following purchase order numbers are located on the bottom of the radiator heaters packaging: 56199910, 56199924, 56199961, 57105731, 57105732, 57100092, 57100089, 57100086, 57105685, and 57105686.
The units were sold at Home Depot stores in the Northeast and Midwest from October 2005 through November 2005 for about $35.
Consumers should immediately stop using these heaters and unplug them. Return the recalled heaters to a Home Depot store for a full refund.
Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact King of Fans toll-free at (866) 443-1291 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, or visit the companys Web site at www.kingoffans.com.
"Preacher" Bilked Investors Out of Millions
James Upshaw gets 7-year prison sentence12/02/2005ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
A Chicago-area man who used his religious ties to lure them into a web with promises of big investment returns has pleaded guilty t o numerous felonies....
A Chicago-area man who used his religious ties with pastors and fellow church members to lure them into a web that snared 144 victims in nine states with promises of big investment returns has pleaded guilty to numerous felonies and has been sentenced to serve 7.5 years in prison.
James E. Upshaw of Oak Brook has pleaded guilty to the charges against him. Although some of the charges are consolidated in the plea, Upshaw originally was indicted on four counts of theft of over $100,000, a Class One Felony; six counts of theft of over $10,000, a Class Two Felony; and 16 counts of securities fraud, a Class Three Felony, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.
Upshaw's victims included a destitute woman who took her last dollars and won $812,000 at a casino only to be taken in by the con artist, a woman represented by famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran who won a medical malpractice settlement and a pastor who invested church funds. Several of Upshaw's victims were older than 60.
Holding himself out as a preacher, praying during his presentations and implying that his investment decisions were communicated to him by God, Upshaw duped his victims into "investing" $6.5 million with him between 2001 and 2004.
Upshaw paid out approximately $4.5 of the $6.5 million to investors as purported returns on their investments, and in some instances, as a return of principal. He used the remaining $2 million to run his business, pay himself and his wife, make a down payment on a $1 million house in Oak Brook and pay other debts.
It appears from thousands of records that only about $80,000 of the $6.5 million actually was invested.
All the investors' funds were deposited in Illinois banks. Upshaw managed to pay money to early investors by using money that came in from new investors, a classic pyramid scheme. However, his failure to invest the money and his lavish lifestyle eventually caught up with him and his checks to investors started bouncing.
Known as an "affinity fraud," in which a criminal or con artist convinces people to trust him because they share a common religious or ethnic background, Upshaw not only hit Chicago-area churches but made numerous presentations across the country to preach his special brand of investment gospel.
"James Upshaw used his charisma, charm and seeming trustworthiness to bilk nearly 150 people to hand over their hard-earned money and savings," Madigan said. "This crime is especially heinous because people truly believed he was looking out for their best interests. In fact, the only interest he was looking out for was his own."
Madigan said Upshaw operated a company called Upshaw and Associates, LLC, located in Westchester. The business provided tax return preparation and consultation services, and after 2001, investment advice.
Upshaw would pitch one of several purported investment vehicles to unwitting victims, including investments in commodities, commercial paper and silver and gold. He sold a monthly program, a quarterly program and a two-year program as well as a money market plan.
The amount of interest earned from a particular program was different for different investors depending on how much they invested, how they wanted the interest paid and how strapped Upshaw was for money.
Madigan's office separated the charges into two different indictments because one of the cases involved Upshaw promising to represent a victim in a tax matter she was involved in with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which was different from his other crimes.
In that case, Upshaw not only failed to provide the woman with the promised representation, but he also stole the money she gave him to pay the IRS, Madigan said.
While Madigan's office is seeking restitution for investors, at this time, there are no known assets with which to repay victims roughly $3 million they are owed.
In a civil case last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) seized Upshaw's home and other assets.
"A man who once had millions of other people's money now has about $700 in a bank account," Madigan said. "This is a heartbreaking, cautionary tale for potential investors to very carefully check out whom they trust their money with, no matter how that person presents himself."
Cablevision Backs Unbundling Programming Packages
Facing Telecom Competitiors, Cable Systems Get Religion12/01/2005ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Cablevision Backs Unbundling Programming Packages...
Critics of "bundled" cable television services may soon be reminded of the old saying that one should be careful what one wishes for. Cablevision, the sixth-largest cable operator in the U.S., has thrown its support behind the notion of letting consumers purchase cable channels individually.
Comcast, never known for its flawless timing, took the opportunity to announce a 6 percent rate increase for next year.
Cable systems have fought the a la carte concept for years, forcing customers who want only CNN to buy channels featuring wall-to-wall cooking shows, stock car races and old movies. But earlier this week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin surprised friend and foe alike by announcing his support for unbundled programming.
What's driving this rush to unbundle is not a sudden case of consumeritis among the ideologically rigid commissioners, it's the revelation that consumers aren't easily able to opt out of channels that may feature what some regard as sexually explicit programming.
AT&T, nee SBC, which plans to start selling video services early next year, was quick to pounce on the issue, saying it plans to let consumers choose individual cable channels rather than bundled packages.
In the past, cable companies have argued that a la carte pricing would undercut the economics of their business and hurt the survival chances of smaller channels. Of course many of those weaker channels the cable systems are so worried about are owned by none other than the cable companies.
Putting aside their concern with smaller channels for a moment, cable operators are quite aware that customers who want a lot of channels might very well end up paying more if service packages were unbundled.
The issue may be beyond anyone's control. With telephone companies beating at the video gates, cable systems are beginning to realize that they may actually face real, live competition one of these days.
This is leading the cable systems to demand that telephone companies go through the same franchise process as cable systems. It's basically a replay of the days when telephone companies tried to keep cable companies out of their territory by denying them access to utility poles and rights of way. What goes around comes around.
Smiling his cheshire cat grin, Cablevision Chairman Charles Dolan opined that the "opportunity to purchase programming on an a la carte basis would be in the best interests of consumers."
"We do not believe in the long term that selling programming a la carte will be detrimental to either programmers or cable operators," Dolan purred.
On the pricing front, Dolan's Cablevision said it would raise the price of its standard package, which includes channels like CNN, MTV and ESPN, an average of 1.3 percent to $46.73 a month. Cablevision faces imminent competition from telecom giant Verizon in its lucrative New York regional markets. It is fighting a town-by-town battle to throw up regulatory barricades on Long Island but Verizon appears to be getting the upper hand.
Also anticipating serious competition is Cox Communications, which said it did not plan to raise rates in its Northern Virginia duchy, where Verizon is trying to organize an assault.
Recalled Sony CDs Still On Sale12/01/2005ConsumerAffairs
Recalled Sony CDs Still On Sale...
Sony BMG Music Entertainment has recalled its compact discs that contain copy protection software with the potential to expose computers to viruses and other security risks, but despite the recall, some of the CDs are still being sold.
Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly warns many of the discs are still being sold to unsuspecting consumers in Boston.
Earlier this month, Sony BMG asked retailers to stop selling 52 music titles containing extended copyright protection (XCP) technology and to return the CDs to the company. Some of these CDs, however, are still being sold in Boston stores, Reilly said.
There is a potential security risk to consumers when consumers play these CDs on any computer with a Windows operating system. For this reason, Reilly said consumers are advised not to purchase the affected CDs, and not to play them on their computers.
Consumers can identify recalled CDs by looking at the table on the back of the CD case bearing the words "Compatible With:" on the side. If the URL at the bottom of the table contains the letters XCP, the CD is among those recalled by Sony.
Meanwhile, Reilly is conducting an investigation of Sony BMG related to the privacy and consumer protection issues raised by the copy protection software that Sony BMG used on the CDs.
Sony BMG has announced an exchange program for consumers who have already purchased CDs containing the XCP software. Under the terms of the program, affected consumers will be able to receive replacement or non-copy protected CDs.
New York Joins Sony CD Investigation12/01/2005ConsumerAffairs
New York Joins Sony CD Investigation...
By Martin H. Bosworth
December 1, 2005
Sony BMG's bad month is now officially a bad year. New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer is investigating the possibility of filing yet another lawsuit against the electronics giant over its CD copy-protection software.
Spitzer sent investigators posing as customers to New York retail stores and record outlets to verify that Sony had recalled the CD's containing the software. The investigators were able to find copies of the CD's on the shelves of Best Buy, Wal-Mart, the Virgin Megastore, and other retailer outlets, according to BusinessWeek.
"It is unacceptable that more than three weeks after this serious vulnerability was revealed, these same CDs are still on shelves, during the busiest shopping days of the year," Spitzer said.
Spitzer had previously locked horns with Sony over its usage of "pay for play" tactics to get radio stations playing Sony artists. Sony agreed to major "corporate-wide" reforms and to enforce internal compliance of its promotion practices.
Spitzer isn't the only one getting into the ring with Sony. A class action lawsuit filed against Sony and First4 Internet, makers of the "rootkit" software that was installed on users' machines, is enlisting the services of Windows systems expert Mark Russinovich.
Russinovich is credited with exposing the dangers of the "rootkit" to the public, including its crippling of users' computer systems and the holes it opens for outside hackers to control computers.
The class action suit alleges that, "It is probable that millions of consumers have played these discs on their PC's and thus compromised their systems without knowing it. Today, several viruses have been reported that exploit the weakness that [the rootkit] created. Millions of users are at risk from these viruses that destroy software and steal personal information."
Even the District of Columbia is filing a lawsuit to get the Sony CD's off the shelves. D.C. resident Nicholas Xanthakos filed suit on behalf of the District on Nov. 30th, using the city's consumer protection code to act as a "private attorney general," according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Lawsuits have already been filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over the dangerous software. Massachusetts has opened an investigation.
The Sony "rootkit" scandal has reignited the war between consumers and media companies over the rights of buyers to share content via CD copying or file sharing.
Everyone from Microsoft to the Department of Homeland Security has come out against Sony's practices, particularly the lack of disclosure of the rootkit's effects on computers, and the corporation's slow response to consumer complaints.
When questioned about the rootkit by NPR, Thomas Hesse, president of Sony's global digital entertainment division, made the now-infamous statement, "Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?"