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    Watchdog Site Sniffs Out Travel Bargains

    New service that blends technology with human know-how

    He who hesitates is often lost -- especially when dickering for the lowest possible airfare.

    Like a banana republic election, which encourages citizens to vote early and vote often, carriers change their prices with a frenetic energy surpassed only at the gasoline pump. And morning is the best time to find a good one, according to a former travel writer who is now a highly-respected industry analyst.

    George Hobica is the founder and owner of Airfare Watchdog, a service that blends technology with human know-how in seeking bargains for consumers.

    The firm often finds better deals than others because its searches include discount carriers -- often omitted by larger, better-known services such as Orbitz and Expedia.com.

    According to Hobica, his four-man staff is adept at finding 20 per cent discounts on a regular basis.

    Another reason for its success, he said, is that Airfare Watchdog makes most of its money from advertisements, with only a trace coming from on-site bookings.

    Hobica is adamant about finding the best fares just as the sun peeks over the horizon.

    "Airlines do what they call 'retaliatory fare pricing,'" he said, "And other airlines follow. These pop up early in the day and disappear later as seats are sold."

    He added that his site's route map section includes 80 official airline route maps, a collection he claims is the largest anywhere on the Internet.

    "Many airlines don't pubish their route maps or have them buried on their websites," Hobica said. "That forces consumers to work at finding out what cities they serve. We began offering this information after finding out it was not readily available to travelers."

    The staff of Airfarewatchdog.com - named one of the worlds best values by Travel + Leisure magazine last year - evaluates fares manually and tests each one for validity, value, and seat availability before posting them on the site and in newsletters.

    The service has won praise from cpnsumers for its down-to-earth, personable style, its canine mascot Browser, and its knack for uncovering hidden travel deals.



    Watchdog Site Sniffs Out Travel Bargains...
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    Survey: Feds Must Do More to Safeguard Consumer Privacy

    May 31, 2006
    The vast majority of business executives say that a one-year old federal law requiring companies to destroy certain documents containing consumer credit information does not go far enough, a survey finds.

    The survey marked the one-year anniversary of a provision in the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA). The so-called "Final Disposal Rule" requires most businesses to destroy documents containing consumer credit information before discarding them.

    There is currently no national requirement to destroy discarded personal information that is not derived from a credit report.

    According to the survey, commissioned by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID), nearly 85% of business executives would support a similar destruction requirement that covered all personal information regarding a consumer.

    "FACTA was a great first step in the fight against consumer fraud and identity theft, but we now see that businesses are eager to take the next step," said NAID executive director Robert Johnson. "Information from credit reports is only a very small piece of the personal information pie that businesses regularly discard and identity thieves crave."

    As many as 10 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Additionally, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has shown that more than 80 million Americans have had their personal information compromised since February 2005.

    According to the Better Business Bureau, most identity thieves obtain their victims' personal information from low-tech sources such as dumpster diving, not by hacking into databases and from stolen laptops and computer tapes.

    Other key findings from the 2006 NAID Consumer Attitudes Survey include:

    • 77% of business executives do not know what their companies do to ensure the destruction of information on obsolete computers.

    • 11% of businesses indefinitely stored retired computers because they aren't aware of proper disposal methods permitted under the law.

    • 63% of businesses that currently shred discarded information do it themselves with the remaining 37% relying on outside security shredding companies.

    • More than 54% of the businesses that use an information destruction service only began using such outside service in the past 4 years or less.

    In 2005, 37% of complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission were related to identity theft -- more than the next four types of complaints combined.

    "Every business should take steps to ensure that all discarded personal information is properly destroyed," added Johnson. "Tossing a customer's personal information in a dumpster is an invitation to danger."

    The 2006 NAID Consumer Attitudes Survey was conducted by the Phoenix-based research firm Partners In Brainstorms, Inc. An executive summary of the key findings is available at the NAID website at http://www.naidonline.org.

    Survey: Feds Must Do More to Safeguard Consumer Privacy...
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    Dodge Charger in Hot Pursuit of Ford's Police Interceptor

    Hey officer, that thing got a Hemi in it?

    Hey officer, that thing got a Hemi in it? Speeders beware. The answer soon is likely to be yes.

    The old Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is no longer king of the law enforcement hill with its relatively puny 250 horsepower 4.6-liter V-8 motor.

    The new Dodge Charger is on the way. The car is faster, more efficient, safer and better handling than the Ford. At least that is what the experts who are testing the car say.

    For a little more than $2,000 extra, the Dodge Charger Police Interceptor comes with a 340 horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi.

    Dodge has decided it wants a slice of the 70,000-unit police car market. The Charger is more modern and technologically advanced than the Ford and considerably more menacing when dressed up like a cop car.

    As any speed demon who ever looked warily in his rearview mirror for that tell-tale Plymouth Gran Fury profile will attest, Chrysler was once the No. 1 manufacturer of police cruisers, but it stopped making police cars in the 1980s.

    Ford and Chevrolet stepped up and the vehicle many police departments use today is the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Nearly 18 feet long and with rear-wheel drive, the "Crown Vic" looks pretty much like it did in the early 1990s.

    The Dodge Charger has attracted a lot of interest in the law enforcement community and the Charger police package only costs about $1,000 more than the Crown Victoria.

    The Dodge police package is impressive. The automaker has moved the Charger's centrally-located gear selector to the column to make room for all the police equipment that rests between the seats.

    The engine is fitted with an engine hour-meter and the Charger carries external oil coolers for the engine oil, transmission fluid and power steering fluid, allowing the cop car to run at extremely high speeds for sustained periods.

    The Charger also has a heavy duty cooling system and air conditioning is standard but only for front seat occupants. Those penned up in the back will have to sweat it out.

    The Charger Police Interceptor rides on a stiffer suspension than a stock Charger. The speedometer is a certified and calibrated unit. The 18-inch steel wheels are shod with high-performance tires along with big brakes with dual piston front calipers. Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability management are standard on the police cruiser.

    Dodge offers two engines. First is the 250-hp 3.5-liter V-6 economy engine which matches the output of the Ford Interceptor's V-8.

    Then we have the big dog 340-hp 5.7-liter Hemi, which, is a $2,200 option and the engine every lawman wants to drive.

    A Hemi-powered police Charger can hit 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds and tops out at 150 mph, making the Charger faster than the Ford Police Interceptor.

    Projected mileage for the V-8 is about 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway and that is better than mileage for the heavier Crown Victoria, which is listed as 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.

    A sophisticated wiring harness was incorporated in the car to make it easy to add new devices and accessories, and the whole vehicle wiring and electronic system has been upgraded to cope with the massive electrical needs of a police vehicle.

    The interceptor comes from the manufacturer with holes drilled into the A-pillars and wiring in place for spot lamps and there is a "stake-out" switch to turn off ever light in the car except for the gear indicator.

    Police officials around the country will assess the Chargers overall performance to determine whether the cars measure up to police standards as well as hold up under the rigors of heavy police use.

    The price tag is not too overwhelming. The standard version of the Dodge Charger Police car sells for $26,575 and $28,805 with the HEMI.

    Dodge Charger in Hot Pursuit of Ford's Police Interceptor...
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      Scam Targets Job Hunters on Careerbuilder.com


      Consumers are being advised to watch out for a new scam targeting job hunters searching for career opportunities on the popular Web site CareerBuilder.com.

      According to two consumer complaints received by the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and reports from other states, the scam artists contacted job hunters through CareerBuilder.com regarding a "Donations Handler" position with an international housing charity.

      The message claimed the charity was located in Norway and described the organization as being very similar to Habitat for Humanity. According to the job description, the responsibilities of the donations handler would be to accept donation checks, deposit them into a personal bank account and then send payment to the charity.

      Madigan said individuals who accepted the bogus position received cashiers' checks sent in the mail from a location in Atlanta, Georgia. The victims were instructed to deposit the cashiers' checks into their personal bank accounts and wait until the funds were made available, then withdraw a portion of the money and send it using Western Union to an account in the Ukraine.

      The victims learned a few days later that the deposited cashiers' checks were fraudulent and that the deposited money would be removed from their bank accounts, but by this time they already had withdrawn funds from their accounts and sent them to the fake charity account in the Ukraine. The victims reported losing between $500 and $2,000 in this scheme.

      The scammers reportedly have used different charity names, including: Abantehome.org, Adeonahome.org, Adriahome.org, Alenahome.org, Alstedehome.org, Amalia Int'l, Amaliahome.org, Concordia, DWIO.org, DIO, PWHome and Public Wish.

      Consumers are being advised to watch out for a new scam targeting job hunters searching for career opportunities on the popular Web site CareerBuilder.com....
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      Food Fight: McDonald's Takes On Critics


      Under increasing attack for the caloric content of its products, McDonald's is dishing it back at its critics. In a speech to shareholders, company CEO Jim Skinner said the recent books and movies about the company's food are "fiction."

      "These days, big equals bad to some people," Skinner said.

      The 2001 book "Fast Food Nation" issued a scathing review of the health benefits of McDonald's food.

      That was followed a few years later by the movie "Supersize Me," in which an independent filmmaker documented the effects of eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. Now critics are publishing a children's book about fast food and Fast Food Nation is being made into a movie.

      Skinner says it's unfair, piling on.

      "Fictitious information irresponsibly published and reported in the media has people questioning the quality and safety of fast food in general," he said.

      Skinner maintains that his company has led the way in food safety and has worked over the years to improve the product.

      If that weren't enough, he says McDonald's has been a leader in employment opportunity, charitable giving, and has even gone out of its way to promote animal welfare and the environment.

      McDonald's has come under fire, along with other fast food chains, as America's obesity problem has mushroomed.

      While critics blame the high fat content of burgers, chicken and fries, McDonald's counters that it offers plenty of healthy food too. Skinner repeated his vow to do a better job in telling what he sees as the company's positive story.



      Food Fight: McDonald's Takes On Critics...
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      Survey: Outlaw Cell Phone Use While Driving

      Most people would support a state law that makes it illegal to use a cell phone while driving

      Most people would support a state law that makes it illegal to use a cell phone while driving, according to a new University of Michigan study.

      Sixty-five percent of the respondents said state governments should pass laws banning driving and cell phone use, while only 29 percent said they did not want such a law.

      In addition, 88 percent said that a police officer should note if a driver was using a cell phone when an accident occurred.

      The findings are in a report that studied public attitudes toward cell phones and other information technology devices in the United States. Survey interviews were conducted by telephone March 3-10, 2005, among a sample of 849 American adults. The survey showed that 69 percent own a cell phone.

      Sixty percent of respondents preferred to maintain a ban on cell phone use in airplanes, while 26 percent supported lifting the ban.

      Cell phone owners and non-owners were equally likely to say they preferred to "keep the ban." The study also noted that the number of technologies owned did not affect attitude toward this regulation.

      "The concern about cell phone use in planes may relate to the fact that it is an enclosed space and people can't walk away from loud conversations in a way they can on land," said the study's author Michael Traugott, a professor in the Department of Communications Studies and senior research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

      While 60 percent said that public use of cell phones disturbed or irritated them, this didn't translate into a sentiment toward passing laws to prohibit the practice in places such as restaurants, movies or museums.

      In fact, only 43 percent said there should be a law that prohibits talking on a cell phone in public places, while 52 percent did not think so.

      "The support for the use of cell phones in public places, despite the irritation, comes primarily from cell phone owners," Traugott said. "They seem reluctant to impose restraints on their own behavior."

      Survey: Outlaw Cell Phone Use While Driving...
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      Cell Phones Cleared in Gas Fires

      Inspectors now say they don't what started a NY fire

      Some say reports of cell phones starting gasoline fires are just an urban myth. They may be right.

      Firefighters originally blamed a May 2004 gas pump fire in New Paltz, N.Y., on a cell phone -- the first such case.

      However, after talking to witnesses, Patrick Koch, New Paltz's assistant fire chief, ruled out the cell phone as a possible cause but said, "It is unknown what started the fire."

      Koch said it is believed that if a cell phone were to ignite a fire it would only occur when the cell phone is answered. The man at the pump, Mathew Erhorn, originally said the flash of fire occurred when he answered his phone.

      However, witnesses came forward later and said Erhorn had been on the phone prior to the accident, Koch said.

      The fire was immediately suffocated by the station's emergency fire suppression system and Erhorn suffered only minor burns.

      At the time, Koch said left little doubt the cell phone was to blame.

      "I'm positive a cell phone can ignite. That's why motorists are told 'don't use their cell phones when they're pumping gas.' Really, it's deadly," he said then.

      Now?

      "If they can't start a fire, why are there 'do not use cell phone' signs on the pump?" he said. "No one could explain it to me then and no one can explain it to me now," Koch told ConsumerAffairs.com,

      In another much-noted May 2004 fire, three oil well workers in Gregg County, Texas, were seriously injured when flames surrounded them soon after a cell phone rang. The accident occurred after one of the workers went to answer the phone which was resting on the tailgate of a truck.

      Gregg County fire marshal, Chad Walls, said he hasn't ruled out the cell phone because he has no idea what ignited the fumes.

      "It could have been the static shock created when he touched the truck," Walls said.

      "MythBusters," a Discovery Channel show, recently broadcast an episode on whether a cell phone could ignite a fire at the gas pump. The show, like Koch, found it unlikely.

      "While there has never been a confirmed incident of a refueling fire caused by using a cell phone during refueling, it's best to give your full attention to the fueling process and minimize distractions like cell phones can cause," said Prentiss Searles, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.

      Koch did say that under "million to one" conditions, a cell phone could ignite a fire. "You have to create the scene just right. You have to have the right humidity. You have to have the right temperature. You have to have the right air pressure."

      Koch doesn't see the cell phone as large a threat as static electricity.

      Koch and other fire officials suggest that before touching the handle of a pump, consumers should discharge themselves on a piece of metal such as the car door or handle. He also warned that in fall through spring people carry more static because of climates and sweaters and other winter clothing.

      Some say reports of cell phones starting gasoline fires are just an urban myth. They may be right. Firefighters originally blamed a May 2004 gas pump fire ...
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      Automakers Warn Against Using E85 in Conventional Vehicles


      Automakers are warning consumers not use an E85 ethanol blend in conventional vehicles that are not designed for the fuel or try to convert a vehicle to use E85.

      Roughly 5 million specially designed flex-fuel cars and trucks on U.S. roads can run on E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The others cannot.

      E85 vehicles require special fuel injectors and other parts.

      Any vehicle can burn E10, which is a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.

      Automakers warn that any blend of gasoline with more than 10 percent ethanol can corrode parts in a conventional vehicle. They also claim it would be illegal for consumers to try to convert conventional vehicles because the vehicles will not meet federal emissions standards once they're converted.

      Automakers hope to ramp up E85 capable vehicle production quickly even though not all consumers are able to buy the fuel.

      E85 is not easily available throughout the country. About 685 of the nation's 165,000 fueling stations sell E85 and most of them are in the Midwest.

      Gas stations may or may not be required to tell consumers they are using E10, depending on state laws. Use of the fuel is widespread and growing. Ethanol is now blended into about 35 percent of all of the countrys gasoline.

      The ethanol industry is already having trouble meeting a current mandate that will require production of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, according to one automaker.

      "The bottleneck is distribution. The push to ethanol makes a great deal of sense regardless of the temporary price of gasoline," according to Ford CEO Bill Ford. "Even if it comes down dramatically, there still is the issue of where the oil is produced and the fact that we import virtually all of it."

      The Big Three automakers have endorsed a bill that would offer a reimbursement of up to $30,000 to gas station owners who convert their pumps to renewable fuels. "If we want a game changer very quickly in big numbers, then ethanol is a very good play for this country," Ford said.

      Automakers Warn Against Using E85 in Conventional Vehicles...
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      Feds Surrender, Kill 108-Year-Old Telephone Tax

      The Treasury Department says it will eliminate a tax on long-distance telephone calls

      The Treasury Department says it will eliminate a tax on long-distance telephone calls and refund about $13 billion collected from consumers.

      Noting that it's not often that the government kills a tax, Treasury Secretary John Snow announced the federal excise tax on telephone service will officially expire at the end of July.

      Originally established in 1898 as a "luxury" tax on wealthy Americans who had telephones, the federal excise tax on telephone calls is not compatible with today's modern information-age society.

      It was adopted under the War Revenue Act as a temporary levy to help fund the Spanish-American War. The war, which ended in October of that year, established the independence of Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and allowed the U.S. to purchase the Philippines Islands from Spain for $20 million.

      The tax was repealed in 1902 but didn't stay gone for long. It was reintroduced during World War I and was subsequently used to fund the nation's military activities during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

      The tax was given permanent status in 1990 and now stands at 3 percent of a consumer's monthly phone bill. It raises about $6 billion a year for general federal expenditures, including military spending.

      In recent years, opponents of the Iraq War have refused to pay the excise tax, citing its long history of funding military activities.

      Not surprisingly, telecommunications interests have long inveighed against it.

      "We think it's antiquated and has no place in a modern economy," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for telecom industry group that represents wireless carriers. "We think this tax is outrageous and shouldn't be assessed."

      It was not a tax that went gently into the night. The Treasury Department engaged in a long-running legal dispute before finally conceding defeat.

      The Department of Justice will no longer pursue litigation and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will issue refunds of tax on long-distance service for the past three years.

      Taxpayers will be able to apply for refunds on their 2006 tax forms, to be filed in 2007.

      "Today is a good day for American taxpayers; it marks the beginning of the end of an outdated, antiquated tax that has survived a century beyond its original purpose, and by now should have been ancient history," Snow declared.

      "The Federal Appeals courts have spoken across the board. It's time to 'disconnect' this tax and put it on the permanent 'do not call' list," he said.

      Government officials said no immediate action is required by taxpayers. Refunds will be a part of 2006 tax returns filed in 2007.

      Refund claims will cover all excise tax paid on long-distance service over the last three years (time allowed given statute of limitations). Interest will be paid on refunds. The IRS is working on a simplified method for individuals to use to claim a refund on their 2006 tax returns.

      Feds Surrender, Kill 108-Year-Old Telephone Tax...
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      Aging Diesel School Buses Put Children at Risk


      Aging school buses rattling along U.S. highways are spewing harmful diesel fumes that pollute the countryside and place children riding the buses at risk, according to an analysis of federal and state data.

      The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that at least 30 percent of the nation's school buses, more than 500,000 vehicles, have been in use for more than a decade. One aging school bus can produce between twice and 10 times as much diesel soot as an 18-wheel rig, according to the report.

      The authors as well as other experts warn that large amounts of soot can accumulate inside the buses from open crankshafts.

      About 95 percent of the nation's school bus fleet is powered by diesel and high levels of diesel exhaust and soot expose children to higher risk of asthma, cancer and other significant health problems, according to the report.

      The worst polluter was South Carolina, closely followed by South Dakota. Both states earned "D" grades from the Union of Concerned Scientists as did 11 other states.

      Several states are using alternative-fuel buses, replacing older buses with cleaner-burning models or retrofitting buses with devices that trap emissions.

      A considerably more low-tech method also can reduce children's exposure to bus pollution, especially as they wait in the parking lot for a ride home: The driver can turn the engine off whenever possible.

      The problem will cost a lot to fix. Some experts estimate $16 billion will be needed to retrofit or replace more than half a million buses across the United States.

      Aging Diesel School Buses Put Children at Risk...
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      Investigators Kept VA Data Theft Secret for Three Weeks

      By Joe Benton
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      May 23, 2006
      In a failed effort to catch the people who stole 26 million veterans' private and personal information, authorities waited almost three weeks before telling anyone about the theft.

      The personal data fell into the hands of thieves May 3 after a burglary in Montgomery County, Maryland.

      Federal investigators are characterizing the theft as a random act and not a targeted effort to steal information about the nation's veterans.

      The information was on a laptop and external drive stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs computer analyst.

      The government did not immediately announce the theft because officials had hoped to catch the burglars and did not want to tip them off about the value of the information they had stolen out of concern that they might then sell the computer information.

      Investigators have now abandoned that strategy and have alerted the public and the millions of veterans whose personal information was stolen.

      The computer disk contained the names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of every living veteran from 1975 to the present. The missing data do not include health records or financial information, according to the VA.

      The information would be extremely valuable to identity thieves operating Internet sites around the world where personal information is bought and sold.

      The VA sent a letter to veterans informing them of the stolen data. Anyone with questions can contact the agency at (800) 333-4636 or through the federal government's Web portal, www.firstgov.gov.

      Investigators Kept VA Data Theft Secret for Three Weeks...
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      Europe On Your Own

      Ditch the Tour and Get to Know the Locals


      For many Americans, Europe is a bit of a mystery. It's the origin of pizza, classical music and of course, freedom fries.

      Then there's all those family trees tracing to way back when, with roots in places like Germany, England, France, Ireland and Italy. For many, a journey to Europe is about understanding where they and their country came from.

      Back in the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, hanging out in Europe for the summer was considered pretty chic but these days it's also become something of an industry. Travel agencies take Americans on 12-countries-in-10-days tours, whirling their clients through countries in Europe like stores in a mall.

      It becomes hard to know where you are on such trips, though, as illustrated by a friend of mine working in a hotel in Dublin; she was asked if she had any maps of Wales, as the tour group was heading there the next day.

      "I'm sorry," She said, "We only have maps of Ireland here."

      "Never mind, honey," came the answer, "I don't think we'll make it there on this trip."

      If you're going to Europe, do it on your own terms. Read up in advance about the places you want to see and organize your own itinerary. Europe is one of the safest and most organized places in the world you could travel to and, once you're there, you'll appreciate the flexibility.

      Organized But Not Cheap

      It's not the cheapest place in the world to travel though. The tourist season gets going in earnest in June and runs through to the end of August. During this time hotels, tours and flights tend to charge top dollar, aware that the average visitor won't have much idea of local prices.

      But your trip needn't drain your bank balance. Over the last few years there's been a curious evolution in the flight business with the arrival of the so-called 'no-frills' airlines. Beginning in Britain with Easy Jet, an Irish carrier Ryan Air also got on the band wagon and began offering fares from Britain to Europe for as low as 10 pounds ($17).

      The longer you book in advance, the cheaper your fare becomes and it's now often cheaper to fly from Italy to Greece via the UK and one of these low-cost airlines.

      Don't expect luxurious service though, not even a snack unless you want to pay extortionte prices for a sandwich and a coffee -- one of the ways these airlines scrape a living. The flights can all be booked online though and so you can plan your travel itinerary months in advance and get the cheapest deals.

      Arrive less than an hour before your flight though and you might have to cry before they'll give you your seat back -- at least that tactic worked for me in Milan recently.

      If, however, one of the attractions of going to Europe is to travel by land, then you might want to consider one of the many Eurorail passes: these tickets allow you unlimited train travel in a select number of countries for varying periods of time. So if you're planning to hit lots of small towns on the way, this can be a great way to go.

      Or, if you're a family and you want to explore the towns and villages of a country you can turn to renting a car to save money. Easy Jet also offers car hire at www.europcar4easyjet.com and rates can be as low as $30-50 a day. Then you have the independence to take your travels at your own pace.

      Accommodation will be the greatest expense, especially in the summer when hotels are often running at full occupancy. If you're traveling alone you might want to cut costs and go the social route of staying at hostels (www.hostelworld.com supplies a good selection), or if you're a couple or family then you can reserve ahead of time with www.laterooms.com.

      If you plan to spend a few days in any given hotel it's quite acceptable protocol to negotiate a little about the price of the room. Visiting Rome last year, the moment I picked up my suitcase to go, the manager hastily offered a hefty discount if I agreed to stay for at least 3 nights.

      So where to go?

      The only catch about traveling in Europe in the summer is that everyone else has the same idea. The weather from May to September is fair to good in most places and everywhere tourists are making the most of their summer vacation. Some of the highlights of Europe, such as London, Amsterdam, Paris and Prague, become so busy that it's hard enough just walking down the street in the center of town.

      When I lived in Amsterdam I used to plan my route through the town to avoid the main streets and plazas, where you had to almost fight your way through the crowds of tour groups with cameras and maps.

      All of which perhaps accounts for a slight impatience in the local attitude towards tourists in the major centers in Europe. The towns and cities do benefit from the influx of foreign money but the seasons of mass visitors feel a little like an invasion.

      There's no reason why you should tread the established tourist zones though, where terrace cafes offer menus in English and food a local would never eat. Instead, why not risk heading a little away from all the famous statues into the backstreets and try local cafes, bars and restaurants where the quality is likely to be higher and the prices lower. Don't worry about the language: money talks!

      In fact, if you want to get the most out of your trip to Europe without asking for a loan from the bank, you might want to consider getting off the beaten track and visiting some of the lesser-known countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Poland and Hungary.

      The countries of the former communist bloc have yet to experience mass tourism and are often more welcoming to visitors. They have just as rich a history, selection of manmade and natural sights and are much cheaper into the bargain.

      For example, while most tourists looking for some mountain air head towards the prohibitively expensive Alps, I found cheap and pleasant treks in the Tatra Mountains near Krakow, Poland. The trails led by stunning lakes and glaciers, over virgin passes and food, accommodation and travel was five times cheaper than a similar jaunt in Switzerland.

      Likewise, while the beaches of Spain, Portugal and Greece draw the crowds, some of the clearest turqouise waters in the Mediterranean can be found along the coast of Croatia. The war there is long since over and you'll meet a population curious and welcoming to foreign tourists.

      Or if beaches aren't your thing, try the gorgeous spa towns of Slovenia and spoil yourself in hot baths and pure drinking water. With a good guide book, your travels in Europe need only be limited by your imagination.

      Terrorist Fears

      In these troubled times of political turmoil, many Americans might ask themselves what kind of reception they may face abroad. Whether because of perceived terrorist threats or political agendas, some might fear hostility or negative reactions when vacationing in Europe.

      The only real answer to this is that most sane people in the world take visitors on their own terms, not as embassadors for their countries. Economies that thrive on tourism rarely bite the hand that feeds them and locals are often touched by the curiousity and enthusiasm with which American tourists arrive, eager to know more about a region's history and culture.

      Of course, it's as well to have a respectful and considerate attitude towards the countries you visit, bearing in mind the sometimes quirky nature of the locals.

      Working last summer in Cambridge, England, the locals tended to get upset only when American tourists were 'talking too loudly in the street!' The English are undoubtedly a little sensitive in this area (and make plenty of noise themselves when the pubs shut at night!) but you'll still get along smoother by tolerating local ideosyncrasies.

      Europe remains one of the great places in the world to travel, with so many countries, cultures and traditions grouped together in such close proximity. If you can travel slightly off-season it will be cheaper and less crowded but at any rate you're bound to be blown away with the richness of the culture, the sheer age of the place and, of course, all the good food and wine.

      ---

      Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller, as well as the newly-established www.gringoguides.com.



      If you're going to Europe, do it on your own terms. Read up in advance about places you want to see and organize your own itinerary. Europe is one of the s...
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      VA Loses Data on 26 Million Veterans

      Employee Claims Laptop With Sensitive Data Was Stolen

      In the latest laptop data theft, the Veterans Administration says that 26.5 million veterans' personal information is at risk because of a burglary at an e..

      Zero To 30 Percent In Just One Month

      A Household Bank Consumer's Complaint

      Finding a credit card that delivers on promises of a low interest rate can be next to impossible. Even when consumers read all the fine print, they find the terms are subject to change, seemingly at the whim of the credit card company.

      For example, John, of New Falmouth, Massachusetts, said he answered an ad for Household Bank's Platinum Mastercard, which offered a 0 percent introductory fixed rate for the first 12 months for purchases and balance transfers.

      John's existing credit card charged just over 9 percent, not a bad rate these days. But being a thrifty consumer, John said he wanted to take advantage of the offer of 12 months without interest. So he applied for a card.

      "The introductory letter stated that, upon approval, they would send balance transfer checks in my Welcome Kit, to make it easy to transfer balances," John told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was told that when you use these checks, there is no transaction fee."

      Within a week, John said he received a package of material from Household Bank, thanking him for his business. The package contained several checks.

      Since it was the only communication he received from Household Bank, John assumed the checks were the balance transfer checks he had requested.

      "I then proceeded to make out two balance transfers and sent them off. The next correspondence I received from the bank was a bill showing the transfers ... not at 0%, but at 29.51%! I immediately called customer service."

      John said he was told that he most likely had used the wrong checks to transfer his other credit card balances.

      It seems that Household Bank has "balance transfer checks" and "credit card checks." The difference?

      One supposedly has no transaction fee and allows you to move a high interest balance to the new account at 0 percent interest. Using the other is the same as taking a cash advance on your credit card, the most expensive credit card purchase there is.

      John said he was told he had used the wrong check, even though he insists it was the only type of check contained in the bank's "welcome kit."

      So now John's previous credit card balances, which were at 9.9 percent with his previous credit card company, have suddenly jumped to nearly 30 percent with Household Bank. And it gets worse.

      "Because of the high interest rate, combined with the second balance transfer check I sent, my request was not honored by Household Bank because it would have put me over my credit limit," John said.

      That check, John says, ended up bouncing, causing late fees and raising the interest rate on his lower-rate credit card. Sometimes, even reading the fine print doesn't seem to help.

      Zero To 30 Percent In Just One Month...
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      States Seek Crackdown on "Little Cigars"

      Tobacco Makers Trying to Evade Restrictions on Cigarette Sales


      The Attorneys General of 39 states and Guam have petitioned the federal government to close a regulatory loophole that has increased youth and adult smoking of cigarettes disguised as "little cigars," and allowed the manufacturers to evade marketing restrictions and higher taxes that apply to cigarettes.

      "The manufacturers of so-called 'little cigars' are deceiving and endangering consumers and our children, and federal rules allow them to get away with it," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

      "These products are made like cigarettes, their smoke can be inhaled like cigarettes, and they present the same serious health risks as cigarettes. Yet federal regulations allow the makers to call them cigars and sell them as cigars. That allows them to evade marketing restrictions and higher taxes that apply to cigarettes, and increases youth access by lowering the prices. The federal government should close this dangerous loophole."

      The petition urges the federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to adopt rules revising the definitions of cigars and cigarettes. The goal is to ensure that "little cigars" -- which actually are cigarettes wrapped in brown paper -- are classified, taxed and priced as cigarettes.

      "Little cigars" appeal to youths because they often are sold individually or in "kiddie packs" of less than 20, which makes them cheaper, and because in many cases they are sweetened with flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cinnamon and spearmint. Some of the more popular brand names include Winchester, Smokers Choice, Prime Time and Cheyenne.

      Federal law defines cigars as tobacco wrapped in leaf tobacco or substances containing tobacco. Federal and state laws generally define cigarettes as tobacco wrapped in paper or other substances not containing tobacco.

      State and federal statutes also define cigarettes as tobacco wrapped in any substance that includes tobacco, if its appearance, the type of tobacco used in the filler, or its packaging and labeling, indicate it will be sold and purchased as a cigarette.

      The problem stems from a rule issued by the TTB that sought to clarify the federal definitions. Under the rule, if manufacturers label their products cigars, the presumption is the products will not be sold or bought as cigarettes. Essentially, the rule allows the tobacco companies to self-classify their products as cigars.

      Selling their brown cigarettes as cigars provides substantial benefits to manufacturers. It lets them pay significantly lower taxes and avoid the requirement under most state laws that cigarettes be sold in packs of at least 20 sticks. In combination, those two factors permit dramatically lower prices. For example, the taxes on a carton of "little cigars" in California total $3.77, compared to $16.76 for a carton of cigarettes.

      Cigar makers also do not have to abide by the youth and other marketing restrictions imposed by the Master Settlement Agreement reached in 1998 between tobacco companies and 46 state Attorneys General. And most cigar makers do not have to place federal health warnings on their products.

      Consumption of "little cigars" has exploded. From 1998 through 2005, consumption of the products increased by more than 2 billion sticks, from 1.638 billion to 3.772 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

      Some data suggest "little cigars" are enjoying rising popularity among younger smokers. A study of college freshmen found that students who said they smoked were more likely to smoke little cigars than cigarettes or regular cigars. Two other studies published in 2004 and 2005 found that high school students in New Jersey and Cleveland, Ohio smoked cigars more often than cigarettes.

      "While public health organizations and states have been successful in lowering cigarette smoking rates among teens, little cigar and cigar use is threatening to reverse these gains and plunge another generation into tobacco addiction," said the Attorneys General in their petition to the TTB.

      Youths may mistakenly believe they are smoking a product that poses less health risks because it's labeled a cigar. But the products are made to be smoked and inhaled just like cigarettes, which means they present the same addiction and health dangers.

      Additionally, while the makers call these products cigars, their advertising actually aims to sell consumers on the concept that the products are just like cigarettes, only cheaper. "So much like cigarettes, its hard to believe they are cigars," proclaims one ad.

      The petition to the TTB notes that Harry Preston, national accounts manager for J.C. Newman Cigar Company, has suggested that convenience stores display little cigars near the register and instruct their clerks to tout them as an alternative to cigarettes.

      The rule proposed by the AGs would eliminate the current loophole by stripping manufacturers of the ability to self-classify their products as cigars. Instead, tobacco products would be deemed cigarettes if the tobacco filler or packaging possess any one of several specific characteristics, or if "the product is marketed or advertised to consumers as a cigarette or cigarette substitute."



      States Seek Crackdown on 'Little Cigars'...
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      Greenspan: "Housing Boom Is Over"

      "Home sales are off, applications are off, everything is going in the same direction"

      No less an authority than former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan has declared that the housing boom is over.

      "Home sales are off, applications are off, everything is going in the same direction," Greenspan said in remarks before the Bond Market Association.

      Greenspan claimed that while regional housing markets might experience more severe price fluctuations than others, the national housing market itself would remain stable.

      Greenspan also warned that as interest rates continue to rise, homeowners would be less able to tap the equity in their homes' value for loans in order to spend. Home equity loans and lines of credit had "an important effect" on the continued strength of the economy, he said.

      The trend of utilizing homes as ATMs is becoming especially precarious for baby boomers, as a poll conducted for the National Association of Realtors found that homeowners born between 1946 and 1964 were buying into real estate and "second homes" in larger numbers, in order to utilize them as investment and cash opportunities.

      Many "boomer buyers" were almost totally reliant on their properties for savings; of the respondents polled, 17 percent said they had saved little or nothing, and 37 percent said they had "just enough to make ends meet."

      Greenspan's successor, Ben Bernanke, is coping not only with the incredibly low levels of personal savings among Americans, but rising energy prices, a stagnating housing market, and soaring gas costs.

      The new Fed chief recently told a Federal Reserve conference in Chicago that he expects a "very orderly kind of cooling" to the housing market over the next few months.

      Bernanke has presided over the two most recent increases in the federal funds lending rate, which the Federal Reserve has voted to increase sixteen times in the last two years. Banks and other commercial lenders tie their lending rates to the federal, or "prime," rate, so any increase by the Federal Reserve leads to increases by lenders as well.

      The end result is that mortgage rates, credit card interest rates, and rates on home equity loans and lines of credit are continuing to inch upward, increasing anxiety among consumers and contributing to the slowing of the housing market.

      Rates on 30-year "fixed" mortgages, generally considered the most conservative and traditional mortgage product, reached 6.60 percent on May 18th, their highest point since June 2002.

      The Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 214 points in a single day of trading on May 17th, after reports of increasing consumer prices led skittish investors to fear yet another increase in the interest rate.

      Housing sales and building contracts are continuing to slow in many major real estate markets. Median home prices fell 3.3 percent between the fourth quarter of 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, according to CNN Money. Markets experiencing noticeable declines included Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles.

      Although the current national median home price fell from $225,300 to $217,900, many markets still had tremendous overinflation of home values. The median price in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, is $622,000, although that decreased from $625,000 in April 2006.

      Although Greenspan is widely lauded for his innovative approaches to monetary policy and guiding the country's economic policy through two recessions and multiple booms, many financial analysts and pundits believe his moves to slash interest rates contributed heavily to the boom in lending and consumer spending.

      Many eager home buyers took advantage of low interest rates and "creative" mortgage products to buy homes that they can no longer afford.

      The combination of rising interest rates, high gas prices, and increased consumer debt is leading to a spike in foreclosures. California, with the most expensive real estate market in the nation, saw a 23.4% increase in foreclosures in the first quarter of 2006.

      --

      Greenspan: 'Housing Boom Is Over'...
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      Pennsylvania Prosecutes Home Alarm Company

      Company will refund consumers, pay fines and change its sales campaigns

      Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett says a York County business will refund consumers, pay fines and change its sales campaigns and contracts following claims that it deceptively marketed and sold electronic in-home burglar, fire and medic alarm monitoring systems to the elderly and/or disabled.

      Corbett said the Bureau of Consumer Protection reached an "Assurance of Voluntary Compliance" agreement with Crime Intervention Alarm Co. The civil legal action resolves alleged violations of Pennsylvania's Consumer Protection Law, Telemarketer Registration Act and the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act.

      According to investigators, Crime Intervention Alarm Company entered into contracts with consumers for the sale and installation of electronic residential security monitoring equipment and services designed to alert authorities during a medical, fire or police emergency.

      Agents said the company uses the Yellow Pages, the Internet and telemarketing campaigns to advertise and promote its products and services to mostly older and/or disabled consumers who live independently. Some of the ads offer potential customers, "VETERAN AND SENIOR CITIZEN DISCOUNTS."

      According to the agreement, consumers interested in the alarm monitoring services were required to sign a five-year contract. Several buyers complained that certain terms were too small to read and that the contracts failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose that:
      • The service agreements had a built-in or automatic five year renewal clause.
      • The prices may increase as much as 10 percent per year for each year of the five year sign-up period.

      In addition, several consumers who were contacted at their homes to buy the products and services claimed that they failed to receive their three day right to cancel notification as required by state law.

      "Inadequately disclosed renewals, unfair price increase language and no notification of cancellation rights are not acceptable business practices," Corbett said. "Any attempt to bury or omit these types of terms and conditions is deceptive and illegal. Our agreement resolves these issues offering better protections to those who do business with the company in the future."

      Corbett said in addition, the company will allow consumers to void the contract due to death, relocation to an assisted living, hospital or nursing home facility, or if a live-in health care worker moves into the residence.

      The agreement also claims that more than a dozen consumers complained that they were illegally contacted by the company on their home phones even though they were officially enrolled on Pennsylvania's "Do Not Call" list.

      Additionally, Crime Intervention Alarm Company is accused of including the trademarked Better Business Bureau (BBB) torch logo on its website, implying that it is a member of the BBB, presumably in good standing. In reality, the company is not a member and has an unsatisfactory record with the organization.

      Under the terms of the agreement, the company admits no wrongdoing and is required to:
      • Pay restitution to eligible consumers who file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office before July 16, 2006.
      • Pay $13,000 in civil penalties and costs.
      • Change its contract language, format and business practices to be in compliance with Pennsylvania's Consumer Protection Law, Telemarketing Registration Act and Plain Language Consumer Contract Act.

      Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett says a York County business will refund consumers, pay fines and change its sales campaigns and contracts....
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