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Missouri Shuts Down Locatecell.com01/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has obtained a court order to prevent an Internet business and its owners from offering to sell the records of cell pho...
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has obtained a court order to prevent an Internet business and its owners from offering to sell the records of cell phone customers in Missouri.
The defendants, who do business online under several names but most prominently as Locatecell.com, have been sued for violating state consumer protection laws by misrepresenting that it is legal for them to obtain, possess and sell the phone records.
The temporary restraining order, issued by Judge Thomas Brown in Cole County Circuit Court, is believed to be the first such action against by a state against Internet businesses that illegally sell cell phone records.
Named as defendants are First Data Solutions Inc. and its principal owner, James Kester, of Knoxville, Tenn.; and 1st Source Information Specialists Inc., of Tamarac, Fla., and its directors Kenneth W. Gorman and Steven Schwartz of Jensen Beach, Fla.
"A company that we believe has been illegally obtaining the private information of consumers will be prohibited from doing business in Missouri," Nixon said. "This is a victory for the privacy concerns of Missouri citizens."
According to the defendants' Web site, for $65 anyone may enter a cell phone number and then receive the name and address of a cell phone user. For $110, anyone can enter a cell phone number and Locatecell.com will provider a list of calls made from that number.
Nixon had alleged in his suit that the defendants did not have authorization from the wireless and cellular telephone service providers to access the customer information and records that they advertise on their Web site.
The court order prevents the defendants from attempting to obtain, offering for sale, or selling any information from any cellular or land line telephone service provider regarding any of that provider's customers in Missouri. The defendants also cannot take orders from Missourians seeking telephone records. They also are prohibited from:
Using the name or identity of any employee of any cellular or land line telephone service provider for any purpose;
Contacting any cellular or land line telephone service provider for any purpose other than to access any of the defendants' own information;
Possessing any Missouri customer information obtained from cellular or land line telephone service providers, regardless of form or manner of storage.
The Attorney General continues to seek preliminary and permanent injunctions against the defendants and is asking the court to order appropriate restitution for consumers and penalties for the state.
Nixon's office initiated an investigation into the company on Jan. 19, when an undercover investigator made an online transaction with Locatecell.com to purchase the records of calls made on his own private cell phone. Upon receipt of the records on Jan. 20, the Attorney General's Office filed for the temporary restraining order.
ID Theft at The Pump01/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
After investigating, deputies found a pattern all of the victims had purchased gas with debit cards at local Arco stations just before thieves broke into t...
January 31, 2006
Authorities in Yuba County, California were baffled by the sudden rash of identity theft reports. After investigating, deputies found a pattern all of the victims had purchased gas with debit cards at local Arco stations just before thieves broke into their bank accounts.
At the stations in Yuba City, Linda, Redding, Rocklin, Roseville, Willows and Sacramento, the investigators solved the mystery.
The credit card readers on the gas pumps had been slightly altered. New faceplates had been placed over the readers which captured the data from the card. Small cameras were focused on the key pad to record PIN numbers as consumers punched them in.
Once the thieves had the card information and the pin numbers, they created phony cards and visited the nearest ATM machine, where they stole a total of $110,000 from the victims accounts.
Authorities were able to trace the withdrawals to a single ATM at a nearby casino. After reviewing the surveillance tapes, they had a good description of the suspects. It didnt take them long to track them down, since they were still in the casino.
A spokesman for Arco says service station employees have been instructed to step up their monitoring of credit card readers.
Identity Theft More Prevalent Offline, Report Finds01/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
Identity Theft More Prevalent Offline, Report Finds...
A new report finds that despite growing fears about identity theft and online fraud, of the victims that know the identity and method used by the criminal, these crimes are more frequently committed offline than online.
The 2005 Javelin Identity Fraud Survey Report -- released by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research -- shows that Internet-related fraud problems are actually less severe, less costly and not as widespread as previously thought.
Further, the study concludes that those who access accounts online can provide earlier detection of crime than those who rely only upon mailed monthly paper statements. By managing their financial activities online, consumers can reduce access to personal information on paper bills and statements that may be used to commit identity theft and fraud.
Victims of identity theft who detected the crime by monitoring accounts online experienced financial losses that were less than one-eighth of those who detected the crime via paper statements. (Average $551 in losses when detected online vs. average $4,543 when detected from paper statements).
"Our numbers show that fears about online identity fraud may be out of proportion to the relative risk, causing consumers to ignore the most glaring issues," says James Van Dyke, Javelin's founder and principal analyst. "Indeed, most instances of identity fraud occur through traditional channels and are paper-based, not Internet-based."
The updated research project -- supported by CheckFree, Visa and Wells Fargo & Company and based on 4,000 telephone interviews with consumers -- makes four key points:
The most frequently reported source of information used to commit fraud was a lost or stolen wallet or checkbook.
Computer crimes accounted for just 11.6 percent of all known-cause identity fraud in 2004; and half of these digitally-driven crimes stem from spyware, software the computer user unknowingly installs to make ads pop-up when the consumer is online.
Consumers can protect their financial data by using updated spyware, virus and firewall protection software and not responding to bogus "phishing" emails that request personal data.
Among cases where the perpetrator's identity is known, half of all identity fraud is committed by a friend, family member, relative, neighbor or in-home employee - someone known by the victim.
A wide variety of metrics confirm that identity fraud problems are NOT worsening, with the total number of victims in decline.
The annual dollar volume of identity fraud is highly similar to 2003 figures (adjusted for inflation) at $52.6 billion
The number of identity fraud victims dropped from 10.1 million to 9.3 million in 2004 versus 2003
The median value of identity fraud crimes remained unchanged at $750; however most identity fraud victims incurred no out-of-pocket costs.
The average time to resolve an identity fraud crime dropped by 15%- from 33 hours in 2003 to 28 hours in 2004.
The majority of identity fraud crimes are self-detected. This reinforces the benefits of activity monitoring through electronic review of transactions, statements, and credit reports allowing consumers to check their account activities quickly and efficiently -- without waiting for a paper bill or statement.
"This new research contradicts some common assumptions about identity theft fraud and points to new paths of prevention. There are several steps consumers can take to improve their identity safety and protect themselves against this type of fraud. An informed consumer is an empowered consumer," said Ken Hunter, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Prevent access to your personal information.
Replace paper bills, statements and checks with Internet (paperless) versions
Consider moving to an electronic bill payment service, such as your bank or biller's web site, and stop sending signed paper checks through the mail. Visit the site(s) to monitor account activity on a regular basis.
Before discarding, shred all private documents
Sign up for automatic payroll deposits
Retrieve paper mail promptly and place outgoing checks or other sensitive documents in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox
Keep passwords hidden (even in your own home) and change them frequently
Don't discard a computer without deleting all sensitive data
Use and regularly update firewall and anti-virus software
Be suspiciously reluctant to release Social Security or account numbers, particularly to those requesting such information by e-mail or phone.
When responding to e-mail, ignore any Internet links provided and type the full address instead
Detect unauthorized activity
Review bank and credit card statements weekly and use online account access
Contact your financial provider if you fail to receive statements in a timely manner
Use e-mail-based account "alerts" to monitor transfers, payments, low balances and withdrawals
Sign up to receive electronic bills and statements and, whenever possible select the option to turn off the paper copy of these sensitive documents
Review your credit report at least annually (free annual reviews are being made available this year, in phases, depending on where you live)
Resolve fraud promptly, minimizing losses
Ask your financial provider about zero-liability guarantees against fraud and dedicated resources to help you recover from any potential losses
Victims of theft: notify your financial providers, begin monitoring your accounts more frequently, and place an "alert" through a credit bureau such as Equifax, Experian or TransUnion.
The Fed Raises Interest Rates Again
Is The Economy Getting Better Or Worse?01/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
The Federal Reserve hit a new milestone as it raised short-term interest rates for the 14th time, but hinted that the end of rate increases is in sight....
In its last meeting with Alan Greenspan in the chairman's seat, the Federal Reserve hit a new milestone as it raised short-term interest rates for the 14th time, but hinted that the end of rate increases is in sight.
The Fed said that though uneven, "the expansion in economic activity appears solid," noting that core inflation, which excludes food and energy, remains "relatively low" but expressed concern about rising energy prices and their possible effect on inflation.
So is the economy in good shape or not?
It's tough enough to get a handle on the country's economic picture under normal circumstances. Searching through reams of reports from the Federal reserve, combing the stock market trades for news, and reading every business newspaper on the racks can lead to volumes of arcane, and often contradictory, reports, leaving any interested observer more confused than when they started.
For example, The Department of Commerce released a report on Jan. 30 stating that consumer spending increased by 0.9 percent in December, reflecting a willingness by consumers to "tap assets" in order to continue purchasing goods, despite higher prices.
Simultaneously, the personal savings rate has dropped to below negative levels, the lowest it's been since the worst years of the Great Depression.
Overall economic growth slowed to 1.1 percent for the last months of Dec. 2005, the lowest rate in three years.
The Wealth Effect
And yet, economists and pundits are claiming that Americans are feeling free to spend more, banking chiefly on the appreciation of their houses in a blazing-hot market. The usage of "unrealized gains" in home equity produced what National Association of Realtors' (NAR) chief economist David Lereah called the "wealth effect."
The "wealth effect" enabled homeowners to tap their equity in order to pay off debts and buy new luxury items, or just to handle major expenses such as medical care, child care, and so on.
The problem is that the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the chief measure used by the Commerce Dept. to measure spending growth and reduction, doesn't account for costs for food and energy, which are considered "too volatile" to track.
This means that the current strife in Iran and Nigeria, which is pushing gas prices towards $3 a gallon, isn't being factored in to analyses of consumer spending.
And the usage of homes as ATM's is coming to an end. Housing markets are showing steep declines, particularly in expensive areas such as California's Bay Area, the greater New York area, and the Washington, D.C. metro region.
Massachusetts, another expensive state for housing, is seeing a 12-year-high on property foreclosures, due to the inability of many homeowners to meet their payments and the "flattening" of home appreciation rates.
Even the credit industry is conflicted about where the economy is going next.
A poll conducted by the Experian credit bureau and the Gallup research center claimed that "two in three" consumers planned to make credit card debt reduction a priority in 2006. The poll claimed that 77 percent of the respondents were "comfortable with their level of debt."
Subprime Lending "Booming"
Meanwhile, according to rival credit agency Trans Union, the market for subprime credit lending is booming.
An analysis conducted by the agency's "Market Intelligence" division claimed that "subprime borrowers" opened 16 percent more accounts between 2004 and 2005 than the previous year, while "prime risk" borrowers declined in their rate of new account openings by 5 percent.
The "subprime" or "fringe" economy, consisting of predatory and payday lenders, "creative" mortgage brokers, and so on, may be the real grease that's keeping the economic wheel turning. The subprime market generated gross revenue of $78 billion in 2001.
Payday lenders made $25 billion worth of loans in 2003, and thed disparities in lending are deliberately targeted to hit the working poor and minorities the hardest.
The "wealth effect" is just that -- an illusion, not much different from the special effects we've come to expect in fantasies that flash across the silver screen and the heavily-mortgaged plasma screens in our family rooms.
The real story may come from the ever-increasing number of households who are relying on shady lenders, credit cards, and over-mortgaged home equity just to make ends meet.
Until the economic pundits stop trying to spin the news and lay the facts out straight, the end result may be a lot of mixed messages and confused -- even misguided -- consumers.
Study Links Virus To Obesity
Obesity Epidemic Could Be Just That01/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
Study Links Virus To Obesity...
By Mark Huffman
January 31, 2006
Heres another excuse for being overweight you might have a virus.
A study in the American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, reports a human virus has been shown to cause chickens to get fat. Some scientists have concluded that finding suggests the virus could contribute to human obesity as well.
Another factor, scientists say, is how fast obesity is spreading through the worldwide human population. The only thing that spreads as fast, they say, is an infectious disease.
"The nearly simultaneous increase in the prevalence of obesity in most countries of the world is difficult to explain by changes in food intake and exercise alone, and suggests that adenoviruses could have contributed," the authors say.
Scientists involved in the study gave chickens three types of human virus. They found that the chickens with a virus called Ad-37 became obese, even though they were on the same diet as chickens that remained at a normal weight.
Another virus, Ad-36, has already been linked to obesity in other types of test animals. Blood samples from overweight humans show a strong likelihood of carrying the antibodies for the virus. The authors say more research might establish a stronger link between viruses and obesity.
While some might dismiss the idea that you can "catch obesity," the authors say an infection link might explain a lot. For example, doctors have long been perplexed by the prevalence of obesity in the third world countries, existing along side starvation.
Some 127 million American adults are considered overweight, with nearly half classified as clinically obese. The Centers for Disease Control puts the price of dealing with obesity at about $78 billion.
Companies Will Reduce Lead in Costume Jewelry...
Using cell phones in hospitals reduces the error rate in medical care because of more timely communication01/30/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Study: Cell Phones Reduce Hospital Errors...
Controversy Swirls Around Louisiana Reconstruction Plan
Sweeping plan to rebuild flooded areas runs into opposition01/29/2006ConsumerAffairs
Controversy Swirls Around Louisiana Reconstruction Plan...
A House Republican's sweeping plan to effect large-scale reconstruction in the areas of Louisiana devastated by Katrina has run into a formidable roadblock -- opposition from the official in charge of the Gulf Coast recovery.
Congressman Richard Baker's (R-Baton Rouge) H.R. 4100, the "Baker Bill," would create a corporation to buy out damaged or flooded properties in the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana, thus enabling the owners to pay off their mortgages and avoid foreclosure.
The Louisiana Recovery Corporation would then sell the properties to developers for rebuilding, with right of first refusal going to the former homeowners." The corporation would be funded by bonds backed by the U.S. Treasury.
But Donald Powell, Gulf Coast recovery chairman, is opposing the Baker bill. Calling it a "needless layer of bureaucracy," Powell said that grants already approved by Congress would be sufficient to fund the rebuilding effort.
"I think it is a much better approach (than the Baker bill), a more direct approach," Powell told the New Orleans Times-Picayuna. "It puts the process in the hands of the local people. It doesn't put government in the real estate business."
"Biggest Land Grab in History"
Baker's plan -- and, for that matter, Baker himself -- comes with no small amount of controversy.
In the first days after Hurricane Katrina, Baker was alleged to have said, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Baker issued a lengthy press release claiming he was misquoted.
Baker's bill has been criticized as a disguised attempt to favor the mortgage industry by bailing local lenders out with government money, rather than incurring major losses from foreclosure of the destroyed property.
Opponents of the bill point to language that claims the homeowners will receive 60 percent of the home's equity, rather than 60 percent of the land's actual fair market value.
Many homeowners might be persuaded to take a quick buyout of homes that have been so badly damaged as to be irreparable, rather than face years of mortgage payments on property they can no longer use.
Pointing to Baker's history as a real estate developer, one blogger called the bill "the biggest land grab in history."
On the other hand, the Baker bill has been touted as the closest thing to a real solution to Louisiana's post-Katrina woes, particularly in light of complex and slow-moving efforts by the federal government to effect reconstruction.
Costs for emergency housing for the displaced have doubled or tripledcosts for trailers, for instance, have skyrocketed from $19,000 to $75,000, according to the Washington Post.
Lack of oversight governing the cleanup has enabled unscrupulous contractors to quadruple costs for debris removal. The various authorities involved in the recovery are entangled in bureaucratic snafus and an inability to do very much of anything.
Critics of the federal recovery guidance, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), called the White House's opposition to the Baker bill an example of "a continued lack of understanding for the magnitude of the devastation and the immense rebuilding task our state faces."
Supporters of the Baker bill say that Powell's reliance on block grants supports homeowners at the exclusion of renters, who do not have as much recourse in the event of losing their residences due to natural disaster.
Relying on federal flood insurance or grants may encourage New Orleans residents to simply rebuild where they live, which may lead to renewed destruction in the event of another hurricane or flood, or leaving the homeowners in possession of essentially worthless land.
Powell has encouraged property owners to seek assistance from agencies such as the Small Business Administration (SBA), but both the SBA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have been criticized for not processing loan applications quickly enough, not providing correct information to applicants, and for continually changing the procedures for getting loans.
Baker has vowed to keep his bill alive, and will push for its support when it comes up for debate by the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee on Feb. 15th. "Bills have been passed before without presidential approval," Baker said.
Ameriprise Financial, a recent spin-off of American Express, has notified more than 150,000 customers and more than 65,000 financial advisors of a potentia...
AARP Wants Changes in Medicare Rx Plan
Wants Government to Help Control Drug Prices01/28/2006ConsumerAffairs
AARP Wants Changes in Medicare Rx Plan...
AARP says it will ask Congress to change the new Medicare prescription drug program, giving more help to elderly people with low incomes and creating a bigger government role in policing drug prices.
AARP initially supported the program but said just before its passage that it might want to "build on it in the future." In a statement, AARP President Bill Novelli said problems with implementation of the drug assistance program needed to be addressed.
Additionally, John Rother, AARP's chief lobbyist, said his organizations wants Congress to change the way Medicare recipients' assets are counted in determining which ones are poor enough to qualify for special low-income subsidies, The Washington Post reported.
Also, Rother said AARP wants to reopen debate over a provision that would have directed health officials to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers over the prices they charge through the program. The White House has said that President Bush would oppose any attempt to revise the program.
AARP and Congressional Democrats had pressed for government price controls when the legislation was being debated. The Bush Administration favored a market-oriented approach that was eventually adopted, in which drugmakers negotiate prices with the insurance plans that sell the drug benefit to patients.
In his statement, AARP's Novelli said there had clearly been problems with implementation of the program.
"The bottom line is that some people are not getting the drugs they need. This is unacceptable," he said. "If an individual has proof of eligibility, there is absolutely no reason they should pay more than required or leave a pharmacy empty-handed."
AARP has been under attack from conservatives, who accuse it of pushing liberal programs, and from many of its own members, who accuse it of caving in to Republican pressure to support the GOP-backed Medicare plan.
Democrats in Congress have been promoting a bill that would make fundamental changes in the drug benefit. One of those changes would be empowering the government to jawbone drug makers, one of the revisions AARP now says it supports.
Cheaper than Canada
Novelli and other AARP executives insist the Medicare drug assistance program is not all bad.
An AARP investigation last month found that for many Americans, Medicare drug plans that cover all of a beneficiary's drugs can cost less than buying the same drugs across the border. The calculation takes into account premiums, deductibles, and copayments.
Pill for pill the actual price of some drugs may be cheaper in Canada but Medicare coverage is insurance, and so enrollees are therefore charged only copayments instead of full price.
The findings, detailed in the AARP Bulletin, emerged from an analysis of real combinations of drugs taken by people across the country. Using the drug plan finder on Medicare's website, AARP found the least expensive Medicare "stand alone" plan that covered their drugs and compared that plan's total cost to what that person spent in a year buying the drugs from an online Canadian pharmacy.
AARP used the plans' 90-day mail-order options because that's how more than 1 million consumers over 65 routinely get their drugs from Canada.
An example can be found with an interviewee named Donna from Anaheim, California.
Donna would pay $2,323.68 overall under a Medicare plan in her area for coverage of her six drugs nearly $1,400 less than the $3,718.40 charged by a low-cost Canadian pharmacy. This Medicare plan charges relatively high monthly premiums of $50.91 but has no deductible and gives continuous coverage for all her drugs through the "doughnut hole" gap. Her copays would range from $17.50 to $150 for every 90-day supply.
AARP's free publication, "The New Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage: What You Need to Know," is available in Spanish and English to members and non-members alike. This easy-to-understand resource describes how the new plans work and how to find enrollment assistance. To order the publication or get help, people can call AARP toll-free operators at 1-888-687-2277 or go to AARP's educational guide.
Enrollment information is available through state health insurance counseling programs (SHIP) in all 50 states and at many senior centers and offices on aging. Beneficiaries can find their local SHIP office online or by calling 1-800-677-1116.
Medicare's drug plan finder and other details are also available online. Or beneficiaries can call Medicare toll free at 1-800-633-4227 for assistance.
Audi A4 and A6, Volkswagen Passat Recalled for Fuel Pump Problem01/27/2006ConsumerAffairs
Audi A4 and A6, Volkswagen Passat Recalled for Fuel Pump...
January 27, 2006
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is recalling 74,000 2003 Audi A4, A6 and Volkswagen Passat sports sedans because of a problem with electrical components in the fuel pump.
Vehicles equipped with the 1.8 liter turbo charger, 2.8 liter V6 or 3.0 liter engines may suffer a fuel pump failure than can shut off the fuel supply to the engine.
Dealers will install a new fuel pump free of charge after the recall begins in March of 2006. Owners can contact Volkswagen at 1-800-222-8987 or audi at 1-800-822-2834.
Consumer may also contact NHTSA 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or go to www.safercar.gov.--30--
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Exubera is the first non-injectable, inhalable form of insulin to be approved since the discovery of insulin in the 1920s01/27/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Approves Diabetes Inhaler Exubera...
Philip Morris Agrees To Snuff Web Cigarette Sales01/26/2006ConsumerAffairs
Philip Morris To Help Snuff Web Cigarette Sales...
Philip Morris USA and the attorneys general of 37 states have agreed on a new program to combat the illegal sale of the company's cigarettes over the Internet and through the mail, striking another blow at contraband tobacco sales.
"This is a major step forward in our ongoing effort the shut down illegal internet cigarette traffickers," said New York Attorney General Spitzer.
"These illegal enterprises cannot remain in business without a steady supply of cigarettes, and thus restricting that supply can be very effective. We will continue to pursue this goal by asking other cigarette manufacturers to follow Philip Morris's lead and reduce the flow of their cigarettes to these illegal traffickers."
The agreed-upon protocols provide for the:
Termination of shipments of cigarettes to any of Philip Morris's direct customers that the attorneys general have found to be engaging in illegal Internet and mail order sales;
Reduction in the amount of product made available to direct customers found by the attorneys general to be engaged in the illegal re-sale of Philip Morris cigarettes to the Internet vendors; and,
Suspension from the company's incentive programs of any retailer found by the attorneys general to be engaging in such illegal sales.
"Our voluntary agreement with the state attorneys general builds on Philip Morris USA's existing trade programs and policies intended to preserve the integrity of our brands and the legitimate trade channels through which they are sold," said Denise Keane, Philip Morris USA executive vice president and general counsel.
"It sets a framework for continued information sharing with law enforcement and support of their efforts to eliminate illegal sales of Philip Morris USA products."
The attorneys general believe that virtually all sales of cigarettes over the Internet are illegal because the sellers are violating one or more state and federal laws, including:
(1) state age verification laws;
(2) the federal Jenkins Act (which requires that such sales be reported to state authorities);
(3) state laws prohibiting or regulating the direct shipment of cigarettes to consumers;
(4) state and federal tax laws;
(5) federal mail and wire fraud statutes; and
(6) the federal RICO law.
Many of the sales made by foreign websites also violate federal smuggling, cigarette labeling, money laundering and contraband product laws.
The attorneys general note that Internet cigarette sales also present a significant risk to public health, because most Internet vendors illegally fail to charge taxes, and it is well-established that lower cigarette prices lead to increased smoking rates.
Moreover, while "brick-and-mortar" retailers check photo IDs to prevent children from buying cigarettes, the vast majority of Internet sellers have age verification systems that are wholly inadequate.
Numerous studies have shown that the earlier an individual begins to smoke, the more likely it is that the person will become addicted, and thus age verification through photo IDs is essential to protect children from a lifetime of smoking.
Today's agreement is the third major development in the Attorney Generals' multi-pronged effort to restrict the payment, shipment and supply operations of the illegal Internet cigarette traffickers.
In March 2005, the attorneys generals announced that the major credit card companies had all agreed to stop processing credit card payments for the Internet retailers. Later in the year, both DHL and UPS agreed to stop shipping packages for the vendors engaged in these illegal sales.
Philip Morris notes that it previously has penalized direct customers and retailers who sold its cigarettes illegally over the Internet and through the mails. Philip Morris is now the first tobacco product manufacturer to agree to reduce the supply of cigarettes to direct customers who supply vendors engaged in the illegal re-sale of Philip Morris cigarettes on the Internet.
The attorneys general commended Philip Morris for its cooperation in the effort to reduce these illegal sales. In addition, the attorneys general will be encouraging other tobacco product manufacturers to take steps to reduce the supply of their cigarettes that are re-sold by illegal Internet cigarette traffickers.
The negotiations with Philip Morris were lead by the New York Attorney General's Office. In addition, the attorneys general from the following jurisdictions have joined this agreement: Alabama, Arkansas, American Samoa, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, Northern Marianas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Cingular Patents the Emoticon :(
Cingular says the aim of the patent is to enable the displaying of graphics on its subscribers' handsets01/26/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Cingular Patents the Emoticon :(...
Cingular Wireless has won a patent on the concept of using "emoticons" on mobile phones. The patent applies not only to graphic versions of the ubiquitous smiley/mad face but also to simple text versions. :)
Cingular says the aim of the patent is to enable the displaying of graphics on its subscribers' handsets, the patent would also prohibit sending simple text versions via a dedicated or programmable key.
The system may also support the import of emoticons and custom emoticons to one or more applications running on the mobile device, Cellular News reported. For example, in some embodiments, users may visit an out-of-band service (e.g., web page) to compose or upload custom emoticons that would then become available on the wireless device's palette.
The patent may be seen as bad news by devotees of the inane faces. On the other hand, if it restricts the spread of the moon-shaped faces, it's likely to be wildly popular in some quarters.
Don't believe it? :| Check it out. The patent number is US2006015812.
Study: Cardiac Drug Doubles Risk of Kidney Failure
Aprotinin has now been proven to double a patient's risk of kidney failure01/26/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Study: Cardiac Drug Doubles Risk of Kidney Failure...
Aprotinin -- a drug approved by the FDA, marketed internationally for the last 13 years, and given to an estimated one million surgery patients to limit bleeding -- has now been proven to double a patient's risk of kidney failure, and increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
The results, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, are based on an independent, non-commercial, observational study conducted by The Ischemia Research and Education Foundation (IREF).
"Our study provides compelling evidence of aprotinin's serious risks, and strongly suggests discontinuation of use and replacement with either of the two alternative generic and far less costly medications proven safe in this study," said IREF founder and principal scientist, Dennis T. Mangano, Ph.D., M.D.
"Certainly, our findings -- coming on the heels of the Vioxx experience -- indicate that the problem of drug safety is not only ubiquitous, but also much more elusive than previously thought."
In fact, Mangano said, the findings raise even more troubling concerns, for:
(1) aprotinin has been on the market for three times as long as Vioxx, yet few comprehensive safety studies have been conducted since approval;
(2) the life-threatening complications with aprotinin occurred far more frequently than those with Vioxx; and
(3) far less expensive generic alternatives to aprotinin which are equally effective in limiting bleeding have been available, but have been underused.
The article states that replacing aprotinin with one of two safe generic drugs would annually prevent as many as 11,050 dialysis complications, save at least $1 billion in healthcare (dialysis) costs, and reduce drug costs by at least $250 million.
Each year approximately one million patients worldwide undergo surgical treatment following a heart attack, with the majority of these patients receiving one of three antifibrinolytic agents to limit blood loss during surgery: aprotinin (Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, Inc.), aminocaproic acid (generic), or tranexamic acid (generic).
The two generic drugs have proven safe in limiting blood loss, and do not have the harmful effects of aprotinin. Patients scheduled for cardiac surgery should consult their physicians and avoid this risk, Mangano said.
Aprotinin was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993 and is manufactured by Bayer under the brand name Trasylol. Over the past three years, Trasylol sales have accelerated, with 2006 sales projected in excess of $600 million.
"We estimate that as many as 10,000 patients may be unnecessarily on dialysis today due to aprotinin use. This serious impact on human lives underscores once again the necessity for meticulous, post -- approval surveillance, as well as ongoing, unbiased analysis of drug safety -- all conducted by entirely independent entities," said Mangano.
"This is easier said than done, however, for the economic forces are -- and will continue to be -- substantial, with little corporate incentive to identify safety problems once drugs are approved and marketed."
The New England Journal of Medicine article documents how aprotinin use was associated with a two-fold increase in renal failure requiring dialysis in patients undergoing both complex coronary artery surgery and primary surgery, excluding prior cardiac and current valve surgery.
Among primary surgery patients, Dr. Mangano and colleagues found that aprotinin use also increased risk of myocardial infarction (48 percent), heart failure (109 percent), and stroke (181 percent).
Neither of aprotinin's generic competitors, aminocaproic acid and tranexamic acid, was associated with increased renal, cardiac or cerebral events.
Aprotinin is at least ten times more expensive than its generic competitors.
GAO: Feds Not Guarding Social Security Numbers Handled by Contractors01/26/2006ConsumerAffairs
GAO: Feds Not Guarding Social Security Numbers Handled by Contractors...
Federal contractors who have access to individual Social Security numbers (SSNs) present a potentially serious security risk, and greater protection of the sharing of numbers is needed, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Although private industry relies on contractual agreements and the usage of "best practices" standards to ensure contractor agencies do not have unauthorized access to SSNs or use them for purposes other than their task requires, there are "gaps" in the oversight and regulation of SSN sharing among industries such as the finance, telecommunications, maintenance, and tax preparation sectors, the GAO found.
Agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) all have differing regulations and enforcement ability regarding the use of SSNs in their jurisdiction.
"Companies and their contractors must adequately protect SSNs at every step of a business transaction," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-LA), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, which requested the report.
The GAO report examined the circumstances by which private companies share SSNs with third-party contractors.
Banks and financial institutions employed contractors for a wide variety of functions, from verifying new customer identities to outsourced debt collection processes.
Tax preparation companies will maintain databases of customers both past and present, including SSNs, in order to track possible errors their preparers might have made.
As each of the examined industries falls under a different area of federal regulation, the laws governing the use of SSNs are different for each industry.
Tax preparers, for instance, fall under IRS and FTC guidelines for disclosing and sharing taxpayer information with one another or third parties. Under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), the FTC mandates that tax preparers regulate their contractors "bytaking reasonable steps" to recruit and contract with companies that won't present security risks.
The IRS lacks resources for regular review of outsourced tax preparers, according to the GAO report. The agency relies on investigating complaints from taxpayers or local offices.
Another IRS trouble spot involves the lack of regulations for third-party tax preparers who file returns electronically.
One association of professional tax preparers told the GAO that "there were no explicit provisions restricting what various third party providers participating in electronic filing could do with taxpayer information once they possess it."
The IRS claimed that existing regulations covered sharing data from electronic tax filings, and that the agency was introducing new regulations to notify contractors that criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of information would apply to them.
The IRS is planning to outsource much of its debt collection enforcement to private companies throughout 2006, a move that is being criticized by longtime Treasury Dept. employees as dangerous.
At least one contracting vendor with the IRS was collecting data on taxpayers' political preferences while building a database on delinquent taxpayers.
Telecommunications companies such as Verizon and Sprint Nextel present an even bigger gap in oversight of contracting.
Although the FCC has restrictions against the sharing or sale of customer proprietary network information (CPNI), the agency told the GAO that it "[knows] of no federal law that restricts the sharing of SSNs by telecommunications firms with their contractors, and that they do not regulate or oversee the privacy of customer information maintained or shared by telecommunications firms unless the information is included inCPNI."
The FCC claimed that the "limited jurisdiction" over CPNI prevents the agency from taking action when SSNs are disclosed or shared by third party contractors. However, the FTC can take enforcement action against contracting companies if the company is demonstrated to have violated its own privacy policies regarding information disclosure.
The major telecom companies have grown increasingly reliant on third-party companies such as Amdocs for recording and storing customer billing records. Sprint Nextel recently secured a preliminary agreement with Amdocs to handle the customer billing and service for its 45.6 million subscribers.
Amdocs has been the center of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for possible criminal misuse or lax security regarding the CPNI data it collects.
Although the company is not mentioned specifically by name in the GAO report, the report notes that the FBI has requested the FCC consider greater regulation of overseas-based companies that collect and store CPNI data.
The scandal involving private companies selling customer cellphone records to any buyer centers around the unauthorized sharing of CPNI data collected by telecom companies. Speculation runs rampant that rogue employees of major companies may be selling this data on the side, or that third-party overseas companies are dealing the data out to companies such as Locatecell.com and Celltolls.com.
"Taking Every Precaution"
The report also discusses the impact that state laws governing the transmittal and disclosure of SSNs have had on developing industry-wide guidelines.
One company claimed that it was easier to take one state's laws -- such as California's 2004 law mandating disclosure of security breaches -- and apply them on a nationwide basis, rather than create rules for each state.
The GAO analysis concluded that although many of the industries examined in the report do provide measures of protecting SSNs in dealing with third-party contractors, the volumes of data involved and differing regulations leave wide loopholes for potential abuse and misuse.
The agency recommended that Congress consider drafting laws to close the gaps between the differing federal regulations, or to consider adding provisions to existing law that deal explicitly with third-party contractors.
In the GAO's words, "it is vital that any entity with access to personal information, especially to SSNs, take every precaution to protect this information from misuse."
"The personal information of millions of Americans has been compromised by data breaches at a wide variety of businesses," Rep.McCrery said in a press statement. "Congress must carefully examine any gaps in the law for safeguarding SSNs."
Data Blunders Cost ChoicePoint $15 Million01/26/2006ConsumerAffairs
Data Blunders Cost ChoicePoint $15 Million...
January 26, 2006
Data broker ChoicePoint, Inc., will pay $10 million in civil penalties -- the largest civil penalty in FTC history -- and $5 million in consumer redress to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that its security and record-handling procedures violated consumers' privacy rights and federal laws.
The firm last year acknowledged that the personal financial records of more than 163,000 consumers in its database had been compromised,
The settlement requires ChoicePoint to implement new procedures to ensure that it provides consumer reports only to legitimate businesses for lawful purposes, to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program, and to obtain audits by an independent third-party security professional every other year until 2026.
"The message to ChoicePoint and others should be clear: Consumers' private data must be protected from thieves," said Deborah Platt Majoras, Chairman of the FTC. "Data security is critical to consumers, and protecting it is a priority for the FTC, as it should be to every business in America."
ChoicePoint, a publicly traded company based in suburban Atlanta, obtains and sells to more than 50,000 businesses the personal information of consumers, including their names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, employment information, and credit histories.
The FTC alleges that ChoicePoint did not have reasonable procedures to screen prospective subscribers, and turned over consumers' sensitive personal information to subscribers whose applications raised obvious "red flags."
Indeed, the FTC contends that ChoicePoint approved as customers individuals who lied about their credentials and used commercial mail drops as business addresses. In addition, ChoicePoint applicants reportedly used fax machines at public commercial locations to send multiple applications for purportedly separate companies.
According to the FTC, ChoicePoint failed to tighten its application approval procedures or monitor subscribers even after receiving subpoenas from law enforcement authorities alerting it to fraudulent activity going back to 2001.
The FTC charged that ChoicePoint violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by furnishing consumer reports -- credit histories -- to subscribers who did not have a permissible purpose to obtain them, and by failing to maintain reasonable procedures to verify both their identities and how they intended to use the information.
The agency also charged that ChoicePoint violated the FTC Act by making false and misleading statements about its privacy policies.
ChoicePoint had publicized privacy principles that address the confidentiality and security of personal information it collects and maintains with statements such as, "ChoicePoint allows access to your consumer reports only by those authorized under the FCRA . . . " and "Every ChoicePoint customer must successfully complete a rigorous credentialing process. ChoicePoint does not distribute information to the general public and monitors the use of its public record information to ensure appropriate use."
The stipulated final judgment and order requires ChoicePoint to pay $10 million in civil penalties and to provide $5 million for consumer redress.
It bars the company from furnishing consumer reports to people who do not have a permissible purpose to receive them and requires the company to establish and maintain reasonable procedures to ensure that consumer reports are provided only to those with a permissible purpose.
ChoicePoint is required to verify the identity of businesses that apply to receive consumer reports, including making site visits to certain business premises and auditing subscribers' use of consumer reports.
The order requires ChoicePoint to establish, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information security program designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of the personal information it collects from or about consumers.
It also requires ChoicePoint to obtain, every two years for the next 20 years, an audit from a qualified, independent, third-party professional to ensure that its security program meets the standards of the order.
Finally, the settlement bars future violations of the FCRA and the FTC Act.
Drugs May Fight Mad Cow Disease
Drugs used to treat malaria and schizophrenia may have a role in treating brain-wasting disorders01/25/2006ConsumerAffairs
Drugs May Fight Mad Cow Disease...
Drugs used to treat malaria and schizophrenia may have a role in treating brain-wasting disorders like mad cow disease.
The FDA recently gave the OK to researchers at the University of California in San Francisco to study quinacrine, a malaria drug, and a drug used to treat schizophrenia called chlorpromazine.
Three dozen patients, all very ill with the brain-wasting disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, more commonly known as mad cow disease, will receive the medication.
We can't currently do much for diseases like mad cow. Abnormally shapred proteins called prions, rather than a germ, invade and damage the brain and can eventually kill you. But these two drugs have shown some promise.
The drugs help mouse cells contain prions and have already been given to two sick women. One showed significant improvement.
The two drugs require extensive research, and a lot more time, before we know if they work. Still, they may someday be used to treat mad cow and other brain-wasting diseases.
Arrests Made in South Florida Foreclosure Scams
Four people have been arrested for their roles in two separate but related scams01/25/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Four people have been arrested for their roles in two separate but related scams, one of which involved surplus foreclosure funds and victimized at least 2...
Four people have been arrested for their roles in two separate but related scams, one of which involved surplus foreclosure funds and victimized at least 20 Florida homeowners.
The other victimized an elderly South Florida homeowner through surplus foreclosure funds and mortgage fraud.
Agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) arrested attorney Terrence Rosenberg, Shannelle Brantley and Leighton Brown, all of Miami, for their roles in the mortgage fraud and surplus foreclosure funds scam.
Authorities also arrested Manuel Rosado Jr. of Miami in connection with the foreclosure surplus fraud scheme, in which Rosenberg also participated.
"Floridians should not have to worry about being targeted by con artists trying to cheat them out to their hard-earned money," said Attorney General Charlie Crist.
"The arrest of these individuals is significant because this is not the kind of criminal case that is made with any regularity," said FDLE Commissioner Guy Tunnell. "We hope that these arrests will send a message that this kind of fraudulent activity is totally unacceptable and unlawful, and that cases like this will be actively pursued and prosecuted."
Authorities contend that Rosado masterminded the foreclosure funds scam with attorney Rosenbergs assistance. Rosado allegedly used records from state courts in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties to locate surplus foreclosure funds left over from homes auctioned to satisfy mortgages.
Authorities say Rosenberg would then file court paperwork typically used to claim the funds for the homeowners, but would keep the funds for his personal use instead of disbursing them to the appropriate homeowners. He faces disbarment action before the Florida Supreme Court for his participation in the scheme.
The second scam resulted in the eviction of an elderly victim from her South Florida home. Investigators charge that Rosenberg and an accomplice approached the 68-year-old victim after learning she had recently lost her house due to foreclosure and persuaded her to pay them her surplus foreclosure funds, supposedly taking a fee for their help in locating a new house and using the remaining amount to purchase the house on her behalf.
Brantley is charged with assisting in the fraud by submitting fraudulent mortgage documents that enabled the thieves to purchase a house, which they quickly resold and kept the money for their personal use. The elderly victim, who was living in the new house when it was resold, was evicted by the new buyers. During the investigation that followed, Brown, 25, allegedly contacted witnesses and urged them to lie to the police regarding the fraudulent mortgage documents.
Miami-Dade County Inspector General Christopher Mazzella expressed his dismay at the proliferation of crimes targeting homeowners. "As the equity in homes increases because of the boost in property values, residential dwellings become attractive targets to criminal predators, he said.
The elaborate foreclosure and mortgage scheme concocted by the defendants to bleed the equity out of the victims' homes is suggestive of a growing crime problem that is seriously impacting homeowners nationally and in Miami-Dade County," Mazzella added.
Rosado and Rosenberg are charged with organized scheme to defraud and second-degree grand theft. Brantley is charged with filing a false document in a mortgage transaction and second-degree grand theft, while Brown is charged with being an accessory after the fact.
If convicted of all charges, Rosado faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison, Rosenberg faces up to 30 years in prison, Brantley faces up to 20 years in prison and Brown faces up to 5 years in prison.
New York Fines Cross Country Bank $9 Million
Bank will pay $9 million in restitution and penalties for engaging in fraudulent, deceptive and illegal practices01/25/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Cross Country Bank, to pay approximately $9 million in restitution and penalties for engaging in fraudulent, deceptive and illegal practices....
New York has ordered Cross Country Bank, one of the nation's largest subprime credit card issuers, to pay approximately $9 million in restitution and penalties for engaging in fraudulent, deceptive and illegal practices, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced.
The decision is the latest in a series of favorable court rulings that Spitzer has obtained against the bank. In June 2004, the late State Supreme Court Justice Joseph R. Cannizzaro ruled that Cross Country Bank and its debt collector, Applied Card Systems, both of Wilmington, Delaware, engaged in fraud, false advertising, deceptive business practices and abusive debt collection practices.
"This office will aggressively pursue any lender using false and deceptive promises to profit on the backs of consumers with poor or limited credit records," Spitzer said.
Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. McNamara, who was assigned the case after Justice Cannizzaro's death, ordered Cross Country Bank to pay nearly $8 million in civil penalties. The decision also orders the bank to pay restitution to thousands of New Yorkers injured by its fraudulent and illegal acts.
Justice Cannizzaro's June 2004 decision ordered Cross Country Bank and Applied Card Systems to halt all of the illegal practices cited in Spitzer's lawsuit and scheduled further proceedings to determine the amount of restitution and penalties. Last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued a unanimous opinion upholding that decision.
The Attorney General filed a lawsuit in 2003 alleging that Cross Country Bank used deceptive credit card solicitations to target consumers with poor credit records, offering credit lines of up to $2,500.
The vast majority of consumers, however, received only about $400 in credit, much of which was immediately applied to fees imposed by the bank, such as annual, application and monthly maintenance fees.
The effect of the limited credit lines and compounding fees and finance charges was to trap unwary consumers in a vicious cycle of pyramiding debt from which they could not escape.
As part of his lawsuit, the Attorney General also alleged that, after Cross Country Bank drove the cardholders into delinquency, its affiliate, Applied Credit Services, employed a variety of abusive and illegal collection techniques designed to harass cardholders into making a payment.
These unlawful tactics included:
• misrepresenting the caller's identity;
• making repeated, frequent and disruptive telephone calls;
• calling cardholders at their place of employment;
• using rude insulting and/or obscene language; and
• making false and improper threats.
In addition, the Attorney General alleged that Applied Card Systems debited payments from cardholders' accounts without authorization and misrepresented payoff amounts.
In ruling on the matter, Justice McNamara determined that a penalty of over $7.9 million was appropriate for Cross Country's fraudulent, deceptive and illegal practices. According to the judge, the penalty was warranted because "[the bank] engaged in a credit scheme, from solicitations to collections, to exploit the subprime market."
In assessing the size of the penalty, Justice McNamara considered several factors, including: the number of deceptive solicitations mailed to New York consumers; the number of New York account holders who exceeded their credit limits shortly after opening an account; the number of New York account holders who enrolled in a deceptive and valueless credit protection program; the number of New York account holders who complained of deceptive collection practices; and the enormous profit the bank made off of its victimized account holders.
Justice McNamara also ordered Cross Country Bank to refund more than $900,000 to consumers who: were assessed annual, origination, late and overlimit fees because they exceeded their credit limits within two months after opening their accounts; were enrolled in a credit protection program; paid fees to open secured credit card accounts; and/or were charged late or overlimit fees after being subjected to deceptive collection practices.
Post Office Job Ads Often Bogus
Want to work for the post office? Don't pay for information01/25/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Post Office Job Ads Often Bogus...
The Federal Trade Commission has charged an employment-opportunity scammer and his companies with marketing a fraudulent U.S. Postal Service (USPS) employment program.
According to the FTC, the defendants misrepresented through ads and telephone pitches that they were connected with or endorsed by the Postal Service; that postal jobs were available; that customers would receive study materials that would help them pass the postal entrance exam; and that customers who pass that exam were assured jobs with the Postal Service. In reality, none of these claims are true.
The defendants ran classified ads across the country, such as:
*ANNOUNCEMENT* HIRING for 2005 POSTAL POSITIONS $17.50-$59.00 Plus+ hour. Full benefits. Paid Training Vacations. No Experience Necessary. Green Card OK CALL 1-866-329-0801
The FTC claims the ads led consumers to believe the defendants were hiring for postal jobs and therefore connected with, or endorsed by, the USPS.
The agency charges that when consumers called the number in the classified ads, telemarketers told them they were affiliated with, or were, the USPS and that positions were available in the consumers area.
The telemarketers also promised that if consumers passed the required entrance exam, they would receive a job with the USPS. They then told consumers they must pay a registration fee to take the test necessary to obtain postal employment and to obtain materials that purportedly would help them pass the test. Prices ranged from $128.80 to $168.20.
Contrary to what was promised, the packages consumers received did not contain materials that would enable them to pass the postal employment exam or gain employment.
In fact, applicants for many entry-level postal jobs are required to take a postal examination, but the tests are not regularly offered and there are no job placement guarantees based on score.
Information on postal jobs is available at local post offices, and information about required exams is provided free of charge.
The FTCs complaint named as defendants Jeffrey Wayne Simmons (a/k/a Wayne Simmons, a/k/a Wayne Stevens) and his companies, Information Resources of Nashville, LLC and Career Services, LLC.
Canada Finds Another Case Of Mad Cow Disease
Food Safety Rules Inadequate, Consumers Union Charges01/24/2006ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Canada Finds Another Case Of Mad Cow Disease...
A fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has turned up in a Canadian cattle herd, according to Canadas Agriculture Minister, just days after Japan reinstated its ban of U.S. beef.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he doubts the finding will affect beef or cattle trade with Canada. But Consumers Union said that both current and proposed Food and Drug Administration animal feed rules are inadequate to protect the public health.
Consumers Union urged the FDA to act now to keep high-risk cattle parts that are most likely to spread the disease out of animal feed.
"This latest case of mad cow disease in Canada points to a significant North American mad cow problem," said Michael Hansen, a biologist with Consumers Union specializing in food safety.
The cow, reported to be six years old, was born after FDA's and Canada's current feed restrictions went into effect, indicating that the restrictions are not strong enough to prevent the spread of this brain-wasting disease.
Consumers Union, in comments submitted to FDA in December, noted that new research conducted in the United Kingdom shows that minuscule amounts of infected cattle material can, if fed to other cattle, transmit mad cow disease.
"Based on this new research, if just one infected cow entered the U.S. feed supply and the brain and spinal cord of that animal were maximally dispersed in feed, it could potentially infect 45,000 other cows," Hansen said. "That's why we have to be extremely vigilant about keeping any infected animal material out of feed and food."
FDA recently proposed prohibiting brains and spinal cords of cattle over 30 months in animal feed.
Consumers Union recommends keeping all mammalian material out of animal feed, as has been done in the UK, but urges that at least brains and spinal cords, and other risky materials such as intestines known as "specified risk material" from cattle over 12 months, be prohibited.
In addition, it urges FDA to close three loopholes -- for cattle blood, restaurant wastes, and chicken coop floor wastes -- as it promised to do two years ago.
Some American farmers are also concerned. Dave Frederickson, President of the National Farmers Union, said he is deeply disturbed by the report. Frederickson said he would urge Johanns to immediately suspend all Canadian cattle imports while the situation is investigated.
Japan Reinstates Ban
Japan, meanwhile, has reinstated its ban on U.S. beef after prohibited bone materials were found in a recent shipment of American veal, just weeks after the two-year ban had been lifted.
Japan's agriculture minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, met with U.S. officials and warned that the shipment of prohibited bone materials was an unacceptable mistake.
The government barred Brooklyn-based Atlantic Veal & Lamb, the plant that sent the shipment, from selling meat to Japan and Johanns said he would take action against the department inspector who cleared the shipment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened the border between the United States and Canada last summer, after a two-year closure, for all cattle under 30 months. Animals under 30 months seldom exhibit symptoms of mad cow disease, but can still incubate it.
Mad cow disease is believed to be transmitted through eating infected material. When Canadian cattle are slaughtered in the United States, they are processed like U.S. cows into meat for human consumption, as well as into pig, chicken and pet food.
"We must also increase the USDA surveillance program, which is testing just 1 percent of all animals slaughtered in the United States," Hansen said. "We think USDA should be testing all animals over 20 months at slaughter. But at a minimum, USDA should test all high-risk cattle, and all cattle from Western Canada, from the Pacific Northwest and from Texas, where cases have been identified."
"I appreciated the opportunity to speak with Canadian Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell today, who apprised me of the new BSE detection in Canada, Johanns said in a statement.
"I assured him that based on the information he supplied, I anticipate no change in the status of beef or live cattle imports to the U.S. from Canada under our established agreement. As I've said many times, our beef trade decisions follow internationally accepted guidelines that are based in science."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it confirmed the disease in a six year old cross-bred dairy brood cow born and raised in Alberta. The agency said the source of the infection was likely contaminated feed and that no part no part of the animal entered the human food or animal feed systems.
Johanns said USDA will work with Canadian authorities to evaluate the situation, and recommend changes, as warranted.
"I am confident in the safety of beef and in the safeguards we and our approved beef trading partners have in place to protect our food supply. We will continue to adhere to international guidelines in our relationships with all trading partners, and my hope continues to be that we achieve a system of science-based global beef trade," he said.
"Our beef trade decisions follow internationally accepted guidelines that are based in science."
Johanns said USDA will continue to evaluate the situation as the investigation continues. He has directed USDA to work with Canada and its investigative team. Minister Mitchell has reportedly pledged his full cooperation.
Home improvement issues continue to generate concern and complaints from Connecticut consumers01/24/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Home improvement issues continue to generate concern and complaints from Connecticut consumers, according to the state's Department of Consumer Protection....
NEUTRON Cordless Electric Lawnmowers Recalled01/23/2006ConsumerAffairs
NEUTRON Cordless Electric Lawnmowers Recalled...
January 23, 2006
Country Home Products is recalling about 15,700 of its 2005 Model NEUTON cordless electric lawnmowers because of a problem with the automatic shutoff.
When the handlebar is released on the recalled lawnmowers, the motor could continue to run, which causes the blade to continue to spin. In addition, there is excessive heat build up in the wire coil inside the housing and also in the safety key.
Country Home Products, Inc. has received nine total reports of incidents in which the mower and blade did not turn off when the handle was released, causing excessive heat built up in the internal wire brake coil and safety key. No injuries or property damage have been reported.
The recalled lawnmowers were sold under the NEUTON name and carry model number EM 4 1 NEUTON printed on the front portion of the lawnmower. The lawnmowers are two shades of green and have a 14-inch cutting width with rear bagging capability. The serial number ranges of the recalled mowers are CE04049212 through CE04054902 and CE04061492 through CE04071541. The serial number can be found by lifting the rear discharge guard of the mower. It is on a sticker on the lower left side of the mower housing.
The units were sold by mail orders, Web sites, and by gas-lawnmower exchange programs and through a small number of outdoor power equipment dealerships nationwide from February 2005 through June 2005 for about $400. NOTE: Not all mowers shipped during this time period are included in the recall. Only mowers within the specified serial number range are included.
Country Home Products, Inc. is sending all registered owners instructions on how to perform the free repair on these mowers.
Consumer Contact: For more information, contact Country Home Products, Inc. toll-free at (888) 294-5029, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET on Saturdays. Consumers also can view and download instructions from NEUTON Mower Equipments Web site at www.CEM-TechAlert.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Aussie views complain that those long days of cricket and tennis coverage on Channels 7 and 9 are leaving the stations' logos burned into expensive receivers01/23/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Aussie views complain that those long days of cricket and tennis coverage on Channels 7 and 9 are leaving the stations' logos burned into expensive receive...
Ameriquest, the nation's largest sub-prime lender, has agreed to pay $325 million01/23/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Ameriquest Settles Multi-State Probe: Ameriquest, the nation's largest sub-prime lender, has agreed to pay $325 million to settle a 49-state investigation....
Ford Trucks Spit Spark Plugs
Ignored by Ford, Truck Owners Face Massive Repair Bills01/23/2006ConsumerAffairs
Ford Trucks Spit Spark Plugs...
As Ford unveils its turnaround plan, it might want to turn around and examine a problem it's left in the dust: Ford F-series trucks built between 1999 and 2004 have a nasty habit -- they spit. Spark plugs, that is.
For years, consumers have complained about their trucks blowing spark plugs out of the aluminum cylinder head, leaving a hole in the head and rendering the $30,000 vehicle useless, often on the side of the road, until repaired.
Ford has never conceded that there's a problem.
Ford, facing a deepening financial crisis, is announcing a "comprehensive restructuring plan" today, a plan that will include plant closings and layoffs, as well as a "new look" for its minivans. Likely absent from this grand strategy is any plan to stand behind its products.
As they have been doing for years, Ford owners are snorting, spitting and suing. So far this month, more than a dozen have reported the F-series blown-spark-plug problem to ConsumerAffairs.com, adding their names to a list of hundreds who've reported similar incidents with Ford F-series trucks or SUVs.
Ashlee of Arizona was driving her 2001 Ford Expedition when a spark plug blew out.
"I thought I was the only one with this problem and then the second mechanic I took my vehicle to showed me all the complaints about this happening to other people that have the same motor in their vehicles," she wrote.
"Unbelievable" is Ashlees description of her experience with a Ford truck product.
A Reputation Wrecked
The mighty F-series once enjoyed a reputation as solid work trucks that were dependable and capable of almost any task.
Ford truck owners, however, continue to tell ConsumerAffairs.com that the V-10 and 5.4 liter Triton V-8 are so poorly designed that the spark plug in the number three cylinder of both engines can -- and often does -- blow right out of its socket.
Some Ford truck owners have experienced the problem more than once. Some have replaced the expensive all-aluminum cylinder head only to have the plug blow out again down the road. Others have had the same problem in more than one vehicle.
"I have a 1999 F-150 and just blew a second spark plug on December 31, 2005 while traveling to Nevada," Paul wrote. "I was shocked to learn that my truck will cost $2,800 per head."
Ford refuses to stand behind the product, even when the owner has purchased the expensive extended warranty. Ford insists the problem is with the spark plug and says that spark plugs are not covered by the extended warranty.
Todd heard that explanation from his Ford dealer in Ohio.
"The local Ford dealer told me that there is no problem with the design and my extended warranty does not cover spark plugs so it would cost me $3,850 to put a new head in," Todd wrote. "What I do not understand is the fact that the spark plug did not break, it blew out of my engine! How is that not covered?"
Groovy? Not Quite
Mechanics who have worked on Ford engines damaged by blown spark plugs say there are too few threads machined into the number three cylinder spark plug hole inside the aluminum cylinder head.
The mechanics report that there are sometimes as few as three revolutions of grooves and that is probably not enough to hold the plugs when they are under stress.
"I have a 2000 Ford F-150 5.4 Triton with approx 85,000 miles on it," John wrote us from California. "It has launched a spark plug from the right rear cylinder and there are no threads left."
Ford dealerships are charging between $2,000 and $5,000 to repair the damage caused by the blown spark plug, according to consumer information and complaints.
Despite a petition detailing the issue, federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have declined to address the problem.
Other than to deny the warranty claims, Ford has no comment on the issue either.
A federally mandated recall would have devastating financial implications for Ford because 17 million SUVs, pickups, Crown Victorias and Mustangs are potentially involved.
Recalling the vehicles to fix the cylinder heads would generate the largest, most labor intensive and perhaps most expensive recall in automotive history.
Blowing Away Customers
On the other hand, American automakers are steadily losing market share to Asian brands, at least partly because U.S.-made vehicles are no longer regarded as being as sturdy and reliable as their Japanese competitors.
Similarly, American automakers are steadily acquiring a reputation for stonewalling consumers who run into expensive problems with their U.S.-made cars and trucks. Ford, in particular, has steadfastly refused to fix a lengthy string of calamitous problems, including:
• The 3.8L V-6 Engine Used in the Windstar and other models, this all-aluminum engine tended to blow its head gasket every 60,000 miles or so. Ford finally issued an extended warranty to some owners but squeaked out of a class action suit that would most likely have resulted in a more stringent settlement.
• Flaming Fords For years, Ford ignored the tendency of the F-150 and similar models to spontaneously burst into flames while parked with the engine off. Finally, in 2005, it issued a recall, although parts shortages have slowed its completion.
• Crown Victoria Fires Police departments nationwide complained, filed suit and looked for alternatives to the popular but explosive Crown Vic. Ford insists that putting the gas tank behind the axle isn't dangerous but try telling that to those who've been killed or seriously burned when their cars exploded after being rear-ended.
Can Ford really afford to ignore problems and mistreat its faithful customers in this manner? Slick advertising campaigns and promises of green machines to come may not be enough to overcome the wrath and unending fury of consumers who have been hung out to dry by products they consider defective and a corporate response that amounts to a curt dismissal.
Ford's North American car and truck business is already bleeding money. Even though the company showed an overall profit, Ford lost $1.4 billion in North America before taxes during the first nine months of 2005.
The financial downside of such a vast recall along with the labor-intensive nature of the necessary repair suggest Ford will fight long and hard before admitting a manufacturing or design flaw has anything to do with the long list of blown number three cylinder spark plugs.
On the other hand, the reason Ford is losing money is not that it spends too much to build vehicles and fulfill its warranty commitments. It is losing money because it is not selling enough vehicles to cover its fixed costs.
Last week's R. L. Polk & Co. Loyalty Survey found Toyota bumping Ford from the #1 spot, ending Ford's nine-year reign.
Large manufacturing plants must operate close to or at capacity to be profitable. Most auto executives would agree that what Ford needs to become profitable is to sell more cars and trucks -- not to further alienate what remains of its customer base by making its consumers pay the tab for Ford's oversights.
When it announces its "turnaround" plan today, Ford is likely to announce a "new direction" for its sluggish minivan lineup.
The company's expected to move away from the traditional minivan look, characterized by sliding doors and a truck platform, and pursue a design similar to the car-like Fairlane concept wagon that it revealed at the Detroit auto show last year, Automotive News reported.
Illinois Sues Company Selling Cell Phone Calling Records
Illegal Sales Endanger Law Enforcement, Domestic Abuse Victims01/22/2006ConsumerAffairs
Illinois Sues Company Selling Cell Phone Calling Records...
Identifying such abuse as "privacy theft," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has sued a Florida company that for roughly $100 and a cell phone number will use allegedly illegal means to access an individual's cell phone or land line records.
Madigan filed the complaint against 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc., d/b/a locatecell.com, celltolls.com, datafind.org and peoplesearchamerica.com. The company is located in Tamarac, Florida.
Madigan, who subpoenaed locatecell.com approximately two weeks ago, sued the defendants under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.
"This entire enterprise is an outrageous invasion of personal privacy that could put lives in danger," Madigan said. "The possibility of harm from this 'service' to victims of domestic violence and law enforcement is enormous. As Attorney General, I will do everything in my power to stop this abuse."
Madigan's complaint alleges that 1st Source made misrepresentations to telecommunications companies to obtain phone records by calling companies and posing as the customers, agents or employees of the company; made misrepresentations to telecommunication companies online by posing as consumers to gain unauthorized access to online accounts; sold phone records illegally obtained; and misrepresented to consumers via the Web sites that they had legally obtained the call records.
Madigan said the defendants only need to be provided with a third party's cell phone or land line telephone number to achieve their goal of obtaining the cell phone records. In fact, some of the sites offer a discount if the customer includes the consumer's name and address along with the cell or land line number.
Using this information, defendants will provide up to 100 outgoing calls with dates within the most recent billing cycle. Defendants will also provide incoming calls if possible. Some Web sites have options to purchase additional information such as call times and duration.
The defendants can use the information they provide in a number of ways: defendants can offer a reverse look up service for both cell and land line numbers; a customer can look at the outgoing calls provided by defendants and then have the defendants turn that phone number into a name and address: both land line and cell phone reverse look up tools are available for free on the Internet.
In filing her complaint, Madigan cited recent examples of cell phone record abuse.
On January 6, 2006, a Chicago police official used locatecell.com to obtain the call records on an undercover narcotics telephone number and received accurate call records within four hours of the request.
In a separate incident in California on September 8, 2005, according to a Cingular affidavit filed in its litigation against 1st Source, during an undercover buy, defendants or their agents posed as an employee/agent of Cingular and as a customer of Cingular to induce Cingular's customer service representative to provide them with the call records of the targeted consumer.
In her complaint, Madigan also noted the "come-on" nature of the advertising for the data broker service, including Web sites that stated, "No data returned, No Charge for the Search;" "RESULTS WITHIN 1 TO 4 HOURS!! No Hit No Charge!" and "Reverse Cell Phone Number to Name and Address."
The complaint seeks to prohibit the defendants from operating in Illinois and seeks civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.
MovieLand Denies It Pipes Spyware Onto Users' Computers01/22/2006ConsumerAffairs
MovieLand Denies It Pipes Spyware Onto Users' Computers...
Movieland.com is shaping up as the latest skirmish in the battle between adware sites and Web surfers over who has control of your computer. The company denies its critics' charges that it stealthily implants intrusive software on consumers' computers.
Movieland's Web site claims to offer legal downloads of movies, music and other files right to your desktop. But its critics say what it really offers are annoying adware and invasive pop-up windows that can't be removed without manually tampering with your machine's registry, a treacherous undertaking.
The Movieland site offers a three-day "free trial" download for viewers wanting to test the software. According to the company's terms of service, unless you cancel the service during the three-day period, the company will bill you $29.95 a month.
But Web surfers who say they have never visited the Movieland site or downloaded the software report that they found the company's pop-up windows on their machines anyway, often after downloading another free utility or screensaver elsewhere.
"I am receiving pop-up video from movieland.com that tell me I'm 'legally obligated to pay, now that your free trial is up' and I never ordered anything from the Website," said Michael of Wheeling, W.V., in an October 2005 complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com
"This video overrides all other functions on my computer until it is finished and the reminder keeps coming back every day," he said.
The pop-up windows repeatedly admonish the user that they are violating the terms of service agreement with Movieland, and advise that they need to pay money in order to stop the pop-ups from appearing. A link is provided to offer the consumer's credit card information.
Such was the situation facing ConsumerAffairs.com reader B. Armstrong of Modesto, Calif., who downloaded Movieland but denied using it during the trial period.
"[T]hey install ... many 'cookies' during the 'free, no-obligation test period' that prevent you from terminating your service without 'their electronic CS approval'," Armstrong said.
"There is no phone to call, no cities listed, no support per se, just every 10 minutes an irritating popup with a video woman that comes on to tell you that you've breached their contract and that owe them money. Once again...nothing was ever downloaded and I wasn't a customer."
The company disputes Armstrong's version of events.
"It is impossible to receive our payment reminders (an anti-fraud mechanism) without intentionally downloading our software. We are happy to provide you with screen captures of each and every step of the download process," the company said in an email from an unnamed company representative. No screen captures had been provided as of this writing, however.
"There is no adware utility that 'automatically inserts itself.' Our software is downloaded manually by they (sic) consumer through several intentional steps. Each step has a default setting to 'cancel.' Further, there are no extrinsic programs (adware or otherwise) bundled with our software," the company's statement said.
Nevertheless, consumers complain that, once on a user's computer, the software is very difficult to get rid of. The company disputes that. "The Movieland software is not 'very difficult to get rid of' it can be removed through add/delete programs," the company said.
A Not Uncommon Problem
So apparently pervasive is the problem that companies are buying advertisements to offer removal remedies.
"Remove Movieland Now" is the headline on a paid advertisement that sometimes appears atop Google searches on the word "Movieland." The advertisement from PareToLogic.com offers a program called XoftSpy, which claims to remove adware, spyware and pests.
"Annoyed with Nag Popups?" reads another Google ad, this one placed by SoftwareVictoria.com. "Movieland's nagware is on the rise," the company's home page says.
A Yahoo search on the term "Movieland" produces a list of other suggested search terms, beginning with "remove Movieland" and "uninstall Movieland." "Remove Movieland Adware Now" reads a Yahoo advertisement from WhichAdRemover.com.
There are also several do-it-yourself solutions to be found on the Web.
Readers of spyware fighter Mike Healan's SpywareInfo.com forums pieced together some viable solutions for getting rid of Movieland without destroying your computer.
Wyoming Internet service provider Visionary Communications has a detailed series of instructions for getting rid of the Movieland pop-ups.
The do-it-yourself sites and the advertisements for paid removal services lend credence to complainants' claims that the software is difficult to remove, as does the company's own Web site.
According to Movieland's "Customer Service" page, a user who wants to uninstall MediaPipe has to enter his computer's registry to procure the "Customer ID" number.
Manually editing the registry can cause difficulties in the computer's everyday operation, and most experts advise users not to tamper with the registry without specific instructions or experience.
Movieland's Terms of Service state: "Uninstalling the MediaPipe software will not cancel you out of your trial offer." The company insists the payment reminders are legitimate.
"The payment reminders issue ONLY if a consumer exceeds the free trial period and are stopped immediately upon receipt of payment. The payment reminders are an anti-fraud mechanism and in full compliance with state and federal law," the company's anonymous statement said.
Movieland's download service is powered by MediaPipe, a utility that automatically inserts itself onto a user's machine when the user clicks on a Movieland-supported link.
MediaPipe has become so notorious among privacy advocates that companies with similar names have posted disclaimers stating that they aren't related to it.
The MediaPipeLine video production company posted a message saying that "Movieland.com is perpetuating a scam of putting an installer on pornographic and [hacker] sites that [tricks the user] into installing the application on their systems."
SourceForge, a software development company which makes a Mac OS X program called MediaPipe, carries a prominent statement at the top of its homepage, reading: "We are not affiliated with Movieland (and have nothing to do with them!)."
As far as Movieland itself, the site's parent company is advertised as both Digital Enterprises and Integrated Enteprises, reportedly based in southern California. The company's statement did not include any information on the company's headquarters or officers.
When contacted last week by ConsumerAffairs.com for comments on why their programs were causing users so much trouble, Movieland claimed it would only address the matter with customers.
A person who identified herself as Andrea, a customer service representative, said, "You need to be a customer and have a customer ID to get help from customer service."
And of course, in order to get a customer ID, a user has to download the service and agree to the terms and conditions, including the regular monthly charges.
Most experts agree that the best way to avoid problems with adware sites is to not download any free services onto your computer without verifying they're legitimate first.
Most importantly, never give out your credit card information through adware pop-ups, as the odds are better than good that you're being taken for a ride.
As Visionary's John Wiltbank said, "Movieland is spyware. In other words, it's a bad program that you should get rid of."
In its unsigned statement objecting to ConsumerAffairs.com's reports, Movieland concluded:
We require you to retract or remove this article immediately. We remain hopeful that this matter can be resolved without filing suit against you for libel, tortious interference with contract, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and violation of California Civil Code Section 17200.
New York Talent Agency Agrees to Refunds
The state of New York has reached a settlement with The New Faces Development Center01/20/2006ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Under the settlement, New Faces will pay the state $75,000 in penalties and $2,000 in costs, and up to $500,000 in restitution to aggrieved consumers....
The state of New York has reached a settlement with The New Faces Development Center, which was cited for making deceptive, and exaggerated claims about the services it provided to aspiring models and actors.
Under the settlement, New Faces will pay the state $75,000 in penalties and $2,000 in costs, and up to $500,000 in restitution to aggrieved consumers.
New Faces, based in Hicksville, claimed that it provided talent management services including industry placement and training, and that it was highly selective in scouting, screening and reviewing young people for potential as models and actors.
However, New Faces is not a modeling agency and rarely obtained modeling or acting employment for its clients.
It principally provided photographic services and for an additional fee, posted photographic images on its website, Gigacomps.com, presumably to promote its clients to industry professionals.
"This company appealed to the desires of children, teenagers and young adults to become 'stars.' Parents believed New Faces' misrepresentations that their children would have lucrative futures as working models or actors," Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said. "Model and acting development centers and photo studios should only promise what they can actually deliver."
New Faces' "talent scouts" are accused of approaching consumers, usually children, teenagers and young adults, in public places such as the Roosevelt Field shopping mall, Jones Beach and concert halls.
The scouts led youngsters to believe that they had been scouted because they have a "look" that made them likely to succeed as models and actors. They were told that they would incur no costs and should contact a "Director" at New Faces to schedule an evaluation.
According to the allegations, those who met with a director were led to believe that only a few of those interviewed were actually offered an opportunity with the company, that they must sign a "photo shoot agreement" that same day, and pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get started.
In truth, New Faces was not highly selective about whom it scouted or signed to photo shoot agreements. New Faces sometimes even extracted additional money from its clients by directing them for additional services to its affiliated companies, including Gigacomps.com, Vanique and Nijah Productions.
Prior to the settlement, the Attorney General's Office, the Better Business Bureau and the Nassau County Department of Consumer Affairs had received approximately 55 complaints against New Faces.
New Faces also has agreed make changes to its business practices and to comply fully with New York State Law. The company will retain relevant records for inspection by the Attorney General's office.
Consumers Cautioned About Flood-Damaged Vehicles
Free Database Lists Cars Known to be Damaged01/20/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Some sellers may try to scam the buyer by concealing the car's water damage, and the buyer would end up with a car that has serious problems caused by the ...
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has issued a consumer alert cautioning consumers against buying used vehicles that may have been flood-damaged by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
As many as 600,000 vehicles throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida may have been affected by the storms and are now being shipped to other states by auto wholesalers.
A flooded car is the personal property of the owner and it is not illegal to sell it, but both the buyer and the seller should be aware that the car has been flooded.
Some sellers may try to scam the buyer by concealing the car's water damage, and the buyer would end up with a car that has serious problems caused by the floodwater.
"Citizens should be extra careful when buying an automobile, especially a used car," said Crist. "By concealing the damage, unethical individuals can pass a car off as a good bargain, when in fact it is nothing more than a water-soaked lemon. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is."
Safety is one of the primary concerns when buying a flood-damaged car. An unsuspecting buyer could be stuck with a car that does not function properly and could place them and their loved ones in serious danger.
Common problems with flood cars include engines, anti-lock brake systems and airbag systems that may malfunction, ruined electrical components and mold and mildew throughout the air conditioner and heating systems.
Several services are available for consumers and auto dealers to check Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) to help determine if a particular vehicle has a flood-damage record.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau has compiled a database of vehicles affected by the hurricanes, which can be searched by the public free of charge. The database is available at www.nicb.org.
In addition, Carfax is helping protect unsuspecting buyers by making all of its flood information available to consumers and dealers free of charge at www.carfax.com/flood.
Crist said consumers and dealers should be wary of someone trying to sell a car for well below the retail value. One obvious sign is a moldy smell from the seats and carpeting, although determined rip-off artists can conceal this through new carpeting and interior components. Sand, silt and salt under the carpeting is another indication that the car may be a flood car.
Buyers should also check the engine compartment, trunk, and inner doors for silt and be aware of any electrical problems that recur or change on a daily basis.
Latex, Latex Everywhere: Danger to Allergy Sufferers Grows with Wider Use of Latex Gloves
Danger to Allergy Sufferers Grows with Wider Use of Latex Gloves01/20/2006ConsumerAffairs
Latex, Latex Everywhere: Danger to Allergy Sufferers Grows with Wider Use of Latex Gloves...
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine is throwing a scare into allergists who treat patients with latex allergy.
The article recounts the experience of a female dentist who was allergic to latex. When she wore latex gloves, she developed a rash and trouble breathing. Then she started having trouble in restaurants.
The dentist would eat a restaurant selection that hadn't caused her trouble at home and unexpectedly develop a severe allergic reaction.
Was it the food or the latex gloves the food handler wore? Researchers determined it was the gloves.
Researchers gave the dentist untouched orange juice and orange juice stirred by a latex-gloved finger. She developed a serious allergic reaction including trouble breathing from the juice stirred by the single latex-clad finger.
Conclusion: A lot of unsuspecting people may have a reaction to a tiny amount of latex in a setting that wouldn't normally provide any clues that danger was lurking.
The problem is pretty easy to diagnose: if you touch an eraser, a bicycle handle or a latex glove and have an allergic reaction or if you react positively to a skin or blood test, you're at risk of a serious reaction.
Patient and doctor need to carefully consider the problem in settings that you wouldn't normally suspect.
Toyota Prius TopsConsumer ReportsMileage Tests01/20/2006ConsumerAffairs
Toyota Prius Tops <em>Consumer Reports</em> Mileage Tests...
The Toyota Prius turned in the best gas mileage in a Consumer Reports test of cars, trucks, minivans and wagons, getting 44 miles per gallon in a series of tests intended to determine real-world fuel consumption.
The Dodge Ram 1500 SLT with a 5.7-liter engine got the worst mileage: 11 miles per gallon.
Consumer Reports engineers run vehicles through a series of tests to determine real-world fuel economy numbers for city, highway, and overall fuel consumption. Those numbers can help the consumer determine which vehicle may best suit his or her needs, and household budget.
"Fuel costs for a full-size pickup truck or sport-utility vehicle can easily cost you thousands of dollars per year," said Consumer Reports' Automotive Editor Rik Paul.
"Fuel costs need to be factored in by new-car buyers along with such other key factors as the vehicle's purchase price, performance, safety, insurance cost, and predicted reliability."
Consumers Reports' best and worst in fuel economy lists are based on overall miles-per-gallon (mpg) performance in CR's real world fuel economy tests. The best and worst vehicles selected are the most notable standouts from each vehicle category.
Here's a quick look at the best and worst in each category from among all the vehicles CR has tested based on overall mpg ratings:
Ford Escape Hybrid, 26 mpg;
Honda CR-V EX, 21 mpg;
Subaru Forester 2.5X, 21 mpg.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (6- cyl.), 14 mpg;
Jeep Liberty Sport (V6), 15 mpg;
Kia Sorento EX (V6), 15 mpg.
Lexus RX400h, 23 mpg;
Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited, 22 mpg;
Nissan Murano SL, 19 mpg.
Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT LT (V6), 13 mpg;
Land Rover LR3 SE (V8), 13 mpg;
Hummer H3, 14 mpg.
CR's testing results showed no vehicles with unusually good ratings for fuel economy in this category.
Dodge Durango Limited (5.7), 12 mpg;
Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer, 12 mpg;
Chevrolet Suburban LT, 13 mpg.
Subaru Baja (4-cyl.), 20 mpg;
Toyota Tacoma (V6), 17 mpg;
Chevrolet Colorado LS (5-cyl.), 16 mpg.
Dodge Ram 1500 SLT (5.7), 11 mpg;
Dodge Ram 1500 SLT (4.7), 12 mpg;
Chevrolet Avalanche (5.3), 13 mpg.
Wagons & Hatchbacks
Toyota Prius, 44 mpg;
Scion xB (AT), 30 mpg;
Pontiac Vibe (FWD), 27 mpg.
Volvo XC70, 18 mpg;
Dodge Magnum SXT (V6), 19 mpg;
Mazda6 s (V6), 19 mpg.
Honda Odyssey EX, 19 mpg;
Mazda MPV LX, 19 mpg;
Toyota Sienna XLE, 19 mpg.
CR's testing results showed no vehicles with unusually poor ratings for fuel economy in this category. >/p>
Consumer Reports' overall fuel economy results are calculated by an equally weighted average of city, highway and one-day trip mpg ratings.
CR's city mpg tests are stop-and-go driving simulations, which have 18 stops, a total of 4 minutes of idle time, and speeds up to 40 mph. CR's highway mpg tests are run on a section of highway near CR's testing facility.
Two testers make eight 5-mile runs at a constant 65 mph. The tests are run in both directions to limit the effects of wind and grade differences. CR's one-day trip test represents a mixed driving cycle.
Five different engineers drive vehicles back-to-back on the same day over a 31-mile route that includes 26 percent freeway, 11 percent highway, and 63 percent stop-and go-driving conditions.
Digital Revolution Too Much For Konica Minolta
Konica Minolta, a major player for decades in camera and photo technology, has announced it's getting out of the camera business01/19/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Digital Revolution Too Much For Konica Minolta...
Konica Minolta, a major player for decades in camera and photo technology, has announced it's getting out of the camera business. The company said it is a victim of the fast-developing trend of digital photography.
"In today's era of digital cameras, where image sensor technologies such as CCD is indispensable, it became difficult to timely provide competitive products even with our top optical, mechanical and electronics technologies," the company said in a statement.
Konica Minolta produced Japan's first photographic paper in 1903, and Japan's first color film in 1940. In 1984, it introduced the world's first compact washless photofinishing system known as a minilab system. The minilabs contributed to the expansion of worldwide photographic market by making photos closer to consumers and amazingly shortening delivery time.
But not short enough.
The company concedes it was caught off guard by the surge in digital photography that shrank the market for traditional silver-halide photography services and products. Its profits plunged in recent years, to the point that company officials decided last November to restructure the company.
Konica Minolta will transfer its camera business to Sony, which will use some of the company's lens and mechanical technologies in its line of digital cameras. The company will withdraw from both the film and digital camera business effective March 31.
Company officials said they hoped to salvage the photo business by scaling it back, but concluded that profits are just drying up too quickly.
"For color film and color paper, while considering our customer needs, we will step-by-step reduce product lineup and cease our color film and color paper production by the end of fiscal year ending March 31, 2007," the company said.
Konica Minolta will shutter its minilab business later this year. Another firm, Noritsu Koki Co., Ltd., will provide maintenance and customer services, the company added.
Ever wondered what happened to them after graduation? From what our readers tell us, they all got jobs behind the counter at Victoria's Secret....
Scammers Posing As Marines Offer Mountains of Cash01/18/2006ConsumerAffairs
Scammers Posing As Marines Offer Mountains of Cash...
Computer security experts say the old Nigerian "prince" scam is making the email rounds again, but this time the deposed "prince" has been replaced by a U.S. Marine. They say the objective is the same to get recipients to reveal bank account information.
Officials at the Internet security firm Sophos say they have intercepted a sudden burst of spam emails, purportedly from a Sergeant Richard Murphy of the "Military Engineering Unit" in Iraq.
In a variation of whats known as the standard 419 scam, the email promises the recipients mountains of cash if they turn over bank account information, and pay some "processing" fees along the way.
"We have about $15 Million US dollars that we want to move out of the country. My colleagues and I need a good partner, someone we can trust. This is a risk free and legal business (oil money)," the message reads.
In years past, anyone with an email account could count of getting regular correspondence from a Nigerian "prince," whose family had been deposed in a coup and who was desperately trying to smuggle the family loot to the U.S. Security experts say scammers simply "freshen" their approaches from time to time, and often follow the headlines.
FTC Fines Tooth-Whitener, Weight-Loss Patch Telemarketers
A telemarketing operation selling tooth-whitening kits and weight-loss patches will pay $463,00001/18/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
FTC Fines Tooth-Whitener, Weight-Loss Patch Telemarketers...
A telemarketing operation selling tooth-whitening kits and weight-loss patches will pay $463,000 in consumer redress and $11,000 in civil penalties to settle Federal Trade Commission charges.
The FTC charged that the defendants promised "free" samples of the tooth whitening kits, then debited consumers' accounts without their authorization. The FTC further alleged that the defendants made false and unsubstantiated claims about their weight-loss patches and called consumers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry.
The FTC's amended complaint included seven counts of law violations against defendants Conversion Marketing, Inc. and Adam Tyler MacDonald.
According to the FTC, the defendants falsely represented that consumers would get free samples of the Fast White tooth whitening kit, but instead enrolled them in programs where consumers would continue to receive monthly shipments. The defendants then billed consumers without their express, informed consent.
The FTC also charged the defendants with making false and unsubstantiated claims that their weight-loss patches, Pounds Off Patch and Carbs Off Patch, cause substantial weight loss: in all users; when applied to skin; and by blocking the absorption of carbohydrates.
The Commission has referred a second complaint to the Department of Justice for filing, charging that the defendants called numbers listed on the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry, abandoned calls placed to consumers, and did not pay the required annual fee to access numbers on the Registry.
To settle the charges in the complaint filed by the FTC, the defendants are prohibited from misrepresenting any material fact in connection with the sale of a product or service, including: that consumers can obtain a free product or service; that products or services are offered at no obligation; the existence, amount, or manner of assessment of any charge; the length of any trial period; the terms of any refund program; that defendants do or do not possess consumers' billing information; or that consumers agreed to a purchase.
Also, the defendants must clearly and conspicuously disclose all fees, costs, cancellation terms, material conditions, limitations, and refund terms, and the material terms of any negative option offer before they ask consumers to disclose billing information. Before submitting billing information for payment, the defendants must have the express, informed consent of the consumers.
The settlement prohibits the weight-loss misrepresentations alleged in the Commission's complaint as well as violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The settlement contains a $979,204 judgment, which is suspended based on inability to pay, except for $463,000.
To settle charges in the Do Not Call complaint, the defendants are prohibited from calling consumers who have placed their numbers on the DNC Registry or who placed themselves on the defendants' company-specific DNC list.
They also are prohibited from abandoning telemarketing calls and from calling a telephone number in any area code without first paying the DNC access fee. The settlement, which has been referred to the Department of Justice for filing, contains a $580,056 civil penalty, which is suspended except for $11,000.
Congress May Act; FCC and FTC Have Not01/17/2006ConsumerAffairs
The news that companies can access any cell phone customers' records and sell them to third parties online has provoked a flurry of criticism and calls for...
Head Lice Shampoo Linked To Leukemia01/17/2006ConsumerAffairs
French scientists are warning parents not to use chemical shampoos to rid their children of head lice. The results, they say, could be an increased risk of...
French scientists are warning parents not to use chemical shampoos to rid their children of head lice. The results, they say, could be an increased risk of developing leukemia.
The French research group INSERM conducted the study, looking at 280 children who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia. Their mothers were interviewed on a number of subjects, including any use of insecticidal shampoos, as well as the use of pesticides and fungicides in the home and garden.
Based on responses to the interview questions, scientists said they can conclude that using insecticidal shampoos could almost double the risk of developing leukemia. They also found the risk of developing the disease was almost twice as likely in children whose mothers said they had used insecticides in the home while pregnant and after birth.
The research did not specify any of the lice shampoo brands used by the children, but cited ingredients such as malathion, pyrethroid and lindane which are often in such products.
Leukemia is a malignant disease of the bone marrow and blood. It is characterized by the uncontrolled accumulation of blood cells. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates there were nearly 35,000 new cases of leukemia in the United States in 2005. Most cases occur in older adults, with more than half of all cases occurring after age 67.
Evil Twin Attacks at Wireless Hotspots01/17/2006ConsumerAffairs
When people are using wireless networks found in public places such as shops and cyber cafes, attackers can mimic the characteristics of the legitimate wir...
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is warning consumers about a security threat to wireless hotspot users.
When people are using wireless networks found in public places such as shops and cyber cafes, attackers can mimic the characteristics of the legitimate wireless network. As a result, hotspot users can unknowingly connect to the attacker's computer (sometimes referred to as an "Evil Twin") instead of the intended wireless network.
Madigan said that attackers operating Evil Twins can hijack data, such as passwords and credit card information, and deploy malicious computer codes. Evil Twins even can control which Web site appears when the user accesses the Internet, often mimicking the user's intended Web site to capture their private information.
"An 'Evil Twin' can rob a computer user of personal and financial information instead of providing a safe connection to the Internet," Madigan said. "By taking precautions, wireless hotspot users can decrease their chances of having a run-in with an Evil Twin."
Madigan recommended that wireless network users exercise caution and provided the following list of precautionary steps to help users avoid becoming victims of wireless network attacks:
Disable your laptop's wireless card unless you are planning to use it;
If you decide to use a public wireless connection, ask the provider for the exact name of its wireless network (also called a "SSID"). Be cautious of similarly named wireless networks, especially those using network names indicating that access is free when a public provider in the same location requires a service fee;
Do not configure your computer to auto-connect to a non-preferred wireless access point;
Avoid sending sensitive information when using a wireless network;
Use a personal firewall, keep your software and operating system updated and turn off file sharing;
Use hotspot providers that provide secure encrypted connections and a list of trusted hotspot locations. If you are not sure whether a wireless connection is secure, assume you are using an "open" hotspot and that as a result, all of your communications to and from the wireless network can be monitored;
If you must use an open hotspot for sensitive communication (e.g., reading email, making online purchases, etc.) make sure the Web site you are using supports SSL or other types of secure connections. A padlock symbol appears in Web browsers when users communicate with a secure Web site; and
Be aware of your environment. Crowded public hotspots increase your risk of being a victim of a wireless attack. Additionally, try to prevent other people around you from reading sensitive information appearing on your computer screen.
Separating The Work At Home Opportunities From The Scams01/15/2006ConsumerAffairs
Separating The Work At Home Opportunities From The Scams...
People who dream of working for themselves in a home-based business have plenty of business opportunities to choose from. Unfortunately, they also have to sort out the legitimate opportunities from the growing number of scams.
Online scams are being created on a daily basis. They usually promise something that sounds too good to be true. Regardless, consumer advocates say people keep spending money on them without getting any results as promised by the promoters.
The demand for running a home business is also growing exponentially. Everyday entrepreneurs keep searching through Google, Yahoo, and MSN for of ideas, and opportunities.
But how can consumers avoid thef Internet scams? Scam investigators say most people are victims of their own greediness and that's what makes the scam artists successful with selling their information.
There are simple steps consumers can take to protect themselves from being cheated.
Always do research on the website or business opportunity you want to participate in.
Do a search on Google for the domain name and include words: scam, review
Contact the website owner and evaluate the way he handles you as a customer.
Following the steps above should decrease the chance of people being cheated out of their money for worthless home business idea.
FDA Warns Brazilian Diet Pills May Be Dangerous01/15/2006ConsumerAffairs
FDA Warns Brazilian Diet Pills May Be Dangerous...
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to use two unapproved drug products that are being marketed as dietary supplements for weight loss.
Emagrece Sim Dietary Supplement, also known as the Brazilian Diet Pill and Herbathin Dietary Supplement may contain several active ingredients, including controlled substances, found in prescription drugs that could lead to serious side effects or injury.
Both products are made in Brazil by Fitoterapicos (also spelled Fytoterapicos) and Phytotherm Sim.
Consumers are advised not to use the Emagrece Sim and Herbathin products and to return them to the suppliers. There may be other manufacturers or suppliers of imported Emagrece Sim and Herbathin, and consumers should exercise caution in using any of these imported products.
"There are dangers to consumers who purchase diet pills that contain drugs of unknown origin and quality," said Dr. Steven Galson, Director of FDAs Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "These products are not approved by FDA and if people experience side effects, it is difficult to trace problems and for physicians to treat them."
Emagrece Sim and Herbathin are labeled as "dietary supplements", but they contain prescription drugs, including several controlled substances that, if not used properly as prescribed by a physician, can be harmful.
They contain chlordiazepoxide HCl (the active ingredient in Librium), and fluoxetine HCl (the active ingredient in Prozac).
Chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium) is used to relieve anxiety and to control the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. It may be habit forming, and can cause drowsiness and dizziness and impair the ability to drive.
Fluoxetine HCl (Prozac) is an anti-depressant medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and bulimia. It has been linked to several serious drug interactions and certain serious adverse events, including suicidal thinking and behaviors in pediatric patients, anxiety and insomnia, and abnormal bleeding.
These drugs should only be taken by patients who are under the supervision of a health care provider.
Emagrece Sim and Herbathin were also found to contain Fenproporex, a stimulant that is not approved for marketing in the United States.
Fenproporex is converted in the body to amphetamine, and as a result has been noted to show up in urinalysis as a positive test for amphetamines.
Emagrece Sim and Herbathin are sold in packages containing one bottle of Formula 1 capsules and one bottle of Formula 2 capsules. Both products are available in five levels (Levels 1-5), and the product labels instruct consumers to begin with Level 1 and continue to the higher levels until they lose the desired amount of weight.
Emagrece Sim also has a "Weight Stabilizer" package containing Formula 1 and Formula 2 capsules, to be used after the desired weight loss has been achieved.
The products are offered for sale on the Internet. They are also imported and distributed by Emagrece Sim Laboratories, Inc., Miami, FL., and Herbathin, Inc. (dba EMIEX Corp), Miami, Florida.
Credit card fraud is on the rise, with thieves stealing numbers and making millions of dollars of purchases01/14/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Three Ways To Avoid Credit Card Fraud...
Phishing Fraudsters Prey on Identity Theft Fears01/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
Phishing Fraudsters Prey on Identity Theft Fears...
Scam artists are now trying to cash in on the national paranoia over identity theft by luring victims with a phony warning that they may already be the victims of identity theft, according to the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB).
The latest example of this new ruse is a "phishing" email, claiming to be from Chase Bank. This phony email warns Chase customers that someone tried to access their bank account from a "foreign" Internet address.
"This bogus email instructs consumers to correct the situation by linking to a website where, in fact, they can become ID theft victims," said Teresa A. Santiago, Chairman and Executive Director of the CPB. "ID thieves are using every trick in the book to fool people into disclosing passwords, bank account numbers and other personal information."
Any Chase customer who has responded to this or similar emails should send an email to Chase's fraud investigators at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chase is also warning consumers about this and similar email scams, saying the bank does not send threatening emails or messages asking for personal information.
Santiago said consumers should ignore emails claiming to be a warning or security alert about a bank account, EBay account or any other account. Legitimate companies do not send these kinds of warnings via email, the Chairperson said.
"Identity Theft has become a multi-billion-dollar business. Consumers shouldn't contribute to the problem by blindly handing over personal financial information to scam artists. Consumers can't prevent all forms of Identity Theft, but they can protect themselves from 'phishing' scams like this one. Hit the 'delete' button," said Santiago.
Here is the text of a typical phony email:
Dear Chase & Co. Member
For the User Agreement, Section 9, we may immediately issue a warning, temporarily suspend, indefinitely suspend or terminate your membership and refuse to provide our services to you if we believe that your actions may cause financial loss or legal liability for you, our users or us.
Our terms and conditions you agreed to state that your service must always be under your control or those you designate all times. We have noticed some unusual activity related to your service that indicates that other parties may have access and or control of your informations in your service.
We recently noticed one or more attempts to log in to your Chase Account, service from a foreign IP adress. If you recently accessed your service while traveling, the unusual log in attempts may have been initiated by you. However, if you did not initiate the logins, please visit Chase homepage as soon as possible to restore your account status.
The login attempt was made from:
ISP host : c-64-154-34-134.hsfgd1.il.comcast.net
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and appreciate your assistance in helping us maintain the integrity of the entire system. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Please do not reply to this e-mail. Mail sent to this address cannot be answered.
To restore your account status click the link below:
Symantec Hides Rootkits In Software01/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
Symantec Hides Rootkits In Software...
What's worse than finding spyware and viruses on your computer? Finding out that the software you use to keep your computer safe may be just as dangerous.
Symantec, makers of the popular Norton AntiVirus protection software and numerous other products, routinely hides a "rootkit" in its Norton SystemWorks program suite.
The rootkit was designed to prevent SystemWorks users from mistakenly deleting files necessary to run the program suite, but the rootkit also hides the files from antivirus scans. Clever hackers could use the security hole to upload viruses into a computer without being detected.
Symantec issued a patch to the software on Jan. 10 that would enable users to see the hidden files. In a statement, the company said that it "is not aware of any attempts by hackers to conceal malicious code in thefolder. This update is provided proactively to eliminate the possibility of that type of activity."
The rootkit was detected by Windows software architect Mark Russinovich and a team from Finnish security experts F-Secure.
Russinovich is credited with exposing the hidden rootkits in Sony BMG's copy-protected CDs. The Sony rootkits installed on users' computers without their consent, and could lead to numerous hardware and security flaws.
Russinovich has said that the usage of rootkits by commercial companies is "very worrisome."
"When you use rootkit-type techniques, even if your intentions are good, the user no longer has full control of the machine," Russinovich said in an interview with eWeek. "It's impossible to manage the security and health of that system if the owner is not in control."
Federal judge Naomi Rice Buchwald gave tentative approval on Jan. 12th to a settlement in one of the many lawsuits filed against Sony over the rootkits. The settlement terms included offering cash payments or free music downloads to buyers of the affected CD's, and prevents Sony from selling any CD's with copy-protected software until 2008 at the earliest.
Lawsuits filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Electronic Frontier Foundation against Sony are still going ahead.
More Good News about Meditation
Study Finds TM Can Reduce Cholesterol Buildup01/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
More Good News about Meditation...
Transcendental meditation can reduce cholesterol buildup and your risk of heart attack and stroke. That's the conclusion of an article published in the American Heart Association journal, Stroke. An earlier study found that TM reduces the death rate among the elderly
Doctors studied 60 African Americans at risk for heart trouble because they had high blood pressure. Half did TM for seven months, the other half an educational program.
Doctors measured the cholesterol buildup in a major neck artery with an ultrasound before and after the seven months.
Guess what? TM really worked. It cut the plaques a lot, as much as a cholesterol-lowering pill or intensive lifestyle changes. Apparently, while people meditated their bodies healed themselves and opened up their arteries.
So, lead a healthy life. Exercise, diet, control your blood pressure, don't smoke ... and ask your doctor about the benefits of transcendental meditation.
iTunes Includes "iSpy" Feature01/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
iTunes Includes 'iSpy' Feature...
At this week's MacWorld expo, Apple proudly unveiled version 6.0.2 of iTunes, which it simply claimed "includes stability and performance improvements over iTunes 6.0.1."
Among these supposed improvements is the Apple iTunes MiniStore -- a localized "recommendation" engine that looks at what you listen to and then suggests additional songs and artists you might like. The MiniStore arrives turned on by default without asking a user's permission first.
What Apple didn't point out in all its hoopla over the new version is that the MiniStore not only makes recommendations but also automatically transmits your listening information over the Internet back to the Apple Mothership.
What Apple does with this information is unknown.
The company says it is not collecting data on its users -- at least not yet. But Apple has not disclosed what steps, if any, it is taking to prevent disclosure or leakage of the information to third parties.
The news follows the recent Sony BMG DRM fiasco, a part of which included an undisclosed "phone home" feature of its own.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) condemned Apple's listener-tracking as "part of a dangerous trend EFF has been witnessing in the digital music space market."
"When companies like Apple and Sony BMG start adjusting or installing software to micro-monitor our personal and private actions, even under the rubric of convenience, it is just one short stop down the road toward attempting to condition and control our behavior," EFF said.
EFF said the data collection would not be so objectionable if it were no so surreptitious.
"Allowing users to upload information voluntarily and expressly with adequate privacy protections is pro-user; surreptitiously siphoning it into a remote database without any privacy guarantees is not. It's time for Apple to pick a side of the line and walk it," EFF said in a statement.
EFF noted that users can turn off the Apple MiniStore by hitting Shift- Command-M, or choose Edit: Hide MiniStore. "EFF recommends that iTunes users do so until Apple at least comes clean about its MiniStore data practices," it said.
States Battle Feds Over Predatory Lending Laws
Financial Interests Shower Money on a Corrupt Congress01/12/2006ConsumerAffairs
States Battle Feds Over Predatory Lending Laws...
Subprime housing market lenders have benefited from weak or nonexistent federal regulation that provides little oversight or redress to homebuyers swindled into expensive loans. Now, many states have stepped into the breach, passing restrictive laws designed to provide consumers the opportunity to fight back against predatory lenders.
But Congress is taking up the issue of federal guidelines that would supersede the tough state laws, opening the possibility that consumers will take a backseat to the profit-hungry financial services sector which showers Congress with money and favors.
The House of Representatives currently has two bills on its docket dealing with predatory loan protections.
The "Responsible Lending Act," introduced by Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), would create uniform federal guidelines for predatory lending laws, superceding laws already on the books in many states. Ney has become infamous for his ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The law would also allow prepayment penalties for the first three years of a loan, and would only restrict refinancing on the most expensive loans unless they had a "net, tangible benefit" to the borrower.
The mortgage industry favors the Ney bill, in order to put an end to what the Mortgage Bankers' Association calls "a bewildering regulatory landscape that is both difficult and costly to decipher. Consumers, unfortunately, are being forced to pay the price, with fewer credit options and more expensive mortgages."
Kurt Ptofenhauer, MBA's senior vice-president for governmental affairs, told the Los Angeles Times that "the predatory lending problem is frankly dwarfed" by the ability of lower-income borrowers to get credit and home loans. "The market works because it regulates itself, " he said.
Consumer advocates such as the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) disagree strongly.
Pointing to statistics showing that predatory loans can cost Americans $9.1 billion each year, the Center believes that the Ney bill will put subprime borrowers at even greater risk of expensive prepayment penalties, excessive additional fees, and outright mortgage fraud.
"It would be a travesty if all [the states'] hard work was undone by a federal law that puts more homeowners at risk by eliminating state protections," CRL's executive vice-president Debbie Goldstein said.
CRL and other consumer advocacy groups are backing another House bill, sponsored by Reps. Mel Watt and Brad Miller (D-NC), and Barney Frank (D-MA), that prevents subprime lenders from advising borrowers to quickly refinance ("flip") their property without explaining the costs and benefits upfront. Unlike the Ney bill, the measure would apply to all subprime loans.
The "Prohibit Predatory Lending Act" would also prohibit the use of mandatory arbitration to resolve disputes and would mandate that borrowers get credit counseling before agreeing to higher-cost loans. It would also allow states to craft stricter requirements.
Watt and Miller modeled the bill on North Carolina's laws against predatory lending, considered to be the strictest in the nation. Twenty-four other states have laws against predatory lending on the books, many with very different requirements.
California's laws are generally considered the weakest, as they can allow prepayment penalties on "traditional" loans for up to five years. Not coincidentally, California's real estate market is one of the most expensive in the nation.
The states are often tougher than the federal government when it comes to enforcing laws against subprime lenders. The Attorneys General of 33 states and the District of Columbia recently negotiated a $325 million dollar settlement with subprime lender Ameriquest for charges of predatory lending and excessive fees.
The mortgage industry is lobbying hard to ensure the Ney bill gets passed. Ney received tens of thousands of dollars' worth of campaign contributions from political action committees representing the mortgage industry, including $10,000 from MBA, and another $10,000 from the National Association of Realtors.
Ney is also under investigation for his ties to infamous Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney receieved $32,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff in exchange for supporting legislation that favored a Texas Indian tribe that Abramoff represented. Ney also enjoyed favors from the lobbyist, including a golfing trip to Scotland in 2002.
Ney was subpoenaed by the Justice Department to testify in the Abramoff investigation in Nov. 2005. Abramoff recently pled guilty to multiple federal charges, including conspiracy and tax evasion.
Adjustable Rate Mortgage Payments Headed Up in 2006
Consumers holding adjustable rate mortgages could face significant increases in their payments this year01/12/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Adjustable Rate Mortgage Payments Headed Up in 2006...
Consumers holding adjustable rate mortgages could face significant increases in their payments this year. In fact, one mortgage planner warns that homeowners who locked in rates of around three percent in the early years of their ARMs could see their mortgage payments double once the rate is adjusted to current market conditions.
"You're seeing fixed rates at six and a half and seven percent, while some of the ARMS were available at very low levels. Now you're seeing some of these adjustable mortgages go up three or four points," Paul Harden, a broker with iLendingPro, of Cypress, California, told ConsumerAffairs.com.
What's behind the jump?
Mortgage rates are going up, and it has less to do with the Federal Reserve hiking the Fed Funds Rate than it does the bond market. Interest rates on bonds are up, and that influences mortgage rates.
"Our current market reflects the reaction of investors reading between the lines on comments made by the Fed, and mortgage interest rates are going up," Harden said.
"This will affect home owners with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) tied to indexes that are based on short-term interest rates. This includes the 11th District Cost of Funds, 12-Month Treasury Average (MTA), London Inter Bank Offering Rates (LIBOR) and others."
This doesn't mean that everyone with an adjustable mortgage is in trouble right away.
Harden says some indexes are more volatile than others. But he says consumers should remember, when an ARM adjusts, the new interest rate is a sum of the borrower's fixed margin plus the current rate of the index the mortgage is tied to. In the present environment, he says that can be a big number.
"Many of these people who locked in very low rates with ARMs are now going to see their interest rates double in some cases," Hardin said.
Those hardest hit are likely to be the consumers who chose ARMs because they offered the only monthly payment they could afford. Harden says many people were encouraged to buy more house than they could afford through the growth of "creative" financing options.
"Even ten years ago your debt to income ratio on a standard loan needed to be about 30 to 35 percent. Now banks, in order to get more people into homes, are taking up to 50 and 55 percent debt to income ratio. That's a recipe for disaster," he said.
Harden says consumers with ARMs should be thinking about locking into a fixed rate loan before rates go up, even though the fixed rate will be higher than what they're paying now. Those who took out an ARM because of a poor credit score may now be able to transition into a loan with more favorable terms, if they have improved their credit rating.
Before doing anything, though, he says it's a good idea to seek some solid advice from someone you trust -- an independent mortgage broker, accountant, financial advisor or attorney.
"As with any decision to refinance, it is important to take the terms of the existing loan, the cost of the new loan, and the borrower's long-term needs into consideration."
In-Car Air Is "Toxic At Any Speed," Ecology Center Claims01/11/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Vehicle interiors have dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, mainly from flame retardants and plastic softeners, an environmental group warns....
Bankruptcy Filings Set Record in 2005
Bankruptcies jumped to a record number of filings in 2005 as consumers rushed filings to avoid changes to bankruptcy than became law October 1701/11/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Bankruptcy Filings Set Record in 2005...
Bankruptcies jumped to a record number of filings in 2005 as consumers rushed filings to avoid changes to bankruptcy than became law October 17. The new information is the result of a survey released by Lundquist Consulting, an industry group that tracks bankruptcy statistics.
Bankruptcy filings increased 31.6 percent to 2.04 million with about one in every 53 households filing for bankruptcy, according to the survey. The number of consumers seeking relief from their debts through bankruptcy was at an all-time high in 2005.
Since the new law went into effect October 17, few consumers have used the new bankruptcy system, according to the consulting company.
The new bankruptcy law makes it harder for consumers to prove that they should be allowed to clear their debts in what's known as a "fresh start" Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Chapter 7 filings, which provide consumers with the greatest relief of their debts, increased 47.2 percent in 2005, according to the survey. Chapter 13 consumer filings, which require consumers to repay a part of their debts, declined 7.9 percent.
Fewer than 2 percent of all 2005 filings came after the new bankruptcy legislation became law.
The largest number of bankruptcies in 2005 was in California, where filings rose about 36 percent to nearly 165,000.
IRS Wrongly Delays Thousands Of Refunds01/11/2006ConsumerAffairs
IRS Wrongly Delays Thousands Of Refunds...
With millions of Americans preparing to file their income taxes over the next three months, an in-house critic charges the Internal Revenue Service wrongly identifies hundreds of thousands of taxpayers as potential cheats, making them wait years to receive their rightful refunds.
The critic is Nina Olson, who heads the Taxpayer Advocate Service within the IRS.
In her report to Congress for 2005, Olson says many of the taxpayers whose refunds are frozen are working poor, who can least afford to have their money withheld. In most cases, she says, the IRS never contacts them to let them know they are under investigation.
Olsen also says it's not surprising that taxpayers make mistakes when filing out their tax returns. She says Congress could remedy the situation by simplifying the tax code.
"Our tax code has grown so complex that it creates opportunities for taxpayers to make inadvertent mistakes as well as to game the system," Olson said.
"As taxpayers become confused and make mistakes, or deliberately 'push the envelope,' the IRS understandably responds with increased enforcement actions. The exploitation of 'loopholes' leads to calls for new legislation to crack down on abuses, which in turn makes the tax law more complex," Olson said.
"Thus begins an endless cycle complexity drives inadvertent error and fraud, which drive increased enforcement or new legislation, which drives additional complexity. In short, complexity begets more complexity. This cycle can only be broken by true tax simplification, followed by ongoing legislative and administrative discipline to avoid 'complexity creep.'"
Olson said the tax code should be revised to incorporate six core principles:
it shouldn't try to "entrap" taxpayers;
it should be simple enough that most people can fill out their own returns;
it should be written in a way that minimizes the opportunities for non-compliance;
it should provide limited choices;
it should make it easy to administer refundable credits; and
it should require a periodic review of the code in short, a "sanity check."
Olsen also expressed the concern that the IRS is expanding enforcement at the expense of taxpayer service.
Her report says the IRS has eliminated TeleFile, significantly reduced the number of returns IRS personnel prepare for taxpayers who seek IRS assistance, reduced the percentage of taxpayer calls IRS telephone assisters answer as compared with FY 2004, and substantially reduced its taxpayer education function for small businesses.
Olsen says Criminal Investigation (CI) refund freezes are a major problem facing taxpayers. Her report says that CI places "freezes" on hundreds of thousands of refunds each year due to a suspicion of fraud and then makes a "determination" whether the returns are, in fact, fraudulent without notifying taxpayers that their refund claims are under review or giving them an opportunity to present evidence supporting their positions.
In FY 2004, more than 28,000 taxpayers whose refunds had been frozen sought assistance from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). The TAS research function studied a statistically representative sample of these cases and found that, with TAS assistance, taxpayers ultimately received the full amount of the refund they had claimed in 66 percent of the frozen-refund cases and a portion of the refund they had claimed in an additional 14 percent of the cases.
Olson urged the IRS to implement procedures to notify taxpayers promptly that their refunds have been frozen, provide taxpayers with an opportunity to submit supporting documentation, and bring cases to a quicker resolution. The TAS research study is published as Volume II of the report.
Among other problems the report identifies are the need for IRS to develop a comprehensive strategy to address noncompliance in the "cash economy," the adequacy of training for private debt collection employees as the IRS rolls out its Private Debt Collection (PDC) initiative in 2006, and delays and related problems in examining returns that claim the earned income tax credit (EITC).
Despite the Ads, Cough Syrup Does Little Good
New Guidelines Suggest Antihistamines with Decongestant01/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
The new guidelines recommend that for adults with acute cough or upper airway cough syndrome, an older variety antihistamine with a decongestant is the pre...
Don't waste your money on over-the-counter cough syrup -- doctor's orders. Despite the plethora of cough remedies on the market, new guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians say cough expectorants or suppressants, including cough syrups and cough drops, do not treat the underlying cause of the cough.
"Cough is the number one reason why patients seek medical attention. Although an occasional cough is normal, excessive coughing or coughing that produces blood, or thick, discolored mucus is abnormal," said Chair of the guidelines Dr. Richard S. Irwin of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester.
"The new ACCP guidelines define how physicians should diagnose and manage cough associated with everything from the common cold to chronic lung conditions. The guidelines also are the most comprehensive evidence-based recommendations for treating cough in children."
The new guidelines recommend that for adults with acute cough or upper airway cough syndrome (previously named postnasal drip syndrome), an older variety antihistamine with a decongestant is the preferred therapy. Cough medicine, the guidelines say, won't do any good.
"There is no clinical evidence that over-the-counter cough expectorants or suppressants actually relieve cough," Irwin said. "There is considerable evidence that older type antihistamines help to reduce cough, so, unless there are contraindications to using these medicines, why not take something that has been proven to work?"
Children's cough syrup also has little apparent value. Although the guidelines address all types of pediatric cough, they make a strong recommendation against the use of over-the-counter cough and cold medications for children age 14 years and younger.
"Cough is very common in children. However, cough and cold medicines are not useful in children and can actually be harmful," said Irwin. "In most cases, a cough that is unrelated to chronic lung conditions, environmental influences, or other specific factors, will resolve on its own."
Of the estimated 829 million visits to office-based physicians in the United States, approximately 29.5 million are for cough.
The guidelines strongly recommend that adults up to 65 years old receive a new adult vaccine for whooping cough (pertussis), a highly contagious type of subacute cough that gets its name from the loud "whooping" noise patients make when they cough. Because antibiotics are only effective early on in the infection, preventing whooping cough with a vaccine is the only way to eventually eliminate the disease.
Once whooping cough takes hold, the coughing patient is at risk of serious complications of coughing, such as vomiting, breaking ribs, passing out, and passing the infection on to others.
"Most of us think of whooping cough as a childhood disease, yet 28 percent of whooping cough cases in the United States is in adults," Irwin said. "Although most of us were vaccinated against whooping cough when we were children, the older vaccine only gives protection for less than 10 years. Because the older vaccine caused serious side effects when given to older children and adults, it was only given to children. Fortunately, there is a now a new safe and effective whooping cough vaccine that can prevent adults from contracting this disease."
Additional recommendations address the most common causes of chronic cough, including upper airway cough syndrome (previously named postnasal drip syndrome), asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Chronic cough also may be a result of smoking or taking angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.
An acute cough is generally caused by a "common cold" -- a subacute cough can linger after a cold or may persist due to a respiratory tract infection, such as whooping cough or other postinfectious cough.
January 10, 2006
Bombarbier is recalling about 10,400 snowmobiles. The recall affects certain 2006 Ski-Doo REV, RT, and RF snowmobiles.
The steering columns on these snowmobiles could have a missing weld, which could allow a steering component to become loose. This could lead to a loss of control or possible collision causing serious injury or even death.
The recall involves certain Ski-Doo Model Year 2006 snowmobiles. The platforms involved are the REV, RT, and RF. For a complete list of model numbers and serial numbers affected by this recall please log onto www.ski-doo.com. Check the owners manual for the location of the model number and serial number. Most are located on the tunnel.
A second recall affects certain 2006 Ski-Doo REV500 SS, REV 600 HO, and REV 600 HO SDI snowmobiles. Cracks could appear in the starter ring gears allowing gear fragmentation at high speeds. The debris could act like projectiles and cause serious injury or death to riders or bystanders.
|2006||MX Z||Trail||000BH6A00 |
|2006||MX Z||Fan||000BP6A00 |
|2006||MX Z||Renegade||000BU6A00 |
In the second recall, models affected include REV500 SS, REV 600 HO, and REV 600 HO SDI snowmobiles. For a complete list of model numbers and serial numbers affected by this recall please log onto www.ski-doo.com The model number and serial number can be found on the tunnel.
|2006||MX Z||Adrenaline||000BE6C00 |
|2006||MX Z||Renegade X||000BW6C00|
Sold by: Ski-Doo
The units were sold by Ski-Doo dealers nationwide from June 7, 2005 through November 9, 2005 for between $4,000 and $12,300.
Registered owners of affected models have been sent direct notice of this recall. Consumers should stop using these snowmobiles immediately and contact a local Ski-Doo dealer to schedule an appointment for repair service.
Consumer Contact: For more information, consumers can call Bombardier Customer Service Department at (888) 864-2002 between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at www.ski-doo.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Michigan Financial Advisors Plead Guilty to Chiseling Seniors
"Everyone involved in this embezzlement scheme should be ashamed," said Attorney General Mike Cox01/10/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Michigan Financial Advisors Plead Guilty to Chiseling Seniors...
Financial services company Estate Growth Management and its principals, Gary Singer and Margaret Zimmerman, each pled guilty to two felony charges after reaching a plea agreement with the Michigan Attorney General's Office.
"Everyone involved in this embezzlement scheme should be ashamed," said Attorney General Mike Cox. "They stole from Michigan's most vulnerable citizens."
Defendants Estate Growth Management and Margaret Florence Zimmerman, 48, of Traverse City, pled guilty to two felony counts of Embezzlement by a Person in a Relationship of Trust over $20,000, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Gary Singer, 54, of Traverse City, pled guilty to two felony counts of False Pretenses over $20,000, which also carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence.
The charges were the result of a year-long investigation into the companys business practices by Coxs Health Care Fraud Division in conjunction with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department and the Michigan State Police.
The investigation revealed that while clients lost over $1.1 million, defendants' combined commissions were in excess of $200,000. The defendants persuaded their clients to invest in California-based Network Services Depot and/or Bikini Vending.
Large amounts of investment monies were lost to early cancellation penalties, taxes, and fees in exchange for promises of high returns that never transpired. The remaining balance of the investments was also lost.
The plea agreement required each defendant to pay $200,000 on January 6, 2006; pay the balance of restitution owed totaling $705,624.49 to the 8 investment victims; and, to surrender their licenses to sell insurance.
Tainted Dog Food Still Killing Dogs
Diamond, Professional, Country Value Brands Affected01/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
Tainted Dog Food Still Killing Dogs...
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that at least 76 dogs nationwide have died as a result of eating contaminated Diamond Pet Foods.
According to the company, the pet food was distributed to stores 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, Vermont and Virginia and West Virginia.
The tainted chow was sold under the brand names Diamond, Country Value and Professional, and bears the date codes of March 1, 2007, through June 11, 2007.
Diamond has promised to reimburse pet owners for vet bills and other costs associated with the aflatoxin poisoning.
"It's going to take some time to take care of all these customers, and we're going to do it," said the company's chief operating officer, Mark Brinkmann.
The company has recalled 19 varieties of dog and cat food because tests showed high levels of aflatoxin, a naturally occurring toxic chemical that comes from a fungus found on corn and other grains that causes severe liver damage in animals.
The company recalled products manufactured at its Gaston, SC, plant from September to November 2005. Based on tests, Diamond has narrowed down the exposure to food produced on Oct. 11.
The FDA and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture have launched investigations.
Boston Man Charged With Ebay Identity Theft Scheme01/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
Boston Man Charged With Ebay Identity Theft Scheme...
Massachusetts authorities have made an arrest in a hacking incident that resulted in dozens of eBay customers having their credit card data stolen.
Attorney General Tom Reilly said 20-year-old Sean Galvez of Boston allegedly used his computer skills to hack into eBay's computer system, steal victims' identities and use those identities to make online purchases.
Galvez was indicted on one count of larceny by a single scheme and 10 counts each of violating the unauthorized access statute (computer hacking) and violating the identity fraud statute for illegally gaining access to password protected eBay accounts and stealing stored credit card numbers which he later used to make online purchases. He is scheduled to be arraigned January 18.
The indictments allege that from February to September 2003, Galvez gained access to more than 40 eBay accounts, changed passwords and retrieved saved credit card information. Galvez allegedly used this information to purchase online gift certificates through eBay's Half.com website, a purchasing forum within eBay where eBay members can list items for sale or purchase items for a listed price.
The indictments further allege that Galvez created a series of eBay accounts to redeem the gift certificates for more than 30 items.
A number of eBay customers contacted eBay indicating that their account passwords were no longer working. After eBay conducted a preliminary investigation, they referred the matter to the United States Postal Inspector, which traced the purchases to Galvez's home.
In total, the indictments allege that Galvez purchased more than $32,000 worth of gift certificates, $8,000 of which Galvez allegedly used to purchase merchandise on Half.com.
New Law Prohibits Anonymous Cyberstalking
Bloggers, Writers Question Free Speech Implications01/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
New Law Prohibits Anonymous Cyberstalking...
A tiny provision of a Department of Justice appropriations bill may end up becoming a major battleground over First Amendment rights on the Internet.
The provision, designed to prevent anonymous harassment and stalking via e-mail or the Web, is so broadly worded that many fear it could chill other forms of speech.
The "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act" for fiscal year 2006 contains one section entitled "Preventing Cyberstalking." Under the new law, the rules passed in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) to prevent harassment by telephone were extended to Internet communications as well.
According to the new law, "Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
CNET's Declan McCullagh touched off the controversy when he pointed out that the language is so vague that virtually any anonymous writer, blogger, or pundit could be prosecuted for "annoying" someone.
"Why should merely annoying someone be illegal?" he asked. "There are perfectly legitimate reasons to set up a Web site or write something incendiary without telling everyone exactly who you are."
Under the new interpretation, anonymous whistleblowers who set up Web sites to criticize government corruption or corporate crime could be arrested. Someone who wants to criticize their boss on their blog or Web site could be construed as "annoying" someone, he argued.
Others think the new statute is simply an attempt to do the right thing, but reaches far beyond its intent.
Law professor and author Daniel Solove said that "The statute is badly written, and if not interpreted narrowly, it would run into constitutional vagueness problems." According to Solove, the question of "intent to annoy" must come into play before the statute can be applied.
"[T]he law clearly is not a prohibition on anonymously annoying another person. It is far more restrictive than that. One must have a particular culpable state of mind in order to be guilty of violating the law," he wrote.
The sheer number of anonymous writers, pundits, and flame war starters on the Internet far outstrips the Justice Department's ability to prosecute them all. But much like the recording industry's practice of several high-profile lawsuits against music downloaders, the law may be applied as a sort of "chilling effect" designed to scare people away from posting content on the Web without disclosing their identities.
And much like Congress' heavy-handed attempts to prevent identity theft and spyware infections, the law may end up harming genuine instances of protected speech while letting the real bad guys go unpunished.
Or, as one online commenter put it: "There is no shortage of laws that are extremely wide and over-broad, but don't get enforced -- unless, of course, you are unconventional, weird, different, rub somebody the wrong way, or come to the attention of somebody in power with an axe to grind or a quota to fill. In other words, just another bad law created with the best of intentions, which can be abused by bad people."
A Wild Ride in a Prius
Cruise Control Switches to Runaway Mode01/09/2006ConsumerAffairs
A Wild Ride in a Prius...
A Toyota Prius rampaged out of control on a Michigan highway recently, endangering the driver as well as those nearby. It's the second known incident of sudden, uncontrolled acceleration in the computer-controlled hybrids.
The driver of the 2005 Prius, Herbert of Battle Creek, Mich., experienced an as-yet unsolved software problem quite unlike any previously reported. In an earlier incident, a Prius stalled on a highway near Fremont, Calif., then took off on its own and smashed into the tow truck that had come to rescue it.
The Toyota Prius gasoline-and-electric engine combination is coordinated by a sophisticated software program that more and more consumers are reporting as suspect. Toyota has recalled the Prius to examine the software but in a least one case sold a Prius that contained the faulty program.
The story of the latest runaway Prius shows that diagnosing often serious problems with the complex hybrid can prove difficult while leading to lengthy maintenance delays.
In October, Herbert was traveling down the road in his Prius with the cruise control active at 55 miles per hour.
He found it necessary to speed up while passing a slower vehicle on the highway. That is when the problem with the Prius began. "I let off the accelerator and pressed the brakes several times, but the vehicle continued to accelerate under full power," Herbert said.
"I tried to slow the vehicle by pushing the power button, manipulating the cruise control lever, and putting the vehicle in neutral. All attempts were unsuccessful," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.
Herbert found himself barreling down the road with the cruise control stuck wide open, running approximately 20 miles over the posted speed limit, all the while continuing to accelerate.
Still searching for someway to slow his runaway hybrid, Herbert "elected to apply full braking force to the Prius while 'laboring' the vehicle to a standstill on the gravel shoulder of the road."
Once he had regained his composure, Herbert pushed the main power button, and the vehicle shut down. "The cabin of the Prius exhibited a strong odor reminiscent of an electrical motor smell," Herbert said.
A tow truck hauled the disabled Prius to Herbert's Toyota dealer to begin what he expected to be a "root cause analysis" of the frightening problem that led to his wild ride.
Many Toyota dealers and technicians however, are not yet up to the level of electronic sophistication problems the complex Prius hybrid can present. "The dealer informed me that they were able to recreate the safety issue, but they were not able to identify the cause," Herbert said.
Three days later, "the Service Manager informed me that they were unable to detect the cause and stated that they would like to ship the vehicle to Cincinnati for further testing," the Prius owner said.
Finally, more than a week after Herbert's Prius was first towed into the Toyota dealership he was told that, "they could not find anything wrong with the vehicle after driving it 300 miles," and that he must return the loaner vehicle the dealer had provided and pick up his Prius.
Herbert was given no information or evidence of any testing or other effort to discover what caused his Prius to run amok.
"The manager indicated that the person who experienced the issue is a porter and was not authorized to make any technical assessments," Herbert said.
Herbert took his questions about his Prius into arbitration with Toyota but the matter was not resolved satisfactorily. That means that Toyota refuses to concede there is a problem with Herbert's Prius or any problem that Toyota is unable to identify and isolate.
In the meantime, Herbert is reluctantly driving the 2005 Prius hybrid that carried him on perhaps the wildest ride of his life.
Gulf Coast Homeowners File Class Action against State Farm01/09/2006ConsumerAffairs
Gulf Coast Homeowners File Class Action against State Farm...
A Biloxi attorney and homeowners along the Gulf Coast area have filed a class action law suit against State Farm Insurance Company, alleging the company has refused to pay for hurricane damage to their homes, even though the plaintiffs purchased "all perils" homeowner insurance.
Attorney Richard T. Phillips of Batesville filed the class-action lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Gulfport on behalf of attorney Judy Guice and homeowners in the area.
The lawsuit contends that State Farm is obligated to fully cover the losses of everyone named in the suit who purchased the all perils policy. State Farm denied coverage under Guice's homeowner's policy, citing an exclusion for water damage that includes tidal surge.
But Guise argues that the policy is worded so that all damage is covered unless it would have occurred "only" as a result of the tidal surge. Wind damage is a covered peril and since it contributed to the damage of the home it should be covered, the suit alleges.
It's not the only suit State Farm faces as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is also among homeowners suing the company. The law office of Lott's brother-in-law, high-profile plaintiff's attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, filed the federal lawsuit on Lott's behalf.
Lott and Scruggs both lost their beachfront Pascagoula homes to the Aug. 29 storm.
The argument in both cases is whether a wind-driven storm surge is the same as flooding. Insurers say they shouldn't have to pay for water damage for those who did not have flood policies. The homeowners say wind-driven water is a secondary consequence of wind, which is covered in homeowners' policies.
Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shopping01/08/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Who wouldn't want to get paid to go shopping? We've all seen the ads for "mystery shoppers" and "secret shoppers," that promise easy money and free meals a...
Who wouldn't want to get paid to go shopping? We've all seen the ads for "mystery shoppers" and "secret shoppers," that promise easy money and free meals and merchandise. Are they on the level or is it just a scam?
"Unfortunately some companies and individuals are trying to take advantage of mystery shopping's growing popularity and are taking advantage of people," said John Swinburn, Executive Director of the Mystery Shopper Providers Association.
The association, founded in 1997, represents more than 180 companies that engage the services of so-called "mystery shoppers," independent contractors who anonymously visit stores and restaurants to gather customer service data for management and owners.
Many ads promise as much as $50 an hour and free merchandise. It all sounds a lot more glamorous than it is.
Mystery shopping developed in the 1940s and 50s as a way to expose dishonest employees. In its early days, mystery shopping was also often referred to as "integrity shopping" and much of it was carried out by private investigators. Posing as ordinary customers, mystery shoppers would try to catch sticky-fingered employees.
In those early days, mystery shopping was not done on a large-scale, and most consumers still had no idea what the term "mystery shopping" meant.
"As more firms began to offer mystery shopping, they started to include some value-added observations about safety, environment, and general customer service issues. It wasn't long before companies started to see more value in the information regarding their operations than in the integrity data," Sinclair Service Assessments, a San Antonio mystery shopping firm, said on its Web site.
As the nation's economy became more service oriented and more competitive, large chains began to see the need for reliable intelligence from the front lines of the retail wars. They began to turn to specialized marketing firms, who in turn would send trained investigators into the businesses to record their observations.
So, why are we hearing so much about mystery shoppers today? Swinburn says there are two principal reasons.
"More and more companies are using mystery shoppers and the Internet has made mystery shopping opportunities more available to people," Swinburn told ConsumerAffairs.com.
There was so little interest in the practice in the past that Swinburn said there are no reliable measurements of the industry's growth over time. However, he says the most recent reporting shows the industry grew 12 percent from 2003 to 2004, when sales totaled $600 million.
Today, ads on the Internet and radio recruit mystery shoppers with promises of both cash and merchandise, targeting college students and stay at home moms. But Swinburn says it's not that easy to get a job with a reputable mystery shopping firm.
"Most mystery shopping firms give applicants a test. The test can be for basic things like spelling and grammar, but also more subtle things like observational skills," Swinburn said.
"Companies want detail-oriented people who can follow explicit instructions. They need people who are observant and can collect the data the companies have requested."
Admittedly, not everyone has those skills. Swinburn said anyone aspiring to be a mystery shopper should expect to be tested.
"I would be very concerned if the company to whom I applied failed to provide some kind of screening process, if they had an attitude of anyone and everyone can be a mystery shopper. That would set off alarm bells," he added.
Another red flag, he says, is mystery shopping companies that charge a fee in order to apply as a mystery shopper. Member firms of the MSPA are forbidden to charge their shoppers fees. A radio commercial recruiting mystery shoppers says applicants must also have a bank account and debit card.
"I can't imagine why that would be a requirement for a mystery shopper," Swinburn said.
It would seem, then, that not all those engaged in promoting mystery shopping are on the up and up.
Watch the "Watchdogs"
A Google search of "mystery shopping" produces a number of sponsored links that warn consumers about mystery shopping scams. The sites purport to be reputable authorities that have thoroughly researched the industry in order to help consumers avoid being exploited. For example, Top2005Scams.com has this advice from "online fraud investigator" David Grisman:
"As a watchdog for work-at-home scams, I have thoroughly reviewed hundreds of mystery shopping websites, talking to their owners, reviewing their member's areas, and speaking to many of their clients and workers. Based on my research, as of July 2005, I only recommend three websites out of the hundreds I've looked at, as they are the only ones that have met my stringent standards to be sources for daily work," he Grisman says on his Web site.
But after warning consumers about companies that charge fees, Grisman then recommends three sites that all charge fees: Shopping Jobs ($25), Shop Until You Drop ($24.95), and Get Paid To Shop ($34.95).
And Grisman isn't the only benevolent soul on the Web who claims to be trying to protect would-be mystery shoppers. Another sponsored link is for TopSiteRatings.com, "from the desk of Chris Kevin." Compare his pitch with Grisman's:
"Being a watchdog for work at home scams, our job is to thoroughly review these hundreds of mystery shopping websites by talking to their owners, reviewing their member's areas, and speaking to their clients and workers. Based on our reviews and research, we can recommend only five mystery shopping websites out of the hundreds we've reviewed, as they have proven themselves to be legitimate sources for daily work."
Not only are their Kevin's five recommended sites all charge fees as well. And on Kevin's site, Get Paid To Shop charges $37, $2.05 more than on Grisman's site.
"The companies running these ads would not be accepted for membership in our association," Swinburn said, adding than member companies must abide by a strict code of ethics which is published on the association's Web site.
Swinburn said MSPA offers a training and certification program for mystery shoppers, but stressed that it is not a requirement to get a job.
He said despite some of the current advertising, mystery shopping is just not as simple as it sounds and that some skills are necessary to get a job with a reputable firm.
He also offers some free advice.
"Be very leery of promises that sound too good to be true, because they probably are. If you are told you can keep high-end goods, like wide screen TVs, take extreme care to understand all the disclaimers and fine print," Swinburn said.
In other words, mystery buyer, beware.
One final caution: It's not just the paid ads that appear on search engines that you should be wary of. Keyword-driven ads like those on search engines now appear on nearly every major newspaper Web site as well as on editorially-driven sites (like this one). They are generated automatically and are not reviewed by the publications' editors.
Emory Healthcare Laptop Stolen
Thieves Get Data on 38,000 Patients01/08/2006ConsumerAffairs
The missing laptop contained information on patients who had been treated for cancer at Emory Hospital, Emory Crawford Long Hospital, and Grady Memorial Ho...
In the first data breach announcement of 2007, Georgia-based Emory Healthcare reports that a computer containing information on 38,000 of its patients was stolen from the offices of an Ohio company contracted to provide services for Emory.
The company said the theft took place on Nov. 23rd, but letters informing patients of the theft were not mailed out until Dec. 20th.
The missing laptop contained information on patients who had been treated for cancer at Emory Hospital, Emory Crawford Long Hospital, and Grady Memorial Hospital. The data included names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.
Hospitals in other states were affected as well, including Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, and Williamson Medical Center near Nashville, Tennessee. The laptop contained data on 25,000 Geisinger patients.
The contracting company, Electronic Registry Systems (ERS), was managing the collection of data on cancer patients under regulations governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Ohio police, ERS, and Emory Healthcare all rushed to claim that the theft was random and the data on the laptop was secure. Emory officials said that the data was "double-password protected" and that the laptop had "multiple layers of security."
Springdale, Ohio police lieutenant Mike Mathis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he saw no evidence that identity theft was a motive for the crime.
However, the thieves were apparently quite determined. They broke into a third-story window and then broke down the doors of several offices, making off with the missing laptop and another computer as well.
Black Market for Medical Records
The theft of patients' medical records is a growing concern, particularly as these records can be used to engage in "medical identity theft."
Criminals can use stolen medical data to create new identities for themselves, mixing and matching names and Social Security numbers in order to escape fraud detection.
Thieves can use these new identities not only to obtain credit and loans, but to get expensive medical procedures that they might not have otherwise been able to afford, running up thousands in debt in the process.
Loopholes in HIPAA and state medical privacy laws can make it extraordinarily difficult to correct errors in medical billing records.
Patients who have been hit with medical identity theft can find their insurance premiums skyrocketing, and can face large medical bills for procedures they never had.
Disgruntled workers at companies that are supporting medical providers can easily help criminals get access to medical records, or wreak havoc on internal systems that could end up erasing or destroying patients' data.
Alcoholism May Be Linked to Taste Buds
A gene variant for a bitter-taste receptor on the tongue is associated with an increased risk for alcohol dependence01/07/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
"The more common variant is more sensitive to bitter tastes, and people with that variant had a lower risk of being alcohol dependent," Goate says....
A team of researchers, led by investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has found that a gene variant for a bitter-taste receptor on the tongue is associated with an increased risk for alcohol dependence.
The research team studied DNA samples from 262 families, all of which have at least three alcoholic individuals. The families are participating in a national study called the Collaborative Study of the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA). COGA investigators report in the January issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics on the variation in a taste receptor gene on chromosome 7 called TAS2R16.
"In earlier work, we had identified chromosome 7 as a region where there was likely to be a gene influencing alcoholism risk," says principal investigator Alison M. Goate, D. Phil., the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Genetics in Psychiatry at Washington University.
"There's a cluster of bitter-taste receptor genes on that chromosome, and there have been several papers suggesting drinking behaviors might be influenced by variations within taste receptors. So we decided to look closely at these taste receptor genes."
Because taste receptors tend to vary a lot in the general population, Goate and colleagues had the opportunity to look at a large number of differences in genetic sequences and determine whether certain sequences might influence risk. In this study, they concentrated on TAS2R16, which helps regulate the response to bitter tastes.
They found a single base variation in the TAS2R16 receptor gene that seemed to put people at an increased risk for alcoholism. In cell culture experiments, Goate found that the variant receptor produced by this gene was less responsive to bitter compounds.
"The more common variant is more sensitive to bitter tastes, and people with that variant had a lower risk of being alcohol dependent," Goate says.
Goate hopes to replicate these findings in human taste tests, to verify that individuals with this variant also tend to be less sensitive to bitter tastes as suggested by the cell culture experiments.
As part of this investigation, Goate's team took advantage of available genome sequence databases to speed work in identifying and studying genes on chromosome 7. She says data from the Human Genome Project allowed the investigators to more quickly recognize individual variations in genes, called polymorphisms, that can influence how a gene product or protein functions.
As part of this study, Goate's team sequenced the TAS2R16 receptor gene in a number of individuals, but they didn't identify genetic variants they hadn't found already in the public databases.
The variant that increases risk of alcohol dependence was common in African Americans where about 45 percent of those studied carried this variation in the TAS2R16 receptor gene but rare in Caucasians where only 0.6 percent had this variation. Although the increased incidence of the variant means a larger percentage of African Americans are at risk because of this genetic factor, the variant in the TAS2R16 receptor also significantly increased risk in those Caucasians who carried the genetic variation.
The fact that this particular genetic variation is more common in African Americans does not necessarily mean African Americans will have a higher incidence of alcoholism. The difference in the TAS2R16 gene is only one of several genetic and environmental factors involved in risk for alcoholism, according to Goate.
"I don't think our result has any implications for the levels of alcoholism within different populations," Goate says. "We know that this polymorphism is more common in African Americans than in Caucasians, but the frequency of alcoholism still can be similar between the two groups because many genes and environmental factors influence risk."
This research was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.
Senator Warns Consumers Of Rebate Traps
Rebates Are "Fool's Gold," Schumer Charges01/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
Senator Warns Consumers Of Rebate Traps...
With holiday sales just so-so for many retailers, some stores are launching post-holiday sales, slashing prices and offering rebates. But a member of the U.S. Senate warns consumers to be leery of rebate scams, charging some companies do nothing but make sure consumers have a hard time cashing in those rebates.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) wants the Federal Trade Commission to standardize rebate procedures and he outlined ways in which consumers can make sure they get their rebates.
"These rebates are fool's gold," Schumer said. "The promise of cash back quickly turns into frustration for consumers who can't get what they were promised. The FTC needs to step in and regulate these practices immediately."
Schumer says advertised rebates catch consumers' eyes, as they lure them in with a the promise of a lower price while getting them to buy the product at the regular price. Now, as the New Year begins, many people are starting to send in their rebate applications for products that were purchased around Christmastime.
The Senator says rebates are extraordinarily popular for the very reason that most of them go unredeemed and provide what is essentially free money to the manufacturers. Very few places offer immediate cash rebates, the most common are those that are done through the mail.
Industry figures show that 40 percent to 60 percent of rebates go unredeemed. While some of the rebates are not redeemed because consumers don't bother to send them in, in all too many cases even the most diligent consumer is unable to receive his or her rebate.
However, Schumer said, many companies contract with rebate-processing centers, or fulfillment houses, to pay customers' rebate requests, some of whom market themselves with their low rates of redemption. Many of these companies design complex rules, have very short filing periods or ask for documentation that is nearly impossible to obtain all in an effort to not give consumers their money back.
The rebate companies will ask for copies of receipts multiple times or delay the rebate check for months. Applications will be ignored and consumers will have to redo the entire process. Many of the companies make the rebate check envelope look like junk mail so it ends up in the trash and consumers are stuck retracing all their steps to get the money again.
Oftentimes months after a rebate application is sent in, the customer will be asked for other documentation to get their rebate such as codes off of the products box that was thrown out months before or original receipts that have already been sent away.
Rebates are big business. According to Business Week, nearly one-third of all computer equipment is sold with some kind of rebate along with 20 percent of digital cameras, camcorders and LCD TV's. The industry estimates that 400 million rebates are offered each year with an estimated worth of $6 billion. The Better Business Bureau has received thousands of complains, in 2001 they had only 964 while last year they received 3,641.
"This is the post Christmas bait-and-switch," Schumer said. "People go into stores with the promise of getting money back, and months later they still haven't seen checks."
In an effort to combat these deceptive rebate offers Schumer called on the FTC to implement a standard rebate policy to address the growing challenges of rebate offers.
"The bottom line is, rebates unfailingly bring in billions in excess profits for companies that offer them, but when it comes to saving the shopper a dime, as rebates claim to do, they fail the consumer more often than not," Schumer said.
"It really is a combination of scrambling to meet deadlines, reading the extremely fine print, following unclear instructions and then crossing your fingers in hopes that the rebate check ever gets sent."
In a letter sent to the FTC, Schumer urged an investigation of company rebate policies, and an overhaul and standardization of the rebate process to ensure that all consumers can participate in a fair rebate process. Specifically, Schumer requested that the following consumer protections are put in place:
• Companies must provide consumers at least 30 days to redeem their rebates and must fulfill the terms of the rebate within the same amount of time required of consumers but it should not exceed 60 days.
• Companies must take steps to send the rebate check in a manner which identifies the piece of mail as the expected rebate check.
• Companies must accept copies of receipts, not just originals.
• Companies cannot require consumers to write identifying information on the rebate form unless the receipt does not identify the purchased product.
• Companies offering rebates may not require information that is not necessary to process the rebate, including information other than name, address and phone number.
• Companies must provide telephone numbers or contact information for rebate inquiries so consumers are able check on the status of their rebates.
Schumer also outlines steps that consumers can take to ensure they get their rebates. Schumer today told consumers:
• Keep all receipts for items you will get rebates for. Companies may make you mail either copies or originals of all receipts.
• Send in you're your rebates as quickly as possible Many companies have a period as short as seven days for consumers to send in their documentation.
• Save the box. A rebate application may require the UPC code off of the packaging that the product came in.
• Always sort your mail carefully. Many rebate checks are created to look like junk mail. Don't be fooled.
• Make copies of every element of your application. Companies have been known to ask for you to resubmit, citing a mistake or loss of an application so copies of everything are a must.
• Have the appropriate numbers for follow up. You may have to contact the company if the rebate doesn't arrive as promised.
Study Links Smoking To Birth Deformities01/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
In the largest study of its kind, plastic surgeons say they found smoking during pregnancy significantly elevates the risk of having a child with excess, w...
Women have yet another reason to stop smoking while pregnant. In the largest study of its kind, plastic surgeons say they found smoking during pregnancy significantly elevates the risk of having a child with excess, webbed or missing fingers and toes.
In fact, the study, published in the January issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, found that smoking just half a pack per day increases the risk of having a child born with a toe or finger defect by 29 percent.
"Reconstructive surgery to repair limb, toe and finger abnormalities in children represents a large portion of my practice - it is the most common issue I treat," said Benjamin Chang, MD, ASPS member and study author.
"Parents would ask why this happened to their child, but I didn't have an answer. This study shows that even minimal smoking during pregnancy can significantly increase the risk of having a child with various toe and finger defects."
Researchers examined the records of more than 6.8 million live births in the United States during 2001 and 2002, finding 5,171 children born with a digital anomaly where the mother smoked during pregnancy but did not suffer from other medical complications, such as heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.
The study authors discovered pregnant women who smoked one to 10 cigarettes per day increased the risk of having a child with a toe or finger deformity by 29 percent. The more a woman smoked, the higher the risk became. Women who smoked 11 to 20 cigarettes a day raised the risk 38 percent, and women who smoked 21 or more cigarettes per day raised the risk 78 percent.
Known as polydactyly, syndactyly and adactyly, these deformities are the most common congenital limb abnormalities. Polydactyly is the presence of more than five digits on the hands or feet. Syndactyly is having fused or webbed fingers or toes. Adactyly is the absence of fingers or toes.
Webbed fingers or toes occur one in every 2,000 to 2,500 live births and excess fingers or toes occur one in every 600 live births. Webbed fingers or toes occur twice as often in boys and are more common in Caucasians than African Americans. Excess digits, however, are 10 times more common in African Americans and are only slightly prevalent in boys.
The majority of these defects occur without any family history and most causes are unknown which has lead researchers to investigate environmental causes, such as smoking, for these anomalies.
"The results of this study were interesting. We suspected that smoking was a cause of digital anomalies but didn't expect the results to be so dramatic," Chang said.
"Smoking is so addictive that pregnant women often can't stop the habit, no matter what the consequences. Our hope is this study will show expectant mothers another danger of lighting up."
Hybrid Driving Tips01/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
I purchased the Honda Insight to replace a sports car that was getting 25 miles per gallon. The Insight EPA rating was 59 mpg in the city and 56 mpg on the...
Driving and maintaining a hybrid to achieve maximum fuel efficiency takes some doing as many hybrid owners have learned the hard way. ConsumerAffairs.com reader Chris, of East Kingston, New Hampshire, has gained over 85,000 miles of experience driving his Honda Insight through New England and offers some ideas and advice for hybrid owners vexed by mileage claims yet to materialize.
I purchased the Honda Insight to replace a sports car that was getting 25 miles per gallon. The Insight EPA rating was 59 mpg in the city and 56 mpg on the highway. After 85,000 miles my average with the Insight, according to the odometer, is 60 mpg which is slightly better than EPA estimates.
By switching vehicles I have saved $4,000 at $2 per gallon but it is also important to note that I drive 70 miles a day and don't do anything out of the ordinary to get good mileage other than a few pointers I will mention below.
People not getting the mileage they expect may find it worthwhile to seek out someone with a similar hybrid who is able to achieve high mileage for pointers or perhaps give their vehicle a test drive to verify whether the low mileage really is a vehicle problem or a driver problem.
Here are a few suggestions that are obvious.
Tires and Speed
The two biggest factors hurting mileage are tire pressure and speed. Check your tires and inflate them to the maximum recommended pressure. A single low tire will adversely affect your mileage significantly.
This is valid for any vehicle, hybrid or not.
Aftermarket tires can alter vehicle mileage. Snow tires will cost around 15 percent or more from my experience although I still switch to snow tires for the winter months.
As for vehicle speed, the most efficient speed for a passenger car is around 45 miles per hour, slower for a pick-up or SUV. If you drive 80 miles per hour on the highway don't expect to get good mileage. It is not going to happen no matter what vehicle you are driving.
Cold Weather Hurts
Less obvious factors include trip length and weather. All vehicles get poor mileage when it is cold. Cold weather can cause a 10 percent or more drop in fuel efficiency.
If you drive a short distance to work, you probably will not achieve the 50 miles to a gallon you expect you are spending less on fuel anyway.
Longer trips are where hybrids make the most sense. It seems the Honda engine runs a rich fuel mixture for the first several miles as well as when the temperatures are below 40 degrees.
Part of the problem is that hybrids need to keep the gas engine running to maintain cabin temperature and catalytic converter temperature even when the car is sitting still.
Hopefully, future models can switch from hot-water heat to electric to heat the cabin and perhaps include a heating element for the catalytic converter.
Defrosting Runs the Air Conditioner
Another problem with cold weather is that if you have an air conditioner, in many never cars the A/C is turned on anytime you use the front defroster. A mechanic once told me this is to help maintain the compressor so it does not seize up from non-use in cold climates.
So if you don't need the defroster, don't use it.
Be prepared for dismal mileage in deep snow if you drive in cold weather climates. Driving through snow is energy-intensive, and it will show up on your mileage computer. I typically get mid-40s during bad snow storms, especially on unplowed roads.
Finally, if you turn on the vehicle to warm it up before driving off, expect mileage in the low 30 or worse. You are getting 0 mpg while the vehicle is sitting there warming up.
I typically achieve around 65 mpg during the warmer months and around 55 mpg during the winter months.
With four and a half years of hybrid ownership experience, I'm a big fan of the technology.
There are bound to be many more improvements over the next decade to improve the mileage and reduce the cost. Keeping in touch with other hybrid drivers through user groups online, I've found that most owners have had the positive experiences.
Many owners have gone on to purchase second and third hybrids. My next vehicle will most definitely be another hybrid.
Privacy advocates have concerns as well, pointing out that employers could snoop into the private phone records of employees to learn who they have been ca...
Study: Transcendental Meditation Lengthens Lifespan
Transcendental meditation apparently reduces the death rate among the elderly and prolongs life01/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
Study: Meditation Lengthens Lifespan...
Transcendental meditation apparently reduces the death rate among the elderly and prolongs life, according to a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology.
Researchers studied 203 men and women with an average age of 71 and a control group, all with slightly elevated blood pressures.
The study group participated in a transcendental meditation program, muscle relaxation, behavioral techniques and health education, over an 18-year period -- and boy, did the meditation help.
The transcendental meditation group had a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes, a 30 percent reduction in deaths from cardiovascular diseases and a 49 percent reduction in the death rate from cancer.
Well, meditation reduces the risk factors for diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and even hardening of the arteries.
Short-term reduction in risk factors apparently leads to a longer, healthier life.
Two Anti-Spyware Promoters Settle FTC Charges
The FTC said the companies claimed to detect spyware, even when there was not any01/05/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Two Anti-Spyware Promoters Settle FTC Charges...
While online you may have noticed pop-up windows that warn of spyware and offer to scan your computer for free to remove these unwanted programs. These pop-up ads should be met with skepticism, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which has settled charges against two such companies using that approach.
In both cases, the FTC said the companies claimed to detect spyware, even when there was not any, and then sold consumers anti-spyware software that either did not work or did not work as advertised.
The settlements require the defendants to give up a total of nearly $2 million in ill-gotten gains, and prohibit deceptive claims. One set of defendants will be barred from selling or marketing any anti-spyware product or service in the future.
In March 2005, the FTC charged that Spyware Assassin and its affiliates used Web sites, e-mail, banner ads, and pop-ups to drive consumers to the Spyware Assassin Web site.
Consumers were told the Web site scanned consumers' computers at no cost to determine whether they were infected with spyware. The results of the "scans" were positive, and the site warned consumers that they had spyware installed on their systems.
The FTC charged that the defendants' free remote scan was phony, and the defendants' representations that they had detected spyware on the consumer's computer were deceptive.
In addition, the defendants claimed that the software they sold for $29.95 would remove all spyware programs and files. The FTC's complaint alleged that the "anti-spyware" software did not remove all or substantially all spyware, and the defendants' deceptive claims violate the FTC Act, which bars deceptive claims.
In June 2005, the FTC charged an unrelated operation, Trustsoft, with using similar tactics to sell its "SpyKiller" software. The FTC alleged the defendants sent pop-up and e-mail messages informing consumers that their computers had been remotely "scanned" and that spyware had been "detected," even though defendants had not performed any such scans. The defendants urged consumers to access the SpyKiller Web site to get "free scans" for spyware.
While the SpyKiller "scan" was running, the program displayed a status report entitled "Spyware Found on your PC:" that included a category called "Live Spyware Processes." In fact, the FTC alleges, this category deceptively identified anti-virus programs, word processing programs, and other legitimate processes running on the system as spyware. Then, even though the "scan" itself was free, consumers usually had to pay approximately $39.95 to enable SpyKiller's "removal" capabilities.
The defendants promised in their marketing materials that SpyKiller would find and remove "all" spyware, including "all traces" of particular spyware on consumers' computers. The FTC complaint alleged, however, that the software failed to remove significant amounts of spyware, including specified spyware the defendants claimed to remove. The complaint further alleged that the deceptive claims violated the FTC Act.
The FTC also said that spam messages promoting the SpyKiller software, containing similar deceptive claims, were not identified as advertising, used false "from" lines, did not include valid postal addresses, and failed to provide consumers with notice of and the ability to "opt-out," in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act.
U.S. District Courts ordered a halt to the deceptive practices of both operations, pending trials. The settlements effectively end those lawsuits.
Both operators will give up their ill-gotten gains.
The FTC said Thomas L. Delanoy and his corporation, MaxTheater, Inc., will pay $76,000 the full amount of consumer injury. The settlement will ban the defendants from selling or marketing any anti-spyware product or service in the future. It will prohibit them from downloading or installing spyware on consumers' computers, or from assisting others in downloading or installing it. The settlement bars them from making misrepresentations in connection with the sale or marketing of any good or service. It also contains certain record-keeping and reporting provisions to allow the agency to monitor compliance.
Danilo Ladendoft and Trustsoft, Inc., will pay approximately $1.9 million to settle the FTC charges. The settlement will prohibit them from making deceptive claims in the sale, marketing, advertising, or promotion of any goods or services and prohibits the specific misrepresentations used in promoting SpyKiller. It prohibits them from using the spyware their "anti-spyware" software supposedly detects and destroys to deliver ads. It also prohibits future violations of the CAN-SPAM Act.
The FTC and a partnership including cybersecurity experts, online marketers, consumer advocates, and other federal officials recently launched a new multimedia, interactive consumer education campaign to help consumers stay safe online. The comprehensive Web site -- www.OnGuardOnline.gov -- has tips, articles, videos, and interactive activities.
The Web site offers tips to lower the risk of spyware infections, such as:
• Update your operating system and Web browser software, and set your browser security high enough to detect unauthorized downloads.
• Use anti-virus software and a firewall, and keep them up-to-date.
• Download free software only from sites you know and trust. Enticing free software downloads frequently bundle other software, including spyware.
• Do not click on links inside pop-up windows.
• Do not click on links in spam that claim to offer anti-spyware software; you may unintentionally be installing spyware.
• Consider using anti-spyware software from a reputable company.
Few Americans Prepared For Disaster
Nearly half of Americans say they believe a major natural disaster or terrorist attack is likely to occur in their area in the next five years01/05/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Few Americans Prepared For Disaster: Nearly half of Americans say they believe a major natural disaster or terrorist attack is likely to occur in their are...
Though nearly half of Americans say they believe a major natural disaster or terrorist attack is likely to occur in their area in the next five years, a new survey shows more than three quarters admit they are ill-prepared should it occur.
"In this day and age, following the tragic events that have occurred here on American soil and that devastated so many thousands of our friends, family and fellow citizens, it astounds me that so many Americans do not have a plan," said John Bryant, founder and chairman of Operation HOPE.
"And yet, despite believing that emergencies or disasters will happen, Americans don't seem to place emergency planning high on their list of priorities. We must get to the bottom of this, and we must instill a need for preparation," he said.
Of the 500-plus respondents, 44 percent think a major national disaster will occur in their area in the next five years, and 32 percent think a terrorist attack will occur in their area in the next five years.
The survey also found that nearly half (47 percent) of Americans do not know their community's evacuation route, and the same percentage does not have an emergency contact or safe place identified to call or go to if disaster hits.
The survey was conducted by Qorvis Communications' iQ Research & Consulting Practice and HOPE Coalition America, the emergency preparedness and response division of Operation HOPE.
"With more than 2.9 million people displaced after Hurricane Katrina and at least 68 natural disasters in the past year, Americans must understand the need to prepare for unexpected emergencies in order to minimize loss both physically and financially," said Jena Roscoe, senior vice president and chief of government affairs, Operation HOPE.
"These findings reveal a need to institute more educational programs on emergency preparedness."
HOPE Coalition America commissioned Qorvis to survey America's general level of preparedness -- both physical and financial. Some of the findings included:
• When asked what they would save if they could save only one item in the face of disaster, the highest percentage (35 percent) of Americans chose financial documents.
• More than half (53 percent) of Americans said they have two months salary saved in case of unexpected job termination.
• Only 25 percent of pet owners surveyed have a plan or place to care for their pet(s) in case of emergency.
• Eight-three percent of survey respondents said they would most likely NOT buy emergency preparedness items or kits as gifts for others over the holidays.
Those surveyed were also asked what important personal and financial documents they had copies of in case of a disaster. Here are percentages of people who currently do have the recommended household items and documents saved in case of emergency or disaster:
Questioned about what supplies they had on hand, these are the percentages who had the recommended items:
• Three-day supply of bottled water: 47 percent
• Three-day supply of non-perishable food: 65 percent
• Battery powered radio and Batteries: 69 percent
• Flashlight and Batteries: 91 percent
• First aid kit: 73 percent
• Dust masks: 25 percent
• Signal flare: 17 percent
• Fire Extinguisher: 67 percent
Asked about financial documents, these are the percentages who had copies of the recommended items:
• Personal/financial documents:
• Birth certificate: 77 percent
• Marriage license (if married): 74 percent
• Social security card: 85 percent
• Will: 50 percent
• Powers of authority (personal/property): 50 percent
• Vehicle registration/ownership papers: 84 percent
• Tax statement(s): 69 percent
• Insurance documents: 73 percent
• Bank and credit account info/statements: 79 percent
• Mortgage statement: 68 percent
HOPE Coalition America offers emergency budget counseling and step-by-step emergency preparation guidelines to Americans, particularly those in low-income urban areas and areas prone to or recently affected by disaster.
A copy can be downloaded at www.operationhope.org
Infant Fatalities Illustrate Car Seats' Shortcomings
U.S. Seats Built to Lower Standard than European Seats01/05/2006ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Infant Fatalities Illustrate Car Seats' Shortcomings...
Consumer Reports' warning earlier this week that many infant child seats sold in the U.S. can fail disastrously came too late for Christine of Zaphyrhills, Fla., who bought a Cosco car seat for her daughter.
"I was pleased with it, until the day we were on the way to the zoo and got in a side impact car accident," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The carseat held up but did not have enough padding to protect my little girl -- 14 months of age."
"She died 3 days later in a coma of brain injuries because the padding in the headrest wasn't to standard," Christine said. After the accident she found complaints of similar problems reported by ConsumerAffairs.com readers.
"I wish I would have read this site before I bought my daughter her (car seat)," she said.
Lisa of Gulfport, Miss., reported a similar tragedy with an Evenflo infant seat her niece had purchased after carefully checking safety ratings and reviews of various products.
"The pattern was very cute, it had blue and brown plaid with a cute little bear on the back of it. Matthew was her greatest joy and she adored him," Lisa said.
But in March 2004, Lisa's niece was taking Matthew and another child to daycare when her car was hit broadside.
"The car did a 180-degree spin and ended up rolling over on its side. My neice was killed instantly," she said.
"Matthew, who was 5 months old, was ejected from the car. The base of Matthew's safety seat was still strapped in the car. The housing of the seat broke loose from the base and apparantly bounced around in the car during the accident.
"Mathew apparently came out from the straps of the car seat and went out of the window when the car rolled over. When the car came to a rest, Matthew was on the ground outside of the car and the housing unit for the safety seat was out too. The housing unit cracked in several places. The base still remained in the car and was strapped in with the car's seat belt," Lisa reported.
Matthew died of a fractured skull and a brain laceration.
Lisa said she can't help wondering if Matthew would have survived the accident if he had been in a different car seat. According to the Consumer Reports tests, the Discovery failed to meet federal standards and the magazine is urging the government to order a recall.
"After doing research on the net, I have learned that this happens quite often with the Evenflo Discovery car seat," she said. Lisa said that since the accident, she watches for others uses an Evenflo Discovery and tells them of her experience.
In its February 2007 issue, Consumer Reports recounted similar results from tests it conducted on popular car seats.
Most of the infant seats failed when they were crash-tested at speeds about 30 miles per hour. at those higher speeds.
Like the seat that failed Matthew, those tested twisted violently or flew off their bases, in one case hurling a test dummy 30 feet across the lab, even though the seats met the safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Of 12 infant seats tested, only two performed well enough to be recommended by Consumer Reports: the Baby Trend Flex-Loc and the Graco SnugRide with EPS.
Nine infant seats provided poor protection in some or all of the tests, even though they meet the federal safety standard. One seat, the Evenflo Discovery, didn't even meet that standard. CR is urging federal officials to order a recall of that seat.
Many infant seats sold in Europe undergo more rigorous testing than do models sold in the U.S. Indeed, when CR crash-tested an infant seat purchased in England, the Britax Cosy Tot, it was the best in the tests. An infant seat sold in the U.S. by the same manufacturer, the Companion, failed CU's tests.
ABN employees forged the signatures of underwriters who were legally required to certify that each loan met federal standards01/05/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
ABN-AMRO Agrees to $41 Million Settlement...
Feds Approve Weight Loss Drug for Dogs01/05/2006ConsumerAffairs
Feds Approve Weight Loss Drug for Dogs...
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first obesity drug to treat America's increasingly overweight dogs.
The drug, called Slentrol, is manufactured by Pfizer Inc. and is supposed to decrease the animal's appetite and fat absorption. Also known as dirlotapide, the drug can has some serious side effects, including vomiting, loose stools, diarrhea and lethargy.
"This is a welcome addition to animal therapies because dog obesity appears to be increasing," said Stephen Sundlof, head of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Overweight dogs are at risk for developing diabetes, heart trouble, joint problems and other complications just like their masters, according to the FDA.
Slentrol is not designed for human use and will carry warnings to discourage people from using it, the FDA said.
The drug will only be available through veterinarians and will come in various doses. Pfizer recommends use of Slentrol for three months, according to the agency.
In the U.S. about 40 percent of all dogs or about 17 million animals are considered to be overweight or obese according to 2002 data from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"Why are 40 percent of dogs in the U.S. overweight or obese? The answer is simple: Too much food and too little exercise," said Claudia A. Kirk, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Nutrition, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee.
"In today's hectic world, it's a challenge for many dog owners to find time to ensure their pets get adequate exercise. And in our culture, we often equate food with love - without being aware of potential adverse health consequences. For both pet owners and veterinarians trying to manage a dog's weight, these habits can be a source of genuine frustration."
Slentrol gives veterinarians an additional tool when diet modification and increased exercise are difficult to implement successfully.
The drug decreases a dog's appetite thereby reducing food intake, making it easier for owners to develop healthier feeding behaviors and attitudes. Slentrol is given once daily as an oral solution, either directly into the mouth or with a small amount of food.
The duration of treatment depends on the amount of weight to be lost.
"Light" Chips Can Cause Diarrhea, Stomach Cramps01/04/2006ConsumerAffairs
Laxative-like effects of olestra became fodder for late-night comics in the mid-1990s, but the complaints filed by people who became sick after eating oles...
Band's New CD Comes with Onerous Limitations01/04/2006ConsumerAffairs
Coldplay Can't Play: Band's New CD Comes with Onerous Limitations...
Study: SUVs No Safer Than Cars01/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
Nearly half of the unrestrained children in these crashes (41 percent) suffered a serious injury versus only 3 percent of appropriately restrained children...
SUVS are no safer than passenger cars according to new research from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and children riding in SUVs have similar injury risks to children who ride in passenger cars, according to the new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers said the findings dispel the bigger-is-safer sale pitch that has helped fuel the growing popularity of SUVs among families. SUV registrations climbed 250 percent in the United States between 1995 and 2002.
Rollover contributes significantly to risk of injury in both vehicle types and occurred twice as frequently in SUVs. Children involved in rollover crashes were three times more likely to be injured than children in non-rollovers.
Children who were not properly restrained in a car seat, booster seat or seatbelt during an SUV rollover were at a 25-fold greater risk for injury as compared to appropriately restrained children.
Nearly half of the unrestrained children in these crashes (41 percent) suffered a serious injury versus only 3 percent of appropriately restrained children in SUV's.
Overall, injury risk for appropriately restrained children in passenger cars is less than 2 percent.
"SUVs are becoming more popular as family vehicles because they can accommodate multiple child safety seats and their larger size may lead parents to believe SUVs are safer than passenger cars," said Dennis Durbin, MD, M.S.C.E., an emergency physician and clinical epidemiologist at The Children's Hospital, and co-author on the study.
"However, people who use an SUV as their family vehicle should know that SUV's do not provide superior protection for child occupants and that age- and size-appropriate restraints and rear seating for children under 13 years are critically important because of the increased risk of a rollover crash," Durbin said.
"We want parents to be able to make fully informed decisions regarding the choice of vehicle for their family," says Lauren Daly, MD, co-author of the study. "Ideally, a safe family car has enough rear-row seating positions with lap-and-shoulder belts for every child under 13 that requires them and enough remaining rear-row positions to install child safety seats for infants and toddlers."
Previous Children's Hospital research has shown that, within each vehicle classification, larger heavier vehicles are generally safer. For instance, of all passenger car classifications, large and luxury cars feature lower child injury risk than mid-size or small passenger cars.
Among SUVs, mid-size and small SUVs had similar injury risks, which were two times higher than large SUVs. Compact extended-cab pickup trucks present a unique risk to children -- child occupants in the rear row of compact extended cab pick-ups face a five-fold increased risk of injury in a crash as compared to rear-seated children in all other vehicle types.
Sony Reaches Tentative Settlement in Spyware Cases01/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
Sony Reaches Tentative Settlement in Spyware Cases...
Sony BMG has offered $7.50 or a free album to victims of the illicit copy-protection software its CDs clandestinely installed on customers' computers.The offer is part of a tentative settlement agreement in one of the many lawsuits filed against Sony. The software, manufactured by First 4 Internet and SunnComm, can damage a listener's computer, leave it vulnerable to attacks from hackers, and can be installed without the listener's knowledge or consent.
The class action suit settlement provides:
• A recall of all CDs containing First 4's XCP copy-protection software, and an injunction against manufacturing any CD's containing SunnComm's MediaMax software until at least late 2007 or early 2008. Both MediaMax and XCP have been heavily criticized for their crippling effects on users' computers, the lack of clear terms of consent to install them, and in XCP's case, its own infringement on the copyright of another software license. ()
• A cash offer of $7.50 or the option to download a free album from Sony's catalog in any format, including Apple's popular iTunes software.
• Limitations on Sony's ability to collect identifying data using XCP, MediaMax, and any future content protection software without the user's explicit consent or permission.
• The continuing recalls and exchanges of the copy-protected CDs with "clean" CDs that can be "ripped" to a computer's hard drive or copied onto blank CD's.
• Offering improved uninstaller applications for the MediaMax and XCP software. The previous uninstallers were criticized for not actually removing the software, and for causing new problems and vulnerabilities on users' machines. (/news04/2005/sony.html)
The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. Southern District Court of New York, where the lawsuit was initially filed. It does not affect other lawsuits against Sony, including those filed in Texas by state Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
News of the settlement elicited a predictably wide response. Mark Russinovich, the Windows security analyst who first discovered the XCP "rootkit" software on one of his own computers was listed as an expert witness in the class-action suit. Posting on his blog, he said that "this specific circumstance has had a best-case outcome for those affected."
Russinovich's statement did not say whether he had been compensated for his expert-witness status.
Russinovich said that "users need to have enough plain-English information presented to them during a software installation, DRM-protected or otherwise, that helps them make an informed decision when they consider accepting a vendor's terms and the software's impact on their system."
Others criticized the settlement for merely formalizing what Sony was doing anyway -- recalling the copy-protected CD's -- and the relatively small cash offer.
CD's can range in price from $12 to $18 at music stores. And Sony's ability to collect personal information from its copy-protection software isn't actually removed by the settlement, merely limited by requiring the user's consent.
InfoWorld's Ed Foster stated that the settlement also doesn't prevent Sony from taking the same actions in the future. "[N]ext time it just has to disclose what it's doing a little more clearly and completely in its EULA. And come 2008, Sony is free to revert to the old EULA or, for that matter, to go find a new rootkit to use on its CDs."
Home Depot Gives CEO Nardelli $210 Million to Quit01/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
Home Depot Gives CEO Nardelli $210 Million to Quit...
After six years of controversy, Home Depot Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Nardelli agreed to resign, with Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Frank Blake replacing him. Nardelli walked away with a $210 million severance package.
Nardelli's departure follows a recent share buyback package that did little to lift the company's lagging stock price. The company's stock price had fallen about 8% during his reign whle its main competitor, Lowe's, was up 173%.
Critics lambasted Nardelli for his autocratic management style and his bloated $245 million compensation over the last five years.
Even in absentia, Nardelli is likely to remain controversial. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) quickly issued a statement criticizing Mr. Nardelli's rich severance package.
"The action of Home Depot's board of directors to simultaneously dismiss Robert Nardelli and provide him with $210 million in severance is further confirmation of the need to deal with a pattern of CEO pay that appears to be out of control," Frank said.
"Some defenders of CEO pay argue that CEOs are rewarded for increasing the stock or the overall value of the company, but judging by today's market reaction, Mr. Nardelli's contribution to raising Home Depot's stock value consists of quitting and receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to do so."
Financial analysts also looked askance at the huge severance package.
"The $210 million is really the icing on the cake here and the ultimate insult to shareholders," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of the retail consulting and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, told The Street.com.
Home Depot said that during Nardelli's tenure, the company nearly doubled sales, to $81.5 billion in 2005 from $45.7 billion in 2000, and earnings per share increased more than 140% same period.
Magazine Telemarketer Still Haunting Consumers
Company's still attempting to collect money that consumers say is the result of phony billing01/02/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Barred by court order from engaging in fraudulent magazine subscription marketing, is still attempting to collect money that consumers say is the result of...
A telemarketing company, barred by court order from engaging in fraudulent magazine subscription marketing, is still attempting to collect money that consumers say is the result of phony billing.
Numerous consumers have contacted ConsumerAffairs.com in recent weeks to say a collection agency, allegedly acting on behalf of Consolidated Media Services, has demanded as much as several hundred dollars for charges they say go back as far as 1997.
"I received a phone call in 1997 from a telemarketer. I can't remember all the details exactly, but a short time after the call I started receiving many magazines that I did not request. I tried to cancel but was told that I could not and I ended up paying them over $200," said Laura, of Pembroke, Massachusetts.
"In December 2005 I got a phone call stating I am in collection because of CMS and that I owe over $400."
Laura's story is typical. A number of consumers, who ended up paying CMS years ago for magazines they didn't want or which they never received, are apparently being hit up again.
It's suspiciously similar to a practice called "reloading," in which scam artists work from a list of victims who fell for a scam in the past. The theory is, if they fell for it once, chances are, they'll fall for it again.
Only this time they aren't being sold magazine subscriptions, they are being told they owe money for subscriptions they purchased in the past. The consumers contacting ConsumerAffairs.com insist they either paid money to CMS or cancelled the subscriptions.
As it turns out, CMS and its myriad of affiliated companies have a long history of generating consumer complaints.
In 2003 the parent company of CMS, along with its principals, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the company violated numerous federal laws in the marketing of its magazines.
The settlement bars deceptive sales practices and requires the companies to monitor claims and disclosures their sales agents make. In addition, the corporations agreed to a $1.1 million civil penalty, which the government agreed to reduce to $350,000 because the companies allegedly didn't have that much assets.
The settlement with Dennis H. Gougion, an officer of the companies, similarly bars deceptive sales practices and required him to post a $1 million performance bond if he engaged in telemarketing or assisted others engaged in telemarketing in any way other than performing specified publisher-seller liaison responsibilities.
Gougion also agreed to a $100,000 civil penalty, which was knocked down to $10,000 because of his financial status. But in hindsight, the government showed remarkable leniency.
The FTC reduced Gougion's and CMS' penalties despite the fact that in 2003, both were already under an FTC order that had been issued in 1996. According to the Justice Department and the FTC, Gougion and other principals of CMS and their affiliate companies had, in 2002, engaged in alleged illegal acts that violated the FTC order they had agreed to seven years earlier.
None of the complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com last month alleged CMS is now pushing magazine subscriptions in violation of the court order. Instead, they all say a collection agency is trying to extract more money from them. What they all have in common is the fact they paid money to CMS in the past.
"I was contacted by LBA & Assoc this morning saying I owed $155 to Consolidated Media Services from a magazine subscription from Oct. 1999, almost 7 years ago," Elizabeth, of Tampa, told ConsumerAffairs.com.
Elizabeth said she paid CMS $311 in 1999 and never received any magazines.
Glenn, of Rancho Cucamonga, California said CMS is attempting to collect money it claims is owed from 2000. But Glenn also says the debt was paid long ago.
"After the first year I cancelled the subscriptions and have never received a magazine since. About 3 months ago I got a call from a collections agency. The man explained that my account was delinquent and that I had to make a payment of $74," he said.
Amtrak Delays Leave Passengers to Fend for Themselves
Railroad Has Long Record of Ignoring Passengers During Delays01/02/2006ConsumerAffairs
Amtrak Delays Leave Passengers to Fend for Themselves...
Passengers on three Amtrak trains that were stranded in Georgia say train officials did little to nothing to ensure their comfort and safety during a 29-hour ordeal. It's the latest in a long string of incidents that have left passengers to fend for themselves, potentially endangering the elderly and handicapped.
On Dec. 26, at the height of the holiday travel season, passengers on a California Amtrak train were forced to disembark at Norwalk to take buses the rest of the way to Los Angeles because of scheduled track maintenance.
"Many of the elderly and handicapped people were having difficulty getting around, i.e. hearing problems and not understanding what was going on, vision problems, difficulty walking and carrying their luggage when not expecting to have to do this," said Shirley of Ojai, California, in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.
On Oct. 4, passengers on a MetroLiner from New York to Washington, D.C., were ejected from their disabled train and told to walk about a quarter of a mile along the trackbed to the nearest platform, at Edgewood, Maryland, Joan of Fairfax, Virginia, reported.
"I have a neuromuscular foot disorder, so I had an especially hard time until a gallant young guy offered to carry my suitcase. There were others in worse shape -- with walkers, wearing high heels, etc.," she said.
In the latest incident, there were about 800 people on the Miami to New York City Silver Star, Silver Meteor and Auto Trains when a CSX freight derailed in Savannah, Ga., blocking the Amtrak trains until about 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Passengers said toilets stopped working and they were forced to spend their own money for dining car food during the lengthy delay. Some passengers said they went hungry because they ran out of money.
A caterer finally was brought aboard to provide free meals more than 20 hours after the delay.
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said the situation wasn't Amtrak's fault but he provided no explanation for the railroad's apparent lack of emergency planning.
Though most delays are not as long as the Savannah incident, Amtrak's ontime record is hardly pristine. In June 2005, Kelly of Edison, New Jersey, reported her train was delayed for hours after an accident in Florida.
"The next morning, I woke up to no water or toilets at all on the train, so we had to wait until we got to a stop in VA to go to the bathroom ... but that was at our own risk, because if the train leaves, then oh well," Kelly said.
Bank of America Completes MBNA Buyout
$850 Million In Savings, 6000 Jobs Lost01/02/2006ConsumerAffairs
Bank of America Completes MBNA Buyout...
Bank of America ushered in 2006 by completing its buyout of MBNA, further expanding the size of the world's No.2 bank and creating the world's largest credit card issuer. The transaction was valued at roughly $34.2 billion dollars.
Former MBNA president Bruce Hammond will now serve as president of Bank of America Card Services, overseeing the company's new plastic portfolio, and reporting to Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis.
The merged corporation expected to realize after-tax savings of $850 million by 2007, chiefly through eliminating 6,000 "redundant" jobs across both companies. Speculation continues that the majority of the jobs will be in MBNA's home base of Wilmington, Delaware, which could cause serious economic problems for the city and state.
MBNA has become a symbol of consumers' and activists' resentment of the credit card system. Its policies of high interest rates and fees, minimal customer service and sometimes questionable marketing symbolized for many the pitfalls of paying with plastic.
The company had scored what it thought would be a major coup by pushing for the passage of the 2005 "Bankruptcy Reform and Consumer Protection Act," legislation that drastically rewrote existing bankruptcy laws to favor creditors over debtors.
The Charlotte, NC-based Bank of America began its takeover of MBNA after the latter's profits fell by 94 percent in a single quarter, due in large part to frustrated MBNA customers paying off their credit card balances in ever-increasing numbers.
MBNA's profit shortfall led many irate stockholders to join a class action lawsuit against it, alleging that MBNA's executive board sold off their shares before dumping the faltering stock on the public, and inflated their profit results to hide the embarrassing lack of revenue.
Since beginning the takeover of MBNA, Bank of America has picked up on some of its acquisition's bad habits. These include encouraging cardholders to transfer their balances to new cards with zero-percent interest, only to hit them with constant late fees until the balance hits its maximum, and then switching the interest rate to anywhere from 17 to 32 percent.
For many Bank of America customers, the buyout will just mean business as usual, which may not be all that desirable. Take the case of Christen of Livermore, CA, who was shocked to find out Bank of America listed him as being in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, despite his having "a good job and good credit."
"They are indicating that all my payments were on time but that the account is Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This is a very adverse mark on my credit," Christen said.
"And to top it off, Bank of America never even notified me about all of this. I can never reach a person to speak with; always just voice mail. When I contact them by email I receive a brief reply which states 'Thank you for contacting Bank of America,' and that is all."
New York Taxi Fire Puts Heat on Ford
Senator Schumer Wants Ford to Provide Gas Tank Shields01/02/2006ConsumerAffairs
New York Taxi Fire Puts Heat on Ford...
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is calling on Ford Motor Co. to offer gas tank shields for Crown Victoria taxi cabs after a fiery crash in New York City that killed a cab driver. Gurbaj Singh's cab burst into flames after being struck in the side by a suspected drunken drivers minivan December 26.
The New York Democrat suggested Ford may be partly to blame for the death of the taxi driver. In a December 30 letter to Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr., Schumer urged a "major design overhaul" of the sedans, which are the most popular vehicle in the New York City taxi fleet.
The Crown Victoria is a full-sized, rear-wheel drive sedan and is also popular with older drivers and police departments as well as taxi services. Critics contend that the location of the gas tank, behind the rear axle, leaves the Crown Victoria vulnerable to rupture and fire in a rear-end crash.
Ford has offered shields for gas tanks on Crown Victoria police cruisers after several police officers died in post-crash fires. Most of the deaths occurred when the cruisers were struck from behind at extremely high speeds and the gas tank ruptured.
Schumer says Ford should offer the gas tank shields to New York City cabbies.
Ford tests the Crown Victoria at speeds that exceed requirements imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to a company spokesman and the vehicle holds up well in the tests.