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Researchers Find Internet Use Has Pros and Cons for Kids

Researchers Find Internet Use Has Pros and Cons for Kids...


Spending a lot of time on the Web can have both negative and positive effects on young people, according to the latest research presented in a special issue of Developmental Psychology.

Examples cited by the researchers included the sharing of self-injury practices by some and the improvement of academic performance and health awareness by others.

"A major goal for this cumulation of research is to show the good and bad sides of the Internet as it relates to children," said coeditors of the special issue Patricia Greenfield, PhD, of the Children's Digital Media Center, University of California at Los Angeles and Zheng Yan, PhD, of the State University of New York at Albany.

In a series of six articles, leading researchers examine normal behavior in chat rooms and the use of message boards by adolescents who self-injure, uses of the Internet to improve academic achievement among low-income youth and ways to provide health information to youth living in developing countries.

The authors observed 406 message boards to investigate how adolescents solicit and share information related to self-injurious behavior. Females 14-20 years of age visited these bulletin boards the most.

The findings show that online interactions provide essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents, but these online boards may also normalize and encourage self-injurious behavior and add potentially lethal behaviors to the repertoire of established adolescent self-injurers and those exploring identity options, said lead author Janis L. Whitlock of Cornell University.

The authors also found that Internet message boards provide a powerful vehicle for bringing together self-injurious adolescents. Although the message boards examined for these two studies may not be representative of all self-injury message boards, they do provide a snapshot of content and exchange common in those with high activity.

In the last five years, "hundreds of message boards specifically designed to provide a safe forum for self-injurious individuals have come into existence and may expose vulnerable adolescents to a subculture that normalizes and encourages self-injurious behavior," said Whitlock.

The Internet can also be a good educational tool for hard-to-reach populations.

Researchers from Michigan State University examined the positive effects of home Internet access on the academic performance of low-income, mostly African American children and teenagers involved in the HomeNetToo Project.

In this research, 140 children aged 1018 years old (83% African American and 58% male) living in single-parent households (75%) with a $15,000 or less median income were followed for a two-year period to see whether home Internet use would influence academic achievement.

The children who participated in the HomeNetToo project were online for an average of 30 minutes a day. Findings indicate that children who used the Internet more had higher standardized test scores in reading and higher grade point averages (GPAs) at one year and at 16 months after the project began compared to children who used the Internet less, said lead author Linda Jackson, PhD. Internet use had no effect on standardized test scores in math.

"Improvements in reading achievement may be attributable to the fact that spending more time online typically means spending more time reading," said Dr. Jackson. "GPAs may improve because GPAs are heavily dependent on reading skills," she added.

Between 75 and 90 percent of teenagers in the United States use the Internet to email, instant message (IM), visit chat rooms and explore other sites on the World Wide Web.

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Vermont Loses Laptop Loaded with Student & Faculty Data

Employee Applying for "Free" Credit Monitoring Runs Afoul of Experian

Vermont Loses Laptop Loaded with Student & Faculty Data...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

April 28, 2006
The theft of a laptop containing information on thousands of students and faculty throughout Vermont's state college system is not only the latest example of bad laptop security, but it led one retired faculty member to find out that "free" credit monitoring isn't always what it appears to be.

Karen R. was one of many individuals notified that a laptop containing data on 20,000 students, faculty and staff in the Vermont State College (VSC) system was stolen from the locked car of a Lyndon College employee on vacation in Montreal.

The data on the laptop included names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and payroll information, as well as academic records on students. None of the data on the laptop was encrypted or protected, though authorities believed the theft was based more on the value of the laptop than what was in it.

College administrators told the Vermont Press Bureau that they blocked access to the university's network as soon as they found out about the theft.

As is often the case with thefts or disappearances of laptops, several weeks elapsed between the discovery of the theft and notification of authorities. The theft was discovered on Feb. 28th, but university administrators did not notify affected individuals for three weeks, and area banks until March 27th. Karen did not hear about it until March 25th.

Not only that, VSC fell victim to another data breach when a hacker used a stolen information technology employee's password to send out a campus-wide e-mail describing the laptop theft.

According to the Burlington Free Press, the e-mail said that "Increased security measures are supposedly coming soon, but obviously not soon enough."

"Free" Fraud Alert Neither Alert Nor Free

In a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, Karen related her quest to make sure she wouldn't be a victim of identity fraud due to the laptop theft.

"We were strongly urged to and given instructions on how to place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus," she said. "I contacted Equifax to do so. I received information from them that they would contact the other two credit bureaus."

"The written notification I received from Equifax stated [that] 'We will forward your information to Experian and TransUnion and they will also add an alert to your credit file in their databases, eliminating the need for you to contact each credit reporting agency directly,'" Karen said.

But Karen didn't get any notification from Experian. When she contacted them, despite following the instructions she was given, she wound up up signing up for their monthly paid "credit monitoring service," without her consent.

Despite sending certified letters to Experian advising them of the error, she has been unable to get the credit monitoring service charge off her credit card, nor has she gotten the fraud alert placed on her Experian credit report.

Experian was hit with a class action lawsuit in 2004 for deceptive marketing and advertising relating to its "Free Credit Report" service, offered through subsidiary ConsumerInfo.com.

The suit charged that subscribers would sign up to get what they thought was a free credit report, only to find they were signed up for monthly "credit monitoring" services at $7.95 a pop.

The FTC brokered a settlement with ConsumerInfo.com in August 2005 to stop their practice of selling "free credit reports," ordering them to pay $950,000 in claims and barring them from advertising "free" credit reports in the future.

"At this point, I feel that I not only may be a victim of identity theft, but I am also a victim of Experian," Karen said.

MSNBC reporter Bob Sullivan recently investigated why many victims of data breaches don't utilize the free credit monitoring services companies offer them for protection.

In his blog, "The Red Tape Chronicles," he discussed the reasons why, ranging from ignorance of the signup process, to simple laziness, to mistrust of giving more personal information to companies that couldn't protect it adequately in the first place.

"Some victims were probably scared off by the sign-up process, which could require divulging a Social Security number," Sullivan said. "After all, who wants to fork over personal information to a company that's just lost it?"

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Two Popular Statins Going Generic

This summer, generic versions of two statins, Pravachol and Zocor, will become available

Two Popular Statins Going Generic...

This summer, generic versions of two statins, Pravachol and Zocor, will become available, at prices lower than the brand names now command. The FDA announced approval of the generic version of Pravachol earlier this week.

If you have been taking Pravachol or Zocor, switching to a generic version of the same drug makes sense, according to the May issue of the Harvard Heart Letter. Generic drugs are the same as the brand-name version in all but looks, inactive ingredients, and price. By law a generic drug must

• contain the same active ingredients as the brand-name drug
• be identical in strength, dosage, and administration
• work the same way in the body
• meet the same standards for quality
• be made by the same rules the FDA has set for the brand-name drug.

The difference? Generic drugs cost less.

What if you are taking a statin that doesnt yet have a generic equivalent, such as Crestor, Lescol, or Lipitor?

Although the statins are chemically different, they all lower total and LDL cholesterol. Insurers will almost certainly try to move people to generics. However, some statins are more powerful than others. If you need to ratchet your cholesterol way down, talk with your doctor to see if going generic makes sense.

So far, Americans haven't been that good about switching from costly brand-name drugs to less expensive but equally effective generics. With effective generic statins on the market, the Harvard Health Letter suggests maybe it's time to make the switch.

 



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Spychipped Levi's Hit the U.S.

Levi Strauss Confirms RFID Test, Refuses to Disclose Location

Spychipped Levi's Hit the U.S....


It may be time to ditch your Dockers and lay off the Levi's, say privacy activists Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre. New information confirms that Levi Strauss & Co. is ignoring a moratorium on item-level RFID by spychipping its clothing.

What's more, the company is refusing to disclose the location of its U.S. test.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a controversial technology that uses tiny microchips to track items from a distance.

These RFID microchips have earned the nickname "spychips" because each contains a unique identification number, like a Social Security number for things, that can be read silently and invisibly by radio waves.

Over 40 of the world's leading privacy and civil liberties organizations have called for a moratorium on chipping individual consumer items because the technology can be used to track people without their knowledge or consent.

Jeffrey Beckman, Director of Worldwide and U.S. Communications for Levi Strauss, confirmed his company's chipping program in an email exhange with McIntyre, saying that a retailer "is testing RFID at one location [in the U.S.]...on a few of our larger-volume core men's Levi's jeans styles." However, he refused to name the location.

"Out of respect for our customer's wishes, we are not going to discuss any specifics about their test," he said. Beckman also confirmed the company is tagging Levi Strauss clothing products, including Dockers brand pants, at two of its franchise locations in Mexico.

McIntyre was tipped off to the activity by a mention in an industry publication. The article indicated Levi Strauss was looking for additional RFID "test partners."

Albrecht believes the companies are keeping mum about the U.S. test location in order to prevent a consumer backlash. Clothing retailer Benetton was hit hard by a consumer boycott led by Albrecht in 2003 when the company announced plans to embed RFID tags in its Sisley line of women's clothing.

The resulting consumer outcry forced the company to retreat from its plans and disclaim its intentions.

Levi Strauss can little afford similar problems with consumers. It is one of the world's largest brand-name apparel marketers with a presence in more than 110 countries, but has suffered through several years of declining sales as younger consumers gravitate to new brands.

The company has also been hurt by Wal-Mart's decision to cut back on inventory in a bid to shore up its own declining sales.

While Levi Strauss reports that its current RFID trials use external RFID "hang tags" that can be clipped from the clothes and the focus is on inventory management, not customer tracking, the company isn't guaranteeing how it will use RFID in the future.

"Companies like Levi Strauss are painting their RFID trials as innocuous," observes Albrecht. "But this technology is extraordinarily dangerous. There is a reason why we have asked companies not to spychip clothing. Few things are more intimately connected with an individual than the clothes they wear."

"Once clothing manufacturers begin applying RFID to hang tags, the floodgates will open and we'll soon find these things sewn into the hem of our jeans," Albrecht adds. "The problem with RFID is that it is tracking technology, plain and simple."

Albrecht and McIntyre point out that tracking people through the things they wear and carry is more than mere speculation. In their book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," they reveal sworn patent documents that describe ways to link the unique serial numbers on RFID-tagged items with the people who purchase them.

One of the most graphic examples is IBM's "Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-Tagged Items." In that patent application, IBM inventors suggest tracking consumers for marketing and advertising purposes.

"That's enough to steam most consumers," says McIntyre."But IBM's proposal that the government track people through RFID tags on the things they wear and carry should send a cold chill down our spines."

IBM inventors detail how the government could use RFID tags to track people in public places like shopping malls, museums, libraries, sports arenas, elevators, and even restrooms.

"Make no mistake," McIntyre adds. "Today's RFID inventory tags could evolve into embedded homing beacons. Unchecked, this technology could become a Big Brother bonanza and a civil liberties nightmare."

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Net Neutrality Loses House Vote, But Wins More Public Awareness

Supporters of "Net Neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally, were dealt another defeat this week

Net Neutrality Loses House Vote, But Wins More Public Awareness...

Supporters of "Net Neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally, were dealt another defeat this week.

As part of a vote on new telecommunications legislation, House Commerce Committee members defeated an amendment by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) to protect net neutrality, 34-22.

The vote was mostly along party lines, with 29 Republicans and five Democrats voting to kill the amendment. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) broke party ranks to vote with 21 Democrats to support Markey's amendment.

Four Democrats on the committee switched their positions to favor support of Net Neutrality, crediting the huge explosion in public interest on the issue.

Matt Stoller, blogger for the progressive Web site MyDD, called the vote a "momentum shift," given that the Subcommittee on Commerce and Energy defeated Markey's last attempt to insert language protecting Net Neutrality by a vote of 23-8.

"There's a white hot firestorm on the issue on Capitol Hill," he said in a post discussing the issue. "No one wants to see the telcos make a radical change to the Internet and screw this medium up, except, well, the telcos."

The net neutrality issue is guaranteed to come up again as the Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act (COPE), the legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), now moves to the full House for a vote.

Any legislation passed by the House must be reconciled with legislation passed in the Senate before the President can sign it into law.

Though Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has said he supports the idea of Net Neutrality in principle, he has stopped short of endorsing putting the principle into codified law.

However, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-MI), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have all introduced legislation in the Senate that would ban network providers from degrading content or creating "toll lanes" where content providers can ensure better access to their sites in exchange for paying more money.

What was originally an issue mostly discussed by telecommunications analysts, bloggers, and the tech media has erupted into a serious issue of public import. A coalition of diverse groups and organizations banded together under the name "Save The Internet," and launched their campaign in support of Net Neutrality on April 25th.

The group boasts a membership ranging from public advocacy groups such as Common Cause and the Consumer Federation of America, to the Gun Owners of America, to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

The coalition took credit for delivering over 250,000 signatures in three days on a petition to the House committee supporting Net Neutrality.

Blogs and Web sites all across the political and social spectrum have taken up the cause of Net Neutrality as key to preserving their freedom of speech and access to content on the Internet.

Personalities as diverse as conservative blogger Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds and actress Alyssa Milano have come out in public support of keeping equal access to Internet content.

The harsh public scrutiny has also brought to light how well the major telecom players have lobbied Congress to get favorable legislation passed. Democrat Bobby Rush (D-IL), co-sponsor of COPE, was lambasted for accepting over $1 million in contributions from SBC (now AT&T;) for a still-unfinished community center, while sitting on the committee handling the telecom legislation.

Although COPE will encompass many changes to how telecoms, cable companies, and municipalities deliver Internet services to customers, the blitz of opposition to a "tiered Internet" has brought mainstream public attention to an issue Matt Stoller says the telecoms wanted kept quiet.

"The telcos have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and many years lobbying for their position. We launched four days ago, and have closed a lot of ground," he said. "Over the next few months, as the public wakes up, we'll close the rest of it."

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Caffeine Raises Blood Pressure, Lowers Heart Rate In Kids

Caffeine Raises Blood Pressure, Lowers Heart Rate In Kids...


Caffeine elevates children's blood pressure and, surprisingly, lowers the heart rate in children during exercise, but does not affect metabolism, according to new research from Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

The study is the first to investigate the effects of caffeine on both cardiovascular and metabolic responses to exercise in healthy boys and girls. Although the physical effects of caffeine have been studied for years, the effect of caffeine on children is still a new field of research.

The idea came to researcher Dr. Ken Turley, director of Harding's Human Performance Laboratory, when he drove past a kids' soccer tournament.

"All these kids are drinking sodas and energy drinks and I wondered what we knew about the effects of caffeine on kids, particularly during exercise," he says. "I found out we don't know that much."

In the study, published in the March issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, by the American College of Sports Medicine, 52 seven to nine-year old boys and girls each randomly received a placebo and a caffeinated drink twice each on four separate days.

An hour later, after taking resting measures, each child rode a stationary bicycle while blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption were measured.

The results of the study demonstrate that caffeine acutely elevates both resting and exercise blood pressure, but acutely reduces heart rate in boys and girls given a moderate to high dose of caffeine an hour before exercise. The caffeine did not affect metabolism, nor were there significant differences found between boys and girls.

"We expected the increase in blood pressure," Turley says, "but the decrease in heart rate was surprising." He suspects it's the body's response to try to maintain a normal blood pressure.

"Long term caffeine intake has been associated with increased blood pressure in adolescents that increases the risk of hypertension," says Turley. "Although this study describes only an acute affect the length of which is unknown repeated exposure over days or weeks could contribute to possible long-term increases. Thus exposure to caffeine in young children should at best be limited, at least in children who are borderline hypertensive."



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FDA Approves Generic Version Of Cholesterol Drug

Agency has approved the first generic version of Bristol-Myers Squibb's Pravachol

FDA Approves Generic Version Of Cholesterol Drug...

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic version of Bristol-Myers Squibb's Pravachol, a move it touts as an important step in the agency's effort to increase the availability of lower-cost generic medications.

Pravachol (Pravastatin Sodium Tablets) is indicated for the treatment of individuals with high cholesterol levels or who are at increased risk for atherosclerosis-related cardiac and cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke in which high cholesterol levels are a factor.

In 2005, Pravachol was the 22nd highest-selling brand-name drug in the United States, with sales totaling $1.3 billion.

"This approval is another example of our agency's endeavor to counter rising health care costs by approving safe and effective generic alternatives as soon as the law permits," said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Deputy Commissioner for Medical and Scientific Affairs.

"Pravastatin is a widely-used cholesterol-lowering agent, and its generic version can bring significant savings to the millions of Americans with this disease."

Generic drug products are used to fill over 50 percent of all prescriptions and since they cost a fraction of the price of brand name drugs, the economic impact of FDA's generic drug program is significant.

FDA's Office of Generic Drugs (OGD) said it is considering several new policies that could lead to the overall reduction of review time for new generics.

These include new review formats which allow for overall risk assessments for individual applications in order to dictate the level of OGD review need for subsequent product changes. When fully implemented this has the potential to reduce supplements by 80 percent and reduce Office expenditures of time and money.

Bristol-Myers Squibb's patent for the drug expired on April 20. Pravastatin Sodium Tablets (10mg, 20mg and 40mg) are manufactured by TEVA Pharmaceuticals in Kfar Sava, Israel.

 



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Michigan Fines Wal-Mart $1.5 Million for Item Pricing Violations

Wal-Mart has agreed to pay the largest fine in Michigan history to settle claims it committed "massive" violations of Michigan's item pricing law....

Retail giant Wal-Mart has agreed to pay the largest fine in Michigan history to settle claims it committed "massive" violations of Michigan's item pricing law.

Under the terms of the record $1.5 million settlement, Wal-Mart will pay $780,000 in penalties and reimbursement of costs incurred by the state. Additional penalties of $620,000, to be deposited in a separate, segregated account, will be used to pay for independent audits.

"This far-reaching and innovative settlement will help assure continued item pricing compliance by Wal-Mart," Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said. "It is my hope that it will also serve as a notice to other Michigan retailers that violation of Michigan's item pricing laws will not be tolerated."

"Michigan's law is clear: items on store shelves must be clearly marked with a price tag, so consumers know how much an item costs before they reach the checkout register and can verify that they were not overcharged after leaving the store," Cox said.

"Retailers that fail to individually price stock are in violation of the law and impede the ability of consumers to comparison shop for the lowest price."

Under the terms of the settlement, in addition to paying fines and costs, Wal-Mart will establish and implement an item pricing compliance plan to assure continued pricing compliance that includes maintaining adequate resources including appropriate staffing levels, equipment, and signage.

If follow-up audits establish continuing non-compliance, additional penalties will be imposed and paid from amounts placed in the segregated fund.

Wal-Mart also agreed to donate $100,000 to Michigan food banks.

 

 

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Bush Proposes Lifting Hybrid Tax Credit Limit

Bush Proposes Lifting Hybrid Tax Credit Limit...

April 25, 2006
President Bush says Congress ought to eliminate the limit on the number of hybrid vehicles produced by an automaker that qualify for current tax credits.

The credits took effect this year and are as much as $3,400 per vehicle. Once an automaker sells 60,000 eligible vehicles, however, the credits are phased out.

Toyota would be the big winner if the law was to be changed. The Prius will reach the tax credit ceiling by the middle of this year.

Bush offered the proposal in a speech to the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents producers of ethanol.

Some auto industry analysts suggest the tax credit cap is an effort by domestic automakers to keep all the benefits of the tax credits from going to Honda and Toyota customers. Toyota is the acknowledged leader in hybrid production.

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West Virginia Sues To Stop Collection Efforts For Bogus Magazine Sales

West Virginia has gone to court to stop a Florida collection agency from trying to collect debts supposedly based on magazine subscription purchases

West Virginia Sues To Stop Collection Efforts For Bogus Magazine Sales...

West Virginia has gone to court to stop a Florida collection agency from trying to collect debts supposedly based on magazine subscription purchases.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw took the action against Check Game Solutions and its President, Catherine Key of Vero Beach, Florida.

McGraw says problems began when CGS's client, Universal Subscription Agency, sent vendors into West Virginia selling magazines door to door.

Consumers were taken in by the young vendors' pleas for assistance in meeting sales quotas, and wrote checks on the spot to purchase subscriptions for various magazines.

Some consumers regretted the purchase right away and, when they could not find the salesperson in their neighborhoods, decided to stop payment on their checks.

Under West Virginia law, contracts for multiple magazine subscriptions can be canceled at any time and for any reason.

Instead of canceling the purchases, McGraw says Universal hired CGS to send debt collection letters to consumers, accusing the consumers of writing the magazine company bad checks. In one case, CGS threatened to turn the debt over to the "Worthless Check Division" of the "State Attorney's Office," a fictitious entity made up by CGS to frighten consumers.

CGS has never obtained a license to conduct business as a collection agency in West Virginia, and has failed to post a bond as required by law.

McGraw's office attempted to resolve complaints against CGS informally, but he says CGS refused to settle the matter. McGraw said his office had no other choice but to sue CGS.

In his suit, McGraw seeks a preliminary injunction barring CGS from conducting any debt collection activity in West Virginia until the case can be resolved, and asks that the Court eventually order restitution, debt cancellation, and civil penalties.

 

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New Jersey Sues Mattress Company Over Internet Ads

"Self-Adjusting Technology" mattress not all it claims, state charges

New Jersey Sues Mattress Company Over Internet Ads...

New Jersey is suing Comfort Direct, Inc. for allegedly violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act and regulations. At issue is the company's Internet advertisement and sale of the "Self-Adjusting Technology" mattress and other bedding products.

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office and Division of Consumer Affairs charge the New Brunswick-based company used unauthorized and fabricated testimonials from hospitals and individuals on its Web site.

They say the company also discouraged returns and refunds by making unreasonable and costly demands regarding how consumers must ship merchandise back to Comfort Direct.

"We allege that Comfort Direct made false and unauthorized claims that its product was used and endorsed by prominent medical institutions, doctors and other individuals," said Attorney General Zulima V. Farber. "It's illegal to deceive consumers with fabricated testimonials."

The state charges Comfort Direct used unauthorized and/or fabricated testimonials and endorsements from hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and government agencies, including the following based in New Jersey:

• Bayonne Medical Center, Bayonne;
• Health South Rehabilitation Hospital, Toms River;
• Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, Chester;
• Saint Clare's Hospital, Dover; and
• N.J. Dept. Of Human Services, Division of Disability Services.

Comfort Direct allegedly ignored demands to remove testimonials and endorsements when contacted by the individual or institution involved.

The company, which sells the SAT Mattress and other mattresses and bedding products, offered consumers a "90-Day Trial" of its mattresses. If consumers wished to return the mattresses, however, New Jersey officials say Comfort Direct required returns to be shipped in the original delivery boxes and at the consumer's expense.

The company allegedly required consumers who did not have the original boxes to buy boxes from Comfort Direct at inflated prices and to pay for shipment of the empty boxes to the consumer.

Comfort Direct also allegedly required consumers to obtain a "Return Authorization Number" in order to return mattresses for a refund, and made it extremely difficult to obtain one. The company also allegedly persuaded consumers to accept alternative or replacement parts and "fixes" to unsatisfactory merchandise, during which time the 90-Day Trial period expired.

"Consumers who thought these mattresses would help relieve back and neck pain encountered another type of pain when they wanted to return the mattresses and get refunds," Consumer Affairs Director Kimberly Ricketts said. "We allege Comfort Direct made the return process so inconvenient and costly that its actions discouraged consumers from returning merchandise and obtaining refunds."

New Jersey's Consumer Affairs office says it has received 33 consumer complaints against Comfort Direct from mid-2002 to date. The state's five-count Complaint, filed in Superior Court in New Brunswick, seeks restitution for these consumers, the assessment of civil penalties, reimbursement of the state's investigative and legal costs and future compliance with all applicable state regulations.

 

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Blacks Have Less Trust in Health Care Providers than Whites

Blacks may have lower levels of trust in physicians, nurses and other health care providers than whites

Blacks Have Less Trust in Health Care Providers than Whites...

A national survey suggests that blacks may have lower levels of trust in physicians, nurses and other health care providers than whites, especially if they regularly receive care in a facility other than a physician's office, according to an article in the current issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Low levels of trust were reported by 44.7 percent of blacks and 33.5 percent of whites. Although fewer quality interactions with providers predicted low trust among all participants, other factors that influenced trust appeared different between blacks and whites.

Physicians and researchers are increasingly recognizing the importance of trust in medical care. "Trust has been described as an expectation that medical care providers (physicians, nurses and others) will act in ways that demonstrate the patient's interests are a priority," the authors write.

Many factors contribute to a patient's trust level, including perceptions of the provider's medical and interpersonal skills. Patients with low trust in their providers may be less likely to comply with treatment, receive recommended screening exams or develop long-term, quality relationships with their physicians.

Chanita Hughes Halbert, Ph.D., Abramson Cancer Center and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and colleagues evaluated responses from a national survey of 954 adults, including 432 blacks and 522 whites. Participants responded to 46 items that assessed their sociodemographic characteristics, prior health care experiences, where they usually receive care and whether their provider's racial background matched their own.

Trust in health care providers was rated on a scale of one to four, with one indicating that the participant could trust providers to do what is best for patients almost all of the time and four almost none of the time. Low trust was defined as a rating of three or four.

Blacks who usually accessed medical care at facilities other than physicians' offices were most likely to report low trust, while among whites, lack of health insurance, fewer annual health care visits and gender were more likely to predict low trust, with women more likely to have low trust than men.

Understanding the factors that influence trust in different patient communities could help physicians take steps to enhance trust and thereby improve medical care, the authors conclude.

"Training designed to improve provider communication with patients may be needed to improve trust for African-Americans and whites," they write.

"However, it may be especially important to direct these efforts to health care providers practicing in settings where continuity with patients may be limited to improve trust among African-Americans. In addition, greater access to health care settings (e.g. physicians' offices) where more effective relationships with providers can be developed may also improve trust in health care providers among African-Americans."



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Overdraft Loan Survey Finds Problems For Consumers

Consumers Pay $10 Billion in Overdraft Fees Yearly

Overdraft Loan Survey Finds Problems For Consumers...

A nationwide survey finds that low-income people, single people and people of color are increasingly turning to borrowing money from financial institutions by overdrawing their checking accounts, racking up interest rates that can exceed 1,000 percent.

A telephone survey of 3,310 households done for the Center for Responsible Lending shows that a mere 16 percent of bank customers account for nearly three-quarters of all overdraft loans.

"A service created as a favor for customers has morphed into a harmful practice that traps vulnerable customers in debt," said Eric Halperin, a senior policy counsel at the Center. "Some banks now realize that trapping borrowers and charging them a $25 fee for a $20 overdraft loan is a pretty good scam."

Financial institutions are increasingly turning to fees to increase their income. Of the estimated $10.3 billion in overdraft fees Americans pay each year, the survey indicates that $7.3 billion comes from repeat borrowers.

The Center for Responsible Lending calls on the Federal Reserve and other regulators to:

• Require disclosure of the interest rates on overdraft loans.

• Require borrowers' explicit consent before signing them up for these programs.

• Require warnings when ATM and debit-card transactions will trigger fees and allow customers to opt out of the transactions.

• Require institutions to report the numbers on their overdraft loans, which would show the impact of these programs on borrowers.

• Prohibit repeated overdraft loan charges within a quarter.

It's Predatory

Overdraft fees aren't generally included in discussions of predatory lending, which drains more than $25 billion from low-wealth families in the U.S. each year, but the CRL says they should be.

"Though predatory mortgage loans and payday loans receive the lions share of attention as predatory practices, overdraft loan fees comprise about a third of that $25 billion," the organization said.

Earlier CRL research estimates that checking account customers pay more than $10.3 billion in overdraft loan fees every year. Approximately, three quarters of that, $7.3 billion, is collected from repeat borrowers, rather than one-time users.

 

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Canon Leaves Camera Customers in the Dark

Canon Leaves Camera Customers in the Dark

Canon Leaves Camera Customers in the Dark...

We got an email from Canon the other day, gushing about "spring news and offers." It included an ad for the EOS 300 Digital SLR Camera -- "Perfection Refined" was the headline.

We found it a little irritating for two reasons:

1. Canon's cameras are far from perfect. Millions of them have a defective chip, not to mention other problems. Canon knows about these defects but is keeping very quiet about them, while bombarding its customers with perky emails that, to say the least, fail to warn consumers of known defects..

2. Through its incessant emails, Canon demonstrates that it is able to communicate with its customers, so what is its excuse for not warning customers about the defects? Eh?

It's not like Canon just found out about the problems. It issued a service notice on its Asian Website last November but has never notified its American customers of the defects and, even after a class action lawsuit, continues to stonewall and mislead customers whose expensive cameras stop working.

There are several major defects in many Canon cameras currently slung around consumers' necks or nestled in seatback pockets en route to some long-awaited tour:

The "e18" error, which locks up the lens barrel so that it will not extended or retract, making it impossible to take photos.

A defective CCD, which causes images to fail to appear on the LCD screen, or causes blurry, distorted or greenish images to appear.

Faulty LCD screens. Many consumers complain that their LCD screens are cracked.

Memory cards. Many consumers receive a memory card error, which results in an inability to view or retrieve images that may be on the memory card

Lensmen's Laments

Dora of Bayside, New York, was using her Canon Powershot A80 when it locked up and displayed the e18 error, which is rapidly becoming to shutterbugs what the "blue screen of death" is to Microsoft Windows users.

"I just called customer support, and they offered me no explanation for the problem, but rather automatically started explaining how much it would cost to get it fixed. Namely, $108 as a starting estimate, and they said it could be more," Dora said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

"They also offered me the option of sending me a refurbished camera in exchange for the one that I have plus $149. I believe that this is unacceptable. I paid a lot of money for this camera, and it all of a sudden stopped working, and now Canon wants me to pay a lot more money to get it repaired."

But what really irks Dora and many other consumers is that Canon professes complete ignorance of the problem when confronted by customers seeking support, or simply offers the telephonic equivalent of a shrug.

"They offered me no other solutions, no troubleshooting tips, and didn't seem at all concerned that their product just stopped functioning," Dora said.

"After doing some research on the Internet, I saw hundreds of other examples of people in situations similar to mine. If so many people are having the exact same problem with the same company, I would venture to say that their product is defective. They should replace it free of charge and apologize instead of expecting consumers to dish out more money for faulty products," she concluded.

Particularly galling to many is that, like many defects in electronic equipment, the problem often presents itself when the product is still relatively new. That's what happened to Ramy of Memphis.

"In May 2003, I bought a Canon Powershot A60. It was a great camera indeed, until -- after less than 6 weeks -- it was totally paralyzed displaying a weird message: Error-E18. I was so disappointed. It seemed there was nothing I could do," she said.

Bruce of Farmingville, New York, bought not one but two new Powershots in October 2004. "I went on vacation to Australia Jan 12, 2005 thru Feb 4th. I used the camera before going and had no problems," he said.

"The day before the end of the second week, we went to the zoo. At that point I had taken about 1,600 pictures. I had purchased extra cards so I could capture about 300 pictures. All of a sudden the camera stopped working with the lens in the out position."

"I went to a service center in Melbourne and they said I would have to send it back when I got to the States because it was an electrical problem," Bruce told us. But when he did so, Canon declared the warranty voided, claiming it found a "sticky substance" inside the camera.

Willful Ignorance

Maybe Canon is emulating Ford Motor Co.'s time-tested method of dealing with customers stranded -- or worse -- by product problems.

Ford is, after all, the foremost practitioner of the "hear no evil" school of product support. To this day, despite lawsuits, news stories and thousands of letters, Web postings and complaints to dealers, Ford blithely tells complaining customers it has never heard of such defects as F-150 truck fires, spark plug blow-outs, collapsing springs and leaky head gaskets, to name just a few.

Selective memory is a common malady, of course, but it can spell big trouble if one's carefully forgotten actions come to light in court.

It just so happens a class action lawsuit is pending in New York U.S. District Court before Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, who presided over Martha Stewart's trial and sentenced her to five months in prison and five months of home detention on charges of lying to federal investigators.

"Is the number of defects greater than with Ford? I hadn't made that analogy, but it is a good one," said attorney Richard Doherty, who filed the class action now pending before Judge Cedarbaum.

"Of course, there's no safety issue with a camera but just imagine if this happens with the camera you bought specifically for your daughter's wedding or your long anticipated trip to Machu Pichu," Doherty said.

Canon Blames the Weather

The advisory on Canon's Asian Web site claims the recording-error problem manifests itself mostly at high temperatures and humidities. Canon Asia is directing customers to their service centers in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Cameras sold in Asia that are found to be suffering from the problem will be fixed free of charge, regardless of warranty status, the company said.

That's a far cry from the treatment Canon's customers in the U.S. are receiving. Maybe Canon thinks North America is free from heat and humidity, in which case its executives should try spending August in Washington, D.C., St. Louis or what's left of New Orleans, not to mention Miami.

"Canon has refused to stand behind the cameras, and offers consumers who paid approximately $400 for what they thought was a high-quality digital camera the option of a repair costing at least $150 or the opportunity to purchase a refurbished, used camera for $175," Doherty said.

What To Do

Canon-lovers, what are your options? Well, be sure to hang onto your purchase receipt. Keep a copy of your warranty. Keep copies of any repair records. And keep your fingers crossed. It's always possible you'll be one of the lucky ones who cameras don't experience either of these problems.

If your camera does fail, notify Canon in writing, citing this article and the numerous complaints on our site. File a complaint with ConsumerAffairs.com. Complaints filed with our site are made available to class-action attorneys, including Doherty.

If you are willing to spend a little time and a few dollars, head for your local Small Claims Court and file against Canon. Check our state-by-state listings to learn more.

Are there more reliable cameras out there? Maybe, but it's important to note that the internal workings of most digital cameras are pretty much the same, and are often manufactured by the same supplier. It's the optics and the "packaging" that differentiate one brand from another.

Digital cameras are arguably more convenient than film cameras and, while they are generally more expensive to buy, they may be cheaper to use over the long run, depending on what process you use to print your photos. But more reliable they're not, at least not yet.

For those can't-miss moments, it's still a good idea to keep a small film camera in pocket or purse. Nothing beats a back-up.

 

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Pepsi Agrees to Get the Lead Out of Mexican Soda Bottles Used in the U.S.

Legislation Pending in Congress Would Have Blocked California's Action

Pepsi Agrees to Get the Lead Out of Mexican Soda Bottles Used in the U.S....


Pepsi has agreed to eliminate leaded labels on bottled soft drinks imported from Mexico to resolve California's allegations that Pepsi violated the state's Proposition 65 by failing to warn consumers the bottles' labels contained lead, a toxic substance that can cause birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer.

Prop. 65 and other state food safety laws would be pre-empted by a bill recently passed by the U.S. House and currently awaiting a vote in the Senate -- H.R. 4167, "The National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005." If the federal legislation had been law, Pepsi could have continued to sell Mexican sodas in bottles with leaded labels until the federal government took action.

"This settlement is a classic example of why California's Proposition 65 is a law that works," said state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "Not only does the law require manufacturers to warn the public about the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, it gives companies incentive to make their products safer. I congratulate Pepsi for meeting that challenge, taking the path of responsible corporate conduct and helping reduce Californians' exposure to this extremely dangerous substance."

"Lead is dangerous, and, sadly, lead is everywhere in our poor minority communities," said Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. "This landmark agreement means that we have put an end to one source of lead in our neighborhoods. Let this be a warning to those companies who sell products containing lead -- we will be vigilant in protecting the health of our residents."

Under the settlement, filed today in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Pepsi will immediately shift to lead-free labels on new bottles for products from Mexico. Additionally, Pepsi will eliminate existing lead-painted bottles for Mexican sodas within 10 years, with a target of eliminating 95 percent of such bottles within seven years.

Under the settlement, Pepsi will pay a $1 million civil penalty and could face an additional $4.25 million in civil penalties if it fails to meet the 95 percent phase-out target for existing bottles with leaded labels.

In addition to the civil penalties, the settlement requires Pepsi to pay $500,000 to fund: surveillance activities to keep old Mexican Pepsi bottles out of California; voluntary independent environmental audits of small Mexican food companies that export products to the United States; projects to eliminate lead from food products, including candy; and education and outreach programs on exposure to lead. Pepsi also will pay $750,000 in reimbursement for investigative costs and attorneys' fees.

A joint investigation by Delgadillo's and Lockyer's offices found that painted labels on bottles of Pepsi and other beverages manufactured in Mexico and imported into the United States contain up to 45 percent lead.

Testing results showed the lead from the label could rub off onto hands, creating a "hand-to-mouth" pathway for exposure. In addition, lead from the labels sometimes made its way into the beverage during the washing process. Bottles with lead on the labels are imported and sold throughout the state of California. Investigation of other companies that use lead-labeled bottles is ongoing.

Lead has been listed since 1987 on the state's list of substances known to cause reproductive harm and birth defects, and since 1992 has been on the list of substances known to cause cancer. Exposure to lead occurs chiefly from ingestion, such as eating or putting objects into the mouth, which puts young children particularly at risk.

Impacts include lowered intelligence (as measured by IQ tests), learning disabilities, hearing loss, reduced attention span and behavioral abnormalities. Teenagers also can suffer adverse effects, including brain damage, kidney damage, hearing loss and impaired growth.

No level of lead consumption, no matter how small, is deemed safe by the scientific community.

In addition to phasing out leaded glass in its Mexican-bottled product, Pepsi has agreed to hire a food processing auditor to monitor its 13 returnable bottling plants to help eliminate the risk of lead integration into bottles. The company also will survey at least 200 retail outlets in California to ensure that sales of Mexican-manufactured Pepsi are discontinued. Letters will be sent to California retailers and distributors known by Pepsi to have sold Mexican Pepsi in the last two years.

Passed overwhelmingly by California voters, Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, is a powerful tool in state and local agencies' efforts to protect the public from toxic chemicals present in food and other products.



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Chlorine in Pools Poses Health Risks

Chlorine in Pools Poses Health Risks...


The chlorine in pools can cause a lot of trouble, according to an EPA journal called Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

According to the article, chlorine can mix with skin cells and skin care products -- have you read their labels lately? -- to form dangerous volatile chemicals.

While swimming, you can breathe the chemicals in, or swallow them. This can cause health problems in folks with chronic heart or lung disease, and also in healthy people, especially pregnant women.

For example, British researchers found that the average pool contained chloroform, an irritant, up to 35 times the amount found in tap water. Chloroform can irritate the nose, sinuses, lungs and skin.

Pools also contain germs, which can cause skin infection, and they help grow mold, which can also cause health problems in the nose, sinuses and lungs.

What to do?

Shower with soap and water before and after you take a swim. Or, find a clean lake.

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Cell Phone No. 1 Driver Distraction

Drivers who dont pay attention or are distracted are three times as likely to be involved in a crash

Drivers who don't pay attention or are distracted are three times as likely to be involved in a crash as drivers who pay attention to the road and don't ea...

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Street Gangs Cashing In On ID Theft: Postal Inspector

Street Gangs Cashing In On ID Theft: Postal Inspector...


We know that identity theft is on the rise, but who or what is behind it? The U.S. Postal Service believes organized gangs are engaging in the crime in increasing numbers.

KSL-TV in Salt Lake City reports gang members are becoming more tech savvy, giving up violence and petty theft in favor of computer classes at local libraries and community colleges.

Many are apparently using their newfound skills to steal identities.

U.S. Postal Inspector Bab Maes told the station that Aryan nation gangs recently got into identity theft in a big way to fund their meth amphetamine habits. Other gangs are finding it a reliable and relatively risk-free revenue stream.

With just a few computer skills, many gang members are finding they can make more money, faster, in the safety of their home or headquarters, sparing them the necessity of facing street toughs, police patrols, rival gangs, traffic jams and other hazards of gang life.

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Prius Rage Gives Rise to Hybrid Haters

Prius Rage Gives Rise to Hybrid Haters...



Growing numbers of hybrid drivers are becoming victims of road rage and they are calling it the "Prius Backlash" as the poltical debate over the environment seems to be moving to the carpool lanes.

Hybrid drivers, particularly in California and Virginia where solo occupants of hybrid cars are eligible to drive in the carpool lanes, are feeling a new form of commuter road rage.

Some carpoolers accuse the hybrids driving too slowly in order to maximize their fuel economy and they claim that the slower hybrids are beginning to cause traffic jams in lanes that were once clear.

As many analysts question the economics of hybrid vehicles, a growing number of Prius owners contend that they are also making a political statement about the environment. "People are a lot less friendly than when I drove a Mercedes," one Prius owner confessed.

"There's a mentality out there that we're a bunch of liberal hippies or we're trying to make some statement on the environment," said another California Prius Driver. "If every driver in America achieved Prius efficiency, the air would be drastically cleaner and foreign oil dependency would end," warned another Prius driver.

As more solo-occupant hybrids hit the road and begin using the carpool lanes, it slows down 15-passenger vans and other high-occupancy vehicles. In time that could drive carpoolers fed up with the delays to go back to driving themselves.

The California Department of Transportation has issued carpool-lane stickers for about 50,000 hybrid cars but now plans to study the effect of hybrids on carpool lanes. The same argument over carpool-lane congestion is taking place in Virginia where the state legislature is considering restrictions on hybrid drivers using the lanes in peak hours.

"If I'm going to be stuck in traffic, I might as well be enjoying the comfort and privacy of my own car instead of being packed in with 14 other people," grumped one Virginian who commutes daily into Washington, D.C.

Both California and Virginia allow carpool-lane access to hybrids that get at least 45 mpg. To date, only the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and Honda Insight make the grade.

Because those hybrids meeting the standard use small internal-combustion engines in combination with electric motors to increase gas mileage, they also reduce air pollution.

Larger hybrid SUVs and luxury sedans with solo drivers are excluded from rush hour carpool lanes. The larger hybrids neither conserve substantial quantities of gasoline nor contribute materially to the quality of the air.

As the political debate over the environment moves heats up inside the HOV lanes, the "Prius Backlash" is giving rise to a group of self declared "hybrid haters" cruising chat rooms on automotive websites. The chatter can be bitter. "These idiot hybrids are clogging the car-pool lane," is typical of the views expressed on many of the anti-hybrid sites.

Growing carpool lane congestion is topic number one. "These drivers barely go 65 mph and allow no one to pass them on the right," fumed another chat room visitor. "Talk about road rage!"

"Go with the flow, or get the heck outta the way!!!," wrote another hybrid disparager.

Hybrid owners in California insist their carpool driving rights are not a free lunch in large part because most of the time, the HOV lanes and standard lanes are going at the same rates and there is no advantage.

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Online Fraud Rates Drop to Near In-Person Rates

Online Fraud Rates Drop to Near In-Person Rates: A survey of retail merchants finds that online fraud rates are declining to about the same rates reported ...

April 19, 2006
A survey of retail merchants finds that online fraud rates are declining to about the same rates reported by brick-and-mortar stores, while fraud spikes and fraudsters' use of increasingly sophisticated schemes are keeping retailers on their toes, according to the Merchant Risk Council (MRC), an trade association.

Fraud rates for in-person credit-card transactions are usually less than 0.1% of sales. The council's fifth annual survey found that 48% of online retailers surveyed said that their chargebacks now match that rate, a significant improvement over previous years when online fraud outpaced card present fraud by as much as five times.

"The numbers show a very positive trend, but fraud still requires vigilance from online retailers," said Julie Fergerson, co-chairman of the Merchant Risk Council.

"As fraud prevention tools gain widespread use, their effectiveness declines, and fraudsters are always looking for ways to 'beat the system.' Most of our members realize this, and 76% of them have either maintained or increased their review staff levels, thus keeping their shoppers safe," she said.

As the adoption of fraud prevention tools increases, their effectiveness often decreases as scam artists find ways to work around the security tools.

Since 2001, online merchants report that the effectiveness of Address Verification Systems, for example, has dropped from 70% to 25%, although its use rose from 70% to 83% over the same period. Similarly, the adoption of Card Verification Codes increased from 38% to 73%, but merchants report a decline in its effectiveness from 49% to 31%.

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Researchers Find Pesticides In Cigarette Smoke

If the nicotine doesn't get you, the pesticides just might

Using electron monochromator-mass spectrometry, the scientists found three pesticides suspected of being toxic to the human endocrine system as well as car...

If the nicotine doesn't get you, the pesticides just might. That's the upshot of a study by researchers at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, who say they have found previously undetected pesticides in tobacco smoke.

Using electron monochromator-mass spectrometry, the scientists found three pesticides suspected of being toxic to the human endocrine system as well as carcinogenic in a wide sampling of experimental and commercial cigarette smoke samples.

The three nitro-containing pesticides, including flumetralin, commonly used in tobacco farming, survive the combustion process.

Flumetralin, a suspected endocrine disrupter already banned for use on tobacco in Europe, belongs to a class of chemicals that may be active at miniscule levels, the researchers say.

Endocrine disrupters can produce adverse effects on early development, reproduction and other hormonal processes.

When the three unidentified compounds turned up in the smoke, the researchers utilized a unique selective and sensitive instrument to analyze the chemical "fingerprints" of the substances and identify the new compounds as dinitroaniline pesticides.

They found the three pesticides in both the mainstream and sidestream smoke, with the sidestream showing the higher levels for all three compounds. Although the pesticides are reduced in quantity, they survived the combustion at an estimated level of 10 percent of the original residue on the tobacco.

The research has just been published online in the American Chemical Society journal, Analytical Chemistry, in an article by John Dane, Crystal Havey and Kent Voorhees.

Pendimethalin and trifluralin are the other two pesticides identified in this study.

Pendimethalin has been identified as an endocrine disrupter that specifically affects the thyroid. Trifluralin is also an endocrine disruptor that affects the reproductive and metabolic systems. Both compounds are suspected human carcinogens.

None of the three pesticides has been previously reported in either the mainstream or sidestream smoke from current U.S. tobacco.

"No information exists for long-term low-level inhalation exposures to these compounds," said Voorhees, "and no data exists to establish the possible synergistic effect of these pesticides with each other, or with the other 4,700-plus compounds that have been identified in tobacco smoke."

 



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Health Insurance A Near-Monopoly, Study Finds

Health insurance is nearing monopoly status in most markets, driving up the cost of insurance, reducing innovation in health care and squeezing doctors and...


Health insurance is nearing monopoly status in most markets, driving up the cost of insurance, reducing innovation in health care and squeezing doctors and hospitals, an American Medical Association (AMA) report finds.

"The remarkable reduction in the number of competing health plans is troubling for doctors and patients, as competition drives innovation and efficiency in the health care system," said AMA Board Member J. James Rohack, M.D. "Most alarmingly, in the combined HMO and PPO markets, 95 percent of metropolitan areas have few competing health insurers."

In addition, the study found that in 95 percent of markets, a single insurer had a market share of 30 percent or greater, and in 56 percent of the markets, a single insurer had a market share of 50 percent or greater.

The AMA report, Competition in Health Insurance: A Comprehensive Study of U.S. Markets, analyzed 294 metropolitan health insurance markets against an index used by federal regulators for measuring market concentration. According to the federal index, markets that are highly concentrated have few competing health insurers.

"Patients do not appear to be benefiting from the consolidation of health insurance markets," said Dr. Rohack. "Health insurers are posting historically high profit margins, yet patient health insurance premiums continue to rise without an expansion of benefits."

The AMA findings must be viewed in the context of the unprecedented consolidation of the health insurance market, Rohack said. Between 1995 and 2005, there were more than 400 mergers involving health insurers and managed care organizations, according to a researcher of merger and acquisition trends in the health care industry.

"Given the troubling trends in health insurance nationwide, federal regulators need to take a hard look at whether patients are being harmed as mergers and takeovers reduce the number of competing health insurers," said Dr. Rohack. "When it is difficult for a new insurer to enter a market with few dominant health plans, patients can be charged high prices without the threat of competition to keep insurers in check."



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GM Spends $17 Million Per Year on Viagra

The cost is passed along to car, truck and SUV consumers

Lifestyle drugs -- chiefly Viagra -- are costing General Motors $17 million a year and the cost is passed along to car, truck and SUV consumers. ...

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McDonald's Prepares to Fire Back at Critics

Get ready for a public relations war as intense as any ever waged by competing spinmeisters in the political arena

McDonald's Prepares to Fire Back at Critics...

Get ready for a public relations war as intense as any ever waged by competing spinmeisters in the political arena. McDonald's is girding up to do battle with its critics, hoping to deflect mounting criticism of the healthfulness of its food.

Over at Wendy's, the chairman-CEO has stepped down after 18 months of sales declines and unrest among franchisees.

McDonald's took a pounding in popular culture with the release of the movie "Supersize Me," in which an independent film maker lived only on McDonalds food for a month and nearly wrecked his health. Next month could bring another blast, as Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," releases a new book targeted at teens, "Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want To Know About Fast Food." A movie based on Schlosser's first book is set for release by the end of the year.

"We need to do a better job telling our story," said McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner.

Skinner has announced a global effort to promote what he sees as the positive aspects of the chain. He says McDonald's has become a target in recent years simply because of its size and dominance in the industry.

The company is also trying to prepare its franchisees for the coming storm. It says the upcoming book and movie will provide pressure at a time when many are trying to make the fast food industry responsible for the rise in obesity among the U.S. population, especially among children.

McDonald's says it provides plenty of healthy choices on its menu, but it's up to consumers to exercise the right choices. The company said its promotional campaign will attempt to educate consumers about nutrition and encourage them to make the right choices.

Still, that's unlikely to mollify McDonald's critics. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed the company sells healthier french fries and chicken strips in Europe than in the U.S.

Wendy's Wobbling

McDonald's problem is basically that it's too successful, whereas Wendy's is suffering from sinking sales and a potential uprising among its franchisees, leading John "Jack" Schuessler, 55, to turn off the grill and head for the beach after 30 years with the burger chain.

"I am proud to have been part of Wendy's for three decades... I believe it is the appropriate time to pass the leadership of the brand to the next generation of leaders," Schuessler said. His resignation came just 10 days before the annual shareholders meeting.

"With the company focusing on new strategies and opportunities Jack and the board decided that it was time for new leadership," a Wendy's spokesman said.

There's been a schism among the franchisees, a number of whom have seceded and formed an independent association representing 13 percent of the chain's stores.

Besides slow burger sales, Wendy's has been having problems with its Tim Horton's doughnut chain and the Baja Fresh chain.

 



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Rebate: Discount or Lotto Ticket

Either is about as likely to pay off

Rebate: Discount or Lotto Ticket...

You can't believe your luck. While trolling Best Buy for a new computer package, you found a Compaq system with color printer, flat-screen monitor and plenty of memory. Best of all, it comes with three mail-in rebates, shaving $250 off the sales price.

Six weeks later, you're happily pecking away at the keyboard, but only the Compaq rebate has shown up. What about that $100 from the monitor and printer purchases? Grumbling to yourself, you dial the 800 number listed on the second rebate form.

Welcome to the dicey world of rebates. With mail-in rebates offered on everything from yogurt to power saws, many consumers, understandably, consider them an incentive for choosing one product over another -- sort of a time-delayed discount. But along with the mushrooming of rebate offers comes another feature: frustrated buyers chasing hard-earned discounts that have increasingly come to seem more like long-shot Lotto ticets.

How It Should Work

Theoretically, rebates are a good deal for both consumers and manufacturers. Consumers get a substantial discount off the retail price; manufacturers get publicity, increased market share, and demographic information on buyers that they can use in future marketing campaigns.

Ideally, you read about an offer in your local paper for a product you were considering buying anyway. You head down to the store, purchase the item and pick up rebate forms and two receipts -- one to send away with the paperwork.

You mail everything in to a "fulfillment house," a company which collects rebate forms and proofs of purchase and tells the manufacturer what they owe. The manufacturer pays the fulfillment company, which in turn pays the consumer. A couple of weeks (or months, depending on the offer) later, your mailbox contains a nice check.

Sometimes it does work this way.

Marcia Layton Turner has collected rebates on everything from Pepsi to a paper shredder, with nary a problem. But glitches can arise along the way: rejection letters stating that you haven't submitted the proper UPC code; claims that the item you bought wasn't included in the rebate offer or that the time to submit forms has expired; a check that never arrives or arrives three months late.

It's estimated that 60% of rebates are never honored -- 40% of consumers don't apply and another 20% apply but aren't paid, according to Consumers Union Senior Attorney Gail Hillebrand.

The Federal Trade Commission, which monitors unfair trade practices, reports that rebate complaints rose from 1100 in 2003 to 1900 in 2004. The FTC has gone after such well-known brands as Bumble Bee Seafoods, America Online and Office Depot. Clearly, "rebate rage" is on the rise.

ConsumerAffairs.com received 914 complaints about rebates in 2005, 838 in 2004 and 786 in 2003.

Although complaints are up, so is rebate use, according to the NPD Group, a sales and marketing information firm based in Port Washington, New York. Their recent survey showed that nearly a third of U.S. consumers have purchased a product with a rebate during the past six months.

Consumer Stories

Diana Burrell is nobody's fool -- she once ran a rebate program for a consumer packaged-goods company. But when she recently purchased a Cuisinart food processor because of the lure of money back plus free kitchen accessories, Burrell never saw the check or promised cake pan and disk holder.

"I was careful to follow directions and send the form in on time. But when the check didn't arrive and I checked online for the status of my rebate, I found that the claim was rejected because I supposedly purchased the item during a non-rebate period," she recalls.

Burrell didn't stop there, writing to the manufacturer and explaining that she used to work for a rebate program. When she got a form letter back reiterating that her time frame was wrong, Burrell decided to go straight for the president of the company. Stay tuned.

Quinn Warnick, who teaches at Iowa State University, found a Dell system offering a $150.00 rebate. After waiting 10 weeks, he got a postcard stating that his purchase was ineligible for the rebate requested. His sin: buying the system without the monitor.

"Dell's website didn't state that you had to buy the whole system to get the rebate," said Warnick. "I clicked on the $150 Rebate Offer link, removed the monitor from the purchase, and paid for itthe final payment screen even reminded me that I would be getting the rebate." Warnick faults the customer service provider he spoke with for failing to find the problem, and notes that this experience tainted his opinion of the company.

Computer purchases are an unusually rich source of rebate problems. Jena Ball recently bought a computer which malfunctioned. "When I brought it back, the retailer kept it for more than a week, and by then the rebate date had passed. Make sure the retailer gets your rebates, especially if they caused your rebate submission to be late," advises Ball.

Diane Benson Harrington got caught up in a UPC Code trap. "I bought a package of three zip disks for my computer, and included one of the codes with my rebate coupon, together with the receipt. They sent me a note saying they were more than happy to have me resubmit the data with the right UPC code. I had sent in the code for the whole package, when what they wanted was the code from individual items."

Even boxes can be crucial.

"Last spring I bought a new laptop while visiting family out of state," said Deborah Brauser. "I didn't want to worry about the big box while flying back, and left it at my Grandma's house. When I got home, I found I needed to cut out parts of the box and send them in. But my Grandma had thrown it out! I sent in all three rebates, and got money back on two, even though I was missing box parts. One rejected my request," Brauser remembers.

Some merchants are more flexible than others, so don't be afraid to ask for a perk you may have just missed. Beverly Burmeier bought a new printer on December 30, to get the tax break for the current year. The next week, Office Depot offered a $30 gift card with the purchase of her model. Burmeier returned the printer and bought it anew, snagging a gift card.

Inside the Manufacturer's Mind

Pierce Pelouze can shed light on what manufacturers are thinking when they dream up rebate tortures. Pelouze, past Chairman of the Board at the Promotion Marketing Association and former VP of Promotion at the Campbell Soup Company, now runs his own marketing company.

"Rebates can have a definite short-term impact on sales and image. Consumers understand price reductions, which is in essence what rebates do," he said.

Pelouze sees no end to the rebate craze: "As long as there is strategic sense in having one as part of a marketing effort, manufacturers will continue to use rebates. The challenge is to ensure that the terms and structure of their offer are clearly communicated to the consumer and the rebates are fulfilled on a prompt and complete basis."

Southern Methodist University's Marketing Department Chair, Daniel J. Howard, is less sanguine on what rebates do for manufacturers.

"Rebates are disproportionately attractive to a certain type of consumer -- the 'deal prone,' Howard notes. "Lots of marketing tools, like coupons, appeal to this consumer, but especially rebates, because often you're giving people a significant amount of money back. But this segment of the population is the least brand-loyal, since manufacturers want to gain new brand customers, and rebates don't accomplish this."

Anne Brumbaugh, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Wake Forest University's Babcock Graduate School of Management, mentions three types of consumers who treat rebates differently.

"First are folks who don't 'fall for' them because they know they will be difficult to fulfill. If they do apply for the rebate, they consider it a bonus. Second are folks who make their decision based on the discounted price but never apply because they forget or can't be bothered. These are manufacturers' favorite consumers because the offer increases demand but manufacturers don't have to take the hit on price. Third are folks who decide based on the discounted price and apply for the rebate. Unfortunately these folks don't always read the fine print or follow directions completely and are occasionally disappointed to find they will not receive the rebate," Brumbaugh said.

She emphasizes that "with a rebate the consumer is asking for a significant discount. Manufacturers will make it as difficult as possible for them to receive this discount."

For the persistent, Brumbaugh offers tips:

• Before you purchase an item based on a post-rebate price, ask if you are really going to fulfill all the requirements. If not, ask if you really want that item at full price. If so, purchase and enjoy it. If not, pass it up.

• Read the fine print of the rebate offer before you purchase the item. Make sure you comply with all requirements. Are you within the required time frame? Is the item you're considering listed specifically on the rebate offer (not a model or variation thereof)? Do you have all the paperwork necessary (UPC, receipt, rebate form, etc.) to apply? Will you mail it in on time?

"Plain Old Theft"

Some consumer advocates take issue with Brumbaugh and Howard. "It's no wonder once-respectable companies engage in this disgraceful and dishonest fleecing of the consumer," said ConsumerAffairs.com's Jim Hood. "Look what they're teaching in universities!"

"When you have faculty members from respected universities saying that consumers are 'asking for' a discount when in fact it is the merchant who is offering it as an enticement to buy and then implying that only gullible rubes -- what Howard apparently means with his condescending "deal-prone" label -- fall for the offer, it's no wonder freshly-minted MBAs who have never done an honest day's work in their lives think it's fine to rob consumers of their hard-earned and much-needed money."

Failure to fulfill rebate promises should be labeled for what it is -- theft, Hood said. "Some enterprising Attorney General needs to send a few marketing executives to prison," Hood insisted. "Where is the bunko squad when you need it?"

More Tips for Success

The more vocal consumer advocates' comments notwithstanding, manufacturers and merchants will continue to offer rebates and many consumers will continue to believe they are dealing with honest retailers.

• When possible, shop at stores which have application forms on hand and providing duplicate cash register receipts. Best Buy, Circuit City, Lowes and Costco are among these.

• Apply promptly. Many rebate offers are on a tight time frame after purchase. Don't leave forms on your desk for four weeks.

• When you mail in forms, ask for delivery confirmation from the post office. Keep a photocopy of everything you send in.

• Mark the date on a calendar when the rebate should be received and jot down a toll-free number and mailing address just in case it doesn't show up on time, says FTC attorney Leslie Fair.

• If your mailbox remains empty, try calling the manufacturer directly, says Burrell. They want to keep good relations with customers and may intercede for you to make sure you get your rebate.

• When you get the check, cash it promptly.

• Most importantly, know yourself. Are you detail-oriented enough to follow the money? Will this exercise be more trouble than it's worth? Research has shown that when there's more money at stake, consumers are more willing to spend time and energy chasing that discount.

"Only super-organized, highly competitive consumers should count on getting their rebate," said Hood. "It's a battle of wits between you, the manufacturer and a faceless fulfillment company. Don't play the game if you're not ready to fight for the trophy."

More on this topic ...
Rebate: Discount or Lotto Ticket?
Where to Complain
Sample Demand Letter
The "Easy Rebate" Movement
Rebate Rogues Kennel
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More About Rebate Madness

 

 

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Bank Of America Considering Its Own Credit Card Brand

Bank of America is pushing hard to overtake Citigroup as the world's largest bank

Bank Of America Considering Its Own Credit Card Brand...

Bank of America is pushing hard to overtake Citigroup as the world's largest bank and financial services institution, and insiders report the Charlotte, NC-based megabank is considering creating its own credit card brand to compete with Visa and MasterCard.

The Charlotte Business Journal reported on April 14th that Bank of America was considering its own electronic payment processing network, in order to compete with card issuers Visa and MasterCard, thereby eliminating the fees it now pays them to process charges made with Bank of America-issued cards.

The move could gain Bank of America an additional $70 to $75 million in earnings, and could position it to grab some of the market share in credit cards, most of which is now held by Visa and MasterCard.

Bank of America already pulls much of its profit from credit card interest, fees, and charges, with $9.4 billion in revenue in 2005, and its standing as the nation's largest credit card issuer.

Bank of America's plans to invade the credit card market may have been emboldened by its takeover of MBNA, which pioneered "affinity" marketing of cards to colleges, universities, and businesses.

MBNA was also notorious for keeping a heavy foot on the interest rate accelerator, driving waves of angry cardholders to pay off and cancel their cards, leading to a massive drop in MBNA's profits in a single quarter and mkaing the company vulnerable to takeover by Bank of America.

It's In The Cards

If Bank of America were to offer its own card and processing system, it would present an alternative to the monopoly Visa and MasterCard enjoy in the payment-processing market.

The "interchange fees" that banks charge retailers when their customers use plastic have earned card issuers tremendous profit that, until recently, escaped public scrutiny.

Visa and MasterCard collected $27 billion in interchange fees in 2004, with other companies bringing the total to nearly $40 billion. Bank of America sees a tidy profit from the interchange fees as well, given that it is one of the major shareholders of the MasterCard company, which, like Visa, is technically an association of its member banks.

However, a coalition of angry merchants, retailers, and trade associations has filed a series of lawsuits against the card issuers and the banks that back them, in order to rein in the fees and provide greater transparency for the pricing structure.

Mitch Goldstone, online photo store owner and chief plaintiff in the merchant lawsuits, thinks Bank of America's possible entry into the credit card market is "a deafening endorsement that the interchange battle is beginning to rip apart the banking cartel. It is good news for the millions of merchants and cardholders who have until now faced anticompetitive illegal price-fixing by agreement."

Speaking to ConsumerAffairs.com, Goldstone theorized that MasterCard's planned initial public offering might collapse as a result of more corporations like Bank of America moving to use their own processing networks, rather continuing to work with Visa's or MasterCard's.

"Whatever the bank does," Goldstone said, "it remains a named defendant in the payment card interchange fee antitrust litigation."

Bank of America isn't the only possible competitor to Visa or MasterCard. Discover Financial, owner of the Discover card network, recently announced plans to issue its own debit card brand to compete in the multibillion-dollar debit processing market.

And retail giant Wal-Mart has been furiously pushing to incorporate its own payment-processing system by chartering an industrial bank in Utah.

The company recently testified before the FDIC on its appplication, which has -- not surprisingly -- been fervently opposed by local banks. latest attempt to create its own internal financial services arm. Consumer groups and community organizations have also opposed the Wal-Mart plans, charging that Wal-Mart's entry into the banking arena would reduce competition.

Whether Wal-Mart's entry into banking would reduce or increase competition is still being debated. But Goldstone insists that Bank of America's potential entry into credit card processing represents as "an extraordinary opportunity to foster competition and benefit merchants and cardholders."

Skeptics aren't so sure. They point to Bank of America's data security snafus and sales practices as warning signs.

 

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Rebates: Where to Complain

Here are a few places you can go for help

Rebates: Where to Complain...

The only fool-proof way to avoid having problems with rebates is to ignore them. There are plenty of stores and manufacturers who will quote you an honest price minus the rebate foolishness. But if you find yourself holding a rebate slip that seems as worthless as yesterday's Lotto ticket, here are a few places you can go for help or just to vent:

  • The Federal Trade Commission, responsible for keeping merchants honest. Lesley Fair, Senior attorney in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, notes that the FTC has brought more than a dozen cases in recent years challenging deceptive rebate practices. "The frustration expressed by many consumers -- as well as recent law enforcement actions against advertisers who engage in deceptive rebate practices -- should send a clear message that this is something the FTC takes very seriously," said Fair. Consumers can complain online at www.ftc.gov, call 1-877-FTC-HELP.

    Actions that get the FTC's attention include: 1) Not providing customers with forms needed to request rebates; 2) Changing the terms of a rebate program after the program's already begun; 3) Not disclosing important terms. For example, Phillips Company failed to disclose that consumers had to provide their phone number, fax number and e-mail address on the rebate form; 4) Not delivering rebates on time.

  • Your state's Attorney General. You can find the AG for your state through the National Association of Attorneys General, www.naag.org or in the Resources section of this site. You can also complain to the AG of the state where the company is based.
  • ConsumerAffairs.com, an independent "consumer watchdog" which collects tens of thousands of consumer complaints annually. It publishes selected complaints, consumer news and tips and works with class action lawyers who review complaints submitted to the site so they can sue companies that don't play fair. Submit your complaint through the complaint form.
  • The Better Business Bureau, which handles complaints through one of its 120 local bureaus.

More on this topic ...

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Rebates: Sample Demand Letter

Having trouble getting your rebate? Here's a sample demand letter

Here's a sample demand letter you can send to the company that's stiffing you. You should send it certified mail, return receipt requested....

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California Accuses Hartford Insurance of Charging Illegal Fees

California Accuses Hartford Insurance of Charging Illegal Fees...

The California Department of Insurance (CDI) has begun legal proceedings against The Hartford Insurance Group alleging that the company charged illegal fees.

The complaint contends that The Hartford allowed one of its agents, Irvine-based Superior Access Insurance Services, to charge and collect fees not approved by the Department of Insurance. CDI must approve all property and casualty insurance rates and charges pursuant to Proposition 103 and other laws.

"No person or company is above the law," said California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. "These laws are intended to protect consumers against all types of fraud, and I intend to actively enforce them to their fullest extent."

Superior Access denied the charges and said its fees were charged to agents, not to customers.

"Superior Access is an insurance wholesale intermediary. In that capacity, Superior Access has never charged an insurance customer any fees or premiums. All Superior Access business is conducted solely with licensed insurance brokers and not with insurance customers. Fees charged to brokers are not required to be filed with the CDI as part of the insurer's rate filing," the company said in a letter to Insurance Daily.

The Department contends that Superior Access, with Hartford's knowledge, added unapproved fees, typically around $100 per policy, to the premium Hartford was allowed to charge by law. Thousands of commercial and personal line policyholders likely paid the illegal fees on workers' compensation and business owner package policies.

Although Hartford did not actually receive the fees, California law treats the fees as if Hartford did receive them, since they were received by Superior Access as Hartford's agent. The Department is investigating several general agents and insurance companies for similar infractions.

 

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Bausch & Lomb "Withdraws" ReNu Contact Lens Solution

In what it is calling a "voluntary market withdrawal," Bausch & Lomb is asking retailers to stop selling ReNu with MoistureLoc

Bausch & Lomb is asking retailers to stop selling ReNu with MoistureLoc, a contact-lens solution that's suspected of causing a serious eye infection....

In what it is calling a "voluntary market withdrawal," Bausch & Lomb is asking retailers to stop selling ReNu with MoistureLoc, a contact-lens solution that's suspected of causing a serious eye infection. Many major retailers have already pulled the product and the company has suspended shipments.

The action is not a recall. The company is not asking stores to return the product, but rather to take it off the shelves while the investigation into the outbreak of fungal infections is concluded.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has received new reports of the fungal infections that have been linked to the solution, which is used for storing, cleaning and wetting soft lenses. But the agency refused to say how many additional complaints it had received.

Earlier this week, CDC and the Food and Drug Administration said they had information on 109 suspected cases of Fusarium keratitis, an infection that can lead to blindness. Of the 109 cases, 30 had been reviewed and 26 of those involved patients who had used ReNu.

Major retailers were quick to pull the product after learning of the problem. Kmart, Sears, Wal-Mart, Walgreen, CVS, Rite Aid and Drugstore.com all said they had stopped selling the product.

Consumers who return their ReNu to the company will have the choice of getting their money back or receiving a coupon for other Bausch products. Information is at www.bausch.com or call 1-888-666-2258.

The company is placing ads in major newspapers today featuring an open letter to consumers from Bausch & Lomb Chairman and CEO Ron Zarrella explaining the situation and providing guidance on alternatives.

"Bausch & Lomb's first priority is the health and safety of consumers," said Zarrella in his letter. "If there is a problem with our product, well find it and well fix it. If theres not, when we come back youll be able to know with absolute certainty that weve taken every possible step to ensure your safety."

In "exhaustive tests on the product" and an inspection of its manufacturing plant, "nothing has yet been found to show that ReNu with MoistureLoc contributed to these infections in any way," Zarrella's letter said. "However, in the cases of infections reviewed to date, the majority of patients reported using ReNu with MoistureLoc manufactured at our U.S. factory," which is in Greenville, S.C.

An FDA inspection of the Greenville plant in 2002 turned up some quality-control issues that the agency detailed in a warning letter to the company. The FDA found that the company "failed to establish and maintain procedures to adequately control environmental conditions, or other sources of contamination, which could reasonably be expected to have an adverse effect on product quality."

 



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Paying Taxes With Your Credit Card Can Get Expensive

Paying Taxes With Your Credit Card Can Get Expensive...


More and more Americans are paying their tax bill with their credit cards. Some card issuers are even offering incentives for paying the bill using their card.

Though the convenience and added perks may sound like a great deal, the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA) suggests consumers take a second look before charging their taxes.

"Consumers would be wise to consider all payment options and avoid charging their tax bills if other payment arrangements are available," said AICCCA President David Jones. "With some 50 percent of credit card users revolving a balance monthly, adding to those balances is not a good idea."

AICCCA advises consumers consider the following before charging their tax bills:

• You will pay more than the amount owed the IRS. The convenience of charging your tax obligation comes with a 2.49 percent fee assessed by the third-party company that processes the transaction. If your tax liability were $3,000, your total charge would be $3,074.70.

• A reward from your card issuer may not be cost effective. For those consumers that want to cash in on double air miles or other incentives, check the math and determine if the reward outweighs the processing fee to use your credit card.

• Revolving the tax charge on your credit card will increase your total tax bill. Consumers who will be charging to a credit card account would be wise to determine how long it will take to pay off the charge. Interest charges add up quickly and your tax bill could end up costing you much more than the original amount if the balance will not be paid within 90 days or so. A $3,000 balance at the average annual interest rate of 13 percent is up to an additional $32.50 per month in interest charges.

• Adding tax bill to a credit card with an existing balance could spell disaster. With the universal default clause that is buried in the fine print of many consumers' credit card agreements, a missed payment on any account could mean an automatic increase in annual interest rate charges to 30 percent or more. The last thing you want to do is pay a 30 percent surcharge on your tax liability until the entire balance of your card is paid off.

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Soft Drink Makers Sued Over Benzene

Soft Drink Makers Sued Over Benzene...


Consumers have filed class action lawsuits in Florida and Massachusetts, claiming two soft drink makers produce products that, under the right conditions, can contain benzene, a carcinogen. The suits were filed against Polar Beverages and Zone Brands.

The plaintiffs concede the drinks do not contain benzene unless they are subjected to heat and light. Under those conditions, vitamin C interacts with other preservatives to create benzene.

Last month, a group of public health advocates appealed to public school officials to remove certain soft drinks from school vending machines because of the benzene problem.

The industry and the Food and Drug Administration have tested the products in question, but have not released the result. The FDA, a public agency supported by taxpayer funds, said it plans to release the test results to the public eventually.

The lawsuits ask that the companies be stopped from selling beverages that have a tendency to form benzene. It also asks for unspecified damages, in the amount of profits the companies have realized in selling the products.

The American Beverage Association says removing vitamin C from the beverages would prevent them from forming benzene.

The benzene is formed by a reaction of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium or potassium benzoate (which are used as preservatives) -- especially in the presence of light or heat.

Soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate include Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, Fanta Orange, Hawaiian Punch, Mug Root Beer, Pepsi Vanilla, Sierra Mist, Sunkist and Tropicana Lemonade, among others.



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Senators Push for Electronic Tax Filing

IRS "Free File" Program Soaks Taxpayers With Unexpected Fees

Senators Push for Electronic Tax Filing...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

April 12, 2006
Does it seem absurd that the Internal Revenue Service has the capacity to scam and electronically process millions of tax returns it receives via postal mail but claims it doesn't have the capacity to receive the same returns electronically, via the Internet?

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, thinks so. And so does Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the committee. They want the agency to give some thought to accepting electronic returns directly from taxpayers.

Currently, the IRS requires taxpayers to use a paid preparer or commercial tax preparation software, which adds cost and complexity to the task and also exposes taxpayers to frauds, scams and rip-offs.

Republicans in the House, on the other hand, have put the heat on the IRS to curtail its service to taxpayers, lest it offer for free a service that commercial interests can charge for.

Treasury Secretary John Snow last week assured a House Appropriations subcommittee that the IRS would not try to compete with the private sector in tax preparation.

"We're not software development people," Snow told Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan, ignoring the fact that IRS runs a huge data processing operation.

That was music to the ears of pro-business House members. But Grassley and Baucus found it a little flat. Grassley said there is "plenty of room" for the software industry to develop value-added products but no reason the IRS can't make it possible for taxpayers to file simple returns on-line.

The IRS several years ago set up an alliance of private companies who supposedly offer free electronic filing. The program, called Free File, used to operate under a contract that required companies to offer the free services to 60 percent of taxpayers.

This year, a new contract put a cap on the number of taxpayers who can get free software. That means 70 percent of taxpayers, or those making $50,000 or less, qualify and can use the software to file their tax returns or, in some cases, file for extensions.

But participation in the program is down about 22 percent this year, possibly because of the income cap.

Another, perhaps likelier, factor is the difficulties and unexpected expenses taxpayers have encountered in trying to use the "Free File" service. Many have wound up being charged for services they were led by their own government to think would be free.

Take Bonnie of Flatwoods, Ken. She was led to Express Tax Refund by the Free File program last year.

"I filed my tax return online at this site which implied the service was free only to find out that they are going to charge me over $137.00. I called the bank that they go through which is Santa Barbara Bank ... I am disabled on a fixed income and can not afford what these people are doing to me."

H&R; Block, which has more than a few friends in Congress, also slapped taxpayers with unexpected bank fees.

"I used their 'free' file service this year linked to from the IRS website," Chris of New London, Conn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "At the beginning of the session, they asked if I wanted my refund to go to a special debit card. I read far enough into the terms & conditions to see that fees applied and went back and said no."

But Chris found that, despite his rejecting the "offer," his refund was coming his way via an HSBC debit card.

"I did call the IRS and there is nothing they can do to stop my return from being processed or my refund from being hijacked by HSBC," Chris said. "The person I talked to did say that this year he has received more calls complaining about H&R; block doing this to people than people calling about tax questions."

It's not only taxpayers who are complaining about problems with Free File. IRS Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson tested the 20 private sites participating in the IRS Free File program and found them hard to navigate. She compared it to "living in the wild, wild West."

Olson said the government should put a basic tax form online and let taxpayers fill it in and file it directly to the IRS without charge.

Or, as ConsumerAffairs.com's James R. Hood put it in a recent article on tax problems: "Pardon our French, but what the hell is the tax collector doing if it's too busy to collect taxes?"

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Absence Of Wedding Ring Linked To Parental Neglect

Absence Of Wedding Ring Linked To Parental Neglect...


A social psychologist at the University of Alberta claims that people who do not wear wedding rings are more neglectful of children than people who wear them. Further, Dr. Andrew Harrell states that young attractive people who do not wear wedding rings are the most neglectful child caretakers of all.

The director of the university's Population Research Lab, Harrell made his conclusions after leading an experiment in which 862 caretaker-children combinations were furtively observed in 14 supermarkets in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Caretaker neglect was measured according to how often the caretakers or their charges, estimated to be between one and seven years old, wandered out of sight or were more than 10 feet away from each other -- too far to prevent most accidents.

Harrell found that an average of 14 per cent of the caretakers, with or without wedding rings, lost sight of their charges at least once. However, young attractive female caretakers without rings lost sight of children 19 per cent of the time, and young attractive males lost sight 25 per cent of the time, a "statistically significant" jump, Harrell said.

"Past research suggests that the absence of a wedding ring in North American culture is indicative of a lack of emotional commitment to marriage," said Harrell. "Our research shows that it may also be an indicator of a lack of a commitment to one's family, including care of the children."

"It is our belief that an interest in establishing social, sexual or emotional ties outside of marriage may have the inadvertent consequence of diminishing attentiveness to children," Harrell added. "And it's not surprising that this distraction occurs even in a mundane setting like a supermarket, which is more than a place to purchase bananas and cereal. It can also be a place for social encounters and maybe even a romantic rendezvous."

Harrell presented the results of his research at the 17th Annual Warren E. Kalbach Conference in Demography, held recently at the University of Alberta.

A year ago, at the same conference, Harrell started a media storm when he suggested, based on similar research, that parents are more neglectful of unattractive children than they are of attractive children. This year, the findings from the study last year were replicated, with unattractive children being more neglected, particularly those older than three years of age.

Also this year, Harrell found that, among caretakers wearing wedding rings, the unattractive ones were more neglectful than the attractive ones.

"The unattractive parents could have health problems or psychological troubles that distract them from their parental duties," he said, adding that the observations are consistent with past evolutionary research on attractiveness and evolutionary fitness.

Harrell noted that the ratings of both parental and child attractiveness were "remarkably consistent" throughout the study, even though the observers made their judgments independently.

"I know these results may sound harsh, but suffice to say it's not good at all to let a child out of sight at a supermarket," he said. "We're just trying to determine the causes of accidents, because it's important to be aware of what happens and why it happens so that we can take steps to improve our behavior."

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Opposition Grows as FDIC Examines Wal-Mart Banking Bid

Opposition Grows as FDIC Examines Wal-Mart Banking Bid...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

April 10, 2006
The world's biggest retailer is telling the government that its bid for a charter bank is not designed to compete with community banks.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is holding final hearings to determine whether or not Wal-Mart can use an industrial loan company, chartered in Utah, to found its own bank.

The retail behemoth has claimed it would not use the financial franchise to undermine local bank chains, but everyone from consumer advocates such as Ed Mierzwinski to new Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has expressed concern about the move.

Mierzwinski, chairman of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), has called Wal-Mart's move "a truly bad idea that has harsh risks for the economy."

He said that using an industrial bank as its foundation would enable Wal-Mart to offer loans and other products at prices that undercut local competition, and without the same regulatory scrutiny that's applied to commercial banks.

In prepared testimony before the FDIC, Wal-Mart spokesperson Jane Thompson said the company "has no plan to open bank branches."

Thompson points to the many lease agreements Wal-Mart has already made with community banks to open branches inside Wal-Mart superstores. The industrial bank would only be used to process "low-risk" transactions from current Wal-Mart customers, she said.

But an alliance of consumer groups, banking advocates, and Congressional representatives have been gathering forces to oppose Wal-Mart's plan, expressing concern that the company is using loopholes in banking law to open banks in any state the Utah bank is chartered with.

The FDIC has received nearly 2,000 letters on the issue, most of it opposed to Wal-Mart's plans.

Industrial Strength

The key to Wal-Mart's banking ambitions lies in the differences between a commercial bank and an industrial bank.

Industrial banks, or Industrial Loan Centers (ILCs), operate under an exemption from federal regulations that govern oversight of banks insured by the Federal Reserve.

The exemption has allowed big corporations ranging from Harley-Davidson to General Electric to own ILCs, leading to phenomenal growth in their assets and financial clout since the exemption was instituted in 1987.

Utah alone hosts several ILCs, including those controlled by Merrill Lynch, the Volvo Corporation, and Pitney Bowes, with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

ILCs are used by these companies to handle payment processing, such as debit and credit card transactions.

The lack of financial scrutiny over ILCs led both former Fed chair Alan Greenspan and current chair Bernanke to advocate closing the loophole and putting ILCs under the government's thumb.

Utah has an agreement with 20 states that enables its ILCs to do business with them. To expand into the remaining 30 states, Wal-Mart would have to buy out an existing bank.

According to The New Rules Project, a local business advocacy group, Wal-Mart has been stealthily lobbying Congress to preempt state laws and allow industrial banks to expand nationwide.

Wal-Mart has tried on several prior occasions to partner up with community banks in order to gain a charter, but was rejected. As part of its current bank bid, the company agreed to drop its proposed exemption from the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), designed to encourage banks' investment in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

Even with that olive branch, community bankers and consumer advocates are still skeptical of the retailers' claims. Andrew Grossman, executive director of the Wal-Mart Watch organization, said "stability is the bedrock of the American financial system, but the Bank of Wal-Mart would threaten that with a dangerous concentration of commercial and financial power."

"When the enormous bank comes to town, it will threaten the local alternatives, just like super centers have undermined so many other local stores," Grossman said. "Then, with these critical centers of capital gone, local businesses that compete with Wal-Mart may be forced to rely on the retail giant's bank for loans."

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Consumers Want Better Online Banking Security

Consumers Want Better Online Banking Security...


Almost 90 percent of U.S. bank account holders would like their financial service providers to monitor online banking sessions for signs of irregular activity in the way they currently scrutinize credit card transactions, according to a recently released study.

The poll, conducted by online security firm RSA Security, also revealed that nearly 60 percent of adults would like their banks to contact them when something suspicious is detected.

Almost three-quarters of U.S. bank customers believe that username-and-password login security is inadequate and that financial institutions should replace such systems with stronger authentication for online banking, according to the RSA annual Financial Institution Consumer Online Fraud Survey.

In addition the poll found that 79 percent of account-holders are less likely to respond to an email from their banks due to scams including phishing; this was up from 70 percent in the 2004 survey.

Some 65 percent of account holders reported seeing either "a slight increase" or "no change" in the amount of phishing emails they received in 2005. The RSA Cyota Anti-Fraud Command Center (AFCC), which scans over 1 billion emails a day backed up this assertion: The number of phishing attacks it monitors has remained close to 2,500 to 3,300 attacks per month for the last eight months, with only a small increase each month.

"It is important to preserve the speed, simplicity, ease of use and convenience of the online banking channel. Consumers seem to feel comfortable with the notion of their financial institution monitoring their online activity and contacting them when something suspicious is detected, just as they've become accustomed to for years in the credit card space," said Chris Young, senior vice president and general manager of RSA Cyota Consumer Solutions.

When presented with several options, including hardware tokens, watermarks for mutual authentication and risk-based authentication, the majority of respondents (74 percent) selected risk-based authentication as their preferred method.

Risk-based authentication involves a behind-the-scenes assessment of the user's identity based on factors including logon location, IP address and transaction behavior - which can be supplemented with out-of-band phone calls or secret questions for high-risk transactions.

The survey also showed that account-holders are looking to their banks and internet service providers (ISPs) to protect them from phishing: 45 percent of account holders feel that an ISP blocking service for phishing would be effective and 68 percent would like their ISP to offer such a service.

Conducted in November 2005, the online survey asked 402 U.S. adults for their opinions on online banking authentication and email fraud, such as phishing.

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Consumers Can Profit From Hotel Makeovers

Hotels throwin' old stuff out; you can get some of it

Consumers Can Profit From Hotel Makeovers...

The Seven Year Itch is a big factor in the hotel business too. It seems that no reputable property waits much longer to undergo massive makeovers that make artwork, draperies, and furnishings expendable. That's where the public can profit.

Liquidators charge about 25 per cent of the typical retail price for beds, desks, chairs, credenzas, and electronic equipment acquired from hotels. They even operate showrooms and websites designed to keep furniture moving.

Sometimes, their acquisitions are so good that they remain in the hotel industry in smaller, less upscale properties seeking to upgrade with castoffs from the top hotels and resorts.

"When hotels want their stuff out, they want it out," said Chicago liquidator Kurt Karchmer in a perfect imitation of Yogi Berra. "I have a glut of stuff. We're getting stuff that's barely used."

Karchmer's company, Cooper Used Hotel Furniture, is one of two major players in Chicago, along with Fort Pitt Furniture Liquidators. Others are located in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, and Texas.

Several of the firms report they cleared 10,000 hotel rooms last year a significant increase over the year before. The California-based Hotel Surplus Outlet cleared the 570 rooms of the Beverly Hilton last year and will soon add furnishings from the Regent Beverly Wilshire, another upscale property.

Hotels pay liquidators about $100 per room to take old furnishings off their hands, then sell it to the public, to nursing homes, or to hotels one step down the luxury ladder. The result is a bonanza for bargain hunters.

Consumers don't seem to mind used furniture as long as it is undamaged.

Even interior decorators are getting into the act, purchasing hotel surplus to furnish homes they hope to sell.

Guests of the Kiptopeke Inn of Cape Charles, Va. might experience a sensation of deja vu if they've ever stayed at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Washington the general manager of the Virginia property purchased in bulk items the Marriott no longer wanted.

"The unique thing was the hotel the furnishings came from," Matt Diamond explained. "If they were from budget hotels, I wouldn't have taken the trip (to Washington)."

The price is right for consumers too, with buyers purchasing both individually and in "room sets," with beds, armoires, lamps, tables, and more selling for one set price.

For further information, see www.fortpittfurniture.com (Tel. 773-247-3523); www.hotelsurplus.com (Tel. 323-780-7474); www.ircahotelservices.com

(Tel. 800-266-6019); www.nclsales.com (Tel. 937-647-0001); www.nhlfurniture.com (303-452-7733); www.hotelliquidation.com (Tel. 972-780-7600); or www.furnishcheap.com (Tel. 203-776-7000). _____ Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the only American journalist who covers baseball and travel exclusively.

 



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Traveling With Needles

So, you need to carry a medical needle with you on an airplane?

The FAA and Homeland Security have tight new rules about needles on planes. If you carry a needle you must have a corresponding medication to be used in th...

So, you need to carry a medical needle with you on an airplane?

Good luck! Since September 11, the FAA and Homeland Security have tight new rules about needles on planes. For example, if you carry a needle you must have a corresponding medication to be used in the needle.

The medicine must have professional labels with the name of the medication and your doctor's name, as well as the date. Some of the airlines also require a picture ID to match the name on the label or a letter on your doctor's letterhead to explain the prescription.

An illegible prescription on a prescription pad just won't do, although you may also need a copy of your original written prescription.

Enforcement varies ... a lot. Some folks get on the plane easily while others don't.

There are no clear guidelines on adrenaline, the pre-measured allergy injection that patients use to save lives in emergencies, like bee stings.

If you need to carry a needle on a plane, even a diabetic needle, call the airlines ahead of time.

 

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Class Action Challenges AT&T/NSA Surveillance

Class Action Challenges AT&T/NSA Surveillance...


The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed legal briefs and evidence supporting its motion for a preliminary injunction in its class-action lawsuit against AT&T.

After asking EFF to hold back the documents so that it could review them, the Department of Justice consented to EFF's filing them under seal -- a well-established procedure that prohibits public access and permits only the judge and the litigants to see the evidence.

"The evidence that we are filing supports our claim that AT&T is diverting Internet traffic into the hands of the NSA wholesale, in violation of federal wiretapping laws and the Fourth Amendment," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston.

"More than just threatening individuals' privacy, AT&T's apparent choice to give the government secret, direct access to millions of ordinary Americans' Internet communications is a threat to the Constitution itself. We are asking the Court to put a stop to it now."

EFF's evidence regarding AT&T's dragnet surveillance of its networks includes a declaration by Mark Klein, a retired AT&T telecommunications technician, and several internal AT&T documents. This evidence was bolstered and explained by the expert opinion of J. Scott Marcus, who served as Senior Advisor for Internet Technology to the Federal Communications Commission from July 2001 until July 2005.

The internal AT&T documents and portions of the supporting declarations have been submitted to the Court under a tentative seal, a procedure that allows AT&T five court days to explain to the Court why the information should be kept from the public.

"The public deserves to know about AT&T's illegal program," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "In an abundance of caution, we are providing AT&T with an opportunity to explain itself before this material goes on the public docket, but we believe that justice will ultimately require full disclosure."

The NSA program came to light in December, when the New York Times reported that the President had authorized the agency to intercept telephone and Internet communications inside the United States without the authorization of any court. Over the ensuing weeks, it became clear that the NSA program has been intercepting and analyzing millions of Americans' communications, with the help of the country's largest phone and Internet companies, including AT&T.

"Mark Klein is a true American hero," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "He has bravely come forward with information critical for proving AT&T's involvement with the government's invasive surveillance program."

In the lawsuit, EFF is representing the class of all AT&T residential customers nationwide.

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Congress Retreats from Guaranteeing Internet Neutrality

Verizon is rushing to assure American consumers that it won't block content transmitted over the Internet

Congress Retreats from Guaranteeing Internet Neutrality...

After successfully bulldozing Congressional efforts to protect "net neutrality," Verizon is rushing to assure American consumers that it won't block content transmitted over the Internet.

Verizon also says it won't give favorable treatment to its own content. AT&T hasn't not noticeably rushed to give any such assurances.

By a vote of 23-8, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee defeated an amendment presented by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) that would have codified the principle of "net neutrality" -- that all Internet content should be available to all users, and providers shouldn't favor one class of user over others.

Supporters of net neutrality fear that telecoms such as Verizon and AT&T, formerly SBC, would institute a "tiered Internet," setting aside the fastest connections and best service to the highest-paying clients.

Won't happen, claims the telecoms' lobbying arm. Walter McDowell, president of the United States Telecom Association (USTA), which lobbies on behalf of the fast-dwindling number of major telecoms, famously stated that "Our commitment to our customers, our commitment to you is this: We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications, or service."

But the chairman of AT&T has never made any secret of his feelings on the matter. Ed Whiteacre has repeatedly stated that his company deserved a return on investment for letting content providers use his "pipes."

"[T]here's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?" asked Whiteacre, apparently forgetting the millions of dollars AT&T collects for maintaining its portion of the Internet backbone and the additional millions it charges its DSL, T-1 and dial-up customers.

Nor does Verizon's management of its Wireless Broadband service instill confidence. The service sets Verizon subscribers back $60 a month in order to check their e-mail and surf the Web at what might be called semi-high speed, using what's called the EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) network.

Subscribers are told in Verizon's ads and sales literature that usage is "unlimited." However, Verizon's chief technology officer Dick Lynch told PC World magazine recently that heavy users of the service might face a tiered pricing structure if they continue to eat up bandwith.

Lynch was miffed to learn that enterprising subscribers have been using the network to stream movies, television shows, and act as modems for their laptops when no other broadband service is available.

"I don't think you ought to assume that for the long term you're going to be able to pay the same amount as the ... more casual user and be fair to all our customers," Lynch said. "So I think you'll find over time that the amount of usage that you demand from the network each month will in fact have to ... drive the pricing structure."

Advertising aside, Verizon's customer agreement for Wireless Broadband Access is somewhat restrictive. Ars Technica reporter Eric Bangeman detailed that the agreement restricts "uploading, downloading or streaming of movies, music or games, ... server devices or with host computer applications, including, but not limited to, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, Voice over IP (VoIP), automated machine-to-machine connections, or peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing."

Paying $60 a month just to check your e-mail faster seems a touch on the extreme side, but Verizon seems bound and determined to wring as much money out of the service as they can.

"At some point, in order to provide you the same grade of service for that application, we're going to have to differentiate the grades of service," Lynch said.

Typical Tech Troubles

But Verizon customers, tech pundits, and observers note that the company can't even commit to providing decent service and customer support on a regular basis.

Take the case of Greg V., an insurance analyst in Washington, D.C. Greg, a Verizon Wireless subscriber, completely lost service at a time when he needs to be in contact with his co-workers.

"I had absolutely no service at all [last Tuesday], even when I was on my roof deck," he said. "And in the past week about 50% of the times I have tried to use the high speed Web surfing and data transfer, [it] was not available at all."

In a test of Verizon's Wireless Broadband last year, ConsumerAffairs.com's James R. Hood called it "the most shiftless, unreliable service we have ever paid good money for. At about $90 a month, it's far from cheap but we found it to work so poorly it would be overpriced at any price."

Service has improved since then, Hood said, but he said an upcoming review will find the service still fails to deliver the reliability most serious business users require.

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Yahoo Implicated in Spyware "Click Fraud"

Yahoo Implicated in Spyware Click Fraud...


Web content giant Yahoo may be pulling in a percentage of its profits through advertising relationships built on spyware and false "clicks" on their ads, according to security researcher Ben Edelman.

Edelman, a Harvard Ph.D economics student and consultant on fighting spyware, found evidence that Yahoo's Overture advertising network was mixed up with notorious spyware companies such as 180Solutions.

The spyware vendors were allegedly faking "clicks" on Web sites belonging to advertising partners with Yahoo, in order to push up the "pay per click" rates for the pages.

Each faked "click" means the advertiser in question forks over a portion of profit to Yahoo, and Yahoo pays the spyware vendor in turn.

In addition, users who visited certain pages had "duplicate" versions of the pages appear on their screens, enabling the spyware companies involved to make more money, even though the advertisers didn't get any more business.

Edelman backed up his claims with evidence including screenshots, logs, and notes for each find, all published on his Web site.

According to Edelman, Yahoo's spyware advertising was a result of lax policing of its agreements with advertiser companies.

"Yahoo syndicates ads to numerous partners, many of whom syndicate ads to others, some of whom then syndicate ads still further," Edelman said.

"The net effect is that Yahoo does not know who it's dealing with, and therefore cannot exercise meaningful supervision over how its ads are displayed. I consider this a bad idea -- bad business, bad for quality, bad for accountability."

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Edelman said that Yahoo's shady dealings were a result of "a special kind of ignorance."

"They had economic incentives to let this happen, even though they must have known that the end result would be bad," he said. "They may not have wanted it to happen, but it did."

Tangled Web

The Yahoo/spyware mix is the latest example of the huge and often wildly complex mazes that develop between big companies and advertising networks on the Web.

Major corporations, both knowingly and not, pay ad networks to hawk their products via well-placed spots on Web pages. The advertisers will then partner with other, even less scrupulous companies, and use means such as adware and spyware to get Web surfers clicking on their ads.

Sometimes the end result is embarrassment, as in when major companies find their ads sitting side-by-side with racy ads or sites where consumers can write anything they want in blog-like postings.

Just as often, the end result can be a computer full of spyware and adware, causing an unknowing Web surfer hours of frustration as they try to remove the unwanted guests and get their machine working properly again.

Edelman said that the importance of the issue to the average consumer stems from the fact that they have "no real ability to influence the problem." They're not advertisers buying ads on Web sites, nor are they able to get Yahoo or companies like it to listen to their concerns.

Edelman himself has only occasionally dealt with Yahoo directly in his investigations of their spyware dealings. "Frankly, they didn't want to talk to me," he said.

Pocketbook Hits

Sometimes the legal system can work in consumers' favor against spyware companies. New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer won a high-profile settlement against media company Intermix for its "deceptive practices" in using spyware and adware to infest users' computers.

Intermix is mostly known as the company that originated the hugely popular Myspace.com, and ended up selling it to Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp for a cool $580 million.

Spitzer recently launched another lawsuit against notorious adware purveyor DirectRevenue.

"These applications are deceptive and unfair to consumers, bad for businesses that rely on efficient networks to do their jobs, and bad for online retailers that need consumers to trust and enjoy their online experience," Spitzer said.

Internet policy organizations and the tech media have worked hard to shine a light on the money trail that leads from big-name companies.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) published a report in March 2006 that illustrated how adware company 180Solutions was profiting from a complicated mix of advertisers who ended up paying to have their ads attached to spyware downloads.

Ben Edelman thinks that more media attention will help convince advertisers not to do business with spyware companies.

"Spyware vendors want to enjoy the fruits of their labors," he said. "If the industry sees them under attack and reeling in terms of lost revenue, they won't want to do business with them."

Just as important is for Web users to practice basic safe surfing, he said. "Don't download any software you aren't sure about, read the fine print of any agreement you're about to get into, and if something seems too good to be true -- like free downloadable music with no strings attached -- it probably is."

"If you don't know if something's bad for your computer," Edelman said, "ask your computer-savvy friends to figure it out before you get it."

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Martha Does Macy's

But She's Not Leaving Kmart Bereft

Martha Does Macy's...

Macy's is launching a new line of Martha Stewart-branded home furnishings, called Martha Stewart Collection. It's an attempt to move upscale from the problem-plagued Martha Stewart Everday line carried by Kmart.

The new line, set for launch in the fall of 2007, will include bed and bath furnishings, casual dinnerware, flatware, glassware, cookware, garden furniture and holiday decorations.

Kmart consumers have been up in arms for years over problems with the Everyday line, most notably glass-topped patio tables that have a bad habit of shattering without warning.

At least one class action lawsuit has been filed charging that Martha Stewart's company knew of the problem but failed to warn consumers.

"The glass to my Martha Stewart Bar Harbor Patio Collection shattered for no reason last night. The glass which I thought was supposed to be safety glass is in a millon pieces all over my deck," said Leslie of Beachwood, NJ.

Others have complained about rust and excessive wear and tear.

"I bought the Victorian Dining Set with table and umbrella and 5 chairs as well as the love seat and 2 rockers and the chaise lounge. They are peeling after only two summers out and the cushions and umbrella are very faded and ripping and worst of all I cannot find replacement cushions anywhere," Marganne of Klamath Falls, OR, complained.

Macy's, a unit of Federated Department Stores, has had problems competing against discounters like Target and home-furnishings superstores like Bed, Bad & Beyond. Having its own "exclusive" brands is supposed to help Macy's differentiate itself.

This doesn't mean Martha is walking out on Kmart. Her Everyday line will continue to line Kmart's aisles through at least 2009, when the current contract expires.

The new Collection line is being called "affordable luxury" while the Everyday collection is being positioned as, well, less upscale. In other words, cheaper.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. already has an agreement to sell housewares and other home products under the Martha Stewart Everyday brand exclusively through Kmart, a division of Sears Holdings Corp.

"This line not only covers the fundamental parts of our home-furnishings business, it also allows us to expand our seasonal and holiday offerings," said Janet Grove, a Federated vice chairwoman and head of Macy's Merchandising Group.

Federated last year acquired the rival May Department Stores Co., creating an 850-store national chain.

Martha Stewart's Martha Stewart Living Inc. said it sought to expand its reach beyond Kmart after research found that some 30 million women go to a store specifically because it carries Martha Stewart products.

"With all the new Macy's stores, virtually all our markets will be covered," said Susan Lyne, president and CEO of Martha Stewart Living.

 

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Consumer Reports Examines Anti-Aging Market

Products for baldness, gray hair, wrinkles offer spotty results at best

<em>Consumer Reports</em> Examines Anti-Aging Market ...


Let's face it: Getting older is no picnic. There are the aches and pains, wrinkles, gray (or no) hair and -- in some cases - the absence of the energy upon which we all came to depend.

For these and other reasons, helping those of us getting older cope with it has become big business. In its May Issue, Consumer Reports takes a look at the various products being hawked in hopes of keeping us from becoming too despondent every time we pass a mirror.

Handling hair loss

Among the most ubiquitous are the "baldness cures." These snake-oil treatments have been around forever, and the empty promises continue to this day. A new survey by the CR National Research Center found that while late-night TV and pharmacy shelves are filled with products touted to restore hair, most of the tactics tried by thousands of balding men and women simply don't work very well. The product that worked for the most people was the prescription drug Propecia (finasteride), which was found very effective by 27 percent of men.

The Consumer Reports Health Baldness Remedies survey is one of three reports on the market for anti-aging products that promise to turn back the clock. It looked at do-it-yourself hair dyes, over-the-counter anti-wrinkle serums, and baldness treatments.

"The market for baldness remedies plays to a particularly vulnerable segment of society," said Tod Marks, the magazine's senior editor. "It's a deeply personal, devastating issue to many who desperately want to believe that there's a panacea out there. Sadly, there is no magic bullet. At the end of the day, the best remedy may actually be acceptance.

Marks says those who were surveyed said masking hair loss is one of the more effective options. But they also pointed out actual benefits of being bald: you won't get hat head; you won't waste time grooming your hair; and you'll save lots of money on shampoo, conditioner, gels, mouse, hair dryers, and other hair care products."

Of those who sought treatment for hair loss, 65 percent said they had nothing to lose from trying. CR Health notes that there are plenty of downsides to several remedies:

• Finasteride, available as Propecia and as a generic, worked for some. Patients should commit to it for at least three months and any gains it may have will be lost once the patient stops taking it. While side effects are infrequent, they can include depression and impotence. It can be used by men only.

• Minoxodil, sold under the brand name Rogaine or generically, works best on patients whose hair loss is recent. Those who were asked said it was largely ineffective. As is the case with finasteride, any benefits are lost when you stop taking it. Side effects include dry, itchy, or irritated scalp and increased facial hair. Women can use Rogaine in the two percent strength if they're willing to live with the possibility of facial hair. Men can use two or five percent solutions.

• Surgery, which typically involves a basic transplant of hair from the back of the head to the top or front of the head, costs on average $5 for each graft. The average transplant can take 2,000 grafts, bringing the total cost to approximately $10,000. In many cases, the procedure must be repeated, doubling the cost. Not everyone is a successful candidate and there's a possibility of infection, a long recovery period, scarring, or patchy hair growth. And finding a skilled surgeon can be a challenge.

The health survey found that women were especially bothered by hair loss. Fifty-five percent of women who had hair loss, compared with 24 percent of men surveyed, said they worried a lot about losing more hair in the future. Women who had lost hair were more likely than men to pay attention to other people's hair or lack of it, stare in the mirror, and feel self-conscious about their appearance.

The survey found that masking baldness might very well be the ideal option. Sixty-five percent said that they found wearing a wig or toupee was very or somewhat effective, while 46 percent of men liked shaving their head, and 46 percent said that simply dressing better was an effective technique at hiding hair loss.

Most men and some women blamed genetic makeup or age; other women said their hair loss was due to a health condition (such as thyroid disease) or stress. Those whose hair loss was related to chronic illness or chemotherapy were excluded.

Speaking of genetic caused of baldness, it's been pretty well established that these things do run in families .

Covering up the grays

If you still have your hair but are looking to cover grays, a new test of home hair dyes found that Clairol Textures and Tones, L'Oreal Paris Superior Preference, Clairol Natural Instincts, and Clairol Natural Instincts For Men work best.

Consumer Reports Health tested 13 home hair dyes consumers would use to dye gray hairs brown and rated them on how well they covered grays, how easy they were to use, and whether the color was blotchy or streaky.

The top products scored high marks across the board when tested on tresses of gray hair. The results show that for less than $13 -- well below salon prices -- consumers can easily and effectively cover their grays.

"More than ever, consumers are searching for ways to look and feel their best without breaking the bank, so we were pleased to find there are high quality, low-cost options for covering grays," said CR Health associate editor Jamie Hirsh.

For maximum success with at-home hair coloring, the magazine advises first performing a spot test for allergic reactions, then testing the dye on a single piece of hair to determine how the color will turn out and how long to leave the dye in your hair. Refer to the more detailed color charts on the sides or back of the box rather than the picture on the front to see how a color will work with your hair.

And it's best to determine how much gray coverage you need before you select a product. Some products aren't made for hair that is more than 50 percent gray.

Although Revlon's products were not mentioned in the survey, a complaint received by ConsumerAffairs.com might prompt you to give extra consideration to whatever hair-coloring product you might use.

Lisa of Boise, ID, tells of an allergic reaction she had to Revlon Colorsilk hair color. "I broke out in a horrible rash along the base of my neck and ears swelled up twice their size and seeped clear fluid. I went to the doctor and was put on Predisone and got a cream. He said it was an allergic reaction and it had entered my blood stream."

Lisa says the problem returned after she finished the Predisone. "I got a rash then over my entire body, looking like chicken pox. The rash on the back of my neck is worse now than ever." She says when she contacted Revlon, the company expressed shock, claiming it had never heard of such a problem before.

Skin treatments

When it comes to your skin, the May issue of Consumer Reports found you might be better off spending money on sunscreen or moisturizer, than anti-wrinkle facial The magazine put nine face serums to the test and found only minor and inconsistent improvements among test subjects.

Almost all of the serums claimed to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles within six weeks or less, but the effectiveness of even the best products was limited and varied from subject to subject, CR found. Every serum tested produced a visual change in wrinkle length or depth for at least some test subjects, and did nothing for others. And when there were any wrinkle reductions, they were at best slight, and fell short of the miracles implied on the product labels.

"Consumers should focus on getting back to the basics like moisturizing and shielding skin from the sun," said Jamie Hirsh, CR Health associate editor. "Beyond that, if you want to try an over-the-counter anti-wrinkle product, realize that the results may be minimal if any. For more dramatic improvements, talk to a dermatologist about using a prescription retinoid like Renova, Retin-A, or their equivalent generics." Prescription retinoids, which contain a potent derivative of vitamin A, remain the only topical products proven in large, rigorous studies to reverse the collagen loss that causes wrinkles.

Two serums were rated as slightly more effective than the others: DermaSilk 5 Minute Face Lift ($40 per ounce) and Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle ($20 per oz). Interestingly, these two serums with the best results received fewer positive comments from the testers than the others.

The survey also found that the one serum with all-natural ingredients (no parabens or phthalates), Burt's Bees Naturally Ageless Intensive Repairing, was the least effective at reducing wrinkles, despite its steep price at $56 per ounce.

Testing included 79 people, 67 of them women, between the ages of 40 and 65. Testers used one serum on each side of their face for six weeks, longer than the time their manufacturers claim it takes for the products to visibly reduce wrinkles. Trained sensory panelists then analyzed high-resolution images of the testers' faces before using the serums, 20 minutes after the first applications, and after six weeks of use.

Serums, which were tested for the first time by Consumer Reports Health, are thinner and more fluid than creams and usually soak into the skin quickly. Those tested range from $20 to $65 and are available at drugstores, department stores, and specialty beauty stores such as Sephora or online.

It's important to remember that no matter what kind of anti-aging product you purchase, the chances of finding a fountain of youth in a jar are highly unlikely.



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Supermarket Chains Refuse To Sell Carbon Monoxide-Treated Meat

The use of carbon monoxide imparts a bright red color on the meat's surface

Supermarket Chains Refuse To Sell Carbon Monoxide-Treated Meat...

Major supermarket chains are turning up their noses at case-ready meat and ground beef treated with carbon monoxide. The use of carbon monoxide imparts a bright red color on the meat's surface, which can hide the browning of meat normally associated with spoilage and temperature abuse.

Major national supermarket chains, including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix, Stop & Shop, A&P;, Wegmans and Whole Foods are not selling carbon monoxide-treated meat to consumers, and some have cited potential consumer deception as a reason for their decision.

"Publix does not use carbon monoxide to disguise the color of our meat," company spokeswoman Barbara Reid told the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. "Ethically, we disagree with it."

Because the use of CO could be viewed as deceptive, Kroger executive Lynn Marmer said the company does not sell CO-treated meat.

In a letter urging the Food and Drug Administration to rescind its approval of CO-treated meat, the Consumer Federation of America and Safe Tables Our Priority, a national, non-profit, volunteer, health organization, said carbon monoxide "hides the visual clues that consumers utilize on a regular basis to determine the safety and freshness of their meat," adding that "consumers are unable to determine if the meat they are purchasing for their families is truly fresh."

"Supermarkets across the country are listening to consumer concerns about meat packaged with carbon monoxide," said Chris Waldrop, Deputy Director of the Food Policy Institute at CFA. "We applaud their decision to keep this deceptive practice out of their stores."

Chicago recently became the first municipality in the United States seeking to protect consumers by banning the use of carbon monoxide on fresh meat.

Mark Klein of Cargill Meat Solutions, the company that sells much of the carbon monoxide-treated meat in the United States, was quizzed at a Chicago City Council hearing about the consumer's right to know whether meat is treated with carbon monoxide.

A transcript of the March 23 hearing revealed this exchange:

ALDERMAN HAIRSTON: My question to you -- I want you to answer the question that I asked you previously. In other words, the consumer doesn't have a right to know?

MR. KLEIN: I don't think they really would, you know, care to know.

The practice is already banned in the European Union.

 



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New Phone Scam Plays on Victims' Emotions

Victims Are Told a Family Member Needs Help

New Phone Scam Plays on Victims' Emotions...

A new scam has victimized consumers in recent weeks. In each of the reported cases, the scammer has claimed to be the victim's family member, in some sort of trouble, and in immediate need of money.

"This scam plays on the fears and emotions of the victim by using the name of a loved one," said New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid. "As one victim said in her report, when you have a loved one in trouble, you will do whatever is asked of you as quickly as possible so you can help them. You don't think about the possibility that you could be the victim of a scam. This is one of the most egregious scams I have seen."

Two victims of the scam, a grandmother from Albuquerque and another from Los Alamos, lost $5,000 and $4,000, respectively. They both report receiving calls from a person who claimed to be their grandson.

In each case, the caller told his "grandmother" that he and some friends had been arrested for drinking and driving in Canada and were in need of money to post bail and for a plane ticket home. Both victims reported that the scammer called them, pleading to have money wired to a Canadian address. The victims did as they were told and wired money to the addresses they were given.

Later, the victims' suspicions were raised and called their real grandsons, only to discover that neither grandson had made a trip to Canada nor beene arrested. By the time the victims realized what had happened, they called the money transfer services only to be told the money had already been claimed in Canada.

Madrid urges consumers who receive calls like this to first get more information from the person calling.

"As desperate as the person calling may sound, remain calm and try to get as much information as possible. If the person calling claims to be a family member, ask them personal questions that only your family will know, such as your middle name or where he was born," said Madrid.

"Also, if you receive a call claiming to report an emergency involving a loved one, be extremely cautious. One mother from Los Lunas received such a call and wound up losing more than $1,000 to a scammer," said Madrid.

The Los Lunas mother received a call from a person claiming to be a dispatcher from the Arizona Highway Patrol who said her name was Kathy Richardson. "Kathy" asked the mother if she had a son by the name of Andy. "Kathy" said there had been a bad accident and that Andy was unconscious, had lost a lot of blood and needed to be airlifted to "Tucson Memorial Hospital."

"Kathy" also put a "Lieutenant Johnson" on the phone, who confirmed the accident. "Lt. Johnson" informed the mother that an 18-wheel truck had sideswiped Andy's car and that the driver of the truck was drunk.

"Kathy" told the mother that Andy's emergency contact information was found in his wallet and that he had insurance. "Kathy" then said insurance could not pay for the airlift, since it was a Saturday and the insurance company's office was closed. She informed the mother she would have to immediately wire $950 via Western Union to pay for the airlift.

"Kathy" said the insurance company would reimburse the $950, plus the cost of the wire transfer on Monday. "Kathy" told the mother she was to wire the money to a 2737 Gilmore Road in Westland, Michigan, because this was the quickest way to pay for the airlift.

An Internet search of 2737 Gilmore Road in Westland, Michigan by the Attorney General's Office returned no results.

The mother reported that "Kathy" kept repeating how much blood Andy had lost and how time-critical it was for the mother to wire the money. "Kathy" even gave the mother the address of the nearest Western Union outlet in Los Lunas.

Once the mother reached the Western Union office, "Kathy" called the mother's cell phone, which the mother had said to call. "Kathy" asked the code numbers for the wire transfer. Once the transaction was made, "Kathy" told the mother to stay off her phone and keep the line open so that a "Dr. Kim" from Tucson Memorial Hospital could update her on Andy's condition.

Extremely worried, the mother told her husband about the call, who then called another son and told him about the accident. The husband and son tried to look up the address of Tucson Memorial Hospital on the Internet, only to discover that there was no such facility. They tried contacting the Arizona Highway Department to ask about the accident, only to be told that there was no such report. The Arizona Highway Department also said they had no dispatcher named Kathy Richardson, nor a Lt. Johnson.

The mother called Western Union and asked about the status of the wire transfer, which totaled $1,028.00 ($950 plus a $78.00 wire transfer fee.) The money had been picked up at 3:54 that afternoon.

Attorney General Madrid said, "In an emergency situation, you will never be required to pay for emergency services before they are given. If a caller claims to be reporting an emergency, ask their name, title and what agency they are with. Do not call a number given to you by the caller, because they could be lying or have an accomplice waiting for a callback."

"Call information to confirm that the agency actually exists, then try contacting them yourself. Do not reveal your bank account numbers, credit card information or other personal information over the phone in response to an unsolicited call," Madrid advised. "As difficult as it may seem, when you get a call like this, you should remain calm and remain vigilant. The scammer expects you to panic and that's where the scam succeeds."

 

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Lab Tests Reveal Hidden Trans Fat in "0 Grams Trans" Spreads

Lab Tests Reveal Hidden Trans Fat in ...


Many popular vegetable oil spreads that boast of "0 grams trans fat" on their labels actually contain significant levels of trans, according to laboratory analyses commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

It's perfectly legal, since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lets food manufacturers claim zero grams of trans fat as long as the product has less than half a gram per serving. Eat a few servings of these and other ostensibly trans-free products each day and, without even knowing it, you might end up consuming considerably more trans fat than you should, according to CSPI.

The products tested by CSPI and their trans fat totals were:

Shedd's Spread Country Crock

0.4 g

Take Control

0.4 g

Blue Bonnet Homestyle

0.3 g

Promise Stick

0.3 g

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Original

0.3 g

"Food companies should be weaning themselves off of partially hydrogenated oil altogether, and not sneaking it into vegetable oil spreads advertised as trans-fat-free," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "In the meantime, consumers should seek out products that don't make use of this discredited ingredient, particularly if they're concerned about reducing their risk of heart disease."

All of the trans-free claims that CSPI analyzed would be illegal in Canada. Canada prohibits companies from making those claims on products that have more than 0.2 grams of trans fat. While 0.2 is still not zero, it would be more protective of consumers' hearts and arteries, according to CSPI.

The CSPI study provides the first publicly available information on just how much trans fat is present in foods that list 0g, but that contain partially hydrogenated oil. The amounts might have been as little as 0.01 or 0.05 grams, truly trivial amounts, but the foods analyzed contained much more.

The federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that Americans consume less than 1 percent of their calories from trans fat. For someone on a typical 2,000-calorie diet, that works out to about 2 grams of trans, or about as much as the average consumer would get from the trans fat that occurs naturally in milk and meat.

"Getting trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels was a major advance for consumers' health, but zero grams should really mean zero, or at least something a lot closer to zero," said Dr. Carlos A. Camargo, Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, and member of the 2004 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. "These amounts of trans fat may seem small, but they can quickly add up to more than what people should consume in a day."



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States Oppose IRS Plan to Loosen Privacy Rules on Taxpayers' Returns

States Oppose IRS Plan to Loosen Privacy Rules on Taxpayers' Returns...

April 4, 2006
Attorneys General from 46 states and Washington D.C have filed formal objections to proposed Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules that would increase taxpayers' exposure to identity theft by making it easier for businesses to share and use personal information included on tax returns.

"In the guise of increasing taxpayers' control over their return information, the IRS wants to move in exactly the opposite direction," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "This proposal is more than misguided. It's dangerous. By eroding the security of private information, the regulations would increase consumers' exposure to identity theft and invasive, unlawful marketing practices."

The objections were bipartisan, with Lockyer, a Democrat, and Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, the co-sponsors. Lockyer wrote the comments.

"We are greatly concerned that this regulation, if adopted as proposed, will erode consumer privacy and the security of sensitive personal information, with a consequent increase in such serious problems as identity theft and intrusive or even abusive marketing practices," the Attorneys General wrote.

They expressed agreement with the IRS's stated goal to enhance taxpayers' control over the use of their return information, but added, "We are troubled, however, by the provisions of the proposed regulations that seem to undermine rather than advance that goal."

The AGs said "the best, most prudent course" the IRS could take to protect individuals' privacy would be to ban tax preparers from sharing their customers' information for any purpose unrelated to preparation of tax returns. The top state prosecutors pointedly noted consumers are not clamoring to make their personal financial information more available to more businesses.

"There is simply too much at risk for American taxpayers ... to increase the likelihood that their most personal information will be stolen or misused," the Attorneys General wrote. "Crucially, there is no pressing need to put that information at risk: American consumers' financial information is already copiously provided to businesses offering financial services and related products. We are aware of no complaints from taxpayers that they receive too few solicitations from these companies."

Tax preparers covered by IRS regulations include accountants and other individuals, as well as tax preparation firms. Current IRS rules allow tax preparers, after obtaining customers' written consent, to share return information with banks and other third parties to facilitate offering of ancillary, tax-related services.

Such services include "refund anticipation loans (RALs)," high-interest loans sold to taxpayers based on their projected refund. Earlier this year, filed a lawsuit against H&R; Block, charging that the firm violated 15 separate state and federal laws in marketing and selling RALs. Among the laws Block allegedly violated are federal and state rules that prohibit unauthorized sharing and use of personal information on taxpayers' returns.

Despite these problems, the IRS' proposed regulations would expand preparers' ability to share taxpayers' personal information, and third parties' ability to access and use that information.

Specifically, the rules would allow preparers, with written consent, to share or sell customers' return information with any third party, including third parties that have no arrangements with the tax preparer to provide ancillary, tax-related services. Not bound by the regulations, the third parties then could use the information for marketing or other purposes without obtaining consumers' consent.

Unrelated third parties could include data brokers such as ChoicePoint, which unwittingly sold large numbers of individuals' private information to identity thieves. Some critics have argued the regulations could position tax preparers as data brokers themselves, selling taxpayers' personal financial information for substantial profit.

If the IRS does not prohibit tax preparers from sharing customers' return information for marketing purposes, the Attorneys General recommended the agency adopt specific measures to significantly reduce the practice and strengthen privacy protections.

For example, the Attorneys General said the rules should mandate that preparers, before sharing return information for use in providing RALs and other ancillary services, first obtain third parties' agreement to not use the information for any other purpose.

Additionally, the AGs recommended the regulations include disclosure requirements to ensure taxpayers give separate, knowing and voluntary consent to each specific use of their return information.

The IRS also should prohibit tax preparers from conditioning the provision of any service on taxpayers' agreeing to share their return information, the Attorneys General said. They noted they have "encountered ... instances in which a tax preparer has required taxpayers to consent to disclose their personal information to marketers of IRAs as a condition for being considered for a refund anticipation loan."

To further safeguard privacy, tax preparers should be prohibited from using or disclosing return information not needed to obtain the specific services requested by customers, the Attorneys General recommended.

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Outbreak of DirecTV Porn Charges Hits Philadelphia

A story that never really goes away is DirecTV's odd habit of billing customers for "adult" movies they insist they did not order or watch

Outbreak of DirecTV Porn Charges Hits Philadelphia...

A story that never really goes away is DirecTV's odd habit of billing customers for "adult" movies they insist they did not order or watch. The latest outbreak of bogus bills occurred in Philadelphia, where it was exposed by WPVI-TV's consumer reporter, Nydia Han.

Han reported receiving complaints from more than a dozen consumers hit with collection notices. Oddly, many of the consumers were teachers at a charter school in Chester, a Philadelphia suburb. They compared notes and found they shared a similar experience.

Their complaints are similar to those ConsumerAffairs.com has received for years -- like Elaine of Jackson, Ga., who in 2001 was charged for almost $500 of pornographic movies. "They were charged for times we were not home, or watching regular tv news. I have researched several complaint sites and have found many customers with the same problem, always porn movies. We did not order these movies," Elaine insisted.

What's interesting about the Chester complaints is that only one of the teachers is a DirecTV subscriber. All the rest are being charged for watching adult movies without even having a DirecTV subscription.

It turns out that the Philadelphia address for some of the fraudulent accounts doesn't even exist. A former independent DirecTV dealer activated the account and apparently at least 10 other bogus contracts, Han reported. At Village Charter School, the initial bills were sent to addresses in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And the majority of the addresses Han checked there were also non-existent.

The consumers say Direct TV kept referring them back to the collection agencies, leaving them guessing how they got scammed and whether they're still vulnerable.

One theory is that rogue employees at some DirecTV subcontractors are setting up bogus accounts for the commission. Consumer advocates say DirecTV needs to secure its signup system.

"Their absolute responsibility is to go back and check all the orders from the area where the fraud occurred and confirm them," ConsumerAffairs.com president Jim Hood said in Han's broadcast report.

Presently, to open a new account, the customer must provide an address, phone number, social security number, and credit card number. The card doesn't have to be yours. DirecTV checks your credit report but apparently does not make sure the address on it matches the service and billing address.

DirecTV says it is "evaluating" new identity verification tools, Han reported. In the case of the Philadelphia consumers, DirecTV says it has removed the charges from its system and is trying to help the consumers repair their credit.

But the Philadelphia incidents are not isolated examples Nydia Han's report aired on WPVI-TV on March 23. The very next day, we heard from Kevin of Newark, Delaware, who had seen the WPVI-TV report.

"I'm a victim of a similar situation -- back in 2003 I purchased DirectTV and everything was fine til I got my second bill. I opened up the bill and the bill stated I owed $708. I immediately contacted customer service about this bill and they informed me that I was ordering pornography movies," said Kevin, who was later told he owed a total of $1,008. He is still trying to repair the damage to his credit.

Nor are they the latest examples. On April 1, we heard from Kelly of Thousand Oaks, California.

"We have been charged more than $500 for movies we did not order. ... I also got the same response from customer service: 'You must not know what is going on in your home.'"

 

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DuPont Hopes Teflon Charges Don't Stick

Judge Prepares to Hear Barrage of Class Action Lawsuits

DuPont Hopes Teflon Charges Don't Stick...

A $5 billion struggle over the safety of Teflon-coated cookware kicks off in a Des Moines courtroom later this month, as a team of lawyers representing more than 72 clients fires the opening shots in a complex class-action case that's likely to drag on for years.

The initial lawsuits were filed on behalf of 72 consumers from Florida, Massachusetts, California and elsewhere. The plaintiffs don't claim actual injury. Rather, they want the courts to order Teflon manufacturer DuPont to pay for the medical monitoring they say they need because of their exposure to Teflon cookware.

The suits also seek reimbursement for the purchase price of the cookware and punitive damages for DuPont's alleged failure to warn consumers of the supposed dangers posed by Teflon, which has been on the market since 1946.

The suits allege that DuPont withheld information about a chemical used to make Teflon. They allege that toxic gases are emitted when the pans are heated to 464 degrees or higher. Documents allege that the chemicals have been known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and that fumes have killed pet birds kept in unventilated kitchens.

"The claim we're bringing is really a consumer class action related to the failure to warn," Alan Kluger, a Miami attorney expected to lead the battle against DuPont, told the Des Moines Register. "The basic concept is that when corporate America has information, the public has a right to know."

Kluger said the lawsuits could lead to "millions and millions of people getting hundreds of dollars, as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars."

In 2004, DuPont agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by about 50,000 people who lived near its West Virginia plant. The residents claimed the company contaminated local water supplies with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and alleged the chemical was linked to birth defects and other health hazards. DuPont paid $50 million to the residents and agreed to spend $10 million on special water treatment facilities.

However, DuPont did not accept liability and has since maintained that PFOA is not a danger to the public and that Teflon-coated cookware is safe.

Studies have found that PFOA is in the bloodstreams of nearly everyone in the U.S., and now a new study suggests the potential carcinogen is present in many people at birth. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center say the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, was found in nearly every blood sample taken from umbilical cords. Of 300 cords tested, 298 tested positive for PFOA, according to the study.

The Environmental Protection Agency says DuPont has agreed to virtually eliminate any new emissions from its plants making the non-stick surface by 2010 because of growing concerns about PFOA in the environment.

Most medical researchers see the presence of PFOA in the environment as the primary potential health threat, not the presence of Teflon in cookware.



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Kids Getting Too Fat For Safety Seats, Study Finds

Kids Getting Too Fat For Safety Seats, Study Finds...


A new study has concluded that American children are increasingly too fat to safely fit into child safety seats. The use of child safety seats in cars is required by law, but the researchers writing in the April issue of Pediatrics say there are too few seats available to handle the girth of obese children.

According to study estimates, a total of 283,305 children one to six years of age in the United States would have a difficult, if not impossible, time fitting safely and appropriately into a child safety seat because of their age and weight. The vast majority of these children are three years of age and weigh more than 40 lb (182,661 children). For these children, there are currently only four child safety seat types available, each of which costs between $240 and $270.

"While we await reductions in the childhood obesity epidemic, it is essential to develop child safety seats that can protect children of all shapes and sizes," said Lara Trifiletti, the lead researcher for the study.

"Motor vehicle crashes pose the single greatest risk to children, accounting for 23% of injury deaths among infants and 30% among preschool-aged children. Options for maximizing the protection of obese children in automobiles must be identified," she said.

The types of appropriate child safety seats were assessed by using National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2005 Child Safety Seat Ease of Use Ratings. Estimates of the numbers of children weighing above the maximal weight for those child safety seats were calculated by using the tabulations of growth curves based on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999 to 2000 data that were assembled by the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census for the year 2000.

Obesity is generally considered a health problem with long-term consequences. However, there is an immediate need for child safety seats that have been designed, tested and approved for use at higher weights.

"Debate regarding what to do to reduce and to prevent childhood obesity is just beginning," Trifiletti said. "We do know, however, that childhood obesity is increasing, and we can expect even more children to face the prospect of limited child safety seats available to protect them."

The research was supported by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Healths Center for Injury Research and Policy in Baltimore and conducted in collaboration with its researchers.

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Laptop Thefts: The Latest Form Of Identity Theft

Laptop Thefts: The Latest Form Of Identity Theft

Losing laptops containing unsecured personal data including names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and financial information can lead to Identity Theft...

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