Current Events in April 2006

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    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.

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

    Spychipped Levi's Hit the U.S.

    Levi Strauss Confirms RFID Test, Refuses to Disclose Location

    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."

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

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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

      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."

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

      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."

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

      FDA Approves Generic Version Of Cholesterol Drug

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

      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.

      FDA Approves Generic Version Of Cholesterol Drug...

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

      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.

      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....

      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.

      Bush Proposes Lifting Hybrid Tax Credit Limit...

      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 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.

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

      New Jersey Sues Mattress Company Over Internet Ads

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

      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.

      New Jersey Sues Mattress Company Over Internet Ads...

      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

      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."

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

      Overdraft Loan Survey Finds Problems For Consumers

      Consumers Pay $10 Billion in Overdraft Fees Yearly

      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.

      Overdraft Loan Survey Finds Problems For Consumers...

      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

      "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 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.

      Canon Leaves Camera Customers in the Dark...

      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 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.

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

      Runaway Prices at the Pump

      Pawn Shops Report Brisk Business

      Gasoline prices are closing in on $3 a gallon throughout the country as the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is now $2.86 a gallon and rising. That's up 7 cents in just three days. In Wisconsin, pawn shops report brisk business as residents hock their goods to raise money for gas.

      One month ago regular unleaded gasoline sold for $2.51 a gallon. One year ago, regular unleaded averaged $2.22 a gallon.

      Diesel fuel prices are also climbing with the average price now at $2.87 a gallon. That's a 6-cent jump in three days. One month ago, the average selling price was $2.66 a gallon. One year ago, it was $2.35 a gallon.

      Kirkwood, California, has the most expensive gasoline in the land. A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline costs $3.57 in Kirkwood. Drivers in Murray, Utah enjoy the lowest price for regular gasoline at $2.26 a gallon.

      Here is a look at some gasoline prices from around the country. The trend is the same everywhere -- up.

      Los Angeles: Throughout Southern California, the sudden price hike was met with a mixture of anger and disbelief. California's average cost for self-serve regular-grade gasoline is now $3.015 a gallon.

      The state average is up 3 cents in three days and 34.2 cents from a month ago. Prices, however, are still short of the record $3.054 a gallon set September 9 in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

      Wisconsin: Prices at the pump are nearing $3 a gallon, if not exceeding that, in some parts of Wisconsin The average price statewide is now $2.88 a gallon.

      In Milwaukee, some stations have a gallon of gasoline at $3.09.

      The price hikes have caused some Wisconsinites to improvise in order to fill their tanks. In the south-central part of the state, some Madison-area pawn shop owners are reporting an increase in business, claiming that some people are selling belongings to get extra money to cover the price increase.

      Texas: Retail gasoline prices continued to skyrocket this week.

      The AAA Texas gasoline price survey finds that regular self-serve gasoline prices average $2.83 per gallon statewide, 10 cents more than last week and 71 cents more than last year.

      Dallas prices remained the state's highest at $2.90 cents per gallon, 9 cents more than last week, while San Antonio had the cheapest gas at $2.76 per gallon, 11 cents more than last week, the survey found.

      Nevada: What used to be a 20-dollar trip to the gas pump now is a 30-dollar fill-up as gasoline prices edge ever closer to three dollars a gallon in the Reno area.

      That would put prices in line with last year's records.

      Minnesota: Gas prices are rising and most industry analysts predict they will go higher, much higher, before the summer is over. Minnesotans now face $2.81 gas prices, up 7 cents in just one day.

      With gas stations raising their prices daily to reflect their costs from suppliers, Minnesotans will be facing a daily surprise at the gas pump in the days and weeks ahead.

      Vermont: The likelihood that rising fuel prices will be a hot political topic this year was underscored candidates for federal office made statements and traded barbs on the issue.

      U.S. House candidate Peter Welch, the Democratic president pro tem of the Vermont Senate, took aim at the federal government's recent forgiveness of royalties it had collected from oil and natural gas firms drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

      The remarks came a day after Rep. Bernard Sanders,, an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, called on President Bush to call an "emergency energy summit" to address sharply increasing fuel prices.

      Gasoline prices at some Vermont stations topped $2.80 per gallon.

      Runaway Prices at the Pump...

      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.

      Chlorine in Pools Poses Health Risks...

      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.

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

      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.

      Prius Rage Gives Rise to Hybrid Haters...

      Online Fraud Rates Drop to Near In-Person Rates

      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%.

      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 ...