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FDA Warns Against Using High-Strength Hydrogen Peroxide As Medicine
It can cause serious harm or death when ingested07/28/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Warns Against Using High-Strength Hydrogen Peroxide As Medicine...
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to purchase or use high-strength hydrogen peroxide products, including a product marketed as "35 Percent Food Grade Hydrogen Peroxide," for medicinal purposes because they can cause serious harm or death when ingested.
The agency also warned two Texas companies to stop hawking the product as a cure for cancer, AIDS, emphysema and other serious diseases.
"This concentration is not approved by FDA for any purpose," said Dr. Steven Galson, Director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "No one has presented any evidence that hydrogen peroxide taken internally has any medical value. In fact, consuming hydrogen peroxide in the manner touted by these websites could lead to tragic results."
FDA recommends that consumers who are currently using high-strength hydrogen peroxide stop immediately and consult their health care provider.
FDA is working to stop companies selling high-strength hydrogen peroxide from making illegal medical claims about their products. These claims are illegal because these products do not have FDA approval and are therefore being sold illegally for medical indications without any proven clinical value.
The products can instead cause significant harm. As part of these efforts, FDA has issued Warning Letters to two firms illegally selling "35 percent hydrogen peroxide" products on Web sites for the treatment of AIDS, cancers, emphysema, and other serious and life-threatening diseases.
FDA has never approved high-strength hydrogen peroxide to be taken internally and considers hydrogen peroxide at 35 percent strength dangerous, even if handled according to the manufacturer's directions. This high-strength hydrogen peroxide -- more than 10 times stronger than the solution used in over-the-counter drugs to disinfect minor cuts -- is highly corrosive.
Ingesting hydrogen peroxide can cause gastrointestinal irritation or ulceration. Intravenous (IV) administration of hydrogen peroxide can cause inflammation of the blood vessel at the injection site, gas embolisms (bubbles in blood vessels), and potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.
FDA previously warned consumers, in an April 1989 press release, about the illegal promotion of industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide to treat AIDS and cancer, following at least one related death in Texas and several injuries requiring hospitalization.
The warning letters were sent to:
301 W. Witt
Wolfe City, Texas 75496
Frad 35, Inc.
8050 PR 2543
Clyde, TX 79510
"Food Industry Protection Act" Threatens Food Safety
Proposed federal law would pre-empt stronger state measures07/28/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
'Food Industry Protection Act' Threatens Food Safety...
More than 220 state and local food safety and labeling laws including restaurant hygiene codes, milk pasteurization requirements, and even some states' warnings to pregnant women about drinking alcohol or consuming fish high in mercury would be killed if a bill before the Senate becomes law.
The National Uniformity for Food Act (S.3128) purports to bring about uniformity between Food and Drug Administration regulations and various state laws.
The real target, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is California's Proposition 65, which requires warnings on products with ingredients that cause cancer or birth defects. However, many important food-safety functions are primarily carried about by local and state governments, and CSPI says this overly broad bill would eliminate those statutes as well.
"The fallout from this attack on California's Proposition 65 could be the destruction of hundreds of other state and local food safety and labeling laws in every state," said CSPI senior staff attorney Benjamin Cohen. "Parents pouring milk for their kids or dining in a restaurant shouldn't have to worry about getting a foodborne illness. Yet some Senators would place their constituents at greater risk of that just to please the powerful and politically connected food industry."
The bill is opposed by many governors, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), state attorneys general, and state agricultural and food safety officials.
The bill is also opposed by many public-health and environmental groups that say that California's Proposition 65 has been an important force in spurring manufacturers of consumer goods to avoid the use of many dangerous chemicals instead of putting warning labels on packages.
The law has spurred the removal of lead from wine bottles' foil caps and reduced arsenic levels in bottled water. While the law applies only to products sold in California, companies typically reformulate products nationally.
The House passed a companion measure, H.R. 4167, in March.
Bank Of America Goes Global
Charlotte Giant Hopes for Growth in Asia07/28/2006ConsumerAffairs
Bank Of America Goes Global...
America's largest bank is poised to go global. From its base in Charlotte, N.C., Bank of America is preparing to overtake Citigroup as "the world's No. 1 bank according to market value," although its business so far remains mostly in the U.S.
Bank of America's acquisition of credit card issuer MBNA vaulted it into the top tier, earning over $5 billion in revenue for the second quarter of 2006.
Analysts noted that the current push by the Federal Reserve Board to raise lending interest rates would have a greater effect on Bank of America's earnings than its competitors, because it is so dependent on U.S. consumers for revenue, Bloomberg News reported.
Much of the increase in revenue came from the bank's new "card services" division, made up of the remnants of MBNA and selling the company's famous "affinity" branded credit cards.
Part of Bank of America's success with the MBNA merger came partly from the firing of 6,000 employees, mostly based at MBNA headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.
In a July 27 speech to the Wilmington rotary club, Bank of America CEO Bruce Hammond said the layoffs were regrettable, but would have been worse if MBNA had not been bought out.
According to Delaware Online, Hammond told the audience that "MBNA was suffering from a slowdown and struggling in the face of obstacles, including telemarketing restrictions that made it harder to sign up new customers."
MBNA's "slowdown" undoubtedly included a massive drop in revenue from customers paying off and closing their credit cards, leading to a 400 million dollar-plus earnings shortfall.
Hammond and other Bank of America executives were hit with a class-action lawsuit by angry shareholders, after news that the executives sold off their MBNA stock and pocketed millions of earnings.
The China Syndrome
In order to ensure more growth and profit, Bank of America is looking to make the great leap outward into the vast Asian market. The bank is aggressively pushing credit cards and other services in international markets, particularly China.
On July 28th, Bank of America named former Northeast regional banking president Bill Lorenz as its chief operating officer for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Lorenz's task was, in the words of the Charlotte Observer, to "sell more credit cards, business loans and investment-banking advice overseas."
American businesses have found the Chinese market especially difficult to crack, due to cultural aversions to debt and credit spending.
Former Treasury Secretary John Snow was sent to China in October 2005 to sell Chinese investors and businessmen on the idea of using credit to increase spending and buying goods.
Although Snow's efforts were met with skepticism and he was unceremoniously replaced earlier this year with Goldman Sachs exec Hank Paulson, Bank of America is unfazed, and continues to move towards building business in China.
Heavy reliance on U.S. consumers to spend and borrow beyond their means could have damaging consequences for Bank of America.
If Americans continue to slow their spending due to high interest rates, and the spate of credit card holders paying their debts and closing the books continues, going global may be the only way for the banking behemoth to sustain its growth.
Texas Probes Cell Phone Calling Record Sales
Missouri Files Suit Against Locatecell.com07/27/2006ConsumerAffairs
Texas Probes Cell Phone Calling Record Sales...
Two more states are cracking down on the sale of cell phone calling records. Texas said it is opening an "extensive investigation" and Missouri filed suit against one of the companies allegedly selling the records over the Internet.
"This is a serious breach of personal privacy," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "The business of using trickery to obtain consumers' cell phone records amounts to nothing more than the illegal trafficking of private information."
"There are tremendous privacy concerns at stake here," said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said, who filed suit against Locatecell.com. "The phone records of citizens, companies or anyone else should not be available to whoever has a credit card."
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the company last week after Chicago police complained that undercover officers' lives were put at risk by criminals purchasing the officers' cell phone records.
In Missouri, an undercover investigator from Nixon's office initiated an online transaction with Locatecell.com to purchase the records of calls made on his own private cell phone. The investigator received the records a few days later.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are First Data Solutions Inc. and its principal owner, James Kester, of Knoxville, Tenn.; and 1st Source Information Specialists Inc., of Tamarac, Fla., and its director Kenneth W. Gorman, of Jensen Beach, Fla.
According to the defendants' Web site at www.locatecell.com, for $65, anyone may enter a cell phone number and then will receive the name and address of the cell phone user.
For $110, anyone can enter a cell phone number and Locatecell.com will provide a list of calls made from that number. Nixon said the defendants do not have authorization from the wireless and cellular telephone service providers to access the customer information and records that they advertise on their Web site.
"We believe this information has been obtained illegally, and we're asking the court to stop the dissemination of this information," Nixon said.
Texas AG Abbott said he has also contacted cell phone providers regarding the actions they are taking to better safeguard customer information.
Online data marketers promoting the calling record services charge between $50 and $200 for obtaining records of specific cellular phone calls, usually those made over the previous 30 days. Some Web companies falsely tell their customers that these records are public information.
To halt the business practices and to prevent the further spread of these Web sites, Abbott said he was demanding information from several dozen pirate Web companies illegally claiming to have access to private cell phone records for a price. The results of the investigation will determine what legal action may be warranted, he said.
Attorney General Abbott's investigation will also focus on liabilities against those who conduct transactions that open consumers to possible dangers, including possible victims whose information may have fallen into the wrong hands.
Some cell phone users, for example, may seek anonymity because they are protecting themselves from an abusive ex-spouse or a person stalking them. There are also concerns about the release of phone records of officers who work undercover.
What You Can Do
To prevent such abuses, Attorney General Abbott urges consumers to contact their cell phone companies to find out if any party has requested their cell phone records. Otherwise, consumers may have no way of knowing if their privacy has been breached.
Consumers may also request a unique password-protected account through their cell phone companies to prevent others from accessing these records.
The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission are also investigating.
The Death of E-Mail?...
Skin Cancer More Deadly in Darker-Skinned People
Disease is more aggressive and is often diagnosed later07/27/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Skin Cancer More Deadly in Darker-Skinned People...
New research from the University of Cincinnati (UC) shows that dark-skinned people -- commonly thought to be "immune" to most skin cancers -- are more likely than whites to die from skin cancer and its related complications.
Hugh Gloster, MD, associate professor of dermatology at UC, says dark-skinned people -- including blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Indians -- develop fewer nonmelanoma skin cancers compared with whites.
But when the disease does occur, it is typically more aggressive and diagnosed in its later stages, which leads to disproportionately more deaths among minority populations.
The research was presented at the summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in San Diego.
"There's a perception that people with darker skin don't have to worry about skin cancer, but that's not true," explained Gloster, lead author of the study. "Minorities do get skin cancer, and because of this false perception most cases aren't diagnosed until they are more advanced and difficult to treat."
"Unfortunately, that translates into higher mortality rates," he said.
Skin pigmentation cells, known as "melanocytes," produce a chemical called melanin that gives the skin color and helps block out damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and artificial light sources like tanning beds. Dark-skinned people produce more melanin in the skin, and are therefore less susceptible to severe skin "burn" and UV damage.
Dark skin has more epidermal melanin, explained Gloster, which provides a natural skin protection factor (SPF) of more than 13 in dark-skinned blacks, and filters twice as much UV radiation as white skin, which has far less melanin.
Gloster and his UC colleague Kenneth Neal, MD, conducted a retrospective review of clinical data collected over the last 50 years by medical centers across North America, Asia and Africa to determine which epidemiologic and medical features of skin cancer are unique to dark skin.
They determined that while incidence rates of basal and squamous cell carcinomas and melanomas among whites have increased between 5 and 8 percent, rates among blacks for the same period remained relatively constant. More important, although fewer blacks developed skin cancer, a larger number of them died of the disease, Gloster said.
In addition, UC researchers noted that blacks were 8.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma -- which occurs in the upper layers of the skin and is the second most common type of skin cancer -- on areas protected from to the sun (hand palms, toes and mucous membranes) than those areas of the body that are regularly exposed to the sun (the nose, ears and backs of the hands).
This, the researchers said, implies that UV radiation does not play as important a role in the development of squamous cell carcinoma in minorities as it does in whites.
Gloster said physicians should stress behavior modifications, including regular use of sunscreen and self-checks for significant changes in moles and skin texture, with all their patients.
"It's especially important that physicians stress these messages with young women," he adds. "Dermatologists are seeing an increased number of skin cancer cases in women under 30 -- and most are either former tanning bed users or people who don't regularly use sunscreen."
Melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, appears to develop differently in whites than in darker-skinned people in whom the disease usually appears on the palms, soles, and under the nails. These data suggest that UV radiation is not a significant risk factor for melanoma in dark ethnic groups. However, UV radiation is considered a chief cause of the disease in whites -- specifically from intense early-life and blistering sunburns.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of the U.S. population will be black, Asian or Hispanic by the year 2050, which reinforces the importance of early detection and awareness among this population.
"We need to increase public awareness of skin cancer among ethnic minorities if we're going to decrease skin cancer-related deaths," added Gloster. "Prevention is key to fighting this disease."
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 68,700 people will develop skin cancer in 2006 -- about 90 percent of them getting the most serious type, melanoma.
Ethanol Lobbying Disclosures Questioned
Huge Tax Breaks Don't Happen Accidentally07/27/2006ConsumerAffairs
"Ethanol producers receive $2 billion in subsidies from taxpayers, with ADM getting the lion's share," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's ener...
Public Citizen has filed complaints with Congress about potential violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a national association for the ethanol industry, and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), America's largest ethanol producer.
"Ethanol producers receive $2 billion in subsidies from taxpayers, with ADM getting the lion's share," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program. "It's important that the American people have an accurate representation of how this industry influences government officials to help determine how the public's money is spent."
Records show a significant discrepancy between what RFA told the government it spent on lobbying and what lobbying firms reported earning from RFA. As a result, RFA appears to have underreported its true lobbying expenditures to the public by at least $1,220,000 from 1999 to 2005.
In addition, the Illinois-based ADM has stated that it does no federal lobbying, but Public Citizen's review of publicly available information casts doubt on that claim.
After the company paid $100 million in 1996 to settle price-fixing allegations, ADM embarked on a new public relations strategy that focused on emphasizing the company's claim that it does not employ any federal lobbyists.
The contention has proved to be a useful tool to deflect criticism that some of ADM's strong financial position stems from generous public subsidies. As the nation's largest ethanol producer, it receives the largest amount of federal subsidies for its production.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires organizations that lobby on their own behalf or hire outside lobbyists in order to influence Congress or the executive branch to be registered as a lobbying entity or a lobbying client for the purpose of reporting lobbying activities to Congress and providing semi-annual estimates of their total lobbying expenses.
ADM has an office in Washington, D.C., staffed with at least four people, including government relations executives.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the company's political action committee and employees have made more than $2.1 million in federal campaign contributions since 2001, with 63 percent of that total going to Republican candidates.
ADM is attempting to influence public policy. Influence-peddling on Capitol Hill is primarily done through two means: campaign contributions and lobbying. It is very common -- and more effective -- for corporate interests that are attempting to persuade lawmakers to vote for pro-business policies to employ both methods simultaneously.
In its complaint letter about ADM, Public Citizen asks officials to determine whether ADM's government relations staff spends at least 20 percent of its time -- the legal threshold -- on activities to facilitate lobbying contacts with government officials.
Public Citizen believes it is possible that ADM will claim that its employees are exempt from filing because they are restricted to working through the various third-party organizations that the company financially supports, such as the Corn Refiners Association, the Renewable Fuels Association, the National Oilseed Processors Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the AgTrade Coalition and the U.S. Grains Council.
If this is the case, such third-party lobbying exposes serious flaws in the Lobbying Disclosure Act, as it easily allows companies to mask entirely their expenditures to influence the legislative and regulatory process.
Public Citizen also questioned whether ADM has hired lobbyist "consultants" to work on active legislative and regulatory matters pending before the federal government.
This is based on the 2002 Senate lobbying registration filings of former lobbyist Daniel G. Amstutz, who listed the "Farm Bill of 2002," "Trade Promotion Authority" and "Modernization of locks on Mississippi River System" as issues on which he lobbied for ADM. In 2003, Amstutz reversed himself, claiming in a letter to the secretary of the Senate that he was only a consultant and did not lobby for ADM.
Public Citizen contacted ADM in an effort to clarify this discrepancy but received no response.
Feds Target Realtors' Anti-Competitive Practices07/27/2006ConsumerAffairs
Feds Target Realtors' Anti-Competitive Practices...
July 27, 2006
Federal prosecutors are closing in on the real estate industry for alleged anti-competitive practices that restrict home buyers' and sellers' effective use of the Internet, the National Law Journal reported.
Regulators and consumer advocates claim that consumers are being denied access to all the homes listed for sale on public Web sites, such as Realtor.com, and that firms trying to offer cheaper services on the Internet are facing restrictions.
The regulators' concerns echo the findings of a USA Today report and a Consumer Federation of America study, which found that real estate interests control the state regulatory agencies that are supposed to ensure consumer choice and competition.
Most recently, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint on July 13 against the Austin Board of Realtors in Texas for allegedly violating antitrust laws by preventing certain sellers from marketing their listings on public Web sites.
The FTC is also reported to be looking into similar practices in Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.
Also, a lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors is continuing to unfold in a federal court in Chicago, where the U.S. Department of Justice claims that NAR policies obstruct real estate brokers from offering better services and lower costs to online consumers.
The FTC is focusing on operators of multiple-listing services, which let brokers share data on homes for sale and list home sales on Web sites.
In the Texas case, the multiple-listings services operator was the Austin Board of Realtors (ABOR), which prevented certain homes from being listed on public Web sites. Those homes were owned by sellers who entered into nontraditional agreements with brokers who offered cheaper a la carte services, rather than the traditional full-service deal.
Such agreements, known as exclusive agency listings, offer sellers the option of selling their home themselves.
The ABOR policy, which has since been rescinded, had the effect of forcing consumers to list their homes with full-service, full-fee Realtors.
"We are disappointed that the FTC's press release implies that we are guilty of wrongdoing," David M. Foster, president and CEO of the Austin Board of Realtors, said in a statement.
In a proposed settlement of the case, ABOR is prohibited from adopting or enforcing any rule that treats one type of real estate listing agreement more advantageously than another, and from interfering with the ability of its members to enter into any kind of lawful listing agreement with home sellers. The settlement is still awaiting final approval.
The real estate industry has brought much of its trouble on itself by adopting "protectionist" measures, said, attorney Mike Cowie, a former assistant director at the FTC, in the National Law Journal's report.
"There likely will be litigation by smaller Internet-based retailers ... [who] would say they're being driven from the marketplace," said Cowie, now an antitrust lawyer in private practice.
J.D. Power: Travelers Prefer Smoke-Free Hotels
High-Speed Internet, In-Room Coffee Also Essentials07/26/2006ConsumerAffairs
Completely smoke-free environment poised to become the latest differentiator in the competitive hotel industry, according to the latest J.D. Power & Associ...
Offering a completely smoke-free environment is poised to become the latest differentiator in the competitive hotel industry, according to the latest J.D. Power and Associates 2006 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study.
The study finds that 79 percent of hotel customers prefer a smoke-free environment that exceeds the boundaries of their guest room.
While consumers staying at luxury hotels (Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, etc.) are most likely to prefer a non-smoking environment, upscale hotels (Hilton, Westin, Marriott, etc.) have been quicker to adopt this policy. Marriott International Inc., for example, recently announced that all of its lodging brands in the United States and Canada will be 100 percent smoke-free starting in September, and Westin Hotels & Resorts have been 100 percent smoke-free since earlier this year.
"What was once a differentiator is now expected by consumers," said Linda Hirneise, executive director of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "We saw this in the case of branded premium beds and online check-in/check-out, where one hotel introduced the concept and others followed suit. We could see the same kind of trend with the issue of smoking.
"Banning smoking is increasingly commonplace at restaurants across the country, and is gaining a lot of public support; thus, doing so in hotels is a natural next step. However, while going smoke-free could be a powerful marketing strategy, at the end of the day, the key differentiator in a guest experience remains the quality of service," she added.
The study, now in its 10th year, measures overall hotel customer satisfaction across six hotel segments: luxury, upscale, mid-scale full service, mid-scale limited service, economy/budget and extended stay.
Seven key measures are examined within each segment to determine overall satisfaction: reservations, check-in/check-out, room, food and beverage, hotel services, hotel facilities, and costs and fees.
Overall hotel satisfaction increased in five of six segments in 2006, with only the luxury segment declining slightly in satisfaction versus 2005. This may be a result of many hotel brands investing in massive renovations and bundling more amenities and services as a way of enhancing the overall guest experience.
The following hotel brands rank highest in consumer satisfaction within their respective segments:
• Luxury: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
• Upscale: Omni Hotels
• Mid-Scale Full Service: Hilton Garden Inn
• Mid-Scale Limited Service: Drury Inn & Suites
• Economy/Budget: Microtel Inns & Suites
• Extended Stay: Residence Inn
The study finds that the costs and fees factor has significantly increased in importance to hotel customers, becoming either the most or second-most-important influencer of overall satisfaction across all six segments. At the same time, satisfaction with this factor has also declined significantly across several brands.
"Although there is a lot of optimism surrounding the hotel industry with respect to increased occupancy and development, several factors are still taking a toll on the industry," said Hirneise. "Economic forces such as soaring gas prices and increased cost of living are taking their toll on discretionary income. More than ever, travelers are looking for the best value for their money and are becoming more conscious of what each hotel offers as far as complimentary services and amenities when deciding where to stay."
The amenities that consumers most often mention as "must haves" across the various segments include: high-speed Internet access, pillow-top mattresses, complimentary breakfast, in-room coffee/tea maker and a 27-inch or larger television.
The quality of the high-speed Internet access, in particular, can have a strong impact on a customer's likelihood to return to the property and the brand. Fourteen percent of consumers experienced difficulties connecting to the Internet during their most recent hotel stay.
"Customers are extremely pleased with the availability of high-speed Internet access, but it absolutely has to work properly," said Hirneise. "Otherwise, satisfaction declines significantly, and it ends up hurting a brand more than helping."
The study also finds that 43 percent of consumers book their hotel reservations on the Internet -- up from 41 percent in 2005. Customers are twice as likely to book their reservation through a hotel brand Web site (28%) compared with an independent travel Web site (15%).
The 2006 North America Guest Satisfaction Index Study is based on responses from 42,211 people who stayed in a hotel between January and June 2006.
Realtors Thwart Internet-Based Home Sales...
Waddell & Reed Settles Market Timing Case
Will pay $50 million in restitution to investors07/25/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Waddell & Reed Settles Market Timing Case...
The state of New York has reached an agreement with one of the nation's oldest mutual fund management companies to settle charges that the firm permitted illegal trading of its funds.
Under the settlement, Waddell & Reed, Inc., based in Kansas City, agreed to pay $50 million in restitution to investors and make fee reductions totaling $25 million over the next five years. The company also will adopt a series of management reforms.
"The evidence in this case showed that company officials didn't just look the other way at timing activities, they facilitated the transactions with full knowledge that small investors were being harmed, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said.
The investigation found that Waddell & Reed managers had entered into secret agreements with mutual fund timers. Under these agreements, the timers paid extra fees to Waddell & Reed in exchange for trading privileges that were denied to typical investors.
Specifically, in exchange for fees ranging from 1/4 percent to 1 percent of the timers' money, the company exempted the timers from trading limits and other anti-timing policies put in place to protect long-term investors.
Investigation also determined that Waddell & Reed's senior management knew that timing activity was harming the firm's small investors, and yet the company did nothing to stop the harmful activity for a period of 18 months. During that time, the Company's prospectus created the false impression that Waddell & Reed vigorously policed timing activity.
Under the agreement, Waddell & Reed will increase efforts to halt market timing, take steps to ensure that fees charged to investors are negotiated at arm's length, establish an independent board of directors, and improve disclosure of fees and expenses to investors.
Only once in the 20-page terms and conditions brochure, is the restriction explained, and then it is sunk in the final page in a sea of small font....
Easily wins the race to be the dullest car in the land07/25/2006ConsumerAffairs
The Toyota Camry may well be the best selling car in America but it is also head and shoulders above most of the pack in the race to be named the dullest c...
"Vishing" Is Latest Twist In Identity Theft Scam
Similar to phishing, vishing uses Internet phone calls07/24/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
It's called "vishing," and it's similar to "phishing" scams that rely on email to steal consumers identities...
It's called "vishing," and it's similar to "phishing" scams that rely on email to steal consumers identities. Vishing uses Internet telephone calls.
Wary consumers now know better than to click on e-mail links from unknown senders, so "vishers" have dropped links in favor of phone numbers. Using spoofed e-mail headers and camouflaged Caller ID information to make requests appear legitimate, con artists have managed to fool customers of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, as well as PayPal members.
Victims report receiving either an e-mail that appeared to originate from their institution, or a phone call claiming that their account had experienced fraudulent activity and required immediate attention. When consumers called the supplied number, an automated system, much like legitimate customer service systems, instructed the unsuspecting victims to enter their account number in order to be connected to a customer service representative.
What sets vishing apart from run-of-the-mill phishing is its reliance on voip and computers to execute the attacks. War dialers, which sequentially call numbers in a given region, are used to pull in the maximum number of potential victim in a selected area. Virtual numbers and the ability to select both area code and prefix allow criminals to come up with phone numbers that are very close to the real ones. Voip is also a much less expensive platform from which to launch these attacks.
Experts remind consumers that common sense is the best form of defense with any type of scam.
If you are contacted by a company you do business with and are asked for your personal information, thank them for alerting you to the problem, hang up immediately, and then call the customer service number listed on the back of your credit card or on other verifiably genuine correspondence. If there is an actual problem, it can then easily be resolved, however if you were targeted in a vishing attempt, your information will stay secure and the institution being spoofed will now be aware that their customers are being scammed.
The FDA is investigating one report of a death and several reports of injury07/24/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Warns Consumers About Alternative Lyme Disease Treatment...
It's seldom a good idea to take part in an online survey07/23/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The email appears to be from Chase Bank's customer service department and tells the recipient they have been selected at random for the survey offer....
Medication Errors Hit 1.5 Million Americans Annually07/21/2006ConsumerAffairs
Medication Errors Hit 1.5 Million Americans Annually...
Each year as many as 1.5 million Americans suffer illness, injury or death because of mistakes made in prescribing, dispensing and taking prescription drugs, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine.
The reports says medication errors are so common in hospitals that, statistically, a patient will be subjected to a medication error each day of their stay.
While the study found that data on the costs associated with medication errors is limited, one study estimates the cost in the hospital setting alone at $3.5 billion. Another study estimates the cost for Medicare beneficiaries in an outpatient setting at $887 million.
To reduce medication errors, IOM recommended improving communication between patients and providers, enhancing the resources to support consumer-oriented drug information and medication self-management, increasing access to patient information by clinicians and consumers, improving drug product naming, labeling, and packaging, establishing standards for drug-related health information technologies, and providing incentives for the adoption of practices and technologies that reduce medication errors.
"I appreciate this comprehensive report from the Institute of Medicine. While our healthcare system is the envy of the world in many ways, clearly there is room for improvement. This report outlines an ambitious agenda for increasing the safety of the medication use process," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance.
The report recommended the Food and Drug Administration and others develop guidelines to make drug labels less cluttered and confusing. Grassley said action on that point should come sooner rather than later.
"Of particular interest to me as the chair of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, is the Institute of Medicines assertion that almost nothing is known about the benefits and risks of medications for people over age 80 and those taking medications for multiple conditions," Grassley said.
Addressing this point, the report calls for an increase in clinical trial studies as well as giving access to trial data to patients, providers, health insurers, researchers, and regulators. The report also concluded that many medication errors could be avoided if doctors adopted electronic prescriptions, hospitals instituted a standard barcode system for identifying drugs, and if patients were better educated about the drugs they were taking.
The IOM report was mandated by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003.
Dell Denies It Knew of Overheating Battery Problem for Years07/20/2006ConsumerAffairs
Dell Denies It Knew of Overheating Battery Problem for Years...
A published report says Dell might have known about a problem regarding overheating laptop batteries at least two years before the computer goliath issued a safety recall. The company denies it.
A person identified as an anonymous Dell insider leaked scores of documents to CRN, a computer industry publication, that indicated Dell knew of a dangerous battery malfunction for two years before a shocking video of an exploding laptop forced the company to Dec. 16, 2005 recall for about 22,000 laptops.
The source told CRN that the documentation, which included photographs of charred and melted laptops, was distributed to Dell executives years ago.
The documentation showed the following:
One notebook was charred black for several inches on the bottom corner of the unit, about one-half inch from the system fan;
Another notebook with a two-inch hole showing where a section of case had melted away, charred black and brown on the bottom of the unit, on the side, about half-way between the fan and the battery;
More than a dozen notebooks where an inch or two of casing had melted away in the right-hand corner above the keyboard and just below the LCD;
One system that was melted, mangled and charred black on the bottom corner of a notebook;
More than one notebook with black charring around the Ethernet port;
Several units that had melted and warped in the area immediately surrounding the cooling fan;
Several units that had melted or burned away in the area covering and surrounding the laptop battery unit.
Despite the more than a dozen destroyed laptops mentioned above, in the Dec. 16, 2005 recall, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said, "Dell has received three reports of batteries overheating. The incidents involved damage to a tabletop, a desktop, and minor damage to personal effects. No injuries have been reported."
The ConsumerAffairs.com database has only one instance of a Dell laptop overheating.
"My laptop overheated enough to lightly burn my leg if not for clothing," wrote George of Inverness, Fla. "I spoke to Dell on several occasions and was told that nothing could be done because the unit was out of warranty. The unit lasted just short of two years after purchase before crashing."
Jess Blackburn, a Dell spokesman, would not say how many burned laptops have been returned.
"Any notebook that's returned to us that would have some kind of potential safety issue associated with it, gets not only our own engineering review but also that of a third party review," Blackburn said.
Blackburn said he can't speak to the accuracy of the CRN article because the author will not share the documentation from the supposed insider.
"I think Ed (the author) was referencing a dozen notebooks over a quarter in which we sold millions," Blackburn said. "But just because they're rare doesn't mean we don't take them seriously."
Consumers with Dell laptops can go to www.dellbatteryprogram.com to see if their laptop is affected and how to get the new battery.
Toyota Recalls Near 800,000 for July07/19/2006ConsumerAffairs
Toyota Recalls Near 800,000 for July...
Toyota has now recalled almost 800,000 vehicles in July, including 8,500 Prius hybrids as well as some Lexus hybrids sold in the U.S. The Japanese automaker is recalling 418,570 vehicles globally, including 150,000 cars sold in the U.S. and Canada because of a faulty crankshaft sensor.
The recall includes 8,500 Prius vehicles and 26,200 Echos in the U.S.
Last week Toyota recalled 367,594 SUVs, including hybrids, in the U.S because of loose clips in the floor carpet cover that might cause the accelerator pedal to stick.
The vehicles involved in that recall are the Lexus RX 330 and Toyota Highlander SUVs from 2004 to 2005 model years, and the Lexus RX 400h hybrid and Highlander hybrid SUVs from the 2006 model year.
Earlier in July, Toyota recalled 24,200 vans in Japan.
The three July recalls are the latest in a string of problems at Toyota raising doubts over whether the automaker can maintain quality standards amid booming sales.
The Prius recall for a faulty cranshaft sensor does not involve any hybrid components and Toyota will replace, free of charge, the crankshaft position sensor on recalled vehicles.
Toyota warned owners that the connector for the crankshaft position sensor may become disconnected causing the vehicle to stall. The automaker initiated the recall along with NHTSA.
Toyota said there have been no reported cases of accidents or injuries related to the recalled vehicles.
Toyota reports that because of "improper molding of the resin body of the crankshaft position sensor, engine oil may penetrate the seal and enter the connector" in the recalled vehicles.
"In addition, the shape of the locking tab to secure the sensor's wire- harness connector may be improper. In this condition, the oil may expand due to heat from the engine and deform the connector, as well as create pressure on the locking tab, causing the crankshaft position sensor to become disconnected."
If the crankshaft position sensor becomes disconnected while the vehicle is being driven, the engine will stall and will be unable to restart, according to Toyota.
Toyota will notify owners of the involved vehicles of the recall later this month. Owners are requested to contact their local Toyota dealer for diagnosis and repair upon receiving notification.
Last year, Toyota's recalls in the U.S. more than doubled as the number of recalls industry-wide registered a slight decline.
Toyota says it is working to maintain vehicle quality, even as it increases production to meet worldwide demand for its vehicles.
A Penny Saved ... Isn't Worth Much07/19/2006ConsumerAffairs
Now that it costs the government more than one cent to mint a U.S. Penny, pressure is building to eliminate pennies altogether and round prices to the near...
Frequent Flyers Re-Up for Pre-Screening Program
Company reports renewal rate of 100%07/19/2006ConsumerAffairs
Frequent Flyers Re-Up for Pre-Screening Program...
Just one year after the "Registered Traveler" program launched at Orlando International Airport, the company that created the private-sector concept reports a renewal rate of nearly 100 per cent.
"We have near-total customer satisfaction, so people apparently think it's worth the money," said Steven Brill, founder and chief executive officer of Verified Identity Pass, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com.
To get his $79.95 CLEAR card, consumers sign up online at www.FlyClear.com, submit their information to the Transportation Security Administration, and receive approval in less than two weeks.
Less than one per cent are rejected, Brill said.
With 25,700 people signed up for the pilot program in Orlando, Registered Traveler serves 10-15 per cent of the passenger traffic at the airport. As it expands to other airports within the next two years, it may serve more than half the passengers at a business-oriented location like LAX or Chicago's O'Hare, Brill predicted.
There's no cost to the government and passengers' privacy is protected more through Registered Traveler than it is through the E-Z Pass highway toll system. At least that's Brill's theory.
"The big difference between us and E-Z Pass is they have to know where you went because that's how they prepare your bill," he explained. "By having a set fee for a year, we don't need to know that and we don't know that. If I were subpoened and someone held a gun to my head, I couldn't tell you where or when any of our members used their card."
The 55-year-old Brill, who said he is a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said his company includes an identity-theft warranty as part of the CLEAR card membership.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to do this," he said. "We built our website so that we can't track you."
There's an independent privacy ombudsman charged with fielding potential violations. He can post his findings on the website without interference from Brill or his staff.
The creator of Court TV and a magazine called The American Lawyer, Brill founded Verified Identity Pass three years ago.
"We decided Registered Traveler would be a private-sector program supervised and regulated by the TSA," he said. "We don't make security decisions. When someone applies to join our program, we send the information to TSA. They do the background check and give us a yes or a no. We do everything else."
According to Brill, 21 airports have expressed interest in Registered Traveler and three -- San Jose, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis -- have already signed contracts to work with his company. He also said eight Category X airports (the largest) showed interest during a conference call with the TSA last week.
The idea is that pre-screened passengers pass through security faster -- thereby reducing the crowding in remaining lanes and making all lines shorter in length and duration.
"They didn't make the George Washington Bridge wider when they added E-Z Pass," Brill said. "They just figured out a way to predict and allocate the number of people coming through with or without it. E-Z Pass is great for the person who has it but it's also good for the people who don't."
He said Registered Traveler works the same way.
"If our process moves 15 per cent faster and I put 10 per cent more people in my lane, my lane will go faster than before but the other lines and lanes will be shorter," Brill insisted.
He added that new equipment now being tested will permit passengers to leave shoes and jackets on, thereby speeding up the process by almost 45 per cent.
"Originally, everybody thought this was going to be one big government contract with usual suspects," Brill recalled, "but I thought taxpayers shouldn't pay for it. I also worried about the privacy implications of having one program that kept all the data was really ominous. And I wanted customer service to be good: if you call our 800 number, you want a real person to answer the phone in two rings. You want good service, privacy protections, competitive pricing, and the ability to cancel and get your money back the day you're not satisfied."
Brill's concept has many fans in Florida.
According to Henry Morgan of Ocoee, 30 miles northwest of Orlando International, "The last time I went through the CLEAR post and got to the X-ray line, the guy in front of me (who had waited 50 minutes to get to that point) said, 'Wow! How did you do that?' When I started explaining CLEAR, the TSA guy attending the roll-out part of the machine handed him a CLEAR brochure. I was completely through all of security in less than four minutes."
Morgan, a regional manager for Highline Products, flies an average of three times per month andt insists the program is worth the cost.
"It's still a bargain even though it is only in Orlando and only for outgoing flights," he said. "I no longer have to rise at an inhumane hour to make a 7 a.m. flight. In fact, my last flight was saved by CLEAR. Due to some unanticipated delays at home, I just made my flight. Had it not been for CLEAR, I surely would have missed it."
Morgan, whose home is 12 miles due west of downtown Orlando, said he has been a happy CLEAR customer since July 20, 2005 -- three days after it started.
Senior Investment Fraud Increases as Population Ages
Investment fraud against senior already accounts for half of all complaints07/18/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Senior Investment Fraud Increases as Population Ages...
With the first 'Baby Boomers' turning 60 this year, state securities regulators warn that investment fraud among seniors, which already accounts for nearly half of all investor complaints received by state securities regulators, could grow significantly.
"The current landscape facing senior investors is littered with slick schemes and broken dreams," said Patricia D. Struck, Wisconsin Securities Administrator and President of the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA).
"While our cases of senior investment fraud may not make national headlines, they are devastating in their impact to the victims and their families," Struck told the Seniors Summit hosted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Struck released a survey which found that an estimated 44 percent of all investor complaints received by state securities regulators are made by seniors. In addition, the survey found that 31 percent of all enforcement actions taken by state securities regulators involve senior investment fraud.
In Florida, for example, an estimated 75 percent of all investor complaints are made by seniors. The survey also shows that in North Carolina an estimated 50 percent of all enforcement actions involve cases of senior investment fraud.
"These early results show that senior investment fraud is a serious ongoing problem and we fear that it will only grow without targeted enforcement and enhanced investor education," said Struck.
"We will not tolerate the victimization of senior investors by con artists. The most effective weapon against senior investment fraud is a one-two punch of aggressive enforcement efforts combined with financial education to protect investors from unscrupulous individuals," she added.
The NASAA survey also found that unregistered securities, variable annuities, and equity-indexed annuities are the financial products most commonly involved in senior investment fraud.
In Tennessee, an estimated 80 percent of the state's senior investment fraud cases involve unregistered securities, while California and Maryland estimated these cases make up 75 percent of its senior investment fraud caseload. Cases involving variable or equity-indexed annuities represented an estimated 65 percent of the caseload in Massachusetts, and 60 percent of the caseload in Hawaii and Mississippi.
"While my colleagues and I currently see a proliferation of troubling schemes involving unlicensed individuals promoting and selling unregistered securities to seniors, we are also concerned about the way in which variable and equity-indexed annuities are marketed and sold to seniors," said Struck.
"Variable and equity-indexed annuities are legitimate and suitable investments for some, but we believe these products are unsuitable for many retirees and are being aggressively pitched to seniors through investment seminars nationwide."
Average New Vehicle Gets 21 MPG07/18/2006ConsumerAffairs
U.S. Fuel Economy Stagnant for 12 Years...
ChoicePoint Gets a Makeover
Data Broker Cleans House, Burnishes Image07/17/2006ConsumerAffairs
ChoicePoint Gets a Makeover...
The company is most widely known for its inadverent sale of thousands of individuals' data records to a ring of Nigerian identity thieves in 2005, and for triggering an avalanche of media coverage of data breaches, identity theft, and online fraud.
The company paid $15 million for its trouble, and since that time, has implemented a series of steps it hopes will improve security. It's also placed restrictions on the types of records it sells, and has moved away from contracts with government and law enforcement agencies, which has cost it millions in revenue.
Even with the hiring of former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) administrator Carol DiBattiste as its new privacy officer, and commendations from the likes of Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan, ChoicePoint is still buried under a mountain of bad press and negative public sentiment.
Privacy advocates, security specialists, and media pundits have not cut the company much slack, using ChoicePoint almost as a synonym for the shadowy, complex, and often frightening world of data brokers.
On July 10th, the company announced it was selling several of its business components, including a direct marketing firm, even as stock analysts continued to express wariness about the company's long-term financial prospects and modest profit gains.
In the words of company president and chief operating officer Doug Curling, "we are improving our reach and meeting with lots of media and privacy folks to address the different biases people have."
Corporate communications vice-president Matt Furman believes that "there's a lot of mythology about us that needs to be shed ... we're not like any company out there."
Thus it was that I received an invitation to sit down with some of the company's biggest players and get a first-hand account of how the company is -- and is not -- changing its ways.
The Inside Job
ChoicePoint's government affairs and privacy division is headquartered in a nondescript office building in McLean, Virginia, the Washington suburb that is also home to the CIA and its secretive band of contractors.
As Nicole Bertucci, DiBattiste's cheery special assistant, used her ID card to get us through the door and past several generic offices and cubicles, I noted how such a powerful organization as this could be so utterly normal in appearance. Indeed, this could be any office, in any city.
According to Doug Curling, the company's new media push is to prove how precisely normal they are. When I asked him how they could not see the potential for a mistake like the data breach, he said, "We're not omnipotent. We made a mistake, and said, 'Now let's learn from that and see what we can do better.'"
Curling, an affable, loquacious fifty-something with a mop of silver-grey hair, was not at all shy about evangelizing ChoicePoint's mission and its new push for transparency.
In a meeting of five people, he did virtually all of the talking on the company's part. His goal, he said, was to "cut through the media clutter" and help people "understand how the industry works."
Curling claims that the company is not in the business of selling the records that people think it sells.
"Of the data we possess, we don't do medical records, DNA transactions, or share financial records," he said.
So what makes up the bulk of the reputed 19 billion records that the company holds and shares?
The majority of ChoicePoint's data brokering, claimed Curling, was in auto and home insurance risk assessments. Insurers use the reports ChoicePoint provides to gauge the "underwriting risk" of potential borrowers and price their premiums accordingly.
The practice of using ChoicePoint's "CLUE" reports to gauge an insurance premium has been heavily criticized for relying on data that may be inaccurate or out of date, but Curling emphasized the need for "pricing premiums according to uniqueness."
"There's such a high propensity for insurance fraud out there," he said, "we have to find ways to lower the underwriting risk, and aggregated statistics help lenders gauge the level of appropriate risk to them and yourself."
ChoicePoint's other major market, Curling said, was in "pre-employment screening," providing comprehensive personal profiles of individuals' birth records, employment histories, police records, and so on to major corporations and businesses.
Even with the company's recent shedding of several of its subsidiaries, ChoicePoint still owns or controls a dizzying array of companies that trade in sifting the billions of data troves for viable data on individuals.
ChoicePoint acquired the "Bridger Insight" software system, partnered it with ChexSystems, the infamous database of rental histories owned by information services company eFunds, and put the two together to help banks and lenders comply with the PATRIOT ACT's mandate for investigating potential borrowers for terrorist activity.
ChoicePoint also owns VitalChek, one of the biggest clearinghouses for processing documents that verify a person's birthplace, date of birth, and general identity.
On June 28th, the company bought the assets of USCERTS, a Memphis, TN-based data company that provided software systems for managing identity documents, and planned to put the new assets to work expanding its VitalChek operation.
ChoicePoint's primary focus these days isn't as much in data collecting as much as it is in data analysis -- combining different bits of data about a person and providing a particular equation.
"What if the government came to you and asked you to find out something about me?" I asked Curling.
"If a law enforcement agency wanted us to find something about someone, we would do it, but we'd need a source to start with," he said.
Furman concurred. "We don't just collect records and dive right in."
"It wouldn't be about you, per se," added Curling. "They'd be looking for the guys next to you -- the people you might be associated with."
"Everyone's In The Data Business"
Analyzing and correlating data isn't the same as just hoarding and reselling it, but the fundamental flaw of all data brokers is the same -- if the data itself is inaccurate or out of date, it can unfairly hamstring the person being investigated.
How many times have you had to mail or telephone a credit bureau and demand that they remove an inaccurate record from your report, or to update their files with your proper personal info?
Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, has been a strong proponent of greater accuracy in reporting and responsibility on the part of the data brokers to verify and correct the records they parse.
In submitted testimony to the Federal Trade Commission on the subject in May 2006, Givens cited multiple examples of mistakes in the CLUE reports, including a consumer who ordered his report while seeking a new insurance deal, and got one that contained his father's information instead.
Givens also advocated stronger and specific legislation specifically for employment screening, as those records are much more permanent and potentially harmful than negative credit items.
"A job applicant's ability to see an employment report is triggered by the employer's willingness to acknowledge that something in the report led to an adverse decision," she said. "Rather than following the FCRA procedure, an employer may simply say there was a more qualified candidate."
Not surprisingly, ChoicePoint believes the responsibility for maintaining accurate records rests largely with the records source, not the aggregator.
"We mostly utilize public records for our businesses," Curling said. "We provide our clients with extra effort to ensure accuracy and the best, most up-to-date records we can, but you have search engines like Yahoo and Google that everyone uses. Who vouches for their results? Do you hold them responsible if you get bad records back?"
In fact, all of the ChoicePoint executives I spoke to made the same claim -- they are more heavily regulated and monitored than virtually any other agency in their business. And according to Curling, "Everyone is in the data business, but few are more regulated than we are."
In addition to their compliance with all the laws that govern credit bureaus, chiefly the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), Carol DiBattiste outlined how the company is providing regular audits of its work on the business and consumer levels, "including heavy credentialing on both the front-end and back-end" of their systems.
Furman detailed how the company will be developing video presentations of how to get one of its reports, and the new "identity quiz" users will be taking to gain access to particular products. "We're very far ahead of the game when it comes to our transparency," he said.
But is it enough? Many don't think so. I asked Ed Mierzwinski, head of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, if the company's new practices were enough to assure trust in its business.
"ChoicePoint and other data brokers need robust regulation based on 'Fair Information Practices'," he said.
Mierzwinski has written at length that existing federal laws such as FCRA and FACTA are weak, and don't do enough to assure consumer privacy and security. In 2005, he endorsed legislation authored by Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) that would reestablish and strengthen state consumer privacy laws, such as the laws in California that forced ChoicePoint to disclose the sale of its data to criminals.
"Were it not for California's previous enactment of security breach disclosure legislation, for example, we would not have found out about the ChoicePoint fiasco," he said.
Curling pointed to the disclosure as an example of ChoicePoint's willingness to come forward and be honest about its business practices -- including its mistakes. "We took a huge hit by coming forward like we did, " he said. "But it was the right thing to do."
Curling expressed his preference for universal federal privacy laws over the "mosaic quilt" of multiple state laws.
"Simplicity works," he said. "I find that market pressures, and media pressures, work much better to ensure better business than regulation."
"The government can't regulate itself, so they try to regulate private business to compensate," he said. "Why aren't they dealing with the NSA asking for people's records, instead of the companies giving it to them?"
"Schizophrenic About Privacy"
Perhaps surprisingly, Curling expressed ambivalence about today's information-saturated culture, with the emphasis on knowing everything you can about someone all at once.
"Companies are looking at social networking sites like MySpace to check potential employees. They shouldn't be doing that, but it happens anyway," he said. "I tell my kids, 'Anything you put on there is going to come back to you later.'"
Curling called the Internet "the opposite of Las Vegas -- what happens in Vegas stays there, and what goes on the Internet's permanent and follows you around."
Curling also expressed a distaste for "loyalty cards" and customer affinity programs, noting that he doesn't want Budweiser knowing how often he buys a six-pack.
The president of the world's most notorious data brokerage company expressing his concerns over the lack of privacy in modern society seems odd, but as Curling put it, "Americans are schizophrenic about privacy. They like the convenience of having all of this information at their fingertips, but don't like the idea of it coming back to them."
Curling may be right, but Americans also don't like the idea of bad data collection practices leading to the loss of a job, being confused with a criminal, or having to spend months monitoring all of your financial transactions for identity theft.
The cost is both personal and professional. According to the information technology magazine Baseline's report on ChoicePoint from 2005, the Data Warehouse Institute estimated the aggregate costs of data errors or mistakes at $600 billion yearly.
That same report quoted IT executive Randy Bean as saying that data brokers and aggregators need "the greatest sensitivitybecause people very willingly share their information with these organizations, be it when they make retail purchases or open bank accounts or medical record ... And the organizations that capture that data ... ultimately must have responsibility for how that data is used and where it goes."
As I prepared to leave, I wondered if, now that I had sat down and talked with these people face-to-face, it would be harder to write an article blazingly critical of their business practices.
I hope so, because while media criticism may be an annoyance to companies like ChoicePoint, the use of inaccurate data or false analysis by a potential employer or creditor can be a disaster for individual consumers.
At ConsumerAffairs.com, our editors constantly remind us in extremely vivid language that we are always to put consumers' interests first. That's not the same as being anti-business, it simply means that when competing interests clash, it's our job to represent the individual, not industry or government.
Curling claims his company has a less than 1/10th of 1 percent error rate, but that's still plenty of room for damage to a good number of people, who may or may not have the time, energy and know-how to get things straightened out.
ChoicePoint's humbling at the hands of Nigerian data thieves and the drubbing handed to them by the press and public has pushed them to pay much more attention to consumer concerns and data security needs, instead of focusing solely on client and shareholder desires.
But there is still something of a laissez faire attitude towards the reams of data the company collects, repurposes, and resells. As long as that's the case, their work can do as much damage as good.
Any company that is a leader in its field takes more heat by advocates looking out for consumers and other special interests. ChoicePoint seems to realize that and is aware that, as long as the data brokerage industry exists, critics will demand greater accuracy, oversight, and transparency.
As I left, vice president of governmental affairs David Davis told me to "keep testing us." And I will. As long as companies are building data profiles of us that may determine our fates, we'll be watching them for every potential mistake they make.---
Agencies, Retailers, Manufacturers Stand Idly By For Years While Glass Tops Explode07/15/2006ConsumerAffairs
Sounds of Summer: Martha Stewart Tables Shattering...
Test Drive: 2006 Toyota Prius
Three Lead Feet Meet Little Fuel Sipper07/14/2006ConsumerAffairs
Test Drive: 2006 Toyota Prius...
The Prius is easy to like when you pull up to the gas pump but the little car takes forever to get to the filling station so it will help if you like the hybrid in between fill-ups.
At first glance, the Toyota appears a lot like any other little car but there is one big difference: With the Prius, it helps to read the owner's manual before attempting to start the thing.
None of the computer-savvy members of the ConsumerAffairs.com staff were able to start the car without consulting the owner's manual or asking for help. The starting procedure is not complicated but it's certainly not intuitive.
The futuristic look of the Prius comes with some futuristic features. There is a rear-view camera to show the way in reverse, a laser "smart key" and a very space-age-looking dashboard.
So before we get to the important part -- gasoline mileage -- let's talk about the "smart key" and other electronic baubles on the Prius.
Toyota describes the "smart key" as part of its theft prevention and immobilizer system.
When you "press the power switch, the electronic code in the key is automatically checked to determine whether it corresponds to the registered ID code for the vehicle," according the Prius Owner's Manual. "If the ID code is verified, you can start the system."
With your foot on the brake, you simply press the power button. That's right, the power button. The Prius is now ready to drive. Just to make sure you know that, the "ready" light in the dashboard console comes on to tell you so.
You don't feel the electric motor turn on and the gasoline engine may not fire up right away. When the Prius tells you the car is ready you can believe your eyes and forget about your ears as you quietly start to slip out of your driveway or parking space.
The engineering magic of a full hybrid powertrain that can propel a vehicle using gasoline, electricity or both is in the control system and its software. A computer manages the blend of power from the electric motor and gasoline engine. The computer also controls the hybrid's regenerative braking system that captures the vehicle's kinetic energy and turns it into electricity.
Good to Go?
While the process is seamless, the moving-on-down-the-road part is where people begin to differ in their view of the Japanese hybrid.
The Prius is not a powerful car. There is the rub.
Depending on your perspective, the hybrid accelerates smoothly to highway speed and beyond, or the little car just takes forever to get up to speed and into traffic. Jim Hood ran out of patience trying to clock its 0-60 performance and Joe Enoch just about ran out of pavement as he hot-footed onto an off-ramp.
The Prius comes with a full slate of standard equipment that includes full-time traction control and ABS braking. Nevertheless, at Beltway speeds around Washington the Prius is a little short of confidence-inspiring and the thin tires do not provide a lot of grip.
But while the Prius is at or near the bottom end of the acceleration curve, I found plenty of power to comfortably move into high-speed traffic as I engaged both the electic motor and gasoline engine.
Buying a Prius can take longer these days than jumping into freeway traffic. The waiting lists are back, along with $3 a gallon gasoline.
Two months ago there were Prius models that sat on the showroom floor. This month most Toyota dealers are out of cars as demand again outstrips supply.
The wait is currently about four weeks.
After you stand in line for your opportunity to buy a Prius you will still be in a minority on the great American highway. Though hybrid sales more than doubled in 2005, they still make up only about 1 percent of overall vehicles sales nationwide.
Once you are in the car, the Prius certainly seems to have every electronic gadget available these days. It's a hoot to drive. As an economical and environmentally friendly people mover, I give the car top marks. But try to drive the Prius like a Porsche and you will be disappointed.
Oh yes, you have to contend with the reaction of other motorists when driving a Prius too. No kidding, a lot of people just don't seem to like the car.
The Prius attracted some mildly hostile attention from other motorists as we drove around Northern Virginia. The staff wrote this off as politics as usual in the greater Washington area. More than most areas, Washington, D.C., drivers see your choice of car as a political statement.
Nevertheless, driving the Prius makes it easy to understand why some people feel they are making a contribution to the environment and their fellow man. The little car moves lightly on the earth.
At the neighborhood grocery store, I parked near former Secretary of State Colin Powell as the general sat in his powerful C6 Corvette. I could not resist exuding a slight environmentally conscious smirk as I walked by the high-powered combo on the way to buy a handful of groceries. (Editors Note: We are available to test drive a Corvette C6 ZO6 anytime).
Politics aside, the Prius passed the all-important grocery run test with high marks. Everything fit nicely into the trunk space without overflowing into the passenger compartment.
As we mentioned earlier, the Prius dashboard is an electronic dream. Speed, miles driven and other important information are available as digital readouts where the dashboard meets the windshield.
The center console of the Prius houses a computer screen that provides constant mileage and energy consumption data as well climate and stereo controls.
The Big Question
So now we move on to the important question -- gasoline mileage in the Prius.
We will have to be upfront and offer a couple of disclosures here. Toyota delivered the Prius with 87 highway miles on the car and the gasoline mileage indicator built into the center console recorded 48.6 miles per gallon from the delivery trip.
The window sticker that came with the Prius says that the hybrid gets 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. The mileage claims have been the subject of heated debate and complaints among readers of ConsumerAffairs.com.
We were unable to divide our Prius driving equally between city and highway driving since, unfortunately, highways around here are about as crowded and slow-moving as city streets. So the ConsumerAffairs.com staff simply did the best we could: we pounded the Prius over 7 days in Washington and Northern Virginia traffic.
We spent a number of miles on the Beltway and I-66 and on such urban thoroughfares as the Fairfax Country Parkway and Route 28 around Dulles Airport. We drove the car hard and heavy, trying to see just what sort of mileage this little gas saver would or would not produce.
At the end of seven days we filled the tank. We had driven 298.71 miles. The Prius took 6.59 gallons. That works out to 45.2 miles per gallon. The onboard computer showed the Prius delivering 43 miles per gallon, suggesting the car had been filled to the brim before delivery to us.
Split the difference and you have 44 miles per gallon in a car driven by three lead-footed reviewers who broke every rule of fuel-efficient driving they could think of.
No, the Prius didn't get 60 miles per gallon but, being driven hard through some of the worst traffic in the country, we'd have to say it did pretty well.
The sticker price on the 2006 Prius Toyota provided for our test drive is $23,966.
The manufacturers suggested retail price for the base Prius is $21,725 and the car carries option package number 3 costing $1,475.
Option package 3 includes Rear Backup Camera, Smart Key System, AM/FM CD with 6 speakers, Auxiliary Audio Input Miniplug and MP3/WMA Playback Capability, Driver and Front Seat-Mounted Side Airbags, Front and Rear Side Curtain Airbags. The carpet, floor mats and cargo mat in the Prius cost an additional $186.
Toyota provided ConsumerAffairs.com with the Prius for a one-week test drive.
Cable Companies Outscore Phone Companies in Customer Satisfaction
Cox Ranks Highest in Three Different Regions07/13/2006ConsumerAffairs
Cable Companies Outscore Phone Companies in Customer Satisfaction...
Cable companies that are aggressively enticing telephone customers with attractively priced service bundles are also outperforming traditional phone companies in satisfying customers, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Residential All-Distance Telephone Customer Satisfaction Study.
The study, which measures customer satisfaction with both local and long-distance telephone service, finds that cable companies rank highest in customer satisfaction in five of six U.S. regions.
In 2005, just one cable company -- Cox Communications -- led any of the regional customer satisfaction rankings. It now ranks highest in three regions, while newcomers Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable each rank highest in one region. Verizon is the sole traditional phone company ranking highest in a region.
"While telephone service offered by cable companies is relatively new to the market, large numbers of customers are being lured to switch with enticing cost savings and highly attractive bundles of video, voice and data service," said Steve Kirkeby, executive director of telecommunications and technology research at J.D. Power and Associates.
"The importance of pricing as a reason to bundle service with a single provider has increased dramatically this year, no doubt a result of significant price competition introduced when cable companies began offering local and long distance telephone service to new markets," he added.
Although price competition plays a significant role in the industry today, customer-reported spending on local and long distance service has increased 3.4 percent from 2005.
On average, customers report paying $52.40 per month for local and long distance service -- up from $50.70 in 2005. Customers of cable providers report paying an average of just $42.40 per month, while reported spending with traditional telephone companies averages $53.59.
"We're seeing that for the first time customers are most often contacting their all-distance carrier about rates, pricing and features while questions about billing have dropped dramatically, spotlighting how intense competition and simplified rates are changing customer focus," said Kirkeby. "However, the study findings consistently indicate that price alone will not satisfy or retain customers."
The study finds customer satisfaction in the telephone industry continues to decline. Overall, satisfaction index scores have dropped from 692 (on a 1,000-point scale) in 2005 to 670 in 2006. Satisfaction has fallen in all six factor areas measured in the study, dropping most significantly in the areas of customer service, image and billing. The other areas measured are performance and reliability, cost of service, and offerings and promotions.
"Although cable companies entering new markets average satisfaction scores that are more than 30 index points higher than the industry as a whole, and despite nearly doubling their share to just under 10 percent of the telephone service market, cable companies are not yet a large enough force to propel overall satisfaction higher," said Kirkeby.
"Overall satisfaction drops as the industry continues to struggle with consumer uncertainty caused by several large, well-publicized mergers and divestitures among the traditional phone companies. Changes such as these always take their toll on customer satisfaction," he noted.
The study results by region are:
• Northeast Region: Cox Communications ranks highest, receiving the highest ratings in the region in performance and reliability, billing, image, customer service, and offering and promotions.
• Mid-Atlantic Region: Verizon ranks highest, outperforming other carriers in billing, image, cost of service, and offerings and promotions.
• Southeast Region: Bright House Networks ranks highest, with top ratings in the region in customer service, billing and image.
• North Central Region: Time Warner Cable ranks highest, with the highest ratings in the billing and cost of service factors.
• Southwest Region: Cox Communications ranks highest, with particularly high ratings in customer service, billing and image.
• West Region: Cox Communications ranks highest in the region for a fourth consecutive year, receiving top ratings in all six factors.
Congress May End Wal-Mart's Banking Dreams...
Husqvarna, Craftsman, Poulan Pro, Poulan, Weed Eater, Southern States, Murray Lawn Tractors07/11/2006ConsumerAffairs
Husqvarna, Craftsman, Poulan Pro, Poulan, Weed Eater, Southern States, Murray Lawn Tractors...
July 11, 2006
Husqvarna is recalling about 174,000 lawn tractors because of a fire hazard. The tractors were sold under the Husqvarna, Craftsman, Poulan Pro, Poulan, Weed Eater, Southern States and Murray brand names.
The fuel line on these lawn tractors can separate from the fuel tank outlet. If this occurs, fuel will spill out, posing a fire hazard.
Husqvarna Outdoor Products Inc. received 886 reports of fuel lines that separated from the fuel tank outlet and 16 reports of fires related to this issue. There are three reports of minor personal injury.
Recalled tractors' product, model and serial numbers are listed in the chart below. To determine if a tractor is included in the recall, check the lawn tractors' product, model and serial numbers, located on a label under the seat of the tractor.
The tractors were sold at home centers, retailers, hardware stores and dealers nationwide from September 2005 through June 2006 for between $820 and $1,500.
Consumers with recalled tractors should immediately stop using the tractor and contact the applicable firm listed below to schedule a free repair.
|Brand||Product Number||Model Number||Serial Number|
Monday through Saturday
between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET.
Monday through Friday
between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET
Monday through Friday
between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET
|Poulan Pro®||960420020 00|
Monday through Friday
between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET
|Southern States||960420011 00||SO20H42YT||120905-X00XXXX|
Monday through Friday
between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET
|Weed Eater®||960160014 00|
Monday through Friday
between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET
Consumer Contact: For more information, call Husqvarna Outdoor Products Inc. toll-free at (866) 284-8872 or visit their Web site at www.husqvarna.com. Consumers with Craftsman-brand tractors should call (800) 659-5917. Consumers with Poulan Pro, Poulan, Weed Eater, Southern States or Murray brand tractors should call toll-free at (866) 284-8872.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Text Messaging Charges Surprise Cell Phone Users
It is frequently parents who include their Internet and text messaging-addicted children in their plans, who suffer the most.07/11/2006ConsumerAffairs
Text Messaging Charges Surprise Cell Phone Users...
Cell phone customers are frequently shocked when their first bill arrives and it is tens, sometime hundreds, of dollars more than expected.
It is frequently parents who include their Internet and text messaging-addicted children in their plans, who suffer the most.
ConsumerAffairs.com examined all the fine print, pored over contracts, called the companies and compared the rates of four major U.S. cell phone carriers: Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, Verizon and T-Mobile (see table below).
Don't Want It? You Got It
The upshot: Just because you're not buying it doesn't mean you won't pay for it.
The standard cell phone plan consists of a few hundred "anytime minutes" and free night and weekend minutes. This standard plan usually runs between $30 and $60 per month and does not include text messaging or Internet packages which together will normally run about another $30 per month.
Chances are the salesperson won't push you into buying those services because whether you asked for them or not, you already have them.
All cell phone companies include these services and then charge per-use fees which may be impossible to avoid.
For example, if you decide not to get a text messaging package, no matter what the carrier, you will still be charged 10 cents for each text message. That includes messages sent and received -- even if you choose not to read the messages sent to you.
This is particularly bad for T-Mobile customers. T-Mobile frequently sends "company alert" text messages to all its customers. And unlike most other services, T-Mobile will refuse to cancel text messaging on your account.
"T-Mobile keeps billing me for incoming text messages," William of Mt. Morris, Mich. wrote. "I have no control over these and shouldn't be billed for them. One message was from a third party selling something. Another was from T-Mobile. I called, but they won't take the charges off. Furthermore, they refused to block text messaging on my account."
The great majority of ConsumerAffairs.com complaints are from parents whose children decided to use text messaging or scour the Internet from their cell phone.
"We purchased a plan for our daughter who was entering college," Charlene of Greenville, Miss. wrote. "When the first bill came it was for over $600. The text messaging option is the main means of communication for my daughter. We had been charged for each incoming and outgoing text message -- 10 cents per message."
Belkis of New York is a single mother with two children. In April her children browsed the Internet and downloaded a ringtone with her cell phone. Her bill was $80 higher than normal that month.
Where'd It Say That?
Many of the explanations of these charges are buried somewhere in a stack of fine-print pages your carrier will dump on you when you sign your contract.
When you sign up with Verizon, they will hand you a fat folder filled with brochures that hardly go out of their way to warn you about your potentially high extra charges.
Verizon includes a whole brochure about their "Get it NOW" Internet service available on all their phones. However, nowhere in that brochure, in any of the documents in the fat folder, on the contract, or on Verizon's website does it say how much this service costs for customers who do not pay a monthly access fee.
It wasn't until ConsumerAffairs.com called Verizon's customer service that we discovered they charge $.005 per kilobyte.
It's not poring over the fine print that Verizon's, T-Mobile's and Sprint's customers discover the 10-cents-per-text fee and the varying internet charges -- it's when they open the bill.
Cingular on the other hand, makes it clear in large print in their terms and services brochure.
Cheapest Isn't Always Best
At 10 cents per text message or up to 2 cents per kilobyte, charges can mount exponentially and it often is far cheaper for customers to buy the Internet or text messaging packages with their phone plan if they plan to use any of those per-use services. This is especially true with text messaging since you sometimes will receive unsolicited messages.
Another factor is the number of anytime minutes in your plan. For each minute you use over your allotted plan, your carrier will charge you a per-minute rate. The cheaper your plan, the higher the rate.
For example, Cingular's 450 minute/$40 plan will charge you $.45 for each minute you go over your allotted 450. Cingular's 6000 minute, $200 plan charges $.20.
Let's continue with Cingular as the example. If a single customer with the basic plan sends and receives 50 text messages ($5), browses 5 megabytes worth of internet ($50) and talks 100 minutes over their 450 ($45), this customer will have a total bill of $140.
If this same individual were to upgrade to the next plan, get the minimal text messaging option and pre-order 5 megabytes worth of internet usage, the same $140 bill described above would be cut nearly in half to $73.
Americans Confused about Mercury in Seafood, Survey Finds
Most Americans are hopelessly -- and justifiably -- lost at sea07/10/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Americans Confused about Mercury in Seafood, Survey Finds...
When it comes to understanding the government's advice on mercury in seafood, most Americans are hopelessly -- and justifiably -- lost at sea, according to new survey commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Two years after the government advisory was first released, only one in five consumers correctly identified swordfish, shark, or king mackerel as the fish highest in mercury.
Confusion over low-mercury containing species was equally evident. While 21 percent of consumers identified salmon as having high mercury levels, another 21 percent believed it has low mercury levels. Salmon, as well as shrimp, catfish, and pollock, contains low levels of mercury.
"The FDA/EPA advisory is neither keeping high-risk consumers away from contaminated fish nor is it helping low-risk consumers to secure the health benefits only available at the fish counter," CSPI wrote in a letter to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acting commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. CSPI urged FDA to remedy the confusion by requiring high-mercury advisories at fish counters or right on fish packages.
Mercury is an environmental pollutant that bioaccumulates in large ocean-dwelling fish, such as swordfish, shark, some types of tuna, and king mackerel. Seafood is the leading cause of exposure to methylmercury, which can cause neurological damage to the developing fetus and young children.
Women can easily avoid this risk by steering clear of fish containing high levels of mercury for 12 months before becoming pregnant and while pregnant or breastfeeding.
In 2004, FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a joint advisory on mercury in fish, urging pregnant women, nursing mothers, young children, and those planning to become pregnant not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. But the new survey shows that the advisory has not trickled down to the people who need it the most.
In fact, 31 percent of pregnant women, women planning on becoming pregnant, and nursing mothers did not know that seafood with high mercury levels could be harmful. Meanwhile, 18 percent of low-risk consumers may have unnecessarily reduced fish intake for reasons related to mercury.
"Relying on consumers to remember which fish contain high mercury levels is just not working," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "It is time for FDA to do more. Labeling, both through notices at the seafood counter and directly on packages of fish, could easily help at-risk consumers avoid fish high in mercury and might bring others back to the fish counter."
CSPI's survey demonstrated that high-risk consumers preferred by a 12-to-one margin the use of labels on or near the fresh fish with high mercury content over the current practice of informing consumers through industry or government websites. Among all consumers surveyed, support for such labeling was equally strong, with a margin of 14-to-one.
While the state of California uses point-of-purchase displays to remind consumers about the government's advice, and some grocery chains voluntarily use signage of their own design, CSPI says that a standardized label for high mercury-containing fish would be the most effective system.
In 2003, then-FDA commissioner Mark McClellan told CSPI that printed materials at the point of purchase could be one of many ways advice about mercury could be communicated, but since then the FDA has done very little to advance that idea, according to CSPI.
Opinion Research Corporation conducted the random digit-dial nationally projectable survey of 1,018 adults from June 22 to June 25, 2006.
The "Other" Child Predators: Advertisers
Marketers Aim to Hook Kids Early, Before the Competition07/09/2006ConsumerAffairs
While staying with friends last year in San Francisco, I was asked by their son to help him with his homework. It seemed like a good way to show my appreciation of their hospitality and I tried not to wince when he handed me a math book with a Frosted Flakes cover.
"They were giving them out free," I was told by an impressed 11-year-old. "It was either this one or Lay's Potato Chips." I smiled and told myself not to be too cynical -- after all, what was a bit of extra color on a textbook. It was only when we looked at the first problem that I really lost it.
"Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?"
As Danny, a bright kid, pencilled in 21 weeks, I flicked through the pages of the book in horror. Subsequent questions invited us to calculate the grams of fat in a Burger King Whopper, followed by some geometry questions involving an Oreo cookie, at which point the textbook helpfully reminded us that "the best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie."
Marketing targeted at kids in the U.S. is nothing new but -- did you know? -- it's the fastest growing area of advertising in the country today. In 1990 around $100 million was spent on advertising targeted at kids on television and just a decade later that number was up more than twenty times to over $2 billion.
It's Not Just TV Ads
In addition to the carefully crafted TV commercials, companies are hiring ad space on school bus radios, screensavers on school computers (Pepsi has one that encourages "a thirst for knowledge!") and are tying in products for cross-promotion more than ever -- witness the Barbie accessories that include cans of Coke or the Teletubbies merchandise licensed to McDonalds.
But why would companies bother seducing a section of the population that doesn't even work for a living?
The answer, according to the marketing industry book, Kidfluence, is "persistence pestering" and "importance pestering". The former is all about kids whining until they get what they want ("pester power"); the latter is about parents feeling guilty that they rely upon the television to bring up their children to alleviate their guilt they satisfy whatever material craving their kids want.
Plus, let's not forget, American kids today have their own spending power.
Studies conducted a few years ago showed that kids 4-12 were spending around $40 billion a year, while those from 12-18 plow through $170 billion a year. Whether that money is spent on toys, breakfast cereals, clothes or cigarettes (check out the new range of watermelon and cherry flavors introduced by Reynolds Tobacco), no big company is going to pass up that share of the market.
And when you consider that an estimated $600 billion of household spending is influenced by children, then it's clear why the big companies aren't shy about getting the corporate message across to children who aren't yet able to walk, never mind think for themselves.
And therein lies the second part of the plan. Research by child psychologists such as Dr. Allen Kanner of Berkeley has suggested that by the time a child is 3 years old he's able to recognize around 100 brand logos. Kids are getting smarter all the time but it's a bit much to ask an infant to make an informed decision about products he's not even aware exist yet.
My friends limit Danny from watching TV unsupervised, preferring to make their favorite shows a family event but the average American child is thought to see around 40,000 television commercials a year. Products tie in with popular cartoons and television characters, establishing an insidious brand loyalty in children before they're able to distinguish between a plotline and a sales pitch.
The Jesuit saying might well these days be, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the consumer."
Shaping Young Minds
I took Danny out one Saturday to teach him how to play soccer (I look good playing against an 11-year-old) and afterwards I proposed that we grab a bite to eat. I don't think I quite managed to hide my frown when Danny pulled out some McDonald's tokens. He looked down at the coupons and murmured:
"I got them at school for doing well in my reading program."
This was news to me -- apparently, McDonald's, Burger King and Domino's pizza were sponsoring reading projects in school with free meals. I thought back to when I was Danny's age and the excitement I'd had at a friend's birthday party at McDonald's how was I supposed to communicate things like an unhealthy diet, non-biodegradable packaging and abuse of the rainforest to an 11-year-old who was proud of his reading skills?
Across America, schools struggling with their budgets are accepting outside help from companies like Nike who sponsor open days and sports training. The kids are taken out on coach buses, handed cans of soda and entertained for hours by enthusiastic sports teachers, all decked out in Nike gear from head to foot.
What's the catch?
Apart from watching some prospective Nike ads and giving their feedback there is none -- but how many of those kids will resist thinking of Nike with special affection thereafter for taking them out of the school for the day?
The fastest-growing area of marketing for kids is, of course, the Internet. Parents often lag behind their children in understanding the function of new technology and fail to appreciate how saturated kids' sites can be with advertising.
Cult toy and collectible sites draw millions of children every day and many use deceptive navigation and tricks to steer the juvenile surfers into a never-ending barrage of ads -- hit the "back" button or even the small "x" in the corner and you're less likely to leave the site than trigger another pop-up window.
As a fledgling industry, there doesn't yet exist the same kind of restrictions or code of decency for advertisers on the Internet as in other media. Through sign-up forms and tracking cookies, many take advantage of children's surfing behavior to collect consumer information and target kids with personalised advertising.
Europeans Are Stricter
Some countries in Europe take marketing aimed at kids very seriously and have laws in place to limit this kind of ruthless advertising. Sweden and Greece have banned television commercials aimed at kids, at least during daylight hours.
In the U.S., however, such laws are perceived to be a breach of that all-important First Amendment. The likes of Nike, McDonald's and Toys'R'Us clearly have only their profits in mind though when it comes to marketing and will make the most of every possible avenue available to them, the ethics be damned.
On the other hand, in the true American spirit of independence and freedom it's worth remembering that the responsibility is also in our hands. The corporations cannot beat down our doors and stuff promotional pamphlets in our hands -- our children are only exposed to commercials if we allow them to watch television. And if we allow material compensation to replace genuine love and care then we only have ourselves to blame.
Likewise, however strapped for cash a school might be, it doesn't have to allow the multi-nationals in through the gates. Education doesn't depend upon Nike-sponsored field trips and there are other ways of raising cash than selling ad space on school radios.
If schools are reluctant to acknowledge that then who other than the parents and children themselves can get the message through?
It took quite a while for me explain all this to Danny but, as I said, he's a bright kid so we went home and sat in front of the television with a notepad and pen and started analysing all the different hooks used by the commercials to pull us in. Whether it was catchy music, beautiful women or people looking cool while using the products, Danny quickly got the idea and grinned as he'd outsmarted the marketing.
But I had a feeling he'd be the only one at school the next day who did.
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.
Jobs Scam May Be Operating From Arkansas
Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe says a jobs scam may be operating in his state07/09/2006ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Jobs Scam May Be Operating From Arkansas...
Most widespread Internet scams are based offshore, out of reach of U.S. authorities but Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe says a jobs scam may be operating in his state, targeting consumers nationwide.
The offers are designed to trick individuals who are looking for work into wiring money out of the country.
Investigators from Beebes office are working to track down the people behind the bogus business to determine if they are, in fact, running the scam from Arkansas. The end result for victims will be the same regardless of the location: they will lose money and/or personal information to the scam artists if they accept the phony offers for employment.
The scam involves a fake company called L Finders, which claims to be a concierge-and courier service. Job postings for the company have appeared online and in at least one newspaper in Texas.
A woman in Houston who contacted L Finders received an e-mail and a phone call encouraging her to apply for an office-assistant job by filling out an application online and faxing it to a phone number in Little Rock. She was asked to include her Social Security Number, copies of two forms of identification, bank-account details and a cancelled check.
"Any employment offered online without a formal interview, no matter where it originates, should be treated with skepticism," Beebe said. "Terms that seem too good to be true will prove to be just that and may cost you in stolen personal information or money lost."
Scams appearing to be operated by the same con artists have also appeared in Colorado.
According to the Better Business Bureau, job seekers who applied for the jobs received counterfeit cashiers checks and were asked to deposit them, and then wire money from their accounts to an address in Mexico. At least one of the Colorado scams used the name of a legitimate company as a front.
Multiple scams, including the one claiming to operate from Little Rock, have used an identical e-mail address for job seekers to use: firstname.lastname@example.org. Any job offer utilizing that e-mail address should be reported to the Attorney Generals Office or the Better Business Bureau.
Many Internet job scams eventually involve requests to wire money overseas. Beebe says any such request should be an immediate red flag indicating a scam.
Liberty Mutual Sued in Bid-Rigging Investigation07/07/2006ConsumerAffairs
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against LMIC alleging that the company and its affiliates participated in a bid-rigging and busi...
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against a large property and casualty insurance company, alleging that the company and its affiliates participated in a bid-rigging and business-steering scheme.
The civil complaint contends that Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and seven affiliates violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act by paying undisclosed contingent commissions to insurance brokers and agents to induce them to steer business to Liberty Mutual. Contingent commissions are payments that insurers pay to brokers and agents in addition to the base commissions.
Contingent commission amounts generally are based on the volume and profitability of the business a broker or agent produces for an insurance company. The investigation found that, because contingent commissions are based on volume and profitability, they encourage brokers and agents to steer their clients improperly to particular insurers in violation of the fiduciary duty they owe their clients.
The complaint also states that a Liberty Mutual affiliate company also participated along with several other insurers in a scheme led by Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. (Marsh), to rig bids for excess casualty insurance. According to the lawsuit, Liberty Mutual also failed to disclose its affiliate's role in the bid-rigging scheme.
"It is of great concern that one of the country's largest insurance companies would rig bids and induce brokers and agents to breach their duties to their clients in the ways we have alleged in this lawsuit," Madigan said.
As an example of the conduct at issue in the lawsuit, the complaint alleges that, from 2001 through 2004, Marsh repeatedly solicited from Liberty Mutual's affiliate and other insurers fake insurance bids -- called "B quotes" -- that were intentionally higher or otherwise less favorable to the customer in an effort to "support" or "protect" the bid of a favored insurer.
Through this scheme, Marsh was able to deceive its clients into thinking that the insurance policies and premiums it offered were the result of true competition among insurers.
In August 2005, a former Liberty International Underwriters executive, Kevin Bott, pleaded guilty to criminal charges in New York in connection with his bid-rigging conduct while employed at LIU, stating that "[i]n many instances during this time period, brokers at Marsh instructed me to submit protect[ive] quotes on certain pieces of business where Marsh had predetermined which insurance carrier would win the bid. I understood that such quotes were intended to allow Marsh to maintain control of the market and to protect the incumbent [insurer]."
Bott understood that such quotes "had the effect of allowing Marsh to obtain property in the form of millions of dollars in commissions and fees from each of numerous policyholders and insurance companies." In exchange, LIU received favorable treatment from Marsh in placing and renewing its excess casualty policies.
In one example of bid rigging cited in the complaint, two Marsh executives discussed the bidding on a client's account in an internal e-mail: "I need a B quote from Liberty. I finally had AIG agree to write this thing [i.e., an insurance policy for a client] at $140,000. Have Liberty come in around $175,000."
This e-mail was then forwarded to Liberty with the message, "see below and I will talk to you later." Ultimately, Liberty provided a bid of just over $200,000 and AIG got the business.
Earlier this year, the New York and Connecticut Attorney General's offices filed similar complaints against Liberty Mutual based on their investigations of bid rigging and steering. Madigan has been working cooperatively with the Attorneys General of New York and Connecticut.
In its lawsuit, the state seeks restitution for injured policyholders, civil penalties under the Consumer Fraud Act and an injunction that would bar Liberty Mutual from engaging in the alleged conduct in the future.
Arizona Charges Wal-Mart, AutoZone with Consumer Fraud07/07/2006ConsumerAffairs
Arizona Charges Wal-Mart, AutoZone with Consumer Fraud...
Arizona's Attorney General has filed consumer fraud lawsuits against AutoZone and Wal-Mart for their continued failure to correct pricing violations at their stores across Arizona.
Both retailers have been consistently cited by the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures (DWM) during the past five years for discrepancies between posted prices and checkout prices and for failing to post shelf prices on many products, Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
The companies have not contested the violations and have paid substantial fines, but both have yet to eliminate the pricing problems.
"Price accuracy is a fundamental consumer right which these companies have repeatedly abused," Goddard said.
"The state has made every effort to work with both of these retailers to no avail. When retailers fail to post and scan correct prices, there is no reasonable way for Arizona consumers to comparison shop. Shopping should not be a game of chance."
Each year the Department of Weights and Measures sends inspectors to retailers throughout Arizona to verify that prices are posted and that shelf prices match checkout prices. Violations occur when a store exceeds a 2 percent error rate.
Over the past five years, both AutoZone and Wal-Mart failed more than half of the inspections and continue to violate the state Consumer Fraud Act.
The lawsuits allege that the violations of both companies involve more than scanning overcharges at the cash register. They also include the failure to post prices for many products. When prices are not posted on the shelf, consumers are unable to compare prices or to know if they are accurately charged when they check out.
"AutoZone and Wal-Mart evidently see paying fines as the cost of doing business rather than making the effort to correct the problem," Goddard said. "Consumers have a legal right to know the accurate price of a product when they shop. These companies have consistently failed to comply with the law."
Since 2001, DWM has conducted 846 inspections of AutoZone stores throughout Arizona and failed 426. The violations included 190 for not posting prices and 236 for scanning overcharges. The repeated violations were not limited to one store, one city or one region in Arizona. DWM inspectors provided store managers with written inspection reports outlining the violations.
DWM also sent 220 Notice of Violation letters to AutoZone's corporate offices in Memphis identifying the violations, store locations and dates of inspection. During this time, AutoZone was fined more than $170,000 and continues to violate the law.
Since 2001, DWM has conducted 976 inspections of Wal-Mart stores throughout Arizona to determine compliance with Arizona law. The retailer failed a total of 526 DWM inspections, which included 366 price-posting violations and 160 price-scanning overcharges. The repeated violations were not limited to one store, one city or one region in Arizona.
DWM inspectors provided store managers with written inspection reports outlining the violations. DWM also has sent 260 letters to Wal-Mart at its corporate offices in Arkansas identifying the violations, store locations and dates of inspection.
During this time, Wal-Mart has paid more than $450,000 in fines and continues to violate the law. After being notified of these violations, both Wal-Mart and AutoZone were given opportunities to fix the problems. Both retailers, however, failed multiple re-inspections which led to additional fines.
AutoZone has been listed as one of the top 10 "Needs Most Improvement" companies on the annual DWM Price Verification Survey released to the public in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in Arizona, has the highest number of price-posting violations in the state. The $450,000 in civil fines is also the most assessed against any retailer for pricing violations.
"Wal-Mart has tried to defend its inaccurate pricing by saying that while some customers are overcharged, others are undercharged," Goddard said. "It is not a defense to say we only defraud some of our customers some of the time."
Arizona is not the only state where Wal-Mart's pricing has come under legal scrutiny.
Earlier this year in Michigan, the company agreed to a record $1.5 million settlement to resolve claims that it committed repeated pricing violations. In Connecticut, the state Attorney General announced last November an investigation based on a national study that showed discrepancies between Wal-Mart's posted prices and scanned prices that far exceeded the 2 percent error rate.
Consultant Hacks FBI's Computer System07/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
Consultant Hacks FBI's Computer System...
An outside contractor hired by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) breached the agency's computer network and gained access to the passwords of 38,000 employees, the Washington Post reported.
The consultant, Joseph Colon, was an employee of defense contractor BAE Systems with a top-secret security clearance.
According to Colon's lawyers, he was granted permission to hack the network on several occasions by agents at the Springfield, Illinois, field office where he worked.
Colon claimed that frustration with the slow pace of approval for routine assignments drove him to hack the network and gain access to the employee records, using "run-of-the-mill" hacker tricks and scripts that are freely available on the Internet.
The resultant hacks gave Colon access to high-risk information areas, such as the Witness Protection Program. Both the FBI and Colon's lawyers declined to provide more specifics regarding the case.
The FBI has suffered repeated embarrassments over its outdated computer systems and its expenditure of millions of dollars on a potential upgrade that was abandoned.
It also came under heavy scrutiny for extending a five-year, multimillion-dollar deal for technology services to ChoicePoint, the data broker most famous for being hacked by a ring of Nigerian identity thieves.
Government agencies have been dealing with issues of third-party security and improving data protection in wildly different ways, often depending on the agency's internal culture and its views on technology.
Many federal agencies -- including the FBI -- do not maintain proper oversight of the contractors who have access to Social Security numbers, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
Another GAO report found that the IRS had "significant weaknesses" in collecting and protecting taxpayer data. That report also mentioned lack of oversight and training for contractors as a potential security risk.(/news04/2006/03/gao_irs.html)
Government and business leaders have each admonished the other side to do more about protecting the data they collect.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testified before Congress that data brokerage businesses like ChoicePoint should be more vigilant in protecting Social Security numbers, but that such collections were necessary to ensure the continuation of business that relies on customer information.
A survey conducted by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) found that the requirements for "shredding" enacted as part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA) does not go nearly far enough to ensure businesses destroy their paper data records, and that government should push for stronger data protection laws.
Brooklyn Camera Store Generates Complaints Nationwide07/06/2006ConsumerAffairs
Brooklyn Camera Store Generates Complaints Nationwide...
Many consumers who purchased cameras at incredibly discounted rates from WawaDigital.com or StargatePhoto.com discovered that the prices really were too good to be true and that in some cases, they were buying not just a camera but also a threat.
According to hundreds of consumer complaints filed with ConsumerAffairs.com, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and technology forums such as Epinions.com and Cnet, this company, which has multiple aliases, uses a practice known as "bait and hook."
Bait and hook means they lure consumers in with fantastic deals, then trick or threaten the consumer into buying more.
For all these complaints, the story is usually the same:
"They list cameras for the lowest prices out there and then after you give them all your credit card information will not sell you the camera unless you purchase inflated and unnecessary accessories to go with it," wrote Kristin of Troy, Mich.
"When I told them I didn't want to purchase anything else, just the camera that they advertised, the representative yelled at me, spoke belligerently and told me that if I didn't buy the extra accessories he would cancel my order and charge my credit card a 20% restocking fee," Kristin said.
One blogger recounted the frightening experience one of his coworkers had. After refusing to purchase accessories, a representative left this message on the coworker's answering machine:
"You better not pick up, b****. I'm gonna to come down there and break your god**** neck. You heard me, alright? Kid, you better hear me, b****. Do you hear me, b****? Yes, you'd better believe it. You're in big trouble, my friend."
When ConsumerAffairs.com called the toll-free number on www.StargatePhoto.com, we discovered the same uncouth and threatening service.
Phillip Brown, manager, said his company does not bait and hook customers.
"They're all liars." Brown said of customers who have complained. "They're bullshit artists. Have them come and complain to my face."
Finding an actual building to go and complain may be difficult. Brown said they are located at 425 Northwood Ave., Linden, N.J. However, there isn't a Northwood Ave. in Linden.
According to a BBB report updated today, this company works out of 295 Avenue O, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brown said StargatePhoto and WawaDigital are not the same company. However, www.stargatephoto.com and www.wawadigital.com are nearly identical and the phone numbers listed on each site take you to the same place.
ConsumerAffairs.com called the phone number two times. The second time we called and asked for Brown the man who answered the phone acted like he didn't know the name. We were then put on hold a number of times before the familiar Brooklyn accent, who identified himself as Brown, answered more questions.
Brown said he sells thousands of cameras and that he's bound to have some unhappy customers.
Many consumers say representatives from this company often get belligerent and hang up on the customer.
Brown admitted that they do hang up on customers because, "These customers call us and they don't shut up about their problems."
According to the BBB report, "Consumers report that cameras purchased from this firm are represented as U.S. models under warranty, but are in fact foreign models not covered by manufacturer warranties."
"I purchased what I believed to be a new Canon camera from WawaDigital over the Internet," wrote Diane of Bridgeport, Wash.
"When I received the camera, it did not appear to be in the original factory packaging and did not come with warranty information. I suspected at that point that the camera was refurbished. After just a few shots, the lens began sticking causing the photos to appear as if they were taken through a slot. ... I called the customer service number to return the camera and found the customer service to be rude, argumentative and short but was told I could return the camera for an exchange. I did so and an exchange camera was sent. It took a long time. I e-mailed inquiries but never got an answer and when I called to inquire about when I would receive my exchange, I was told it wasn't customer service day, call back tomorrow.
"When the camera finally arrived, I suspected the camera I had returned was returned to me. It came with the same packaging I had sent it back in and the exact same problem with the camera," Diane said.
Brown said that because he sells thousands of cameras, it is hard to keep the website updated. "Sometimes new means it's new in stock, not necessarily new," he said.
The BBB report said this company has done business under at least the following names and possibly more: Accessories Land, I.N.S. Digital World and The Camera Whiz.
New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer's office would not share any information regarding the number of complaints they have received and would not discuss the status of any investigation without a Freedom of Information Act request.
ConsumerAffairs.com has filed the request but has not received a response.
When ConsumerAffairs.com asked Brown if his company baits and hooks he gave a number of irrelevant examples before becoming belligerent and finally, you guessed it, hanging up the phone.
(photo I found of 295 Ave. 0 on a blog. The guy who took the photo was supposedly chased away by one of the company's clerks)
AOL's Problems Worsen as Consumer Complaints Mount07/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
AOL's Problems Worsen as Consumer Complaints Mount...
Not too long ago, AOL was at the top of the Internet heap with tens of millions of customers, more advertisers than it could handle and big companies lusting to acquire it. Consumers had gripes but were largely ignored.
Today, the tables have turned. AOL lost an estimated 800,000 customers in the last quarter alone and is thought to be signing next to no customers for its struggling broadband service.
As dial-up users convert to broadband, cable companies are grabbing many of them snd telephone companies offering low-priced DSL connections are getting the rest.
AOL's response isn't doing much to improve its image. Rather than find ways to make customers want to stay on board, AOL simply makes it difficult bordering on impossible for customers to quit.
The company was embarrassed last month when a consumer tape-recorded his efforts to cancel his AOL account and later supplied the tape to CNBC. It issued profuse apologies but whether it made any changes in its procedures is another matter.
The New York Times reported that an internal memo reminded AOL's customer service reps, whose actual title is "retention consultant," to try at least twice to get customers not to cancel -- and that was after the CNBC report.
Just listen to John of Phoenix: "AOL continued to bill me, even using a cancelled debit card and then a debit card I had not given them after I cancelled the service." "I suspect they got the second card from my Time subscription. The bank credited me for the disputed charges."
"Now AOL is threatening to send me to a credit collection agency over $47. They refuse to answer my questions over the unauthorized debit card charges and when my wife called them the person was loud and abusive and then hung up."
John joins a growing number of people complaining to ConsumerAffairs.com about AOL's business practices.
Kimberly of Porter, Indiana, tells us that AOL continues to double-bill her.
"One of my accounts has been cancelled, yet another screen name with the company is being automatically debited from my checking account every month," she wrote. "I have persistently tried to call AOL, but to no avail. I am put on hold for what seems like an eternity and nobody from AOL ever answers me."
According to many complaints, AOL could be giving thousands of consumers who signed up for the "free trial" the silent treatment.
Still others trying to rid themselves of AOL are routinely threatened by an employee of the ISP warning the company will turn their account over to a collection agency if prompt payment by credit card is not forthcoming.
"They wanted the money immediately and would turn the matter over to a credit bureau if I did not agree. After arguing with her for 45 minutes, I finally gave up and said okay," John wrote from Bates City, Missouri.
"I will pay the $23.90 so I don't have to deal with you folks again. Well, I should not have done that. I gave her my credit card number and expiration date. I have still received daily phone calls from the robotic voice" at AOL, John said.
The growing customer relations nightmare involving AOL comes as the company is under scrutiny for overstating earnings six years ago when then-Chairman Steve Case orchestrated AOL's takeover of Time Warner, Inc.
Five California pension funds, including the California Public Employees' Retirement Fund and California State Teachers Retirement System, are suing AOL Time Warner, Case and others alleging losses of $1 billion due to AOL's financial misrepresentations.
The lawsuit contends that Case and other AOL executives knew the company's Business Affairs Unit was making deals with vendors that required them to buy advertising with AOL, sometimes using AOL's own money.
The company faces at least 39 shareholder lawsuits over the nearly $200 billion in shareholder value it lost since it purchased Time Warner in 2002.
It has put $2.4 billion into a class action settlement fund and has paid out $358 million from a $600 million fund for shareholders who opted out of the major shareholder suits in California, New York and Ohio, according to company filings.
A spokesman for AOL had no comment on the lawsuit or the company's customer relations practices.
Verizon Wireless Cuts Early Termination Fee07/03/2006ConsumerAffairs
Verizon Wireless Cuts Early Termination Fee...
Verizon Wireless says it is lightening up on the termination charges it slaps on customers who cancel their contracts early.
Starting this fall, customers who cancel early will pay a pro rate cancellation penalty based on how many months remain on their contract instead of a fixed fee of several hundred dollars.
Verizon Wireless is the first major U.S. carrier to commit to a national policy of pro rating early termination fees. The change will take effect this fall for new customers. Existing customers will have to -- you guessed it -- renew their agreement to take advantage of the change.
Denny Strigl, president and chief executive officer of Verizon Wireless said the change is being made to adapt policies to customers' needs.
"We believe dissatisfaction with flat early termination fees is tarnishing the entire industry," he said.
Speaking at an industry conference, Strigl said the wireless industry has the ability to transform itself in the years ahead by continuing to add value for customers through technology and responsiveness.
He said Verizon Wireless has the most loyal customer base, as well as the highest ratio of local number portability (LNP) port-ins. Strigl said Verizon Wireless has a track record of listening to its customers and making policy decisions based on customer needs.
Verizon Wireless parted with the industry by refusing to participate in a wireless directory when customers said they didn't want one. The company also broke from other wireless companies to support local number portability because customers wanted the freedom to take their numbers with them if they switched service providers.
Strigl said Verizon Wireless is taking similar action with early termination fees, as it is an issue that increasingly is irking customers industry-wide.
Verizon Builds Market Share
Meanwhile, analysts at Merrill Lynch say Verizon Wireless continues to take market share across the board. Cingular is executing well. Alltel appears to have gained momentum. However, the analysts said T-Mobile is likely to come up short on net additions during the quarter.
Merrill Lynch found that Verizon still has an edge with regard to customer perception of network quality, and it is using that advantage to gain market share.
Verizon stores are extremely busy, particularly in markets where a competitor's service is not up to par. Indeed, so busy are the stores, that it was commented that a number of stores the analysts visited could use additional sales reps in order to help meet the customer demand.
The analysts report that Sprint continues to struggle with its marketing message and many customers and some sales reps still do not understand the supposed benefits of the Sprint-Nextel merger.
Cingular's record has improved, the analysts said. There are still some areas where customers remain unhappy with Cingular's network coverage, but in general customers are seeing an improvement.
T-Mobile USA moved primarily to 2-year contracts in April, becoming the last national carrier to switch to two-year service plans.
Nigerians Hone the Art of the Scam07/01/2006ConsumerAffairs
Granted, the grammar and punctuation were a little sketchy but, after all, my new business partner was writing out of the chaos of a civil war. I could cut...