1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2006
  4. May

Current Events in May 2006

Browse Current Events by year

2006

Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    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 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."

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

    Good and Bad News about Prostate Cancer

    Removing the testes increases survival

    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.

    Good and Bad News about Prostate Cancer...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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.

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Congress Considers "Right to Repair" Bill

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

      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.

      Congress Considers 'Right to Repair' Bill...
      Read lessRead more

      ChoicePoint-FBI Deal Raises New Privacy Questions

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


      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."

      FBI Deal Raises New Queestions about ChoicePoint...
      Read lessRead more

      Florida Opens "Cramming" Probe

      Charges From Axcess Internet Solutions Placed through ILD Teleservices

      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."

      Florida Opens 'Cramming' Probe...
      Read lessRead more

      Long Island Property Tax Consultant to Make Refunds

      East Hills company alleged to have overcharged Long Island residents

      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.

      Long Island Property Tax Consultant to Make Refunds...
      Read lessRead more

      Indiana Fines Mortgage "Rescue" Firm

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

      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.

      Indiana Fines Mortgage ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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.

      Homeowners Insurance Rates Unfair, Massachusetts Charges...
      Read lessRead more

      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

      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.



      Parks Cut Corners to Cope with Budget Cuts...
      Read lessRead more

      Ohio University: Data Breach Central?


      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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. ..

      7UP Not "All Natural," Consumers Group Charges

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

      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.



      7UP Not All Natural, Consumers Group Charges...
      Read lessRead more

      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-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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more