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    Discover Debit Card Challenges Visa and MasterCard

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

    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.

    Discover Debit Card Challenges Visa and MasterCard...
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    California Sues H&R Block

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


    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

    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.

    GM Regional Truck Recall Stops Short...
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      Debit Cards Canceled After Security Breach


      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.

      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...
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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

      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.

      New Scam Combines Phony Checks With Secret Shopping...
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      Illinois May Require More Protection For Online Dating


      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.

      Illinois May Require More Protection For Online Daters...
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      Apple Faces Another iPod Lawsuit

      iPod Nano is Cool But Delicate, Suit Charges


      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.

      Apple Faces Another iPod Lawsuit...
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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

      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.

      Circumcision May Protect Against Cervical Cancer...
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      No Quick Fix for Junk Faxes

      Junk faxes are a frequent source of complaints

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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      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.

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

      The 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).

      San Francisco Tour Company Switches to Biodiesel...
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      Real Estate Markets Turn Chilly

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

      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."

      Real Estate Markets Turn Chilly...
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      Taking Travel into Your Own Hands

      The Journey Without Maps Can Be the Most Rewarding


      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.

      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....
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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

      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.

      Statistics Show Airbags Getting Safer...
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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

      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.

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