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Current Events in December 2005

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    Tainted Dog Food Kills 23 Animals

    Sold Under Diamond, Country Value and Professional Brands

    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.

    Tainted Dog Food Kills 23 Animals...
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    Top 10 Phone Scams of 2005

    Whatever happened to the old days when a con artist only wanted to steal a few bucks?

    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.

    "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...
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      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"

      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.

      California to Try Again With Telecommunications Bill of Rights...
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      Flu Outbreak Jams California Emergency Rooms

      Flu Activity Also Picking Up in New York City

      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.

      Flu Outbreak Jams California Emergency Rooms...
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      Guilty Plea in ChoicePoint Data Theft

      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.

      ChoicePoint Data Thief Pleads Guilty...
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      Airline Maintenance Questioned

      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."

      Outsourcing Critical Repairs Already Blamed for One Fatal Crash...
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      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 NumberBattery Pack Serial Number Range
      PDV-0800060300020000001 through 060300020018000
      070300020008001 through 070300020020000
      PDV-070004170303070001000001 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).

      Polaroid Portable DVD Player Batteries Recalled...
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      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.

      GM Expands Recall to Fix Truck, SUV Brakes...
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      Too Much Technology, Too Fast?

      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.

      Fully half of the respondents said they couldn't live without Internet access, as they depended on it for news, information, and simple communication....
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      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.

      Maytag Shareholders Approve Merger With Whirlpool...
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      California Dumps Zip Code-Based Auto Insurance Rates

      Consumer Advocates Hail Decision Implementing Prop 103

      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.

      California Dumps Zip Code-Based Auto Insurance Rates...
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      Do Flu Shots Really Help Seniors?

      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."

      Researchers Suggest Healthy Seniors Are More Likely to Get Flu Shots, Thus Skewing Statistics...
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      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.

      ConocoPhillips Agrees to Reduce Cigarette Sales to Minors...
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      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).

      Aussie Gas Grills Recalled...
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      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:

      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP
      • RMC-LI6LP

      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).

      Legacy Propane Heaters Recalled...
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      Little Chinese Car Headed to Detroit

      Geely Sedan Expected to Sell for Under $10,000

      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.

      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....
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