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Ohio Sues 'Cashable Voucher' Promoters

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has sued two out-of-state consumer promotion firms and their top officers for violating the state's Consumer Sales Practice...


Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has sued two out-of-state consumer promotion firms and their top officers for violating the state's Consumer Sales Practices Act by misrepresenting their "Cashable Voucher Program" to Ohio consumers, engaging in bait advertising, and failing to honor valid consumer claims.

Petro's lawsuit named as defendants Consumer Promotions, Inc. of Lees Summit, Missouri, and The Consumers Trust of New York, New York, and Aaron J. Racine, of Kansas City, Missouri.

They allegedly violated provisions of the Ohio's consumer protection law requiring companies to make the terms of any purchase agreement clear and conspicuous to consumers, according to the lawsuit.

"Many consumers bought goods because they were falsely promised they would later recoup all or part of their money if they submitted a so-called voucher claim," Petro said. "These consumers probably would not have purchased these goods without that fraudulent inducement. The misleading tactics used by the defendants will not be tolerated."

Petro said the companies' primary swindle, the Cashable Voucher Program, works as a "financial memory test" that consumers are expected to fail. Its underlying strategy is an assumption most consumers will forget to redeem their vouchers or fail to follow the complicated procedures to redeem them, Petro said.

According to the state's lawsuit, Consumer Promotions persuaded Ohio merchants to market the Cashable Voucher Program to consumers by claiming that potential consumers will be more likely to buy a merchant's product if they are offered an incentive to later get back all or part of their money through the voucher program.

Merchants were told that the cashable vouchers would eliminate price shopping and give customers an incentive to buy from them.

The Attorney General's Office has received more than 100 consumer complaints against The Consumers Trust alleging that terms and conditions for submitting a claim under the voucher program were difficult to read and understand and that meeting many of the requirements to validate the voucher were beyond the consumer's control.

The defendants told consumers that any error on the consumer's part to meet the requirements was grounds for denial of payment, and this gave the company unfair advantage over the consumer, according to the complaints.

The state's suit seeks a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, restitution for more than 100 consumers who were harmed by the defendants' business practices, and a civil penalty of $25,000 per violation.

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States Consider Black Box Laws

If you don't know there is a black box in your car recording your driving habits, it's time you found out. If your car is equipped with airbags it's also e...

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Security Company McAfee Loses Employee Data

Software security company McAfee touts itself as "[leading] the world in discovering, documenting, and addressing breaking threats and vulnerabilities." ...


Software security company McAfee touts itself as "[leading] the world in discovering, documenting, and addressing breaking threats and vulnerabilities." But now the company may be looking into increased security protection for itself, thanks to the loss of data on several thousand of its employees.

 

An auditor from financial services consultancy Deloitte & Touche lost a compact disc (CD) containing personal information on over 3,000 current McAfee employees in the U.S. and Canada, and 6,000 former employees.

The unencrypted data included names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and employees' stock holdings in McAfee.

The unidentified auditor had apparently been carrying the data on an unlabeled CD, and left it in an airline seat pocket.

The disc was reported missing on Dec. 15th, 2005. McAfee was notified of the incident on Jan. 11th, and after Deloitte conducted an internal investigation, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based software company began notifying affected employees by mail, with the last employee being notified in late February.

Neither McAfee nor Deloitte's spokespersons had an explanation for the length of time between the initial discovery of the theft and McAfee's notification.

McAfee has agreed to provide affected employees with up to two years of free credit monitoring, sponsored by Equifax.

Deloitte & Touche is a subsidiary of Deloitte Touche Tomatsu, a multinational financial services consulting firm that specializes in auditing, corporate tax preparation, and consultation.

One of its chief areas of expertise deals with compliance with the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley laws, passed to ensure much larger "paper trails" of businesses' accounting practices.

McAfee specializes in home and business security solutions, marketing numerous antivirus and antispyware products for users.

The McAfee data breach is the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents of data loss or poor security in major business. The nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has compiled a chronology of data breaches since Feb. 2005, when Georgia-based data broker ChoicePoint first revealed it had lost the information of 145,000 individuals to a ring of hackers.

According to the group's chronology, 53 million individuals have been affected by data breaches or security failures since the ChoicePoint incident.

The news of the McAfee data loss was met with skeptical derision from the tech community, amused at the irony of a security company suffering a data breach, and exasperated at the inability of companies to protect their workers' personal information.

"How about someone filing a class action lawsuit against Deloitte?" said one commenter, referring to ZDNet's coverage of the incident. "The only way companies will understand that people's personal data is mission critical if the financial penalties for doing such idiocy becomes a mission critical expense."

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Gas Prices Headed Up, Analysts Warn

Oil industry expert Trilby Lundberg warns gasoline price declines are for the most part over

Gas Prices Headed Up, Analysts Warn...

Oil industry expert Trilby Lundberg warns gasoline price declines are for the most part over and she expects the cost of a gallon of gasoline to head up through the spring and summer.

"This year's new fuel reformulation requirements make the spring and summer blends already costlier" than last year, Lundberg said.

"The convergence of previous and new environmental regulations, lower levels of sulfur allowed, for instance, and use of ethanol rather than the additive MBTE will add to the cost and tighten supplies," according to Lundberg.

Lundberg points out that this is the time of the year that refiners draw down gasoline stocks as they perform routine maintenance and repairs in preparation for warmer weather and increased gasoline demand.

The warning comes despite minor declines in gasoline prices. Lundbergs survey found that the average price of self-serve regular as of February 24 was $2.24 per gallon, down 9-cents over the last five weeks.

"I believe we can expect these price cuts will end soon," she said.

The survey found the lowest cost of gasoline was in Portland, Oregon where a gallon of self-serve regular cost $1.99, and the highest cost in Honolulu at $2.59.

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Honolulu Leads in Motorcycle Thefts, NYC in Accidents

Bikers beware! Your motorcycle's most likely to be stolen in Honolulu

Honolulu Leads in Motorcycle Thefts, NYC in Accidents...

Bikers beware! Your motorcycle's most likely to be stolen in Honolulu. You're more likely to be involved in a crash in New York City; Norfolk, Va., and Baton Rouge, La.

The Progressive Insurance Company reviewed claims data on more than two million motorcycles over the past three years to determine the likelihood of a motorcyclist getting into an accident or having a bike stolen. The analysis focused on the 89 U.S. metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 and higher.

The study found Honolulu riders are most likely to have their bikes stolen, even though it's the 53rd largest metropolitan area. In fact, a motorcyclist in Honolulu is four times more likely to have a bike stolen than is a motorcyclist in Chicago or Detroit, which are the third and seventh largest metro areas in the country, respectively.

Similarly, though Baton Rouge ranks 75th in population, it ranks third when it comes to the likelihood of a rider there having a motorcycle crash. And, a motorcyclist in Philadelphia, the country's fifth largest metro area, is 36 percent less likely to have an accident as one in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach metro area, which is the 47th largest.

One metropolitan area where the statistics are more in line with what you might expect is New York; it ranks number one both in population and in the likelihood of motorcycle collisions.

Most Likely to Crash

1. New York
2. Norfolk/Virginia Beach
3. Baton Rouge
4. San Diego
5. San Francisco-Oakland
6. New Orleans
7. San Antonio
9. McAllen, Texas
10. Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y.
11. Orlando

Least Likely to Crash

1. Columbus, Ohio
2. Oxnard-Semi Valley
3. Cleveland
4. Providence-Warwick-Pawtucket, R.I./Mass.
5. Tacoma, Wash.
6. Cincinnati
7. Toledo
8. Akron
9. Indianapolis
10. Bakersfield, Calif.

Most Likely to Be Stolen

1. Honolulu
2. Miami
3. San Diego
3. Las Vegas
4. New York, N.Y.
5. Washington, D.C./Va./Md.
6. Los Angeles
7. Fort Lauderdale
8. New Orleans
9. Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Portsmouth, Va.

Least Likely to Be Stolen

1. Nashville-Davidson, Tenn.
2. Pittsburgh
3. Milwaukee
4. Minneapolis-St. Paul
5. Cincinnati
6. Lansing-East Lansing, Mich.
7. Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y.
8. Syracuse, N.Y
9. Harrisburg, Penn.
10. Grand Rapids, Mich.

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H&R Block Goofs on Its Own Taxes

The company has also had serious problems with its in-house computer network.

H&R Block Goofs on Its Own Taxes...

Tax preparation giant H&R; Block has a little problem. It miscalculated its own state income taxes, understating its liabilities by $32 million as of April 30, 2005. The company has also had serious problems with its in-house computer network.

The Irvine, California-based company will need to restate its fiscal year 2004 and 2005 results, as well as its previously reported results for fiscal 2006, reducing its earnings for both years.

The snafu sent the company's stock price lower and gave it a black eye at the height of tax preparation season, although the actual financial impact is likely to be slight.

"While likely embarrassing for the nations leading tax preparation company, the restatement is fairly immaterial," wrote analyst Alexander Paris Jr. of Barrington Research Associates in a research note.

The admission came as the company reported its third quarter 2006 financial results. Because of a consumer class action lawsuit, net earnings were down from the third quarter of fiscal 2005, when Block had net earnings of $92.3 million, or $0.28 per share.

Block attributed the decline to an after-tax charge of $31.7 million, or $0.10 per share, from a legal settlement and legal costs arising from the $360 million settlement of a class action suit that accused it of gouging consumers who took out refund anticipation loans at interest rates frequently exceeding 100 percent.

The state of California filed a similar suit against H&R; Block last week and Attorney General Bill Lockyer said damages could total "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

Technical Snafus

Besides bungling its own taxes, H&R; Block had serious problems with its in-house computer network that cut into its business in January.

"Technology problems across the H&R; Block network in early January impacted our ability to serve clients in those crucial early weeks," said Block Chairman Mark A. Ernst.

He said the problems had been corrected, but they impacted the company's ability to serve 250,000 clients who were trying to get an early start on their taxes.

Analysts speculated the internal technical troubles could reflect badly on the company's TaxCut software, to the benefit of its primary competitor, Intuit's TurboTax.

Other tax preparation chains, such as Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, could also see increased business.

 

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It's Getting Hard to Tell Airports By Their Name

Name Changes Add Little But Confusion

It's Getting Hard to Tell Airports By Their Name...

Getting from Point A to Point B is getting more complicated thanks to a wave of airport name changes ostensibly designed to boost business.

Passengers already befuddled by bag-tag abbreviations taken directly from the alphabet-soup now have new ways to get lost before they even approach the airport.

EWR used to represent Newark Airport, later called Newark International but more recently Newark Liberty International. Technically, the airport is in nearby Elizabeth anyway.

JFK is easy enough, since John F. Kennedy was known by those initials, but that airport used to be Idlewild.

Chicago's sprawling O'Hare hasn't changed its name but might consider changing its ORD abbreviation. And why is there an X at the end of the LA initials for Los Angeles International?

Thanks to Republican control of Congress, Houston Intercontinental is now George Bush Intercontinental, named for the 41st president, while Washington National is now Reagan National, named for the 40th -- and the man who not only fired striking air-traffic controllers but enacted airline deregulation.

The airfield in Rockford, IL is now called Chicago/Rockford International even though the Windy City is 90 miles distant. Stewart International of Newburgh, NY is about to become New York Hudson Valley International, though it lies 70 miles from Manhattan.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport was always a lot closer to Baltimore than Washington. Now it's Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, much more long-winded than the late Supreme Court justice ever was.

Not to be outdone, Savannah airport is now Savannah/Hilton Head International, though getting to the island resort requires more than a hop, skip, and jump.

Reno-Tahoe airport, located in Reno, adopted the hyphenated name in the 90s, about the same time that airports in Allentown, Buffalo, and Terre Haute also thought new names would boost travel-related business.

While the Newburgh airport lies within the Hudson Valley giving logic to half its name not all name changes are well-received. When the National Tour Association attempted to change its name to CrosSphere during its Toronto convention in November 2004, members reacted so angrily that the original name had to be restored.

Not all airports are getting that keep-it-simple message.

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Cigarette Smoking Leads to Root Canal

Research Confirms Link Between Cigarettes, Root Canals

Cigarette smoking can lead to not only tooth discoloration and gum disease, but also a common dental procedure that helps to heal a diseased tooth - the ro...

If you're a smoker, there's a good chance you're damaging more than your lungs.

According to a new study appearing in the April issue of the Journal of Dental Research, cigarette smoking can lead to not only tooth discoloration and gum disease, but also a common dental procedure that helps to heal a diseased tooth -- the root canal.

"The findings substantiate what most of us already know: Smoking is detrimental to your health," Elizabeth Krall Kaye, PhD, MPH, epidemiologist at the Boston VA Hospital and professor in the department of health policy and health services research at Boston University's School of Dental Medicine in Boston, and the lead author of the study.

"But because root canal treatment is so common -- it's estimated that half of US adults have experienced one by age 50 -- I think people can relate to it more than lung cancer and other smoking-induced conditions. No matter what your age, you may need a root canal and as our research shows, smoking increases your risk," she added.

The findings are based on data collected during Veterans Affairs Normative Aging and Dental Longitudinal studies at the VA Boston Healthcare System in Boston. The study, which began in 1968, tracked how men's dental and physical health progressed over the course of 30 years.

"Men visited the study site every three years where they were checked for signs of caries, or cavities, tooth restorations and periodontal disease. Clinicians also took mouth x-rays and documented their smoking habits, including frequency and type of tobacco," explained Dr. Kaye.

"From the data, we were able to identify approximately 811 men with teeth that were free of root canal treatment at the study's beginning. That's 18,893 teeth to track over the course of 30 years."

Root canal treatment is necessary when the dental pulp, or soft tissue of the tooth containing nerves, blood vessels and connective tissue, becomes inflamed.

A general dentist or an endodontist, a root canal specialist, removes the infected tissue, cleanses the space and fills the tooth to prevent the bacterial infection from recolonizing.

With the help of two endodontic residents, who re-examined the dental x-rays taken over the course of the study, Dr. Kaye was able to identify 998 teeth that had received root canal treatment by the study's conclusion. These data were then compared with each man's smoking habits.

Pipes, Cigars Not So Bad

"We found that cigarette smokers are 70 percent more likely to need root canal treatment than nonsmokers," explained Dr. Kaye. The research also showed that cigar and pipe smoking, despite being another form of tobacco smoking, had only slight impact on a patient's risk for root canal compared to non-smokers.

"Because fewer men smoked cigars and pipes, we cannot be absolutely positive there's an increased risk there at all," she said.

Besides identifying the risk for root canal treatment, the research also showed the positive effects of quitting. "The total amount time smoked and total time they remained smoke-free was directly related to their risk," said Dr. Kaye.

"For example, the teeth of a man who smoked for less than four years had a likelihood of treatment that was 20 percent greater than that of non-smokers, but the risk doubled in men who smoked anywhere between five and 12 years and was 120 percent greater for men who smoked for more than 12 years. The good news is that after being smoke-free for nine years, the risk returned to the level of men who never smoked," Dr. Kaye noted.

"While our research doesn't explain why the risk is increased among cigarette smokers, we suspect that the body's reduced infection-fighting capabilities as a result of smoking may contribute," concluded Dr. Kaye.

"Other studies have also suggested that smokers experience more dental cavities, which is a major reason for root canal treatment. Hopefully future research will be able to identify the mechanisms that explain why cigarette smokers have more root canal treatments."

 

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Glucosamine and Chondroitin Show Mixed Results in Pain Relief Study

Study finds little benefit from popular supplements

Glucosamine and Chondroitin Show Mixed Results in Pain Relief Study...

A study fings that the popular dietary supplement combination of glucosamine plus chondroitin sulfate did not provide significant relief from osteoarthritis pain among all participants.

However, a smaller subgroup of study participants with moderate-to-severe pain showed significant relief with the combined supplements.

Researchers led by rheumatologist Daniel O. Clegg, M.D., of the University of Utah, School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, conducted the 4-year study known as the Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT) at 16 sites across the United States. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

GAIT enrolled nearly 1,600 participants with documented osteoarthritis of the knee. They were randomly assigned to receive one of five treatments daily for 24 weeks: glucosamine alone (1500 mg), chondroitin sulfate alone (1200 mg), glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate combined (same doses), a placebo, or celecoxib (200 mg).

Celecoxib is an FDA-approved drug for the management of osteoarthritis pain and served as a positive control for the study. (A positive control is a treatment that investigators expect participants to respond to in a predictable way; it helps validate study results.)

A positive response to treatment was defined as a 20 percent or greater reduction in pain at week 24 compared with the start of the study.

The researchers found that participants taking celecoxib experienced statistically significant pain relief, as expected, versus placebo -- about 70 percent of those taking celecoxib versus 60 percent taking placebo had a 20 percent or greater pain reduction.

For all participants, there were no significant differences between the other treatments tested and placebo. However, for participants in the moderate-to-severe pain subgroup, glucosamine combined with chondroitin sulfate provided statistically significant pain relief compared with placebo -- about 79 percent in this group had a 20 percent or greater pain reduction compared to 54 percent for placebo..

In the subgroup of participants with mild pain, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate together or alone did not provide statistically significant relief compared with placebo.

"This rigorous, large-scale study showed that the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate appeared to help people with moderate-to-severe pain from knee osteoarthritis, but not those with mild pain," said Stephen E. Straus, M.D., NCCAM Director. "It is important to study dietary supplements with well-designed research in order to find out what works and what does not."

"Because of the small size of the moderate-to-severe pain subgroup, the findings in this group for glucosamine plus chondroitin sulfate should be considered preliminary and need to be confirmed in a study designed for this purpose," said Dr. Clegg, Professor of Medicine and Chief of Rheumatology at the University of Utah, School of Medicine.

On entering the study, a participant's level of pain was assessed as either mild or moderate to severe using standard pain assessment tools and scales, such as the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC).

Of the 1,583 study participants, 78 percent were in the mild pain subgroup and the other 22 percent were in the moderate-to-severe pain subgroup. Level of pain was evaluated at weeks 4, 8, 16, and 24 using the WOMAC scale and other tools.

In addition to taking their daily study treatment, participants could take up to 4000 mg of acetaminophen daily for pain, except for the 24 hours before they were assessed by study staff. The use of acetaminophen, however, was low, overall averaging fewer than two 500 mg tablets per day.

Participants could not take other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines or narcotic (opioid-based) pain relievers during the study.

"More than 20 million Americans have osteoarthritis, making it a frequent cause of physical disability among adults," said Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., NIAMS Director. "We are excited to support studies looking at new treatment options that could improve the symptoms and quality of life of people with osteoarthritis."

The GAIT team continues its research with a smaller study to see whether glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate can alter the progression of osteoarthritis, such as delaying the narrowing of the joint spaces. About one-half of the participants in the larger GAIT study were eligible to enroll in this ancillary study. The results are expected in about a year.

 

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Travel Web Sites Keep Pace with Explosive Travel Growth

Travel Web Sites Keep Pace with Explosive Travel Growth...

By Dan Schlossberg
ConsumerAffairs.com

Increasing numbers of consumers are counting on the Internet to book or research travel, a plethora of websites are vying for the right to be their primary sources.

According to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), the number of web-based bookings for airlines, hotels, car rentals, and packed tours has more than tripled in the last two years, with 64 million people using the internet to book travel in 2005. They spent an average of $1,288 apiece, an indicator that internet travel transactions has become big business.

Not surprisingly, websites are springing up to seize their share of the pie. Here are some of the best:

  • Airfarewatchdog.com Great for frequent or infrequent flyers, theres a daily low-airfare report (with offers guaranteed) plus links to airline websites
  • Gladtravel.com Finding an inexpensive room in an expensive destination is made easy through this listing of 1,300 lodging alternatives prices under $99
  • Hotelbook.com Ideal for travelers who prefer independent hotels, this site includes 5,000 choices and allows for immediate booking
  • Newyorkology.com Everything you wanted to know about New York but were afraid to ask, this Manhattan-centric site, run by freelancer Amy Langfield, has links to New York news stories and websites, plus such basics as subway information and favorite watering holes
  • Officialtravelguide.com Especially good for North American destinations, this site provides links to convention & visitors bureaus and state tourism offices while also facilitating hotel and vacation bookings
  • Reservemy.com Maps and satellite images target a desired location (like Fenway Park) and show the names and proximity of nearby hotels.
  • Sportsgroupie.com As the name implies, this site is for sports buffs willing to spend big bucks (last-minute tickets to the All-Star Game, World Series, or Super Bowl, plus hotel and flight bookings)
  • Travelpost.com This blog-type site contains reviews of hotels plus photographs posted by travelers but the best part is a personal travel map that allows visitors to plan their journeys
  • Turnhere.com Short travel films, downloadable to iPods, profile 15 states, Washington, and other cities, plus several foreign countries, with an emphasis on neighborhoods and offbeat events
  • Ulivewhere.com Life in exotic places is described by locals in six exotic spots, with more in the mix soon.
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Nationwide Infant Formula Recall

Mead Johnson Formula May Contain Metal Particles

Nationwide Infant Formula Recall...


A recall is being conducted by Mead Johnson Co. for its GENTLEASE powdered infant formula, lot number: BMJ19, use by 1 Jul 07. This lot was found to contain metal particles of up to 2.7 millimeter in size.

No illnesses have been reported to date. However, in the rare instance that an infant were to inhale the infant formula into the lungs, the presence of these particles could present a serious risk to the infant's respiratory system and throat.

Any injuries associated with this problem would be likely to show up within three to four hours. The symptoms could be varied depending on whether there is damage to the throat or lungs.

Damage to the throat or lungs may include coughing, difficulty swallowing or difficulty breathing.

If you may have fed this lot of GENTLEASE to your baby, and you have any concerns about your baby's health, you should contact your baby's physician immediately.

There were approximately 41,464 24-ounce cans of this lot of recalled product distributed, beginning on December 16, 2005, through many major retail stores across the country, so the consumer should concentrate on the code on the can rather than on the place of purchase.

The affected products can be identified by the lot number and expiration/use by date embossed on the bottom of the can of BMJ19, use by 1 Jul 07.

Mead Johnson and the Food and Drug Administration are currently investigating how the metal particles got into the infant formula.

Consumers who have a can of this batch of GENTLEASE powdered infant formula should not use the product and should contact Mead Johnson at 888-587-7275 immediately. -30-
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CardSystems Solutions Settles Federal Charges

Tens of Millions of Consumer Credit and Debit Card Numbers Compromised

"CardSystems kept information it had no reason to keep and then stored it in a way that put consumers' financial information at risk," said Deborah Platt M...


CardSystems Solutions has settled federal charges growing out of the largest known compromise of financial data to date.

CardSystems Solutions, Inc. and its successor, Solidus Networks, Inc., doing business as Pay By Touch Solutions, settled Federal Trade Commission charges that CardSystems' failure to take appropriate security measures to protect the sensitive information of tens of millions of consumers was an unfair practice that violated federal law.

According to the FTC, the security breach resulted in millions of dollars in fraudulent purchases. The settlement will require CardSystems and Pay By Touch to implement a comprehensive information security program and obtain audits by an independent third-party security professional every other year for 20 years.

This is the ninth FTC case targeting companies whose security practices compromised consumers' confidential financial information, and the first the Commission has brought against a credit card processor.

"CardSystems kept information it had no reason to keep and then stored it in a way that put consumers' financial information at risk," said Deborah Platt Majoras, Chairman of the FTC. "Any company that keeps sensitive consumer information must take steps to ensure that the data is held in a secure manner."

According to the FTC, CardSystems provided merchants with products and services used in "authorization processing" -- obtaining approval for credit and debit card purchases from the banks that issued the cards. Last year, it processed about 210 million card purchases, totaling more than $15 billion, for more than 119,000 small and mid-size merchants.

In processing these transactions, CardSystems collected personal information from the magnetic strip of the card, including the card number, expiration date, and other data. CardSystems then stored this information on its computer network.

Pay By Touch acquired CardSystems' assets in December 2005, and now processes transactions for the merchants CardSystems served.

The FTC charged that CardSystems engaged in a number of practices that, taken together, failed to provide reasonable and appropriate security for sensitive consumer information. Specifically, the agency alleges that CardSystems:

• created unnecessary risks to the information by storing it;

• did not adequately assess the vulnerability of its computer network to commonly known or reasonably foreseeable attacks, including "Structured Query Language" injection attacks;

• did not implement simple, low-cost, and readily available defenses to such attacks;

• did not use strong passwords to prevent a hacker from gaining control over computers on its computer network and access to personal information stored on the network;

• did not use readily available security measures to limit access between computers on its network and between its computers and the Internet; and

• failed to employ sufficient measures to detect unauthorized access to personal information or to conduct security investigations.

According to the FTC's complaint, these practices compromised millions of credit and debit cards, and led to millions of dollars in fraudulent purchases.

In addition, after the fraud was discovered, banks cancelled and re-issued thousands of credit cards, and consumers experienced inconvenience, worry, and time loss dealing with the affected cards.

The proposed settlement requires CardSystems and Pay By Touch to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program that includes administrative, technical, and physical safeguards.

The settlement also requires them to obtain -- every two years for the next 20 years -- an audit from a qualified, independent, third-party professional that confirms that its security program meets the standards of the order, and to comply with standard bookkeeping and record-keeping provisions.

This case is similar to prior FTC actions involving alleged failures to secure credit and debit card information. As in the prior cases, CardSystems faces potential liability in the millions of dollars under bank procedures and in private litigation for losses related to the breach.

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Japan's Big Three Take Aim at Gens X and Y

Japanese automakers are targeting young U.S. consumers with advertising designed to sell small, fuel-efficient subcompacts

Japanese automakers are targeting young U.S. consumers with advertising designed to sell small, fuel-efficient subcompacts to Gens X and Y....

Japanese automakers are targeting young U.S. consumers with advertising designed to sell small, fuel-efficient subcompacts to Gens X and Y .

The big three Japanese automakers stand to profit from runaway gas prices as they prepare to roll out a new batch of the small vehicles all the while spelling more trouble for the big three U.S. automakers still obsessed with gas-gulping muscle cars.

America is no longer demanding giant SUVs. Japan seems to know the lesson while Detroit is still learning.

The new subcompacts from Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. will deliver fuel economy in the 30 miles-per-gallon range at prices starting at about $12,000.

The Toyota Yaris sedan and three-door hatchback rolls out in March. The Yaris will be followed by Honda's Fit, a five-door hatchback in April, and Nissan's Versa hatchback in May and a sedan in the fall.

Toyota discovered the younger market with the popular and boxy Scion xB refrigerator look alike Gen X and Y consumers are snapping up. Last year Toyota sold Americans 156,000 cars in the Scion line.

The Asian automakers are counting on these young people who otherwise shop for used cars becoming Honda, Toyota or Nissan loyalists for life, moving up to larger and more profitable models.

"There are 64 million Gen Y buyers coming into the marketplace," said Jim Lentz, Toyota's group vice president and general manager. "We know when they come to market to buy a vehicle, new or used, they will spend on average about $15,000."

The most frequently mentioned reasons for the small-car boom are sustained higher gas prices and higher sticker prices for such popular compact models as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Among American carmakers, only General Motors sells a subcompact. The South Korean Chevrolet Aveo outsold all other subcompacts in the U.S. last year, posting a 20 percent sales hike as dealers sold 68,085 of the cars.

The new entries from Japan are certain to cut into those GM sales numbers.

The Japanese subcompacts, which top out at roughly $15,600 for a top-of-the-line Toyota Yaris, come with a long list of standard and optional equipment. Their modern looks have little resemblance to the boxy cars of three decades ago.

Researcher J.D. Power and Associates expects sales of the smallest, cheapest cars to increase as much as 94% from 2005 to 2010 as new vehicles hit the market.

Subcompacts already are popular in Asia, Europe and South America, based on their better fuel economy and easy-to-park size.

A subcompact is typically 12 to 14 feet long, bumper to bumper. Of the new Japanese subcompacts, the smallest is the Toyota Yaris hatchback at 12.5 feet. A Honda Civic compact sedan is 14.7 feet long.

Known in the auto industry as B-segment cars, subcompacts are big sellers in Asia and Europe, where their size makes them ideal for shooting through traffic and narrow city streets. Fuel economy is important in countries where gasoline is $4.50 to $5.50 a gallon.

 

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FDA Asked to Prohibit use of Carbon Monoxide in Red Meat

A Michigan company has filed a petition asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop the use of carbon monoxide in supermarket meat.

FDA Asked to Prohibit use of Carbon Monoxide in Red Meat...

A Michigan company has filed a petition asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop the use of carbon monoxide in supermarket meat.

The use of carbon monoxide deceives consumers and creates an unnecessary risk of food poisoning by enabling meat and ground beef to remain fresh-looking beyond the point at which typical color changes would indicate ageing or bacterial spoilage, according to Kalsec, Inc. of Kalamazoo, Michigan, a privately-held supplier of natural spice, herb, hop, and vegetable extracts for use in food, beverage, and pharmaceutical applications

Kalsec's petition urged the FDA to withdraw its July 2004 decision and related decisions to allow the presence of carbon monoxide in meat packaging.

"The FDA should not have accepted carbon monoxide in meat without doing its own independent evaluation of the safety implications," said Elizabeth Campbell, former head of FDA's Office of Food Labeling and now a consultant with AAC Consulting Group.

The FDA accepted the practice under its "Generally Recognized As Safe" procedure, meaning that the FDA conducted no independent safety investigations on its own, but instead relied on industry claims, research and documentation.

Carbon monoxide makes meat appear fresher than it actually is by reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to create carboxymyoglobin, a bright red pigment that masks the natural aging and spoilage of meats.

Carbon monoxide-treated meats are currently being sold to consumers without any notice that the meat has been treated with carbon monoxide.

"Carbon monoxide simulates the appearance of freshness, so consumers may actually believe meat is fresh and safe when it may be neither," said Dr. Don Berdahl, Vice President and Technical Director of Kalsec. "We hope the FDA acts quickly to end this deceptive, potentially dangerous practice."

The appearance of meat, and specifically its color, is the primary factor in consumers' decisions to buy a product, Berdahl said. The use of carbon monoxide in meat makes it impossible for consumers to know with certainty about the meat's freshness merely by looking at it.

Treating meat with carbon monoxide could hide the growth of pathogens, such as Clostridium Botulinum, Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

If meat is bought spoiled, refrigerated improperly or used after these pathogens begin to grow, even proper cooking might not be sufficient to render the food safe to eat, because certain bacteria produce toxins that survive the cooking process, he said.

The petition claims the FDA illegally accepted the use of carbon monoxide. It is precisely because of the potential for carbon monoxide to mask the appearance of aging or spoilage and promote consumer deception that FDA regulations under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) expressly prohibit the use of carbon monoxide in "fresh meat products."

Moreover, the petition claims the FDA did not have legal authority to permit the use of carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging because it is an unapproved and prohibited color additive, and the agency bypassed the required procedure for carbon monoxide to obtain a color additive designation, a necessary precondition for making it legal to use carbon monoxide in fresh meat packaging, according to the petitioners.

Regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) prohibit the introduction of ingredients in fresh meat that function to conceal damage or inferiority, or give the appearance the product is of better or greater value.

"The use of carbon monoxide in meat should not have been allowed without independent study of the serious consumer safety and deception implications," said Dr. Berdahl.

"At the very least, the public has a right to know about the use of carbon monoxide in their food. If the FDA won't prohibit it, the government should require a label that informs consumers about the presence of carbon monoxide and the health dangers it presents."

The use of carbon monoxide has been banned in other countries. In 2003, the European Union prohibited the use of carbon monoxide in meat and tuna.

The European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food said, "the stable cherry-color can last beyond the microbial shelf life of the meat and thus mask spoilage."(1) Several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore also ban the use of carbon monoxide in tuna.

 

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"Verification" Phishing Scam Hits Indiana

Scammers passing themselves off as the "Nationwide Verification Office" have popped up in Indiana this month

"It is encouraging that callers to this office have been on alert and not victimized by this scam. Letting the bad guys know we are onto them can help stop...

Scammers passing themselves off as the "Nationwide Verification Office" have popped up in Indiana this month. Indiana Attorney General Steve Bell says the scam that has targeted mostly seniors in other states has been reported recently all across the Hoosier state.

"Callers representing themselves as from Nationwide Verification Office are calling Hoosiers and selling them a story that their bank accounts have been compromised and they need to verify their routing numbers and other personal information," Carter said.

"It is encouraging that callers to this office have been on alert and not victimized by this scam. Letting the bad guys know we are onto them can help stop this activity."

Similar schemes have been reported recently in Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.

In some instances, consumers have been told their banking account information has been posted on the Internet and they need to verify the account number so that the information doesnt "get into the wrong hands."

Illinois residents were asked for their account information so that it can be deleted from a so-called "federal banking system." Consumers are asked to verify their bank account number, or to read it and the bank routing numbers found at the bottom of their checks.

Carter is warning Hoosiers to guard their personal and financial information carefully from unsolicited callers.

"Bad things can happen when the wrong people get a hold of social security, bank account, and credit card numbers," Carter added.

"Accounts can be drained before you realize what has happened, and fraudulent credit established under your name. Rectifying these events can take years and hundreds of dollars."

Consumers contacted by the so-called Nationwide Verification Office are urged to hang up and report the call to authorities in their state.

 

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Cooper Recalls Pickup, SUV Tires

Cooper Recalls Pickup, SUV Tires...

February 16, 2006
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. is recalling 288,000 replacement tires used on passenger cars and light trucks because of concerns about slow leaks and cracking in the tires.

The company will replace the tires for free. Cooper Tire & rubber is warning owners to avoid driving at highway speeds until the tires are inspected and replaced.

Roughly 183,000 tires manufactured between February 2004 and January 21 are on the recall list because of a slow leak that may be caused by a contamination problem the upper sidewall.

The models, used on pickups and sport utility vehicles include the Cooper Discoverer S/T, Dean Mud Terrain Radial SXT, Durango Radial XTR, Mastercraft Courser C/T, Dick Cepek Radial F-C II, Mesa C/T, Pro Comp Xtreme A/T and Tempra Trailcutter Radial RT.

Cooper Tire & Rubber said an additional 101,000 tires used on passenger cars are being recalled because of cracking found during testing.

These tires were made from November 2004 to July 2005 and include the Dean Alpha 365 A/S, Mastercraft A/S, Starfire Flite-line IV and Trendsetter SE.

Cooper Tire was also recalling more than 3,000 of the Cooper Zeon 2XS and Mastercraft Avenger ZHP because of cracking in the sidewall.

The Ohio-based tiremaker reports there have been no known crashes or injuries linked to the recalled tires. Cooper Tire & Rubber produces 40 million tires each year, according to the company.



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Victim Of Charity Check-Cashing Scam Fights Back

Increasingly, scammers are targeting people looking for jobs on many of the established Internet job sites. One victim has spent the last few months fighti...


Increasingly, scammers are targeting people looking for jobs on many of the established Internet job sites. One victim has spent the last few months fighting back.

 

"Initially I was contacted by email with the offer of a job with a 'charity' as a donations processor. The email was made to look like it came from Careerbuilder.com," Ramona Kurylas, a Colorado graphic designer, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

The email looked very official, with the Careerbuilder.com logo. It offered to hire Kurylas as someone who would receive large checks and deposit them for distribution to people in need.

"I received a Federal Express envelope with a cashiers check in the amount of $7,500 and was told to deposit it in my bank and let my superior know when I had the money available."

The bank released $100 immediately, which Kurylas wired to the scammer, but because the amount of the check was more than $5,000 they placed a hold on the rest.

Fortunately for Kurylas, the check was returned, stamped "counterfeit," five days later but before she could wire the funds.

"I was shocked that it had happened to me. I thought I was pretty smart and could avoid any email scams. I was embarrassed and humiliated and thought, this just isn't right," she said.

Almost overnight, Kurylas became an anti-scam crusader. She converted her personal Web site (www.webnetpresence.com) into a warning about the charity check processing scam and teamed with a fellow victim to expose the scam. It wasn't long before she began to hear from fellow victims.

"Since October I've been contacted by 200 people who have been victimized by this same scam. This difference is most of the people contacting me lost a lot more money."

Kurylas believes the scammer has started sending smaller checks, usually about $4,500, because banks must release funds for checks under $5,000 right away. In her case a delay gave the bank time to discover the forgery. More recent victims haven't been so fortunate.

Kurylas says the scam mutates almost like a virus, changing the name of the organization and the contact person frequently. But she says the scammer continues to mine job search sites for potential victims. Her advice?

"Interview the person offering you the job, just like they should interview you. Ask them how long they've been in business, who founded the company, ask for references," Kurylas said.

"If you are posting your resume online, do not ever put any of your contact information in the body of the resume."

Careerbuilder.com provides a link at the bottom of its home page labeled "fraud," which goes to a page warning consumers about a number of online frauds and how to avoid them.

"I don't think that's adequate. I think that fraud link should be at the top of the page, and in bold print," Kurylas said.

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Discover Debit Card Challenges Visa and MasterCard

Discover announced that it was introducing Discover Debit, its own debit card brand

Discover Debit Card Challenges Visa and MasterCard...

Two recent actions involving the Discover Financial Services company have positioned it to challenge Visa and MasterCard for dominance in the multibillion-dollar credit and debit card market, and have raised the stakes in the battle between banks, merchants, and consumers over the hidden fees involved in using plastic for purchases.

Discover announced that it was introducing Discover Debit, its own debit card brand, to compete with Visa and MasterCard's debit offerings and increase its profile as a full-service payment company.

In a statement announcing the venture on Feb. 13th, Discover CEO David W. Nelms touted the move as "a highly appealing alternative for financial institutions, merchants and consumers."

"The launch of Discover Debit builds on this with a new, uncomplicated approach to signature debit that provides convenience and broad acceptance to cardholders," said Nelms, "as well as security and competitive program features to financial institutions."

Discover touted its new card as offering more attractive features than the competition, including zero liability in case of fraud, clear pricing and billing rules, and better security.

Most attractive to merchants, however, was Discover's announcement that it would be dropping its "No Surcharge" rule when processing merchant transactions.

The "No Surcharge" rule prevented merchants from passing the costs of card transactions on to consumers via tacking on extra fees.

Merchants, in turn, have to pay higher "interchange" fees when processing card transactions, and end up making less money than when customers pay cash.

Discover Financial agreed to drop its "No Surcharge" rule in negotiations over a merchant-backed class action suit against the rule, and was dropped from the suit.

Leveling the Playing Field

Discover's actions are a direct challenge to Visa and MasterCard's dominance in the credit and debit market, coming at a time of increasing consumer awareness of the "hidden fees" they pay to use credit and debit cards.

The "No Surcharge" class action suit is being combined with a separate class action suit challenging Visa and MasterCard's control of interchange fees for merchants.

Photo shop owner Mitch Goldstone is one of the principal litigants in the interchange fee lawsuit. He hailed Discover's dropping of the "No Surcharge" rule as a smart move, and predicted that "Discover Financial is poised to garner substantial support from merchants and consumers."

Goldstone has repeatedly targeted Visa and MasterCard for what he has called "illegal price fixing," through setting excessive processing fees that merchants have to pay when customers use plastic instead of cash.

"While Visa and MasterCard have their heads in the sand, Discover made a brilliant marketing coup which is getting noticed by retailers and cardholders, " Goldstone said.

Discover Financial is owned by New York-based securities and investment firm Morgan Stanley. The firm recently agreed to pay $15 million as part of a settlement with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) for failing to retain e-mail records of its activities.

 

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Mercury Levels Rising In Sport Fish

Recreational anglers may be getting more than they bargain for in the fish they hook

Recreational anglers may be getting more than they bargain for in the fish they hook, according to the international ocean conservation group Oceana....

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California Sues H&R Block

High-Cost Refund Loans Being Marketed as "Instant" Tax Refund

TITLE...

 


California Attorney General Bill Lockyer today sued H&R; Block alleging the tax preparation giant has violated 15 state and federal laws in marketing and providing high-cost refund anticipation loans (RALs), mainly to low-income families.

Damages could total "hundreds of millions" of dollars, Lockyer said.

"Millions of Californians have placed their trust in H&R; Block, and unfortunately H&R; Block has repaid them by violating that trust," said Lockyer.

"In marketing and selling these expensive loans, H&R; Block has profited greatly, but deceived consumers, violated their privacy rights and taken money from California families who can least afford it."

The lawsuit seeks to hold the company accountable for unlawful business practices, prevent future violations and compensate victims, Lockyer added.

Lockyer filed the complaint in San Francisco Superior Court, along with a request that the court issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit H&R Block from engaging in deceptive debt collection practices related to RALs.

The complaint asks the court to require the defendants to pay restitution to harmed consumers, plus at least $20 million in civil penalties. The complaint does not specify the total restitution amount, but Lockyer estimat ed the maximum could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The defendants include H&R; Block, Inc. and the following subsidiaries of the Kansas City, Missouri-based firm: H&R; Block Services, Inc.; H&R; Block Enterprises, Inc.; H&R; Block Tax Services, Inc.; Block Financial Corporation; and HRB Royalty, Inc.

The complaint alleges the H&R; Block defendants have violated 15 state and federal laws that regulate debt collection practices and contracts, and prohibit false or deceptive advertising, unfair business practices, and unauthorized use or sharing of individuals tax return information.

As described in the complaint, RALs are loans provided to taxpayers, secured by their expected refund. Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit H&R; Block from providing the loans itself, so it contracts with banks for that purpose.

H&R; Block, however, provides clients the loan applications, fills out the applications, sends the applications to the banks, and distributes the loan checks to customers.

How It Works

In a typical case, the program works like this:

A customer comes into an H&R; Block branch office. A "tax professional" calculates the customers taxes and determines they are owed a refund. The customer signs up for a RAL.

If the bank approves the application, H&R; Block ultimately provides the customer a check not for the full tax refund amount, but for the estimated refund, minus loan fees, tax preparation fees and other charges. Depending on the amount of refund, those fees can force customers to pay the equivalent of annual interest exceeding 500 percent, according to the complaint.

Since 2001, the complaint alleges, Californians have bought more than 1.5 million RALs from H&R; Block, "generating tens of millions of dollars in income for Block." H&R; Block has received a "substantial portion of the loan fees," according to the complaint, and has purchased up to 49.9 percent of the loans.

To illustrate how H&R; Blocks RAL progr am targets low-income families, the complaint notes recipients of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) comprise 70 percent of the companys customers for RALs and similar products, even though EITC recipients account for just 17 percent of all taxpayers. The federal government established the EITC to benefit low-income workers and their families.

H&R; Block holds itself out as a tax preparer and adviser that consumers can trust. But to maximize its RAL revenue, the complaint alleges, H&R; Block has failed to adequately inform customers they can keep more of their income throughout the year and not have to wait for a refund at tax time.

Advertised as "Refunds"

Additionally, H&R; Blocks marketing of RALs has been deceptive in a number of ways, according to the complaint.

Advertisements have portrayed RALs as a "refund" or "instant money," and falsely told consumers that RAL recipients get "cash, cold, green, in your hand, out the door."

In reality, the complaint alleges, the refund is a loan, the cash is a check, and the check is for substantially less than the refund, after the loan fees and other charges are deducted.

Further, according to the complaint, H&R; Block frequently has steered customers to companies that charge fees to cash RAL checks, with H&R; Block getting a kickback on a portion of those fees. H&R; Block has failed to adequately disclose these arrangements to consumers, the complaint alleges.

Debt Collection Scheme

H&R; Block also participates with banks and other entities in a deceptive debt collection scheme under the banner of its RAL program, the complaint alleges.

RAL customers are liable for paying fees and paying back the borrowed money if their anticipated refund does not materialize, for whatever reason.

When a customer allegedly owes that debt, H&R; Block still will sell them a new RAL when they come to H&R; Block in a subsequent year to get their taxes prepared. H&R; Block does not adequately tell such customers about any alleged debts, or that when they sign the new RAL application, they agree to automatic debt collection including collection on alleged RAL-related debts from other tax preparers or banks.

These applications are denied, and the customers anticipated refund is used to pay off the debt, plus a fee. "Therefore, Block clients who are claimed to owe debt from a prior year are led to expect a loan, but instead find themselves in a collection proceeding," the complaint alleges.

Additionally, according to the complaint, H&R; Block has used and shared customers tax-return information without clients written consent, in violation of state and federal law. H&R; Block has illegally shared customers information, and unlawfully used clients tax return information for marketing RALs, home mortgages and other financial products, and to collect debts, the complaint alleges.

 

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GM Regional Truck Recall Stops Short

North or South, Trucks Don't Stop

GM Regional Truck Recall Stops Short...

Owners of General Motors trucks and SUVs in 30 states not covered by the GM regional recall continue to struggle with malfunctioning anti-lock brakes. Owners in the 20 states and the District of Columbia covered by the recall are struggling with GM dealers reluctant to fix the brakes as part of the recall.

Because of the well-documented problem, the anti-lock brake system in some of GM pickups and SUVs sometimes does not work properly causing increased stopping distances during low-speed braking.

GM, in December, expanded its recall of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks to include another 553,000 vehicles because of potential problems with the anti-lock braking system and raising the number of states covered by the regional recall to 20.

The automaker had recalled 804,000 full-size pickup trucks and SUVs in August in 14 states because of the brake problem.

In all, 1,357,000 pickups and SUVs are now part of the massive GM recall and things are not going well for truck owners or the automaker.

GM continues to insist that the problem with its anti-lock system is regionally based, stemming from road salt in cold-weather states. Corrosion from salt gets in between the surface of the wheel hub and the anti-lock brake sensor, pushing the sensor farther away from the bearings, according to the GM explanation.

The vehicle computer then receives a false reading of speed, causing the anti-lock brakes to engage at the wrong time.

Danny in Greenville, North Carolina, disagrees that it is a regional problem. He told ConsumerAffairs.com: "I've had many close calls due to ABS engaging and pedal going to floor. It happens when hitting road bumps while depressing the brake pedal to slow vehicle."

The anti-lock brake malfunctions have nothing to do with weather conditions or geography Danny insists.

"I've seen the recalls on northern trucks allegedly relating to snow and salt but this is a more serious issue relating to all of their 1999 trucks," Danny writes. "I have learned how to compensate for its faulty brakes but it's only a matter of time before the right situation arises and I'll be at the auto body shop like many others who've encountered the same situation."

For those covered by the recall, Chevrolet and GMC dealers remove the anti-lock brake sensors and clean the wheel-bearing casings. The casings are then coated with a rust-proofing compound.

Dealer Roadblocks

Despite new GM promises to fix the brake problem regardless of where a vehicle is registered, some owners say they face dealer roadblocks when they bring their trucks in for repair.

Sandy in Midland, Virginia, paid for new brakes in her 2001 Silverado herself, not withstanding the GM promise to fix the problem. "I had to have all 4 rotors and brakes replaced. I don't think this is acceptable."

Kevin, who also lives in Virginia, faced a similar situation when his truck became too difficult to drive because he needed extra distance to stop.

The bill from GM to repair his brakes that would be covered by the recall in 20 other states reached almost $900.

"I'm beside myself," he said "If I was two miles away in Maryland, I'd be covered by the recall."

Silverado owners in states included in the recall are reporting dealership problems and unwilling service managers to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Joe in Howell, New Jersey owns a 2002 Silverado with 11,560 miles on the truck. "I took the truck into the dealer on January 10 for a brake issue recall. Some hours later the dealer called me and informed me that I needed 4 brake rotors. He stated that it wasn't covered under the warranty or the recall," Joe wrote.

A number of truck owners have removed a fuse to deactivate their anti-lock brakes, preferring conventional brakes to a system that was unreliable.

Donnie in Troy, Alabama has owned five Silverado trucks.

"The 2003 that I have now has the least response when the brake pedal is engaged than any I have owned. I must leave several car lengths between me and the vehicle in front of me in order to avoid accidents," Donnie wrote.

"The dealer assured there is nothing 'wrong' with my brakes," Donnie told us.

Federal regulators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)) are uncertain that problems generated by the GM recall are a result of regional nature of the recall. NHTSA insists, however that the agency is listening to consumers.

"We encourage people to call our hotline and make us aware of their problems. We also encourage them to call their dealers," a NHTSA spokesman said.

Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA and president of Public Citizen was more pointed in her criticism of regional recalls. "It's a financial issue. Recalls are expensive, and automakers don't want to do them."

Silverado owners say the real issue is simply the stopping distance of their trucks: the brakes don't work properly and GM has not taken adequate steps to fix the problem.

 

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Debit Cards Canceled After Security Breach

Several maor banks have canceled the debit cards of as many as 200,000 customers in the last week, after reports that the databases of a major office-suppl...


If you're a customer with a major bank chain, and you're finding that your debit card suddenly doesn't work, you may be one of the victims of the latest alleged data security breach.

Several maor banks have canceled the debit cards of as many as 200,000 customers in the last week, after reports that the databases of a major office-supply retailer were hacked.

The thieves obtained personal information including names, debit card numbers, and the personal identification numbers (PINs) used to authorize transactions.

The FBI and Secret Service are pursuing the investigation, which so far centers around reports of fraudulent charges from both Wal-Mart's Sam's Club division, and possibly from national retailer OfficeMax.

The mystery began when Bank of America customers received notices that their debit cards were canceled in early February, due to an unidentified "third-party" breach. Bank of America promised to replace the debit cards as soon as possible, but did not provide customers with any more detail about the incident.

Bank of America was joined by Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual, both of which issued notices to certain customers that they were canceling and replacing their debit cards due to a similar breach.

All three banks have remained silent on the incident, claiming that the investigation is ongoing and that they cannot reveal any more detail. Investigators are also keeping mum, leaving frustrated consumers seemingly in the dark.

Multiple Breaches?

But the trail doesn't end there. CNET staff writer Greg Sandoval reported that Wal-Mart had notified the public of a potential data breach in Dec. 2005, centered around Sam's Club customers who had bought gas at Sam's Club gas stations between Sept. and Oct. 2005.

Merchant card processor CardSystems had reported to Visa and MasterCard that there was a potential data breach of Wal-Mart's records in Nov. 2005, according to eWeek. At least one bank, Regions Financial, promptly canceled and reissued 100,000 debit cards after the news.

Another suspect is retail chain OfficeMax. The FBI had already been investigating a breach involving the Golden 1 credit union in Sacramento, California in Nov. 2005, which led the credit union to cancel 1,500 members' cards.

Although the agency declined to provide specifics, sources claim the breach occurred at a retail chain store in Sacramento, and that many of the affected customers in both breaches had shopped at OfficeMax in recent months.

OfficeMax spokesman William Bonner said that to his knowledge, no fraud or security breach had occurred. There has been no statement indicating that the two breaches are connected.

CardSystems itself is notorious for its failure to protect the data of 40 million Visa and MasterCard users from a ring of identity thieves, which led to 263,000 accounts being usurped.

Speculation exists that the CardSystems data breach may also have led to thousands of cardholders getting hit with "spam charges" in what is now called the "Digital Age Fraud."

CardSystems was sold to payment processing company PayByTouch, which specializes in biometric identification. Visa had initially threatened to terminate its business relationship with CardSystems after the data breach, but agreed to continue doing business with the company until its sale to PayByTouch is complete, as of January 21st.

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New Scam Combines Phony Checks With Secret Shopping

A dangerous hybrid of secret shopper and phony check scams is showing up

New Scam Combines Phony Checks With Secret Shopping...

A dangerous hybrid of secret shopper and phony check scams is showing up in several parts of the country. Already a number of unwary consumers have become ensnared.

Capitalizing on the popularity of "mystery shopping," in which consumers are recruited to monitor the performance of retail businesses, scammers are making big withdrawals from victims bank accounts.

"Secret Shoppers sent me a package by FedEx asking me to do a secret shopping assignment. The assignment was to cash a cashiers check and then send a moneygram from the local Wal-Mart," Mark, of Jonesboro, Arkansas, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Mark thought he was monitoring MoneyGram's performance, but the scammer, using the name "Secret Shoppers," sent a phony check. Mark, using MoneyGram, wired his own money about $3,000 to the scammer.

After he wired his money, the check from the scammer bounced.

"My wife and I are at a point of financial ruin. We have had to take out a loan to cover the amount of the check," he said.

 

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Illinois May Require More Protection For Online Dating

Illinois May Require More Protection For Online Daters...

 


A bill in the Illinois legislature would require online dating services to learn more about their members than their favorite colors and pet peeves. For instance, do they have a criminal record?

Illinois State Representative John Bradley says currently a death row inmate, an identity thief, or a con artist could be signed up for any of the online dating services and potential partners wouldn't have a clue.

Bradley's bill would require any online dating service with members in Illinois to disclose on their Web sites whether they have conducted background checks on members.

"I was shocked to learn that online dating services provide no kind of background check," Bradley said during a legislative hearing.

Bradley's legislation, which was approved by the committee and sent to the full House for consideration, is designed to give dating service customers more information about the people they may go out with. For starters, if someone has a criminal record, that would have to be noted online. Service providers who violate the act would face a $1,000 fine per violation.

Online dating services that did not want to abide by the new rule would be forced to exclude all Illinois residents from membership.

 

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Circumcision May Protect Against Cervical Cancer

Women who have sex with circumcised men have a much lower risk of developing cervical cancer

Circumcision May Protect Against Cervical Cancer...

Women who have sex with circumcised men have a much lower risk of developing cervical cancer than those who have relations with men who haven't been circumcised.

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, doctors studied a large group of women in various age groups.

They found that women who had sex with partners with foreskins had a higher cancer rate than those who did not. The more sex partners they had, the greater their risk.

Women who had relations with many high-risk men had twice the cancer risk of other women. Why? We don't know for sure.

While circumcision may help women prevent cancer, it also has at least one potential health benefit for men: It may cut the risk of urinary tract infections.

Circumcision does cause pain in male infants and remains largely a cultural choice.

 

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Apple Faces Another iPod Lawsuit

iPod Nano is Cool But Delicate, Suit Charges

Apple Faces Another iPod Lawsuit...


A consumer group has filed yet another lawsuit against Apple, claiming its popular iPod Nano music player, marketed for its sleek beauty, cannot withstand normal use without becoming severely scratched, often to the point where its screen is unreadable. The suit was filed in San Mateo Superior Court in California.

Moreover, the plaintiffs charge, Apple is refusing to give refunds to purchasers who bought the defective product, while forcing others to pay a $25 fee to get a replacement that is supposed to be "free" under Apple's warranty.

The suit, brought against Apple Computer, Inc. under the state's consumer protection laws on behalf of California purchasers of the recently-introduced Nano, demands that Apple recall and repair the defect, without charge, or refund the purchase price to dissatisfied customers.

The Los Angeles-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) is a party to the suit.

Reports of problems with the Nano became apparent within a few weeks of its introduction last fall, with many consumers complaining in chatrooms on the Internet.

Apple has acknowledged there is a problem, at first urging customers to buy a third party cover. Apple now supplies a "sleeve" to cover the Nano.

"Selling 'cool' stuff isn't 'cool' if the stuff doesn't work as advertised and Apple fails to comply with its obligations under its warranty and California laws," said consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield, a lawyer for FTCR.

"Like every other industry, Apple must fix products that are defective for free, and refund the costs incurred by its customers."

The lawsuit notes that many Nano users pay substantial additional money purchasing music and videos on Apple's iTunes web site. The iPods, including the Nano, are the only portable devices on which iTunes downloads can be played.

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No Quick Fix for Junk Faxes

Junk faxes are a frequent source of complaints

Most of the faxes Debra receives are for get-rich-quick investment scams or dubious travel offers, none of which she's ever applied for or asked for hersel...

Debra B's fax machine literally keeps her awake at night. The Troy, N.Y., native "receives countless unwanted faxes at all hours of the day and night, which means that our phone rings [constantly]."

Most of the faxes Debra receives are for get-rich-quick investment scams or dubious travel offers, none of which she's ever applied for or asked for herself.

"I have done some online research and discovered that I am far from alone when it comes to getting these intrusive calls/faxes," Debra said.

Debra is, indeed, far from alone when it comes to receiving unsolicited fax transmissions, or "junk faxes." Junk faxes are a frequent source of complaints for us at ConsumerAffairs.com, as they waste paper, take up business time, and clog up phone lines right when you need to send out important faxes yourself.

Paula W, an Alexandria, Va.-based writer and editor, also frequently suffers sleepless nights from junk faxes.

"My office is off of my bedroom, and I am tired of being woken up at night by the fax machine, usually for some 'hot' stock tip. I always call the number at the bottom to get taken off the distribution list. Fortunately, I never get scads, and they seem to come in waves. But sometimes it is one every night," she said.

Paula not only has to cope with the annoyance of losing work and leisure time from junk faxes, but paying for the paper and ink costs when her supplies get eaten up with each incoming fax blast.

They're Illegal

Unsolicited faxes are illegal under federal law. The FCC has defined junk faxes as an "unsolicited advertisement," or "any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services which is transmitted to any person without that person's prior express invitation or permission."

Recipients of junk faxes can sue the sender for a minimum of $500 per violation, and can seek a block against receiving further faxes. Many states have even stronger injunctions against sending unsolicited faxes.

Steve Kirsch, creator of the anti-junk fax Website Junkfax.org, won a $40,000 judgment against junk fax advertiser First Chartered Investments in Sept. 2004, at $2,500 per fax plus $156 in costs.

Big Business

So if junk faxing is illegal and a lawsuit-worthy offense, why do so many of us still get them?

The answer is in the "Junk Fax Prevention Act (JFPA)," passed by Congress in June 2004. The JFPA amended the original Telecommunications Privacy Act (TCPA) to codify unsolicited faxes as being illegal.

However, in amending the TCPA, the JFPA's author, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OH), inserted a clause that enabled unsolicited faxes to be sent if the recipient and sender had an "existing business relationship."

Any individuals who did business with each other in a seven-year-window would be considered as having an existing business relationship, and thus could receive faxes without consent under Smith's provision.

Critics of the law said this rendered the JCPA fairly useless, as many businesses that send blasts of junk faxes will use even the flimsiest of pretenses to establish an existing business relationship.

According to Steve Kirsch, "the definition of an EBR is so loose that it will be trivial for junk faxers to establish an EBR with virtually any business or consumer."

"A spammer can establish an EBR with your company just by visiting your website, calling your phone, or sending an e-mail (provided someone replies, even an auto-responder)," Kirsch states on his Web site. "That gives them the right to legally send advertising to your fax machine."

Although the JPFA specified strict rules for allowing "opt outs" of junk faxes, such as providing names and numbers for recipients to contact in order to stop receiving junk faxes, many complain that the information is invalid, outdated, or ignored.

The JFPA also allowed states to go further in setting strict anti-junk fax laws. California recently passed a law making all unsolicited fax transmissions illegal in California unless the sender obtains the express, written consent of the recipient beforehand.

The law was scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1st, 2006, but the Chamber of Commerce, a powerful and increasingly aggressive business lobby, is challenging the law in court. The Chamber claims the law sets an unreasonable cost burden on businesses through having to collect prior permission.

The Indiana state legislature passed its own bill outlawing junk faxes, but it also contains the "existing business relationship" clause. State Attorney General Steve Carter stated that junk faxes "are not only an annoyance, but they waste paper and ink too."

Virginia businessman Robert Simanski couldn't agree more. " I have a standalone fax machine and have been collecting junk faxes for a few months now. I don't get that many, and I'm undecided as to what I will do about them, but they outnumber the legitimate faxes that I receive."

"I resent fax spammers who use up my toner and paper," Simanski said. "Why should I bear the cost? Half the time, the opt-out phone numbers don't work."

What You Can Do

Switch to Web faxing. Web-based e-mail fax services such as eFax and Faxaway enable fax documents to be sent as e-mail attachments, but are received as fax documents. Web-based faxing can cut down on the costs for a second phone line, paper and ink, and can drastically reduce junk faxing.

Contact your state legislature and the FCC. Your state may have strong laws against junk faxing already on the books, but they need evidence to support any claim. Web sites such as Junkfax.org and Junkfaxes.org have comprehensive instructions on how to get the law on the case of junk faxing.

File a claim for damages. You can potentially win hundreds or thousands of dollars in small claims court if you can prove that you received unsolicited faxes from anyone who does not have a clearly established business relationship with you.

 

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Female Hormones May Affect Allergies, Asthma

Irregular menstrual cycles may increase a young woman's chances of developing allergies and asthma

Irregular menstrual cycles may increase a young woman's chances of developing allergies and asthma. That's the conclusion of an article published in the jo...

Irregular menstrual cycles may increase a young woman's chances of developing allergies and asthma. That's the conclusion of an article published in the journal Thorax.

Researchers in Norway surveyed 6,100 non-pregnant women and followed them for eight years. In women ages 26 to 42, irregular periods raised the risk of asthma by 54 percent.

Irregular periods raised the risk of hay fever by 29 percent -- a huge increase.

Older women did not have a clear link between their periods and health.

This study and others have found that female sex hormones can affect a woman's chance of developing allergies and asthma. For example, a third of pregnant women with asthma stay the same, a third get worse and a third get better because of their different sensitivity towards hormones.

Some women get worse asthma and allergies just before their periods, when their hormones change.

Women with allergies and asthma should discuss the situation with their physician. A better understanding of hormones could lead to better treatments in the future.

 

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Baby's Death Puts Urgency in Graco Crib Recall

Baby's Death Puts Urgency in Graco Crib Recall...


The death of a 19-month baby in Myrtle Creek, Ore., is putting new urgency into recall of about 104,000 Graco cribs manufactured by Simplicity, Inc.

The child died on January 6, 2006, after two of the mattress support slats came out of his recalled crib, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said. He became entrapped between the mattress and the footboard of the crib and suffocated.

CPSC and Simplicity Inc. announced the recall of about 104,000 Aspen 3 in 1 Cribs on December 21, 2005.

The recall was conducted because the screws on the wooden mattress supports can come loose, allowing a portion of the mattress to fall. This poses a suffocation hazard to young children who can slide down and become entrapped between the unsupported mattress and end of the crib.

Prior to the report of this death, Simplicity Inc. received 14 reports of the mattress supports coming loose, including eight reports of entrapment. Five injuries were reported including scratches and bruises to the face and head, a strained neck and a report of a child turning blue.

Although the Graco logo appears on these products, the cribs were manufactured by Simplicity Inc. Consumers should only contact Simplicity about this recall, the CPSC said.

The recalled cribs are made of wood and have wooden mattress supports. Only cribs with wooden mattress supports and with model number 8740KCW SC and serial number 2803 SC (made the 28th week of 2003) to 1605 SC (made the 16th week of 2005) are included in this recall. The model and serial number are printed on the envelope attached to the mattress support.

The recalled cribs were sold in department and childrens product stores from August 2003 through May 2005 for about $130.

To receive a free repair kit or for more information, contact Simplicity Inc. at (800) 784-1982 anytime, or visit the Web site at www.simplicityforchildren.com.

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Real Estate Markets Turn Chilly

There's more evidence that the once red-hot real estate market is cooling rapidly

Real Estate Markets Turn Chilly...

There's more evidence that the once red-hot real estate market is cooling rapidly.

Lenders are getting nervous about defaults as interest rates rise, foreclosures continue to increase in overpriced markets, and some Realtors are getting into disputes over their sales figures.

Luxury home builders Toll Brothers announced that it was lowering its estimated home sales guidance for 2006, due to what it called "softening demand."

The company claimed an increased backlog of home units by 22 percent as of Jan. 31st, equaling roughly $6 billion. But actual signed contracts and sales dropped by 21 percent to $1.14 billion, a 21 percent drop from the same time frame in 2005.

The company attributed the market slowdown to difficulties in providing utilities and construction inspections to new homes, according to a Reuters report.

Toll Brothers had previously warned the market that 2006 would see a slower pace of home sales, but that the business would remain fundamentally strong.

Many regional markets are seeing not only slowdowns in home sales, but increases in foreclosures. Two different real estate groups in Massachusetts have reported differing figures for drops in home sales in the state.

The Massachusetts Realtors' Association's year-end report claimed a 3.5 percent drop in home sales for 2005. The Warren Group, a New England-based real estate services firm, claimed that the drop was actually 7.6 percent, according to the Boston Globe.

The Realtors' Association claimed the disparity was due to their records' strict focus on realtor-based sales. Their records do not include "for sale by owner" transactions or other types of home sales.

Both associations reported high gains in condo sales in Massachusetts, with the Warren Group's stats at a 12 percent increase from 2004, while the Realtors' Association saw a gain of 3.8 percent.

Another increase for Massachusetts was much less pleasant. Foreclosures shot up by 35 percent through the end of 2005, seeing an increase from 7,003 in 2004 to 9,439 in Oct. 2005.

The explosion in foreclosures was attributed to the proliferation of "creative" borrowing options, such as no-document loans or "interest-only" adjustable-rate mortgages.

The Washington, D.C. metro area, another housing-frenzied market, has been seeing slowdowns in home sales and purchases as well. The Northern Virginia Realtors' Association reported a 24 percent decline of existing home sales in its market as compared to 2004.

The D.C. area is experiencing a "glut" of condo building and inventory, according to a Jan. 31st Washington Post report.

The shift from single-family homes to condos as the ownership vehicle of choice may lead to excessive development, and more potential for the condos to go unsold or the developers to default.

All of the worry over the softening market has led at least one realtor association to stop sharing its data altogether. The Santa Barbara Realtors' Association told local reporters that it would stop providing data on new and existing home sales from its records.

According to the Santa Barbara News-Press, overall home sales for 2005 dropped by 12 percent from 2004. The area is widely considered to be the most overpriced in the country, with median home prices at $1.25 million for 2005.

David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, claimed that "Sometimes people lose sight of the fact that real estate is cyclicalsales will continue at a historically high pace with modestly higher interest rates as the year progresses, and 2006 is forecast to be the third-strongest year on record."

Susan Bies, governor of the Federal Reserve, was somewhat more concerned.

Bies recently issued a warning that banks needed to exercise greater care in the issuing of loans, and that the risks in lending with little documentation or using "creative mortgages" would be "exacerbated by a slowdown in the housing industry."

"Supervisors have also observed that lenders are increasingly combining nontraditional mortgage loans with weaker mitigating controls on credit exposures," Bies said, "such as allowing reduced documentation in evaluating the applicant's creditworthiness and making simultaneous second-lien mortgages as competition in the mortgage banking industry intensifies."

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FedEx Clamps Down on Cigarette Delivery

Postal Service Now Major Delivery Agent for Contraband

FedEx's current policy already prohibits tobacco sellers from using its services to ship tobacco products to consumers in the United States....

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Taking Travel into Your Own Hands

The Journey Without Maps Can Be the Most Rewarding

A few years later, leaving school, I began to think of travelling independently and all anyone could tell me was what might go wrong if I did....


I remember standing in the airport as a child next to my father as he frantically wondered whether he'd forgotten anything; he had our passports, our boarding passes were getting crumpled in his hands -- and there was our travel insurance! Hidden behind the traveller's cheques.

While we waited to be told when to get on the plane, he read through our vacation itinerary; a tour representative was to meet us at the airport, a coach would take us to our villa where we'd be entertained with the best local culture and cuisine that money can buy. All without leaving the hotel - which our guidebook told us was the best on offer.

And though I was only twelve years old, the thought occurred to me: might there not be more to travel than this?

What if you could just spin the globe, put your finger down at random and declare, "I'm going there?" What if you could just pack a small rucksack and head off into the middle of nowhere without a guidebook or a tour company to tell you where to go? What would happen if you chose to travel somewhere on your own terms and on your own steam?

A few years later, leaving school, I began to think of travelling independently and all anyone could tell me was what might go wrong if I did. I might catch some terrible disease, be robbed by bandits or wind up on the wrong side of some endless civil war, I was warned. On the other hand, I reasoned, I might find myself learning to communicate in another language, meeting people who live different ways of life and learning what it's really like in the rest of the world.

Travel as Product

The modern traveller faces the challenge that much of our vision of the world is shaped by the media and the travel industry itself. The former sells fear on the evening news about all the bad things happening around the world; the second exists only to market the most profitable destinations.

If it's a truism that the best things are life are free, it's more to the point to say that the best things in life can't be sold. The travel industry makes its money out of us booking its hotels, its tours and insurance. It makes no money at all when we learn to eat with our hands in India instead of with a fork, nor when we're invited into the home of an Arab in Morocco, delighted to have met his first-ever Westerner.

But that couldn't happen to us, could it? We maybe haven't learnt any other languages, we get lost easily and we probably wouldn't like the food. Or would we?

Among the greatest joys of independent travel are the discoveries we make about ourselves. As much as we travel to learn about other peoples and cultures, once we step out of familiar territory we begin to learn more about who we are. In a new context, we find a freedom to step out of our usual patterns and routines and spread our wings a little.

So how does one start?

The best way to leave the conventional travel industry behind is to do something that will automatically bring you into contact with the local people. Something as simple as taking a good bilingual dictionary with you can open up many doors. I've had countless conversations with locals all over the world in parks and cafes, drinking coffee or spirits, chatting away one word at a time.

Granted, there are times that the conversation by dictionary went a little too far. Whilst hitchhiking in Turkey my driver was so engrossed in his search for a word that he didn't see the edge of the cliff approaching. As we headed toward certain death I desperately ransacked my short-term memory and finally yelled "Bak!' (Look!) in time for him to slam on the brakes.

Be a Guest, Not a Tourist

Another approach is to get behind the closed doors of a culture by staying with the locals. On the road you'll often be invited to visit other travellers you meet and in the Middle East invitations fly free and fast.

In Iran I was invited to stay with eight different families in the space of three weeks. After all the propaganda I'd heard about the country over the years it was a welcome surprise to find that this wasn't a nation of crazed terrorists. They fed me to the point of bursting four times a day and it was all I could do to stop them finding me a job and a wife.

If you're in a less forthcoming part of the world you can always join a hospitality club and arrange a home stay with someone. Then you'll get to the nitty gritty of local culture and your host can show you around town. For free. Then maybe one day you can repay the favour when a traveller comes passing through where you live.

But the most important thing is to forget all you've ever heard about a place, pack a good sense of humour and head off somewhere with no fixed plans. When you carry a good supply of smiles and conversation it's amazing how many doors open to you. Some of the most memorable exchanges I've had in my travels have been with old folks sitting on benches in the park, desperate for someone to tell their stories too. Or conversations I've struck up with passengers on 24 hour train journeys. It's amazing how much you can end up sharing with a complete stranger.

And just because you choose to travel independently doesn't mean you have to be alone. If you stay in a hostel for backpackers rather than a hotel you'll meet other travellers, all looking to trade information and stories. Friends are made easily on the road and it can feel like you've known someone for years after just a few days.

It's one of the most engaging things about travelling independently that your plans are completely open. On countless occasions I've found myself spontaneously teaming up with someone to catch a crowded local bus to visit a nearby temple. Or, hours after arriving somewhere, joining other travellers to go explore the city by foot with little more than a map and our intuition to guide the way.

Of course if the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what will happen to you each day is too much you can always go back to the villa where each room has the same old cable TV channels, a swimming pool with no threatening sea life and food that tastes just like it does back home, served by a waiter who says "gracias" when you tip

But you could do that any time. There are more things in this world than can fit into any of our philosophies and it's all out there waiting for the independent traveller to find. It doesn't take a lot of money, just a little courage and a sense of adventure.

So where should you go?

Well, what you do is, spin a globe, put your finger down somewhere and declare "I'm going there"

---

Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.

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San Francisco Tour Company Switches to Biodiesel

San Francisco Tour Company Switches to Biodiesel...


Consumers concerned about global warming, air pollution, and unknown ecological crises to come can take solace in a decision by a San Francisco tour company.

Cable CarThe firm, Incredible Adventures, switched its entire van fleet to pure biodiesel fuel - becoming the first North American tour operator to make the move, according to company CEO Jolie Ginsburg.

Tired of gas-guzzling vehicles, coupled with runaway gasoline prices and foul air, the company began using biodiesel three years ago - when few people were aware of it. A non-toxic, biodegradable fuel, biodiesel emits up to 80 per cent fewer carcinogens, greenhouses gases, and particulates than petroleum fuel.

"We have taken the lead in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. If other companies and drivers follow our example, we can make our nation more secure economically and free ourselves from the wildly fluctuating price on imported oil," Ginsburg gushed.

Biodiesel is a vegetable oil-based alternative fuel that is both environmentally friendly and domestically produced. The B100 or "neat" biodiesel used by the Incredible Adventures van fleet contains no petroleum. The biodiesel typically used elsewhere is a mix known as B20, a blend of 20 per cent biodiesel and 80 per cent petroleum diesel.

Though the price of biodiesel is slightly higher than petroleum-based fuels, the cost is offset by fuel efficiency. It is pumped like any other fuel.

"Using biodiesel helps us create a good impression with our passengers," Ginsburg said. "When we began investigating biodiesel use for our company, there were few fueling stations and distribution channels were narrow. But we've seen a steady expansion of both."

From San Francisco, Incredible Adventures offers day trips to Muir Woods and California wine country, plus extended tours to Yosemite, the Sierra foothills, and Lake Tahoe. It also uses biodiesel on four-wheel-drive vans that leave its new Las Vegas hub for the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon, and Death Valley National Parks.

The use of biodiesel fuel appeals to environmentally-conscious passengers.

"In the past year, people have chosen our tours not only for the high-quality service but because they know we operate our vans with biodiesel," Ginsburg said. "The Iraq war - and its threat to our oil-based supply - has raised biodiesel's visibility and more and more passengers know about it now."

For further information on biodiesel fuels, see sfbiofuels.org or www.berkeleybiodiesel.com. Or contact Incredible Adventures, 521 Eighth St., San Francisco, CA (Tel. 415-642-7378).

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VW Minivan Returning to U.S.

Under all the sheet metal the VW minivan will be a Chrysler

VW Minivan Returning to U.S....

The Volkswagen minivan is returning to America.

The new minivan is going to look like a Volkswagen and the horn will sound like a Volkswagen but under all the sheet metal the VW minivan will be a Chrysler.

VW's most important contribution to the new minivan will be design and styling. The company will not be involved in the engineering design other than to have some limited input in the characteristics VW is looking for.

VW has promised that the new minivan isn't just going to be a Chrysler minivan with a Volkswagen badge on it.

Chrysler will build the minivan for VW for the U.S. market starting with the 2008 model year.

 

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The Battle for Net Neutrality

Consumer Groups, Telecom Companies Take Sides Over Web Content Access

The Battle for Net Neutrality...

If you're like most Web surfers, chances are that you never think about how you access content online. You run searches with Google, shop at Amazon, and read the news at CNN or MSNBC, no matter if you're at home, work, or elsewhere.

The universal accessibility of the Internet has made it an essential tool for accomplishing daily tasks and providing information across the globe.

But a regulatory debate is brewing in Congress that may lead to a system where companies provide "preferred access" to some Web content services over others.

Imagine not being able to access Yahoo's Web portal as quickly from your Internet service provider, because the company that owns the cable lines has cut a deal with Google to provide their services exclusively.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a Feb. 7th hearing on "Net Neutrality," the principle that the network upon which the Internet is built should be free of commercial control and accessible by any agency. Because telecommunications companies can't force consumers to pick specific Internet providers, this has led to the proliferation of choice and diversity of content that makes the Internet what it is today.

Major telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T wish to change that. Fueled by discontent over Internet content providers offering expensive, broadband-soaking services such as video streams and online roleplaying games, the telecom companies want to start charging Internet companies for the services they offer.

SBC (now AT&T) chairman Ed Whiteacre claimed that his company deserved a return on investment for letting content providers use his "pipes" free.

"[T]here's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?"

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, sees a scenario where customers will face a multi-tiered system of paying more money in order to gain better Internet access.

"Under the plans [telecom companies] are considering, all of us -- from large to small content providers to individual users -- will have to pay more when surfing online, streaming videos, or perhaps even sending and receiving email, " Chester said in a Feb. 1 essay.

"Companies are mulling the imposition of new subscription plans that will limit our online experience. There will be 'gold,' 'bronze,' and 'silver' forms of Internet access that tightly define what they call our 'level of service.' Gone will be the more open and nondiscriminatory network of today."

Pay to Play

Another effect of paying telecom companies for content services would be the stifling of innovation on the Web. Everything from file-sharing to blogging to wikis has come about from innovative users and small companies with big ideas.

The established content giants like Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc. can afford to pay telecom companies to make sure their services reach consumers, but the "little guy" may not have the raw cash necessary to compete in a "pay to play" Internet model.

A 2004 policy analysis by the Cato Institute claims to debunk the "pay to play" notion for equal access to the Internet.

According to author Adam Thierer, consumers can best benefit from letting the market decide whether or not "bundled" services favored by providers are of greater benefit than letting the user access their particular content choices, regardless of what the provider favors.

Thierer points out that many providers already have restrictions on the services users subscribe to, including downloading limits, prohibitions against spamming, and so on.

"In light of the significant risks and investments [telecom] companies undertook to extend service to millions of Americans who previously had no such luxury, it seems somewhat insulting for certain consumers or regulators to claim that they have the right to dictate the terms and conditions of service, " Thierer said.

Groups such as Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) strongly disagree. In their view, companies that bundle services in order to gain profit from advertising and reduce costs will push those services at the expense of others, even if it means denying Web users access to them.

The CFA released a 2005 survey that found 70 percent of the respondents were concerned about their Internet service provider blocking access to their particular choices of content; 75 percent were concerned about not having a choice between different providers or having to pay extra fees for Internet content services.

Web-based companies such as Google, Amazon, and Yahoo have teamed up with groups such as Consumers Union, CFA, and Common Cause to prevent the restriction of access to content over the Internet.

Net neutrality supporters believe that a "pay to play" Internet model would favor expensive business customers and corporate networks over consumers and nonprofit enterprises and struggling small publishers.

"The nonprofit and noncommercial sector could be distinguished from the for-profit sector of the online community in terms of services offered, and would suffer because they cannot compete in an environment where they have to pay for better service," according to a Common Cause publication.

The Debate

Several Internet analysts and members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have already weighed in on how net neutrality may affect FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's goal of "universal, affordable access to broadband technology."

Unfortunately, Martin has not matched his sweeping vision with policy decisions.

When asked about the possibility of telecom companies locking out consumer choice, Martin said that he "was hesitant to adopt rules that would prevent anti-competitive behavior where there hasn't been significant evidence of a problem."

Michael Powell, the former FCC chairman, had been a strong supporter of Net neutrality, evoking the policy as one of his "four rules of Internet freedom."

Martin had just succeeded Powell when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC in the "Brand X" decision, which allowed cable Internet providers to prevent smaller rivals from sharing their lines and offering their own services.

The U.S. has been criticized harshly for slow development and dissemination of broadband technology throughout the country. The U.S. currently ranks fifteenth in the world in terms of market broadband penetration, and 60 percent of American households still cannot afford broadband or don't have access to it in their community.

In a letter to Congress in Nov. 2005, Google advisor and Internet guru Vinton Cerf advocated Net neutrality policies as championing innovation and free content access for all users.

"Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online," Cerf said. "I am confident that we can build a broadband system that allows users to decide what websites they want to see and what applications they want to use and that also guarantees high quality service and network security."

 

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Statistics Show Airbags Getting Safer

Government safety statistics show a continuing drop in airbag-related deaths and injuries as technology and seat beat use improves

Statistics Show Airbags Getting Safer...

Government safety statistics show a continuing drop in airbag-related deaths and injuries as technology and seat beat use improves.

Two children died in the U.S. last year as a result of injuries caused by airbags. No adults were killed according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That is an improvement over previous years.

While the reduced number of deaths and injuries can be attributed to better airbag technology, more people are wearing seat belts and more children and infants are being placed in the back seat.

1997 was the worst year for airbag-related deaths and injuries when 53 people died including 31 children. Airbags have killed 264 people since NHTSA became keeping a record of the deaths and injuries.

On the other hand, NHTSA estimates that airbags have saved almost 20,000 lives.

There is, however, a continuing problem with airbags failing to deploy in accidents. There are no reliable statistics on how many deaths and injuries have been cauased by such incidents.

Advanced frontal airbag technologies vary but most airbags are designed to deploy with varying strength depending on the size and location of vehicle occupants and whether those occupants are wearing seat belts. Sensors built into the passenger compartment determine the power of deployment.

NHTSA statistics show that newer cars and trucks have the best airbag records. No deaths were reported from the 2002 and 2003 model years. One death was reported from the 2004 model year.

Critics argue that even the newest airbags still are capable of inflicting injuries and ought to be a matter of choice and not government mandate.

 

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U.S. Meat Supply at Risk of Mad Cow Disease

Beef inspectors aren't strictly following cattle screening rules, increasing the risk of mad cow disease in the nation's meat supply

U.S. Meat Supply at Risk of Mad Cow Disease...

The U.S. Agriculture Department's Inspector General warns beef inspectors aren't strictly following cattle screening rules, increasing the risk of mad cow disease in the nation's meat supply.

The report said it found cases where rules covering the slaughter of cattle were being ignored.

For example, 29 suspect cows were slaughtered at two of a dozen meatpacking plants reviewed in an audit. The report says the animals were incapable of walking, and at least 20 of them fell into the category of "downer" cows, animals whose condition can't be explained by injury. It is these "downer" cows that are considered to be the highest risk for mad cow disease.

Department regulations prohibit the slaughter of "downer" cows for any reason. The report said it's possible more suspect cattle are entering the food supply because USDA's record keeping is in need of improvement.

The Inspector General's report said auditors found no cases of banned tissues entering the human food supply.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for slaughter house inspections, said it will clarify its policy for slaughtering downer cattle and issue new guidance to its more than 6,000 inspectors as soon as possible.

The regulations excluding "downer" cattle from the food supply were initiated after the first case of mad-cow disease was identified in the U.S. in December 2003. Mad-cow disease attacks the brain of livestock. It has been blamed for more than 150 human deaths in Britain.

 

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Connecticut Opens MySpace.Com Probe

Murdoch's Gem Under Scrutiny

MySpace is one of the fastest growing websites in the country, collecting more than 50 million members in just two years. But there is a dark side to the s...

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AOL, Yahoo Planning Postage Charges for Email

AOL and Yahoo say the charge will amount to a penny or less per email. Senders will also have to promise to send only to people who have asked to receive t...

AOL and Yahoo are planning to begin charging what amounts to postage for those sending multiple email messages to their subscribers. They're positioning it as an anti-spam measure, but it will also have hamper distribution of free information by small and non-profit publishers.

AOL and Yahoo are among the world's largest provider of email accounts. Google, which operates the fast-growing Gmail service, and Microsoft, which operates Hotmail, have not announced any plans to levy charges on those sending multiple messages to their subscribers.

AOL and Yahoo say the charge will amount to a penny or less per email. Senders will also have to promise to send only to people who have asked to receive their messages.

The new program will supposedly help reduce junk mail, scams, phishing expeditions and other annoying and dangerous Web plagues.

Although details of the companies' plans were not released, The New York Times reported that AOL will still accept email from senders who have not paid but will not guarantee that their mail doesn't get caught in spam filters.

Mail that comes from addresses users have added to their AOL address book will be delivered normally.

Critics Warn of Backlash

Critics say the companies run the risk of alienating both their subscribers and the companies and institutions that send bulk emails. Many publishers and organizations send large amounts of legitimate email and might urge their readers to switch to Google or Microsoft email or other services that don't levy a fee on senders.

It's not only mass emailings that would be affected by the system. Order confirmations, boarding passes and other individualized emails from addresses that send large amounts of email would be treated as trash under the new system unless the fee was paid.

AOL and Yahoo are working with Goodmail Systems to implement the paid email program. Goodmail, of Mountain View, Calif., said it will charge from 1/4 cent to 1 cent per message, giving the biggest discounts to the biggest mailers.

Although it is being presented as a tool to fight spam, many critics see the initiative as a money-making ploy.

Spam has leveled off in recent years as legal penalties have gotten tougher and, more significantly, as Internet service providers and large corporations have developed blacklists that identify and block suspected spam.

In fact, AOL already imposes complex procedures on those sending emails to large numbers of AOL subscribers. The restrictions are an administrative headache that have added a new layer of expense to organizations that have come to rely on email to communicate with their members and associates.

Readers' Responsibilities

A particular annoyance to legitimate publishers and organizations is the large number of Internet users who sign up to receive emails, then forget they signed up and complain about what they incorrectly describe as unsolicited mail.

Many users are also unwilling to take the time to manage their email subscriptions properly. Instead of reading the "unsubscribe" directions that all legitimate publishers include on their emails, they complain to their ISP, claiming they were not able to cancel their subscription.

"Irresponsible readers are a big problem for legitimate operators," said one Internet publisher who asked not to be identified. "Readers who receive valuable information completely free of charge need to take a little time to uphold their end of the bargain by reading and following the instructions."

 

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Ford Trucks Burn As Recall Fiddles

Massive Recall Moves Slowly as New Fires Break Out

Ford Trucks Burn As Recall Fiddles...

Despite a massive recall announced in September, Ford trucks are continuing to catch fire and burn -- some of them covered by the recall, some not.

The September 2005 recall involved an estimated 3.8 million Ford trucks from the 1994-2002 model years; it included the Ford F-150 pickup as well as the Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator and Ford Bronco SUVs.

But the recall is moving slowly. Ford says replacement parts are not yet available. Meanwhile, trucks continue to burst into flames and -- in many cases -- Ford representatives stonewall the affected consumers despite the recall, according to reports filed with ConsumerAffairs.com.

Adding fuel to the flames, recent fires suggest additional Ford trucks are afflicted by the flaw that led to Ford's reluctant and long-delayed recall.

Melted Mess

Linda of Newman, Georgia, lost her 2003 F-150 to fire January 31. "It is destroyed. I am waiting for my insurance claim adjuster to contact me," she wrote. Linda called her Ford dealership and was told there are no recalls for her F-150. The recall does not cover 2003 models.

"My truck was only two and a half years old and I still owe $14,500 for it," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It is destroyed and a melted mess sitting in my driveway."

Linda wants to know if Ford is going to do anything to help. So far the answer to Linda is the same as that given to millions of other truck owners -- no. Ford stubbornly resisted recalling the trucks and gave in only after several people died in related fires and the resulting publicity put pressure on regulators.

Ford has now reluctantly recalled 3.8 million vehicles to fix a cruise control flaw identified as a possible cause of the fires.

Hilton Head Inferno

Steve's Ford truck sat in his Hilton Head, South Carolina, driveway on a cold January morning. "At 3 a.m. in 33-degree weather our 1998 Ford Explorer exploded in flames causing my 1994 Buick Century to go up in flames as well," he wrote ConsumerAffairs.com.

"The fire investigator ruled the fire a result of 'unknown causes' although he states that the fire started in the engine of the Explorer and no arson or foul play was involved," Steve wrote.

Steve has complained to Ford, but so far has not received an answer.

Vinyl Siding Meltdown in Texas

Mary of Liberty Hill, Texas, is lucky. Her 1997 Ford F-150 caught fire but the blaze was put out before the fire could consume her house.

"On Saturday, January 14, 2006, the 1997 Ford F-150 parked in the driveway caught fire. No one in the house was aware of the fire, and a passing bicyclist came running in the house shouting that a truck was on fire in the driveway," Mary wrote.

Luckily the fire was extinguished with a garden hose but the flames damaged a three-week old car also in the driveway. "The fire also melted the vinyl siding on the house, which is only 4 years old," Mary told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Mary's 1997 F-150 is covered by the Ford recall. Ford however, is delaying repairing the potential fire hazard in the cruise control system of Mary's truck and 3.8 million more pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles because replacement parts are not yet available.

Mary's automobile insurance is paying for the value of the truck, and is paying to repair the damage to the new car. However, both vehicles are separate claims, and each claim has a $500 deductible. So Mary is out $1,000 thanks to her Ford F-150 fire.

Her house is another matter. "The insurance does not cover the damage to the house, and a claim will not be filed for that damage, because the repair cost is so close to the amount of the deductible," she said.

 

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Suit Charges iPods Can Damage Hearing

Suit Charges iPods Can Damage Hearing...


A Louisiana man has filed a lawsuit against Apple Computer, claiming its iPods are too loud and could damage his hearing. The suit seeks class action status but does not seek specific damages.

Lawyers for John Kiel Patterson charge the mp3 players are "inherently defective" in design and do not provide sufficient warning to consumers that the volume could result in hearing loss. The suit says the iPod can produce sounds at more than 115 decibels, which it says can damage hearing if exposed to as little as a half minute per day.

Patterson's suit says he bought an iPod in 2005 but does not make a claim that his hearing has been damaged. His lawyers argue the point of the suit is to dramatize the potential of the iPod to cause permanent damage to millions of consumers who have and who will purchase the product.

Currently the iPod comes with a warning that says "permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume." But the suit says the headphones that come with the iPod actually contribute to hearing loss because they do not dilute the sound entering the ear and are closer to the ear canal than other sound sources.

Apple has sold more than 42 million iPods since they went on sale in 2001. The company declined to comment on the suit.

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Boston Globe Distributes Customers' Credit Card Data

Recycled Billing Slips Used to Wrap Newspapers

Boston Globe Distributes Customers' Credit Card Data...


The Boston Globe and a smaller Boston-area paper, the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, inadvertently distributed the credit card information of as many as 240,000 subscribers on paper slips attached to bundles of newspapers.

The bank routing information of as many as 1,100 subscribers who pay by check was also exposed, according to Boston Globe publisher Richard Gilman.

"We deeply value the trust our subscribers place in us and are working diligently to remedy this situation," Gilman said in a statement. "Immediate steps have been taken internally at the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette to increase security around credit card reporting."

The error occurred when the Telegram-Gazette printers used recycled internal reporting slips, which contained credit card information, to print out their packing bundle slips. The Telegram-Gazette and the Globe share the same distribution system.

Gilman said the practice of using recycled slips would stop immediately.

The breach was first discovered by a store clerk in Cumberland Farms, Mass. The publishers have been trying to recover as many papers as possible, but admitted that most may have been thrown out.

The Globe has a circulation of approximately 450,000 subscribers, while the Telegram-Gazette has a daily readership of 81,000 for its Sunday edition. Both papers are owned by the New York Times Corporation.

The publishers contacted the four major credit card companies -- Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover -- to advise them of the snafu. The company offered to provide the credit card companies with the data of customers who may have been affected, according to the Globe press statement. Visa and MasterCard have asked for the information.

The publishers have also set up a toll-free number, 1-888-665-2644, for customers to call and verify if their information was exposed.

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Airline Pensions Under Government Review

United Dumped Pension Plans, Others on the Same Course

Airline Pensions Under Government Review...

The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative agency, has reportedly agreed to study how the airline industry handles its pensions. The news comes as United Airlines prepares to emerge from bankruptcy, having jettisoned its employee pensions.

The investigation was requested by two members of Congress, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller, (D-Calif.), according to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

"Massive failures of pension plans at United Airlines and other companies are placing an enormous strain on employees and retirees who worked hard to earn their pension benefits," Markey said.

Markey says there may be quite a bit for the GAO to investigate. He points to alleged conflicts of interests cited in a Securities and Exchange Commission report on the subject. Markey said the report details secret financial deals between pension advisors, money managers and others, that may have negatively impacted pension fund investments.

The union is calling for a full-scale federal audit of airline pension plans. The AMFA says United and US Airways have used bankruptcy protection to set aside pension liabilities, pushing off retirement plans on the taxpayers.

A federal agency, which acts as pension guarantor of last resort, is running a significant budget deficit. Even so, it pays only a percentage of the defaulted pensions.

Now with Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, union officials say those airlines will also have the ability to negate contracts and jettison their pension plans.

 

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Millions of Maytag, Jenn-Air Dishwashers Recalled

Maytag, Jenn-Air Dishwashers Recalled...

February 1, 2006
Maytag is recalling about 2.3 million Maytag and Jenn-Air brand dishwashers because of a fire hazard.

Liquid rinse-aid can leak from its dispenser and come into contact with the dishwasher's internal wiring which can short-circuit and ignite, posing a fire hazard, the company said.

Maytag has received 135 reports of dishwasher fires, resulting in product and/or property damage. Four injuries have been reported, including three reports of smoke inhalation and one serious hand laceration when operating a fire extinguisher to put out a fire in the dishwasher.

Pictures of recalled items

The recall involves Maytag and Jenn-Air under counter or portable plastic tub dishwashers. The dishwashers have black, white, almond, bisque and stainless steel front panels. The following model and serial numbers are printed on a label located on the dishwasher's plastic frame on top of or to the left of the door opening. Consumers should contact Maytag to determine if their dishwasher is included in this recall.

BrandModel numbers MUST
begin with
AND serial numbers MUST end
with
Maytag MDB3, MDB4, MDB5,
MDB6, MDB7, MDB8,
MDB9, MDBD, MDC3,
MDC4, MDC5, DWU9
SM, SQ, SS, SU, SW, SY, SZ, UB,
UD, UF, UH, UK, UM, UQ, US, UU,
UW, UY, UZ, WB, WD, WF, WH, WK,
WM, WQ, WS, WU, WW, WY, WZ,
YB, YD, YF, YH, YK, YM, YQ, YS, YU,
YW, YY, YZ
Jenn-Air JDB3, JDB4, JDB5,
JDB6,JDB7
UB, UD, UF, UH, UK, UM, UQ, US,
UU, UW, UY, UZ, WB, WD, WF, WH,
WK, WM, WQ, WS, WU, WW, WY,
WZ, YB, YD, YF, YH, YK, YM, YQ,
YS, YU, YW, YY, YZ

The units were sold by department and appliance stores and by homebuilders nationwide from July 1997 through June 2001 for between $370 and $800.

Consumers should immediately stop using these dishwashers, disconnect the electric supply by shutting off the fuse or circuit breaker controlling it and inform all users of the dishwasher about the risk of fire. Contact Maytag for either a free in-home repair, or a $75 cash back reimbursement following the purchase of a new Maytag, Jenn-Air, Whirlpool or KitchenAid dishwasher. Consumers should not return the dishwasher to the retailer where it was purchased, as retailers are not prepared to take units back.

Consumer Contact: For more information, contact Maytag Corporation at (800) 675-0535 anytime, or visit the firm's Web site at www.repair.maytag.com

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

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Sprint Sues Cell Phone Record Brokers

Sprint Nextel has filed a second lawsuit against All Star Investigations for fraudulently acquiring and selling telephone records and violating the privacy...

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FTC Shuts Down Smut Spamming Operation

A federal judge has ordered Net Everyone and its owners to stop sending unsolicited pornographic e-mails

FTC Shuts Down Smut Spamming Operation: A federal judge has ordered Net Everyone and its owners to stop sending unsolicited pornographic e-mails....

A federal judge has ordered Net Everyone and its owners to stop sending unsolicited pornographic e-mails.

The judge acted on a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission, which charged the company with sending deceptive, unwanted e-mails promoting sexually oriented Web sites, and routing them through other people's computers without their knowledge or consent.

Since at least April 2005, according to the Commission, the defendants have relayed commercial e-mails through home computers infected with viruses and other "malware" that allows distant parties to control them. The e-mails had racy images like those on the Web sites they promoted.

People who control infected computers (spam zombies) group them as "botnets," which they rent or sell for bulk e-mailing. Botnets, which allow bulk e-mailers to conceal the source of their spam and evade spam filters, are used as "relays" or "proxies" that make it appear as if spam came from the zombies and not the source.

According to the FTC, the defendants shopped Web sites frequented by spammers, seeking vendors who can provide networks of thousands of zombies.

The FTC charged the defendants with violating its Adult Labeling Rule and the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) by sending the e-mails without recipients' permission, not stating "SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT" in subject lines, and hiding the sending computer's identity by using hijacked computers and misleading e-mail headers.

Sending spam through unauthorized relay computers is an aggravated violation of CAN-SPAM. The FTC pursued this matter with assistance from Microsoft Corporation.

On January 19, a U.S. district court judge ordered an ex parte temporary restraining order freezing the assets of William Dugger, a/k/a Billy Johnson, and Angelina Johnson, both of whom reside in Hawaii, and John Vitale, who resides in Arizona, all doing business as Net Everyone.

The FTC ultimately seeks to permanently bar them from further violations and make them forfeit their ill-gotten gains.

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Coke, Nestle Sued Over Enviga Claims

Food and beverage giants Nestle and Coca-Cola face a lawsuit by a consumer group that accuses them of making fraudulent claims in marketing and labeling fo...


Food and beverage giants Nestle and Coca-Cola face a lawsuit by a consumer group that accuses them of making fraudulent claims in marketing and labeling for Enviga, a new artificially sweetened green tea soft drink.

Labeled "the calorie burner" on cans, Enviga is marketed as a weight-loss aid, with claims that it has "negative calories" and that it can "keep those extra calories from building up."

Enviga's web site also says the drink is "much smarter than following fads, quick fixes, and crash diets."

But according to scientists from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Enviga is just a highly caffeinated and over-priced diet soda, and is exactly the kind of faddy, phony diet aid it claims not to be.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, part of the region in which the beverage is being introduced.

In December, CSPI served formal notification on Coke and Nestle (and their partnership, Beverage Partners Worldwide) that they would be sued if they continued to use the unsubstantiated calorie-burning and weight-loss claims on Enviga labels and ads, but the company indicated publicly and privately that it had no plans to change the claims.

Enviga consists of carbonated water, calcium, concentrated green tea extract, various "natural flavors," and ingredients typically found in diet soda, such as caffeine -- three diet colas' worth -- phosphoric acid, and the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame potassium. The company says its green tea extracts are high in an antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG.

Many of Enviga's claims are based on a 72-hour Nestle-funded study of 31 people who were given a drink containing amounts of EGCG and caffeine equivalent to three cans of Enviga. On average, those subjects expended more energy, according to an abstract of the unpublished study.

CSPI maintains no test of Enviga lasted more than three days. One European study found that EGCG and caffeine did not increase energy expenditure after one month and did not help people lose weight.

One longer-term Japanese study did show that a tea fortified with EGCG and caffeine helped people lose more weight than a control tea, but then again, the study was conducted by a tea company and the subjects of the study were 38 of that company's male employees.

Enviga costs between $1.29 and $1.49 per can, and the company suggests that the maximum effect is gained by drinking three cans a day, or about $1,500 worth of the soda per year.

"There is no clear evidence that what's in Enviga will help you control your weight," said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt. "You'd be much better off giving up non-diet soda, which costs nothing to do, or by joining a gym, which is typically less expensive than paying for 3 cans of Enviga a day."



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AT&T Accused of Eavesdropping, Calling Record Sales

AT&T Accused of Eavesdropping, Calling Record Sales...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

February 1, 2006
When telecommunications giant SBC bought AT&T and adopted the famous brand name as its own, it also inherited a lot of baggage, including an apparent inability to protect the privacy of its customers' records.

The company is facing a lawsuit for its part in allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct surveillance on its customers, via granting the NSA access to their vast databases of customer records and information.

AT&T is also potentially facing fines from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for failing to properly certify that its customers' records were safeguarded.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class-action suit against AT&T in San Francisco yesterday (Jan. 31).

According to the filing, AT&T provided the NSA "with direct access to all or a substantial number of the communications transmitted through its key domestic telecommunications facilities, including direct access to streams of domestic, international and foreign telephone and Internet communications."

AT&T's cooperation enabled the NSA to "data-mine" the phone and Internet records for "suspicious" information, and to track communications that might lead to potential terrorist activity.

The NSA's surveillance program has been criticized for violating Americans' Fourth Amendment rights to defend against unwarranted searches and seizures. The EFF lawsuit also considers AT&T's actions a violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, as well as numerous laws governing telecommunications privacy and wiretapping.

"Our goal is to go after the people who are making the government's illegal surveillance possible," Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney, told Wired magazine.

Failing Certification

Meanwhile, the FCC proposed fining AT&T $100,000 for failing to provide data certifying that it had complied with federal safeguards to protect customer privacy.

In the FCC's "Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture," issued Jan. 30th, the agency stated that all major telecommunications companies had to verify their protection of their customers' proprietary network information ("CPNI"), or calling records.

AT&T had provided information on its customer safeguards in its prior incarnation as SBC, but not as the old AT&T corporation.

The report concluded that "AT&T has apparently failed to comply with the requirement that it have an officer certify on an annual basisthat AT&T has established operating procedures adequate to ensure compliance with the Commission's CPNI rules. For this apparent violation, we propose a forfeiture."

The $100,000 fine was also levied against telecom carrier Alltel for failing to fulfill the certification. Both companies can avoid the fine if they provide more information on their security procedures.

SBC posted earnings of $1.6 billion for the 4th quarter of 2005, after its acquisition of AT&T.

The sale of calling records to third-party companies has provoked investigations from numerous national newspapers, and calls to Congress for stronger legislation governing the protection of customers' information.

Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and the states of Illinois and Missouri have all filed lawsuits against All Star Investigations, the company behind Web sites such as Locatecell.com, implicated for selling cellphone and land line records to third parties.

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