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Sunscreen Makers Lie, Suits Charge03/31/2006ConsumerAffairs
Sunscreen Makers Lie, Suits Charge...
Manufacturers of the top sunscreen brands relied upon by millions of American swimmers and sunbathers each year have lied about the effectiveness of their products in blocking sun rays and preventing skin diseases, including cancer, according to several coordinated lawsuits filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles.
Such famous brands as Coppertone, Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic, marketed as protective "sunblocks," are in fact unreliable in protecting adults and children and can create a sense of false security that actually endangers users, the complaint charges.
"Sunscreen is the Snake Oil of the 21st Century and these companies that market it are Fortune 500 Snake Oil salesmen," said Samuel Rudman, a New York attorney. "False claims such as 'sunblock' 'waterproof" and 'all-day protection' should be removed from these products immediately."
"Parents, especially, have been defrauded into believing the false labeling and advertising claims of these products. They have sent their children to play or swim in the sun, believing that slathering them with one of these products specifically marketed for children provides protection, when it does not," said Mitchell Twersky, another New York attornoey."And the guys who are marketing these products know their claims are false," he added.
The attorneys are litigating coordinated class actions, alleging systematic fraud, false advertising and persistently misleading claims that exaggerate the ability of sunscreens to protect against the sun and reduce the risk of cancer and other skin ailments.
The seven defendants and their five brands named in the suits include Schering-Plough (Coppertone); Sun Pharmaceuticals and Playtex Products (Banana Boat); Tanning Research Laboratories (Hawaiian Tropic); Neutrogena Corp and Johnson & Johnson (Neutrogena); and Chattem Inc. (Bullfrog).
"Coppertone WaterBabies advertises 'Instant Waterproof Protection, UVA/UVB Sunblock lotion 45 SPF' on the bottle as well as the representation that the product provides '45 times your child's natural sun protection', giving parents a false and dangerous sense of security," said Twersky. "The 45 SPF applies only to UVB rays, the product is not waterproof, and it does not actually block the sun. The main element being blocked is the truth."
The suits show how manufacturers are making deliberately fraudulent and misleading claims on their labels, Web sites and advertising and seek an injunction on the claims, compensation for consumers and other remedies, including a public education program concerning sun protection paid for by the industry.
SPF designations, the suits say, apply only to protection from UVB rays, but manufacturers use it to imply a similar level of UVA protection, which it does not in fact provide. The FDA accepts SPF standards for UVB but there is no standard to measure UVA protection. Both UVA and UVB pose health threats.
The suits also note that the "waterproof" designation is deceptive because all sunscreen products lose efficacy when immersed in water and there is no standard for measuring their efficacy against UVA rays.
The impact of these misleading claims on consumers is enormous. A report by The International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization, stated that "(s)everal relevant epidemiological studies have shown significantly higher risks for melanoma in users of sunscreens than in non-users. The protective effects of sunscreens can be outweighed by overexposure based on the false assumption that sunscreens completely abolish the adverse effects of UV-light."
The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration addressed the over-reaching claims of the sunscreen industry in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
The FTC reached an agreement with Coppertone's manufacturer, Schering-Plough, to cease and desist from misrepresenting the length of time protection is provided by their products and the efficacy of their products' protection against the harmful effects of the sun. Schering-Plough has not complied with the agreement and false claims still appear on their products.
The FDA drafted new rules to specifically restrict the use of these misleading labeling claims, but in 2001 cosmetics industry lobbyists -- arguing that "commercial speech" protection for sunscreen manufacturers was more important than truthful consumer protection for the public -- persuaded the FDA not to implement the rules. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 1.5 million skin cancer cases are diagnosed annually in the U.S., with 8,000 deaths per year -- more than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined.
The coordinated cases are before Judge Carl J. West.
Illinois Sues Another Mortgage Foreclosure "Rescuer"
"Equity Stripping" Scams On the Rise03/31/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Illinois Sues Another Mortgage Foreclosure Rescuer...
Fighting one of the newer schemes in mortgage fraud, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a third lawsuit in as many months against a mortgage "rescue" company and its officers for misleading homeowners to believe they could save their homes when in fact the homeowners were selling their homes to "rescue" company employees who stripped out the substantial equity and left homeowners on the verge of eviction.
Madigan said this practice, known as equity stripping, is on the rise as more homeowners fall victim to the practice. In general, mortgage "rescuers" arrive on the scene when homeowners fall behind on mortgage payments or are on the verge of losing their homes.
The rescuers usually promise to buy the house for a year, collect rent from the homeowner and provide the homeowner with the option to buy back the house in a year after they have "improved" their credit.
In fact, they obtain title to the home, take out a new mortgage that exceeds what was owed on the old mortgage without the homeowner's knowledge and pay the homeowners a paltry sum -- much less than the equity they had in their homes. Homeowners have lost as much as $35,000 to $70,000 of equity in their homes to these mortgage fraud schemes.
The mortgage rescuers use tactics such as:
• telling consumers they will buy them time to help them catch up on their payments;
• telling consumers that they will help them obtain financing at the end of the lease period to help them repurchase their properties;
• inducing consumers to enter into lease agreements when the rescuers know the consumers will not be able to afford the monthly payments, which usually are much higher than the consumers' old mortgage payments;
• inducing consumers to enter into options to repurchase their homes when the rescuers know the consumers will not be able to afford a new, higher mortgage;
• inducing consumers to transfer the titles to their homes, without the consumers' full knowledge of the nature of the transaction; and
• instructing homeowners to sign blank and incomplete paperwork, which prevents them from fully understanding the terms of the transaction.
In this latest court action, Madigan sued MarTav Services Corporation, an Illinois Corporation; Winter Lake, Limited, an Illinois Corporation; Erika Norton, individually and as President of MarTav Services Corporation and Winter Lake, Limited; Edward D. Johnson, individually and as an agent for MarTav Services Corporation; and Felicia Johnson, individually and as an agent for MarTav Services Corporation.
"These companies prey on people who are just trying to save their homes," Madigan said. "They are like vultures circling people who are down on their luck."
In filing her lawsuit, Madigan noted that MarTav seeks out people who are behind on their mortgage payments or about to lose their homes. For example, MarTav's ads contain statements such as: "Let MarTav Services Corporation help keep your homeownership dream alive," and "We have every intention of helping you, we are not here to unlawfully take away your home priviledges [sic]."
In the complaint against MarTav, Madigan detailed one the stories of homeowners who allegedly had been taken in by the company. Madigan said the story is a textbook example of how the mortgage rescuers defraud homeowners.
In one instance, a homeowner fell behind on her mortgage payments after she had to quit her job because she had open-heart surgery. The holder of her mortgage filed a foreclosure action against her. After the foreclosure action was filed, the homeowner received a solicitation from MarTav.
Edward Johnson and Erika Norton told the homeowner she could pay a monthly rent and at the end of one year she would get her home back. The homeowner did not know she would be selling her home.
The purported purchase price for the homeowner's home was $145,000. Defendant Felicia Johnson obtained a mortgage on the home for $123,250. Part of the purchase money paid off the homeowner's existing mortgage, which was approximately $79,000, and MarTav paid the homeowner a mere $1,000.
The defendants informed the homeowner that MarTav also paid for the homeowner's insurance, paid off some money the homeowner owed a lawyer from her divorce, paid the water bill and took some money for fees. She was never informed how much money MarTav took for their fees.
The homeowner made monthly payments to MarTav. However, after she had resumed working, the Internal Revenue Service notified her that one of her paychecks was going to be taken for back taxes. She called Edward Johnson to tell him that she could not make her monthly payment because of the IRS action, but Edward Johnson told her to make her payment. The homeowner, believing she needed to refinance her home to get it back, asked Edward Johnson for a payoff letter. Johnson refused her request.
The homeowner then quit making her monthly payments and attempted to negotiate a sales price for her home, but Edward Johnson would not sell it to her for the prior agreed price of $123,250 and would not agree to a price that she could afford. Winter Lake filed a forcible entry and detainer action against the homeowner. Defendant Felicia Johnson sold the home to a third party for $165,000.
The homeowner was later evicted from her home. Had the homeowner gone through the foreclosure process, she would have at least received the substantial equity she had built up in her home.
Madigan's lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, full restitution to homeowners, a civil penalty of $50,000 for each violation of the Consumer Fraud Act
Study: Young Women Don't Get Enough Calcium03/30/2006ConsumerAffairs
Teenage girls and young women, especially African Americans, are not getting enough calcium at the time in their lives when calcium is most critical to bui...
There's good news and bad news about Americans' intake of calcium says a new study in the April issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
The good news is, that after years of decline in calcium consumption, the drop has not only leveled off, calcium intake is actually going up in some groups.
The bad news is that teenage girls and young women, especially African Americans, are not getting enough calcium at the time in their lives when calcium is most critical to building bone density.
"The start of adolescence to about age 30 is the most important time to get enough calcium," says the study's lead author, Richard Forshee, of the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP). "It's that small window of time when they build the bone density that can help prevent osteoporosis in later years."
"These results tell us that we should look at what calcium fortification and supplements can do to increase calcium intake during this critical time," says Maureen Storey, a study co-author and director of CFNAP.
The study examined changes in calcium intake and its association with milk and other beverage consumption over a 10-year period. Other studies have suggested a connection between soda consumption and reduced intake of some nutrients, including calcium.
Using data from 24-hour dietary recalls taken between 1994 and 2002 in the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers analyzed data on calcium intake for different age-gender categories.
They found that while non-diet soft drink consumption increased, calcium intake was either unaffected or increased for some groups. Milk consumption declined in some groups, but stayed the same or increased in others. The study's key findings include:
Calcium intake increased for most age-gender categories, including adolescent females. Despite the increase, calcium intake is well below the recommended levels for adolescent and young adult women. The Adequate Intake for calcium is 1,300 milligrams per day for 9-18-year-old females, but the study found the group's average consumption was only 814 milligrams per day. The problem is especially serious among African-American females.
Average regular carbonated soft drink (RCSD) consumption increased in most age-gender categories, with the highest consumption being in the 20-39-year-old category.
Soft drink consumption was not associated with lower calcium intake, except for a small association among females 40-59 years old. Fluid milk was the only variable that had a strong association with calcium intake.
Average milk consumption decreased in the 6-11-year-old age category, but was unchanged or higher in the other age-gender categories. Many categories that showed increased average RCSD consumption had no change in average milk consumption.
Females 40-59 years, the only category to have a significant increase in average milk consumption, also had a significant increase in average RCSD consumption.
"Consumption of low-fat milk and dairy products should continue to be encouraged," says Forshee. "And it is time to seriously consider carefully targeted calcium fortification programs and calcium supplementation to help adolescent and young females meet their recommended calcium intake levels."
GlaxoSmithKline Settles Paxil Lawsuit
Suit claims it wrongfully delayed generic competition for Paxil03/29/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
GlaxoSmithKline Settles Paxil Lawsuit...
GlaxoSmithKline has agreed to pay $14 million to resolve a multistate legal action that claims it wrongfully delayed generic competition for Paxil, its blockbuster drug used to treat depressive, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
The settlement resolves claims by 49 states that charged their Medicaid programs had been gouged. In August 2004, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached a separate agreement with GSK under which the company became the first major drug manufacturer to publicly disclose information on clinical studies of its drugs.
Spitzer's settlement followed a lawsuit alleging that the company withheld negative information suggesting a possible increased risk of suicidal thinking and acts in certain individuals taking Paxil.
In April 2005, Spitzer reached a second unrelated national settlement with GSK for $10 million. It was designed to resolve state claims that GSK delayed generic competition by fraudulently listing and prosecuting litigation concerning the drug nabumetone, an anti-inflammatory drug that GSK sells under the trademark Relafen.
Proceeds from the settlement will be distributed among the states.
Net Neutrality Gets Short Shrift in Congress
A final draft of Congressional legislation designed to update the nation's telecommunication laws is being called a "mixed bag"03/29/2006ConsumerAffairs
Net Neutrality Gets Short Shrift in Congress...
A final draft of Congressional legislation designed to update the nation's telecommunication laws is being called a "mixed bag," as it addresses issues ranging from cities developing their own Wi-Fi networks to codifying the principles of "net neutrality" into law.
Like any mixed bag, some are happy with what they're getting, while others are not.
Proponents of net neutrality, the principle of access to Internet content remaining unrestricted, were dismayed that language supporting it was deleted from the final draft.
Cable companies were taking up arms at the prospect of phone companies such as AT&T being able to more easily offer cable subscription services without having to negotiate individual contracts.
And local city and town governments were cheering the prospect of being able to set up their own broadband and wireless networks without waiting for their parent states to give them the go-ahead.
The "Communications, Promotion, and Enhancement Act" was drafted by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), in his capacity as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Barton, along with co-sponsor Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), hailed the new regulations as a necessary update to outdated laws, and a ticket to delivering high-quality broadband and video services to Americans.
"Current law no longer reflects the technological and competitive reality," Barton said in a press statement. "Congress has a responsibility to update our communications laws."
But Internet powers such as Google and Microsoft were incensed at the committee's lack of support for net neutrality. In a response letter drafted to the committee, the companies said Barton's bill would "fail to protect the Internet."
The bill is scheduled for debate by the full committee on March 30th.
Vying for Video
Phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon have been salivating over the prospect of providing cable-style television programming to customers who, until now, have been forced to make do with the likes of Comcast.
The Barton bill grants the phone companies a provisional "national franchise" status, which would enable them to start rolling out video services without having to apply for the same local franchises as cable companies.
Both sides are engaged in a high-profile publicity war. AT&T recently took issue with what it called "misleading advertisements" by the cable companies' lobby groups, such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA).
The NCTA fired back, claiming that it was the phone companies who were "[pressuring] Congress and statehouses for one-sided legislation that would give them privileged regulatory status in the video marketplace, [while] they continue to flood the airwaves and print media with a multitude of advertising that distorts the truth."
The "national video franchise" provision has some restrictions. The new competitor would not be allowed to turn away customers based on income.
Another provision would allow "public provider[s] of telecommunications service, information service, or cable service" to create wireless networks in their cities in towns.
If the bill becomes law, it would supersede several states' laws that prevent local communities from developing their own free Wi-Fi networks for residents to use.
The issue of municipal Wi-Fi is a hot one in New Orleans, where an emergency-authorized free Wi-Fi system has enabled residents to stay in touch with missing relatives, hunt for jobs, and provide the world with information about life after Katrina.
BellSouth has been campaigning to have the Wi-Fi service shut down, in order to prevent residents and employers from switching over full-time.
Net In Neutral
Supporters of the "net neutrality" principle were disappointed to find that the final draft of the Barton bill omitted language that specifically prevented broadband providers from blocking or impairing access to Internet content.
Instead, the current draft amends the original Communications Act of 1934 to enable the FCC to adjudicate claims that content is being blocked. The new draft claims to uphold the "four principles" of broadband, espoused by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Powell's "four principles" included "access to the lawful Internet content of their choice," fair competition between providers, and the ability to use devices for accessing content that "did not harm the network."
Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has not explicitly supported or opposed net neutrality, saying that he "was hesitant to adopt rules that would prevent anti-competitive behavior where there hasn't been significant evidence of a problem."
Content providers and business giants alike believe there is a significant problem, enough to draft a letter of response to the Barton bill.
Google, Microsoft, eBay, Yahoo, and others stated that "[c]onsumers embraced the Internet because innovation was rapid and anyone could provide lawful content without interference or permission from those companies that control the networks."
"This bill would allow for such a fundamental change in the paradigm of the Internet that it would frustrate the reasonable expectations of the tens of millions of Americans who go online," the companies said.
Part of the problem is that Web content companies, for all their public clout and name recognition, don't have the sheer financial capital and lobbying muscle that old-school cable and telecom companies enjoy on Capitol Hill.
A CNET News study on tech firm spending in Washington found that telecom companies enjoyed a 3-to-1 spending advantage over Internet companies, with businesses such as Verizon and AT&T; spending a combined total of $230 million in lobbying efforts since 1998.
Google, at least, is hurrying to get into the game. The search engine giant is hiring lobbyists and public affairs consultants all over Washington in an effort to be represented around the pork barrel.
Meanwhile, consumer groups such as Public Knowledge are expressing concern that the new bill, if it becomes law, won't explicitly prevent cable and telecom providers from subtly degrading service and access to content in order to favor their own offerings.
Public Knowledge Gigi Sohn said in a press statement that "without stronger legislation, the cable and telephone companies will have the power to change the fundamental nature of the Internet. This bill needs significant improvement before it will preserve the open Internet that consumers and service providers expect and deserve."
Whirlpool-Maytag Merger Gets Final OK03/29/2006ConsumerAffairs
Whirlpool-Maytag Merger Gets Final OK...
Whirlpool Corp. has won approval of its $1.79 billion purchase of Maytag Corp. The Justice Department today agreed the merger would not significantly reduce competition. Canadian authorities approved the merger March 14.
"We are pleased with the decision ... that the global home-appliance industry is open and competitive," said Jeff M. Fettig, Whirlpools chairman and CEO. "This transaction will result in better products, quality and service, as well as cost efficiencies, which will enhance our ability to succeed in the competitive global home-appliance industry. Consumers will benefit from a combined Whirlpool and Maytag business."
The Justice Department said that although the combined company will be producing half of the dishwashers in the United States, an investigation by its Antitrust Division found that at least five other companies are well established in the U.S., thus making it unlikely the merged company would be able to drastically raise prices.
The combined entity is expected to control more than 70 percent of the clothes washers and dryers.
Whirlpool is the largest appliance manufacturer in the U.S. Maytag is number three, behind GE Consumer products.
Whirlpool had agreed not to complete the transaction until March 30, to give the Justice Department time to review the deal.
Sony Playstation Battery Charger03/28/2006ConsumerAffairs
Sony Playstation Battery Charger...
March 28, 2006
The Pelican Power Brick battery charger, sold with the Sony PlayStation Portable, is being recalled because of a potential overheating problem. The battery charger's circuit board can overheat and cause its plastic cover to melt which poses a fire and burn hazard to consumers, Electro Source LLC said.
The company said it has received 143 reports of the recalled battery charger overheating including one report of fire damage. No injuries have been reported.
The Pelican Power Brick consists of two lithium-ion battery cells connected via a circuit board and mounted in a small plastic housing. The battery cells are charged when plugged into an electrical outlet using the PSP(tm) AC adaptor. Once charged, it is used to recharge the PSP(tm).
The model number for the battery charger, PL-6018, can be found on the back of the unit. The battery charger was sold alone and also as part of several kits containing other accessories by Electro Source LLC. Sony neither manufactured nor distributed the Pelican Power Brick. Only the Pelican Power Brick is included in this recall.
The chargers were sold at electronics and discount department stores nationwide, catalogs, and various Web sites from April 2005 through March 2006 for about $20 when sold alone, and for between $40 and $50 when sold as part of certain kits packaged by Electro Source LLC.
Consumers should stop using the battery charger immediately and contact Electro Source LLC to receive a choice of several replacement products.
Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Electro Source at (800) 263-1156 anytime, or visit the firm's Web site at www.powerbrickrecall.net.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Class Actions Target Blue Hippo03/28/2006ConsumerAffairs
Class Actions Target Blue Hippo...
A class action lawsuit accuses Blue Hippo Funding of "an elaborate scheme to violate a host of federal and state consumer protection laws" through its broadcast and online sales of big-screen TVs, computers and other consumer items.
The latest lawsuit, filed in Maryland, is similar to one filed two weeks ago in California. It argues that Blue Hippo collects payments from customers, then delays shipments and won't give refunds - even if the product is never delivered.
Blue Hippo requires at least 13 consecutive weeks of payment before it will ship a product and, even once that threshold is crossed, the suit charges other obstacles often arise.
Blue Hippo portrays itself as a friend of those with bad credit, claiming it helps them buy products they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. Basically, the company sells plasma TVs, computers and other merchandise through a pay-in-advance credit plan.
"I called to order a computer which I saw on television on an infomercial," said Rhonda of Van Nuys CA in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "When I called to cancel they said 'ok' but now I get a letter from a collection attorney's office saying that they are holding me to that contract even though I don't have a computer from them nor did I sign any contract."
They said they will get a judgment against me for $2100," Rhonda said.
Darrell Proctor, a columnist for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, recently wrote that consumers "would pay $1,820 to Blue Hippo for a computer that would retail for about $500."
It's hard to tell from the company's Web site whether prices are reasonable, as cash prices aren't specified. Everything is stated in terms of weekly payments.
On its Web site on March 17, BlueHippo was offering a desktop computer for $99 down and $39.99 per week. It's not immediately apparent how long the payments last but it's quite likely most consumers could find a similar computer for a lot less if they saved their money and paid cash.
Many of the nation's adolescents are falling asleep in class, arriving late to school, feeling down and driving drowsy because of a lack of sleep that gets...
Currently, the only way for humans to realize the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is by taking dietary supplements or by eating certain types of fish....
Small Businesses Urged to Lock Down Vital Data03/27/2006ConsumerAffairs
As major corporations squander customers' trust in their security measures, small businesses are being advised to tighten security and privacy procedures....
March 27, 2006
As major corporations squander customers' trust in their security measures, small businesses are being advised to tighten security and privacy procedures. The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) is launching an education effort to provide smaller businesses with the tools to lock down vital data.
Small businesses "often believe they're better protected than they really are, because they don't have in-house experts to advise them on what else they should be doing beyond locking up their storefronts," said Steve Cole, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
"It's difficult for them to know where and how to access support. This makes us all vulnerable, as small businesses are a strong part of our economy. Business owners of all sizes need to be vigilant in protecting their customers, their employees and themselves," he said.
The BBB's program is designed to demystify the complexities of data security and give small businesses a non-technical roadmap to securing their customer data.
The national program includes free, easy-to-read security and privacy toolkits, with separate kits focused on customer and employee data protection. The customer data kit is available now, and the employee kit will be released in the fall.
In addition, the program will feature a downloadable "webinar" featuring key topic experts, plus ongoing updates about new security and privacy developments that affect small businesses. The educational materials are accessible online at: www.bbb.org/.
The program was developed in partnership with two privacy and security experts -- Dr. Alan F. Westin, founder of Privacy & American Business, consulting with Dr. Lance Hoffman, Distinguished Research Professor, George Washington University Department of Engineering and Applied Science. Hoffman also founded GW's Cyberspace Policy Institute, serving as its director for seven years.
As a first step, the toolkits will be distributed through the 116 local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) across the country, reaching a potential audience of 380,000 small businesses and thousands of other small businesses nationwide.
The program is being supported by IBM, Visa U.S.A., Equifax, Verizon Wireless, The Wall Street Journal, eBay and PayPal.
The high profile data breaches at major corporations have largely eclipsed small business vulnerabilities. Yet, a 2005 survey by the Small Business Technology Institute reports that more than half of all small businesses in the U.S. experienced a security breach in the last year.
Nearly one-fifth of small businesses do not use virus-scanning software for e-mail, over 60 percent do not protect their wireless networks with encryption, according to the study, and two-thirds of small businesses do not have an information security plan. Small businesses, overall, make reactive purchase decisions in relation to information security, and usually purchase products only after suffering an information security incident.
"Small business owners are focused on running their businesses, but all it takes is one data breach to damage customer relationships and impact their bottom line," said Dr. Alan Westin. "Our initiative encourages small retailers to take ownership of their responsibilities, to develop a privacy and security policy, and implement an action plan that makes privacy and data protection an integral part of their everyday business operations. This will pay off for them across the board."
Flying crockery upsets dinner plans03/27/2006ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Nothing's worse than being betrayed by an old friend. So Molly of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was shattered when her trusted Pyrex baking dish blew and ruined dinne...
Hughes Plans Rural Internet Satellite Service
Hughes will launch a campaign to sell satellite Internet access to small businesses and consumers in rural areas03/27/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Hughes Plans Rural Internet Satellite Service...
Now that it has sold its DirecTV satellite television business, Hughes Network Systems says it will launch a campaign to sell satellite Internet access to small businesses and consumers in rural areas under the HughesNet brand. It already has about 275,000 customers taking its DirecWay satellite broadband service.
Hughes, an earlier innovator in satellite communications, developed the DirecTV service in the 1980s. Hughes was taken over by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in late 2003 and Murdoch moved DirecTV to a separate company, then sold his interest in Hughes to private investors. Hughes went public a few weeks ago.
"This is the beginning of an exciting new era for Hughes," said Pradman Kaul, Chairman and CEO. "The new HughesNet brand underscores our corporate commitment to enable our customers to realize the full potential of broadband solutions and services, utilizing the best of satellite and terrestrial technologies."
Hughes' primary business today is managing satellite networks for Wal-Mart and other large corporations, linking facilities throughout the country. HughesNet is intended to expand its reach into smaller businesses and professional services firms in areas where DSL and cable Internet are not available.
In June of 2005, the editors of Fortune called Wal-Marts deployment of VSAT technology one of the top 20 decisions that "shaped the modern world of business."
But there are only so many Wal-Marts and Hughes' new focus is on the consumer market, including small and medium-sized businesses, Kaul said.
At a starting price of about $60 per month, satellite broadband may not be price-competitive with broadband and DSL, but it is seen as a good fit for businesses that would otherwise be stuck with dial-up service or dedicated broadband circuits costing more than $1,000 per month.
It's estimated thtere are at least 15 million U.S. homes without access to Internet broadband service. Most of them are in rural areas.
In 2004, when it was under the Murdoch thumb, DirecTV announced it was abandoning its plans to develop satellite broadband for the home market but its kept the DirecWay service running for existing customers.
HughesNet encompasses all broadband solutions and managed services from Hughes, bridging satellite and terrestrial technologies. Hughes has shipped more than 1 million systems to customers in over 100 countries. Its broadband satellite products are based on the IPoS (IP over Satellite) global standard, approved by the TIA, ETSI, and ITU standards organizations.
New York Accuses Gratis Internet of Largest Deliberate Privacy Breach Ever03/24/2006ConsumerAffairs
New York Accuses Gratis Internet of Largest Deliberate Privacy Breach Ever...
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has filed suit against a company responsible for what is believed to be the largest deliberate breach of privacy in Internet history. The suit against Gratis Internet alleges that the company sold personal information obtained from millions of consumers under a strict promise of confidentiality.
"Unless checked now, companies that collect and sell information on consumers will continue to find ways to erode the basic standards that protect privacy in the Internet age," Spitzer said.
Spitzer's office began an investigation of companies involved in "data mining" or compilation and sale of marketing lists, early last year. The focus of the investigation quickly turned to Gratis, a Washington, D.C.-based company that owns and operates several Web sites that provide consumers with ways to receive free products, generally through free trials of yet other products.
These sites include or have included: FreeiPods.com; FreeCDs.com; FreeDVDs.com and FreeVideoGames.com.
From 2000 through 2004 Gratis made numerous explicit promises to the users of its web sites about protecting personal information. Among the promises the company made were:
"We will never give out, sell or lend your name or information to anyone";
"We will never lend, sell or give out for any reason your email address or personal information";
"We at [Gratis web site] respect your privacy and do not sell, rent or loan any personally identifiable information regarding our customers to any third party"; and
"Please note that we do not provide your E-mail address to our business partners."
Even on its sign-up pages, Gratis promised consumers that it "does not . . . sell/rent emails."
However, the investigation confirmed that Gratis's owners, Peter Martin and Robert Jewell, repeatedly violated these promises during 2004 and 2005 by selling access to lists of millions of Gratis's customers to three independent email marketers.
Leading privacy advocates praised the lawsuit:
Marc Rotenberg, the Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center based in Washington D.C. said: "Without strong enforcement, privacy policies are meaningless. We support the efforts of the New York Attorney General to safeguard consumer privacy."
The suit also sets forth how, during the course of its investigation, Gratis repeatedly, but falsely, denied that such data sharing had even occurred.
In one written response to the attorney general, for instance, Gratis assured the Attorney General that "at all times during its existence . . . Gratis has never sold, rented, or lent email addresses or personal information of its users to any third-party and the company has always maintained control over and ownership of such information."
The attorney general's suit cites specific data sharing contracts, as well as testimony and other evidence provided by internet marketers that did business with Gratis. It seeks penalties and injunctive relief, against Gratis and its principals, under New York's consumer fraud statutes
Earlier this month, Spitzer reached settlements with e-mail marketer Datran Media, to whom Gratis had sold its user records.
Herbal Products Linked to Cocaine Use in Teens03/23/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Herbal Products Linked to Cocaine Use in Teens: A new study suggests adolescents who used herbal supplements are six times more likely to have tried cocain...
A new study suggests adolescents who used herbal supplements are six times more likely to have tried cocaine and almost 15 times more likely to have used anabolic steroids than teens who have never used herbal products. The findings are in a University of Rochester Medical Center study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
More than a quarter of the high school students in the sample reported having used herbal remedies and of those, the heaviest herbal users were more likely to use illicit drugs.
Teen responders decided for themselves what would be considered "herbal or other natural products, either to make you feel better, or to help you perform better at sports or school," as asked in the survey. Herbal remedies could include products from dietary supplements such as vitamins or St. Johns wort to natural performance enhancers, such as creatine.
"The study points to the need for parents and health care providers to ask if teens are using herbal remedies and from there probe deeper for possible drug use," said study author, Susan Yussman, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the universitys Golisano Childrens Hospital at Strong.
"Children who are open to experimenting with herbal products may be more open to trying illicit drugs."
However, Yussman cautioned against directly linking herbal product use with drug use: "This was a cross-sectional study that examines an association, not a causal link. Health care providers should ask all adolescents about potential substance use, regardless of herbal product use."
Yussman said that counseling should be provided to those teens found to have a substance abuse problem and to all patients regarding proper use of any type of medication, including herbal products.
The study found that teens who have ever used herbal products are:
4.4 times more likely to have ever used inhalants
4.4 times more likely to have ever used LSD, PCP, ecstasy, mushrooms, and other illegal drugs
5.9 times more likely to have ever used cocaine
6.8 times more likely to have ever used methamphetamines
8.1 times more likely to have ever used IV drugs
8.8 times more likely to have ever used heroin
14.5 times more likely to have ever used steroids
than teens who have never used herbal products.
"Those numbers could go higher with a survey that includes students who dont attend school regularly or who have dropped out. Those teens are considered at higher risk for drug use," Yussman said.
The study was based on the 1999 Monroe County, N.Y., Youth Risk Behavior Survey which provided data on a random sample of 2,006 high school students. Herbal product use was defined by lifetime use of "herbal or other natural products--to feel better, or perform better in sports or school."
Overall, 28.6 percent of teens reported using herbal products. Herbal product use increased with age (25 percent of 9th graders to 30 percent of 12th graders) and varied by ethnicity (33 percent of Hispanics, 31 percent of Caucasians, 29 percent of Asians, Native Americans, or Pacific Islanders, and 12 percent of African Americans), but not by gender.
Yussman said further studies are needed to determine which herbal products may be associated with use of which specific drugs.
"A teen using a sports-enhancing product probably has a very different substance use pattern than a teen taking echinacea for a cold," she said.
Dollar Tree Jewelry Recalled for Lead Poisoning Hazard03/23/2006ConsumerAffairs
Dollar Tree Jewelry Recalled for Lead Poisoning Hazard...
March 23, 2006
Dollar Tree Stores is recalling about 580,000 pieces of costume jewelry because of high lead levels that could endanger small children.
The recalled products include the Dollar Tree Mood Necklace and Ring, Glow-in-the Dark Necklace and Ring, and UV Necklace and Ring
The recalled jewelry contains high levels of lead, posing a serious risk of lead poisoning and adverse health effects to young children.
The rings are silver in color, adjustable, and have one of a variety of designs with a toy "gem" in the center. The necklaces have a black string with silver colored clasps and a silver charm with a "gem" in the center. The following are printed on the charms packaging: "Mood Necklace," Mood Ring," "Glow in the Dark Necklace," "Glow in the Dark Ring," "UV Necklace" or "UV Ring." The "UV" jewelry packaging reads, "The Suns Energy Will Change The Color." On the reverse of the packaging is "SKU#815485" and the name "Mannix."
The jewelry was sold at Dollar Tree, Dollar Bill$, Dollar Express, Greenbacks, Only $1 and Super Dollar Tree stores nationwide from September 2003 through February 2006 for $1.
Consumers should immediately take this jewelry away from children. Consumers should return the recalled jewelry to the store where purchased for a refund.
Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Dollar Tree Stores Inc. at (800) 876-8077 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at www.dollartree.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Lead Poisoning Hazard Prompts Recall of Metal Charm Bracelets03/23/2006ConsumerAffairs
Lead Poisoning Hazard Prompts Recall of Metal Charm Bracelets...
March 23, 2006
About 25,000 beaded photo charm bracelets are being recalled because they contain high levels of accessible lead, posing a serious risk of lead poisoning to young children.
Lead poisoning in children is associated with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, hearing problems and growth retardation.
The recalled charm bracelets consist of silver-colored metal beads. A silver-colored metal heart frame is attached to the bracelet.
The bracelets were sold on Oriental Trading Company's Web site from July 2004 through September 2005 for about $0.50 each.
Consumers should immediately take the recalled charm bracelets away from children and contact Oriental Trading Company to receive a refund or credit for the product. Oriental Trading Company is contacting consumers who purchased the bracelets.
Consumer Contact: For more information, contact Oriental Trading Company at (800) 723-6155 anytime, or visit the firm's Web site at www.orientaltrading.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
New Government Rules May Fuel Gas Prices
Gas Now Above $2.50 a Gallon03/22/2006ConsumerAffairs
New Government Rules May Fuel Gas Prices...
New Federal rules requiring oil companies to replace an emissions-reducing chemical added to gasoline with ethanol could spark shortages and lead to $3 a gallon gasoline again, according to a U.S. Energy Department assessment. Gas prices are already rising quickly, with the national average now above $2.50 a gallon.
The new regulations require refiners to replace the gasoline additive MTBE with more costly ethanol. The additive transition is scheduled for summer and ethanol producers in the Midwest may have trouble transporting enough of the fuel to key markets along the East Coast on a timely basis, according to the report.
The Energy Department reports that the U.S. ethanol industry continues to show serious growing pains that could bring higher fuel prices as well as cause short supplies at the pump.
Oil industry analyst Trilby Lundberg says prices could climb as much as another 30 cents a gallon though she does not expect prices to reach the record levels set following Hurricane Katrina.
"Chances are prices will be higher than they are now in the coming weeks, as we use more gasoline, and new regulations make gasoline more expensive to make," Lundberg said.
As prices continue to climb, experts are concerned that the ethanol industry will be unable to meet the summertime jump in demand and the shortfall could produce a spike in gasoline pump prices at the start of the countrys peak driving season.
The refining industry claims to have pointed out the difficulty ethanol producers might encounter iin offsetting the loss of MTBE, which accounts for about 10 percent of every gallon of gasoline.
There are transportation issues with ethanol as well. Gasoline can be shipped in large quantities through an extensive network of pipelines. Ethanol, however, corrodes pipelines and must be transported in trucks or other relatively small volume carriers to terminals where the fuel is blended into gasoline.
Gasoline prices are continuing to rise in anticipation of an ethanol problem. Uncertainty about future supplies, even though there's plenty to go around at the moment, seems to be enough to push prices up.
The national average prices for gasoline in now above $2.50 a gallon. Gasoline jumped 15 cents over the last week as the average price across the country reached $2.51.
A month ago the average price for regular unleaded was $2.24 a gallon. One year ago it was $2.07 a gallon.
Diesel fuel is on the rise as well with the average price up 3 cents to $2.66 a gallon. One month ago the average price was $2.55 a gallon. One year ago the average price for a gallon of diesel was $2.26.
The highest price found for regular unleaded gasoline is now in Ragged Point, California at $3.79 a gallon. Paducah, Kentucky enjoys the lowest gasoline price a $1.98 a gallon.
"Net Neutrality" Battle Heats Up
Giant Telecoms Use Shock and Awe to Confound and Confuse03/22/2006ConsumerAffairs
Net Neutrality Battle Heats Up...
There's nothing virtual about the battle lines being drawn in the fast-developing Net Neutrality War. Disney, Verizon and AT&T are among the superpowers developing a shock and awe strategy intended to annihilate the rag-tag band of consumers and non-profits working to keep the Internet playing field level.
The phrase "level playing field" is a favorite of telecommunications providers trying to gerrymander the regulatory landscape to ensure that the field slants in their direction. It's being rolled out once again as the big-money players empty their armories to launch their latest scorched-earth crusade.
The once and perhaps future monopolies have all weighed in recently against legislation to enforce net neutrality, saying that "market-oriented approaches" favor the consumer, and that companies would push customers away if they tried to enact "tiered pricing" systems for faster content access.
Appearing at the TelecomNEXT convention in Las Vegas on March 20th, Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger stated, "We do not support any [Network Neutrality] legislation at this time."
Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg concurred, saying that lightly regulated markets were "a good framework" for business and government to develop a "shared vision to vault into the markets of the 21st century."
AT&T boss Ed Whitacre modified his anti-net neutrality stance at the convention. Whitacre pledged that his company would not block or degrade any customer access to applications or content on the Internet.
Whitacre had previously lit up the sky by saying content providers like Google were "nuts" for trying to use AT&T;'s cable and broadband networks -- "my pipes," he called them -- without paying extra for them.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, who also attended the convention, stated that the FCC does have the authority to issue judgments in cases of Internet providers favoring content, or making content providers pay extra.
But Martin shied away from supporting net neutrality outright, saying that he "favored a regulatory system where businesses can invest in their networks."
Metering the Web
Although major telecom and cable companies are claiming they support the ability of Web surfers to access content regardless of who provides it, they're simultaneously doing all they can to wring maximum profit from the usage of the broadband infrastructure in America and would clearly like to turn it into a virtual taxicab, with the meter always running.
Verizon recently won what it called "regulatory relief" from the FCC, as the commission lifted a number of rules governing Verizon's pricing structure for business broadband, as well as its obligation to pay into a fund for providing low-cost broadband services to rural regions America.
Verizon has said it will continue to voluntarily pay into the fund "for a time." AT&T;, never one to pass up a government hand-out, has filed for similar treatment with the FCC in the hopes of an expedited resolution.
As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, telecom and cable companies were mandated to expand their networks in order to provide broadband services to the whole of the country, in exchange for deregulation of their business and pricing.
Although businesses have been able to take advantage of the expanding cable infrastructure, consumers have not been as lucky.
The US ranks fifteenth in the world in rankings of broadband deployment, with only 40 percent of American households within reach of or able to afford DSL or cable Internet services.
FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who opposed Verizon's regulatory relief award, recently criticized the telecoms' slow pace of deploying broadband beyond cities and urban centers.
"If high-speed broadband is permitted to become a primarily urban phenomenon, the digital gap will grow wider, [resulting in] rural America being worse off," Copps said.
Verizon is also part of the U.S. Internet Industry Association (USIIA), a trade association dealing with Internet commerce and policy.
The USIIA recently launched a high-profile campaign decrying support of net neutrality as "preventing network operators from exploring ways to guarantee the reliability of advanced Internet services over a public Internet that was not designed to be reliable."
In fact, the Internet was designed by Department of Defense engineers whose primary goal was reliability. Through what is called packet switching, data moves in small "packets" that can follow different routes over the network and be reassembled on the receiving end. The Internet may not be as "secure," or private, as one would like but it is extremely reliable, telecommunications observers noted.
The USIIA paid for splashy ads telling readers to "protect bloggers from government regulation" on popular progressive Web sites and blogs such as the Daily Kos and the American Prospect.
Ironically, progressive bloggers are one of the groups that largely favors net neutrality, joining an unlikely alliance of content providers such as Google and Yahoo, consumer groups such as the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and AARP.
The seniors' advocate group, famous for its lobbying power in Congress, joined a petition to push for Congressional support of net neutrality. AARP spokesman Mark Kitchens said that the increasing number of senior citizens active on the Internet meant that the debate directly affected their constituency.
For supporters of net neutrality, the issue isn't just content, but price as well. Consumers don't want to be held hostage to overpriced service that doesn't deliver quality broadband.
If infrastructure providers can block other companies from sharing their lines, and prioritize their own content in turn, users may be stuck with choosing between Verizon, AT&T;, and not much else.
Daniel Berninger, analyst for the telecom and IT research firm Tier1, said that ending net neutrality would spell the end of the Internet as we know it.
"Network neutrality allows end users to choose winners and losers in an application meritocracy that threatens service providers long dependent on barriers to entry," he said. "The idea that Yahoo could pay Verizon to improve performance over Google means Verizon, not the end user, decides which search engine wins."
Connecticut Asks MySpace to Provide Blocking Software
Site Needs to be Safer for Kids, State Argues03/22/2006ConsumerAffairs
Connecticut Asks MySpace to Provide Blocking Software...
March 22, 2006
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has sent MySpace.com a letter asking the company to provide parents with software to block the web site, ban kids under 16, institute new measures against pornography and take other steps to protect children from sexual predators and inappropriate material.
The letter follows discussions between Blumenthal's office and top MySpace.com executives, including a February meeting with MySpace co-founder/CEO Chris DeWolfe and company lawyers.
"While our discussions have been encouraging, I ask MySpace to take specific practical steps to address immediately the most critical concerns identified by my office," Blumenthal said in his letter. "These measures are technologically feasible, as well as consistent with your stated terms of service and your own explicit goal of prohibiting nudity and other offensive or inappropriate material from your website.
"This site now exposes young people to a perilous cyber environment with people posting sexually explicit materials and looking for sexual relationships. In fact, children can still view pornographic images, links to X-rated web sites, 'clubs' involving adults seeking sexual encounters and webcam sex for sale offers. I ask you to adopt my proposed steps immediately even as you develop new technology offering better protection," Blumenthal wrote.
Blumenthal asked the company to:
Provide parents with free software allowing them to block access to MySpace from their home computers.
Raise the minimum age for a MySpace profile from 14 to 16. If the company wants to continue serving that age group, it should create a separate and distinct site for 14- and 15-year-olds.
Require users to log in and verify their age before viewing profiles. Once logged in, only users 18 or older would be allowed to view adult material.
Make technical changes preventing 14- and 15-year-olds from making their profiles "public" and requiring parental consent for anyone 16 or older to view them.
Add staff and technology to filter out and remove pornography and prohibited content. Also, prohibit people seeking casual sexual encounters from communicating with minors, remove explicit references to "swingers," and fully disclose that parts of the site contain adult material.
Banish permanently users who repeatedly post so-called "deep links" to pornography or other prohibited content.
Hire an aggressive watchdog independent of the corporate hierarchy that reports directly to the board of directors about inappropriate material, sexual predators or other problems on the site.
Vonage 911 Caller Put On Hold While House Burns Down
By the time fire crews arrived on the scene, the fire had become a five-alarm blaze03/22/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Vonage 911 Caller Put On Hold While House Burns Down...
A Minnesota homeowner charges VoIP provider Vonageput him on hold when he called 911 to report his house was on fire. The home was a total loss.
Loren Velthamp of Chanhassen, Minnesota, said he grabbed the phone and called 911 when he realized a fire has started in his home. "I called 911 using Vonage broadband and they put us on hold," Velthamp told KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. Unbelievable your house is burning down, and you're put on hold by Vonage.
Fire department officials say that by the time fire crews arrived on the scene, the fire had become a five-alarm blaze. No one was injured, but they described the dwelling as a total loss.
The incident has raised anew the question of how VoIP services, which provide telephone services over the Internet, interface with community 911 emergency services systems.
Because the calls aren't routed through the land-line telephone system's infrastructure, there has to be way to transfer into the 911 system that serves the nation's 6,200 emergency call centers. That transfer has posed numerous stumbling blocks so far, both technical and political.
As it now stands, VoIP 911 calls can be unreliable. Calls made after normal business house may be misdirected to emergency-services administrative offices, where the caller gets a recorded message. Even when the VoIP 911 call does make it to an EMS dispatcher, it sometimes lacks the information traditional phone services provide, like the caller's address and telephone number.
There could well be repercussions from the Minnesota incident at the Federal Communications Commission. Last year the FCC gave VoIP providers an ultimatum to institute by September 2005 the same kind of 911 access provided to people using landlines or cell phones.
FDA Prohibits Use Of Antiviral Drugs In Poultry
Wants to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs for treating or preventing influenza infections in humans03/21/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Prohibits Use Of Antiviral Drugs In Poultry...
The Food and Drug Administration wants to prohibit the extra-label use in poultry of two classes of approved human antiviral drugs in treating influenza. The reason? The agency says the measure is necessary to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs for treating or preventing influenza infections in humans.
Specifically, the order prohibits the extra-label use by veterinarians of anti-influenza adamantane and neuraminidase inhibitor drugs in chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Extra-label use is the use of a drug in a manner that is not in accordance with the approved labeling.
"Todays action is a preventive measure designed to protect the public health and illustrates FDAs high level of commitment and key role in preparing for a possible influenza pandemic, which is a top priority for our nation," said Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.
Currently, no drugs are approved for the treatment or prevention of influenza A in animals. However, two classes of antiviral drugs are approved in the United States for the treatment or prevention of influenza A in humans. Under the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994 (AMDUCA) veterinarians can legally prescribe these human antiviral drugs to protect animals from influenza.
Under AMDUCA and its implementing regulations, FDA can issue an order prohibiting certain extra-label uses in animals if such extra-label use presents a risk to the public health. FDA has considered all available information and has concluded that the extra-label use of anti-influenza adamantane and neuraminidase inhibitor drugs in chickens, turkeys, and ducks presents a risk to public health.
FDA may add other animal species to the prohibited list as new data becomes available.
Thus far, there have been no reported cases of avian influenza H5N1 in the U.S. Nor is FDA aware that there is ongoing extra-label use of these antiviral drugs in the U.S. by poultry producers. However, concerns have been raised by a number of public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Animal Health Organization, that the extra-label use of these drugs in poultry could lead to the emergence of resistant strains of type A influenza.
This is of particular concern if the avian influenza H5N1 (commonly known as bird flu) that has been identified in other countries were to emerge in the U.S.
Influenza viruses mutate frequently. Some mutations confer drug resistance to influenza viruses. Repeated and improper use of anti-influenza drugs could allow resistant influenza viruses to flourish.
Congress Turning Against Seniors?03/21/2006ConsumerAffairs
Congress Turning Against Seniors?...
April 21, 2006
Is Congress turning against seniors? The Alliance for Retired Americans thinks so. It says the current Congress has "proved to be yet another direct assault on the quality of life for retirees."
In its annual voting record analysis, the organization said it found that 39% of U.S. Representatives and 40% of U.S. Senators scored 0% on such issues as Medicare, retiree benefits, tax breaks and pensions.
In fact, a majority of Republicans scored 0%. Notable politicians who received a score of 0% included Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Katherine Harris of Florida, each facing a tough Senate race in 2006.
Since releasing its first voting record in 2001, the Alliance said it has documented a disturbing trend of anti-senior sentiment in Congress. The trend continued in 2005. Scoring 60% or below constitutes a failure to stand up for seniors - and 53% of the House and 56% of the Senate received scores below a passing grade.
There was a clear distinction along party lines. While Republicans in both the House and Senate scored an average of 6%, Democrats averaged 95% in the House and 98% in the Senate.
"With so many Republicans scoring zero in both the House and Senate, but no Democrats scoring zero in either chamber, Republicans have a lot of catching up to do to be considered a friend to retirees," said George J. Kourpias, President of the Alliance.
"Congress had several opportunities to make senior-friendly changes, such as allowing the Medicare program to negotiate for lower drug prices, extending the enrollment period without penalty, and lowering rebates to drug manufacturers. It didn't take advantage of those opportunities," said Edward Coyle, the Alliance's Executive Director.
"The only politicians who will be mentioning Medicare this election year will be those who saw these problems and voted to fix them."
"Rather than fix the obvious flaws in the Part D drug program before chaos ensued," Kourpias echoed, "this Republican-controlled Congress elected to deepen the deficit crisis and play favorites with America's most wealthy by rewarding them with tax cuts, at the expense of retirees and seniors."
Seniors represent a crucial voting bloc, which votes in larger numbers than any other segment of the population, and the Alliance, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said it plans to educate and mobilize retirees across the country to elect a more senior-friendly Congress in November.
To see the Alliance vote breakdown for each member of Congress, see www.retiredamericans.org/votingrecord.
FTC Sues "Debt Elimination" Programs
Its Telemarketers Violate Do Not Call Rule03/21/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FTC Sues "Debt Elimination" Programs: The agencies jointly filed the action in U. S. District Court in Seattle, seeking an injunction against them and refu...
The Federal Trade Commission and the Washington State Attorney General have asked a federal judge to order Debt Solutions Inc. and three other telemarketers in Washington and Florida to stop charging consumers hundreds of dollars for a "debt elimination program" that offers a false promise of substantially reduced interest rates and thousands of dollars in savings.
The agencies jointly filed the action in U. S. District Court in Seattle, seeking an injunction against them and refunds to consumers.
"The defendants' so-called 'debt elimination program' was not the answer for consumers who found themselves in financial hot water," said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
"There are a variety of legitimate options to reduce debt, including more realistic budgeting, credit counseling from reputable organizations, debt consolidation programs, and, if need be, filing for bankruptcy. In every case, though, people should be wary of any business that claims it can negotiate substantially lower interest rates on credit cards and loans."
According to the FTC and the State of Washington's complaint, since at least 2002, Debt Solutions Inc., DSI Financial Inc., DSI Direct Inc. and Pacific Consolidation Services Inc. have telemarketed and sold what they call a debt elimination program by making unsolicited phone calls to consumers nationwide, and by marketing the program on several Internet Web sites, including www.debt2wealth.com and www.acceleratedfinancialinc.com.
The complaint alleges that the defendants falsely represented to consumers that they would be assigned a financial consultant whose special relationships with creditors will enable the consultant to negotiate substantially lower interest rates, saving consumers thousands of dollars, reducing their monthly payments, and paying off their debts three to five times faster -- all without higher monthly payments.
In fact, according to the complaint, consumers who purchase the program typically do not have their interest rates lowered at all, and, if they do, the reductions are rarely more than one percentage point.
Consumers are promised a full refund if they do not save at least $2,500, but few consumers have received the guaranteed refund, according to the agencies' complaint. Before buying the program for $399 to $629, the complaint alleges, consumers are not told that the promised savings may take decades to achieve, or that most of the savings will result from simply paying more money every month, not from reduced interest rates.
The defendants also claim the program is endorsed by the Financial Standards Council in Canada and the Registered Financial Planners Institute of North America, but both claims are false, according to the complaint.
The FTC and the State of Washington's complaint alleges that the defendants violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by falsely representing that purchasers will
(1) save thousands of dollars in a short time;
(2) have credit card and loan interest rates reduced substantially;
(3) pay off their debt much faster without higher monthly payments; and
(4) reduce their monthly credit card and loan payments.
The complaint also alleges that they falsely represent that they have special relationships with credit card companies and lenders, and that their program is endorsed by the two organizations mentioned above. It also alleges that they misrepresented their money-back guarantee.
The complaint further alleges that the defendants violated the TSR and Washington state law by misrepresenting projected savings, failing to disclose the limits of their money-back guarantee, calling phone numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry, failing to pay the required annual fee for access to DNC-listed numbers, and calling persons who had asked them to stop calling. The defendants also violated Washington state law by engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices and unfair methods of competition.
TrustedID: New Data Protection Or Just More of the Same?03/21/2006ConsumerAffairs
TrustedID: New Data Protection Or Just More of the Same?...
The announcement that the big players in the credit market -- Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union -- were introducing their own multi-agency credit score was a new front in the ongoing tug-of-war between business and consumers over credit information.
Consumers want easy access to their credit information, accurate reports, and the ability to freeze or protect their credit against identity theft. The financial services industry wants all these things as well -- but not as much as they want to make credit instantly obtainable, and thus profitable.
This inherent conflict leads to things like grossly inaccurate credit reports, credit cards issued to identity thieves, and paying for expensive "credit monitoring" after the barn door is found to have been left open.
Enter TrustedID, a new credit-monitoring company that claims to provide "the only complete solution for protecting your identity."
According to company co-founder Scott Mitic, TrustedID is designed to help "proactively prevent identity theft," rather than follow the typical approach of offering protection for consumers after their data has been stolen.
But what does TrustedID do that other credit protections don't? Is it genuine means to protect consumers' information or just another quick-buck scheme?
"The Gold Standard"
Mitic was formerly a vice president at Fair Isaac, creators of the FICO lending score that so many businesses use to gauge a customer's creditworthiness. In an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Mitic said that he got tired of watching the credit bureaus place greater importance on selling consumers' data than protecting it.
"[The credit bureaus] are in the business of selling your data," he said. "Consumer information is the gold standard, and we wanted to put the power back into consumers' hands."
TrustedID offers a suite of services to subscribers.
Its "IDFreeze" product includes a "Lender DoubleCheck" that prevents lenders from offering new credit to the user unless they verify the user's identity via phone or e-mail.
IDFreeze also offers subscribers the ability to lock their credit down and prevent new accounts from being opened in the user's name. "ID Freeze" would cost subscribers $7.95 a month after a 30-day free trial.
As only a dozen states have passed laws enabling consumers to lock their credit reports, Mitic admitted that the IDFreeze "credit lock" would "work differently" in states where credit locks are not honored.
Many of the other services TrustedID offers -- credit monitoring, identity theft insurance, and the "opt-out" program -- are already offered for free or as part of services from the major credit bureaus.
Mitic said that the advantage of TrustedID is that it enables the user to cover all the different bureaus at once, and let TrustedID do all the work for them.
"You need to put ten fraud flags out there every ninety days" whenever a consumer suspects their identity data has been compromised, he said.
Critics of the TrustedID program point out that anyone can get their credit reports for free from all three bureaus now, thanks to amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and that the bureaus offer credit monitoring for victims of identity theft already, usually for free or minimal cost.
The Experian credit bureau recently introduced its "TripleAlert" service, which purports to provide regular daily monitoring of credit reports from all three bureaus for $4.95 a month.
To Mitic, the key is operating proactively. "Preventing theft after it occurs makes no sense," he said.
Mitic and his partner, former Napster vice-president Omar Ahmad, are pulling no punches when it comes to the credit bureaus. Mitic accuses them of "looking myopically" at the identity theft issue, and letting their desire for profit trump their responsibility to consumers.
In an interview with Newsweek, Ahmad said that he'd rather do business with Tony Soprano than the credit bureaus. "At least you'd have a nice Italian meal and get something done."
"Equifax made $806 million off data sales [in 2005]," Mitic said. "They're obstructing efforts towards protection, and doing a disservice to consumers."
As Congress continues to push several competing bills dealing with identity theft, TrustedID is wading into the legislative fray.
The company has hired a lobbyist to push for federal laws granting consumers in all 50 states the right to a credit freeze, and to prevent federal legislation from gutting state laws against identity theft.
One bill, H.R. 3997, or the "Financial Data Protection Act," is considered so weak in terms of standards for identity theft notification and prevention that critics have called it "the worst data bill ever."
Mitic said that bills like H.R. 3997 prove that, "Congress is unduly influenced by four special interest groups -- the credit agencies, auto dealers, the mortgage industry, and the financial services industry."
"They're looking at identity theft from a position of ignorance," he said. Available technology would enable customers to lock and unlock their credit at a moment's notice, but industry is too afraid of losing profit from "weekend car shoppers" to consider the opportunity.
Trust, But Verify
Although TrustedID has already won praise in the press in the first few weeks of "IDFreeze" being released, not everyone is convinced Mitic and Ahmad's product is the ultimate solution to identity theft.
A glowing review of IDFreeze by blogger Michael Arrington unleashed a wave of criticism surrounding TrustedID's lack of transparency.
"[In] examing the website," one writer noted, "no names of principals are listed, no address is listed for the company, [and there is] no description of this company's own internal security policies. Please explain why we should be confident that this company will itself be safe for the average user."
Others are concerned about the repercussions of letting any company have the level of access to personal information that TrustedID would demand.
Tom Fragala, founder of identity theft prevention company Truston, expressed concern over the security of the data being given to TrustedID.
"In order to get this service, you have to hand over your entire life to TrustedID (your name, SSN, accounts numbers, etc) for all this to work," he said. "This is the dirty secret behind all the fanfare."
"How secure is their network, servers and database? Have their employees had criminal and financial background checks? Did the employees agree in writing to allow ongoing background checks, too? This doesn't just apply to TrustedID -- it's every company offering services like this," he said.
The credit bureaus and banks were the first to realize that there was just as much money to be made from identity theft prevention as from the theft itself.
Credit monitoring, credit insurance, and fraud alerts all add up to major profits from people justifiably scared of being victimized by fraudsters and con artists. It's not surprising that private companies are getting in on the action just as readily.
As Fragala points out on his own blog, the race to provide customers with the least expensive credit monitoring will only benefit them in the long run, as they won't put up with paying heavy fees to view data that is rightfully theirs to begin with.
"So as long as the CRA's can make money off your data (much of which they get at no cost to themselves), then you should have a right to see it and be notified if something is happening to it," he said. "It's totally upside down that your personal identity and credit data could be compromised by a thief and you have to pay to see what is happening."
High-Fat Foods Making "No Trans Fat" Claims03/20/2006ConsumerAffairs
High-Fat Foods Making 'No Trans Fat' Claims...
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take enforcement action against companies making misleading trans-fat claims on food labels.
CSPI says that any claim of "0 grams trans" on foods high in saturated fat is inherently misleading, since consumers might think such a product is good for one's heart health.
Manufacturers such as Sara Lee, Mrs. Smith's, and Nestle misleadingly label several of their products "0 grams trans," even though they have 4 to 11 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat. The FDA considers 4 grams and up to be a high level of saturated fat.
"Just because a food doesn't have any trans fat doesn't by itself make it a health food," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Companies shouldn't foster confusion by making trans-fat claims on foods high in saturated fat, and the FDA shouldn't let them get away with it."
The products described in CSPI's complaint are:
Mrs. Smith's Apple Pie: A prominent red banner over the brand name states "0g trans fat per serving." One serving of the product contains 7 grams of saturated fat.
Mrs. Paul's Crunchy Fish Fillets: A banner stating "0 grams trans fat per serving" appears directly above the brand name. One serving of the product contains 5 grams of saturated fat.
Spectrum: Organic All Vegetable Shortening: A yellow highlighted batter stating "0 grams trans fat" appears on the front label. One serving of the product contains 6 grams of saturated fat.
Nestle Crunch Ice Cream Bars: A banner over the large-print word "Crunch" states that there is "0g trans fat!" One serving of the product contains 11 grams of saturated fat.
Sara Lee Pumpkin Pie: The label states that the product has "zero 0g transfat." One serving of the product contains 4 grams of saturated fat.
The FDA currently prohibits food companies from making "saturated fat free" claims for foods that have virtually any trans fat. CSPI says the agency should have a corresponding rule prohibiting "0 grams trans" claims on foods high in saturated fat.
Florida Investigates Fake Caller IDs03/20/2006ConsumerAffairs
Florida Investigates Fake Caller IDs...
March 20, 2006
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has issued investigative subpoenas to a website company that allegedly sells calling cards that allow parties to display fraudulent numbers on caller ID, a practice known as "spoofing."
Crist said spoffing allows stalkers, identity thieves, home intruders, telemarketers and possibly worse, to hide their identity when making calls to consumers.
One of the companies being investigated allegedly sells a virtual "calling card" for $10 that provides 60 minutes of talk time. The user dials a toll-free number, then keys in the destination number and the number the caller wishes to display on caller ID.
The company's website also provides optional voice scrambling that can alter a person's voice, such as from male to female or adult to child, the Attorney General's office said.
"People use caller ID to protect themselves from unwanted calls and contact from those who would do them harm," said Crist. "It is wrong for individuals or businesses to deceive our citizens, and this cannot be allowed to continue unchecked."
The spoofing investigation comes on the heels of the Attorney General's filing of lawsuits against two Florida companies 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc. and Global Information Group, Inc.
The companies are accused of deceiving employees of wireless telephone companies, such as Cingular Wireless and Verizon, into selling private telephone calling records of Florida consumers. Investigators with the Attorney General's Office believe this practice may have been assisted by spoofing.
The subpoenas were issued under Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, Chapter 501 in Florida Statutes. Telemarketers are required by Federal Trade Commission regulations to make either their company's phone number or the phone number of the company or charitable organization they are representing visible on consumer caller ID systems.
Other concerns raised by spoofing include identity theft, as individuals can use spoofing to pose as a bank and steal personal account information from their unsuspecting victims.
Minor Mutations Found in Bird Flu Virus
Changes Increase Chances of Human Infection03/20/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Minor Mutations Found in Bird Flu Virus...
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology have identified what the researchers described as a possible pathway for a particularly virulent strain of the avian flu virus to "gain a foothold in the human population."
The H5N1 avian influenza virus, commonly known as "bird flu," is a highly contagious and deadly disease in poultry. So far, its spread to humans has been limited, with 177 documented severe infections, and nearly 100 deaths in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Iraq, and Turkey as of March 14, 2006, according to the World Health Organization.
"With continued outbreaks of the H5N1 virus in poultry and wild birds, further human cases are likely," said Ian Wilson, a Scripps Research professor of molecular biology and head of the laboratory that conducted the recent study. "The potential for the emergence of a human-adapted H5 virus, either by re-assortment or mutation, is a clear threat to public health worldwide."
Of the H5N1 strains isolated to date, the researchers looked at A/Vietnam/1203/2004 (Viet04), one of the most pathogenic H5N1 viruses studied so far. The virus was originally isolated from a 10-year-old Vietnamese boy who died from the infection in 2004. The hemagglutinin (HA) structure from the Viet04 virus was found to be closely related to the 1918 virus HA, which caused some 50 million deaths worldwide.
Using a recently developed microarray technology -- hundreds of microscopic assay sites on a single small surface -- the study showed that relatively small mutations can result in switching the binding site preference of the avian virus from receptors in the intestinal tract of birds to the respiratory tract of humans. These mutations, the study noted, were already known in some human influenza viruses to increase binding for these receptors.
The study was published by ScienceXpress, the advance online version of the journal Science.
The study was careful to note that these results reveal only one possible route for virus adaptation. The study concluded that other, as yet "unidentified mutations" could emerge, allowing the avian virus to switch receptor specificity and make the jump to human-to-human transmission.
The work was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Institutes of Health.
Wal-Mart to Begin Dispensing "Morning After" Pill This Week
Wal-Mart will begin stocking the prescription drug in its pharmacies across the country03/19/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Wal-Mart to Begin Dispensing Morning After Pill This Week...
The "morning-after" contraceptive known as Plan B comes to the nation's largest retailer this week. Wal-Mart will begin stocking the prescription drug in its pharmacies across the country. The chain made the decision after the Massachusetts pharmacy board ruled it must do so in its 44 Massachusetts pharmacies.
Illinois had previously required Wal-Mart to stock the pill, which consists of a high dose of hormones that women can take three to five days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
Three Massachusetts women had sued Wal-Mart for not carrying the pill, leading to the Board of Pharmacy's decision. There had also been protests around the country by activists who labeled Wal-Mart as "anti-woman" and noted it was the only large pharmacy chain in the country that failed to carry the product.
Ever since the drug was approved by the FDA, Wal-Mart had said that "for busienss reasons" it chose not to stock the pill. But after bruising battles including a massive gender-discrimination lawsuit and criticism of its high-deductible health plan, Wal-Mart management apparently decided it did not need to give its critics any more ammunition.
However, it remains to be seen whether Plan B will actually be available at Wal-Mart pharmacies. The company says it will allow pharmacists who object to the pills for personal reasons to refuse to dispense them, sending customers elsewhere.
But since Wal-Mart has driven many rural pharmacies out of business, it is the only full-service pharmacy in many of the regions it serves. Thus, the decision to let pharmacists decide what they will and won't dispense could provoke a new round of recriminations. In some areas, consumers are also circulating petitions demanding Wal-Mart rescind the policy.
Pressure groups on the other side are also mobilizing. At least 16 states are considering legislation that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for any kind of birth control.
Feds Propose Tougher Controls On Work At Home Schemes
The new rule changes are proposed to go into effect later this year03/18/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Feds Propose Tougher Controls On Work At Home Schemes...
The Federal Trade Commission has proposed tougher rules to protect consumers who are targeted by work-at-home scams. The new rule changes are proposed to go into effect later this year.
If approved, the rule would require any company promising earnings from their business opportunities to provide documented proof of those claims. Currently, the FTCs Franchise Rule only provides for examination of business opportunities that require an investment of more than $500. The change would remove that minimum amount and open many more work-at-home offers to federal scrutiny.
The proposed rules are getting the strong backing of many state attorneys general around the country, including Mike Beebe of Arkansas. Beebe says work at home scams are a growing problem, but consumers can protect themselves by asking a few questions:
• Can the seller prove that most of the current participants actually earn the income promised by the seller?
• What is the total cost of the work-at-home program, including supplies, equipment and membership fees?
• What tasks will I have to perform?
• Will I be paid a salary, or will my pay be based on commission?
• Who will pay me?
• When will I get my first paycheck?
"While there are legitimate home-business offers, others that promise fast money for minimal work are always too good to be true," Beebe said. "You wont discover the hidden pitfalls in most business opportunities until youve spent your own money, only to realize that you wont break even, let alone turn a profit."
Cunard Adds a Queen to its Fleet
The Queen Victoria has already been projected as the most luxurious of its type03/17/2006ConsumerAffairs
Cunard Adds a Queen to its Fleet...
Queen Victoria would be proud.
The new cruise ship bearing her name has already been projected as the most luxurious of its type.
The new vessel begins service in December 2007, joining the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Elizabeth 2 in an expanding Cunard fleet.
Its first cruise will be a 10-night North European itinerary, starting December 11, followed by a holiday-week voyage to the Canary Islands on December 21.
"This vessel will offer classic Cunard luxury and experience while at the same time providing the most up-to-date amenities and facilities, along with new impressive innovations," said Carol Marlow, the cruise lines president and managing director.
The innovations include a three-story theater, a retractable glass roof, an art gallery, and a library with 6,000 books.
The ship will also have restaurants, shops, pools, and a myriad of other amenities expected by 21st century cruise passengers. Only 14 per cent of the 1,007 cabins have no sea view, while nearly three out of four feature balconies.
The $540 million ship will cater for more than 2,000 passengers, since many cabins will hold more than one person. The latest queen in the Cunard fleet will restrict first sailings to pre-registered bookings but begin taking all bookings on April 3.
For further information, contact Cunard (Tel. 800-7CUNARD, www.cunardline.com).
Two additional deaths following medical abortion with mifepristone, the medical abortion pill also known as RU-48603/17/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Two More RU-486 Deaths Reported...
NY Accuses H&R Block of IRA Marketing Fraud
The suit alleges that the H&R Block Company steered hundreds of thousands of its clients into IRAs that were virtually guaranteed to lose money03/16/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
NY Accuses H&R Block of IRA Marketing Fraud...
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has filed suit against H&R Block, the nation's largest tax preparation company, accusing it of fraudulent marketing of individual retirement accounts (IRAs).
The suit alleges that the H&R Block Company steered hundreds of thousands of its clients into IRAs that were virtually guaranteed to lose money because of a combination of hidden fees and low interest rates.
"The conduct described in today's complaint is particularly appalling because many of those hardest hit were working families who struggle to save," Spitzer said.
"Instead of providing these families with accurate information that would have allowed them to make informed choices, H&R Block steered them into retirement accounts that actually shrank over time."
The Attorney General's office began the investigation in 2005 after receiving information from an H&R Block tax preparer.
Over the past four years, H&R Block opened more than half a million "Express IRA" accounts for its tax preparation clients. Customers were told that the IRA paid "great rates" and was "a better way to save," but 85 percent of the customers who opened the accounts paid the company more in fees than they earned in interest.
More than 150,000 H&R Block customers closed their accounts, incurring additional undisclosed fees, as well as nearly $6 million in tax penalties.
The civil complaint cites internal documents showing that H&R Block's senior management knew that many of its customers were losing money on their Express IRAs.
For example, in a 2002 email to Mark Ernst, the company CEO, a district manager complained about the impact of these accounts on customers: "I really don't think maintenance fees should exceed the amount of interest that we are paying on these accounts. Clients won't be happy seeing [their] investments decreasing ..."
Ernst forwarded this email to the Express IRA product manager and added his own comments: "The attached note . . . reflects the general sense that I think exists -- that Express IRA is the right thing for our clients, but the product is designed to nickel and dime clients to the point where our field people [don't] feel as good about the product as they should... ."
Some H&R Block employees (including the person who brought the information to the Attorney General) actually refused to promote the product to clients.
In 2003, an internal H&R Block report prepared by the Express IRA product manager described the growing concerns of tax professionals about the product in the following way:
"Top 4 reasons tax pros are not offering the product:
1. $15 setup fee 'it's too steep for my clients'
2. $15 recontribution fee 'they've already paid once, why charge them again?'
3. Low interest rate 'my client will never make up the fee'
4. $10 annual maint. fee 'my clients have to pay this in addition to the $15 fee.'"
The company's management took no action to address these concerns. Instead, H&R Block continued to tout the Express IRA as a good way for lower and moderate income people to save.
The complaint contends that the company pushed the Express IRA in an effort to encourage repeat customers for its tax preparation services and to maximize its fee revenue.
Spitzer's lawsuit specifically alleges that H&R Block, based in Kansas City, failed to adequately disclose its fees to its customers, failed to warn that the interest paid would not cover the fees in certain instances, and misleadingly described the interest rates as "great" when they were at times less than one percent annually.
This misleading and incomplete disclosure violated New York's consumer fraud law and was a breach of the company's fiduciary duty to its clients, the AG's office said. Relief sought includes an injunction from further violations of New York law, damages and civil penalties.
The company said it would defend itself against the allegations.
Consumers Protest Replacement Car Key Prices
It shouldn't cost hundreds of dollars to get a key replaced03/16/2006ConsumerAffairs
Center for Auto Safety asked the federal government to stop automakers and their dealers from charging consumers hundreds of dollars to replace keys with e...
The Center for Auto Safety is asking the federal government to stop automakers and their dealers from charging consumers hundreds or even thousands of dollars to replace keys with embedded computer codes.
The consumer group charges that car companies refuse to release the computer information that aftermarket stores or locksmiths would need to provide replacement keys at competitive prices.
The complaint with the Federal Trade Commission also claims that the theft-prevention value of the so-called smart key systems is overrated.
"The specter of auto theft does not justify auto companies picking the pockets of consumers by charging hundreds of dollars more for replacement keys than they could in a competitive market," according to the complaint.
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said some automakers already provide the needed information to locksmiths and the industry as a whole is looking for a uniform way to make key codes available without increasing the threat of vehicle theft.
The Center for Auto Safety says the typical cost of replacing a single so-called smart key is more than $150 or roughly 12 times the cost of the average mechanical key. The cost rises into the thousands of dollars if the automaker or dealership replaces a vehicle's electronic control module.
Some advanced systems are programmed so that the modules are matched to a unique set of keys. If the original keys are lost or damaged, the module also must be replaced.
Congress Considers "Worst Data Bill Ever"03/16/2006ConsumerAffairs
A new identity theft prevention bill in Congress is drawing such heavy criticism that a number of influential consumer groups have united against it....
By Martin H. Bosworth
March 16, 2006
A new identity theft prevention bill in Congress is drawing such heavy criticism that a number of influential consumer groups have united against it, with some calling it the "worst data bill ever."
House Resolution (H.R.) 3997, the "Financial Data Protection Act," is coming under fire from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and many other groups, for preempting strong state fraud prevention laws with weaker federal laws.
Critics say the bill opens loopholes that would enable companies to avoid notifying customers if data breaches occur.
The bill is currently up for vote by the House of Representatives' Financial Services Committee. PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski issued a statement urging committee members to reject the bill, saying "We believe consumers today would be worse off under this bill than if nothing passed."
The resolution amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to mandate protections for consumer information in order to prevent an identity breach.
Under the Data Protection Act, if a company engages in a "reasonable" investigation and determines a possibility that stolen information can harm consumers, they can then notify them "without unreasonable delay."
The bill also limits consumer notification of data breaches to cases where "substantial harm" has occurred, defined as "material financial loss to or civil or criminal penalties imposed on the consumer or the need for the consumer to expend significant time and effort to correct erroneous information relating to the consumer."
Mierzwinski said that if H.R. 3997 had been in place when ChoicePoint lost the records of 145,000 people to a Nigerian identity theft ring, the public never would have heard about it.
"We believe individuals need to know whenever their sensitive personal information has been breached," he said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), ironically bemoaned the slow pace of notification of data breaches in a Dec. 2005 press release urging passage of his resolution.
LaTourette cited the loss of customer data belonging to the ABN AMRO mortgage group, and said "The company is taking a good step by notifying customers, but it's bothersome to me that the tape has been missing nearly a month and the public and Congress are just learning about it."
The bill also preempts virtually all state law enforcement power over identity theft and data breaches, remanding investigative power exclusively under federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other federal agencies.
The bill also mandates that any company affected by a data breach offer its customers six months of free credit monitoring, but only after the customers have been directly affected by identity theft or fraud.
Many corporations already offer free credit monitoring for one or two years in case of breaches, even without direct evidence that every involved customer or employee was affected, as in the case of Verizon losing a laptop containing employee data to theft.
The bill does enable consumers to "freeze" their credit records to prevent thieves from opening new accounts in their name, but only once their information was actually misused. In other words, they would have to wait for an identity crime to occur in order to prevent it.
Mierzwinski hammered the bill for what he called "locking the door after the horse has already left the barn."
"All consumers should have the right to sleep at night without worrying about identity theft, by placing a freeze on their accounts. It's the only proven way to stop identity theft before it starts," he said.
Identity Theft Victims Getting Younger03/15/2006ConsumerAffairs
Identity Theft Victims Getting Younger...
March 15, 2006
Stealing a baby's identity, it turns out, is like, well, taking candy from a baby.
The Federal Trade Commission reports the number of identity theft complaints involving Americans 18 or younger nearly doubled in the past three years.
Why are identity thieves targeting kids? Because, the FTC says, it's easy.
Children have no credit history, so they have clean records. No one will know the child's identity has been stolen for years, since children won't be applying for loans or getting credit cards.
All an identity thief needs is the child's Social Security number, which almost all have for their parents' tax reporting purposes. The FTC says that number should be guarded as closely as any adult's private financial information.
Parents should keep an eye out for billing collection notices in a child's name or anything that indicates business is being done with a child's information
Credit Bureaus Introduce New Scoring System03/15/2006ConsumerAffairs
Credit Bureaus Introduce New Scoring System...
Just when it seemed consumers were getting a handle on how credit scores -- those three-digit numbers that can determine your lending rate for cars, credit cards, and mortgages -- were generated, the three major credit bureaus have introduced a new scoring system that shares data from all three agencies.
The new system, "VantageScore," is designed to provide better reports and more accurate data, and covers a more extensive consumer base, including the elusive "thin credit file" for consumers who have little to no credit history.
It's also a direct challenge to the Fair Isaac Corporation's FICO score, which provides the most commonly used credit scoring for mortgage lenders and other agencies.
The FICO score has, until now, been the model for the three bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union -- to directly gauge customer credit worthiness, or to develop their own scores.
With the arrival of the Vantage Score, the major players in the credit industry are claiming that they "will provide consumers and businesses with a highly predictive, consistent score that is easy to understand and apply."
But some observers say that the new scoring model won't change the biggest problem consumers face when it comes to credit scoring -- inaccurate or incomplete data in their individual reports.
Remaking the Grade
The VantageScore system utilizes data culled from a sampling of millions of credit files reviewed by the three agencies, creating a single consistent score, utilizing "cutting-edge, patent-pending analytic techniques."
According to company press, the new score would provide far less variation than the proprietary scores used by some of the major bureaus.
The FICO score model grades consumers' credit ratings based on factors such as debt-to-income ratio, credit usage and history, bad credit items, and so on.
Whereas the FICO score ranges from 300 to 850, with most Americans scoring between 670 and 700, the new VantageScore goes from 501 to 990, with each score range being grouped by letter. Consumers with scores in the 900 and higher range would be grouped in the "A" range, while those in the 600 and below range would receive a grade of "F."
Borrowers are often frustrated in their attempts to gain new credit, as each bureau utilizes its own proprietary credit score, often wildly differing from one another. Equifax switched to using the FICO score in 2005, but Trans Union and Experian utilize their own scores.
Fair Isaac has been criticized for not disclosing the inner workings of its credit scoring algorithm, citing it as a proprietary business secret.
Although each involved agency would utilize the VantageScore in offering information to lenders, there would still be variances in data from each bureau, owing to the differences in data they collect on consumers.
Michael Nathans, president of "alternative" credit bureau Payment Reporting Builds Credit (PRBC), said that as long as some bureaus report payments from consumers and others don't, there will always be inaccuracies in a consumer's credit report that they will have to correct.
"There is a great deal of information from people who are paying their bills on time, and the credit bureaus don't care enough to track it," he said.
PRBC and other agencies like it have been challenging traditional credit models by using systems based on utility payments, rental payments, and so on.
The "thin credit file" market can gain access to better rates by using these systems, and they represent a coveted new area of expansion for all the major players in the credit industry.
The major credit bureaus claim that VantageScore will offer "more predictive scoring" on thin-file consumers, but details were scant as to how the new score would elicit more accurate information.
Representatives at Fair Isaac were skeptical that the new score would be immediately adopted for use by lenders and businesses. Fair Isaac vice-president Ron Totaro told USA Today that the new numbering system would cause confusion for people.
A borrower with a FICO credit score of 800 had "excellent credit," he said, but under the new VantageScore system, that would only grant them a letter grade of "C."
PRBC's Nathans joked that the day of the VantageScore announcement, he received many e-mails claiming "the big 3 bureaus were out to kill FICO." Nathans thought Fair Isaac was "prepared" for the competition from VantageScore, and will continue to look for ways to get new data for their own lending scores.
According to the press statement, the VantageScore system was developed by VantageScore Solutions, LLC, an "independent" company created and owned by the three major bureaus. Federal law prohibits the three bureaus from directly sharing data on consumer records.
The 3 major credit agencies had previously agreed to create a "data protection standard" to make sure information transmitted from lenders and other businesses to the bureaus was not tampered with. Critics noted that this move also did not address the question of inaccurate data in the credit reports themselves.
Air Fares Rise; So Do Crowding, Delays
Fares will drop but delays will rise as the busy skies get even more congested03/14/2006ConsumerAffairs
Air Fares Rise; So Do Crowding, Delays...
There's good news and bad news for airline passengers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, fares will drop but delays will rise as the busy skies get even more congested.
Maybe so, but short term fares are headed straight up. Low-fare leader Southwest Airlines is leading a broad fare hike across the airline industry, raising fares by up to $10 for a one-way ticket as the company seeks to offset an expected $600 million jump in its jet fuel costs.
Most other major U.S. airlines have matched the move by Southwest. But a spokesman for JetBlue Airways said that carrier has not raised fares.
Southwest raised fares in January and late last week, it did it again. It boosted rates again over about two-thirds of its network, ranging from $2 on flights up to 400 miles to the $10 increase, to $309, for its most expensive walk-up fares -- the first time a Southwest fare has exceeded $299.
Complicating matters for those suffering through those delays is the cramped quarters on board, which the FAA suggests will get even worse.
The predictions came in Washington during the FAA's 31st annual industry forecast. And they matched similar projections from the Air Travelers Association, the Air Transport Association, and at least one airline president.
Airlines boarded 669 million people last year, up 6.6 per cent from the year before, but, if the FAA is right, will board more than a billion that's right, billion with a b by the year 2017.
Many of those passengers will be flying on smaller regional jets as airlines, reeling from huge hikes in the cost of fuel, seek to replace gas-guzzling larger jets.
Fuel prices are expected to rise another 15 per cent in 2006 before gradually declining over the next five years. But unrest in the volatile Middle East, source of much aviation fuel, could upset those estimates.
Not surprisingly, some lines are eliminating routes as a cost-saving measure a move the FAA predicts will cause a 0.2 per cent decline in the probable number of domestic passengers this year.
While 2006 is still projected as a difficult year for most carriers, a turnaround is possible by 2007. At least that's the opinion of Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, a speaker at the FAA conference.
"For the first time in several years," Mineta said, referring to 2001 terrorist attacks that sent the industry reeling, "we're no longer talking about recovery."
Airline CEOs might not agree: the International Air Transport Association projects a combined industry loss of $4 billion this year. FAA administrator Marion C. Blakey called the projection a momentary "bump in the road" and said there has been significant growth in the industry.
But Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher said the government's business forecast was "probably realistic."
Capital One Buys North Fork Bank
The combined company will be one of the 10 largest banks in the United States03/13/2006ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Capital One Financial Corporation is already a major credit card company. Now it wants to be a major retail bank as well, announcing it acquired NY's North...
Capital One Financial Corporation is already a major credit card company. Now it wants to be a major retail bank as well, announcing it will acquire New York's North Fork Bancorporation in a stock and cash transaction valued at approximately $14.6 billion.
The combined company will be one of the 10 largest banks in the United States, based on deposits and managed loans, and the third-largest retail bank in the New York region, the nation's largest deposit market.
"North Fork is a great strategic fit with Capital One and brings balance and diversification to our company," said Richard D. Fairbank, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Capital One.
Capital One already has a small presence in retail banking. Its subsidiary, Hibernia National Bank, operates more than 300 branches in Louisiana and Texas.
North Fork, a bank holding company with operations in the greater New York region, provides a full range of financial products and services to its retail and commercial customers, including deposit products and consumer, business and mortgage loans, along with other services.
With approximately $36.6 billion in deposits, as of December 31, 2005, and 355 branch locations throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, North Fork is the third-largest depository institution in the greater New York region.
The combined company will have deposits of more than $84 billion, a managed loan portfolio of more than $143 billion, more than 50 million customer accounts, and 655 branches.
Study: Asthma Patients Think It's Temporary
Think your asthma is temporary? It's not03/13/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Study: Asthma Patients Think It's Temporary...
Think your asthma is temporary? It's not, but a new study finds that over half of adults with serious asthma believe they only have asthma when they have symptoms, leading them to avoid taking the medications that could prevent the next attack.
Asthma is a chronic lung condition characterized by difficulty breathing that affects over 20 million Americans.
While asthma is one of the most common chronic conditions in the US, it is particularly prevalent among inner city populations. East Harlem, where the study was conducted, is one of the communities hardest hit by asthma.
"We surveyed 198 adult patients hospitalized with asthma about their beliefs and behaviors regarding their disease," said Ethan Halm, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and lead author on the study, reported in the March issue of Chest.
"More than half of them thought they only had asthma when they were having symptoms. They are treating asthma more like a cold or flu that will go away between attacks, than as the serious, chronic disease which it is," he said.
Dr. Halm and his colleagues from Mount Sinai and from Rutgers University labeled this the "no symptoms, no asthma" belief. Patients who thought this way were one third less likely to take their asthma medication daily.
"This is particularly troubling because daily use of anti-inflammatory medications is proven to improve asthma control, reduce rates of hospitalizations, and is the cornerstone of guideline recommended best practice." said Dr. Halm.
Forty percent of the patients believed they had chronic asthma, while six percent thought they had asthma some of the time.
When asked about the lifelong nature of asthma, 20 percent of patients felt they would not always have asthma and 15 percent expected the doctor to cure them of asthma. Male patients, those over 65 years old, and patients with no usual place of care were more likely to hold the "no symptoms, no asthma" belief.
"Our findings suggest that there may be a fundamental disconnect between how patients and physicians think about and manage asthma. As clinicians, we need to find better ways to uncover patients underlying health beliefs as a critical first step in trying to help them understand and treat their asthma as a serious but controllable chronic disease." said Dr. Halm.
"We need to find ways to tailor our educational efforts to individual beliefs and behaviors if we are to make headway in improving outcomes for our patients and reducing costs to the system."
Debit Card Security Crisis Continues03/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
Current theories on the data theft hold that either a retail merchant or a payment processor was holding stores of encrypted PIN data received during trans...
IRS May Let Tax Preparers Sell Customers' Information
Proposal is a License to Plunder, Consumer Groups Argue03/12/2006ConsumerAffairs
IRS May Let Tax Preparers Sell Customers' Information...
One of the few comforts you can enjoy about tax time is that your information -- your wages, assets, expenses, and personal data -- are shared only between you, the government, and any tax agents you may use. No third parties can use it to target you for advertising or offers.
But the IRS may be revising its rules to allow tax preparers to share or sell customer information to third parties and database brokers, as part of a sweeping change to its privacy regulations.
In Dec. 2005, the IRS announced it was planning to update Section 7216 of the tax code, which governs the usage and disclosure of information gathered by tax preparers.
The regulation was being rewritten to reflect the increasing reliance on electronic preparation of tax forms, such as the IRS' E-File system or tax software programs such as TurboTax.
Under the revised regulations, "these proposed regulations allow tax return preparers to obtain consents to use tax return information for solicitation of services or facilities furnished by any person rather than limiting solicitations to the services or facilities offered by the tax return preparer or member of the tax return preparer's 'affiliated group.'"
Put more simply, if you get your taxes done by H&R Block, under the law, the firm can offer you its other services, such as its much-maligned Refund Anticipation Loan (RAL) plan, but it can't use your information for anything outside its purview.
Under the proposed new rules, H&R Block could sell your tax information to data brokers like ChoicePoint, who in turn could sell it to any company that wanted to pitch you products based on your financial information.
ChoicePoint, by the way, was quick to distance itself from the IRS' action. In a statement, the company said it, "does not and has no intention to acquire consumer data from tax preparers."
"It would be inaccurate to mention ChoicePoint in any article related to this issue," the statement continued.
The IRS plan is drawing fire from consumer groups such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).
PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski said that he was not surprised that "the same IRS that let Richard Nixon and many other Presidents run roughshod over the privacy of ordinary American citizens now wants to let powerful special interests plunder our confidential tax records for commercial gain."
Rules of the Game
In joint comments submitted to the IRS regarding the proposed rules change, the three groups argued that privacy protections for taxpayer returns should be increased, and exceptions for consent to marketing should be eliminated.
The consent exception, in the consumer groups' view, enables tax preparation firms such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt to take advantage of the "trust relationship" between customers and firms, enabling the multi-billion dollar growth of the RAL industry.
"Without the [consent] exception, preparers could only offer RALs to those who actively sought the loans," they said. "Thus, the consent exception is partly responsible for the ability of preparers to actively pitch these high cost, high risk loans with triple digit APRs to mostly low-income taxpayers, especially Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) recipients. Eliminating the consent exception would reduce RAL volume tremendously, saving hundreds of millions for taxpayers."
H&R Block has been the target of several lawsuits that charge it has failed to properly inform consumers of the risks involved in taking out RALs, in order to maximize the profits they gain from loan fees and interest.
According to the NCLC's latest study on RALs, consumers took out over $12 million worth of RALs in 2004, paying $1.24 billion in RAL fees, and another $360 million in "administrative fees."
If the "consent exception" rule is broadened under the new IRS regulations, the groups charged, harried and busy taxpayers could be more easily conned into signing documents without having the time to read and understand them fully, which could lead to their information being traded among data aggregators, debt collectors, and other agencies.
Jean Ann Fox, CFA's director of consumer protection, said she was "astounded that the IRS has proposed changes that might enable data brokering of the information in tax returns."
"Given the recent highly publicized instances of data security breaches by information brokers, credit card processors, financial institutions, and merchants," she said in the comments, "a breach involving tax information would seriously erode public confidence in the security and privacy of sensitive tax information."
Suzuki Recalls Eiger ATV for Fire Hazard03/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
Suzuki Recalls Eiger ATV for Fire Hazard...
March 10, 2006
American Suzuki Motor Corp. is recalling about 1,900 2005 model year Eiger ATVs because of a potential fire hazard.
Some of the ATVs were assembled with an improperly manufactured plastic fuel tank. The thin portion of these tanks could develop a fuel leak, posing a fire hazard.
The recall involves certain Suzuki 2005 model year LT-F400FK5 and LT-A400FK5 (Eiger) ATVs. These models are available in yellow, green, or red. Below is a list of make, model and vehicle identification numbers (VIN) involved in the recall.
|2005 Eiger 4WD 5-Speed||LT-F400FK5||5SAAK46A*57105591 ~ 5SAAK46A*57106610|
|2005 Eiger 4WD Auto||LT-A400FK5||5SAAK46K*57108892 ~ 5SAAK46K*57110274|
Suzuki ATV dealers nationwide from March 2005 through February 2006 for between $5,200 and $5,350.
Consumers with recalled ATVs are being sent direct notice from Suzuki. Consumers should stop using these vehicles immediately and contact a local Suzuki ATV dealer to schedule an appointment for a free repair.
Consumer Contact: For more information, consumers can call Suzuki toll-free at (800) 444-5077 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at www.suzukicycles.com.
GM Recalls Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra Pickups to Fix Tailgate03/10/2006ConsumerAffairs
GM Recalls Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra Pickups to Fix Tailgate...
General Motors is recalling 805,368 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks because of weak tailgate support cables according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The recall involves 1999-2000 models of both brands. The cables used to support the tailgate can corrode and fracture, NHTSA reported on its Web site.
A spokesman for GM said the galvanized steel cables were protected with a plastic coating but water has been found to get in the coating and cause the cable to corrode and snap when the tailgate is down.
GM reports there have been 84 injuries because of the corroded cables, most of them minor scrapes and bumps.
Owners will receive letters in April and the tailgate cable will be replaced with a stainless steel cable.
North Carolina Declares Victory In War On Payday Lending
North Carolina has extracted agreements from three additional lenders to stop making payday loans03/09/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
North Carolina Declares Victory In War On Payday Lending...
North Carolina has extracted agreements from three additional lenders to stop making payday loans, which are illegal in the state. State Attorney General Roy Cooper said the agreements mean that payday lending practices by all major companies operating in the state have now ended.
"We've fought payday lending at every turn and we're putting this industry out of business here in North Carolina," Cooper said.
"These payday lenders thought that they had found a way around North Carolina law. Now we're showing them the way out of our state," he said.
So-called "payday" loans are targeted at low income consumers, often struggling to make ends meet. Cooper says the lenders took advantage of their desperate circumstances to saddle them with outrageous terms.
For example, consumers who took out a typical payday loan of $300 from one of the three companies were required to repay the loan within two weeks, plus around $60 in interest. That amounts to an annual percentage rate of 400 percent.
Consumers who couldn't repay the loan at the end of two weeks were required to take out another payday loan to repay the first.
Under the consent agreements, Check Into Cash, Check n Go and First American Cash Advance will stop making payday and other unauthorized loans in North Carolina.
Cooper said the companies will not only stop collecting interest and other fees on existing loans, but will pay a total of $700,000 to find efforts to help consumers adversely impacted by payday loans.
The money will go to several non-profit groups that provide credit counseling and financial literacy training.
Cooper said two of the firms plan to close down operations in North Carolina and leave the state, while the third will try to get a license as a consumer finance lender that operates under state rules.
Homeowners buying mulch to put around shrubs and foundations should make sure they know where the wood originated03/09/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Mulch From Hurricane Zone Could Carry a Nasty Surprise...
Little did he know that this simple act would open the door to yet another massive security breach surrounding debit cards and ATM networks....
This year's Consumer Reports top tenlist of vehicles named only Japanese automakers03/08/2006ConsumerAffairs
Detroit Fuming Over <em>Consumer Reports</em> Top Ten Picks...
California Fines Nursing Home Chain $1 Million
Pleasant Care Hit with More than 160 Citations03/08/2006ConsumerAffairs
California Fines Nursing Home Chain $1 Million...
California's second-largest nursing home chain has agreed to pay $1 million and improve the quality of care at its 30 facilities in the state, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced.
The settlement will result in a permanent injunction that resolves a civil lawsuit filed by the Attorney General's Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
"Despite dozens of warnings and fines, Pleasant Care was simply unable to provide an appropriate level of care for its residents. This injunction will make sure that Pleasant Care complies with existing law and also provides the best level of care possible," Lockyer said.
Lockyer's lawsuit stems from numerous allegations of elder abuse and criminally negligent care, including more than 160 citations that the California Department of Health Services (DHS) has issued against Pleasant Care facilities across the state over the last five years for regulatory violations.
The injunction was issued by Superior Court Judge Laura Matz.
Under the terms of the injunction, all 30 of Pleasant Care's skilled nursing facilities in California must comply with numerous conditions that will immediately and dramatically improve the quality of care provided to residents occupying the company's more than 4,300 skilled nursing facility beds, including:
Mandatory Staff Training - staff must undergo training on proper patient care in such areas as wound treatment, accurate record keeping, and the prevention of malnutrition and dehydration;
Abuse and Neglect Investigations - each facility is required to implement policies to ensure prompt reporting and investigation of any alleged act of abuse or neglect towards a resident, and staff persons reasonably suspected of committing abuse must be placed on administrative leave during the course of the investigation;
Compliance Officer - Pleasant Care must hire a Compliance Officer who will be responsible for ensuring that each facility complies with the law, properly responds to state and federal investigations, and delivers proper levels of care to residents;
Independent Monitor - Pleasant Care will pay for an Independent Monitor, selected in consultation with the Attorney General, who has broad authority to order statewide quality of care improvements, and will annually report its findings to the AG over the next five years;
Nurse to Patient Ratio - Pleasant Care must maintain nurse staffing ratio of 3.2 hours per patient, per day, subjected to outside audits to ensure compliance, and ordered to pay stipulated fines for any failure to maintain the required nurse-to-patient ratio; and,
Whistleblower Protections - Pleasant Care must establish and maintain a whistleblower program that allows employees, residents and other individuals to anonymously report suspected violations and mistreatment of residents. A log detailing all complaints made and investigation outcomes also must be maintained and made available to the Independent Monitor and the AG.
In addition, Pleasant Care is required to pay $1 million in civil penalties and $350,000 to reimburse the state for investigative costs. Failure to fully comply with any provision of the injunction also could result in civil penalties of up to $6,000 per violation, other sanctions deemed appropriate by the court, and exclusion from receiving funding from both the Medi-Cal and Medicare healthcare programs.
Pleasant Care currently operates 30 skilled nursing facilities in 14 different California counties, including: Alameda, Butte, Kern, Los Angeles, Marin, Mendocino, Riverside, San Diego, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Sutter.
Over the last five years, DHS has issued more than 160 citations and fines against numerous Pleasant Care facilities for violations of patient care regulations, with several citations involving violations which presented an imminent danger that death or serious harm would result.
In 2004 alone, for example, eight different Pleasant Care nursing homes in California were found to have delivered "substandard" care to residents in annual surveys conducted by DHS.
Other specific instances of deficient service and care also formed the basis for the AG's lawsuit.
In 2003, a resident at the company's Ukiah facility suffered a seizure and a blocked airway, but the nurse was unable to effectively aid the resident due to the fact that the facility's suction machines had not been kept in working order. The resident died from acute cardiopulmonary arrest stemming from his inability to breathe.
In 2004, a resident at Pleasant Care's Novato facility suffered from a pressure sore that was allowed to worsen so severely that the resident ultimately died. The coroner who examined the female resident later told DHS that his examination showed that she had been subjected to "abominable wound care management."
According to data maintained by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Developement, Pleasant Care has also consistently failed to staff its chain of nursing homes at the rate of 3.2 nursing hours per patient, per day as required by California law. The failure to adequately staff its facilities with qualified nurses resulted in increased profits for the corporation at the expense of its residents' health and safety.
In a related case, Pleasant Care of Northern California (PCNC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pleasant Care Corporation, is scheduled to appear in Napa County Superior Court tomorrow for the purpose of entering pleas in a criminal case filed by the Attorney General.
The case alleges that PCNC delivered criminally negligent care to patients at its now closed Napa facility, and charges the facility with five misdemeanor counts of elder abuse and one count of willfully violating California's nursing home patient care regulations.
The state of Ohio is suing a window replacement company and its owner for shoddy work03/08/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The state of Ohio is suing a window replacement company and its owner for shoddy work, failure to deliver goods and services and high-pressure sales tactic...
IRS Warns of Tax Scams
Don't be fooled by the growing number of scams that use the IRS name and logo03/07/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
IRS Warns of Tax Scams...
With taxpayers headed down the home stretch toward the income tax filing deadline, the Internal Revenue Service is warning once again not to be fooled by the growing number of scams that use the IRS name and logo.
The agency says those who fall for the scam will likely become victims of identity theft, or have their bank accounts looted.
"Fraudsters may use the IRS name because most consumers recognize it, have had prior communication with or from the IRS, such as receiving annual tax form and instruction packages, and have previously provided the IRS some financial data, such as that contained on tax returns," the agency said in a consumer alert.
As a general rule, the IRS does not send out unsolicited e-mails or ask for detailed personal information. Additionally, the IRS said it does not ask people for the PIN numbers, passwords or similar secret access information for their credit card, bank or other financial accounts.
Tricking consumers into disclosing their personal and financial data, such as secret access data or credit card or bank account numbers, is identity theft. Such schemes perpetrated through the Internet are called "phishing" for information.
The information fraudulently obtained is then used to steal the taxpayer's identity and financial assets.
Typically, identity thieves use someone's personal data to steal his or her financial accounts, run up charges on the victim's existing credit cards, apply for new loans, credit cards, services or benefits in the victim's name and even file fraudulent tax returns.
Identity theft usually causes immediate financial losses for the victims, who may also encounter lingering credit and other problems.
Identity theft schemes take numerous forms. Identity theft may be conducted by e-mail (phishing), standard mail, telephone or fax. Thieves may also go through trash looking for discarded tax returns, bank records, credit card receipts or other records that contain personal and financial information.
When the IRS learns about schemes involving use of the IRS name, it tries to alert consumers as well as authorities that can shut down the scheme, if possible.
The following are examples of recent schemes:
Phony e-mails e-Mails claiming to come from firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or other variations on the irs.gov theme told the recipients that they were eligible to receive a tax refund for a given amount.
It directed recipients to claim the refund by using a link contained in the e-mail which sent the recipient to a Web site. The site, a clone of the IRS Web site, displayed an interactive page similar to a genuine IRS one; however, it had been modified to ask for personal and financial information that the genuine IRS interactive page does not require.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has reported that it found 12 separate Web sites in 11 different countries hosting variations on this scheme.
Bogus letters A bogus IRS letter and Form W-8BEN (Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding) asked non-residents to provide personal information such as account numbers, PINs, mother's maiden name and passport number.
The legitimate IRS Form W-8BEN, which is used by financial institutions to establish appropriate tax withholding for foreign individuals, does not ask for any of this information.
To protect against potential identity thieves, take the following steps:
• Be skeptical of communications you receive from sources you are not expecting. Verify the authenticity of phone calls, standard mail, faxes or e-mails of questionable origin before responding.
• Do not reveal secret passwords, PINs or other security-based data to third parties; genuine organizations or institutions do not need your secret data for ordinary business transactions.
• Do not click on links contained in possibly questionable e-mails; instead, go directly to the site already know to be genuine. For example, the only address for the IRS Web site is www.irs.gov any other variations on this will not lead to the legitimate IRS Web site.
• Do not open attachments to e-mails of possibly questionable origin, since they may contain viruses that will infect your computer.
• Shred paper documents containing private financial information before discarding.
ACORN Names Money Mart "Loan Shark of the Year"
It's the second year that ACORN has given its loan shark award to Money Mart03/07/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
"This company's entire business is based on preying on people in need," said California ACORN member Paulette Chappill-Otten. "And we aren't going to take ...
The consumer organization ACORN is naming Money Mart its "Loan Shark of the Year" to protest what it calls the company's predatory payday loans, high fees for check-cashing and wiring money, and high interest Refund Anticipation Loans.
It's the second year that ACORN -- the Association of Community Originations for Reform Now -- has given its loan shark award to Money Mart, which earlier this week lost its bid for have a Canadian consumer lawsuit dismissed.
"This company's entire business is based on preying on people in need," said California ACORN member Paulette Chappill-Otten. "And we aren't going to take it any more."
The interest rates on Money Mart's payday loans range from 266% to 912%.
While Money Mart says payday loans help people in a one-time emergency, ACORN charges that payday loans get people deeper in debt and that Money Mart's profits come from customers who can't pay the loans back and so are forced to repeatedly renew the loans and pay additional interest.
A $300 payday loan from Money Mart costs $352.50. If after two weeks the customer can't pay the full amount, they pay the $52.50 finance charge and Money Mart rolls the loan over for two more weeks.
If, as in many cases, this continues for three months, the customer will have paid Money Mart $341 in interest and still owe the entire $352.50 loan amount.
"Money Mart is making a killing from people just trying to make a living," says Cindy Ransom, chair of the British Columbia ACORN's Guildford chapter. "That is unacceptable."
ACORN said it wants Money Mart to stop its predatory practices and agree to the same changes other tax preparers have agreed to.
Over the last two years, ACORN has won reductions in the prices of RALs and other refund products at the three largest tax preparation companies in the country H&R; Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax and has won improvements in the disclosures and information that these companies provide to their customers about their refund options.
North of the Border
The Supreme Court of Canada this week dismissed a bid by the company to derail a proposed class-action suit launched by Windsor pensioner Margaret Smith, who is alleging the fees and interest on the company's short-term payday loans exceed the legal rate of interest set out in the Canadian Criminal Code 60 per cent per annum many times over.
The Supreme Court dismissed Money Mart's bid to appeal lower court decisions that found arbitration and no-claim waivers signed by the company's customers did not preclude them from suing the company.
Money Mart is owned by Dollar Financial Group, Inc. With more than 1,000 locations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, it claims to be the largest international network of retail financial services stores.
Study Suggests Antidepressant-Suicide Link03/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
Study Suggests Antidepressant-Suicide Link...
An analysis of data from 24 clinical trials suggests that antidepressant medications may be linked to a modest increase in the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children, according to an article in the March issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.
For decades, some physicians have suspected that patients' risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior increased when pediatric patients first begin taking antidepressants. Research indicates that there is no such association in adults.
In 2003, a report submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggested a link between the antidepressant paroxetine and suicidality in pediatric patients. The FDA then requested pediatric data from the manufacturers of eight other antidepressant drugs, the authors report.
Tarek A. Hammad, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues at the FDA performed a meta-analysis of data from 23 short-term clinical trials received in response to the request, as well as one trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The 24 studies included 4,582 pediatric patients taking one of nine antidepressant medications for depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorder.
No children committed suicide in any of the trials. Although the NIMH-funded trial was the only individual trial to show a significant increase in suicidality among children taking antidepressants, the analysis of all the trials together showed a higher risk of suicidal ideation and behavior for children taking the drugs compared with those who were not.
"When considering 100 treated patients, we might expect one to three patients to have an increase in suicidality beyond the risk that occurs with depression itself owing to short-term treatment with an antidepressant," the authors write.
The FDA now requires warnings regarding the risk of suicidality in children on antidepressant labeling and the distribution of a patient medication guide to patients, families and caregivers, the authors write.
"Although there remain differences of opinion in the clinical community about the strength of this signal for antidepressant druginduced suicidality in pediatric patients and the implications for clinical practice, it is important to be clear that the FDA has not contraindicated any of the antidepressant drugs for pediatric use," they conclude.
"The FDA recognizes that depression and other psychiatric disorders in pediatric patients can have significant consequences if not appropriately treated. The new warning language recognizes this need but advises close monitoring of patients as a way of managing the risk of suicidality."
Consumer Reports Sizes Up Hybrid Costs
Savings at Pump Don't Offset Higher Purchase Price03/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
Consumer Reports Sizes Up Hybrid Costs...
For consumers who believe that gas/electric hybrid vehicles will save them money, the picture hasn't been so clear. Hybrid vehicles are more fuel efficient and produce lower emissions than conventional gasoline-only vehicles.
Most current models of hybrids also score well in Consumer Reports' testing and are highly rated in CR's annual reliability and owner satisfaction surveys. But do hybrid vehicles really hold the potential to save the consumer money over the long haul?
To find the answer, Consumer Reports looked at all of the major ownership costs and financial benefits of six different hybrid vehicles -- a mix of sedans and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).
In Consumer Reports' analysis, none of the six hybrids tested recovered its price premium in the first five years and 75,000 miles of ownership. In fact, the extra ownership costs over five years for those vehicles ranged from $3,700 to $13,300.
Even when the analysis was extended to a period of 10 years and 150,000 miles, it was not possible to recover the price premium for a hybrid vehicle.
Consumer Reports also found that the benefits and costs of hybrids vary significantly, depending on the model. Because of the wide range of hybrid vehicles available, it's especially important for consumers to look carefully at all aspects of the vehicle before buying.
The 2006 model year vehicles examined are the: Ford Escape Hybrid AWD, Honda Accord Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexus RX400h AWD, Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited AWD and the Toyota Prius.
The full report, titled "The dollars & sense of hybrids," is published in Consumer Reports' Annual April Auto Issue, which goes on sale beginning Tuesday, March 7.
The rising price of gasoline and concern over U.S. dependence on oil have generated a lot of interest in hybrids, and with good reason. They typically deliver the best fuel economy in their classes. The most fuel-efficient models can save the consumer about $660 in gasoline costs. Hybrids also emit less pollution.
Each gallon of gasoline not burned prevents the emission of 19 pounds of carbon dioxide, which many believe contributes to global warming. In some states, hybrid owners can even use special carpool lanes regardless of the number of occupants in the vehicle.
These benefits add up to an inviting package for many car buyers who are willing to pay a premium for a hybrid.
But for those who are considering buying a hybrid for purely financial reasons, the figures just don't add up.
Estimating the Total Ownership Costs
To estimate the various overall ownership costs of hybrids, Consumer Reports picked six current models that it had previously tested and totaled their major costs and savings over the first five years, the longest period for which reliable data on all the cost components are available.
Five years is also a typical period of car ownership. CR did the same thing for each model's closest conventional, gasoline-powered equivalent and then compared the two. (For its investigation, Consumer Reports assumed that all the vehicles were purchased in California, the leading market for hybrid sales.)
Consumer Reports factored the following into its calculations: the purchase price premiums for hybrids, the difference in sales tax, savings from hybrid federal tax credits, fuel savings from hybrids at the pump, the extra cost or savings in insurance premiums for hybrids, the extra maintenance cost or savings from hybrids, the extra depreciation cost, and extra financing cost.
After factoring in federal tax credits and fuel savings that are based on gas prices rising to $3 and then to $4 a gallon, CR's calculations show that the most cost-effective hybrids, the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius, still cost $3,700 and $5,250 more than their all-gas peers (the Civic EX sedan and Corolla LE sedan, respectively) after five years.
Models with the highest cost difference -- the Honda Accord Hybrid, Lexus RX400h, and Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited -- ranged from $10,250 to $13,300 more.
Erectile Dysfunction "Cure" Must Pay $2.5 Million03/02/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Makers of the erectile dysfunction product popularized by the "Smiling Bob" ads will pay $2.5 million and provide consumers restitution to settle a multi-s...
Study Warns Cell Phones Could Cause Airliner Crash
Carnegie Mellon study confirms risk03/01/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Study Warns Cell Phones Could Cause Airliner Crash...
Lifting the current ban on use of cell phones aboard airliners could pose the risk of a major accident, according to a new engineering study.
The study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers has found that cell phones and other portable electronic devices, like laptops and game-playing devices, can pose dangers to the normal operation of critical electronics on airplanes.
The study will be featured in an article appearing in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum.
"We found that the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than previously believed," said Bill Strauss, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon.
"These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings." Strauss is an expert in aircraft electromagnetic compatibility at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Md.
With support from the Federal Aviation Administration, three major airlines and the Transportation Security Agency, researchers crisscrossed the northeast United States on commercial flights, monitoring radio emissions from passenger use of cell phones and other electronic devices.
They tracked these radio emissions via a broadband antenna attached to a compact portable spectrum analyzer that fit into an innocuous carry-on bag.
"A laptop computer controlled the system and logged the data," said researcher Granger Morgan. "While we looked primarily at wireless phones, we also discovered that emissions from other portable electronic devices were problematic."
The researchers found that on average one to four cell phone calls are typically made from every commercial flight in the northeast United States. Some of these calls are made during critical flight stages such as climb-out, or on final approach. This could cause accidents, the investigators report.
Both Strauss and Morgan, along with Carnegie Mellon researchers Jay Apt and Dan Stancil, recommend that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA begin to coordinate electronic emission standards.
At the moment, there is no formal coordination between the two federal agencies. The researchers also recommend routine monitoring of on-board radio emissions by flight data recorders and deploying specially designed tools for flight crews to monitor passenger use of electronic devices during final approach.
While the FCC recently suggested that it might be appropriate to allow passengers to use cell phones and other electronic devices on airplanes, Morgan disagrees.
"We feel that passenger use of portable electronic devices on aircraft should continue to be limited for the safety of all concerned," Morgan said.