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Fruit Juice May Reduce Alzheimer's Risk

Three or more servings per week netted a 76 percent reduction in risk

Fruit Juice May Reduces Alzheimer's Risk...

In a large epidemiological study, researchers found that people who drank three or more servings of fruit and vegetable juices per week had a 76 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than those who drank juice less than once per week.

The study by Qi Dai, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, and colleagues appears in the September issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

The researchers followed a subset of subjects from a large cross-cultural study of dementia, called the Ni-Hon-Sea Project, which investigated Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia in older Japanese populations living in Japan, Hawaii and Seattle, Wash.

For the current study, called the Kame Project, the researchers identified 1,836 dementia-free subjects in the Seattle population and collected information on their dietary consumption of fruit and vegetable juices. They then assessed cognitive function every two years for up to 10 years.

After controlling for possible confounding factors like smoking, education, physical activity and fat intake, the researchers found that those who reported drinking juices three or more times per week were 76 percent less likely to develop signs of Alzheimer's disease than those who drank less than one serving per week.

The benefit appeared particularly enhanced in subjects who carry a genetic marker linked to late-onset Alzheimer's disease -- the most common form of the disease, which typically occurs after the age of 65.

The researchers chose to study this group because of the low incidence rate of Alzheimer's disease in the Japanese population. However, the incidence of Alzheimer's in Japanese people living in the United States is higher, approaching the incidence rates in Americans. This pointed to environmental factors like diet and lifestyle as important contributors to disease risk.

Originally, researchers suspected that high intakes of antioxidant vitamins might provide some protection against Alzheimer's disease, but recent clinical studies have not supported this hypothesis.

"We thought that the underlying component may not be vitamins, that there was maybe something else," Dai said.

Dai began to suspect that another class of antioxidant chemicals, known as polyphenols, could play a role. Polyphenols are non-vitamin antioxidants common in the diet and particularly abundant in teas, juices and wines.

Most polyphenols exist primarily in the skins and peels of fruits and vegetables. Recent studies have shown that polyphenols (like resveratrol in wine) extend maximum lifespan by 59 percent and delay age-dependent decay of cognitive performance in animal models.

"Also, animal studies and cell culture studies confirmed that some polyphenols from juices showed a stronger neuroprotective effect than antioxidant vitamins. So we are now looking at polyphenols," Dai said.

The next step, said Dai, is to test the subjects' blood samples to see if elevated levels of polyphenols are related to the reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. This would provide further evidence of the role of juice polyphenols in Alzheimer's disease risk. It also may point to the types of juice that would be most beneficial.

"We don't know if it is a specific type of juice (that reduces risk). That information was not collected in the current study," said Dai. "But we can use plasma to narrow down the kinds of juices."

However promising the study results appear, Dai cautioned, it's important that the general public not jump the gun regarding the value of juice as a preventive measure for Alzheimer's disease.

"A few years ago, hormone replacement therapy, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and antioxidant vitamins showed promise (in preventing or slowing Alzheimer's disease), but recent clinical trials indicate that they do not," Dai said. "More study, I think, is needed."

 



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MySpace Glitch Gives Hackers Teen Data

MySpace Glitch Gives Hackers Teen Data...

 


A security breach on MySpace that enabled users to view other users' private pictures and postings went unattended for several months, according to news reports.

UK-based Out-Law.com reported that the hack enabled MySpace users over 18 to view the personal profiles of users under 16.

MySpace had previously altered its service so that all profiles of users under 16 were private by default, requiring more steps for over-18 users to contact them.

Technology news site Digg.com reported links to Web pages describing the hack in detail, as well as other pieces of code that could be used to view MySpace members' private information. Although MySpace claimed to have fixed the hack, many enterprising readers were still finding ways to utilize the code and get around the fixes as of this writing.

"Thought your "private" MySpace comments were really private? Well, think again! This simple code lets ANYONE view all the comments on ANY private profile," boasted one article. "With a simple variation you can also view 'private' pictures. It's so simple, i dont know why someone didn't figure it out sooner."

North Carolina high school student Cory Holt, who also hosts a weekly podcast series on teens and technology, posted examples of the hack codes on his blog and noted that MySpace's failure to address it promptly wasn't just technological.

"This could even be a legal problem for MySpace if this got out," he said. "Because anyone can view someone's 'private content', the victim could say that MySpace was not protecting them, thus opening MySpace to a lawsuit."

News of the codes turned into a race between MySpace and the blogosphere, as fixes to every hack were matched with news of other ways to get around the blocks on private profiles.

Out-Law.com editor Struan Robertson said that the vulnerabilities found could be considered a breach of the UK's Data Protection Act. "There is best practice guidance in the UK for sites used by children and, if the allegations are true, it may be that MySpace fell short of the standard expected," he said.

The MySpace hack is the latest front in the war between the hugely popular social networking site and authorities who have criticized it for enabling easy communication between underage teens and sex offenders.

In addition to setting up stronger security on underage users' profiles, MySpace responded to the criticism by naming a "security czar" to oversee security and privacy, and better police underage users of the site.

But Rupert Murdoch's new media cornerstone took another hit when a 14-year-old girl sued MySpace for $30 million after she alleged she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old she met on the site. It was after the suit was announced that MySpace instituted the privacy protections for underage users that ended up being hacked.

Although MySpace could be held culpable for not instituting better security measures in a timely fashion, observers also remarked on how common sense is sorely lacking when it comes to posting private information online.

Digg.com commenter "kevgig" put it best when he said that "This is exactly why I do not have a [MySpace] account ... Just goes to show that if there are parts of your life that you do not want to share with the world, keep it to yourself."

 

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Ethanol Cleaner But Not Cheaper

These credits have increased annual U.S. gasoline consumption by about 1 percent, or 1.2 billion gallons, according to a 2005 study by the Union for Concer...


Tests and an investigation by Consumer Reports conclude that E85 ethanol will cost consumers more money than gasoline and that there are concerns about whether the government's support of flexible fuel vehicles is really helping the U.S. achieve energy independence.

Findings from CR's special report include:

• E85, which is 85 percent ethanol, emits less smog-producing pollutants than gasoline, but provides fewer miles per gallon, costs more, and is hard to find outside the Midwest.

• Government support for flexible-fuel vehicles, which can run on either E85 or gasoline, is indirectly causing more gasoline consumption rather than less.

• Blended with gasoline, ethanol has the potential to fill a significant minority of future U.S. transportation fuel needs.

To see how E85 ethanol stacks up against gasoline, Consumer Reports put one of its test vehicles, a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe Flexible-Fuel Vehicle (FFV) through an array of fuel economy, acceleration, and emissions tests.

Overall fuel economy on the Tahoe dropped from an already low 14 mpg overall to 10. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 mpg to 7.

You could expect a similar decrease in gas mileage in any current flex fuel vehicle because ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline -- 75,670 British thermal units (BTUs) per gallon instead of 115,400 for gasoline, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As a result, you have to burn more fuel to generate the same amount of energy.

With the retail pump price of E85 averaging $2.91 per gallon in August, according to the Oil Price Information Service, a 27 percent fuel-economy penalty means drivers would have paid an average of $3.99 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

When Consumer Reports calculated the Tahoe's driving range, it found that it decreased to about 300 miles on a full tank of E85 compared with about 440 on gasoline. So, motorists using E85 would have to fill up more often.

Most drivers in the country have no access to E85, even if they want it, because it is primarily sold in the upper Midwest; most of the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, and that's where the cornfields and ethanol production facilities are located. There are only about 800 gas stations -- out of 176,000 nationwide -- that sell E85 to the public.

When Consumer Reports took its Tahoe to a state-certified emissions-test facility in Connecticut and had a standard emissions test performed, it found a significant decrease in smog-forming oxides of nitrogen when using E85.

Despite the scarcity of E85, the Big Three domestic auto manufacturers have built more than 5 million FFVs since the late '90s, and that number will increase by about 1 million this year.

A strong motivation for that is that the government credits FFVs that burn E85 with about two-thirds more fuel economy than they actually get using gasoline, even though the vast majority may never run on E85. This allows automakers to build more large, gas-guzzling vehicles than they otherwise could under Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules.

As a result, these credits have increased annual U.S. gasoline consumption by about 1 percent, or 1.2 billion gallons, according to a 2005 study by the Union for Concerned Scientists.

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Verizon Joins BellSouth in Retreat From Unexplained New DSL Fee

Telcos' Response to Regulatory Relief? A "Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee"

Verizon Joins BellSouth in Retreat From Unexplained New DSL Fee...


Like BellSouth, Verizon has retreated from its plan to impose a surcharge for DSL service after the normally compliant Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sharply questioned the fee.

"We have listened to our customers," said Verizon executive Bob Ingalls, perhaps momentarily overlooking the eight-page letter the FCC sent to Verizon and BellSouth.

Ingalls said a small number of customers who have already been billed for the surcharge will receive a credit.

Last year, the federal government changed a rule that had required DSL subscribers to pay into a federal fund that subsidizes phone service in rural and low-income areas, intending to shave a dollar or two off subscribers' broadband bills.

Instead, just as the federal fee expired, Verizon and BellSouth tacked on a new "supplier surcharge" fee -- Verizon's euphemism -- ranging from $1.20 to $2.70 per month, almost exactly the same as the eliminated fee. BellSouth called its extra take-home pay a "regulatory cost recovery fee."

Embarrassed and angered by the blatant consumer gouging as the fall election nears, the FCC sent an eight-page "letter of inquiry" to both BellSouth and Verizon asking whether the new fees complied with the FCC's "Truth-In-Billing" requirements for clearly explained and understandable customer charges.

After chewing on the question for a few days, Verizon and BellSouth apparently couldn't come up with a credible answer.

"The old-line telco tubbies talk a lot about listening to their customers but they are so accustomed to having their way with Congress and the FCC that they clumsily, stupidly and ineptly embarass their patrons by imposing an outrageous and indefensible fee as the party in power wrings its hands over voter anger at the current Congress' war on consumers," said one longtime D.C. public affairs practitioner.

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Public Citizen Warns of Cipro Dangers

Asks FDA To Require "Black Box" Warning

Public Citizen Warns of Cipro Dangers...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should strongly warn the public about the risk of tendon rupture associated with Cipro and other fluoroquinolone antibiotics, Public Citizen said in a petition to the agency.

The FDA should do this by requiring a "black box" warning on the drugs' packaging and requiring pharmacists to give patients FDA-approved medication guides that also carry the warning, the group said. Public Citizen joined with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which also sent the FDA an addendum to its earlier petition urging the agency to act.

"The numbers are startling. Tendon ruptures associated with these drugs continue to occur at a disturbing rate but could be prevented if doctors and patients were more aware of early warning signals, such as the onset of tendon pain, and switched to other antibiotics," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "The FDA must act and require black box warnings and patient information guides."

Public Citizen's review of the FDA's adverse event database shows 262 reported cases of tendon ruptures, 258 cases of tendonitis and 274 cases of other tendon disorders between November 1997 and Dec. 31, 2005, associated with the fluoroquinolone antibiotics, with 175 of those occurring since the beginning of 2003.

Sixty-one percent of the ruptures were associated with Levaquin, which has accounted for 45 percent of all fluoroquinolone prescriptions in the past four years, while 23 percent of the ruptures were associated with Cipro.

The tendon that most frequently ruptures is the Achilles tendon, which causes sudden and severe pain, swelling and bruising, and difficulty walking.

Other tendon ruptures have occurred in the rotator cuff (the shoulder), the biceps, the hand and the thumb. One theory is that fluoroquinolones are toxic to tendon fibers and may decrease blood supply in tendons that already have a limited blood supply.

These antibiotics, which are widely prescribed for gastrointestinal, respiratory and genitor-urinary tract infections, include Cipro (Ciprofloxacin, made by Bayer), Penetrex (Enoxacin, made by Aventis), Tequin (Gatifloxacin, made by Bristol-Myers Squibb), Levaquin (Levofloxacin, made by Ortho-McNeil), Maxaquin (Lomefloxacin, made by Unimed), Avelox (Moxifloxacin, made by Bayer), Noroxin (Norfloxacin, made by Merck) and Floxin (Ofloxacin, made by Daiichi-Sankyo).

Public Citizen's petition follows a 1996 petition the nonprofit group filed seeking a warning on the label of fluoroquinolones. The FDA that year granted the petition, but the warning is buried in the list of possible adverse reactions.

In April 2005, the Illinois Attorney General's office petitioned the FDA to place a black box warning on the drugs, but the FDA has never responded substantively to the petition. A black box warning is in bold type and surrounded by a black box to make it stand out.

"Consumers and physicians have a right to know the adverse effects associated with prescription medicines," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. "We join with Public Citizen in urging the FDA to take prompt action on these petitions."

 



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Police Fund-Raisers Accused of Fraud

The Police Protective Fund denies the allegation

"Just as with every other area of charitable giving, the scam artists have found a way to muddy the waters and divert money away from legitimate law enforc...

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, a Washington, DC suburb, are accusing a charity allegedly raising money for police officers with fraud. The Police Protective Fund denies the allegation.

"Just as with every other area of charitable giving, the scam artists have found a way to muddy the waters and divert money away from legitimate law enforcement charities," said Montgomery Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Duncan says The Police Protective Fund uses telemarketers to raise money for the charity, which is supposed to help police officers. However, he says the fund's tax filings and other documents show it spent most of its budget on fundraising and salaries.

Some of its officials made more than $110,000 a year, while the company used telemarketing firms to solicit donations, according to the documents.

Duncan has asked the State of Maryland to open an investigation into the group.

Fund officials told the Washington Post they are working to increase the amount of funds actually sent to support police officers. The Police Protective Fund has offices in San Antonio and Los Angeles and raises money through telemarketers nationwide.

Most professional police and firefighter organizations say they never endorse or benefit from telephone solicitations and most urge consumers not to contribute.

 

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Mental Health Clinic Loses Laptop Bearing Patient Data

Mental Health Clinic Loses Laptop Bearing Patient Data...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

August 30, 2006
A Washington state mental health care provider, Compass Health, has notified authorities that a laptop computer containing data on an undisclosed number of patients was stolen more than a month ago.

According to a media alert issued by Compass Health, the laptop contained information on clients of the clinic and its partners since October 1st, 2005. The information included Social Security numbers, "along with other clinical and demographic information."

The theft occurred June 28. Compass did not say why it waited so long to issue the alert.

Although Compass Health did not specify if the laptop was encrypted or password-protected, it claimed that "the data could only be accessed by a skilled technician." The clinic further claimed that there was no evidence that patient information had been misused.

Compass Health has set up a toll-free 1-800 number to answer questions about the theft, and is notifying all affected persons with information on setting up fraud alerts on their credit reports.

The Everett, Wash.-based mental health care provider offers behavioral health, counseling, and crisis assistance for individuals suffering from mental illness and their families.

The Compass Health incident is the latest in the never-ending series of thefts and disappearances of computers and equipment that contain sensitive identifying information such as names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and medical or financial records.

Medical and health care providers have not been exempt from the epidemic. Oregon-based Providence Health Care reported the theft of a laptop containing data on 365,000 patients in February.

The Veterans' Administration (VA) holds the record for biggest data breach, with the loss and recovery of a laptop containing data on 26.5 million veterans, stolen from the home of a data analyst in Maryland. Two teens were charged with the theft, and the breach has led to numerous calls for improving government data security.

Not long after that, VA contractor Unisys suffered the theft of a desktop computer containing the medical and financial information of thousands of veterans from its main office. Unisys had been contracted to help the VA process insurance claims for military personnel.

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AT&T; Web Site Hacked; Customer Data Exposed

AT&T Web Site Hacked; Customer Data Exposed...


AT&T; reported late Tuesday that a group of hackers had gained access to a company Web site used to sell equipment for its DSL services, gaining access to the personal information of roughly 19,000 customers.

Details of the breach were scant, but AT&T; said in a statement that the breach was discovered the previous weekend, and the site was shut down "within hours."

AT&T; is notifying potentially affected customers via phone and mail, and has promised to pay for free credit monitoring for anyone affected.

"We will work closely with law enforcement to bring these data thieves to account," said Priscilla Hill-Ardoin, the company's chief privacy officer.

AT&T; spokesman Walt Sharp said that he could not specify exactly when the breach occurred, but emphasized that no fraudulent activity had been reported and that, "credit card companies usually indemnify the victims in these cases."

Sharp's view was echoed by stock analyst Todd Rethemeier, who told Bloomberg financial news that, "Nineteen thousand customers is a drop in the bucket for AT&T; ... It's bad for public relations but not significant."

Rethemeier's advice aside, the world's largest telephone company has taken a profound beating in the public perception department, not least due to its ongoing role in the controversy surrounding the NSA's wireless surveillance program. AT&T;, along with its future merger partner BellSouth, and Verizon, have been accused of handing over records of thousands of customers to the government.

AT&T; in particular was accused of aiding the NSA in setting up surveillance technology on its phone lines to track customer calls in and out of the United States.

AT&T; recently filed suit against groups of third party data brokers that it accused of posing as customers and purchasing data on individual calling records, which they then resold at profit to law enforcement agents and private buyers. The FCC chastised the company for not having proper privacy safeguards in place to prevent that level of fraud.

And AT&T; remains in the hot seat over the issue of "net neutrality," the principle that access to content on the Internet must be free and equal for all Web users. The company, along with Verizon, is one of the chief opponents of net neutrality, saying that regulations would interfere with its deployment of high-speed broadband networks and Internet-over-TV services to its customer base.

AT&T;'s recent acquisition of BellSouth hit a snag when the former Bell sibling imposed and then retracted an unexplained new fee on its DSL customers, after winning relief from having to pay into the Universal Service Fund. Threats of inquiry from the FCC, on which approval of the AT&T-BellSouth; merger rests, cajoled BellSouth into withdrawing its "regulatory cost recovery fee."

Nevertheless, Ma Bell's favorite spawn continues to win huge contracts and business for providing sensitive data services. The company recently won a $250 million contract to provide data and networking services to the Hawaii offices of the Defense Department's Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

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GM Owners Still Steaming Over Dex-Cool

Corrosion, Engine Damage Blamed on Coolant

"I just recently saw about the Dex-Cool problems and that is what I have been using in my vehicle since that is the kind that is required from the automake...

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Gamers Say Microsoft Understates Xbox Problems

Even Microsoft Spokesmen Ask for Anonymity

Gamers Say Microsoft Understates Xbox Problems...

An insider from Electronic Arts, Inc. is saying that the failure rateof Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console is actually ten times higher than what Microsoft spokespeople have admitted.

Game Daily BIZ, a gaming industry publication, reported that the anonymous source tallied that of the 300 consoles EA has received, 30-50 percent of them have failed.

Jason Michael, a spokesperson from Edelman, a public relations company that represents Microsoft told ConsumerAffairs.com that the failure rate is between 3 and 5 percent. Michael later asked that we not use his name.

That 3-5 percent would not correspond with the nearly 40 complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received and the growing chorus of blogs and forums saturating the Internet on the topic. Even Microsoft's moderated www.Xbox.com forum has complaints about the system's failure.

The consumer complaints are mostly about the "three rings of death" that indicate that the Xbox is no longer functional. It seems the system is failing when it overheats.

When Microsoft released the 360 in November 2005, reports of the power supply generating too much heat and causing the system to crash began circulating on the Internet. Now it appears that certain video games that use all of the system's three CPU's simultaneously might be adding to that heat generated by the power supply and causing an even higher system failure rate.

Capcom's "Dead Rising" has been the latest source of Xbox grumblings; it uses all three system processors.

PC enthusiast site Ars Technica, writes, "Dead Rising is making zombies of 360 systems. This game killed my system last night; thankfully, I have a one-year product replacement plan so I already have a replacement, and apparently the demo did the same thing to another member of our forums. This could simply be coincidence, but as always make sure your 360 is well ventilated and nothing is blocking the vents. This game seems to put the hardware through its paces."

A Capcom spokesperson told Game Daily Biz, "The game works under the specs of the 360 system and was approved by Microsoft. For anyone having issues with hardware, we have referred them to contact Microsoft for hardware support."

Michael's advice for consumers with faulty Xboxes is to call 1-800-4myxbox (469-9269) where if the machine is past warranty, they will be forced to pay $129 plus shipping for a refurbished machine.

EA could not be reached for comment.

 

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Researchers Tout Tea's Health Benefits

Drinking tea is a healthier choice than almost any beverage

Researchers Tout Tea's Health Benefits...

Tea has long held mystical appeal for its health benefits. Now science agrees. A new study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that drinking tea is a healthier choice than almost any beverage, including pure water.

"Water is essentially replacing fluid," saiod Dr. Carrie Ruxton, the lead author of the study. "Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants, so it's got two things going for it."

The antioxidants in tea are called polyphenols and they prevent damage to cells.

The research team concluded that drinking three to four cups of tea per day reduces the risk of heart attack, protects against cancer, strengthens bones and even protects against tooth plaque and decay.

The study says caffeine in tea is not a health detriment. Despite the widespread belief that the caffeine in tea is dehydrating, Ruxton says that's not the case.

The British study comes at a time when demographic shifts have knocked tea from its perch as Britain's traditional drink. Younger people in recent years have abandoned tea for sugar-laden soft drinks.



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To Miss New Orleans

The Beat Goes On, The Beaten Just Go

One Tuesday in August, from a bench in Jackson Square, we watched a group of restoration experts hovering over a big black parlor grand piano....

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FCC Nudges BellSouth Into Giving Up New DSL Fees

Verizon Insists It Has "Added Costs" It Needs to Recover

FCC Nudges BellSouth Into Giving Up New Fees...

Telecom giant BellSouth has agreed to drop its mysterious new service fee for broadband customers after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threatened to pursue an inquiry into the company's pricing policies.

BellSouth had been following fellow Verizon's lead by planning to impose a "regulatory cost recovery fee" on its high-speed Internet customers. The new fee was $2.97, exactly the same amount as the old Universal Service Fund (USF) fee which BellSouth had recently won the right to stop paying into.

Whereas the old USF fee was ostensibly designed to fund development of low-cost telecommunications services in rural areas, the new fee was designed specifically to "recover the costs of regulatory compliance."

However, the FCC, the chief telecommunications regulatory agency, was skeptical about the new fee.

The agency said it had sent an eight-page "letter of inquiry" to both BellSouth and Verizon asking whether the new fees complied with the FCC's "Truth-In-Billing" requirements for clearly explained and understandable customer charges.

BellSouth promptly backed down, stating that it would cancel the fee, and credit any customer charged. The credit would take one to six weeks to appear on customer bills, the company said.

The FCC is generally regarded as giving the big telephone companies a wide berth but this escapade went a bit too far. Several FCC commissioners, including Chairman Kevin Martin, were outraged.

"The commission takes its obligation to protect consumers very seriously," said FCC spokesman David Fiske. "Consumers must be provided with clear and nonmisleading information so they may accurately access the services for which they are being charged and the costs associated with those services."

Last year, the FCC eliminated the Universal Service Fund payments for DSL subscribers. The commissioners calculated the move would cut 10 million DSL subscribers' monthly Internet bills by a dollar or two.

Verizon said that it had received the letter from the FCC and would publicly respond, noting that it had provided reasons for its own fare hike on its Web site.

Verizon blamed its new fee on the "increased costs" of providing service to customers who only buy high-speed Internet, without buying basic telephone service.

BellSouth is currently in the process of being acquired by AT&T;, and requires FCC approval to complete the merger. AT&T; itself had not instituted any new fees on customer services after receiving relief from the USF, and was not, at last word, a target of the FCC inquiry.

"We want to do what's in the best interest of our customers," said Herschel Abbott, BellSouth's vice president of governmental affairs, attempting to explain the company's about-face.

Observers and tech analysts were skeptical that the FCC would pursue any serious action against the telcos, given FCC chairman Kevin Martin's generally business-friendly approach to the agency's agenda.

A commenter at tech news blog TechDirt remarked that " [A] couple more donations in the right places and the FCC will find that these are legitimate charges and maybe even suggest the telcos overlooked a few more that could also be tacked on."

Critics said the latest "bait and switch" sleight of hand regarding the old and new fees were evidence that "net neutrality" legislation is essential.

After years of touting their dedication to building nationwide broadband access and elbowing out would-be competitors through regulatory machinations and ferocious lobbying, the major telecom companies are showing their true colors as they ramp up their campaign for "tiered service," where the clients paying the most will have access to the fastest and highest-quality Internet service.

Proponents of net neutrality believe that if telecom and cable companies start instituting tiered pricing, it will leave lower-income customers -- Internet users and content providers alike -- in the Internet "slow lane," unable to access the best circuits and forced to put up with slower, glitch-prone access.

"The telephone companies are still in mourning for the good old days when there was something called long-distance service, with rates based on both mileage and time," said one longtime Washington public affairs executive. "The whole concept of the Internet -- unmetered access to the whole wide world -- makes them cry."

"This change amounts to a price increase, nothing more and nothing less," said Samuel A. Simon, chairman of TRAC, a Washington consumers group.

 

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2006 Jeep Commander Named Worst "Blind Zone" Offender

Children Most Frequent Victims of "Backover" Accidents

2006 Jeep Commander Named Worst ...

Consumer Reports' latest examination of vehicle blind zones -- the area behind a car or truck that's hidden from the driver's view -- shows that the 2006 Jeep Commander Limited ranks as the worst vehicle overall.

CR measured the blind zone behind the Commander at 44 feet for a driver who is five feet, eight inches tall and a stunning 69 feet for a shorter driver (five feet, one inch tall) with all three rows of seats raised. The Commander's blind zone is considerably larger than that for other midsized and large sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).

Until now, the vehicle with the worst blind zone in Consumer Reports' tests was the 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche 1500, a pickup truck, which had a blind zone of 29 feet for a five-foot, eight-inch driver and 51 feet for a five-foot, one-inch driver.

But the redesigned, 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche LT has no blind zone when equipped with the optional rearview camera. Without the camera, the vehicle had a 31-foot blind zone for a five-foot, eight-inch driver and 50 feet for a short driver.

The Commander also offers an optional rearview camera, which CR's test vehicle lacked. This camera can significantly reduce or eliminate the blind zone.

To help consumers understand how large some blind zones are, Consumer Reports has been measuring the blind zones on vehicles that it tests and rates since 2003. CR's database now covers about 200 vehicles from model years 2002 through 2007.

To measure the blind zones, a 28-inch traffic cone was positioned behind the vehicle at the point where the driver could just see the top. This cone simulates the height of a small child.

"Consumer Reports findings illustrate that the danger of vehicle blind zones correlates with the use of large SUVs, minivans and pickups trucks as common family vehicles. Consumers must be cognizant of this danger-and the value of rearview cameras-when going out to purchase a new vehicle," said Don Mays, senior director for product safety and consumer science at Consumer Reports.

Kids and Cars, the safety group, estimates that more than 100 children were killed by vehicles whose drivers simply could not see them in the blind zone behind the vehicle. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, nearly 7,500 children were treated in United States emergency rooms between 2001 and 2003 for backover injuries.

Many of these incidents could have been prevented if drivers had a way to see or detect what is behind them while backing up. Every vehicle has blind zones. Side and rearview mirrors are insufficient to combat them. Consumer Reports tests show that, in general, the longer and higher the vehicle, the bigger the blind zone is likely to be.

There are no federal government requirements for backup warning sensors or rearview cameras on any passenger vehicle sold in the United States

"Unfortunately, the few vehicles that now come with this technology are higher-end models, and most devices are available as an extra-cost option -- often requiring the purchase of other equipment like an expensive navigation system," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union in Washington, D.C.

"We believe that backup technologies, such as rearview cameras are essential, and should be a requirement by federal law. Their cost is small compared to the cost of a child's life. And once this technology becomes standard equipment in vehicles, systems will become more economical for manufacturers to produce," she added.

"Without these devices, parents and families will continue to suffer the terrible tragedy of accidentally backing over a child," Greenberg said. "That is why it is critical that Congress pass the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act of 2005-to require a rearward visibility standard that will provide drivers with a means of detecting a child behind the vehicle."

Consumers who wish to improve the safety of their current vehicle can add an aftermarket rearview camera. Consumer Reports tests have shown that most work well. Such cameras typically cost several hundred dollars and are best installed by a professional.

 

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Department of Education Site Exposes Data on 21,000 Users

Department of Education Site Exposes Data on 21,000 Users...


An online student loan payment service under control of the Department of Education (DOED) leaked personal identifying information on 21,000 students between Sunday and Tuesday of this past week, according to the agency.

 

Federal Student Aid recipients who were trying to access information or make payments at DOED's Direct Loan Servicing Online Web site were able to view records of other borrowers while updating their own information.

Software company Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), which handles the loan processing for the Direct Loan Servicing system, installed a software upgrade on Sunday which caused the glitch.

When DOED started receiving complaints from users that they could view others' personal data, the online payment system was immediately disabled. The site's online payment system is currently disabled due to problems with "software upgrades," according to a message posted on the home page.

ACS spokesperson Lesley Pool said the software glitch was fixed on Tuesday and the online payment system would be disabled until it was fully tested. ""It is up to the (Education) Department to say when the code is ready to go," she said, according to CNet News.

ACS has a large number of profitable contracts to provide software services with companies ranging from government agencies like the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to companies as diverse as UnumProvident and Burger King.

The company's press kit boasts that, "It would be hard for you to go through a day without encountering the products or services of our many clients in communications, educationgovernment, healthcare, insurance, manufacturing, retail, travel, and transportation."

DOED officials said that there were no cases of identity theft reported from the data leak as of today, and that it would provide free credit monitoring for the affected users, to be paid for by ACS.

Neither the Direct Loan Servicing site or the main DOED site had any notices that borrowers may be vulnerable to identity theft as a result of the leak.

The Department of Education breach is far from the only example of potential identity fraud resulting from bad data practices in higher education. Student loan company Texas Guaranteed contracted data services out to third-party software company Hummingbird, which exposed the data of millions of borrowers when a contractor for the company misplaced a storage device containing the information.

Ohio University suffered multiple data breaches over the course of the past year, and was heavily criticized for not installing better network security or letting affected individuals know quickly enough.

Not to be outdone, many government agencies have suffered as a result of outsourcing data infrastructure work to third-party contractors. Unisys, a technology services firm performing insurance claim processing for the Veterans' Administration, had a desktop computer containing data on thousands of veterans stolen from its Reston, VA headquarters.

Government agencies have been rushing to lock down data weaknesses and provide stronger privacy protections across the board in the wake of the infamous theft of a laptop containing millions of personal records from the home of a VA analyst, often with mixed results and many problems left unsolved.

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Fake Check Scammers Move Onto craigslist

E85, which is 85 percent ethanol, emits less smog-producing pollutants than gasoline, but provides fewer miles per gallon, costs more, and is hard to find ...


Some scammers are taking advantage of the growing popularity of craigslist to victimize people trying to rent their homes or apartments. The scheme is basically the fake check scam, with a twist.

Darryl, of San Diego, told ConsumerAffairs.com that he received almost identical replies when he listed a room for rent on both craigslist and Roommate.com. The replies claimed to be from "Marie," who called herself "a young humanitarian officer."

"Marie" said her employer would be sending Darryl her expense check, which would be for several thousand dollars. Darryl was to deposit it in his account, deduct the rent and deposit, and send the balance on to "Marie."

Fortunately, Darryl saw through the scam. If he had cashed the phony check, it would not have been discovered for a few days. By then he would have sent the scammer a very real check for a $3,000 or more.

"Most people who use craigslist have great stories to tell about their experiences with buyers, sellers, tenants, landlords and such, but we also receive occasional reports of scams and fraud," craigslist warns on its Web site. "We've found that one of the best ways to avoid this problem is to keep all transactions local -- whenever possible, don't do business with anyone who is not in your local area."

The site also urges consumers to use caution and common sense when dealing with any financial transaction:

• Deal only with locals. Most non-local inquiries on craigslist are scams.

• Never wire funds to a distant person, via Western Union or any other carrier.

• Be wary if the other party wants to use an escrow service such as BidPay or Squaretrade.

• Never give out personal financial information (checking account number, SSN, eBay/PayPal info, etc.)

• Trust your instincts, and always remember that the most important rule -- caveat emptor (buyer beware) -- applies to any transaction on craigslist where money is involved.

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U.S. Military To Be Tagged With Spychips?

Ex-HHS Chief Thompson Now Peddling Spychips

U.S. Military To Be Tagged With Spychips?...


If microchip maker VeriChip has its way, the armed forces will soon be trading in their dogtags for radio-frequency identifier (RFID) microchips, implanted under the skin and containing all of their medical and personal information.

The company is lobbying the Pentagon for the authority to implant RFID tags in virtually all military personnel, according to a series of articles in The Examiner, a Washington, D.C., newspaper.

VeriChip's plans are meeting opposition from veterans' groups, members of Congress, and privacy advocates, all of whom are concerned about the technology and its potential security risks.

Leading the company's charge is former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, now a lobbyist. Thompson, who sits on VeriChip's board of directors, insists that the chip is safe and that no one will be forced to have the procedure.

Thompson has boasted repeatedly that he plans to have a chip inserted in himself to demonstrate its safety. He hasn't yet done so, however.

Although Thompson and VeriChip have repeatedly claimed that RFID technology is safe and secure against potential hackers and data thieves, a recent investigation by Wired magazine editor Annalee Newitz proved otherwise.

Newitz, who has a chip embedded in her arm, demonstrated that RFID chips can be "read" by other devices at a hackers' conference in New York on July 22nd.

Newitz and colleague Jonathan Westhues showed how a laptop could be used to record the data off her RFID chip, and that a standard RFID reader would read the data off the laptop as if it were one and the same. "{The RFID chip} actually has no security devices whatsoever," Newitz said.

VeriChip contested Newitz's findings, saying it wished to review the data itself.

With Thompson calling in political favors and cashing in on his years on the public payroll, the Department of Defense isn't the only arm of the government interested in VeriChip's RFID push.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a request for information on how to find or create stronger RFID readers that could actively sense chips implanted in passports and other traveler information.

The Homeland Security request was uncovered by privacy advocates Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, founders of anti-loyalty card organization CASPIAN and largely credited with bringing the issue of RFID chips to the mainstream.

McIntyre and Albrecht also uncovered a covert move by the Levi Strauss company to quietly test jeans implanted with spychips in the United States. The resulting public furor forced the company to back off from its plans.

Albrecht and McIntyre have repeatedly challenged the usage of RFID tagging for consumer products, claiming that it gives corporations the ability to track shoppers' buying patterns and build information profiles of them.

They have also criticized the government for embracing the usage of RFID technology without proper oversight or privacy protections.

Several members of Congress voiced similar concerns over VeriChip's potential deal with the Pentagon. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Examiner that, "There are many questions that need answers" before the initative can be approved.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), chair of the House Government Reform Committee, told his staff to investigate VeriChip's proposal and examine it for any potential concerns about privacy.

VeriChip, with an initial public offering for its stock pending, is aggressively pushing as many new markets for its technology as possible. VeriChip chairman Scott Silverman ruffled feathers when he publicly suggested undocumented laborers could be implanted with RFID chips as part of President Bush's "guest worker" proposals.

Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle recently signed into law a statewide ban on implanting microchips of any sort into humans. The law, introduced by state assemblyman Marlin Schneider and passed unanimously, levies a fine of $10,000 per day on anyone who forces an individual to be implanted without their permission.

Ironically, Verichip peddler Tommy Thompson was governor of Wisconsin before his tenure as a one-term Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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Counterfeit Travelers Checks Look Like Real Thing

The elaborate fakes even have a hologram

The fake travelers checks were so well designed that they even had a silver seal and hologram. Additionally, they contained water marks and micro printing....

Some amazingly well designed counterfeit travelers checks are making the rounds, and have ensnared at least one consumer in West Virginia. The fakes were so well designed that they even had a silver seal and hologram. Additionally, they contained water marks and micro printing.

"What the consumer thought she received in the mail were travelers checks that appeared to be issued by Bank of America and American Express," said West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw. "What the consumer actually received were very well-constructed counterfeit documents that looked like the real thing."

McGraw said the case came to his attention where a consumer in West Virginia "won" an on-line sweepstakes and was sent $3,000 worth of travelers checks in $500 denominations.

After depositing the travelers checks into her bank account, the consumer proceeded to spend the money. Within fourteen days, the travelers checks were returned as counterfeit and the consumer was responsible for the funds that had been spent.

McGraw advises that any scenario that sounds too good to be true probably is. Most people do not win on-line sweepstakes and even if the sweepstakes is legitimate, most contests do not give travelers' checks as prizes.

McGraw said he believed the transaction involved counterfeit documents and originated out of state, so he has referred this specific case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

 

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Hopkins Researchers Find Better Blood Test for Prostate Cancer

New studies may change the way men are screened

Hopkins Researchers Find Better Blood Test for Prostate Cancer...

New studies of a blood protein recently identified at Johns Hopkins, early prostate cancer antigen-2 (EPCA-2), may change the way men are screened for prostate cancer -- a disease that kills tens of thousands of men every year.

Current standards of screening and testing for prostate cancer focus on the blood protein prostate-specific antigen (PSA) along with a digital rectal examination. Men who have more than 2.5 nanograms per milliliter of PSA are considered at risk for prostate cancer.

However, PSA testing often erroneously highlights noncancerous conditions (false positives) and can miss some cases of cancer (false negatives), according to Robert H. Getzenberg, Ph.D., a professor of urology and director of research at the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Due to elevated PSA levels, approximately 1.6 million men undergo prostatic biopsies in the United States annually, and roughly 80 percent of these men have negative results, according to Getzenberg, lead author of the study.

He says that of the entire population of men in the United States who have been tested for PSA, an estimated 25 million have elevated PSA levels and a biopsy of the prostate that did not reveal any prostate cancer. Conversely, roughly 15 percent of men with prostate cancer go undetected because their PSA levels are below the cutoff level, according to Getzenberg.

In a study published online in Lancet, Getzenberg and a team of Hopkins researchers introduce evidence in support of EPCA-2 testing as a more accurate way to identify cancer in the prostate.

"A blood test based on EPCA-2 may greatly improve our ability to accurately detect prostate cancer early and minimize the number of false positives, therefore lowering the number of unnecessary biopsies," says Getzenberg. "In addition, this is the first time we have a test that effectively distinguishes between men with cancer confined to the prostate and those whose disease has spread outside of the gland."

Getzenberg and his team measured EPCA-2 levels in the blood of 330 Hopkins patients separated into several groups: men with normal PSA levels and no evidence of disease, men with elevated PSA levels but who had negative biopsies, men with a common noncancerous prostate condition known as benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) who did not receive biopsies for prostate cancer, men with prostate cancer but with normal PSA levels, men with prostate cancer confined to the prostate, men with prostate cancer that had invaded outside of the gland at the time of surgery, and a diverse group of patients with benign conditions of other organs as well as individuals with other cancer types.

Patients with an EPCA-2 cutoff level of 30 nanograms per milliliter or higher were considered to be at risk for prostate cancer. This cutoff value was established in a pilot study of 30 blood samples and was then applied throughout the larger study.

Results showed that the EPCA-2 test was negative in 97 percent of the patients who did not have prostate cancer. Men with no evidence of disease (regardless of their PSA levels), as well as the control group of patients with other cancer types and benign conditions, all had EPCA-2 levels below the cutoff.

In contrast, in a multi-institutional study published in 2003 in the Journal of Urology, PSA levels between 4 and 10 nanograms per milliliter were shown to be accurate in identifying patients without prostate cancer only 19 percent of the time.

In addition, 77 percent of the BPH patients had a level of EPCA-2 lower than the cutoff point. Getzenberg says this is well within the likely percentage range of BPH patients who are prostate-cancer free. He says this result was encouraging since BPH is often associated with elevated PSA levels, leading to misdiagnosis and unnecessary biopsies.

When it came to correctly identifying patients with prostate cancer, EPCA-2 levels at or above the cutoff were detected in 90 percent of the men with organ-confined prostate cancer and 98 percent of the men with disease outside of the prostate. Overall, in this study, the EPCA-2 test detected 94 percent of the men with prostate cancer.

The 2003 study showed that PSA levels between 4 and 10 nanograms per milliliter detected 85 percent of the patients with prostate cancer.

Results of the study also revealed that EPCA-2 levels were significantly higher in patients whose cancers had spread outside of the prostate compared to those with disease confined to the gland. EPCA-2 was dramatically better at separating these groups than were PSA levels, according to Getzenberg.

"This is important since cancer that has spread outside of the prostate is more deadly, which makes it even more crucial to have a tool that detects it early," says Getzenberg.

Finally, the EPCA-2 test identified 78 percent of the men with prostate cancer in the group with PSA levels below the accepted cutoff level of 2.5 nanograms per milliliter.

EPCA-2 is the second prostate-cancer marker identified by Getzenberg and his team that has outperformed PSA. Last year, they discovered an unrelated tissue-based test, EPCA-1, that also proved effective at identifying prostate cancer. The only commonality between these markers is that they were discovered using the same approach. Getzenberg says the efficacy of EPCA-1 as a test of biopsy samples is currently being evaluated.

Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer found in American men. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 234,460 new cases of prostate cancer in the United States in 2006, and 27,350 men will die of this disease.

Getzenberg says larger clinical trials for EPCA-2 are planned that could make this test available to the public in approximately 18 months.

 



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Dell Laptop Blamed for House Fire

Florida man believes his Dell laptop is the cause of his house burning down.

Dell Laptop Blamed for House Fire...

A man in South Venice, Fla. believes his Dell laptop is the cause of his house burning down.

Louis Minnear told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that about 5 a.m. Thursday he smelled what he believed to be an electrical fire. He searched the house for the source, didn't find it and went back to sleep. About 45 minutes later he awoke to find his couch engulfed in flames.

Minnear led his pregnant wife, 9-month-old son and two dogs to safety while scrambling for what belongings he could.

"It moved fast; it burned hot," Minnear told the Herald-Tribune. "But they got it out quickly."

In the end, all he could salvage were a few family photos, toys and his wife's purse.

The Dell was a Latitude D500, equipped with one of the 4.1 million batteries Dell recalled two days before the fire.

Minnear is "convinced" the Dell, which he said was sitting on a pile of papers, started the blaze.

The flames took less than 20 minutes to tear through the small home, destroying everything and leaving it uninhabitable.

Sarasota fire officials have yet to determine a cause but did verify that a laptop was on the remains of a couch. The case currently rests in the hands of the Florida State Fire Marshal.

"Sometimes the fires are left undetermined," Sarasota Assistant Fire Chief Paul Dezzi said. "Sometimes you cannot figure out what would have caused it."

Dell and the office of the Florida state fire marshal did not return two phone calls for comment. Dell also did not return phone calls made by the Herald-Tribune.

Should the fire marshal determine that the laptop was the cause of the fire, this would be the most destruction any Dell laptop has caused. In the first publicized case, in June, only the Dell laptop was destroyed. Then a month later, a Dell laptop in an office in Illinois charred itself and the desk it was sitting on.

Then, later in July, a truck in Nevada went up in flames sending two men fleeing as the flames reached the gas tank and two boxes of bullets in the glove box.

 

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Verizon Tacks On New DSL Fees

Verizon Tacks On New DSL Fees...

The satirical Web site The Onion recently published a tongue-in-cheek article "reporting" that Verizon was introducing the new "Charge-You-At-Whim" plan.

Now it seems that life does indeed imitate art, as the telecom giant announced yesterday that it would be tacking on a new surcharge for customers using Verizon's "standalone" DSL service.

The new fee comes just as Verizon stops paying into the Universal Service Fund (USF), which would have saved its subscribers $1 to $3 a month on average.

Verizon had successfully petitioned the FCC for relief from paying the USF, which was ostensibly designed to fund telecommunications initiatives for in low-income and rural areas. The monthly USF fee for consumers ran from $1.25 to $2.83 a month, depending on their type of DSL service.

The new surcharge almost exactly mirrors the old USF fee, ranging from $1.20 to $2.70 a month.

Verizon spokesperson Bobby Henson claimed the new fee was due to "costs" incurred from the development of standalone DSL service, as opposed to service bundled to Verizon's phone offerings or other services.

Industry observers, tech pundits, and Verizon customers greeted the explanation with skepticism. Techdirt noted that Verizon had resisted deploying a standalone DSL service for some time, and the oddity of new costs for the service appearing out of nowhere.

"What the quote is really saying is that Verizon is still upset that its traditional voice line business is in trouble, but Verizon can't admit it publicly as it would cause investors to beat down the stock," it said. )

Critics have for years complained that the USF was mostly a "slush fund" for companies, funding little in the way of new infrastructure.

A recent study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that telecom companies opposed expansion of the USF for new infrastructure development, saying that they would have to incur more costs from "program development."

In order to recoup losses to the USF from telecoms not paying into the fund, the FCC recently ruled that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers must start paying into the fund.

VoIP services, which have marketed themselves as being low-cost alternatives to traditional phone lines, faced an average of $1.75 extra in monthly charges for users as a result.

Verizon's practice of charging extra fees without providing any additional service is not a new complaint. The company came under fire in May for its "limited unlimited" EV-DO wireless network, when users who pay upwards of $80 a month for the service found their accounts terminated for any usage heavier than casual Web surfing.

Readers at tech forum Broadband Reports theorized that the new surcharge was needed to fund the rollout of Verizon's new high-speed FiOS broadband service. "Come on Verizon DSL Folks," said one reader. "The FiOS program needs funding and investors are getting worried! Now they got their extra funding."

 

 

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Study Warns of Homeowner "Rate Shock"

Subprime loans are becoming harder to repay

Study Warns of Homeowner 'Rate Shock'...

A study warns that homeowners in the Midwest and South and minority communities nationwide are most at risk of mortgage rate shock as the three-fourths of all subprime home loans that are adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) become harder for borrowers to repay.

The report, "The Impending Rate Shock: A study of home mortgages in 130 American Cities," looks at which communities will be hit hardest by rising interest rates. It was issued by ACORN, a grass-roots community activist organization.

Using data available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, ACORN's study examines the extent of high-cost (subprime) lending in 130 metropolitan areas and the disparities between borrowers of different race and income levels.

Borrowers with subprime loans are already paying higher interest rates and are more likely to be lower-income and have fewer resources to cope with the coming "rate shock" when their interest rates adjust even higher.

The top 10 areas at the greatest risk of "rate adjustment shock," where high-cost loans represented more than two of every five home purchase and refinance loan, were largely concentrated in the South and Midwest. These areas are: Detroit and Flint, Mich.; Memphis, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; McAllen, El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville, Texas; Springfield, Ill.; and Birmingham, Ala.

"Rate shock could mean and a sharp increase in foreclosures in some of the urban and minority communities that most need to build wealth through homeownership," said ACORN President Maude Hurd. "Too many of our neighbors are being steered into ARMs without given an option for a fixed rate and without given an explanation of the risks."

Racial Disparities

The study revealed that minority neighborhoods are at a greater risk of rate shock than neighborhoods that are predominantly white, because of the disproportionately high share of subprime loans held by homeowners in these communities.

In most metropolitan areas, upper-income minority borrowers are at a greater risk than upper and lower-income white borrowers as well.

There were 12 metropolitan areas where upper-income African-Americans were at least three times more likely to receive a high-cost loan than upper-income whites. Five of those areas are in California -- San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

The disparities were even greater between upper-income African-Americans and upper-income white homebuyers. The study identified 15 metropolitan areas where upper-income African-Americans were at least five times more likely to receive a high-cost purchase loan than upper-income whites.

And upper-income Latinos were at least five times more likely than upper-income whites to receive a high-cost refinance loan in the following seven metropolitan areas: San Francisco, Calif.; Bethesda, Md.; Washington, D.C.: San Jose, Calif.; Bridgeport, Conn.; New York, N.Y.; and Santa Ana, Calif.

ACORN used a sample of 275 lenders that are owned by 15 of the largest lenders in the country. According to industry estimates, these lenders represent 65.5 percent of all residential mortgages originated in 2005 and 55 percent of the subprime market.

ACORN recommends that federal banking regulators require lenders to underwrite risky loans, such as interest-only and option ARMs, based on the borrower's capacity to repay the mortgage during the life of the loan considering the highest interest rates, the maximum possible negative amortization, and significant increases in monthly payments after the introductory minimum payment period expires.

Borrowers are advised to seek HUD-certified homeownership counseling to receive advice about receiving an appropriate loan and to ensure they are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous lenders. Borrowers can also call a local ACORN office for assistance.

The complete text of the report is available online (.pdf file).

 

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Dell Battery Recall May Not Be the Answer

Engineers Say Computer Architecture Shares the Blame

Dell Battery Recall May Not Be the Answer...

Following Dell's massive battery recall last week, mobile device designers are beginning to worry that the problem may be larger than the 4.1 million recalled batteries used in Dell laptops. It also appears Dell's recall is not a cure-all.

"It's a matter of how systems are architected," Bodo Arlt, publisher of Bodo's Power Systems magazine in Germany told the EE Times, an online technology publication.

"You need to know how much energy the computer extracts from the battery, and how a system is designed to manage the current flow that generates heat inside the battery. Knowing the limitation at the critical temperature is important," he said.

In the wake of the recall, Sony, which manufactured the lithium-ion batteries, has taken much of the blame for the 12 reported incidents of burning laptops and hundreds unreported.

Reports suggest that faulty crimping on a Sony production line may have introduced metal contamination to the cathodes of the affected battery packs.

As was suggested in a ConsumerAffairs.com story on August 3, that contamination would likely yield some sort of combustion if the battery got too hot.

The Dell recall may not end stories of Dell laptops going up in flames. Thomas Forqueran, whose Inspiron 1300 set his truck ablaze, did not have one of the 4.1 million recalled batteries. The 1300 is not one of the listed laptops.

Some laptop designers believe that the architecture of the computer is to blame, not the rare battery defect.

Dell laptops frequently place the battery toward the front of the laptop - near the two hottest components of the computer - the CPU and graphics processor. Whereas Apple and Sony, which use the same Sony batteries Dell recalled, tend to place their batteries toward the back, which may explain why there is only one known case of an Apple laptop igniting and no Sony cases.

"If Dell used a thermometer that would automatically shut down the computer when the battery gets too hot, this could be avoided," Ronald Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance USA, told ConsumerAffairs.com on August 3. "The point is, the computer should not be able to get hot enough to do that."

There are also concerns that with the increased demand for lithium-ion batteries, there may be more frequent quality control issues.

"It is basically a quality [control] problem in the cells," John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer and manager of consumer affairs for Underwriter Laboratories Inc. in Northbrook, Ill. told the EE Times. "Power density is increasing dramatically while battery cell materials have failed to keep pace."

If materials cannot meet the electrical and safety requirements, the task of keeping the battery cool may rest in hands of computer designers, not battery manufacturers.

A Sony spokesman in Tokyo said, "Our analysis thus far shows that a tiny metal particle that contaminated the electrolyte inside the battery cell caused a short-circuit." But he added, "Usually, that alone would not cause a fire, because the battery just goes dead at that point."

"We believe the fire was caused by the combination of batteries and system architecture," he said.

Dell has not commented on whether their architecture is to blame.

 

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Mazda Plans Recall of Troubled RX-8

Any engine that does not pass a specific vacuum test will be replaced according to Mazda.

Mazda plans a voluntary recall of all 2004 and 2005 RX-8 sports cars along with some 2006s because of damage to the catalyst resulting from oil leaks in th...

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Back-to-School Spending Strains Family Budgets

More Schools Requiring Uniforms, Spending on Electronics Soars

To most kids, summer is just getting started but, sadly, the days are dwindling down to a precious few and parents are already on the back-to-school trajec...

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Stolen Chevron Laptop Contains Data On Thousands Of Workers

Stolen Chevron Laptop Contains Data On Thousands Of Workers...


If it's Friday, it must be time for disclosure of yet another theft of a laptop containing the confidential personal information of thousands of workers. This time it's oil giant Chevron confessing to the data loss.

 

The California-based company notified employees earlier this week that a laptop containing names, Social Security numbers, and "other sensitive information" had been stolen from a third-party accounting firm that was conducting an audit of Chevron's employee health and savings plans.

David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted an internal e-mail sent by Chevron to its employees. "We believe that it is unlikely that any Chevron benefit plans will be impacted by this theft with the security measures we have in place for those plans," it said.

The accounting firm was not identified, and Chevron provided few details as to the nature of the theft, or why the data was not encrypted. The company claimed the laptop was password-protected, but security experts called that a modest protection at best.

Chevron, which recently posted a record $4.4 billion in net income for the second quarter of 2006, pledged to assist law enforcement in recovering the laptop and to provide protection for any employees that were affected by the theft.

Third-party companies being tasked to handle other companies' data has led to numerous data breaches and laptop thefts in the past 12 months alone. Both the Royal Ahold food marketing company and Hotels.com suffered data breaches when independent auditors lost equipment containing workers' information.

Student loan company Texas Guaranteed lost information on 1.3 million borrowers when data downloaded onto a mobile storage device by third-party contractor Hummingbird disappeared.

And the Veterans' Administration, already battered by the theft of a laptop containing data on 26.5 million veterans from an analyst's home, suffered another blow when a desktop computer containing veterans' insurance and medical records was stolen from the headquarters of technology services firm Unisys.

The Reston, Va.-based company had been contracted by the Veterans' Administration to assist with processing insurance claims.

InfoWorld's Ted Samson admonished companies that don't scrutinize relationships with their outsourcing partners closely enough, and don't implement and enforce data security procedures strictly enough.

"I think it's inevitable that we'll soon see hefty lawsuit settlements against companies that have negligently exposed their employees SSNs and other personal information," he said. "In the meantime, though, companies (and governmental agencies) need to get on the ball."

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DIRECTV Telemarketers To Pay $75,000 Penalty

Companies allegedly broke the Do Not Call rule

DIRECTV Telemarketers To Pay $75,000 Penalty...

The Federal Trade Commission has entered into a court settlement with Nomrah Records, Inc. and its president, Mark Harmon, defendants in the recent DIRECTV telemarketing case.

Under the settlement, Harmon will pay a $75,000 civil penalty and both he and the company will be barred from violating the Do Not Call (DNC) Rule and Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in the future.

In December 2005, the Commission charged DIRECTV and other defendants that telemarketed on DIRECTVs behalf with violating the DNC Rule and the TSR by calling consumers, despite the fact that their numbers were on the National DNC Registry.

In settling the charges, DIRECTV paid $5.3 million, representing at the time the largest-ever DNC penalty obtained by the Commission.

The stipulated final judgment and order against Nomrah and Harmon contains strong injunctive relief, barring them from calling consumers on the DNC Registry, as well as from violating any other provisions of the TSR in the future.

The judgment and order also requires Harmon to pay a $75,000 civil penalty, with the stipulation that $400,575 will become due if he is found to have misrepresented his financial condition to the Commission. Finally, the order contains standard record keeping and reporting terms to ensure the defendants comply with the order.

Litigation continues against several other companies and individuals.

 

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Satellite TV Gains on Cable

Bundled Digital Cable Services Increasingly Popular

An additional 1 percent of households subscribe to both cable and satellite services, with a total of 88 percent of households with either or both....

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Government Scrambles To Secure Data After Breaches

Government Scrambles To Secure Data After Breaches...


Rushing to latch the barn door as the horses thunder into the sunset, government agencies are rushing to implement safeguards for data security following an embarrassing series of data breaches and equipment thefts.

The Veterans Administration (VA) announced that it had contracted with two "mobile security specialist" companies to impose new data encryption on all of its machines, including desktop computers, laptops, and thumb drives.

In a press release trumpeting the initiative, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said that the agency-wide encryption program will be "a tremendous step forward in improving the safety and security of sensitive veteran information."

Nicholson claimed that final testing of the new encryption products was underway, and that all of the agency's laptop computers would be updated and protected within four weeks.

Not to be outdone, the Justice Department's chief information security officer announced that he was launching an examination of all of the agency databases for potential security vulnerabilities.

CIO Dennis Heretick told Information Week that he has an agency-wide license to deploy AppDetective, a security program that examines databases for vulnerabilities and reports its findings back to the user.

According to Heretick, only 30% of the Justice Department's active databases are currently being examined by AppDetective, including systems used by the FBI. Heretick said that he wants personnel fully trained in the program before rolling it out agency-wide.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had set a deadline of August 7th for federal agencies to meet a "security checklist" for protecting remotely used data, but many agencies have not yet met the deadline.

Laptop on the Loose

The saga of the stolen VA laptop remains the standard-bearer for government-based data security breaches.

The laptop, containing unprotected personal information on 26.5 million veterans, was stolen from the home of VA data analyst Wayne Johnson, who is currently fighting his termination from the agency.

Two Maryland teens and a juvenile were arrested and charged with the theft, and the laptop was returned by an anonymous informant.

Not only did the VA reveal that two other security breaches had occurred in the past twelve months and were kept quiet, it suffered another blow when a desktop computer containing information on thousands of veterans was stolen from Unisys, a technology services company contracting with the VA to process insurance claims.

The VA wasn't the only agency to suffer embarrassing data breaches.

In July 2006, a contractor working for defense and aerospace giant BAE Systems hacked the network of the FBI offices in Springfield, Illinois. Joseph Colon, who claimed he did so with permission of local FBI higher-ups, was spared jail time in the incident, but was terminated from his job.

Just last week, a special agent with the Department of Transportation (DOT) reported his laptop stolen from an agency vehicle in Miami, Florida. The laptop contained information on thousands of people in the area with commercial drivers' and pilots' licenses, and was being used in a fraud investigation.

Many government data breaches don't involve theft, but simple incompetence.

In January 2006, the Justice Department moved to "scrub" many of its Web sites after it was tipped off that it had published the names, addresses, and Social Security numbers of individuals involved in litigation against it.

And the Navy accidentally published personal data on Web sites not once, but twice in two weeks. Both times, the data was quickly scrubbed and information remains scanty as to why the data breaches occurred.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the watchdog arm of the government, has published numerous reports warning Congress that many federal agencies do not have proper data safeguards or protections for data, and that an excessive reliance on contractors and third parties for infrastructure and business tasks may lead to more breaches in the future.

Or to put it simply, a few barn doors have been latched but many others remain wide open.

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Sleepy Truck Drivers a Significant Safety Risk

Highways crowded with large trucks are much less safe if the drivers haven't had a good night's sleep

Sleepy Truck Drivers a Significant Safety Risk...

Highways crowded with large trucks are much less safe if the drivers haven't had a good night's sleep.

A new study says truck drivers who have severe sleep apnea or who sleep less than five hours each night while at home are more likely to suffer from sleepiness, performance impairment and decreased task vigilance while behind the wheel.

The results of the study appear in the second issue for August 2006 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published by the American Thoracic Society.

Allan L. Pack of the University of Pennsylvania and six associates tested 247 commercial drivers at high risk for sleep apnea and 159 at lower risk for sleep impairment.

They evaluated the role of short sleep duration at home over one week in 340 drivers, with 55 sleeping less than five hours. Of the 406 drivers examined for sleep apnea, 118 had mild to moderate forms of the disease, and 28 had severe sleep apnea.

"In the United States, approximately 5,600 people are killed annually in crashes involving commercial trucks," Pack said. "Falling asleep while driving is an important factor in serious crashes involving commercial vehicles, prompting the question, why?"

According to the authors, the two culprits are chronically insufficient sleep and obstructive sleep apnea.

The researchers defined mild to moderate sleep apnea as "from 5 to less than 30 temporary breathing pauses per hour of sleep," a process that decreases the amount of oxygen in the blood. Severe sleep apnea, on the other hand, involves more than 30 breathing pauses per hour.

However, the investigators also found that 77 percent of those with mild sleep apnea and 56 percent of with moderate sleep apnea did not have what could be termed "pathologic sleepiness" as a result of their problem.

The authors used the Epworth Sleepiness Scale to assess subjective sleepiness, the Multiple Sleep Latency Test to objectively determine the driver's propensity to fall asleep, and the Psychomotor Vigilance Task to assess behavioral alertness and define vigilance lapses. These tests were administered in addition to a normal sleep test (polysomnography) to measure breathing pauses and movement disorders in the sleep laboratory.

"In this study, we showed that both subjective and objective sleepiness, as well as performance impairments are common in our sample of commercial driver's license holders," Pack said. "Our analyses reveal that chronic short sleep duration is a risk factor for subjective sleepiness, objectively measured sleepiness and performance impairments. The results for sleep apnea are less clear."

 

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Insider: Dell Knew of Battery Problem for Years

A former Dell technician says Dell has known about the problem for more than two years

Insider: Dell Knew of Battery Problem for Years...

Dell's recall of 4.1 million fire-prone laptop batteries takes the heat off the company for now, but a former Dell technician says Dell has known about the problem for more than two years.

Robert Day, Dell's lead acoustic technician from 1997-2005, said the computer company received hundreds of laptops that were charred or melted as a result of the defective battery, which Dell is now recalling.

Day shared hundreds of photos of laptops with ConsumerAffairs.com that he downloaded prior to leaving the company in January 2005. His lab was next to the Product Safety Investigations lab (PSI).

Day says Dell tried to hide the problem from the public for years. "They didn't want anyone to know how serious of a problem it was," Day said.

The photos are from one of PSI's technician's archives. By 2005 there were 14 technicians in that lab.

The findings of each lab, including the PSI, were submitted monthly to executives, so Day said there is no way many of the senior executives at Dell have not known about this problem for years.

He said after Dell started using the Sony batteries in 2003, the PSI started receiving so many charred laptops that Day's lab, located next to the PSI, had to store many of the laptops.

Day said he didn't know how many charred laptops Dell received as a result of the batteries, but said it was, "in the hundreds."

Day sent ConsumerAffairs.com over 300 photographs of about 100 different laptops. It appears that about 12 of those melted laptops were the result of the battery while the rest were from various other electrical shorts and CPU fan failures. He said there were many more battery-burned laptops than that, but he only had access to one technician's archives.

Day now works as a technician for Apple and said he left Dell after he turned in a Dell executive involved in a sex scandal. Dell did not return two phone calls.

Sony Batteries Blamed

The recall of the batteries is the largest electronics-related recall ever conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The batteries were made by Sony Corp. and placed in in some models of Dell's Latitude, Inspiron, XTS and precision mobile workstation notebooks that were shipped between April 1, 2004, and July 18 of this year.

On August 3, ConsumerAffairs.com reported the story of Thomas Forqueran, stranded at Lake Mead State Park in Nevada after a Dell laptop set his vintage truck ablaze.

That story came in the wake of two other summer Dell laptop blazes -- one in which cameras caught an exploding Dell laptop at a conference in Japan. The other took place in Illinois where a Dell laptop spurted flames for over five minutes and forced an evacuation of an office building.

Airline regulators have also become alarmed and may ban laptops in planes.

Ronald Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance USA, said the battery is the prime suspect in the laptop fires.

Riley gave two possible reasons for the battery combustion. He said the battery could have an internal short, as part of a manufacturer's defect, causing the battery to explode. He said any number of variables could trigger the flames.

He also said it's possible that when the battery gets hot, it "wants" to expand, but has no room.

"As the temperature rises, the conductors and plates buckle because they have no room to expand," Riley said. "If Dell used a thermometer that would automatically shut down the computer when the battery gets too hot, this could be avoided. ... The point is, the computer should not be able to get hot enough to do that."

 

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Dell Notebook Computer Batteries

Dell Notebook Computer Batteries...

August 15, 2006
Dell is recalling about 2.7 million Dell-branded lithium-ion batteries made with cells manufactured by Sony. The recall affects about 2.7 million battery packs (an additional 1.4 million battery packs were sold outside the U.S.).

These lithium-ion batteries can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

Dell has received six reports of batteries overheating, resulting in property damage to furniture and personal effects. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled batteries were sold with or sold separately to be used with the following Dell notebook computers:

• Latitude D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810;
• Inspiron 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705;
• Dell Precision M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile workstations; and
• XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710.

Recalled Batteries"Dell" and one of the following markings are printed on the batteries: "Made in Japan," "Made in China," or "Battery Cell Made in Japan Assembled in China." The identification number for each battery appears on a white sticker.

The batteries were sold through Dell's Web site, phone and direct sales as part of a service replacement program, and catalogs from April 2004 through July 2006. The computers with these batteries sold for between $500 and $2850 and individual batteries sold for between $60 and $180.

Consumers should stop using these recalled batteries immediately and contact Dell to receive a replacement battery. Consumers can continue to use the notebook computers safely by turning the system off, ejecting the battery, and using the AC adapter and power cord to power the system until the replacement battery is received.

For additional information, contact Dell toll-free at (866) 342-0011 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, log on to the firm's Web site at www.dellbatteryprogram.com, or write to: Dell Inc., Attn: Battery Recall, 9701 Metric Blvd., Austin, Texas 78758.

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

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Obesity Expert Calls Processed Food "Toxic"

Consumers Can't Be Blamed for Making Bad Choices When Nearly All Choices Are Bad

Today's processed food is loaded with sugars that alter the body's hormonal balance, creating a "toxic environment" and an "addiction" to food....

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Laptop Fires Worry Airline Safety Regulators

Laptops may be banned entirely on airplanes

Laptop Fires Worry Airline Safety Regulators...

The use of laptop computers on airliners may be banned entirely because of a series of incidents involving overheated batteries, including a May 15 incident in which a laptop caught fire in an overhead luggage compartment as a Lufthansa airliner prepared to leave Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, The Wall Street Journalreported.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented 339 cases in which lithium and lithium-ion batteries overheated, began to smoke or exploded since 2003, the Journal said.

Laptop fires have also been a problem on the ground. Two outdoorsmen narrowly escaped injury when their Dell laptop exploded and set fire to their pickup truck, setting off ammunition stored in the glove compartment.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recorded 60 incidents involving laptops and other battery-powered devices since 1991, according to the Journal.

In February, a United Parcel Service air cargo plane caught fire in Philadelphia and a shipment of batteries is suspected to be the cause. In 2004, a television news crew's battery exploded aboard an aircraft chartered by Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, forcing an emergency landing.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has held hearings on the issue and is reportedly considering new rules tightening the use and transport of battery-powered devices on commercial airliners.

 

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Dell Plans Huge Recall of Troubled Batteries

Company Bows to Safety Concerns in Wake of Fires

Dell Plans Huge Recall of Troubled Batteries...

As stories about Dell laptop fires spread, Dell has decided to recall 4.1 million laptop batteries, a Dell insider told ConsumerAffairs.com.

The insider, ex-Dell engineer Robert Day, said the problem appears to be caused by batteries Sony manufactured for Dell between 2003 and 2006.

A source at the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, who did not want to be identified, confirmed the recall but said full details would not be made available until early tomorrow morning.

A Dell spokesman confirmed the company had "negotiated conditions of the recall" with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. It will be the largest electronics-related recall ever conducted by the agency.

The spokesman said the batteries were made by Sony Corp. and placed in in some models of Dell's Latitude, Inspiron, XTS and precision mobile workstation notebooks that were shipped between April 1, 2004, and July 18 of this year.

On August 3, ConsumerAffairs.com reported the story of Thomas Forqueran, stranded at Lake Mead State Park in Nevada after a Dell laptop set his vintage truck ablaze.

That story came in the wake of two other summer Dell laptop blazes -- one in which cameras caught an exploding Dell laptop at a conference in Japan. The other took place in Illinois where a Dell laptop spurted flames for over five minutes and forced an evacuation of an office building.

Airline regulators have also become alarmed and may ban laptops in planes.

Ronald Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance USA, said the battery is the prime suspect in the laptop fires.

Riley gave two possible reasons for the battery combustion. He said the battery could have an internal short, as part of a manufacturer's defect, causing the battery to explode. He said any number of variables could trigger the flames.

He also said it's possible that when the battery gets hot, it "wants" to expand, but has no room.

"As the temperature rises, the conductors and plates buckle because they have no room to expand," Riley said. "If Dell used a thermometer that would automatically shut down the computer when the battery gets too hot, this could be avoided. ... The point is, the computer should not be able to get hot enough to do that."

Dell did not return two phone calls.

 

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Special Agent's Laptop Stolen, Data on Pilots Missing

Special Agent's Laptop Stolen, Data on Pilots Missing...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

August 12, 2006
While Homeland Security was issuing color-coded alerts and warning travelers of the dangers of liquids on a plane, the theft of data on 40,000 licensed pilots went largely unnoticed.

The Department of Transportation (DOT)'s office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that a laptop belonging to a special agent assigned to the agency's Miami office was stolen on July 27th.

The laptop, which the agency claimed was password-locked, contained personally identifying information on roughly 133,000 Florida residents, including:

• Personal information on over 86,000 commercial driver's license holders in the Miami area, including names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

• Information on over 40,000 licensed pilots in the Florida area

• Data on 9,500 personal and commercial license holders in the Tampa area who received their credentials from a particular office in Largo, Florida.

Ironically, the agent responsible for the data was part of a task force investigating the acquisition of driver's and pilot's licenses using false information, and whether fraud was being committed at the licensing facility in question.

The unidentified agent had been working at home with the data, and had missed a security upgrade that would have encrypted the laptop against intrusion, The Register reported.

A spokesman for the OIG stated that the agent had left the computer in a government-owned vehicle, and when he returned to pick it up, he noticed it was missing. Further investigation revealed that the vehicle had been tampered with.

"We do not have reason to believe that the perpetrators targeted the computer based on knowledge of thedata," the OIG said in a statement. "However, we are taking all possible steps to inform Florida residents. We have dispatched a team of Special Agents to the Miami area to work with the Miami-Dade Police Department."

The DOT is offering a $10,000 reward for return of the laptop or information on its whereabouts. No information was provided as to why the theft was not made public until August 10th, or what the current status of the agent was.

Observers noted the potential danger of the information being loose in "the wild," as anyone who had access to the data could use it to gain false credentials for pilot's and driver's licenses.

Same Old, Same Old

The DOT laptop disappearance is the latest in a series of computer thefts and data breaches that has reached nearly absurd levels.

Government agencies, in particular, have been experiencing unheard-of levels of "laptop theft" and equipment losses, all of which contained valuable personal data that could be used for fraud and data theft.

The Veterans' Administration (VA) still claims the dubious honor of being the agency with the largest breach of personal data, due to the loss and retrieval of a laptop containing personal and medical information on 26.5 million veterans.

The VA reported recently that a desktop computer containing information on another 38,000 veterans had been stolen from the offices of Unisys, a contracting company that was assisting the VA with processing insurance claims.

Unisys announced that it would provide a year of free credit monitoring for any veteran potentially affected by the computer theft, free of charge.

Although the VA withdrew its own offer of credit monitoring for the stolen laptop after it was recovered and tested, California-based data analysis company ID Analytics recently offered to monitor the veterans' credit data to look for patterns of fraud and misuse, also at no charge.

ID Analytics published a study in 2005 that claimed small breaches of data were more dangerous than large exposures of information, given the amount of data to sift through, and that it was unnecessary to alert affected individuals every time there was a potential breach.

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HSBC Security Flaw Exposes Millions Of Customers' Data

HSBC Security Flaw Exposes Millions Of Customers' Data...


America may have the market cornered on embarrassing data security breaches, but other countries are catching up fast. A security flaw in the UK's HSBC Bank online banking system has left over three million customers' accounts dangerously vulnerable to outside attack from hackers.

A research team from Cardiff University discovered the flaw and alerted HSBC on August 9th. According to the team, the flaw has been active for at least two years, rendering many accountholders' finances vulnerable to hacking "within nine attempts," they said.

Professor Antonia Jones, leader of the research team, told The Guardian that "as long as this flaw exists, customers are at risk. For banks or institutions that are making huge amounts out of their customers not to protect them is pretty scandalous."

HSBC downplayed the discovery of the flaw, saying that, "It is an extremely sophisticated attack that would require a particular and time-consuming focus on one individual victim" and therefore criminals wouldn't be bothered to try it.

The Cardiff team declined to provide details about the flaw, saying that they would publish their full findings later in the year.

The team did say that hackers who use "keyloggers," remote programs that can hijack a user's machine and make records of the keystrokes as they type, would be most able to take advantage of the HSBC flaw.

According to Cambridge University's Richard Clayton, HSBC's online banking security would not sufficiently protect users from a keylogger.

The password system involves providing random letters from a secret "pass phrase" to gain access to your account. Although this was thought to be sufficient to fool keyloggers, Clayton claims the new find has a way around that.

"They have an anti-keylogging system that doesn't work they might as well not have it" Clayton said. "The only reason it's a theoretical [flaw] is that they're fortunate no bad guys have [exposed it] yet.

A keylogger was discovered last year by researchers working for Florida-based Sunbelt Software. That discovery led Sunbelt's team to a treasure trove of financial information stolen by unknown parties, believed to be based in Russia.

Sunbelt president Alex Eckelberry personally contacted victims of the hack and publicized the keylogger's existence.

Security experts and tech geeks furiously debated the threat level of the flaw after the announcement. One commenter on the tech web site Slashdot expressed amusement at the news, saying that it would take nine tries and many possible factors for the flaw to present a danger.

"Whereas, at another bank which asks for a username and passcode, the dishonest individual with the keylogger only needs me to log in ONCE to have the run of my account," they said. "So why is this news?"

"Andy," an anonymous and self-proclaimed "ex-bank hacker," posted his theory on the flaw on the Web, saying that HSBC's online banking security relied too heavily on repeatable number sequences, and didn't factor in the ability of hackers to wait out multiple login attempts before the challenge returned to a sequence the keylogger recorded.

"The rest is easy peasy, lemon squeezy, as they [say] in the business," he said.

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"Angel" Warns Job Seekers of Identity Theft Risk

Millions of Americans use online resume boards to get new jobs and make new connections, posting their resumes for thousands of employers to view....

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

August 10, 2006
Millions of Americans use online resume boards to get new jobs and make new connections, posting their resumes for thousands of employers to view.

One unforeseen side effect of this practice is that it leaves job hunters wide open to potential data fraud, as virtually all resumes contain personally identifying information, with some unsuspecting job seekers even posting their Social Security numbers online.

Now online job hunters can rest a little easier, because there's an "angel" watching out for them, and ready to warn them if they've posted too much sensitive data to be safe.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Latanya Sweeney has developed a program called "Identity Angel," a sort of specialized search engine that trolls online job boards and other sources to look for what she calls the "Holy Trinity" of personally identifying information -- a person's name, address, and Social Security number.

Although the first two are all too easy to find on the Web, finding all three is the gold standard for anyone who wants to commit fraud or steal someone's identity.

If the Identity Angel program finds all three, and can locate the person's e-mail address, they will receive an automated message warning them that their identity may potentially be in danger.

Sweeney, an acclaimed computer scientist and privacy expert and director of the Laboratory for International Data Privacy at Carnegie Mellon, developed the tool as a method of warning people as to how easy it was to obtain a credit card using someone else's identity.

As far back as 1996, Sweeney was developing systems to extract personally-identifying data from text documents.

In a 2005 presentation to the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) on the uses of AI in homeland security systems, Sweeney outlined how she developed a new system designed to target information in "rosters," online lists of information that were not easily searchable by keyword or phrase, such as a Google Web search.

According to Sweeney, when job seekers who had the Holy Trinity combination of personal data and a viable e-mail address were contacted, every single one removed their information shortly thereafter.

"Imagine a benevolent program that e-mails people for whom information, freely available on the Web can be combined sufficiently to impersonate them in financial transactions," Sweeney wrote. "This is the ambitious goal of 'Identity Angel.'"

The program has been active since July 23rd, and has already captured thousands of records containing the three necessary components for fraud.

Sweeney told National Public Radio that many of the initial responses to the original "Identity Angel" e-mail complained that it was endangering them, or that it was a fraud. She noted that the e-mail was retooled to explain their purpose more clearly.

Testifying before the Department of Homeland Security's Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee in June 2005, Sweeney advocated the belief that tools like Identity Angel would enable people to secure their identities while not sacrificing their privacy rights.

"Following the events of September 11, there is a common false belief that in order for America to be safe, the public must give up its privacy. This is not necessary, "Sweeney said.

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AOL Now Free ... Sort Of

AOL Now Free ... Sort Of...

 

America Online, the granddaddy of all Internet service providers is now free, according to Chairman Jonathan Miller. That's big news from a company that in recent years engaged in ruthless doubling billing and made it next to impossible for subscribers to cancel its service.

But as things turn out, "free" doesn't mean quite the same at AOL as it does almost everywhere else. Changing an existing account to a free account will probably generate a cloud of the same old AOL heifer dust laden with bullying and intimidation that so many consumers have encountered in the past.

AOL subscribers have dropped the service in enormous numbers in recent years. Once 35 million subscribers strong, the ISP currently has only 17.7 million subscribers in the U.S.

Now AOL is in the midst of transformation by making its software which bundles tools like email and instant-messaging service free as well as lowering the price of its dial-up costs.

But while the company wants to attract new members to the free service, it seems to be trying to hang on to the old paying customers at their current going rate of approximately $25.90 a month.

AOL prefers to call its subscriber "members." But there is not much family love in evidence as AOL, true to its reputation, has made it as difficult as possible for existing members to leave the fold.

AOL members trying to become non-members are finding the path to a free AOL hard to find, almost as hard as fiinding a living person on the other end of an AOL help line. If finally connected, there are repeated pitches for additional services and switching to the free account is not one of them.

AOL representatives push a promotional $4.95 monthly plan for customer service and some dial-up hours and a video lesson with a free video camera.

Paying subscribers who fail to run the gauntlet of sales pitches will remain on their current plan at the existing rate.

For the fortunate few who get through to AOL, consumers who have an alternative Internet connection can use AOL software and its virus and spyware protection without a monthly charge.

Members who still wish to use AOL to connect to the Internet can pay $9.95 a month for unlimited dial-up service and customer support.

An AOL package for $25.90 a month, the price of its current unlimited dial-up service, includes additional security features and 50 gigabytes of backup storage along with -- we're told -- customer support.

AOL defends the not-so-free policy by suggesting that it would have been unfair to those members comfortable with their existing service to switch them to a free service. AOL is quick to add that the company wants to inform people about all of their options.

AOL subscribers who use the service to access the Internet -- and AOL says that is nearly two-thirds of its subscribers -- were reminded that if they switch their plans they may find themselves cut off from the Internet.

 

 

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Study Links Soft Drinks With Obesity

A new study amplifies those claims, finding that the increased consumption of sugary beverages corresponds with Americans' expanding waistline....

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Identity Thieves Stay One Step Ahead

Scammers keep up with the latest technology

Identity Thieves Stay One Step Ahead...

Criminals are becoming more clever in their attempts to steal consumers' identities. In New York, the Suffolk County Police Department says it has recently investigated three new variations of the identity theft scam.

In one, the scammer uses technology to display a false message on the consumers' caller ID screen, indicating the call is from a legitimate financial institution. Unwary consumers who give the caller personal information have their identity stolen.

Consumers also report calls in which they are told to call an automated voice mail system to get details on a problem with their credit card account. The automated system instructs them to enter their account number using the touch tone key pad, allowing the scammer to steal their account number.

Scammers have also reportedly called consumers posing as security personnel investigating irregular activity on their credit card. They trick the victim into revealing the three digit security on the back of the card, which an increasing number of businesses are requiring as verification.

How do you protect yourself in these situations? Police say you should never reveal any sensitive data to anyone who calls you on the phone. If you think they might be legitimate, hang up and call the institution or agency back by looking up the number.

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Consumers Lose $8 Billion to Online Fraud

The Internet remains a dangerous place to do business

Consumers Lose $8 Billion to Online Fraud...

The risks associated with using the Internet remain high according to Consumer Reports' latest "State of the Net" survey. CR projects that U.S. consumers lost more than $8 billion over the last two years to viruses, spyware, and phishing schemes.

Additionally, the "State of the Net" survey shows that consumers face a 1 in 3 chance of becoming a cybervictim, an incidence that hasn't abated in the past year.

Online consumers who fell prey to phishing schemes experienced a five-fold increase in financial losses since the 2005 survey. The median cost per phishing incident was $850 -- five times higher than the median cost of $165 in 2005. Consumer Reports projects that U.S. consumers lost $630 million over the past two years to fraudulent phishing e-mail scams.

The 2006 "State of the Net" survey was conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 households with Internet access.

Based on the survey, Consumer Reports projects that Americans spent at least $7.8 billion for computer repairs, parts, and replacement over the past two years to correct problems caused by viruses and spyware.

Among CR's key 2006 "State of the Net" findings:

Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents said a virus, spyware, or phishing scam caused serious computer problems and/or financial losses in the last two years. And based on survey projections, virus infections prompted an estimated 2.6 million households to replace their computers in the past two years.

Additionally, 35% of survey respondents didn't use software to block or remove spyware. And CR projects that 2.4 million US households with broadband remain unprotected by a firewall.

Spam: The incidence of heavy spam remains as elevated as last year. Survey results indicate that about 795,000 households continued to buy products advertised through spam. Additionally, in 8% of the households surveyed that had children under 18, a child had inadvertently seen pornographic material as a result of spam.

Viruses: The frequency of virus-induced problems is at the same high level as last year. In the latest survey, 39% of respondents reported a virus infection in the past 2 years. Of those, 34% had to reformat their hard drives; 16% permanently lost important data; and 8% had to replace hardware.

Spyware: In the past six months spyware prompted nearly a million U.S. households to replace their computers. Among survey respondents, two of the biggest risk factors for spyware infection were using file-sharing software (like Kazaa) and having minors at home who go online. In homes where children under 18 used the Internet, there was a 28% greater incidence of spyware infection in the past six months than in other homes.

Phishing: Only 8% of respondents submitted personal information in response to conventional phishing e-mails. But the median cost of a phishing incident is up substantially at $850 versus $165 in 2005. New variants on phishing have emerged. "Pharming" infects a computer so that even if you type in a legitimate Web address you're redirected to a fraudulent site. "Spear phishing" targets email addresses stolen from a company.

It isn't enough for software programs to eliminate familiar viruses and spyware. To provide superior protection, a program must be able to defend against threats it has never seen. To test antivirus software, the experts at Consumer Reports employed consumer tests in which viruses that CR created were unleashed under high security on antivirus programs.

CR notes that for staying safe online, software suites have several pluses. If the suite has a consistent user interface across the components, it eliminates the need for consumers to wrestle with three programs. Suites generally cost less than the sum of individual packages, and there is only one annual fee for licensing and updates.

Among the 10 popular suites that CR tested, only Zone Labs Zone Alarm Internet Security Suite ($70) did it all well. The suite's antivirus and antispam components did an Excellent job in CR's individual tests, and its antispyware was Very Good.

For an antivirus/antispam combination, Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security ($50) received a high score for both performance and features; its antivirus and antispam components rated Very Good in CR's individual tests (the suite's antispam and antispyware components are not the same as the ones available individually.)

For antispyware protection, CR's suggests adding Spybot's free Search and Destroy, which scored Very Good in CR's tests.

 

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Email Scam Has JFK Conspiracy Twist

Email Scam Has JFK Conspiracy Twist...

August 8, 2006
The latest 419 scam -- the email spam scams named for section 419 of the Nigerian penal code -- is designed to hook Kennedy assassination buffs. The email landing in inboxes around the world this week purports to be from a dying KGB agent, offering to pass on secrets of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The email's author, who claims to be dying, says he has a cornucopia of documents that have never been made public. He offers them to the recipient, promising they will make that person rich and famous.

"There is a conspiracy at work here, but it's not about whether someone was lurking on a grassy knoll in Dallas on 22 November 1963," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Internet security firm Sophos.

Cluley says the criminals behind the email are conspiring to steal sensitive information and raid the bank accounts of victims who fall for the scam. Once a victim has been drawn in, requests are made from the scammer for private information, which may lead to requests for money, stolen identities, and financial theft.

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AOL Takes More Hits In Press, On Internet

AOL Takes More Hits In Press, On Internet...

AOL's PR staff was working overtime this weekend, as the Internet Service Provider got some bad press in both old and new media for practices that are hardly news to those who've followed the company for years.

Forums and chat rooms were full of irate comments about AOL's release of search data on 20 million searches performed by its customers. The data reportedly appeared about ten days ago on the company's research site, but was not discovered until the weekend.

No one's identity was revealed in the data release, since user IDs were scrambled. But privacy advocates were still upset, saying it is unacceptable to show what individual users are searching for online.

AOL took the data down late Sunday evening, but critics maintain the damage had already been done. An AOL spokesman described the company as "angry and upset" by the breach.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a 1,400-word article recounting the months-long ordeal of a St. Louis woman who spent seven months trying to close her dead father's AOL account.

Fifty-five year old Maxine Gauthier told the paper that AOL customer service representatives hung up on her, told her to "shut up and listen" and steadfastly refused to stop charging her deceased father's credit card to the tune of $29.95 a month for dial-up service.

Post-Dispatch "Tech-Talk" columnist David Sheets interceded on Gauthier's behalf, and contacted a customer service supervisor who agreed to close the account. However, Gauthier told Sheets that a few days ago she received a letter from AOL, addressed to her deceased father, Melvin Berkowitz.

"Dear Mr. Berkowitz," it said. "We hope you'll come back to AOL."

AOL has said it will lay off thousands of employees as it reduces or even eliminates its dial-up service and moves towards being a provider of advertising-supported content services.

 

 

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Latex In Food Packaging Poses Risk

Study finds one third of food packaging tested was contaminated with latex

Consumer groups are calling for warning labels on food packaging containing latex, saying the substance poses a potential threat to people with allergic se...

Consumer groups are calling for warning labels on food packaging containing latex, saying the substance poses a potential threat to people with allergic sensitivities. They point to a recent British study revealing that one third of food packaging tested was contaminated with latex.

According to the study, the latex was transferred to food in some cases. In one unnamed chocolate biscuit, the amount of latex found was 20 times the level that instigates a reaction. A group of experts from the UK Latex Allergy Support Group Advisory Panel said that these results were significant.

"For a few people, natural rubber latex is a very potent allergen and for these individuals, there is no safe level of exposure," said LASG representative Graham Lowe.

"We would welcome an approach to the EU to consider this evidence and the issue of labeling," he said. Lowe added that latex transfer to food could account for some currently inexplicable reactions.

There is no agreement on a safe level of latex, but it has been reported that a billionth of a gram (1ng/ml) can be enough to cause a reaction. Currently manufacturers are not required to label food packaging as containing latex.

Scientists at Leatherhead Food International measured the presence of four major latex allergens in 21 types of food packaging for confectionary, fruit and vegetable produce, meat, pastry and dairy products. A third of the materials tested gave positive results for the presence of latex and in some cases, researchers say, this was transferred onto the food.

 



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Pediatricians Want Shopping Cart Restrictions for Children

Pediatricians Want Shopping Cart Restrictions for Children...

Alarmed by rising injuries and deaths, pediatricians are recommending that parents avoid placing their children in shopping carts until safer models are available.

In 2005, more than 24,000 children were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart-related injuries. Most of these injuries occurred when a child fell from a shopping cart, the cart tipped over, the child became entrapped in the cart, or the child fell while riding on the outside of the cart, according to the new policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Injuries to the head and neck accounted for 74 percent of shopping cart-related injuries among children younger than 15. Of the 4 percent of children treated in an emergency room for a shopping cart injury, more than 93 percent were under age 5.

With the potential instability of some existing shopping cart designs, and because it is difficult for a parent to easily ascertain a cart's safety simply by looking at it, parents should carefully consider the potential for injury before placing a child in a shopping cart, according to the policy.

Instead of putting children in shopping carts, parents can try one of the following alternatives:
• Get another adult to come with them to watch the children while shopping.
• Put children in strollers, wagons, or frontpacks instead of in shopping carts.
• Ask older children to walk and praise them for behaving and staying nearby.
• Leave children at home with another adult.
• Shop online if local stores offer shopping on the Internet.

If a parent chooses to place a child in a shopping cart, he or she should ensure that the child is properly secured in an effective and age- and size-appropriate belt or harness.

Parents and caregivers should never:
• Leave a child alone in a shopping cart.
• Allow a child to stand up in a shopping cart.
• Place an infant carrier on top of the shopping cart.
• Allow a child to ride in the basket.
• Allow a child to ride on the outside of a cart.
• Allow an older child to climb on the cart or push the cart with another child inside.

To help parents, the AAP recommends that businesses adopt shopping cart safety strategies and offer other assistance to help prevent injury.

This may include providing a supervised in-store child-play area; a pick-up area or assistance in bringing purchases to a vehicle; cart modifications to improve child restraint and cart stability; strollers or wagons for in-store use; education and warnings about cart dangers; and/or customer incentives, such as stickers or other give-aways, to reward safe shopping cart behavior.

In addition, the AAP recommends that the current U.S. safety standards for shopping carts be revised to include "clear and effective performance criteria" for child-restraint systems and cart stability to prevent falls and injuries due to cart tip-overs.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission should monitor and enforce manufacturer compliance closely, and regularly review child shopping cart-related injuries, according to the new policy.

The AAP recommends that child health and advocacy professionals support revised manufacturer standards, and educate parents, families, the public, and the media on shopping cart risks.

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VA Contractor Loses Computer Containing Personal Data

VA Contractor Loses Computer Containing Personal Data...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

August 7, 2006
A government contractor hired by the Veterans Administration (VA) to help process insurance claims announced that a desktop computer containing information on as many as 38,000 veterans had disappeared from its home office.

Unisys, a Reston, VA-based contracting company that specializes in technology and financial solutions, told the VA that the computer had vanished on August 3rd.

The Unisys computer disappearance led Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, to demand "immediate steps" to fix data security at the VA.

"We clearly appear to have a systems problem with VA data security that needs to be fixed," Craig said.

According to a statement released by Unisys, the desktop contained personal information such as names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, as well as some medical and billing information, but no personal financial information.

The records were mostly of patients who received care in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, as well as 2,000 deceased patients, according to Unisys. The company had been assisting the VA with managing its insurance collection records.

No information was provided to explain how the desktop computer vanished, or whether the information stored on it was secured or encrypted through any means. Unisys said it is "actively assisting the VA and law enforcement agencies investigating the incident."

Unisys recently won a prime "Eagle" contract for technology infrastructure development with the Department of Homeland Security.

It advertises itself as a prime option for government outsourcing and health care services, with its promotional materials emphasizing "expertise backed up by experienced professionals and a comprehensive understanding of state-of-the-art information technology and a proven track record."

The loss of the desktop computer is yet another black eye for the VA, coming less than three months after the theft of a laptop containing data on over 26 million veterans from the home of a VA analyst in Aspen Hill, Maryland.

The saga of the missing laptop seemed to have come to an end, with the return of the laptop by an unidentified informant, and the arrest of 2 teens in connection with the incident.

During the course of the investigation into the theft, the VA revealed that there had been two more data breaches over the past year, and that they had kept the laptop theft secret for three weeks before informing the public.

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Texas Insurance Firm Defrauded 57,000 Military Personnel

Company deceptive sales program, SEC charges

Texas Insurance Firm Defrauded 57,000 Military Personnel...

The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed suit against a Waco, Texas, insurance company and its affiliates for targeting American military personnel with a deceptive sales program that misleadingly suggested that investing in the company's product would make one a millionaire.

Since 2000, approximately 57,000 members of the United States military services purchased the product. The vast majority earned little or nothing on their investment.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, charged affiliated entities American-Amicable Life Insurance Company of Texas, Pioneer American Insurance Company, and Pioneer Security Life Insurance Company (together, American-Amicable), all based in Waco, Texas, with securities law violations.

American-Amicable has agreed to settle the action by paying $10 million to the approximately 57,000 military personnel who invested in the product sold as an investment known as "Horizon Life."

The settlement is part of a global settlement of claims brought by the Commission, state insurance regulators led by the Georgia Department of Insurance and the Texas Department of Insurance, and the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The settlement with the other regulators will provide additional relief, which the other regulators value at approximately $60 million. In the agreed settlement, the company has neither admitted nor denied the Commission's allegations.

Under the settlement, American-Amicable will discontinue sales of Horizon Life and will terminate the deceptive sales program, which it called the "Building Success" system.

Unlike insurance products legitimately offered to a wide range of potential buyers with a potential interest in the insurance features of those products, Horizon Life was targeted at military personnel who had little or no interest in insurance because they already were provided access to low-cost insurance sponsored by the government. Instead, American-Amicable represented Horizon Life to military personnel as a security and a wealth-creating investment.

As a material element of its marketing, American-Amicable senior staff trained its sales agents to hold themselves out as "financial advisers" or "financial coaches." Purporting to play that role, the sales agents then misled military personnel to believe they could become millionaires if they invested in Horizon Life.

At the same time, the agents denigrated other investment alternatives, claiming that mutual funds, bank savings accounts and government bonds were not sensible investments compared to Horizon Life.

Although the written materials ultimately provided to investors apparently accurately described the Horizon Life product, the company's deceptive sales pitch did not. Contrary to the representations, the overwhelming majority of military personnel who purchased Horizon Life earned little or nothing from their investment.

Linda Chatman Thomsen, Director of the Commission's Enforcement Division, said, "These defendants targeted their sales efforts at the young men and women who are putting their lives at risk serving our country. These investors deserved the honest and forthright disclosures mandated by the federal securities laws, not the deceptive sales pitch that was designed specifically for them."

The Commission's complaint charges American-Amicable with violating Sections 17(a)(2) and (3) of the Securities Act of 1933, an antifraud statute. Without admitting or denying the allegations, American-Amicable has agreed to be enjoined from further violations of these provisions, and to pay disgorgement of $10 million, which will be distributed to the affected investors.

In related matters, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John W. Oxendine and Texas Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin announced a multi-state settlement with American-Amicable alleging violations of state insurance and consumer protection laws, and U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced the filing of a complaint, settlement and proposed consent decree with American-Amicable alleging civil claims of wire and mail fraud.

 

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Atlantic Lottery Warns Consumers Of Scam

Atlantic Lottery Warns Consumers Of Scam...


Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which runs games in Canada, is warning U.S. consumers that scammers are using its name to try to steal money from unsuspecting victims. The company says the latest fraud case targets individuals in the United States in a lottery letter scam.

The letter says the recipient has won $35,000 in an international promotion program. It indicates that a check will be mailed to the winner from a North American Payment Center upon payment of a "release fee" and applicable taxes.

A contact name and phone number is provided to assist with verification, processing and payment.

"Phone numbers often go back to people involved with the scam, and they will indicate that your winning notification is legitimate," the company said in a fraud alert posted on its Website.

Atlantic Lottery says that to win any of its cash prizes, you must have purchased a ticket from an authorized retailer in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador, or on their PlaySphere website. The company said it is not authorized to operate lotteries or games of chance outside of Canada.

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New IRS Online Payment System Raises Privacy Fears

New IRS Online Payment System Raises Privacy Fears...


The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is creating a new system for delinquent taxpayers to set up payment agreements via the Web, rather than by phone or mail.

The Online Payment Agreement Application will enable tax preparation organizations to help their clients set up payment plans through back taxes, whether through automatic monthly debit or payroll deduction.

"This new system reduces taxpayer burden by providing the convenience of online service during extended hours and on weekends," IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said.

No information was forthcoming regarding the application's level of security, the details of how it would work, or whether it would be available to individual taxpayers who were not working with tax preparation agencies. The service is scheduled to go online later this year.

The IRS has been making several moves to modernize its payment processing systems and upgrade its outdated collections systems, but many of the new proposals have privacy advocates and consumer organizations worried.

The Senate recently voted on changes to the tax code that included enabling the IRS to contact taxpayers via e-mail, and allowing law enforcement to view tax records without privacy safeguards for the taxpayers involved.

Ironically, the IRS has been issuing frequent warnings to taxpayers not to fall for "phisher" e-mails sent by hackers who want consumers' financial information.

In March, the IRS announced plans to enable tax preparers to sell taxpayers' personal information to unrelated third-party groups. The change to IRS privacy regulations would enable tax preparers to sell financial information to data brokers and other interested groups if they obtained the taxpayer's written consent.

The announced IRS changes led to severe criticism by consumer advocates and letters of objection from attorneys general in 46 states and the District of Columbia. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said that the proposed rules would "erode consumer privacy and the security of sensitive personal information."

During hearings held before the Senate Finance Committee on changes to the tax code, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated widespread errors and failures on the part of many tax preparation organizations when it came to filing tax returns, including taxpayer overpayments and failure to note deductions.

During those hearings, Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, counseled the need for retaining strong privacy protections for taxpayer information.

"If taxpayers begin to believe that they are losing control over the privacy of their personal and financial information, I am concerned that we could see a discernable decline in compliance," she said.

"I believe our general rule should continue to be that taxpayer return information is kept confidential, and exceptions should be authorized only where there is a compelling need for the information and it cannot be readily obtained elsewhere."

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Net Neutrality May Derail Telecom Bill

Senators uneasy about voting on the bill prior to the election

Net Neutrality May Derail Telecom Bill...

The attempts by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) to push his telecommunications law update to final passage may be stalling out, due to Congress' switching focus to the elections, and continued debate from all fronts on the issue of net neutrality.

Stevens told Roll Call that he was racing to get 60 votes in the Senate to pass the bill after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) told Stevens not to bring the bill to the floor unless he was certain he had enough votes to ensure passage.

However, many Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed unease about voting on the bill prior to the November elections. Some stated that they were receiving heavy feedback from constituents demanding that net neutrality protections be placed in the telecom update.

A rumor that Stevens was attempting to secure a majority of votes for "cloture" on the bill, in order to shut off debate and move it to an immediate vote, was met with a furious response from bloggers who have been chronicling the net neutrality issue.

Although Stevens has not expressed outright opposition to net neutrality, he voted against an amendment to the telecom bill that would have inserted basic protections for content access into the law.

Stevens' comments that the Internet was "a series of tubes" and that net neutrality interfered with his staff's ability to "send him an Internet" were roundly mocked on the Web and in mainstream media both.

In addition to the net neutrality issue, the telecom bill contains many issues that legislators might be afraid to face before elections, including the controversial "broadcast flag," a measure favored by the motion picture and recording industries that would prevent copying of certain content by users, even if only for personal use.

Frist had gone on record as saying that he would not support passage of the bill unless the "broadcast flag" option was included. Frist's former chief of staff, Mitch Bainwol, works for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the chief lobby group for record companies.

"No Free Lunch"

Meanwhile, the telecommunications industry is pushing hard to ensure that the bill passes without any language or provisions favoring net neutrality.

GigaOM's Katie Fehrenbacher reported that AT&T; head Ed Whitacre reiterated his opposition to net neutrality in no uncertain terms during a recent speech to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

"No one gets a free ride," Whitacre said. The American economy doesn't work that way. . . .We are not going to build this with no chance for a return. Those that want to use this will pay."

Both AT&T; and Verizon are pushing hard to roll out their new high-speed broadband and TV-over-Internet services in order to shore up losses from their dwindling telephone business. Verizon reported 440,000 new broadband subscribers during its second-quarter earnings call, 25 percent of which came from its new FiOS high-speed service.

But Verizon also reported a loss of 553,000 traditional telephone line customers, as more and more users switched to only using cellphones for communication, or to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Vonage.

The telecom and cable industries strongly oppose equal access to Internet content, in order to push "tiered pricing" models to customers, where people willing to pay more can receive faster connection speeds, better service, and so on.

Supporters of net neutrality believe that unless the principle of equal access to Internet content is enshrined into law, those who don't want to pay extra, or can't afford to, will be relegated to the "slow lane" of bandwith access.

The battle has taken over mainstream media, with telecom company lobbyists taking out full-page ads in newspapers and penning editorials claiming that net neutrality will stifle competition.

One column, written by Hands Off The Internet's Mike McCurry, claimed that "The 'neutral' proposal that companies like Google are touting will ensure that they never have to pay a dime no matter how much bandwidth they use, and consumers who may only use their computers to send e-mail and play Solitaire get to foot the bill."

McCurry was criticized for not disclosing that Google, like all Internet-based companies, already pays millions of dollars per year for the bandwidth it uses, and that his lobby group was funded by major telecom and cable companies.

 

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California Sues Payday Loan Business

Fast Cash "extorted outrageous amounts," state charges

The complaint states that Hoppe used "unfair, fraudulent, unconscionable and unlawful means to collect or attempt to collect consumer debts."...

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has filed a $2 million-plus lawsuit against Los Angeles County-based Fast Cash for violating a state law that prohibits payday loan businesses from suing for triple the amount of the check when customers' bank accounts do not hold sufficient funds to honor post-dated checks written to secure the loan.

"Fast Cash extorted outrageous amounts of money from its customers," said Lockyer. "They threatened lawsuits, tried to squeeze settlements, and, when that did not work, they deceived the court into a rendering a judgment. Fast Cash could have made a lawful living. Instead, they chose fear and deceit. We will continue ridding this industry of similar frauds."

The complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, asks the court to permanently enjoin the business from further violating the law, void improperly obtained judgments, order full restitution to victims, and assess a civil penalty of not less than $2 million for unlawful business practices. Fast Cash may have accumulated improper judgments in excess of $350,000.

In most cases, state law authorizes a plaintiff to seek a penalty of treble damages, or three times the amount, against a person who writes a bad check. However, California law prohibits payday loan operations from collecting such damages, instead limiting them to the amount of the check and a single $15 fee. Further damages and fees are not allowed.

payday lenders are not entitled to treble damages because, unlike checks for goods or services, at the time a payday loan is written both parties understand the borrower's bank account often will not contain sufficient funds to honor the check. Therefore, the law only allows lenders a single late fee of $15 rather than the punitive treble damages award.

The complaint contends that Fast Cash, run by defendant Christoph Hoppe, illegally sued more than 400 individuals from the Los Angeles area in Los Angeles County Small Claims Court for treble damages for checks passed on insufficient funds.

Defendants threatened borrowers with a suit in order to obtain their agreement to pay back the loan plus treble damages, according to the complaint. When the defendants could not secure an agreement, Hoppe pursued the action in court but would not reveal that each of these checks was written pursuant to a payday loan transaction, the complaint states.

The vast majority of borrowers, the complaint claims, did not attend the small claims court hearings to inform the court of the nature of the transaction. Without complete information, the court ordered borrowers to pay treble damages, according to court records.

The complaint states that Hoppe used "unfair, fraudulent, unconscionable and unlawful means to collect or attempt to collect consumer debts."

Since being investigated the company appears to have stopped making payday loans.

 

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PayPal Offers Advice On Spotting A Spoof

"Spoof" emails are a growing menace

PayPal Offers Advice On Spotting A Spoof...

"Spoof" emails are spam messages that appear to be from a well known company, such as PayPal. Usually the email warns the recipient that fraudulent activity has been detected in their account and instructs them to click on a link and enter their personal account information.

PayPal is fighting back, with instructions on its Web site for spotting these phony messages, which may be professionally designed to look quite real. The first thing to look for, the company says, is a generic greeting. These bogus messages usually begin with "Dear PayPal Member" instead of your name.

Next, look for a false sense of urgency in the message. Most spoof emails try to deceive you with the threat that your account is in jeopardy if you don't update it ASAP.

Finally, a spoofed email will contain a phony link made to look like it's sending you to the company's mail Web site. But in reality, it's sending you to a dummy site where your personal data can be stolen.

"Move your mouse over the link and look at the URL in your browser or email status bar. If the link looks suspicious, don't click on it. And be aware that a fake link may even have the word "PayPal" in it," the company said.

PayPal also says you can also identify fake emails by the information they ask you to provide. PayPal says it will never ask for the following information in emails:
• Credit and debit card numbers
• Bank account numbers
• Driver's License numbers
• Email addresses
• Passwords
• Your full name

The PayPal Website also has an email link where recipients of these phony messages can report them, so the company can take action against them.

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U.S. Surgeon General Quits

Richard Carmona Highlighted Dangers of Obesity, Second-Hand Smoke

"The surgeon general job is one with enormous potential to improve the public health of the entire nation and several have done just that," said Dr. Sidney...

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