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    NHTSA Releases 2006 Child Safety Seat Ratings


    The newest child safety seat models are easier to use than their predecessors, according to an annual National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) survey.

    NHTSA rated 99 child safety seats for ease of use from 14 different manufacturers for 2006. Of the 99 seats rated, 85 received an overall score of A. In 2005, 74 percent of rated seats received an overall score of A. The agency uses a grading system of A, B, or C to denote how easy it is to use the safety seats. The top grade is A.

    In addition to the overall rating, NHTSA also uses the letter grading system to denote how well the child safety seats perform in five individual categories: assembly requirements; clarity of labeling; clarity of written instructions; ease of securing a child and ease of installation in a vehicle. Clearer labels and instructions accounted for most of the improvements in 2006.

    "Knowing what rating a child safety or booster seat has is the best way for parents to buy one that is safe, effective and easy to use," said NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason.

    NHTSA began its "Ease of Use" ratings for child restraint systems, including booster seats, in 2003.

    The 2006 ratings represent approximately 95 percent of safety seats currently available to consumers. As in 2005, there were no safety seats that received an overall "C" rating; however, there were several "C" scores in some individual categories.

    Three seats that were rated in previous years improved their overall scores from a B to an A. These seats were the Triple Play Sit N Stroll (formerly manufactured by Safeline), Evenflo Big Kid (HB), and Evenflo Discovery.

    A number of redesigned seats that were re-rated maintained their A ratings. In most cases, improvements were seen within categories that they had formerly been assigned B or C ratings in. These seats were the Cosco Alpha Omega 5pt, Evenflo Big Kid (No Back), Evenflo Embrace, Evenflo Discovery, Graco Comfort Sport, and Safety 1st Surveyor.

    The complete list of seats rates is available at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/CPS/CSSRating/Index.cfm.

    The NHTSA survey also notes that LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), a system that makes child safety seat installation easier is required for most vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002.

    NHTSA Releases 2006 Child Safety Seat Ratings...
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    Government Pockets Profits from Items Seized at Airports

    State and local agencies sell the seized items on eBay and elsewhere

    Cities and states are making a small fortune selling items confiscated from passengers at airports.

    Such items as scissors, pocket knives, and cigarette lighters are collected by the Transportation Security Administration, which then turns them over to state and local governments. Instead of discarding them, many official agencies are selling them -- often via the eBay auction site.

    Consider these examples:

    • Maryland sells 50-pound boxes of confiscated items for $50 each to anyone willing to pick them up at its warehouse in Jessup;

    • Pennsylvania sold a 39-pound box of Swiss Army knives for $595 through eBay;

    • Boulder City -- the only Nevada city without legalized gambling -- earns $10,000 a month through eBay sales of confiscated items;

    • The Arkansas state surplus agency collects materials from 60 airports in 20 states, donates whatever it can, then auctions the rest over a federal website operated by the General Services Administration -- splitting the profits evenly with the GSA.

    Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, and Oregon are also among the states that collect and sell airport-confiscated items.

    The whole system smacks of a scam but the TSA insists it doesn't make a dime from the deal. The agency, created after hijacked planes were used in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, follows GSA regulations in discarding property it claims was abandoned "voluntarily."

    According to the TSA's Yolanda Clark, passengers have choices when told to surrender items. They can exit the security area to place items in cars or bring them to post offices, give them to people not boarding flights, or give them up. Virtually all choose the last option because they are hurrying to catch their planes, she noted.

    Total value of confiscated items stretches to seven figures, making it a booming business. In fact, the federal government pays a company called Science Application International $17 million under a five-year contract to dispose of confiscated items nobody wants.

    Organizing those items for sale is no easy task, since the TSA bundles everything into boxes indiscriminately. Some of those boxes weigh 50-75 pounds.

    Once organized, though, confiscated items quickly become a cash cow. Last December alone, Pennsylvania reported $17,000 in profits from the sale of confiscated scissors, tools, and pocket knives.

    Whether the windfall will continue depends upon government policies - and whether they will change. When the TSA started allowing small scissors and tools through checkpoints last winter, state surplus agencies had fewer scissors to sell. But several agencies compensated by placing more listings on eBay.



    Government Pockets Profits from Items Seized at Airports...
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    TransUnion Gets Into Tenant Screening Business

    Part of a Broader Effort to Identify and Rate "Thin Credit" Consumers

    The "RentBridge" database will provide participating landlords and managers with instant access to the records of former tenants, in order to verify their..

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      Debt Management Telemarketers Settle FTC Charges

      Defendants Will Pay Nearly $1 Million in Consumer Redress and Penalties

      A credit counseling service and related companies and individuals have agreed to pay $926,754 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they made false claims about their debt management program and violated the FTC's Do Not Call Rule.

      According to the FTC, Credit Foundation of America, Inc. (CFA), and its associates sold debt management services nationwide through unsolicited, recorded messages left on home telephones, falsely claiming that consumers were pre-approved for a program to consolidate their credit card debts to a single monthly payment at a much lower interest rate.

      When consumers responded to the calls, they were encouraged to enroll in a debt management plan, regardless of their individual circumstances. Many enrollees were not appropriate candidates for debt management plans and lost the large enrollment fees the defendants charged.

      "When it comes to debt-related problems, a 'one-size fits all' solution should raise a red flag," said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Debt management programs work best when they are tailored to consumers' particular circumstances."

      In marketing its debt management program, CFA also intruded on the privacy of millions of people who did not wish to be called. The FTC says CFA solicited prospective clients primarily through auto-dialing equipment that delivered recorded messages, placing more than three million telemarketing calls each week.

      Many of the consumers called had placed their names on the National Do Not Call Registry. Others had futilely requested to be placed on CFA's in-house do not call list.

      According to the complaint, although CFA claimed to be exempt from the do-not-call requirements of the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) because of its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, CFA mainly generated profits for related for-profit companies and individuals. Therefore, it is subject to FTC jurisdiction and must comply with the TSR, regardless of the form of its corporate organization.

      The complaint charges CFA with acting as part of a for-profit enterprise to generate substantial revenue from the fees paid by consumers, along with TTT Marketing Services, Inc., Sure Guard Credit Corporation, Inc., Anthony P. Cara, Todd A. Rodriguez, and Walter F. Villaume (CFA defendants).

      The complaint also names CFA telemarketing agents Credit Defenders of America, Inc., Credit Shelter of America, Inc., Robert Brown, and Bryan E. Taylor. The complaint contends that the California-based defendants misrepresented that consumers were pre-approved for participation in a debt management plan with particular creditors or were guaranteed acceptance in a debt management plan at a particular interest rate or payment level by particular creditors.

      It further states that the defendants misrepresented the benefits that consumers would receive, including that the interest rates consumers paid would be reduced to as low as zero percent; that the consumers would receive debt management services before their next credit billing cycle; and that the defendants' credit counselors would provide consumers with individualized credit counseling.

      According to the complaint, the CFA defendants violated the TSR by calling consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry and by failing to place consumers' names on in-house do not call lists when requested. The complaint also maintains that they failed to pay for access to the Registry.

      To resolve the charges, CFA, TTT Marketing Services, Inc., Sure Guard Credit Corporation, Inc., Anthony P. Cara, Todd A. Rodriguez, and Walter F. Villaume agreed to pay $250,000 in civil penalties and $606,754 in consumer redress.

      Credit Defenders of America, Inc. and its owner, Robert Brown, agreed to pay $70,000 in consumer redress. Credit Shelter of America, Inc. and its owner, Bryan E. Taylor, agreed to a judgment of $102,540, which has been suspended due to their inability to pay. It will be imposed if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

      Debt Management Telemarketers Settle FTC Charges...
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      AMA Wants Moratorium on Consumer Ads for New Prescription Drugs

      Says the moratorium would benefit both patients and physicians

      The American Medical Association (AMA) is calling for a temporary moratorium on the advertising of newly approved drugs and guidelines for pharmaceutical companies to follow when preparing direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising.

      "A temporary moratorium on DTC advertising of prescribed drugs and medical devices will benefit both the patient and physician," said AMA President-elect Ronald M. Davis, M.D. "Physicians will have the opportunity to become better educated on the pros and cons of prescription drug uses before prescribing them, and will be better able to determine when they are best suited for their patients' medical needs."

      In addition to the moratorium on newly approved drugs (the time interval for this moratorium will be determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)), the AMA adopted additional guidelines for DTC ads, they:

      • should provide objective information about drug benefits that reflect the true efficacy of the drug, as determined by clinical trials;

      • should show fair balance between the benefits and risks of the advertised drugs by providing comparable time or space and cognitive accessibility, and by presenting warnings, precautions and potential adverse reactions in a clear and understandable way without distraction of content;

      • should clearly indicate that the ad is for a prescription drug and refer patients to their physician for more information and appropriate treatment; and

      • should be targeted for age-appropriate audiences; and

      • should receive pre-approval from the FDA

      The AMA also calls for additional research into the effects of DTC advertising on the patient-physician relationship, overall health outcomes and health care costs.

      "The AMA will work with the pharmaceutical industry for universal acceptance of the guidelines so that physicians can help patients obtain appropriate medications," said Dr. Davis.



      AMA Wants Moratorium on Consumer Ads for New Prescription Drugs...
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      "Worst Data Bill Ever" Inches Forward in Congress

      By Martin H. Bosworth
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      June 14, 2006
      Even as more states pass laws protecting their residents from identity theft and giving them more options to control their credit, a bill that could override all state laws for data breaches is slithering through Congress.

      The House of Representatives may vote as early as this week on the "Financial Data and Security Act" (H.R. 3997), sponsored by Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH).

      The bill, dubbed the "worst data bill ever" by Public Interest Research Group's Ed Mierzwinski, would preempt existing state laws that allow consumers to "freeze" their credit and prevent accounts from being opened in their name without permission.

      The bill also preempts states from exerting any authority to investigate data breaches, and would only mandate companies notify customers of a data breach or fraud alert after they have performed a "reasonable" investigation themselves.

      InfoWorld columnist Ed Foster said that the weakness of H.R. 3997 was due to the effects of heavy lobbying by banks, credit bureaus, and other members of the financial industry on Congress. "So we're talking about a lot of big companies with a lot of influence -- i.e., money -- that they can spread around our nation's capital."

      Upstart credit protection company TrustedID has been aggressively campaigning against overturning any state laws. The company recently launched HandsOffMyCredit.com, a "consumer information" site designed to educate readers about the weaknesses of H.R. 3997.

      "The credit bureaus -- and their Washington lobbyists -- are pushing a plan in Congress that will overturn more than a dozen state laws that now offer tens of millions of consumers crucial protections against identity theft and financial fraud," according to the site's mission statement.

      If the "Financial Data and Security Act" becomes law, companies like TrustedID would not be able to market its credit freeze and monitoring products in any state. As it is, the company can only offer credit freezes in states that have passed laws allowing the practice.

      The debate over H.R. 3997 comes at a time when many more states are passing laws that grant consumers stronger preemptive protection against identity theft. New York governor George Pataki recently signed a "credit freeze" bill into law for the state, as well as stronger rules for how businesses dispose of data they collect.

      The state of Washington recently enabled veterans and active-duty military personnel who may have been affected by the theft of 26.5 Veterans Administration (VA) data records to put freezes on their credit reports.

      Colorado passed a law enabling credit freezes that takes effect on July 1st. In discussing the law, Rocky Mountain News columnist Rex Nesmith noted that it doesn't protect victims of data breaches by government agencies.

      "There was a loophole in the law that did not cover the banks or government, such as universities and state colleges," Nesmith said.

      "The experience with [the Veterans Administration data breach] demonstrates thatlawmakers need to close that loophole and mandate notice whenever an unauthorized person has gained access to sensitive information about consumers - no matter what the institution."

      Ironically, Rep. LaTourette invoked the spectre of the VA data breach when he claimed one of his constituents, a 33-year-old disabled veteran from Ashtabula, OH, might have been affected, as someone may have opened a bank account in his name.

      When VA Secretary Jim Nicholson testified before Congress on the breach, LaTourette told him that the story was the "first instance" he had heard of veterans being affected by the breach.

      Worst Data Bill Ever Inches Forward in Congress...
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      Jeep Grand Cherokee May Suddenly Accelerate

      A 52-year-old man was run over and killed by a Grand Cherokee in a Connecticut car wash

      The Connecticut Attorney General is telling federal regulators that they ought to investigate unintended acceleration in the Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee after a 52-year-old man was run over and killed by a Grand Cherokee in a Connecticut car wash.

      The problem is not a new one. ConsumerAffairs.com has published reports of similar accidents since at least 2000, involving the Jeep Grand Cherokee and other Chrysler products.

      Connecticut authorities have received several reports of Jeep Grand Cherokees suddenly accelerating out of car washes while changing gears to "drive" from "neutral," according to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

      Blumenthal also urged the Chrysler group to release any information or history of Grand Cherokees suddenly or unexpectedly accelerating.

      "The rate and severity of these sudden acceleration incidents suggest a severe structural flaw -- certainly more than simple coincidence," Blumenthal said.

      "These incidents -- in one case killing a Connecticut man -- call for aggressive and vigorous action to prevent another needless, preventable tragedy," he said.

      In a 2003 complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, Beth of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, said her mother was driving her 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee into her driveway and had just applied the brake to stop.

      "Instead of the car stopping it accelerated and the brakes didn't stop her, she crashed through the yard, over patio furniture through a table and into a large maple tree."

      Annette of Holdsville, New York, wrote: "My sister went to back my car our of her driveway. She had her foot on the brake, put car in reverse and it took off out of control smashing into a house and causing major damage."

      Blumenthal held a news conference at a car wash in Milford, Connecticut along with Doug Newman who owns a chain of car washes in the state.

      Newman claims to have seen the Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerate at his car wash chain on several occasions.

      "I have been operating multiple car wash locations for almost 20 years. Over that period of time and the few million or so cars washed, I have had only four sudden acceleration incidents and all four of these incidents involved Jeep Grand Cherokees," he said.

      Blumenthal warned that Chrysler should advise car wash owners, auto repairers and insurers about reports of sudden or unexpected accelerations by the Grand Cherokee. He also asked that any findings of sudden acceleration be reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using its online complaint form.

      The Connecticut Attorney General is telling federal regulators that they ought to investigate unintended acceleration in the Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee....
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      Audi A6 Headlight Switch Recalled Again

      The head light switch may lead to an electric short.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is recalling four types of the Audi A6 from the 1998 to the 2000 model years due to a failed recall on t..

      California Supreme Court Rules Against Pearle Vision

      Centers illegally provided eye examination services and sold eyeglassees and contact lenses from the same retail storefronts

      The California Supreme Court has upheld an appeals court ruling which held that Pearle Vision Centers illegally provided eye examination services and sold eyeglassees and contact lenses from the same retail storefronts.

      The ruling clears the way for a consumer protection lawsuit filed in 2002 by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer against Pearle Vision for alleged unlicensed practice of optometry, deceptive marketing and unfair business practices.

      The complaint claims that Pearle Vision's advertising falsely promoted that the company provides optometric services, including eye exams, eye care, professional eye care advice and the services of optometrists.

      Additionally, the complaint alleges the defendants falsely told consumers that the optometrists located in or near Pearle Vision retail outlets were independent. In fact, the optometrists are controlled and financially subsidized by Pearle Vision, according to the complaint.

      "For decades Pearle Vision has flipped and twisted itself, trying to find a way through California law requiring economic independence between optometrists and those selling and dispensing lenses and frames," Lockyear said. "They thought they found a technical refuge but the court stripped away that shelter."

      "Consumers have less protection when the firm selling eyewear also controls the doctor writing the prescription. Today's ruling upholds Californians' insistence that when it comes to their health, those with the credentials should make the decisions," Lockyer said.

      California law prohibits financial relationships between optometrists and retail eyeglass sellers, and also bars retailers from advertising or providing the services of optometrists.

      Pearle had set up a complicated structure that involved selling franchises to optometrists licensed in California. The California Association of Dispensing Opticians sued Pearle, arguing that the franchise program violated state law.

      Pearle then shifted strategies, splitting its operations into two, with Pearle Viosion, Inc. selling eyeglasses and contacts and a separate company, Pearle VisionCare, employing optometrists to perform eye examinations.

      But in its ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Pearle's arguments, which it said violated California's prohibition against the corporate practice of medicine except by licensed health care institutions.

      Pearle Vision operates about 850 stores throughout the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

      California Supreme Court Rules Against Pearle Vision...
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      Movie Fans Suspect Foul Play at the Post Office

      A Branson, Missouri, man thinks that someone in his local post office shares his taste in films.

      A Branson, Missouri, man thinks that someone in his local post office shares his taste in films.

      Robert Halamicek is one of two USPS customers in Branson who have reported that DVDs they rented from online video rental suppliers have arrived one or two days later than expected, with indications the package had already been opened.

      "They are pushing the DVD off the sticky substance that holds it in place in the package," said Halamicek. "Then they are sliding the DVD out of a seam in the packaging." He added that lately whoever is previewing his movies has been steaming the package to make it easier to get at the DVD without tearing the packaging.

      According to Halamicek, the thief or thieves make two small tears in the packaging to first peer inside and see if it's a movie they would like. Halamicek said he frequently receives DVDs on time that have been tampered in this manner.

      If the movie bandit likes the movie, it will arrive one or two days later with the DVD no longer fastened in place in the package, he said.

      After being passed from one department to the next, Robert put in an investigation with his local branch.

      "We watched for his DVDs for a couple of weeks and found no sign of theft," said Branson Post Master Alex Tipton. "If anyone's stealing mail, it's not trivial. I take it pretty seriously."

      "For two weeks it stopped," Halamecik said. "Now it's happening again."

      Robert thought he was alone until one of his coworkers, a Blockbuster.com customer in Branson, shared an identical story.

      "We have not had any other complaints," said Tipton who plans to resume Halamicek's investigation.

      Netflix, which mails 1.4 million DVDs per day, has had almost no problems with mail fraud, Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey said.

      "More than 90 percent of Netflix customers get their DVDs within one day," Swasey said.

      USPS customers who are having this or similar problems should contact their local office by calling 1-800-ASK-USPS (275-8777), according to Patricia Armstrong, spokeswoman for the USPS Office of Inspector General.

      Armstrong said if customers are having problems with someone at the local level, they should talk to the person' supervisor. "Everyone has a supervisor," she said.

      Netflix customers can also file an e-mail complaint with Netflix, which works closely with the USPS, or call 1-888-NetFlix (638-3549), Swasey said.

      Movie Fans Suspect Foul Play at the Post Office: A Branson, Missouri, man thinks that someone in his local post office shares his taste in films....
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      Countrywide Data Breach Still A Mystery


      For every front-page case of identity theft, data breaching, or fraud that endangers the security of thousands, there are others you never hear about.

      What happens to those cases that slip through the cracks?

      Take the case of Joan Carpenter. The Toms River, New Jersey, resident held her mortgage with financial giant Countrywide, and was shocked to receive a letter from her lender in December 2005.

      According to Countrywide, one of their employees had "disclosed documents" relating to her mortgage. Although Joan's mortgage had been paid off, the company still held her records, which put her at risk of identity theft.

      "I was told this breach happened last July in 2005 and I finally received their letter which was dated December 5, 2005," Carpenter told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I only found out this breach occurred in July 2005 from the CardCops.com Web site."

      Carpenter used the toll-free number Countrywide provided to get some more information, but was unsuccessful.

      "The first time I called the male rep who answered wasn't pleasant at all so I didn't bother with it," she said. "But then I called back a week later or so and spoke to someone else who told me that he didn't know when the breach occurred and making it sound like it really was no big deal."

      Carpenter signed up for "Countrywide Credit Guard," a free credit monitoring service offered jointly by Countrywide and ConsumerInfo.com, the subsidiary of the Experian credit agency.

      ConsumerInfo.com has been a frequent target of complaints by subscribers for poor service, and recently settled FTC charges that it had deceptive billed customers for services it claimed was free.

      Several months later, Carpenter doesn't have any answers. According to Countrywide, she was the only letter recipient to inquire or complain about the theft.

      Countrywide representatives who spoke to ConsumerAffairs.com said the same thing. One representative, who asked not to be identified, would not comment further, saying "we take our customers' privacy very seriously, and can't disclose details of a customer privacy issue."

      At a meeting of the American Bar Association's Consumer Financial Services Committee in early 2006, Countrywide's privacy officer, Christine Frye, provided copies of the template for the breach notification letter, and outlined the "corporate" approach her company has taken to data security, such as designating one point of contact for e-mail queries, setting up toll-free numbers, and so on.

      Even after a year, Joan Carpenter still isn't sure of what happened. But she knows that Countrywide could have done a better job of protecting her information and keeping her in the loop.

      "I feel this breach was handled poorly by Countrywide and that sensitive data for current and non-current customers should be safeguarded and/or encrypted," she said.

      Countrywide Data Breach Still A Mystery...
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      FDA Cracks Down on Unapproved Antihistamine

      June 12, 2006

      The Food and Drug Administration has ordered drug companies making cold, cough and allergy medication containing carbinoxamine, an antihistamine, to stop within the next three months. The agency says carbinoxamine is not approved for use in U.S. medicines, and could be a risk to infants and young children.

      The FDA said as many as 26 companies currently produce about 120 medicines containing the unapproved substance. Carbinoxamine is approved for use in only two drugs, both made by Mikart, Inc.

      The FDA estimates that there are several hundred different unapproved active ingredients in prescription drugs on the market. The agency estimates that less than 2 percent of prescribed drugs are unapproved.

      "Right now, many unapproved drugs represent a public health threat because consumers wrongly assume that these widely marketed and available drugs are approved and have been found to be safe and effective by the FDA," said Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.

      "While we want to ensure continued patient access to necessary treatments, as a physician I feel strongly that patients expect and deserve all their prescription medicines to be FDA approved. These unapproved drugs have bypassed the agency approval process through which FDA ensures, based on reliable scientific data, that marketed drugs are safe, effective, properly manufactured, and accurately labeled."

      Many of the unapproved drugs affected by the FDA scrutiny are medicines that were developed and marketed before successive changes to the drug approval process that is established in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

      FDA approval guarantees that a product has been reviewed and will be consistently monitored for safety, effectiveness and adherence with manufacturing quality standards.

      "Unapproved drugs may not meet modern standards for safety, effectiveness, quality, and labeling. Clearly this is a problem we intend to fix," said Dr. Steven Galson, Director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

      How could so many unapproved medicines be on the market?

      The FDA said health care providers are often unaware of the unapproved status of some drugs and have continued to unknowingly prescribe unapproved drugs because the drugs' labels do not disclose that they lack FDA approval. Often these drugs are advertised in reputable medical journals or are included in widely used pharmaceutical references such as the Physicians' Desk Reference (PDR).



      FDA Cracks Down on Unapproved Antihistamine...
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      Some SUV Owners Burning More than Gas

      A growing number of SUV owners unable to cope with rising gas prices are turning to arson to escape high car payments

      A growing number of SUV owners unable to cope with rising gas prices are turning to arson to escape high car payments, according to published reports.

      The trend was first spotted in California during the summer of 2005 as gas prices spiked. Arson investigators report that firefighters responding to a report of a vehicle fire arrived at the Los Angeles River Bed to find two SUVs burning at the same time.

      According to police reports, the California arsonist would advise SUV owners to leave their keys in the ignition and $300 cash in the glovebox, Edmunds.com reported. An accomplice would then take the car to a remote location and set the SUV on fire. After the SUV fire, the owners would contact their insurance company and report the vehicle stolen.

      California police launched a sting operation and an undercover officer posed as an SUV owner who wanted his vehicle burned. The vehicle was left at a predetermined location with cash in the glovebox.

      There was also a camera installed is the SUV to videotape the arsonist. When he removed the money and started to drive away, investigators hit a kill switch and triggered the door locks, trapping the SUV torch inside.

      Several SUV owners are under investigation or facing charges for insurance fraud as a result of the arson and the sting operation in California.

      Vehicle arson has its humorous aspects as well. In Texas, two students were arrested after they torched their high school teacher's car in exchange for passing grades.

      Vehicle arson is a widespread crime in the U.S. Nearly 20 percent of all arsons occur in vehicles and arson is the second-highest cause of vehicle fires.

      Some SUV Owners Burning More than Gas...
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      Wendy's Cuts Trans Fats in Fries and Chicken


      In a move that significantly reduces trans fatty acids (TFAs) on its menu, Wendy's is making the switch to non-hydrogenated cooking oil for its French fries and breaded chicken items. The oil has zero grams of trans fat per serving.

      Wendy's announced that its 6,300 U.S. and Canadian restaurants are scheduled to switch to the new blend of corn and soy oil beginning in August.

      The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a frequent critic of the fast food industry, applauded the move.

      "Quite simply, Wendy's removal of artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oils from its deep-fryers will make its French fries and fried chicken healthier than similar foods at McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and other competitors," said CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson.

      "Wendy's deserves enormous credit for breaking the trans-fat log jam in the restaurant world. Its action proves that other restaurants, big or small, have no excuse for continuing to impair their customers' health by using partially hydrogenated oil. Indeed, chains whose fare is loaded with trans fat are at risk of being sued for marketing unnecessarily harmful foods and not warning patrons of the risk," Jacobson said.

      Wendy's breaded chicken sandwiches, nuggets and strips will have zero grams of trans fat. Depending on the serving size, trans fats in French fry offerings will range from zero to 0.5 grams. Kids' Meal nuggets and fries will have zero grams of trans fat.

      Wendy's also is working directly with its French fry suppliers to further reduce trans fats that occur as part of the par frying process at their facilities, with a goal of zero grams.

      "This is the right thing to do," said Kerrii Anderson, Wendy's interim chief executive officer. "We're proud of our legacy of innovation in the restaurant industry, and these latest steps that enhance the nutritional profile of our food. We're the first national hamburger chain cooking with non-hydrogenated oil in the U.S."

      The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals substitute mono and polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats, and consume as little trans fat as possible as part of a healthful diet.

      Jacobson called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require other restaurants to follow Wendy's lead.

      "To solve the trans-fat problem once and for all, the Food and Drug Administration, that sleeping watchdog, needs to act. The FDA has ignored CSPI's 2004 petitions calling for disclosure of trans fat in restaurants and a virtual ban of partially hydrogenated oil," he said.



      Wendy's Cuts Trans Fats in Fries and Chicken...
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      The Mistakes Borrowers Make, and How to Avoid Them

      A Mortgage Geek Tells All

      What does a consumer need to do to get a fair loan around here anyway? Or better yet, how does one not get taken when searching for a new loan?

      What covers the front pages of many newspapers or Web sites is a smattering of people who have lost their homes or otherwise suffered with an overpriced loan product -- everything from title companies profiting in a kickback scheme to lenders over-promising and under-delivering on closing costs and rates.

      Let's lift the lid on the loan process to see what can be done about the mistakes people make. Just a note -- loan originators, loan officers and brokers all fit into one category that I call "loan salespeople." Their goal is to sell you a loan and, unfortunately, the polite MBAs are more dangerous then the loud and reckless "I-can-sell-a-loan-to-an-Eskimo" type.

      Understandably, many people don't know much about the business of loans and loan salesmen are quick to sniff this out.

      For Openers

      The first question a loan salesperson may ask is, "How did you happen to hear about us?" Depending on your answer, and the questions that will follow, he or she will figure out that you perhaps are the kind of person who hasn't done much research, you will listen to someone who referred you, will not shop around and will react to Web pages with pretty pictures and to postive friendly conversations.

      The questions may not be part of a well-rehearsed script, but you can bet that hidden deep inside a loan salesperson's head is a check-off list, and the salesperson is checking off the items on that list as you talk. I have interviewed many loan officers and sat with them when they take calls or meet with people and, believe me, they will always have an impression about the borrower after a few minutes, and the odds are that impression will be pretty accurate.

      So while the opening conversation may seem to be idle chit-chat, rest assured -- it's not. Your unguarded comments will be used to the salesperson's advantage. There are training courses out there for lenders that teach them how to ask friendly questions.

      For example, you tell the loan salesperson you want the loan to upgrade a room. He or she will ask you why, and you innocently will say that you want your daughter to have a nice new room. "Oh, really, what color?" asks the loan arranger. Purple, you say.

      Rest assured, as the process moves along, the salesperson will keep you focused and will continuously remind you that your goal is to "paint a nice new purple room." The salesman seems to understand your deepest needs, to truly care that the room is done professionally to ensure your daughter's complete happiness.

      It's easy to forget that your goal is not a purple room, it's a loan at the best price and terms possible.

      The Application

      After the initial chit-chat comes the loan application, another step down the flower-strewn path, during which you supply more information that will be used against you later in the loan process. Loan salespeople call it "beating up the customer."

      Without practice, research or doing much homework consumers blindly answer questions as if they are filling out a humorous quiz from Cosmopolitan magazine. Have you gone on the internet and downloaded a copy of a blank loan application, looked at the questions and understood them before talking to a loan salesperson? You should.

      When I was in the business, I had an Assistant Attorney General type a loan application with all the paperwork done like a professional. I was amazed, and because she was on top of it despite her hectic schedule, a divorce, outstanding bills, she got one of the best rates and beat me down on the closing cost. I absolutely loved her.

      Get A Monitor

      One of the best ways to help yourself get the best deal possible is to use a "loan monitor." This is not a person who is a referral from a cousin or a broker who talks "really gooood". They are not mentors because your goal is not to start a new religion or climb up the loan-career ladder. But they are people who have experienced what you will go through, and are willing to look at your paperwork, and show you theirs.

      Your loan monitor can be mom or dad, or a friend who has already fought the battle. They must be near enough to you so you can show them the paperwork and ask questions. Remember to discuss their history of frustration and how they overcame it. Go over their paperwork, start asking questions, write down your own check list.

      When you see your monitor's old Deed of Trust, Note, their Conveyance paper, or their first Truth In Lending, make notes about them. You will be getting the same paperwork.

      Of course, the best loan monitors are those who are in the business but who promise only to give you advice, not to sell you a loan, profit from referrals or sell your info.

      It would be like taking your friend who is a mechanic to another garage. What magical things would you think can happen? You would probably get the best and fastest service at a reduced price. And all the while you would know you were not being taken for a ride. That is what I and my fellow "mortgage geeks" do for borrowers at www.loantactics.com.

      Proceed Cautiously

      It is most important to realize that the loan industry is basically a big machine, just like the health care industry, the automotive industry or the legal system. Many loan salespeople are the products of a "sink or swim" training program. Most don't even own their own homes, yet they make decisions for you.

      But the industry does have web sites, computers, software, advertisements, happy managers, lawyers, lobbyists, all intent on doing some sort of business with or to you. The industry makes billions of dollars, and it always wants more. So comparison shopping is a must, but that doesn't mean you go to one place, wait, then go to another person and wait.

      Get a copy of the first loan application (known as a 1003) and then send that to another lender or lenders with all the paperwork the first one asked you for and then compare the results.

      By the way, it is a myth that your credit will be hurt by submitting multiple applications. If you do it within 14 days increments, it may count less then 25 points against your FICO.

      Other important points:

      The Appraisal Don't be rushed into an appraisal. Loan salespeople want you to sign up for one immediately. Yes, you want to move fast and I have seen orders for appraisals take one day up to several weeks depending on the location and workload. Some 30% to 40% of loans do not get funded for various reasons with some mortgage companies. That means that you will have paid for something that will not help you.

      The Commission Don't ask your loan salesperson to reduce his or her commission right away. You start that conversation and you will be locked into the game of, "Well you don't expect me to do it for free, you wouldn't work for free, would you?" comeback. Your strongest defense is having done your homework and putting the prices in black and white on a piece of paper. Then you can beat up on the salesperson.

      Check Them Out Go to ConsumerAffairs.com's mortgage section or your state government web site, or your loan monitor, and check the background of these companies and/or their brokers. Google it if you want to, you will be amazed what you will find out. Do this for the title companies too. I found a broker in MySpace.com, and reading his lust for drugs and girls made me not recommend him to my clients.

      Paperwork Ask for paperwork. What kind? In this order:

      • copy of your credit report,
      • appraisal,
      • Good Faith Estimates,
      • Truth in Lending,
      • Loan Commitment,
      • Lock Commitment,
      • Preliminarys and HUD-1 (a day or more before closing).

      You may not know what this pile of paper means, or how to use it to your benefit, but your loan monitor will.

      Be Brave

      Be ready for an emotional roller coaster. It really is true that your mortgage will probably be the most expensive transaction of your lifetime, so don't be surprised if it's emotionally draining.

      It's important not to give up. I have seen it so many times -- people become frozen like a deer in the headlights. I can hear the silence on the phone or read the emotions between the lines in the emails. It is combination of information explosion and aimless direction that may kill your will.

      Like sharks, the loan salesperson will smell your fear. And this is where "bait and switch" tactics are implemented, never in the beginning of your loan. It is a last-ditch effort to get the numbers on their side and extra dollars in their pocket.

      You also need to remember that, according to Senate testimony on the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), 83% of borrowers will get stuck with a higher closing cost and rate than promised. That should make your blood boil -- and, more importantly, it should make you vow that you will be ready and able to be among the 17% who get the deal they went after in the first place.

      You can protect yourself. You can get the mortgage that's right for you, with a competitive interest rate, few to no points and low closing costs. But you have to work at it -- do your homework, get good help, pay attention and don't lose your nerve.

      ---

      Dieter Brunner is a former mortgage broker. He is now a principal in the LoanTactics.com Web site.

      The Mistakes Borrowers Make, and How to Avoid Them...
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      Big Savings Available As Major Drugs Go Generic

      $24.7 Billion in Generic Savings Available This Year

      Generic drugs could save U.S. consumers $24.7 billion this year alone, a report finds. The report examined the clinical potential for greater generic drug use in six major drug-therapy classes used to treat common conditions like stomach ulcers, inflammation, depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

      The report, issued by pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, was based on a random sample of approximately three million individuals projectable to the U.S. commercially insured population.

      The $24.7 billion savings potential reflects the introduction this year of new generic drugs in two of the most widely-used classes -- the anti-cholesterol drug simvastatin (generic Zocor) and the anti-depressant drug sertraline (generic Zoloft). In 2005, Zocor and Zoloft had sales of $3.1 and $2.6 billion, respectively.

      Thus, the biggest savings available this year are in the anti-cholesterol class at $10.3 billion. Generics, including lovastatin, pravastatin and ultimately simvastatin, are potent enough to fill 85 percent of all prescriptions for an anti-cholesterol drug, based on existing prescribing patterns.

      On average, only 18.8 percent of anti-cholesterol prescriptions are currently filled with a generic. However, some health plans have already achieved generic utilization in the anti-cholesterol class exceeding 75 percent, according to published reports.

      "We have a tremendous opportunity to conserve precious health care dollars by increasing our use of less expensive generic drugs and still achieve the same clinical benefit," said Dr. Ed Weisbart, Express Scripts chief medical officer.

      The generic fill rate goals utilized in the report are based on an evaluation of clinical efficacy and market dynamics of branded and generic medications. In 2004 and 2005, failure to take advantage of the full potential of generic drugs in the six classes resulted in missed savings opportunities of $20 and $21.3 billion, respectively.

      The Express Scripts report also ranked 2005 generic drug use and savings opportunities by state, revealing significant variations across the six drug categories.

      Last year, California had the biggest absolute savings potential at $1.7 billion, but, on a per capita basis, Kentucky passed up the most savings at $163 per commercially insured life. New Mexico was best at capturing generic savings, leaving only $81 per capita unclaimed.

      Using 2005 data as a guide, the states with the most to gain from greater use of generic anti-cholesterol drugs this year are Delaware, Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky on a per capita basis. The leaders in absolute savings potential are California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

      In 2005, New Mexico and Massachusetts had the highest overall use of generic drugs at 60 and 59 percent, respectively, while New Jersey at 41 percent and New York at 43 percent had the lowest.

      In addition to New Jersey and New York, four other states had generic fill rates of less than 50 percent: Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas. Neither Hawaii nor Alaska was included in the analysis.

      The savings opportunity from increased use of generic drugs has never been greater. More than $50 billion worth of branded drugs will lose patent exclusivity over the next five years. This year alone, $14.3 billion in drug sales are expected to lose patent, with generic alternatives becoming available for at least 16 branded drugs.

      A generic drug costs approximately 60 percent less than a brand name drug, on average. Consumers also pay a lower co-payment for generic medications, saving $15 or more per prescription on average compared to branded medications.

      Weisbart outlined four steps consumers, health plans, health professionals and policymakers can take to increase the use of generic drugs:

      • Increase awareness of the wide number of generic alternatives to brand drugs.

      • Always assess if a generic drug would meet the clinical need; only consider using a brand drug when there is clear evidence that the brand drug provides an important clinical value not available with todays generic medications. This strategy would free up resources to meet other pressing health care needs and help preserve the pharmacy benefit as we know it without impacting quality.

      • Adopt pharmacy benefit plan designs that encourage greater use of generic drugs and share the savings with patients. For example, use programs that provide for trying a generic drug before a brand. Express Scripts recently announced that 14 million members of pharmacy plans it manages are in such programs, a five-fold increase over 2.8 million in 2001.

      • Enact state laws and regulations that support the use of chemically equivalent generic alternatives to brand drugs.



      Big Savings Available As Major Drugs Go Generic...
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