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Watchdog Site Sniffs Out Travel Bargains

New service that blends technology with human know-how

Watchdog Site Sniffs Out Travel Bargains...

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.

 



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Survey: Feds Must Do More to Safeguard Consumer Privacy

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.

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Dodge Charger in Hot Pursuit of Ford's Police Interceptor

Hey officer, that thing got a Hemi in it?

Dodge Charger in Hot Pursuit of Ford's Police Interceptor...

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.

 

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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....


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.

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Food Fight: McDonald's Takes On Critics

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.



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MasterCard IPO Shifts Risk from Banks to Investors

But investors should think carefully before putting too much of their money into shares of MasterCard

MasterCard IPO Shifts Risk from Banks to Investors...

When the world's number two credit card issuer debuted on the stock market on May 24, 2006 with an initial public offering (IPO) of $39 a share, and then swelled to $46 a share in second-day trading, analysts hailed MasterCard's move as the largest IPO of the year, and a sound triumph for one of the world's best-known brands.

But investors should think carefully before putting too much of their money into shares of MasterCard, as the company's move is designed primarily to respond to the series of lawsuits launched by merchants over the high "interchange fees" MasterCard and card-issuing banks charge to process plastic transactions.

By the company's own admission, the principal effects of the IPO will be to "redeem" shares of MasterCard held by the 1,400 member banks that issue its card, reducing their liability in the event that the merchant lawsuits are successful.

MasterCard plans to use $650 million of the funds raised by the IPO to add to its "war chest" in order to defend against the regulatory challenges from the lawsuits.

Investors who buy up shares of MasterCard hoping to turn a quick profit from the company's massive public profile may be left holding the bag. Analyst Howard Bernstein told Fortune magazine on May 17th that the cost of the merchant lawsuit litigation could exceed $1 billion dollars easily.

Merchants such as 30 Minute Photos' Mitch Goldstone, a lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuits, claims that the high processing fees banks charge retailers to process card transactions wipe out almost any profit they can earn when consumers use plastic.

Goldstone noted that credit card companies and issuing banks reaped huge profits from the processing fees charged when drivers bought gas with credit and debit cards during 2005's holiday traveling seasons, a process expected to repeat itself this year.

"As gas prices double, seemingly, so are credit card merchant interchange fees - and then some," he said on his blog, WayTooHigh.com.

"As it costs upwards of sixty dollars to top off a car's tank, consumers are more inclined to pay with credit; they often don't otherwise have enough have cash as they did when it cost twenty or thirty dollars for gas. This means, the banks' windfall profiteering is accelerated and enhanced at the expense of drivers across the nation," Goldstone wrote.

The wave of merchant lawsuits isn't MasterCard's only worry. Bank of America is considering issuing its own credit card and acquiring or purchasing its own payment processing network, which would significantly cut into MasterCard's profits.

In February, Discover Financial, issuer of the Discover-branded credit cards, announced it was issuing its own debit card brand in order to further encroach on the turf long held by MasterCard and Visa.

Also, an increasing number of American cardholders are canceling their cards and closing their accounts, forcing MasterCard, Visa, and the banks that issue plastic to aggressively pursue foreign markets. That could make the merchant lawsuits even more devastating if they are victorious.

 

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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

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, 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."

 

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Portable Generators Can Kill

Don't put yours in the basement!

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging consumers to take steps to safeguard their families when using a portable generator....

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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 ...

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.

 

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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

Feds Surrender, Kill 108-Year-Old Telephone Tax...

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.

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Aging Diesel School Buses Put Children at Risk

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.

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Automakers Warn Against Using E85 in Conventional Vehicles

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.

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Investigators Kept VA Data Theft Secret for Three Weeks

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.

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Europe On Your Own

Ditch the Tour and Get to Know the Locals

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...


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.

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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.

 



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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...

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Texas Drains Fake Fuel Pill Scheme

Claims of Increased Mileage Called Bogus

The company, allegedly organized as an illegal pyramid scheme, markets a fuel pill it claims will boost gas mileage and save consumers money....

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Greenspan: "Housing Boom Is Over"

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

Greenspan: 'Housing Boom Is Over'...

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.

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States Seek Crackdown on "Little Cigars"

Tobacco Makers Trying to Evade Restrictions on Cigarette Sales

States Seek Crackdown on 'Little Cigars'...


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."



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Zero To 30 Percent In Just One Month

A Household Bank Consumer's Complaint

Zero To 30 Percent In Just One Month...

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.

 

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Chemo Pump Aids in Fight Against Colon Cancer

A new pump which delivers chemotherapy to the liver may save thousands of people

A new pump which delivers chemotherapy to the liver may save thousands of people with advanced colon cancer. The new pump delivers chemotherapy directly to...


A new pump which delivers chemotherapy to the liver may save thousands of people with advanced colon cancer.

If you catch colon cancer early, when it hasn't spread, you can cut it out and usually cure it. But once it spreads through the lymph system to, say, your liver, your chances of surviving go down.

To improve the odds, doctors studied a new pump which delivers chemotherapy right to where the tumor has spread.

They cut the colon cancer out and placed the pump in the patient's belly to deliver medicine to the liver, along with regular chemotherapy.

The new device helped: 85 percent of those who received chemotherapy in the liver, along with regular chemo, survived at least two years, 15 percent higher than those without the pump.

Conclusions: Prevent colon cancer by eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Talk to your doctor about early detection. Finally, if your cancer spreads to the liver, ask about the pump. It could save your life.

 

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Alternative Fuel Not Hard to Find

Researchers Point to Coal, Shale and Tar Sands as Alternatives to Oil

Work by experts from The Earth Institute at Columbia University suggests that relatively low-cost alternatives already exist to meet the country's' growing...


Work by experts from The Earth Institute at Columbia University suggests that relatively low-cost alternatives already exist to meet the country's' growing energy demand that would at the same time reduce the need to rely on oil supplies from the Middle East and Latin America.

A report published by the institute's Klaus S. Lackner and Jeffrey D. Sachs that appears in the most recent issue of Brookings Papers on Economic Activity states that coal alone could satisfy the country's energy needs of the twenty-first century.

In particular, coal liquefaction, or the process of deriving liquid fuels from coal, is already being used in places and with expanded infrastructure could provide gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel at levels well below current prices.

Moreover, they argue that environmental constraints such as increased carbon dioxide emissions arising from greater use of coal and other fossil fuels could be avoided for less than 1 percent of gross world product by 2050.

"[With widespread use of coal liquefaction] the long-term price of liquid hydrocarbon fuels may be lower than it is today, even allowing for pessimistic forecasts for oil and gas reserves," the authors write. "Even with the most conservative assumptions about learning curves, it appears quite safe to predict that the cost of synthetic oil from coal or other processes, after some transitional pains, will be below $30 per barrel."

Sachs and Lackner also point out that the large deposits of coal in the U.S. and worldwide make it less prone to the political uncertainties that currently afflict world oil prices.

The most common process for converting solid coal into liquid fuels is known as the Fischer Tropsch reaction. In it, carbon monoxide obtained from partially oxidizing coal, is reacted with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuel. This synfuel can then be refined to produce virtually any liquid fuel.

Currently, the South African energy company SASOL converts coal into gasoline at prices competitive with crude oil at $35 to $50 per barrel, but some studies suggest the conversion could be made at even lower cost.

Other promising alternatives include tar sands, which are already being tapped in Canada and oil shale, which still requires additional work to develop a cost-effective method of extracting oil. The energy content of Canadian tar sand deposits alone is estimated to be comparable to that of Saudi Arabian oil fields.

Environmental Constraints

Given the size of non-oil alternative reserves already available and the supply limitations inherent in other, non-fossil sources, the authors maintain that the long-term limiting factor presented in greater use of fossil fuels is environmental rather than one of availability.

The most serious of these environmental constraints is the risk posed by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere.

However, Sachs and Lackner believe that global warming, human-induced climate change and other environmental effects can be avoided through a comprehensive, global effort to capture and sequester carbon dioxide below ground.

Such a program of geological carbon sequestration, the authors estimate, would cost less than 1 percent of gross world product by 2050, a level well within reach of developed and developing countries alike.

"Whatever we do, we know we are going to have to approach this complex problem in a multi-faceted way and from a global perspective," said Sachs, director of The Earth Institute. "The key is we have to start now and we have to commit ourselves to making a change before change is forced on us. Fortunately, there are promising technologies that may well offer us solutions at large scale and reasonably low cost."

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Good and Bad News about Prostate Cancer

Removing the testes increases survival

Good and Bad News about Prostate Cancer...

Treating advanced prostate cancer by removing a man's testes may be the only way to save his life, according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctors studied a group of men with advanced prostate cancer. Their chances of survival were pretty bad, because their cancer had spread outside the prostate through the lymph system to the rest of their body.

Doctors found that removing the prostate gland and castrating the men surgically or through medication increased their chance of survival by 500 percent.

Yes, it sounds gruesome but it did really work. Obviously, it's not a treatment to take lightly. Removing the testes can cause a rapid decrease in sex drive as well as hot flashes and muscle fatigue. Also, psychological problems and interpersonal stress can result.

Still, faced with the disastrous prognosis, possibly death, of advanced prostate cancer, men should at least talk to their doctor about chemical or surgical castrations. It just may save your life.

 

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Alternative Fuel Sources Are No Secret

Diesel, BioDiesel, E85, Hydrogen Top the List

Readily available alternatives to the gas-powered engine include diesel, biodiesel, E85 and even such exotic-sounding solutions as coal and oil shale....

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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....

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Congress Considers "Right to Repair" Bill

Legislation pending in Congress would require automakers to provide more information to independent car-repair shops

Congress Considers 'Right to Repair' Bill...

Legislation pending in Congress would require automakers to provide more information to independent car-repair shops who are increasingly hard-pressed to diagnose and repair problems because of proprietary systems installed by manufacturers.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said his "Right to Repair" bill is a reaction to complaints that auto dealers have a monopoly when it comes to making some repairs, particularly those involving computerized diagnostic tests. The bill is scheduled for a committee vote later this month.

"Small businesses, companies and individuals comprising the automotive aftermarket are keenly aware that if the bill doesn't pass, not only will (independent repair shops) lose business, but consumers will be big losers as well," said David Parde, president of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), a trade group organized to support Barton's bill.

"Consumers will lose money, they will lose convenience, they will lose their freedom of choice in where to take their cars for repair; and they will lose the most important thing, which is the feeling of ownership," Parde said.

Opponents say the legislation would create needless bureaucracy and that it's a way for large repair companies to move toward making their own parts.

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said an industry-driven approach is the best solution.

"Auto manufacturers have adopted sophisticated technology to enhance the performance, comfort, safety and security of their products," she said. "The technology requires access to expensive computerized tools and knowledge of software access or computer codes to diagnose and repair problems."

Majoras said that representatives of the manufacturers and the independent auto repair operators held discussions facilitated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus for more than 60 hours. However, she said that the talks did not end with a mutually agreeable solution.

"To date, a comprehensive, voluntary solution to the issue of information provision has proven elusive," she said. "The Commission is disappointed that, despite efforts to bring those on each side of the issue together to reach a mutually agreeable solution, the parties have thus far been unwilling to make the compromises necessary to resolve the matter."

The Right to Repair bill was introduced in 2001 and has never made it to a vote. With more than 100 Congressmen signing on as co-sponsors, the measure appears to have more momentum this year.

Under the legislation, automakers would have to provide to independent operators the same service and training information and diagnostic tools that are available to dealerships.

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Long Island Property Tax Consultant to Make Refunds

East Hills company alleged to have overcharged Long Island residents

Long Island Property Tax Consultant to Make Refunds...

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has reached a settlement with an East Hills company alleged to have overcharged Long Island residents who relied on the firm for advice in challenging their property tax assessments.

Under the settlement, Property Tax Reduction Consultants, Inc. (PTRC), will provide $400,000 in refunds to thousands of homeowners.

"Homeowners seeking relief from unduly high tax assessments are entitled to accurate information and billings from those who claim to be acting in their best interests," Attorney General Spitzer said.

PTRC is one of many companies on Long Island that specialize in the business of protesting residential property assessments. PTRC assists homeowners with the paperwork associated with protesting an assessment and charges a fee of 50 percent of the property owner's tax savings on successful protests.

In a complaint filed with the settlement agreement, PRTC is alleged to have used incorrect estimates of the tax savings of assessment reductions, overstating the actual savings to homeowners and inflating its fee.

For example, one homeowner was notified by PTRC that he would receive a tax reduction of $1,783. PTRC billed the homeowner 50 percent of the tax reduction or $891. However, because the homeowner was entitled to a low-income senior citizen exemption from paying taxes on approximately 40 percent of his property's assessed value, his actual tax savings were only $1,198. PTRC should have only billed for 50 percent of that amount or $599, an overbilling of $292.

Under the settlement, PTRC will make restitution of approximately $400,000 to homeowners and will pay $250,000 in penalties and $2,000 in costs. The company has also agreed to reform its billing practices. It will also retain relevant records for inspection by the Attorney General's Office.

"If it was not for the review of my office and the actions of Attorney General Spitzer, thousands of homeowners would have been overbilled by hundreds of thousands of dollars. This settlement should send a clear message to all businesses engaged in property assessment protests that their actions are being closely scrutinized and that they need to become more familiar with the property tax structure as it exists in Nassau County," said Harvey Levinson, Chairman of the Nassau County Board of Assessors.

 

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Florida Opens "Cramming" Probe

Charges From Axcess Internet Solutions Placed through ILD Teleservices

Florida Opens 'Cramming' Probe...

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has launched an investigation into five telephone companies for placing unauthorized charges on consumers' bills. The investigation may also expand to cover the activities of ILD Teleservices and Axcess Internet Solutions.

Crist says charges for an internet shopping service have appeared on phone bills sent to BellSouth, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T; and SBC Communications customers, triggering the investigation into what might be a case of "cramming." Cramming is a practice that bills for extra services without the customer's knowledge.

The practice of tricking consumers into paying for phony or useless services has escalated since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allows third party companies to place bills for unrelated communications services on customer's telephone bills.

Crist's Economic Crimes Division began an investigation last week after the Tallahassee Democrat detailed the charges that several Sprint customers found on their bills. The $12.95 charges are for a service called Email Discount Network, which supposedly offers members a discount for internet shopping done through the company's website.

Further investigation revealed that BellSouth, AT&T;, SBC Communications and Verizon customers also found the unauthorized charges on their bills.

At about the same time ConsumerAffairs.com received a complaint from Gary Hertz, a professional office manager in Doral, Florida about more than $35 in charges that mysteriously appeared on his company's phone bill.

"I noted charges totaling $35.31 on my current BellSouth bill, billed by ILD Teleservices on behalf of Axcess Internet Solutions, Inc.," Hertz told ConsumerAffairs.com in a follow-up interview.

"The charges were described as Web hosting monthly service fee. Our business is referred to us by psychiatrists, and we have no need for a website. Through BellSouth's assistance, we were able to navigate phone calls to finally get to Axcess via ILD. We cancelled the service."

But Hertz's office had to pay the charges, even though Hertz is sure no one ordered the service. When he asked the Axcess customer service rep to play back the recording of the authorization, he listened in amazement as he heard his boss answer affirmatively, authorizing the service. Hertz told his boss, who had no idea what he was talking about, until he put two and two together.

"A couple of months ago a guy came to our office, saying he was our new Bell South rep, and that as part of a promotion, we qualified for one additional phone line for free. Then, on a Friday after hours a guy called our office and was automatically transferred to my boss," Hertz said.

"He said he was with the phone company, and was ready to install the free line. My boss said he'd have to do it when the office was open, so the caller transferred him to the scheduling department."

Hertz says his boss was asked a number of questions that required him to say "yes" a lot. He said the questions were about the installation and not about any services. Yet when Hertz listened to the authorization recording, all the questions were about the service and none concerned any phone line installation.

"And we never did get a free phone line, either," Hertz said.

Axcess Internet Solutions is the object of as number of similar complaints, and has drawn the irate attention of a company with a similar name. Axcess Internet said it has been flooded with angry complaints from consumers who have mistaken it for the Florida-based company, and has even posted the following statement on its Web site:

"Axcess Internet would like to take this opportunity to let our customers know that neither Axcess Internet Services, Inc. nor, Axcess Internet (a Washington State registered trade name) is responsible for this action. Any charges attributed to Axcess Internet or its subsidiaries, found on your phone bill, were not made by Axcess Internet Services, Inc.

"Axcess Internet has been researching this issue and has learned that the company responsible for these charges may be Axcess Internet Solutions, Inc.. Axcess Internet Solutions, Inc. is headquartered in Delray Beach, Florida and is a subsidiary of Phinder Technologies, Inc. of Canada."

John Scherer, a spokesman for Crist, says Hertz's complaint has been turned over to the Economic Crimes division that's conducting the current investigation. Crist, meanwhile, says the practice known as "cramming" is getting more and more scrutiny.

"These secret charges were placed on bills in hopes that no one would notice," said Crist. "In this case, someone did notice and we will investigate fully to make sure Florida customers are not forced to pay for services they did not order and do not want."

 

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ChoicePoint-FBI Deal Raises New Privacy Questions

FBI Deal Raises New Queestions about ChoicePoint...


While the NSA's practice of collecting billions of telephone records drew outrage in many quarters, another potential threat to individual privacy flew smoothly under the public radar -- the lucrative extension of a contract between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and notorious data broker ChoicePoint.

Last month, the FBI awarded a five-year, $12 million contract for ChoicePoint to improve the agency's software systems for investigation and analysis.

The deal was sharply criticized by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who called the Alpharetta, GA-based information seller "the poster child for lax security."

Leahy was referring to the infamous data breach of ChoicePoint's records by a ring of Nigerian identity thieves, leading to the theft of information on nearly 150,000 people.

The theft sparked public awareness of the relationship between data brokers and identity theft, and led to several convictions and a $15 million fine for ChoicePoint by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the FBI-ChoicePoint deal, saying that the contract was for technology and hardware, not data services.

"Obviously, there were mistakes made by ChoicePoint, and they suffered the consequences for that," he said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the deal was absolutely necessary in order to upgrade the FBI's outdated information technology infrastructure and systems.

FBI Lags in Data Prowess

The FBI has become something of a laughing stock in tech circles because ot its flawed technology spending and inability to provide even the most basic services to its agents, including not being able to equip 8,000 of its 30,000 agents with working e-mail addresses.

The FBI also came under fire for scuttling a $170 million attempt to upgrade its case management system with no real results.

A skeptical Leahy pressed Gonzales and Mueller during hearings for the 2007 Justice Department budget. In a statement released prior to the hearings, Leahy criticized the spending of $30 million on private data brokers by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

"The FBI and the Justice Department offer only a blind eye, a deaf ear and stunning misjudgment with decisions like this that show such blatant disregard for the privacy and security of the most sensitive personal and financial information of the American people," Leahy said.

"The American people deserve to know why the FBI, with its own recent history of poor judgment in wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars on computer contracts, entered into this contract."

Leahy himself was the victim of a data theft when Bank of America misplaced data tapes on 1.2 million of its government customers.

Leahy has pushed for stronger federal protections for victims of identity theft, and greater penalties for companies that are lax in protecting customer data, through his "Personal Data Privacy and Security Act," introduced to Congress last year.

For its part, ChoicePoint reiterated that the contract was not designed to provide data services to the public press.

Carol DiBattiste, ChoicePoint's privacy officer, told ConsumerAffairs.com that "data sales to all government customers, for all purposes, is only five percent of our total annual revenue."

"Generally, our data sales support the day-to-day investigation of crimes by providing public records data or publicly available data on people, property or businesses who are in some way related to an open, ongoing inquiry," DiBattiste said.

Gone Fishin'

ChoicePoint's Matt Furman insisted that the company does not provide data for "wholesale" use to any government agency. "We also do not sell or license to the government any technology platforms that can be used to mine or 'fish'in a large database of consumer information," he said.

However, ChoicePoint has partnered with the FBI and top government contractor SAIC to do exactly that, or very close to it, on several occasions.

In 2005, the government-focused news service GovExec published information claiming that ChoicePoint had built customized software and services designed to target specific subjects continuously, parsing new information on the subject from his or her movements as they get it.

Although both Furman and the FBI insisted that ChoicePoint doesn't engage in "fishing" expeditions looking for people, Furman admitted that the data broker "connects a previously known, identified 'needle-in-the-proverbial haystack' with other, related needles."

In Furman's estimation, ChoicePoint does enable government agencies to connect the dots on targets they are searching for, and what constitutes a target was based on the requesting agency's "plausible, potential risk or threat determination."

SAIC developed an "information services suite" called ADAM, specifically designed and marketed to parse ChoicePoint's massive databases for, in its words, "the ability to obtain and analyze enormous amounts of data to create explicit profiles of target groups and collect critical data on each of the individual members of that group."

ADAM offers customizable reports tailored to include everything from Social Security Number verification to bankruptcy and credit histories, according to the needs of the client, and all from ChoicePoint's data troves. ADAM clients have included government agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service.

Back Scratch Fever

Although ChoicePoint has gone out of its way to repair its tarnished image in the public eye, from paying its fine to hiring former Transportation Security Administration administrator DiBattiste to handle its compliance and privacy issues, the company is still nearly synonymous with "identity theft" and "data breach."

So why would the nation's number-one criminal investigation agency trust ChoicePoint to handle its already troubled technology upgrades?

For one thing, the FBI already enjoys a cozy relationship with ChoicePoint, as its massive data mining of credit reports, insurance records, and personal information is a treasure trove for government agencies looking to create comprehensive profiles of terrorists, organized crime leaders -- and others.

Because of the Privacy Act's injunction against government agencies creating databases of individual Americans' records, the FBI and its sister bureaus have increasingly turned to private data brokers like ChoicePoint to provide them with information.

()

The PATRIOT Act greatly strengthened the ability of the Justice Department to demand identity verification and investigation in virtually all business transactions, and ChoicePoint led the charge in providing "automated ID verification solutions" for banks and other institutions to track a person's money trail with the click of a mouse button.

Another reason may be the simplest of all -- money. ChoicePoint's management and corporate board reads like a "Who's Who" of players in the telecommunications, energy, and banking industries, with former and current members of AT&T;/SBC, Bank of America, and Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone among them.

Langone, a renowned philanthropist and charitable donor, is also well-known for his political generosity.

The Center for Responsive Politics tallied almost $80,000 in contributions to candidates in the 2002 and 2004 elections from Langone, most of them Republicans. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter (R-PA), for instance, received $4,000 in contributions from Langone through his investment firm, Inverned Associates LLC.

Specter is the co-author of Sen. Leahy's legislation designed to provide greater oversight of data brokers.

That kind of favor-trading in an election year can easily lead to plum contracts being handed out for friendly companies, or what investigative journalist Greg Palast called "the lucrative business of fear."

In discussing the FBI-ChoicePoint deal, Palast said it was "a strange, lucrative link-up between the Administration's Homeland Security spy network and private companies operating beyond the reach of the laws meant to protect us from our government."

DiBattiste blasted Palast's comments as "tabloid journalism," saying that there was no definitive connection between the FBI contract and the current controversy over the NSA spy program.

"These articles and comments are false and misleading," she said. "They are not based on facts and mischaracterize what we do."

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Parks Cut Corners to Cope with Budget Cuts

Many of the nation's 390 parks, monuments, and recreation areas are charging visitors more while providing fewer services

Parks Cut Corners to Cope with Budget Cuts...

America's national parks are pinching pennies.

Unable to keep pace with payroll increases, fuel hikes, and utility costs, many of the nation's 390 parks, monuments, and recreation areas are charging visitors more while providing fewer services.

In fact, entry fees have doubled in Death Valley, from $10 last year to $20 this year, and four parks have peaked at a record high of $25: Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. The annual park pass fee at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has hit $30 for the first time.

"These are challenging times," said Elaine Sevy of the National Park Service, which monitors a network of lands that cover 83 million acres.

She's not kidding:
• Yosemite National Park, which had 45 seasonal rangers five years ago, now has eight;
• Glacier National Park no longer provides drinkable water at three campgrounds;
• Rocky Mountain National Park has closed one of its six visitor centers;
• Maine's Acadia National Park has failed to fill 14 open jobs, including educational guides and law enforcement officers, and cut 20 ranger-led interpretive programs;
• Gettysburg National Military Park has cut staffers charged with maintaining more than 100 historic structures, including Civil War cannons.

The National Park Service has a $2.2 billion annual budget but that covers construction projects as well as operational costs. Congressional finding for park operations was $1.03 billion in fiscal 2005, an actual decline from fiscal year 2001 when inflation is factored into the equation.

The Bush Administration has proposed a $23 million increase for park operations, while Congress has earmarked $18 million, though neither proposal has passed. Even if the Bush proposal survives, it would boost park funding only 19 per cent over the last five years.

To help cope with the problem, the National Park Service has launched a system-wide review of core operations. The study, designed to focus on ways parks request and spend money, will not be completed until 2011.

In the meantime, the number of national park visitors - 273 million people last year - continues to rise. Their needs are not being met, according to an April survey of a dozen parks by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It found all 12 parks were reducing visitor center hours, educational programs, and even law enforcement.

Smokey the Bear will not be pleased.

 



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Homeowners Insurance Rates Unfair, Massachusetts Charges

Homeowners Insurance Rates Unfair, Massachusetts Charges...


With a more active Atlantic hurricane season expected by forecasters this year, consumers in some areas may notice a rise in insurance premiums. In Massachusetts, state Attorney General Tom Reilly charges those rates may not be justified.

Reilly argues that the insurance industry is using an unexplained model for determining future hurricanes, overcharging for expenses, and inflating its numbers to justify a proposed 12.9 percent statewide rate hike, including a 25 percent increase in the cost of homeowner insurance on Cape Cod.

Reilly filed his final brief with the Division of Insurance, as part of the rate setting case for the FAIR Plan, operated by the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association (MPIUA).

In September, the MPIUA filed its request for a 12.9 percent increase for homeowners statewide, a 25 percent increase for Cape Cod, and a 20 percent increase for most of the cities and towns in Plymouth and Bristol counties.

Reilly is recommending no overall rate increase statewide in 2006 - including rate decreases for homeowners in many communities - and a slight increase, 1.2 percent, for Cape Cod homeowners.

"The numbers don't support this request for a rate increase," Reilly said. "The evidence that we've uncovered points to a significantly lower rate than the insurers want. We must do everything we can to keep costs down for homeowners."

The FAIR Plan provides insurance for individuals who cannot obtain property insurance in the voluntary market. Many of the FAIR Plan's customers are middle and low income urban and coastal residents, who cannot find voluntary insurers willing to sell them insurance coverage.

More than 125,000 families in Massachusetts have FAIR Plan insurance.

Reilly argues that insurers are inflating their request by: charging $13 million in backup insurance for the industry; relying on an unexplained hurricane model to hike up coastal rates; ignoring rate caps the Legislature put in place to protect consumers in particularly vulnerable areas like Cape Cod and the Islands; asking for additional funds in case a "demand surge" increases the need for certain supplies after a disaster; and inflating expenses such as debris removal.

Reilly is proposing a 1.2 percent increase for Cape Cod homeowners and a significant decrease in many urban communities, including a 14.2 percent cut for Fall River homeowners. This is the highest among the rate reductions Reilly is recommending for 2006. He is requesting a 7.7 percent decrease for Boston's South End, a 7.3 percent decrease for Charlestown, East Boston, and portions of South Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester, and a 2.1 percent decrease for parts of Roxbury and Dorchester.

Rate reductions for other parts of the state include: a 12 percent decrease for most communities in Bristol County; 10.8 percent decrease for Cambridge and Somerville; 9.8 percent decrease for Quincy homeowners; 9.3 percent decrease for Worcester homeowners; 6.8 percent decrease for homeowners in Chicopee and Holyoke and several towns in Middlesex County, including ; 4.9 percent decrease for Lawrence homeowners; and 4.1 percent decrease for Lynn homeowners.

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Florida Sues Pandhandle Gas Stations

Stations Allegedly Conspired to Raise Prices

The state of Florida is suing two Panhandle companies and three individuals for conspiring to fix gasoline prices over the past several years, resulting in...

The state of Florida is suing two Panhandle companies and three individuals for conspiring to fix gasoline prices over the past several years, resulting in inflated gasoline prices. The complaint cites actions that are "immoral, unethical and unscrupulous."

Fill-Ups Food Stores, Inc., Ryan E. Phillips of Niceville, and John W. Osburn of Navarre are among those named as defendants in the case. Other defendants include Tate Enterprises, Inc. and Robert E. Tate of Crestview.

An investigation into Panhandle gas prices began after Attorney General Charlie Crist's price-gouging hotline received a consumer complaint in the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis, which struck the state last July. Crist's office began an antitrust investigation when evidence of price fixing was uncovered.

The investigation also revealed that Phillips allegedly used threats and intimidation against his employees and competitors to obtain their cooperation and secure their silence.

"Our economy is based on free market competition," said Crist "These people conspired to fix gasoline prices and pick the pockets of Florida drivers."

The civil action alleges a price-fixing conspiracy that began as early as March 2003, when Shri Goyam, Inc. -- through one of its principals -- Prashant Shah, acquired a Crestview retail gasoline outlet from Tate Enterprises. As a condition of the sale, Robert Tate required that the new owners match the prices of gasoline at the other Crestview outlets still owned by Tate Enterprises.

When Shah lowered the prices at Shri Goyam's station, Tate called Shah to remind him of their agreement and insisted that he raise Shri Goyam's prices. Shah agreed and prices were raised.

In 2004, Ryan Phillips incorporated Phillips Oil, now known as Fill-Ups Food Stores. Shortly after, Phillips contacted Shah to obtain an agreement to raise gasoline prices at Shri Goyam's station to the same levels as those at the Fill-Ups Food Stores stations. Shah raised the prices by 15 cents per gallon to comply with Phillips' demand.

Osburn, an employee of Fill-Ups Food Stores, also controlled retail gasoline pricing at a competing gasoline station, the I-10 Mobil in Crestview. In 2005, Phillips directed Osburn to raise prices at Osburn's station to match those at Fill-Ups Food Stores and Osburn complied.

Phillips also contacted other gasoline retailers on more than one occasion in an unsuccessful effort to expand his price-fixing scheme in addition to threats and intimidation against his employees.

Prashant Shah and Shri Goyam have already settled for $75,000 in civil penalties and $10,000 in partial reimbursement for investigative fees and costs. Shah has also agreed to provide cooperation.

The complaint alleges that these price-fixing conspiracies violate Florida's antitrust laws and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The Antitrust Act provides for civil penalties of up to $1 million for corporations and $100,000 for individuals per violation.

Violations of the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act carry penalties of up to $10,000 per violation or $15,000 if the victim is a person with a disability or a senior citizen.

 

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Indiana Fines Mortgage "Rescue" Firm

Indiana is the latest state to clamp down on so-called mortgage rescue firms.

Indiana Fines Mortgage ...

Indiana is the latest state to clamp down on so-called mortgage rescue firms. At the request of the Indiana Attorney General's Office, a judge has ordered an Indianapolis company to make refunds to three consumers.

Karen Reinisch and her business "My House Saver, LLC" entered into contracts with consumers to assist them in securing deferred debt payments but failed to comply with various laws governing such practices, according to Attorney General Stave Carter.

"There are certain requirements that must be met for companies to act as a credit service organization or foreclosure consultant," Carter said.

"Since Indiana ranks among the highest in the country with respect to home foreclosures, it's important that we don't allow fly by night companies to take advantage of people who are facing the possibility of losing their home."

Reinisch and My House Saver acted as a Credit Service Organization but failed to meet the legal requirements of such a company.

Reinisch contracted with consumers who were in danger of mortgage foreclosure by telling them she would negotiate with the mortgage company to implement a plan that would prevent foreclosure.

Reinisch claimed she would establish "work out" plans with the mortgage companies which would defer or lower mortgage payments for the consumer.

Reinisch told consumers she would try to obtain financing through other lenders if a "work out" plan could not be established. Reinisch also promised consumers if she was unable to obtain other forms of financing, she would buy the house and re-sell it to the consumer on an installment contract basis.

All three consumers who filed complaints with the attorney general's office never received a "work out" plan or new financing and all eventually lost their homes to foreclosure.

Carter says Reinisch and My House Saver violated Indiana's Credit Service Organization Act and Indiana's Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by:

• Failing to obtain a surety bond in the amount of $10,000 prior to doing business as a Credit Service Organization;
• Failing to complete performance of services before receiving payments from consumers;
• Failing to provide consumers with a written contract detailing provisions of services and notice of cancellation;
• Representing she could perform services of a loan broker without obtaining the proper licensing;
• Intentionally and knowingly committing deceptive acts.

The court ordered Reinisch and My House Saver to make consumer restitution of nearly $3,000 for the fees consumers paid as well as pay more than $82,000 in costs and penalties.

 

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Ohio University: Data Breach Central?

The news that hackers gained access to the medical data of thousands of Ohio University students was only the latest in a series of attacks that have plagu...


The news that hackers gained access to the medical data of thousands of Ohio University students, due to a security breach at the university's Hudson Health Center, was only the latest in a series of attacks that have plagued the college since late April.

 

The Hudson Health Center data contained identifying information on 60,000 students, including Social Security and personal identifier numbers, addresses, and data on medical treatments.

The Health Center breach followed an attack on a network server containing data on 300,000 Ohio University alumni and donors, including 137,000 Social Security numbers.

And on April 21st, the university's Innovation Center was hacked, leading to the exposure of intellectual property files, e-mails, and Social Security numbers, according to the university's press statement.

Bill Sams, chief information officer for Ohio University, told the Columbus Dispatch that the information was coded in such a way that medical records and personal identifiers could not be immediately matched, reducing the risk to affected individuals.

Sams claimed that the university "had a 20-person team, working seven days a week" to perform a security audit on the Ohio University network and servers.

No information was available indicating that the breaches were the work of the same group of hackers.

The Department of Health and Human Services stated it would investigate to verify if federal privacy laws governing the collection of personal data and medical records were violated.

The university had announced in late 2005 that it would stop using Social Security Numbers (SSNs) for personal identification, and was updating its systems to use unique ID numbers instead.

The Ohio University breaches were the latest in a trend of identity thefts and data losses targeting universities in recent months. In March, a hacker ring broke into servers hosted by Georgetown University, and stole data on 40,000 residents provided by the city's Office on Aging.

And in one of the many instances of laptop thefts leading to security breaches, a Vermont State College employee's laptop was stolen from his car during a Montreal vacation. The laptop contained data on 20,000 students, faculty, and retired members of the Vermont State College system.

Both houses of Congress are currently considering legislation that would restrict the usage and storage of SSNs in order to stem the tide of potential fraud and identity theft that can result from their misuse.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has introduced two pieces of legislation designed to place data brokers such as ChoicePoint under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and to limit the sale and purchase of SSNs, except in specific circumstances.

Under Markey's "Social Security Number Protection Act," only law enforcement and public health agencies would be able to collect and store SSNs. The sale or purchase of SSNs would otherwise be criminalized.

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7UP Not "All Natural," Consumers Group Charges

Sunny new television ads for 7UP show cans of the drink being picked from fruit trees

7UP Not All Natural, Consumers Group Charges...

The company that makes the "uncola" is accused of telling an untruth in a new marketing campaign that touts 7UP as "100% natural." The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) will sue 7UP's manufacturer, Cadbury Schweppes, unless the company drops the claim.

Although the company removed several artificial ingredients from the drink, at least one remains: high fructose corn syrup.

Sunny new television ads for 7UP show cans of the drink being picked from fruit trees, or harvested from the ground, yet there is no fruit juice in 7UP. The narrator says it "tastes better than ever because we stripped out all the artificial stuff leaving just five all natural ingredients."

Besides carbonated water and high fructose corn syrup, the other three are citric acid, unspecified "natural flavors," and potassium citrate. Though not any better or worse nutritionally than plain table sugar, high fructose corn syrup is spawned from a complex, multistep industrial process by which starch is extracted from corn and converted with acids or enzymes into glucose and fructose.

"Pretending that soda made with high fructose corn syrup is 'all natural,' is just plain old deception," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "High fructose corn syrup isn't something you could cook up from a bushel of corn in your kitchen, unless you happen to be equipped with centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns, and buckets of enzymes."

In a legal notice to Cadbury Schweppes executives, CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner wrote that the primary purpose of the suit would be to prohibit the company from describing any product with high fructose corn syrup as "natural," and that CSPI would also seek restitution, corrective advertising, and attorneys' fees.

CSPI's announcement comes a week after Cadbury, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo agreed not to sell sugary soda in schools, thus avoiding a separate lawsuit CSPI and other parties intended to file.

The Food and Drug Administration does not have an official definition for "natural" foods. Nor does it take action to prevent food companies from calling the most obviously artificial ingredients "natural."

For example, CSPI once complained about Ben & Jerry's "All Natural" ice creams, which variously included such obviously non-natural ingredients as hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, alkalized cocoa powder, and even "artificial flavors." But FDA took no action other than sending CSPI a letter indicating that "natural" was "not among our current enforcement priorities."

In March the Sugar Association, which represents cane and beet sugar producers, petitioned the FDA to define "natural." While FDA has no definition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows only those meat and poultry products that have been minimally processed can be labeled as natural.

CSPI wrote to the FDA in support of the Sugar Association's petition and urged the agency to adopt a definition identical to USDA's. That would mean that high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, and other ingredients that are more than minimally processed couldn't be called natural.

"If the FDA were doing its job, perhaps a lawsuit wouldn't be necessary," said Gardner, who will work with Massachusetts attorney Ken Quat on a Cadbury Schweppes suit. "While this particular mislabeling doesn't present much of a health threat, consumers and honest companies shouldn't have to put up with dishonest claims in the marketplace. Happily, though, several states have excellent consumer protection laws that can be used to stop deceptive advertising."

CSPI said it will consider other legal action against companies that use high fructose corn syrup in their ostensibly "all natural" products.

 



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Volvo XC90 Recall

the outer tie rod ball join can "deform at high loads"

The NHTSA is recalling 108,766 Volvo XC90 vehicles from the 2003 to 2006 model years because a ball joint may fail, which could lead to a crash. ...

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Women Like Men Who Like Kids

Women are able to subconsciously pick up cues of interest in children in men's faces and use those cues to determine if they are attracted to them for long...


Women are able to subconsciously pick up cues of interest in children in men's faces and use those cues to determine if they are attracted to them for long-term relationships, according to new research at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The research also shows that women's judgments of men's facial masculinity accurately reflect individual men's testosterone levels. Accordingly, women are attracted to those men for short-term relationships.

"The study provides the first direct evidence that women's attractiveness judgments specifically track both men's affinity for children and men's hormone concentrations," said Dario Maestripieri, Associate Professor in Comparative Human Development, and co-author of "Reading Men's Faces: Women's Mate Attractiveness Judgments Track Men's Testosterone and Interest in Infants" published on-line in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a British scientific journal.

Women are surprisingly accurate in being able to determine interest in children and testosterone levels, said James Roney, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the lead author of the paper.

"Our data suggest that men's interest in children predicts their long-term mate attractiveness even after we account for how physically attractive the women rated the men," he said.

For the study, researchers at the University of Chicago recruited male undergraduate students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who were tested for testosterone and for their interest in children. Researchers took saliva samples to measure testosterone levels.

To determine interest in children, researchers showed the 39 men in the sample pairs of pictures, each of an adult and a baby. They were asked which picture they preferred. Five of the men expressed no interest in the baby pictures, while the rest expressed a range of interest, up to preferring the baby pictures exclusively.

The researchers then took pictures of each man, asking them to display a neutral expression. An oval frame was placed around each photo to focus attention to the faces and the photos were shown to 29 undergraduate women from diverse backgrounds at UCSB.

The women were asked to rate the men according to whether they thought the men liked children, whether they appeared masculine, physically attractive, or kind. They were then asked to determine men's attractiveness as short-term romantic partners or as long-term partners for relationships such as marriage.

The men women chose as being most interested in children were also the same men who had expressed the most interest in children in the photo test. The women were also able to determine from their pictures which men had high on testosterone levels because they perceived the men as looking masculine.

Although women said they were attracted to the men who tested high for testosterone, an important factor in their attraction to men for a long-term relationship was their perception of a man's affinity for children, even after accounting for their perceptions of men's general kindness.

"The research suggests that men's interest in children may be a relatively underappreciated influence on men's long-term mate attractiveness." Roney said.

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Low-Cut Vs. High-Top Sneakers

Firm yet flexible, their high-tech padding supports your ankles without limiting your range of motion or performance. Shaquille O'Neal and Koby Bryant wear...


The debate rages on: Should you wear high-top or low-cut sneakers?

Now, we're not talking about the old-fashioned floppy canvas high-tops. We're talking about today's high-tops.

Firm yet flexible, their high-tech padding supports your ankles without limiting your range of motion or performance. Shaquille O'Neal and Koby Bryant wear them, so why not you?

A recent study of 2,500 college intramural basketball players concluded that high tops really work.

Athletes who wore low-cut sneakers sprained their ankles more often than those who wore high-tops. Athletes with a history of recurrent sprains were less likely to sprain their ankles again in high-tops.

Conclusions: You may not like how high-top sneakers look, especially walking around town, but they do work. Wearing high-tops and taping your ankles properly can help basketball stars, soccer players, tennis buffs and even you do better.

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PayPal, Equifax Team Up To Offer Credit Monitoring

It sounds good but read the agreement carefully

PayPal, Equifax Team Up To Offer Credit Monitoring...

Online payment processor PayPal has put together a joint venture with Equifax to offer "free" credit monitoring to PayPal customers but, not surprisingly, careful consumers need to read the agreement carefully.

Like Equifax's other credit monitor offerings, the service would notify PayPal customers if inquiries for credit are made in their names, and if their credit balances rise or fall according to pre-set alerts.

The service would be free for PayPal users, including a toll-free number to call in case of possible fraud or identity theft.

Equifax executive Steve Ely said in a press statement that "Our credit alert product gives PayPal users a convenient and easy way to help prevent their information from getting into the hands of identity thieves."

Equifax's agreement with PayPal comes on the heels of a similar venture with SunTrust Bank, where the credit bureau is offering "select" SunTrust customers its "Credit Watch Silver" product for free, while normal subscriptions cost $49.95

Look Again

But a closer look at the offer indicates that all might not be so rosy for users of these services.

According to the "Terms Of Use" agreement provided by Equifax when signing up for the PayPal monitoring service, the company reserves the right to change the offer at any time, possibly including switching from a free service to a paid subscription.

The agreement also specifies that users are forced into binding arbitration if they have any disputes with the service, rather than pursue litigation, except in small claims court.

According to the agreement, "you will not be able to bring a class action or other representative action in court, nor will you be able to bring any claim in arbitration as a class action or other representative action."

Arbitration has been heavily criticized by consumer groups, and even some lawyers, for shifting too many costs of a dispute onto the consumer, and placing them at a disadvantage in negotiations.

Many consumers, even those who have been victimized by identity theft, are reluctant to utilize free credit monitoring because they fear they'll be "baited and switched" into using a paid service. Others simply don't trust the company that lost their data to watch over it effectively after the fact.

When a laptop containing data on thousands of students, faculty, and retired employees for the Vermont State College system was stolen, one former faculty member signed up for Experian's free credit monitoring service provided by the university.

She ended up subscribing to Experian subsidiary ConsumerInfo's paid "Credit Monitor" service at $7.95 a month without her consent.

 

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H&R Block Threatened Employees, Spitzer Charges

H&R Block Threatened Employees, Spitzer Charges...

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says tax preparation giant H&R Block threatened tax preparers who refused to push IRAs loaded with hidden fees and low interest rates.

Spitzer amended a lawsuit he filed against Block on March 15, citing additional evidence of fraudulent marketing of individual retirement accounts.

In his original complaint, Spitzer alleged that the H&R Block Company steered hundreds of thousands of customers into IRAs that were almost guaranteed to lose money. The complaint cited e-mails in which H&R Blocks own employees characterized the companys Express IRA as a bad investment that they could not in good conscience recommend to clients.

In an amended complaint, the Attorney General cites new evidence showing that the companys senior management did more than simply ignore the concerns of its tax preparers; management penalized H&R Block tax professionals who refused to push the product.

"In addition to designing a flawed product with hidden fees and marketing it fraudulently to unsuspecting customers, senior management steam-rolled conscientious employees who objected to the fact that clients were losing money," Spitzer said.

The newly-obtained evidence cited in the amended complaint includes statements by former H&R Block employees indicating that:

• Managers disregarded complaints from tax preparers about misleading marketing of the Express IRA;

• Managers instructed tax preparers "to make a positive presentation" of the Express IRA and "avoid mention of negatives;"

• Managers told tax preparers at conferences to "sell more IRAs" or "theres the door;"

• As late as the current tax season (2006), tax professionals who refused to sell the Express IRA because it was not appropriate for their clients had their access to customers limited by managers.

H&R Block introduced the Express IRA in 2002, claiming that it "paid great rates" and was "a better way to save," but the product paid less than one percent interest at times, and 85 percent of those who enrolled paid more in fees than they earned in interest.

The lawsuit specifically alleges that H&R Block failed to adequately disclose its fees to customers, failed to warn them that the interest paid would not cover the fees in certain circumstances, and misleadingly described interest rates as "great" when they were actually low.

This incomplete and misleading disclosure violated New Yorks consumer fraud law and was a breach of the companys fiduciary duty to its clients, Spitzer alleged.

Settlement discussions earlier this year broke down when the company balked at making full refunds to customers for undisclosed fees. The company now faces statutory penalties of up to $250 million if found to have violated the law.

 

 

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GAO: Broadband Access Difficult To Measure

There's not only a lack of broadband access in rural areas of the U.S., there's a lack of information about broadband access in rural areas

GAO: Broadband Access Difficult To Measure...

There's not only a lack of broadband access in rural areas of the U.S., there's a lack of information about broadband access in rural areas, according to a new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

All the while they've been winning favorable treatment from Congress, the major telecommunications carriers have been promising to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas. But there's little evidence that's actually happened and the foot-dragging is likely to become an issue in the upcoming off-year elections.

President Bush has made a commitment to ensuring all Americans have access to low-cost broadband service, but major telecommunications companies have been slow to roll out connections to remote areas, citing costs and a supposed lack of demand.

The GAO's report found that while broadband deployment in the United States is extensive and picking up speed, many factors make it difficult to assess gaps in rural or underpopulated areas.

Among the report's findings:

• 30 million American households utilized some form of broadband Internet access in 2005. Of those households, the type of connection was split roughly 50-50 between cable and DSL. However, the FCC's survey data was built on analyses on the level of subscriber Zip codes, not where providers have set up infrastructure. The GAO analysts believed this could create inaccurate estimates of which areas are lacking in broadband access.

• Telecom companies and associations interviewed by the GAO cited population density and terrain makeup as chief factors that make broadband deployment expensive, as well as the need for "aggregating" deployment of broadband infrastructure around an "anchor point," such as a large government agency or health care facility, to keep costs down.

• The Universal Service Fund (USF), the tax on phone and broadband services for low-cost Internet development, has been a critical resource for providing rural and low-population states funding to build their telecommunications infrastructure. But several of the telecom companies interviewed for the report opposed expanding the USF to explicitly include support for broadband development, fearing that it would induce more "program expenditures," and higher costs with them.

• Wireless technology was cited as an alternative to the costs of rolling out cable to rural areas, but difficulties in finding available spectrum and negotiating deals with municipalities hindered telecoms' entrance into providing Wi-Fi access in both urban and rural areas. Local municipalities are pursuing their own initiatives to set up wireless Internet access in regions not served by major telecom providers.

All of these issues are up for debate as the House and Senate reconcile different versions of updates to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), includes provisions to allow municipalities to run their own Wi-Fi networks or negotiate with telecom companies to do so, without seeking permission from state authorities.

The Stevens bill also provides for increased collection for the USF, which provides funding for many services in Stevens' home state of Alaska.

Stevens was one of the requesters of the GAO report, along with his minority counterpart Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and House Commerce and Energy chair Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX).

Barton, a longtime friend of the telephone companies, is the author of the "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement" act, the House version of the new telecommunications legislation. The Barton bill would enable telecom providers to create local cable franchises in regions without having to undergo the same regulatory process cable companies did.

The Barton bill also precludes local municipalities from setting up public Wi-Fi networks when existing Internet providers are already available. The issue has become a sore spot for many city governments, particularly in New Orleans, where BellSouth has been lobbying to shut down the city's emergency Wi-Fi network.

Both bills have been under heavy public scrutiny due to the debate over "Net neutrality," the principle that all Internet content should be accessed equally, and users shouldn't have to pay extra money for faster service.

Supporters of Net neutrality believe that companies like Verizon and AT&T (formerly SBC) will be restricting access to Web content according to who can pay the most money, and have engaged in a massive lobbying effort to prevent that from becoming accepted practice.

The Barton bill is currently not on the House's agenda for the week, as the House Judiciary Committee has demanded it be referred to them. Judiciary Committee Chair F. James Sensenbrenner outlined "35 pages of reasons" why the bill's provisions fall under his jurisdiction, according to the National Journal.

If Sensenbrenner gets the bill referred to Judiciary, action on the House version of the legislation could be delayed for several weeks while the committee discusses it and sorts out the politics of the matter.

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Disney Dumps McDonald's

Meals Won't Be As Happy

Disney Dumps McDonald's...


Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald are going their separate ways. After a ten year joint marketing agreement, Walt Disney Company said it will not renew its arrangement with McDonald's to provide promotional figurines for the restaurant chain's Happy Meals.

The last Disney Happy Meal promotion will be this summer, with the release of "Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

Disney isn't giving a specific reason for the breakup, but the Los Angeles Times quotes a number of high-ranking company sources as saying Disney would like to put some distance between itself and McDonald's menu offerings, increasingly being blamed for obesity.

The Times also quotes a source at rival studio DreamWorks as saying studio executives are having second thoughts about a deal with McDonald's to promote "Shrek 3," set for release next year. Shrek is, after all, a little on the hefty side.

McDonald's, feeling the heat from nutrition advocates, recently launched a campaign to educate its customers about healthy food choices.

Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," told the Times that McDonald's has it within its power to reduce the flak it's receiving. "The obesity issue would be irrelevant if the food in the Happy Meals was healthy," he said.



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FDA Not Ready To Order Recall Of Bausch & Lomb ReNu

Though suspicion continues to mount, the FDA says it has not concluded there is enough evidence to initiate a recall.

FDA Not Ready To Order Recall Of Bausch & Lomb ReNu...

Though suspicion continues to mount that Bausch & Lomb's ReNu products are behind an outbreak of a rare but serious eye infection, the FDA says it has not concluded there is enough evidence to initiate a recall.

The agency says patients with confirmed cases of Fusarium keratitis have reported using various contact lens cleaning solutions including various types of ReNu products and generics.

"We continue to confirm reported cases associated with products other than ReNu with MoistureLoc," the FDA said in a statement.

"Our interest in the MoistureLoc product is based on the disproportionate number of case of Fusarium keratitis associated with ReNu with Moisture Loc compared to the overall product market share. The trends of reported cases involving various contact lens solutions other than MoistureLoc have remained consistent throughout our investigation," FDA said.

As of May 5, the Centers for Disease Control said it had received reports of 102 confirmed cases, 12 possible cases and 81 cases still under investigation from 31 U.S. states and territories.

CDC said not all data are available for all confirmed cases. However, as of May 2, 2006, of the 58 confirmed cases for which CDC has complete data:

• 56 wear contact lenses;
• 32 reported using any B&L; ReNu with MoistureLoc;
• 15 reported using any B&L; ReNu MultiPlus;
• 7 reported using any unspecified B&L; ReNu;
• 3 reported using any AMO product;
• 3 reported using any Alcon product

Some cases reported using more than one type of solution and therefore the solution categories are not mutually exclusive.

Last week a Wall Street analyst downgraded Bausch & Lomb stock, saying it was likely more of the company's product would be recalled. So far, the FDA has not taken that step.

"FDA continues to work with the CDC to investigate the Fusarium keratitis infections and will determine whether or not further action needs to be taken" the agency said. "While the investigation is ongoing, FDA will continue to update the public health notice and advice to consumers as needed."

 



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Fired DirecTV Contractors Say They Refused To Lie To Customers

Technicians say they wouldn't tell customers to hook up their satellite receivers to phone lines

Fired DirecTV Contractors Say They Refused To Lie To Customers...

A group of technicians employed by a contractor for DirecTV say they were fired for exposing the company's alleged practice of heavily pushing customers to hook up their satellite receivers to phone lines, even though the service doesn't require it.

The technicians, who worked for cable and satellite infrastructure provider MasTec in Orlando, Florida, told news station Local6 that they were pressured to tell customers "anything you have to" in order to get them to hook their receivers to phone lines.

Technician Frank Martinez told Local6 that he was ordered to "tell them if these phone lines are not connected, the receiver will blow up."

Technicians said that $5 was deducted from their paycheck for every receiver they installed without the phone line connection.

As a result of the May 1st report, the technicians were promptly fired from MasTec, and say they are pursuing legal action against their former company and DirecTV.

The DirecTV service doesn't require a phone connection to order pay-per-view movies or events, as that can be done via the company's Web site or over the phone.

So what does media mogul Rupert Murdoch's satellite service gain from the procedure?

Money, for starters. Each phone line connection could cost a customer as much as $52 per room, according to the Local6 report, and another $50 for a wireless phone jack.

Not only that, but the company collects data on transactions made through the phone lines for its own purposes. That could mean anything from targeted advertising, to selling the information to other subsidiaries of the Murdoch empire, or other businesses.

DirecTV partner TiVo came under fire in 2004 for collecting information on the shows its users recorded, and being able to track specific instances of rewinding or pausing a show.

Although TiVo clearly disclosed its practice and gave customers the ability to "opt out", users of DirecTV's TiVo service often had difficulty changing their recorder's settings to prevent the data being relayed back to the company, according to postings on customer forums.

The relationship between MasTec and DirecTV is equally cozy.

DirecTV is MasTec's biggest client, paying it more than $300 million in new installations in 2005. The company is a major player for both cable and telecom companies, providing them with the crucial "last-mile" connections for high-speed television and broadband services to customers' homes.

Bob Apple, current president of MasTec's "Energy Group" division, was formerly Senior Vice President of DirecTV, ironically focused on the "installation, warranty, and service businesses," according to his company bio.

MasTec has also has financial and investment troubles over the years. In April 2006, the company settled several lawsuits which claimed it had overstated its earnings and deceived shareholders.

According to the company, the lawsuits were settled without paying the plaintiffs, even though "the company believes it would have been successful in defense of these actions."

In Mastec's words, "Management concluded that entering into the settlement was the prudent course of action, given the low amount of the settlement, the inherent risk and uncertainty of legal proceedings, and the substantial time and expense required to defend these cases."

DirecTV's own business practices have been regularly questioned by customers, particularly those who have been repeatedly billed for adult-oriented programming they say they did not order.

The company recently paid millions to settle a 22-state investigation into claims that its partner telemarketing firms were violating the Do-Not-Call Act in order to get new customers.

It also had to cough up another $5 million to settle charges of deceptive advertising, bad billing procedures, and not providing service requested by customers.

 

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Bausch & Lomb Facing Multiple Lawsuits

Contact Lens Wearers Suffered Severe Eye Infections

Bausch & Lomb Facing Multiple Lawsuits...

Bausch & Lomb faces a growing number of lawsuits from users of its ReNu contact lens solution, which is now suspected in at least 186 cases of eye infections in 29 states. Without prompt treatment, the infection can scar the cornea and blind its victims. At least eight patients have required cornea transplants.

In Florida, Zoe Wade said she suffered an infection so severe that her left eye had to be removed to stop the infection from reaching her brain. Wade said she began using Renu MoistureLoc last July. By October, she was suffering from a severe case of Fusarium keratitis, a fungal infection.

"The pain is very traumatic ... It's like your head is going to come off," Wade said at a news conference.

Barbara Cavallaro, of Cranston, Rhode Island, said she is suing after she was forced to undergo a corneal transplant. Cavallaro's lawyer, Peter Wasylyk has filed a $5 million class action suit and an individual suit federal court in Providence.

Cavallaro said the trouble started in October. It took weeks before a Harvard Medical School expert finally diagnosed it as Fusarium keratitis. Cavallaro said it was all because of her contact lens solution, the Bausch & Lomb Renu with Moisture Loc.

Carvallaro said her sight is permanently damaged and she'll need two more surgeries. Because of the transplant, her eyes are now two different colors -- one is brown and the other is blue. She said her vision will never be the same.

Time Line

The company stopped sales of ReNu contact lenses with MoistureLoc solution last month after the product was linked to an apparent outbreak of Fusarium keratitis, a serious eye infection. Now, the company says it was alerted last fall to a rise in infections among lens wearers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong officials said they had interviewed 62 patients, of whom 25 said they had used a ReNu solution. Seven of those 25 patients had the Fusarium keratitis infection, officials said.

The company also said earlier this week that Renu, which generated $45 million in U.S. sales last year, had been linked to a "handful" of eye infection cases in Europe but did not disclose the number of cases.

It's estimated that a third of the 30 million Americans who wear contacts use a Bausch & Lomb lens solution.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is investigating 186 cases of the eye infection; 73 of those cases have been confirmed but the CDC isn't saying how many patients had used a ReNu solution.

Officials say that a high incidence of the affected patients interviewed had used ReNu with MoistureLoc, which was introduced in 2004.

The FDA and CDC say it could take a month or more to determine if MoistureLoc was indeed the cause of the infections. Inspectors have been examining the Greenville, S.C., plant where the solution is made for Far East and U.S. markets.

Symptoms of the infection can include blurry vision, pain or redness, excessive discharge and increased sensitivity to light.

Company Response

Although the company has stopped shipments of the product and asked retailers to remove it from their shelves, it has declined to call those actions a recall.

"Bausch & Lomb has not yet recalled ANY of its products. Rather, its ReNu MoistureLoc has been taken of the shelves. Who can I speak to about this inaccuracy?" said Grace Healy of the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm in an email to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Other pharmaceutical companies facing potential problems have taken much more aggressive measures to alert their customers of the possible dangers.

Ophthalmologists' Advice

"The wearing of contact lenses is generally very safe, but this outbreak of infections is certainly something to be concerned about," said H.Dunbar Hoskins, MD, executive vice president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"Ophthalmologists across the country are sending in reports to help with the investigation, while at the same time making sure our patients who wear contact lenses are aware and informed."

The Academy recommends that consumers follow these precautions:
• Wash your hands with soap and water and dry them before handling lenses.
• Wear and replace your lenses according to the schedule prescribed by your doctor.
• Follow instructions from your doctor and your solution manufacturer for cleaning and storing your lenses.
• Make sure you always use fresh solution and replenish the solution daily.
• Keep your contact lens case clean and replace every three to six months.
• Remove the lenses and consult an ophthalmologist immediately if your eyes become red or irritated or your vision changes.

Regardless of what cleaning/disinfecting solution you use, consider performing a "rub and rinse" lens cleaning method rather than a "no-rub" method in order to minimize the number of germs to reduce the chances of infection.

 



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Credit Counseling Agency Pays $2.4 Million to Settle Federal Charges

Marketed themselves as a non-profit

Credit Counseling Agency Pays $2.4 Million to Settle Federal Charges...

A credit counseling agency and related companies have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they deceptively marketed themselves as a not-for-profit enterprise to entice financially distressed consumers to enroll in debt management plans, and then failed to deliver on promises of personalized credit counseling and dramatic and immediate interest rate reductions.

Under proposed settlements, Lighthouse Credit Foundation Inc. and its co-defendants will pay more than $2.4 million in consumer redress, and they are prohibited from making deceptive claims about credit counseling or debt management services.

According to the FTC's complaint, Integrated Credit Solutions, Inc. solicited consumers for Lighthouse's debt management plans by leaving prerecorded messages on home answering machines stating that the consumer had been approved through "a certified non-profit nationwide program" to consolidate credit card debt before the next billing cycle at interest rates "as low as 1.5%."

People who responded to the messages were told that the program included counseling on how to manage finances, and that a monthly administrative fee was tax-deductible because Lighthouse was a nonprofit organization. Consumers agreed to pay large fees to enroll in debt management plans based on these representations, the complaint alleges.

The FTC's complaint alleges that the defendants neither provided the promised interest rate reductions nor lowered interest rates before the consumers' next billing cycle, noting that it typically takes three to four billing cycles before interest rates can be reduced under a debt management plan.

Consumers were not provided with financial counseling, and the monthly administrative fee was not tax-deductible, the FTC alleged. According to the FTC's complaint, Lighthouse acted as part of a for-profit enterprise with its co-defendants to generate substantial revenue from the fees paid by consumers.

The proposed settlements prohibit the companies and their principals, Mary M. Melcer and J. Steven McWhorter, from making misrepresentations about credit counseling or debt management services, including non-profit or tax-exempt status, financial counseling, interest rate reductions, and the deductibility of fees.

The defendants must honor cancellation, refund, and termination requests from consumers, and follow certain recordkeeping and reporting requirements to assist the FTC in monitoring their compliance. In addition to the defendants' payment of $2,371,380 in consumer redress, the corporate defendants will set aside $415,000 to refund the enrollment fees of consumers who complete their debt management plans.

The FTC's complaint alleges that Jeffrey E. Poorman and Daniel M. Melgar, Sr., without participating in the alleged deception, received proceeds of the illegal conduct as shareholder distributions from co-defendant Flagship Capital Services Corporation, Integrated's parent company.

Poorman has settled with the FTC, agreeing to pay $105,000. The FTC is proceeding with its claims against Melgar. The FTC acknowledges the valuable assistance of the Attorneys General in California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Vermont, who settled claims against Lighthouse, Integrated, and/or Flagship in 2004 and 2005.

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FTC Asked to Crack Down on Videos Aimed at Infants

FTC Asked to Crack Down on Videos Aimed at Infants...


Citing a lack of evidence that screen media is beneficial for babies and growing concern that it may be harmful, a consumer group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, two of the leading producers of videos for infants and toddlers, for false and deceptive advertising.

 

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood charges that the companies are falsely marketing their videos as educational for babies.

CCFC is asking the FTC to prohibit Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby from making claims about the educational and developmental benefits of their videos and require that advertisements, packaging and websites for all baby videos prominently display the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommendation of no screen time for children under two.

"These companies are exploiting parents' natural tendency to want what's best for their children and their deceptive marketing may be putting babies at risk." said Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint of the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School.

Research suggests that television viewing for babies is negatively associated with cognitive development, regular sleep patterns, and time spent interacting with parents and engaged in creative play.

CCFC's complaint charges that the videos' packaging, websites, advertisements, and even the names "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" are likely to mislead parents into believing that they are beneficial to babies' development.

For instance, on its website, Baby Einstein claims its Baby Wordsworth video -- designed for babies as young as one year -- "will foster the development of your toddler's speech and language skills." Similarly, Brainy Baby's claims on its website that its "brain stimulating" Peek-A-Boo video "helps nurture such important skills as object permanence, communication skills, cause and effect, language development and many others."

"The industry, when pressed, acknowledges they have no proof these products do what they say they do," said pediatrician Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a researcher at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and the senior author of "A Teacher in the Living Room," a study on educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers released in 2005 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

"Their unfounded claims undermine the research-based advice that families in my practice deserve."

"Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby clearly violate the consumer protection laws. The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits companies from making false claims or claims they cannot substantiate." said Jennifer Prime of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, which is representing CCFC in its complaint.

There are clear signs that the marketing of baby videos is effective. To date, sales of videos for babies for children under two are estimated at more than $1 billion. Last year, Disney's Baby Einstein alone took in about $200 million. By contrast, only 6% of parents are aware of the AAP's recommendation of no screen time regardless of content for children under two.

"Parents need honest information They have a right to know that baby videos aren't really educational and may even be detrimental to their babies' development," said Dr. Susan Linn, CCFC's co-founder and author of Consuming Kids. "Just because the marketing and media industries want to lure babies and toddlers to screens doesn't mean that Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby can mislead parents about the benefits of their products."

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AT&T Plans to Kill Cingular Name

Reincarnated Telco Giant Finds Its Own Moniker More Singular

AT&T says what it would be expected to say -- that the name change will "eliminate customer confusion and make a much more elegant solution." ...

First Paris Bennett, now this. Reborn telco giant AT&T plans to ditch the Cingular brand name and replace it with something it finds more "elegant." And what might that be? Why, AT&T Wireless, of course.

Cingular's corporate parents, AT&T (nee SBC) and BellSouth, have spent an estimated $4 billion to turn it into one of the best-known names in the country and, through sponsorship of "American Idol" and similar shows, given it strong appeal to the younger set.

AT&T Wireless, on the other hand, may sound vaguely familiar to consumers of a certain age. That's because there's already been an AT&T Wireless. The name changes in the telecom industry the last few decades have been so constant and so confusing, it's like trying to keep the players straight at a Jim Smith convention, so we won't repeat it all here.

But marketing professionals are aghast at the notion that AT&T would throw its red-hot Cingular brand into the dustbin in favor of AT&T, which Advertising Age said conjures up little more than "images of the rotary dial."

(Note to younger readers: Once upon a time, telephones were attached to the wall with a wire. There was a circular dial, sort of like an alloy wheel, that the user had to physically spin with his or her finger. This was called "dialing.")

AT&T says what it would be expected to say -- that the name change will "eliminate customer confusion and make a much more elegant solution."

What AT&T is trying to say is that it is still transfixed with the notion of "bundling," which it has been talking about since at least the 1980s. Bundling basically refers to selling the consumer everything you can think of -- landline, wireless, cable, broadband -- on a single account.

The concept has been popular with traditional telephone executives for at least a generation but it has never quite caught on with consumers, partly because no one yet offers an entire range of services under one brand but also because consumers are always looking for the next new thing, perferably with a singularly appealing new name, like Cingular.

Whether or not bundling matters, marketing experts interviewed by Advertising Age had little good to say about renaming Cingular.

Jonathan Asher, president of Dragon Rouge USA, a branding and design consultancy called AT&T "my father's brand of telephony."

Its only good attributes are "incredible recognition, incredible heritage and somewhat reliable." Its not-so-good ones -- "stodgy, old fashioned, big, heavy and dated."

Cingular's hip image just may be obliterated when it gets pulled into AT&T's logo, which many advertising types refer to as the "death star." Check back with us a few billion dollars from now for the answer.

 

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Credit Card Companies Fear "Perfect Storm"

Credit Card Companies Fear Perfect Storm...


If you're an executive at Visa or MasterCard, times would seem to be great. You're making big bucks out of a seemingly endless hunger for purchases made with plastic, and the $800 billion in credit card debt Americans owe ensures a steady flow of revenue.

In the case of MasterCard, your company is ready to go public with an initial offering of $43 per share, after reporting first quarter 2006 earnings of $127 million.

So what's got card issuers and their partner banks so nervous?

After years of unchallenged industry dominance that enabled the two biggest players in the market to set prices and make deals with impunity, Visa and MasterCard are facing obstacles from all fronts, ranging from the ongoing merchant lawsuit against hidden "interchange fees," to competition from new card issuers, to consumers getting rid of their cards in ever-larger numbers.

Not only that, but increasing interest rates and the simple lack of new customers is leaving many in the credit card industry wondering if the financial equivalent of "the perfect storm" is on the horizon.

Interchange Lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by retailers and merchants against Visa and MasterCard over "interchange" fees was recently amended to include debit cards as well as credit cards. The lawsuit deals with the processing fees merchants have to pay to card companies and issuing banks when customers buy goods using plastic.

The plaintiffs allege that Visa, MasterCard and the issuing banks have so much power over interchange fees that they can set rates as high as they wish, causing merchants to lose profits from sales in order to process card transactions.

Henry Armour, chairman of the National Association of Chain Stores (NACS), said in a press statement that "price fixing of interchange is equally as problematic in debit cards as it is in credit cards Because debit cards are commonly used at convenience stores, especially at the gas pump, this is a significant amendment to the complaint."

Merchants and retailers are concerned that the growing trend towards using plastic for small purchases, or "micropayments," will erode their profits even further.

When a coffee shop customer buys a latte with plastic, the money the retailer makes is almost entirely negated by the cost of processing the transaction, merchants complain.

Banks and lenders have claimed that if the merchants score a victory in the interchange fee lawsuit, it could cost the credit card industry $100 billion to reduce or remove the fees from transactions.

More Players, Fewer Payers

In an effort to demonstrate "good governance," Visa recently agreed to elect new independent members to its board of directors.

This was the first instance of the San Francisco-based credit card issuer opening its board to independent officers, a process begun late in 2005 and not scheduled to be completed until 2007.

Observers such as photo store owner Mitch Goldstone, a lead plaintiff in the merchant lawsuit, speculated last year that the move might be in response to increasing pressure to deal with interchange fees.

"Rearranging board seats a year from now is a good first step," he said on his blog, WayTooHigh.com. "It also furthers the argument that Visa's CEO is listening and slowly maneuvering the top over the cookie jar."

Some also speculate that Visa's move is designed to comply with New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq rules regarding the composition of companies' boards of directors for public trading. Visa may be considering its own public offering to match MasterCard's.

Intensifying Competition

Competition in the credit card lending market is increasingly fierce.

As the average American carries four credit cards with balances of $9,000-$13,000, lenders are having a tough time gaining new customers, and so are resorting to luring existing cardholders with offers of low balance transfers, cash rebates, and so on.

Discover Financial recently announced its plans to offer its own debit card and processing system, and won praise from merchants for dropping the "No Surcharge" rule from its transactions. The rule prevented merchants from passing the costs of credit card processing on to their customers.

The financial industry was abuzz with rumors that Bank of America (BOA) may pull away from Visa and MasterCard, and offer its own credit and debit cards, as well as a separate payment processing system.

BOA's purchase of MBNA and its many card offerings gave the Charlotte, NC-based financial behemoth leverage to consider the move, in order stop paying Visa and MasterCard to process charges with its cards.

MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam-Weston pointed out that as lending interest rates continue to rise, most card issuers are switching their offers from fixed rates to variable rates, which may entice more cardholders to pay their balances off faster or risk defaulting on the loans.

Some lenders are already feeling the pinch. Both J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup reported lower first-quarter earnings for 2006 due to increased numbers of American cardholders paying off their balances and closing their cards.

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Congress Wrestles with Net Neutrality

Net neutrality gets a boost and a setback

Congress Wrestles with Net Neutrality...

Net neutrality, the principle that all content on the Internet can be accessed equally, received both a boost and a setback in Congress this week, as both the House and Senate introduced new legislation that could affect how consumers access the Web in virtually every way.

After the House Commerce Committee voted 34-22 to defeat an amendment protecting Net neutrality from being added to new telecommunications legislation, House Judiciary Committee chair F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asked for a referral of the legislation in order to add language that provides much stronger protection for net neutrality in the law.

Whereas the current Commerce bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), would grant authority to the FCC to handle disputes involving blocked access to Web content, the Sensenbrenner-Conyers draft would transfer authority to the Justice Department's antitrust division.

Sensenbrenner achieved dubious fame last year for refusing to grant hearings on waiving the effects of the new bankruptcy laws in order to offer relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, he authored a controversial immigration bill that would have made felons out of illegal immigrants, as well as anyone who might offer them assistance.

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers draft is one of several competing bills proposed by Congressmen in order to address the Net neutrality issue. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who sponsored the defeated Net neutrality amendment to the Barton bill, introduced his own "Network Neutrality Act of 2006" on the House floor on May 2nd.

In his statement advocating the bill, Markey said that "Broadband network owners should not be able to determine who can and who cannot offer services over broadband networks or over the Internet."

"The Network Neutrality Act of 2006 offers [Congress] a clear choice," Markey said. "It is a choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies, and safeguarding the dreams of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses."

New House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said that full votes on the Barton telecom legislation will not be on the floor this week, due in part to the rising amount of public concern regarding net neutrality.

"Sweeping Changes"

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced yet another version of updates to the 1996 Telecommunications Act on May 1st.

The Senate bill, while containing sweeping and far-reaching changes to laws on everything from recording television shows to broadband taxation, has no provisions for ensuring equal access to Internet content.

Among the Stevens bill's offerings is the power for municipalities to run their own broadband networks, without having to seek permission from states to do so, and increased collection for the Universal Service Fund (USF), which provides funding for low-cost broadband services to rural American communities, including many in Alaska.

As in the House, the Senate bill faces many obstacles to passage. Stevens' own co-sponsor, Sen. Daniel Inouye, expressed "numerous, substantive objections to the bill in its current form."

Several Senators, including Olympia Snowe (R-MI) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have introduced bills designed to codify the principles of net neutrality into law, with the expectation that they will be addressed in any update of telecom legislation.

Members of both parties have expressed increasing nervousness about making changes to laws that deal with Internet access in such close proximity to the Nov. 2006 Congressional elections. The net neutrality issue has exploded into mainstream awareness and provoked intense scrutiny as to how telecom companies intend to control Internet service.

The "Save The Internet" coalition, a broad alliance of bloggers, consumer groups, academics, and special interests across the political spectrum, has delivered 500,000 petition signatures to Congress advocating protection of equal Internet access since its launch on April 24th.

Wu, a coalition charter member, told Slate magazine that the "meritocratic" design of the Internet would be irreparably harmed by centralizing access control in the hands of a few large telecom companies.

"When who you know matters more than anything, the market is no longer meritocratic and consequently becomes less efficient," Wu said. "At the extreme, a market where centralized actors pick favorites isn't a market at all, but a planned economy."

 

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Feds Gently Prod Food Marketers to Help Fight Childhood Obesity

Feds Gently Prod Food Marketers to Help Fight Childhood Obesity...


Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled among adolescents and doubled among younger children, leading health experts to warn of a nationwide epidemic of chronic disease as today's children grow into adults.

But top government agencies aren't pushing the panic button. Instead, they've held a workshop and released a report.

The report released today by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlines "concrete steps" the food industry can take to make progress against childhood obesity. Both agencies said they will "monitor closely" food companies' response.

Consumer groups didn't disagree.

"Currently, virtually any food, no matter how nutritionally bankrupt, can be marketed to virtually any child, no matter how young," said Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit nutrition advocacy group.

"Parents are fed up with their authority being subverted by junk-food marketers. The industry's self-regulation system in this area has clearly failed," she said.

Wootan said the FTC/HHS report made "welcome recommendations."

"Importantly, the agencies recommend that food companies and the industry-funded Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, set baseline nutrition standards for foods that can be marketed to children through television, schools, and via cartoon characters on food packages," she said.

The report also included these recommendations for food companies:

• intensify their efforts to create new products and reformulate existing products to make them lower in calories, more nutritious, more appealing to children, and more convenient to prepare and eat;

• help consumers control portion sizes and calories through smaller portions, single-serving packages, and other packaging cues;

• explore labeling initiatives, including icons and seals, to identify lower-calorie, nutritious foods clearly and in a manner that does not mislead consumers;

• review and revise their marketing practices with the goal of improving the overall nutritional profile of the foods marketed to children, for example, by adopting minimum nutritional standards for the foods they market to children, or by otherwise shifting emphasis to lower-calorie, more nutritious products;

• generally explore ways to improve efforts to educate consumers about nutrition and fitness, with simple and effective messages; and

• review and revise their policies to improve the overall nutritional profile of the products they market and sell in schools.

In focusing on racial and ethnic populations in which childhood obesity is more prevalent, the agencies recommended that:

• food companies make a concerted effort to include, as part of their marketing of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods, promotions that are tailored to these communities; and

• food companies, the media, and entertainment companies tailor their outreach efforts to promote better nutrition and fitness to these populations. The agencies recommended that media and entertainment companies:

• continue to develop and disseminate educational messages about nutrition and fitness that are simple, positive, and repeated consistently across various platforms, with broad participation from other stakeholders; and

• review and revise their licensing of children's television and movie characters to foster promotion of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods.

The report noted that the current CARU Guides are a good foundation for industry self-regulation, but the agencies recommended that the Guides be expanded and their enforcement enhanced. Specific agency recommendations to be enacted right away included:

• expanding the CARU advisory board to include additional individuals with expertise in the various fields related to childhood obesity, such as nutrition, children's health, and developmental psychology;

• allowing parents and others to file complaints with CARU and make decisions more readily available to the public online; and

• evaluating and determining whether CARU's staff and resources are sufficient to monitor and enforce adequately the CARU guides, in light of any changes made in response to the recommendations set forth in this report.

The report is a product of last summer's joint FTC/HHS workshop, which provided a forum for industry, consumer, academic, and government stakeholders to examine the role of the private sector in addressing rising childhood obesity rates in the United States.

"Workshop participants acknowledged that many factors contribute to childhood obesity, but recognized that regardless of the causes, responsible marketing can play a positive role in improving children's diets and exercise behavior," the FTC said in a press release.

"Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity," said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements."

"Businesses need to work with mothers, fathers and children to bring America's epidemic of childhood overweight under control," said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. "Families can help children to be physically active and to eat right, and business can encourage children to eat nutritious foods in proper portions."

The workshop focused on the role that the private sector, including food, media, and entertainment companies, can and should play to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Food companies presented their product, packaging, labeling, advertising, and marketing initiatives designed to promote lower calorie, more nutritious foods.

Media and entertainment companies discussed their incorporation of health and nutrition messages into programming and their support for public education campaigns featuring these messages.

Workshop participants provided their views on the advertising guidelines that are enforced by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Participants offered both praise and criticism of existing industry practices and self-regulatory efforts. Some also offered suggestions for ways that industry can build on current efforts and take new steps to tackle the childhood obesity problem.

The report summarizes the presentations, panel discussions, and oral statements made at the workshop and the written comments submitted. It also provides specific recommendations for action by the food industry, the media and entertainment industry, and CARU.



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Arizona Settles with Internet Work-At-Home Promoter

Advertising Solutions sold Internet-based business opportunities to consumers nationwide.

Arizona Settles with Internet Work-At-Home Promoter...

The state of Arizona has reached a $250,000 settlement with Smart Advertising Solutions, LLC, a Tempe company that sold Internet-based business opportunities to consumers nationwide.

The settlement resolves allegations that Smart Advertising Solutions (SAS) made deceptive and misleading claims to consumers regarding the amount of earnings they could make through a home-based business sold by SAS.

Beginning in February 2004, SAS advertised in direct mailings to consumers that they could purchase business opportunities through SAS that allowed them to work at home, selling various products and services over the Internet by using a Web site that would be set up and maintained by the company.

The company claimed consumers could earn up to "$10,000.00 per week or more," that "people just like you are earning 6 figure incomes from the comfort of their own home" and that "SAS can now take you to the new wave of home based businesses, finally giving you a legitimate opportunity to earn thousands of dollars weekly in a $400 BILLION industry."

In response to these mailings, thousands of consumers contacted SAS and purchased the home-based businesses, along with advertising services sold by SAS that it claimed would be useful in directing the public to the consumers' Web sites.

The consent judgment requires SAS to:

• Pay the Attorney General's Office $225,000 in civil penalties and $25,000 for fees and costs of the investigation.

• Refrain from claiming consumers can make a certain amount of money unless the company can prove they have customers who have earned the represented amounts.

• Refrain from making deceptive claims regarding the effectiveness of its advertising sold to consumers to support their established businesses.

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Prius Shortage Drags Down Hybrid Sales

Can't sell 'em if you don't have 'em

Prius Shortage Drags Down Hybrid Sales...

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's largest manufacturer of hybrid automobiles, is facing a shortage of its popular Prius hybrid sedan.

Toyota reports U.S. sales of its Prius hybrid have been hurt by the shortage and not by a decrease in demand as fuel prices approach record levels.

Prius sales fell again in April, after a 3.3 per cent first-quarter decline. Sales dropped to about 7,500 Prius units last month, from 11,345 in April 2005.

Even with the decline, Toyota sold more than three times the number of hybrids than Ford.

Hybrid sales at Ford are up 50 percent over April of 2005 and 75 percent from March 2006 to nearly 2,800 units in April. The increase is due at least in part to aggressive incentives as well as increasing gasoline prices.

Ford began offering interest-free loans for up to 60 months to consumers nationwide in April on its Escape hybrid and Mariner hybrid SUVs.

In addition to rebates, Ford is also spending lavishly on advertising campaigns, featuring Kermit the Frog, that tout the company's commitment to hybrids.

Federal and state tax benefits, which in some states can total as much as $5,925, also spurred demand for Ford hybrids. The federal tax credit for the Prius will expire in 2006 unless Congress extends the tax benefit.

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New York Considers Tough Cell Phone Consumer Protection Law

New York would offer the strongest cell phone consumer protections in the nation

New York Considers Tough Cell Phone Consumer Protection Law...

New York would offer the strongest cell phone consumer protections in the nation, under proposed legislation getting the strong endorsement of a number of consumer groups.

The fight for the Cell Phone Consumer Protection Act is heating up as several groups publicly urged legislators not to bend to industry opposition and pass the legislation this year.

"The cell phone industry has now out-ranked used car dealers as the most complained about industry in the nation -- we think consumers deserve and need better protections," said Lois Aronstein, AARP New York State Director.

"With older New Yorkers mostly getting cell phones for use in an emergency, AARP strongly believes this legislation is a step in the right direction."

The bill is a model for possible national legislation, requiring disclosure of all hidden fees and allowing people to cancel their contracts after they receive their first bill without penalty, consumer advocates say.

The cell phone industry is heavily opposed to the legislation.

The measure would require cell phone companies to:

• disclose fees, surcharges and taxes to consumers;
• allow consumers to cancel their contracts fifteen days after receiving the first bill without penalty;
• require cell phone companies to provide more detailed coverage maps of where the phones will work; and
• disclose to customers the cell phone's E-911 capabilities.

AARP members from across the state were joined by representatives from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Public Utility Law Project (PULP), and representatives advocating for safer college campuses for women. Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, chair of the Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee, and Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, sponsor of the Assembly legislation, lent a powerful voice to the need for stronger consumer protections for New Yorkers using cell phones.

"As chair of the Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee I recognize that many consumers have concerns with their wireless service," said New York Assemblywoman Audrey I. Pheffer.

"The committee has been working diligently this session with consumer advocates, as well as the wireless industry, to better understand the issues at hand and to find possible legislative solutions to these concerns brought forth by consumers," Pheffer said.

"The need for consumer protection in this unregulated industry is critical. Cell phone users should know their rights as a consumer will be enforced under this legislation," said Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, sponsor of the Cell Phone Consumer Protection Act.

"Hidden fees and bad coverage have brought consumers to a boiling point, especially after they are roped into long service contracts," added Aronstein. "We can't understand why the cell phone industry stands in the way of a law that will help its customers." The Better Business Bureau reported that more complaints were made about cell phones than any other business in 2004 and 2005. According to the New York State Consumer Protection Board, cell phones are the second most complain

 

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Aetna Loses Laptop Containing Customer Data

Aetna Loses Laptop Containing Customer Data...


An employee of health insurance giant Aetna lost a laptop containing data on 38,000 customers, the company said.

The information included names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, but no financial information. The individuals were employees of companies who bought group health coverage from Aetna. The companies asked not to be identified.

Aetna spokesperson Cynthia Michener declined to verify where the theft took place, or if any of the information had been used.

In a subsequent statement, Aetna CEO Ronald Michener claimed the laptop had been secured with "strong password protection," and that the employee responsible "did not follow corporate policies."

"We have offered to pay for credit monitoring services for our affected members to help prevent any potential misuse of the information, and we are contacting each affected individual directly with information on how to access this service," Michener said.

The Aetna CEO also claimed that the company would be augmenting its data security structure to ensure all their employees followed proper procedure in the future.

Michener also said that Aetna was contacting all affected individuals, and would be offering them free credit monitoring for an unspecified period of time, to ensure they were protected from possible fraud or identity theft.

The theft or loss of laptops has been the latest trend in data breaches, with over 500,000 individuals potentially affected as a result of laptops being stolen or misplaced in the last six months. Companies affected have included Hewlett-Packard, Verizon, Ameriprise, and Ford.

The common thread in virtually all of these incidents is an employee or employees downloading confidential data onto laptops, and either leaving them physically vulnerable or failing to encrypt them.

Stealing laptops from vehicles in order to resell them has often led to customers' information being exposed.

Companies typically offer free credit monitoring to employees or consumers affected by data breaches, but many affected individuals often fail to utilize the service. Some don't follow the procedures necessary to sign up for it, while others are suspicious of providing more personal information to companies that have already jeopardized their customers' financial privacy.

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Health Experts Step Up Trampoline Warnings

Bouncing up and down on backyard trampoline may seem to personify the joy and freedom of summer but it can lead to big trouble for kids if proper safety pr...


Bouncing up and down on a backyard trampoline may seem to personify the joy and freedom of summer. But bouncing can lead to big trouble for kids if proper safety precautions aren't taken.

"Bouncing on a trampoline is a lot of fun for kids," says Marie M. Lozon, M.D., director of Children's Emergency Services at the University of Michigan Health System.

"But over the past 10 to 15 years, we've seen a significant increase in trampoline injuries, ranging from horribly broken legs to ankle sprains, or in some cases, serious head and spine injuries. And kids age 15 and under account for nearly two-thirds of all trampoline injuries."

While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that trampolines never be used at home, school or on outdoor playgrounds, Lozon and other experts recognize that many families with children will continue to allow the recreational use of trampolines at home.

To keep those children and teens safely bouncing this summer, Lozon offers some tips to help prevent injury while using a trampoline.

Lozon's 7 tips for safe trampoline fun for kids and teens:

• Don't forget mom and dad. Lozon says that adult supervision is the most important safety measure for trampolines. "Children will come up with very imaginative and create ways to injury themselves on trampolines, so constant supervision is a must," she notes.

• One jumper at a time. Multiple jumpers can multiply the risk for injury. Children doing flips and other stunts have an increased likelihood of colliding with others too, causing serious injury, she says.

• Age matters. Children under the age of 6 should not be allowed on trampolines. Lozon notes that several expert panels have determined that children 6 years or older may be safer on trampolines.

• Leave the gymnastics to the professionals. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Counsel cautions against doing somersaults on trampolines because landing on the head or neck can cause paralysis.

• Location, location, location. Lozon cautions to never place trampolines on concrete or near power lines, trees or any other obstacle that could come into contact with a bouncing child.

• Use a safety net. Trampoline enclosures can help prevent injuries from falls.

• Pad it for protection. "Other ways to make trampoline use more safe is to cover the springs, hooks and frame that suspend the mat of the trampoline with a soft material, or completely cover them with a mat around the edge to avoid injury," says Lozon.

"A lot of people say well gosh, I don't want to have a backyard trampoline, but isn't there any way my kid could participate?' Well, there are opportunities that include adult supervision and appropriate spotters in athletic environments, such as gymnastics training or diving training, where a lot of fun can be had," recommends Lozon.

Not convinced that trampoline safety should be taken seriously? Here are some of the top injuries that can occur when proper safety measures aren't taken when using a trampoline.

Common trampoline injuries:

• Sprains and strains of the ankles, feet, wrists and arms
• Broken ankles, legs or arms
• Minor head injuries
• In some cases, broken necks, spinal cord injuries and disabling head traumas occur, which could result in permanent paralysis

Causes of trampoline injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:
• Colliding with another person on the trampoline
• Landing improperly while jumping or doing stunts
• Falling or jumping off the trampoline
• Falling on the trampoline springs or frame



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