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PayPal Settles Customer Service Complaints

28 states had taken action against the company

PayPal Settles Customer Service Complaints...

Online payment company PayPal has settled a consumer complaint with the attorneys general of 28 states. The states had brought action against the eBay subsidiary because of some of its customer service policies.

The company said it will shorten and streamline its user agreement and provide more information about its protection programs. The company will pay $5.2 million to customers and to the states to cover their investigation costs.

The state officials said they received a number of complaints from consumers using PayPal. Many consumers said their accounts had been frozen without notice. Some said their bank accounts were debited by PayPal when they expected their credit cards to be charged, and some said they never received refunds for items they had purchased online but never received.

"The consumer has rights, and PayPal must explain those rights," said Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran.

"Under this agreement, consumers will no longer have to click through multiple hyperlinks to get critical information about their financial transactions," said Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna.

PayPal is the largest company providing payment services for consumers making online purchases. It was acquired by online auction site eBay in 2002.

 

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Sony Battery Recall Tops 10 Million

Fire Hazard Prompts Further Recalls

Sony Battery Recall Tops 10 Million...

The bad news continues for Sony. The electronics giant says it will now recall more than 10 million of its lithium ion batteries, used to power laptop computers, because of concerns about a possible fire hazard.

Previously, nearly seven million batteries had been recalled from Dell, Apple, Toshiba, Lenovo and IBM computer users.

The company announced the recall Friday, saying it would provide replacement batteries.

The latest recall came earlier this week when Chinese computer maker Lenovo said it would recall 526,000 batteries. The same day, Toshiba Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. also announced they would recall Sony-made batteries from users.

Sony's batteries are also used in Sony-made computers and those of Hitachi Ltd., Sharp Corp. and Hewlett-Packard.

Published reports say Sony reached its decision to increase the recall after talks with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but a company spokesman in Tokyo said the recall remain voluntary. Sony has yet to announce which types of computers will have batteries recalled and how replacement services will take place.

However, soon after the announcement, Japanese electronics giant Toshiba said it was recalling batteries from the dynabook, Satellite, Qosmio, Tecra and Portege laptop models, a move expected to affect 830,000 computers worldwide.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that it is aware of at least 47 incidents related to defective laptop batteries. Among the most alarming incidents - a laptop that caught fire during a flight and another that burst into flames in a pickup truck, totally destroying the vehicle.

A man in South Venice, Fla. believes his Dell laptop is the cause of his house burning down. Louis Minnear said he found his couch engulfed in flames in the middle of the night.

 

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Canon Class Action Denied

Judge Blocks Suit On Behalf of Shutterbugs

Canon Class Action Denied...

In a heartbreaking loss for the many consumers affected by faulty Canon cameras, a United States District Court judge in New York has decided not to allow a class action lawsuit against Canon.

"He (the judge) considered only the defendant's version," Richard Doherty, the lawyer who filed the case, said.

Doherty was seeking to file a class action case against Canon because many of their cameras have a number of known defects.

Probably the most commonly known defect is the E18 error. Every camera with a zoom lens feature has what is called a bellows claw. This part is essentially the gear that physically extends and retracts the lens.

Doherty said a piece that holds the lens, the barrier plate, is not large enough and can sometimes cause the bellows claw to malfunction, resulting in a stuck lens and a message on the LCD screen that says: "E18."

ConsumerAffairs.com has received over 60 complaints about Canon cameras failing. It is almost the same story every time.

"I bought a Canon Powershot digital camera to take family pictures and upload to my computer," wrote Lupe of Salinas, Calif. "I have had it for just over a year. It took great pictures and then one day I got 'e18' on the display screen. It will not turn on or do anything else. I emailed cannon and they want $155 to repair. This camera cost almost $300."

Canon cameras also have a known defect with their Charge-Coupled Device (CCD). The CCD is to digital cameras what film is to 35mm. It captures the light and converts it to a form that can be understood by a computer and finally, the user. Canon's CCD can sometimes yield blurred images or distorted colors.

In April of 2005, ConsumerAffairs.com reported that Canon's Asian website admitted there was a problem associated with the Sony-made CCD found in Canon's cameras. Canon still has not made this news public to U.S. consumers.

One other known issue is that the LCD screen found on the back of the camera is prone to breaking. Canon increased the size of the screen, but did not increase its support -- meaning it takes less pressure to crack.

To make matters worse, the case that comes with many cameras is often the cause of the LCD cracking. The case does not indicate which way the camera should be placed. There is a snap-on button on one side. If the user chooses wrong and places the camera LCD in the case facing the button, that button with the right amount of pressure can crack the screen.

Finally, Canon cameras also have issues with memory cards that store the photos.

When a digital camera takes a photo, it sends the image to a flash memory card for storage. If the photo does not arrive in the memory within a set time period, the photo is lost.

Some flash memory cards require more time than others. However, Canon has set their cameras to send the photo in 100 milliseconds, or one tenth of a second. Some memory cards require more time than this and thus, the camera will not work with those cards. Doherty said Canon has offered fixes for some of their cameras to fix this problem, but not others.

"I don't see any reason why it needs to be set that fast," Doherty said.

Documentation proves that Canon is well aware of the defects in their cameras, but is doing nothing for the consumers who purchased these cameras, Doherty, of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, a Chicago law firm, said.

"Canon has refused to stand behind the cameras, and offers consumers who paid approximately $400 for what they thought was a high-quality digital camera the option of a repair costing at least $150 or the opportunity to purchase a refurbished, used camera for $175," Doherty told ConsumerAffairs.com in November 2005 when he originally filed for class status.

Although Doherty has appealed the judge's decision, he said he does not know how long it will take before the appeal is considered.

What To Do

Canon-lovers, what are your options? Well, be sure to hang onto your purchase receipt. Keep a copy of your warranty. Keep copies of any repair records. And keep your fingers crossed. It's always possible you'll be one of the lucky ones who cameras don't experience any of these problems.

If your camera does fail, notify Canon in writing, citing this article and the numerous complaints on our site. File a complaint with ConsumerAffairs.com. Complaints filed with our site are made available to class-action attorneys, including Doherty.

If you are willing to spend a little time and a few dollars, head for your local Small Claims Court and file against Canon. Check our state-by-state listings to learn more.

Are there more reliable cameras out there? Maybe, but it's important to note that the internal workings of most digital cameras are pretty much the same, and are often manufactured by the same supplier. It's the optics and the "packaging" that differentiate one brand from another.

Digital cameras are arguably more convenient than film cameras and, while they are generally more expensive to buy, they may be cheaper to use over the long run, depending on what process you use to print your photos. But more reliable they're not, at least not yet.

For those can't-miss moments, it's still a good idea to keep a small film camera in pocket or purse. Nothing beats a back-up.

 

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States Cracking Down on Dating Sites

States Cracking Down on Dating Sites: With federal agencies showing little interest, several states are taking the lead in tightening oversight of the onli...

With federal agencies showing little interest, several states are taking the lead in tightening oversight of the online dating industry, considering new laws that would, among other things, mandate criminal background checks on all those looking for love on the Internet.

New York is so far the only state that has a law regulating online dating sites, but six other states have introduced similar legislation mainly in the last year, according to the National Law Journal. They are California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Texas.

Lawmakers say the industry isn't doing enough to police itself and is putting vulnerable people at risk of meeting up with predators.

Some states want to make criminal background checks mandatory while others want sites to alert surfers upfront that background checks on potential dates have not been done.

Regulating Internet sites is easier said than done, though. They operate in Interstate commerce and many of their operations are protected by First Amendment considerations.

Attorneys for the services complain that it would be nearly impossible for a worldwide Web site to comply with a patchwork of state laws.

Attorney Michael Marin of Houston is currently defending Myspace.com in a Texas case involving a 14-year-old girl who claims she was sexually assaulted by someone she met on Myspace, and is seeking to hold the Web site liable.

Last year he successfully defended an online dating company that was sued by a user who allegedly was raped by someone she met on the company's Web site. Marin got the case dismissed, citing the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which grants broad immunity to Internet companies for content provided by third parties.

Marin said consumers must take some responsibility for their safety.

"If you're a consumer and you meet someone online you can go and pay for a background check," he said. State laws requiring such checks would "create a false sense of security," he added.

But Marin said such checks are often incomplete and are no guarantee of safety.

A few sites, including TheBadge.org and True, have recently started offering background checks to their paid members.

Sites like Zabasearch.com offers background checks that can sometimes include criminal records. But, like all services that rely on public records, it cannot guarantee the accuracy of its results.

 

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GE Loses Laptop Left in Hotel Room

50,000 Employees & Retirees Records at Risk

GE Loses Laptop Left in Hotel Room...

September 27, 2006
Industrial giant General Electric's current corporate motto is "imagination at work." Now the company's imagination will be working overtime to find a missing laptop containing data on 50,000 current and former employees.

GE reported on Sept. 26th that the laptop containing the data had been stolen from an employee's locked hotel room.

The company did not provide any information regarding whether the laptop was password-protected, or why the unidentified employee had the data on his computer in the first place.

GE spokesman Russell Wilkerson made the usual claims regarding the theft -- that the laptop was stolen for its own value, rather than for the data contained on it, and that there was no sign that the data had been used improperly.

The company is notifying employees via mail if they were affected, and is setting up free credit monitoring and insurance against identity theft.

One irate former GE employee complained to the Albany Times-Union about the theft. "Why do you need 50,000 names and Social Security numbers?" he asked. "Why is this person even carrying this information around? What are you doing with it?"

Good Question

The unidentified GE retiree's question has been echoed many times by victims of data breaches caused by laptop or equipment theft.

Stolen or lost computer equipment containing vital personal records has been a major contributor to the nearly 94 million American consumer records exposed to potential identity theft.

Recent instances of disappearing laptops include the theft of a laptop from the Miami offices of the Department of Transportation, containing records that were being used in an ongoing fraud investigation.

Washington state mental health care provider Compass Health recently suffered the theft of a laptop containing the Social Security numbers and medical information on an unspecified number of patients in its care. The company discovered the theft in June 2006, but waited two months to report it.

Last month the Philadelphia-based bank Sovereign Bancorp informed customers that three laptops containing "thousands" of customer records had been stolen from employees' locked cars in Massachusetts.

The bank declined to identify how many customers were affected in specific, but said it would set up new accounts for any customer caught in the breach.

Congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.) introduced a bill that would ostensibly provide better policies for government agencies to prevent data theft, but the bill was criticized for offering little in the way of actual solutions.

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Saab Stories: Saab Owners Not Impressed by the Company's Aeronautical Heritage

Saab Owners Not Impressed by the Company's Aeronautical Heritage

Saab Stories: Saab Owners Not Impressed by the Company's Aeronautical Heritage...

Saab is promoting itself these days as "the car company that's born from jets" but most Saab owners would prefer that company engineers keep their feet on the ground and focus more on theirs car instead of their airplanes.

While Saab claims to incorporate aircraft-inspired design features such as cockpit-like ergonomics and green instrument illumination, Saab owners report to ConsumerAffairs.com that the gadgets are high maintenance and repeatedly malfunction.

Problems consumers are encountering with Saabs include seat belts, transmissions, brakes, keys, timing belt, radio, the onboard computer, heater, air conditioner, air bag light, fuel pump, oil leaks, engine service light and OnStar equipment.

General Motors Corp., which owns Saab, brags that "the innovative spirit of those early aircraft engineers, including their pioneering attention to safety, continues to be reflected in Saab's unconventional approach to car design."

"Unconventional" is one way to describe it, but many Saab owners say "uncongenial" would be a better description of the customer service they encounter when problems crop up.

Anne of Arlington, Vermont, found dealing with Saab customer service a continuing struggle.

"Now, I am trying to work with customer service to get reimbursed for a towing expense and have submitted a lemon claim. No one from customer service will call me back. Between the hours spent out of work dealing with this car and the frustration of customer service, the only thing I'm sure about is that this is my last Saab," Anne wrote ConsumerAffairs.com.

Since Anne bought her new Saab 9-3 in 2003, the battery and transmission both failed. Saab recalled the seat belts, brakes and keys.

Michelle in Manalapan, New Jersey, is just as frustrated with repeated trips to the repair shop after buying a car advertised as a luxury vehicle.

"I purchased a new Saab in March. Since then my car has been in the shop 6 times. It has received 2 new radios, a new computer and the heater and air conditioner do not work properly," she wrote

Michelle reports the same level of rudeness in New Jersey that Anne encountered in Vermont: "The service department is extremely rude and unhelpful and I have several sarcastic remarks made at me."

In Albany, New York, Ross tells ConsumerAffiars.Com that while he has encountered multiple problems with his Saab9-3, he has even more problems with the Saab dealer.

"At this point the car is parked outside my house and will not go anywhere. I've been to the Saab dealer at least 40 times in the year and a half I have owned the car," he wrote.

Jeff bought a Certified Pre-Owned Saab in Santa Monica, California. He reports that he is fortunate that a warranty came with the used Saab.

"My Saab 9-3 convertible has been in the shop steadily for the past year. At 13 times, don't you think it's a bit ridiculous? Here's the list. The air conditioning goes in and out randomly, the courtesy lights pop out, the car has blown a head gasket, blown a rear main seal, the passenger window cracks going up. There is an oil leak, the turbo pressure sensor cracked, the purge valve goes out, an air bag light emblem fell off, the fuel pump was recalled, the antenna is broken, the grill is peeling, the leather seats are coming apart and Saab won't replace the cup holder."

Suffice to say, Jeff is not happy with his Saab 9-3 and he is not alone. Kelli in Reading Massachusetts says her Saab 9-3 has been nothing but trouble since she bought it.

"We dread the day the 3-year warranty runs out," she wrote ConsumerAffairs.com. "The OnStar equipment was inoperable for months at a time, and went into the shop three times within the first year for service. Eventually they replaced the unit. The car would not restart at a gas station within the first six months or so. OnStar broke down again. The ignition was replaced," she wrote.

"Earlier this year, the side passenger window fell and broke so it had to be fixed. The window was stuck open. Today one of the back windows is stuck the same way. This summer, while on vacation in Maine the battery died suddenly. We jump-started the vehicle but it kept losing its charge. We took it to a local Saab dealer in Maine who replaced the battery and expressed his sympathy and surprise that the vehicle had received so much service."

But Kelli's problems with her Saab 9-3 did not end in Maine.

"The radio system stopped working entirely. Last weekend the rear locks were going up and down all by themselves. These are just the problems I can remember off the top of my head, without looking at the maintenance records."

In Detroit, Donyell now knows his Saab Service manager better than he would like.

"I have a 2003 Saab 9-3. In the last two and a half years this car has been in the shop at least 13 times. Most recently the transmission went out on the car and they had my car for five weeks," Donyell wrote. "I am frustrated with this car beyond means."

Marc understands what his fellow 9-3 owner must deal with in Detroit and Marc lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

He has encountered "over 15 headlight and taillight failures; problems with the radio preset on the steering wheel; the transmission slips; there is a sulfur smell in the car and the solution offered was to use premium fuel when it is not stated in manual that you must use premium fuel."

Marc asks if we have another moment so he can go through the entire list of problems with his Saab 9-3. "The car has been to the dealer for repair over 25 times and I still have several of the issues and will never receive resolution to several of the issues," he told us.

Saab has built more than 4 million cars and 4,000 aircraft. The name Saab belongs to two unaffiliated companies. Saab Automobile AB, headquartered in Trollhttan, Sweden manufactures cars and is a subsidiary of General Motors Corp.

Saab Automobile USA is the Saab importer and distributor. Beginning in 2007, Saab offers vehicle warranty coverage for five-years or up to 100,000 miles. Based on reports from previous Saab owners, people buying a new Saab are going to need the newly extended warranty.

 

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Airport Security Rules Change Again

Both U.S. and U.K. Modify New Anti-Terror Rules

Airport Security Rules Change Again...

To say airport security policies are liquid would be the understatement of the year.

Rules seem to change daily, confusing passengers, airport officials, and agents charged with enforcing them.

In the latest switch, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has eased tight restrictions enacting last month after British authorities thwarted a terrorist plot involving liquid explosives.

British authorities relaxed their stringent rules a few days ago. Larger bags and musical instruments are now allowed, though liquids of all kinds remain strictly prohibited.

For U.S. passengers, however, security restrictions remain much more stringest than they were before revelation of the plot on August 10.

Not all liquids are banned anymore but not all are acceptable either.

According to the latest TSA move, liquids are allowed through security checkpoints if they are in 3-ounce containers (such as trial-size toiletries commonly available at drug stores). In addition, they must be placed in a single, one-quart, clear plastic bag that must be sent through the security X-ray machine separately from carry-on bags.

Some liquid medications are also allowed, including four ounces of non-prescription medications (i.e. Visine and other eye-care products) or five ounces of juices, baby formula, and breast milk. Prescription medications that match the name on the ticket are also allowed, but apparently must be in their original bottles - and not in the plastic day-by-day containers so many travelers (including this columnist) use.

Easing the iron-clad ban makes life easier for women worried about mascara, lip gloss, and other beauty items disappearing in transit but may make for longer waits at security checkpoints -- at least until passengers and officers indicate they understand and will abide by the new regulations.

At the same time, however, relaxing the ban should ease the strain on the airline baggage handlers, who had to cope with a 20 per cent increase in checked luggage since the imposition of the Aug. 10 ban.

The ban was imposed in mid-August after authorities uncovered a terrorist plot that would have involved mixing liquid chemicals and detonators in flight. Thousands of flights were cancelled, hundreds were delayed, and fifteen alleged conspirators were jailed in England.

According to TSA chief Kip Hawley, the ban on liquids was relaxed after FBI tests indicated that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a bomb from liquid components while in flight.

Critics of the relaxed rules suggest that the near-return to old rules will make aircraft cabin compartments overcrowded again and cause considerable delays in boarding. They also suggest that loopholes remain in the system used by the TSA to screen checked bags for explosives.

Critics also contend that the TSA bowed to public pressure in relaxing the ban on liquids.

U.K. Rules

In London, passengers flying to the United States still cannot carry any liquids -- even those purchased at the airport after the first security checkpoint. A second search, at the departure gate, is designed to enforce that ban.

On the other hand, passengers can now board with a carry-on measuring no more than 22 inches long, 17.7 inches wide, or 9.8 inches tall. Large musical instruments can also be carried on board, though some passengers may be required to buy an extra ticket to accommodate them.

As in the U.S., constantly-changing security procedures have confused passengers, airport officials, and even the security officers assigned to protect outbound flights. To make things easier for all, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the airlines themselves are trying to find common ground in their requirements and restrictions.

A meeting of EU ministers in Finland earlier this month addressed airport security issues, emphasizing new technology designed to detect explosives.

The slight relaxation of security standards at United Kingdom airports does not mean safety will be compromised. In fact, the Transport Department said it was working to enable passengers to travel as freely as possible but would not compromise its "rigorous" security regime.

The key, according to government and security officials, is to balance safety with convenience. In England, they call that task a sticky wicket.

 



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Hospital, Health Insurance Costs Skyrocket

Healthcare, insurance costs rising twice as fast as wages

American consumers and their health insurance providers pay nearly $800 billion a year in hospital bills, while health insurance premiums are rising twice ...

American consumers -- and their health insurance providers -- pay nearly $800 billion a year in hospital bills, while health insurance premiums are rising twice as fast as wages, according to three new reports.

A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality put the national hospital bill at $790 billion in 2004, the last year for which data is available.

Meanwhile, two nationwide surveys show that the health-care premiums of employers and their workers have climbed twice as fast as wages and inflation in 2006 -- to nearly double their cost in 2000 -- and look to rise at a similar clip next year.

The nation's cumulative hospital bill represents the total amount charged for 39 million hospital stays in 2004.

The federal report also found that:

• Nearly $500 billion, or 60 percent, of the national hospital bill went to the federal and state governments for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

• One-fifth of the national hospital bill was for treatment of five conditions: coronary atherosclerosis, mother's pregnancy and delivery, newborn infants, acute myocardial infarction, and congestive heart failure. Hospital stays for coronary atherosclerosis incurred the highest charges ($44 billion); mother's pregnancy and delivery had the second highest charges ($41 billion).

• Medicare, which provides insurance for the elderly, had pneumonia and osteoarthritis among its top five most expensive conditions. Medicaid, which covers certain groups of low-income patients, had treatments for pregnant mothers and their deliveries, plus care of newborn babies, as its two most expensive types of hospital stays.

• Medicaid's top five most expensive conditions also included pneumonia, schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorders.

• Private insurers' biggest bills were for pregnancy and delivery, care of newborn infants, hardening of the heart arteries, heart attack and back problems.

• Brain trauma and stroke were among the expensive conditions billed uninsured patients.

AHRQ, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with improving the quality, safety, efficiency and effectiveness of health care in the United States.

The data are from the agency's Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project -- the nation's largest source of statistics on hospital inpatient care for all patients regardless of type of insurance or whether they were insured.

Insurance Costs

The average family health insurance premium rose 7.7% in 2006, marking the third year employer health-care cost increases have slowed since soaring nearly 14% in 2003, according to a 2,122-employer survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust.

After several years of steady steep rises, the cost for family coverage under an employer health plan is now $11,480, well over the annual wage of a full-time minimum wage worker, more than many smaller business and their employees can afford.

As costs climb, the number of firms offering health insurance falls. The study found that while 98% of firms with more than 200 workers still provide some sort of employee health benefits, only 60% of smaller companies do.

The share of workers covered by health insurance through their own employer has fallen to 59%, down from 60% last year and 63% in 2000, according to the Kaiser survey.

 



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Consumers Rejecting Vehicles with Poor Gas Mileage

J.D. Power Study Finds Increased Sensitivity to Fuel Economy Despite Falling Gas Prices

Consumers Rejecting Vehicles with Poor Gas Mileage...

Despite the recent dip in gas prices, several months of higher prices have taken a toll on consumers as new-vehicle shoppers are more frequently citing gas mileage as a reason for rejecting a vehicle, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

The study, which examines why consumers consider a model, but ultimately purchase a different make or model, finds that nearly 17 percent of new-vehicle shoppers cite gas mileage as a reason for vehicle rejection -- up from 13 percent in 2002.

Poor gas mileage is the third-most cited reason for rejecting a vehicle, following "total price too high" and "total monthly payment too high," respectively.

"Although gas prices have begun to recede, new-vehicle buyers are likely to continue to be wary of volatile gas prices," said Jeff Zupancic, director of retail research at J.D. Power and Associates. "Considering that fuel prices did not increase significantly overnight, consumer demand for more fuel efficient vehicles has also been gradual. This is especially evident across certain vehicle segments."

In particular, heavier models with poor fuel economy, such as utility vehicles and pickup trucks, have the highest rejection levels due to gas mileage. Utility vehicle shoppers who reject a vehicle due to gas mileage will typically purchase a smaller utility vehicle that is similar in configuration to the larger vehicle they rejected.

For example, nearly one-half of all shoppers who consider a vehicle in the compact utility segment (EPA average fuel economy of 18 MPG) end up purchasing a vehicle from the compact CUV (crossover utility vehicle) segment (24 MPG average fuel economy).

"In the long term, vehicle models that offer a choice of engines, such as fuel efficient four-cylinders for those more sensitive to fuel prices, as well as more powerful six-cylinder engines for those seeking power, will have a distinct advantage in the market place," said Zupancic.

"Manufacturers have responded to these consumer needs by introducing CUVs as replacements for, or alternatives to, their truck-based utilities. These CUVs combine the high-seating position and passenger/cargo carrying capacity of utility vehicles with a car-like ride and better fuel-economy," he added

Price continues to be the most cited reason for vehicle rejection, with 36 percent of shoppers rejecting because the "price is too high." Despite the common perception that premium shoppers are less concerned with the cost of their vehicle, both premium and non-premium brands are rejected due to price at a similar rate --59 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

 

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Airbags in New Cars Seldom Fail, Experts Insist

The Bags Aren't Designed to Deploy in Every Accident

Airbags in New Cars Seldom Fail, Experts Insist...

All Chad H. of Charlottesville, Virginia, wanted was a safe vehicle for his family. And that's what he thought he found when he purchased a new 2005 Ford Expedition.

"I thought this was a safe vehicle because of all the claims Ford makes about its safety record," he says.

But the secure feeling that Expedition gave him shattered in a matter of seconds on May 29, 2005.

Chad was involved in a head-on collision and the Expedition's frontal airbag failed to deploy.

"I was going 35-45 mph on a rural, two-lane road," he recalls. "The other driver, who was in a Ford Explorer, was going about the same speed, and came into my lane and hit me head-on. His airbag deployed. Mine did not.

"I'm convinced I would have fewer injuries if my airbag had deployed," says the chiropractor, who suffered whiplash in the accident and still has ringing in his ears. "When I bought the car, the salesman kept talking about how Ford was using Volvo technology. I thought it was a safe car, but that didn't show (in this accident). I have a seven-year-old daughter. What if she'd been in the car with me?"

Similar Concerns

A special ConsumerAffairs.com investigation uncovered more than 160 consumers nationwide who share Chad's concerns about airbags failing to deploy in serious accidents.

Some of those consumers own new vehicles, like Chad. Others have older models, but they're the original owners.

Many, who suffered the most debilitating injuries or lost a loved one, drove used cars. One consumer drove a rental car.

Our investigation found these accident happened in cars, trucks, minivans, and SUV's made by Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler,Mitsubishi, Kia, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Honda (follow links to carmakers' responses).

We also learned that authorities who responded to many of the consumers' crash scenes -- including paramedics, firefighters, state troopers and tow truck drivers -- expressed concerns about their airbags' failures to deploy.

New And Original-Owner Vehicles

This story focuses on the problems and injuries suffered by consumers with new and originally-owned older vehicles because their airbags failed to deploy.

They're consumers who are angry, scared, and confused because their airbags -- a safety feature the federal government has required in all passenger vehicles since 1998 -- didn't protect them when they needed them the most.

"I'm convinced there's something wrong with this vehicle and someone is going to die," says Susan B. of Norwalk, California. She's the original owner of a 2001 Chevrolet Suburban, and her side-impact airbags didn't deploy when she was broadsided by another vehicle.

"I had just started through a green light when another person ran a red light going approximately 40 mph and hit me," says Susan, who suffered neck, shoulder, back, hip, and knee injuries in the accident. "I paid extra for side airbags so I could be safe, and I was under the impression they were there to protect me. But I don't feel safe anymore."

Neither do many of the other consumers we interviewed.

They say no one has told them why their airbags didn't deploy -- and they're worried about what will happen if they're in another accident.

Most of their accidents weren't minor fender-benders, either. They were serious ones -- the type most drivers would expect an airbag to deploy: broadside collisions and head-on crashes.

"A Perfect Scenario For Airbags To Deploy"

Scott A. of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for example, suffered a broken knee, cuts and bruises, in a head-on collision. But his airbags didn't deploy.

"I was driving a six-month old 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee when I avoided a deer and hit a tree straight-on going 35-40 mph," he says, adding the accident totaled his SUV. "It was absolutely a head-on collision. You could not have asked for a more perfect scenario for the airbags to deploy."

Airbags Fail in Broadside Collision

Mark T. of Mount Morris, Michigan, sustained injuries to his neck, back, arm, and shoulder when he broadsided another vehicle in his new 2004 Chevrolet van.

"I was coming down the road when an older woman pulled out right in front of me," he says. "I didn't have time to brake and I broadsided her going 45 mph. I hit her directly in the driver's door.

"My airbags didn't go off and they should have," adds Mark, who used to work at the General Motors Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan. "I'm a mechanic and everything that happened in this accident was well within the operational parameters for an airbag to deploy. Those airbags are designed to initiate at 15 mph; I was going 45. I think there should be a recall of this vehicle because of the airbags."

Head-On Collision With Guardrail

Charles M., of Galveston, Texas, suffered head injuries and three broken vertebrae during an accident in his 2004 Dodge Quad Cab.

"I hit a guard rail head-on going 70 mph, my truck then rolled three times, and my front airbags didn't deploy," says Charles, who spent five months in the hospital and still has vision problems. "I should have been killed. That's what the tow truck driver said to my son-in-law. The airbags failed me ... they put my life in risk. My question is: 'Why have a safety feature if it doesn't work?'"

Car Is Hit Multiple Times

That's a question Teresa H. of Columbiana, Alabama, has wondered since she had an accident in her new 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer.

"A lady ran a red light and hit my car several times," says Teresa, who underwent neck surgery after the accident. "She was going about 40 mph when she hit my car and caused it to spin around. My car was hit on the left front side, the right front side, and the back.

"I am complaining because the airbags did not deploy. I was hit very hard ... and no one has explained to me why my airbags didn't deploy. Mitsubishi sent me a brochure that said airbags should deploy in 'near frontal collisions.' That's misleading. My accident fit that category and my airbags didn't deploy."

Conflicting Reports

Randy R. of Brownsville, Oregon, is still in pain from the injuries he suffered during a head-on collision in his 2004 Dodge 3500 4x4 Quad Cab pickup.

"I broke my back, my nose, and have facial injuries from hitting the steering wheel," he says. "I also have chest injuries and ribs that are dislocated and bruised."

Randy says the accident happened in Washington State when he blacked out after taking some prescription medicine.

"I went off the road going about 60 mph, went up on the bank, and was airborne. The truck came straight down and landed nose first into the bank. It was literally standing on its nose.

"I contacted DaimlerChrysler and they sent an independent firm to inspect the pickup and take a reading off the computer," he adds. "Then I got a letter from Dodge saying there was nothing wrong with the airbag system -- they said the airbags didn't deploy because I had an 'angular wreck.' But the police report shows it was a head-on collision."

Mechanics at a local Dodge dealership also inspected Randy's truck, and they discovered a problem with the pickup's airbag system.

"They said there's supposed to be a light on the dash that tells you the system isn't working," he says. "When you turn on the car, the computer is supposed to check the airbag and plug that information into the system. But they (the dealership) said that wasn't working and that's why the airbag failed to deploy."

He adds: "I didn't get killed in this accident, but I was hurt pretty badly. What worries me now is that I have five other Dodge pickups and I wonder if the airbags in those are going to fail?'"

Why Didn't The Airbags Deploy?

But why didn't the airbags deploy in these and other accidents? Are the airbags defective? Should the vehicles be recalled?

We posed those questions to the top car and safety experts in the country, including ones with various automakers, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

They all agreed the airbags in new vehicles seldom fail to deploy when they're supposed to give consumers added protection.

Airbags In New Vehicles Rarely Fail

"In the crash testing we do, airbags are very reliable and only rarely do we discover a problem," says Russ Rader, director of media relations for the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS). His non-profit agency tests new vehicles and reports any problems the automakers.

"In most of those cases, the problems we discover are airbags deploying too late ... we rarely hear about airbags failing to deploy at all."

Nationally recognized car expert Richard Diklich of Missouri agrees.

"My experience has been that about 75 percent of the time people have insufficient knowledge about their airbags to know if they should or shouldn't have gone off," he says. "It's pretty rare to have a non-deployment case ... it isn't something that happens that often."

If that's the case, why didn't the airbags deploy in these accidents?

Diklich and other car experts say only a crash scene investigator -- someone who has inspected the vehicle, the accident site, and all the data -- can determine if an airbag failed to deploy when it should have gone off.

Every accident, they say, has a different scenario. And a different set of circumstances.

And all those factors must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Misconceptions About Airbags

Car experts say many consumers have misconceptions about how their airbags work and when they should deploy.

Specifically, they say consumers don't understand:

• Air bags are not designed to deploy in every accident;

• Certain criteria -- or deployment thresholds -- must be met for airbags to deploy;

• A totaled vehicle is not an indicator of whether an airbag should deploy;

• Air bags are a supplemental restraint system. They are not designed to replace seat belts.

When Should Airbags Deploy?

Most vehicles on the road today have two types of airbags: frontal and side-impact.

Frontal airbags are designed to protect the occupants' heads and chests from hitting the steering wheel, instrument panel, or windshield, experts say.

Side-impact airbags are designed to protect the occupants' heads and/or necks from striking objects inside or outside the vehicle in side impact crashes.

Air bag systems have three main components -- an airbag module, crash sensors, and a diagnostic unit -- that determine if and when the airbags should deploy.

"The airbag system is tuned to deploy when it thinks there's enough energy in the crash to cause harm," says the director of NHTSA's office of data acquisition and the former head of the agency's special crash investigations division. He didn't want his name used in this story.

"You have to look at the energy in the crash. If you're doing 30 mph and you lift your foot off the petal and gradually slow down to zero, do you need you airbag? No.

"But if you're going 30 mph and strike a hard object, like a tree or wall, we'd expect to see your airbags deploy," he says, adding his agency investigates 4,000-5,000 accidents a year.

"If you drive down the road and sideswipe something at 30 mph, you might not have high enough energy to trigger an airbag deployment. The question you have to ask is: 'Is there enough energy from the crash to trigger an airbag deployment?'"

Frontal Airbags

Frontal dual airbags

Side airbags offering torso protection



Side airbags to protect the head or head and torso
Photos courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Car experts say frontal airbags are designed to deploy in moderate or severe crashes that equal hitting a solid barrier going about 8-14 mph. NHTSA says that's the equivalent of hitting a parked car of similar size -- going about 16-28 miles per hour. A parked car absorbs some of the crash's energy, NHTSA says.

Some car makers have different "thresholds" that determine when an airbag should deploy, experts say.

Those thresholds often depend on whether the occupants are wearing their seat belts. The 8-14 mph threshold is generally designed for unbelted passengers; it's higher for belted passenger.

NHTSA say the deployment threshold is lower for unbelted passengers because they continue to move forward -- at the vehicle's original speed -- until their movement is stopped by the steering wheel, instrument panel, or windshield.

Car experts also say there's a 30 degree angle -- on either side of a vehicle's front center -- that generally must be hit for the frontal airbags to deploy.

Car experts also say frontal airbags are not designed to deploy in side impacts, rear impacts, or rollover crashes. Also, these airbags deploy only once -- in about 1/20th of a second -- and deflate immediately. That means they offer no protection if the vehicle is hit -- or rolls over -- multiple times in the same accident.

Side-Impact Airbags

What about side-impact airbags?

Experts say these airbags deploy when the vehicle is hit on its side. Sensors detect if the crash is severe enough for the airbags to deploy.

Side-impact airbags are usually smaller than frontal ones and deploy quickly from the vehicles' seatback, door, or roof to protect front and -- sometimes -- rear-seat passengers.

Some side-curtain airbags may stay inflated longer than other airbags to protect passengers in rollover accidents. This can also prevent passengers from being ejected from the vehicle.

NHTSA says on rare occasions -- and if the crash involves multiple impacts -- the side airbags on the non-struck side of the vehicle may deploy.

Why Didn't My Airbag Deploy?

"I totaled my car, so why didn't my airbag deploy?"

That's a question car experts say they often hear, and it illustrates another misconception many consumers have about their airbags.

Expert says there's no correlation between the crumpled remains of a totaled vehicle and an airbag deployment.

"A totaled vehicle is a monetary measure of whether it would cost more to repair the vehicle than the vehicle is worth," says Diklich, who showed us several smashed cars and trucks during our interview and explained why the airbags did not deploy in some of those crashes.

"I've seen cases where an insurance company has totaled a vehicle and the airbags didn't deploy. This has happened in rollover accidents, and the airbags should not have deployed."

Jim Khoury, manager of advanced safety development for General Motors North America, says he's heard from consumers who are upset because their airbags didn't deploy in accidents that transformed their vehicles into crumpled piles of metal and broken glass.

But there's a scientific -- and safety -- reason their vehicles crushed during those accidents, he says.

"Your vehicle is made to crush, it should crush, and it's crushing to protect you," he explains. "The idea is to minimize the force on your body ... and absorb energy efficiently so that when you hit something, the structure crushes as evenly as possible. There's a whole science behind this technology."

Seat Belts Are Primary

Car experts say some consumers have the dangerous misconception that their airbags give them so much protection they don't need to wear their seat belts.

That's a false -- and potentially deadly -- notion.

"Your seat belts and your airbags work in unison," car expert Diklich says, adding the seat belts hold you in the proper position, which is critical for the airbags to do their job. "But your seat belt is your primary restraint system and your airbag is a supplemental -- secondary -- restraint system."

GM's Khoury echoes that message.

"Air bags supplement seat belts in severe crashes," he says. "They work together. Your seat belt, though, is your primary restraint system. Seat belts save 40,000 lives a year; airbags save approximately 4,000 a year. That shows which restraint system is the most effective and why we tell drivers to please wear their seat belts."

Advanced Airbag Technology

Advances in science and technology, experts say, have made the airbags in most vehicles smarter and safer than earlier models.

Some of these smarter airbags include:

• Advanced frontal airbags, which are designed to reduce injuries and deaths that happen when children and small stature adults sit too close to the airbags when they deployed. NHTSA estimates that more than 100 children have died in these types of airbag-related accidents in recent years;

• Air bags that deploy at different degrees of force -- based on the severity of the crash and the occupants' weight. Experts say most vehicles also have special systems that prevent airbags from deploying if the sensors detect a child in the front passenger seat. Air bags can be dangerous to children 12 and younger because they inflate at speeds up to 100 mph, and that force can severely injure or kill a child who sits too close to the airbag;

• Computer-controlled airbag systems, which let car makers adjust the algorithms that determine when an airbag should deploy. Some earlier model airbags deployed too easily -- or when they weren't needed;

• Rollover canopy systems, which determine if there's going to be a rollover, how fast the vehicle is going to roll, and then deploy the side curtains if needed. The curtains drop down and are designed to stay in place up to six seconds.

What If My Airbag Failed To Deploy?

Despite all these advances, experts say there are still a few, rare cases, when airbags fail to deploy when they should.

Car and safety experts say consumers involved in those types of accidents -- ones that meet all the deployment criteria and the airbags still don't inflate -- should contact NHTSA.

"We want to hear from anyone who thinks their vehicle didn't give them enough protection in a crash," says the director of NHTSA's office of data acquisition. "We especially want to hear from them if they were injured -- particularly if they had facial injuries -- in a crash and their airbags didn't go off. Those cases should be reported to us and we'll investigate.

"We also want to hear from someone who was involved in an accident and a first-responder, policeman, or highway patrolman told them they couldn't believe the airbags didn't deploy," he says, adding his agency has authority to recall vehicles with safety defects.

We learned NHTSA has recalled some vehicles specifically because of problems that could prevent the airbags from deploying in an accident.

The agency, for example, recalled 488 of Dodge's 2000-model year Neon's because "some frontal (passenger side) airbags may not inflate properlyand in the event of a crash, the passenger may not be adequately restrained, increasing the risk of personal injury."

This is a copy of NHTSA's recall summery on that vehicle:

Recalls Summary
Make / Models : Model/Build Years:
DODGE / NEON 2000
Recall Number: 99V043000
Summary:
VEHICLE DESCRIPTION: PASSENGER VEHICLES. SOME FRONTAL (PASSENGER SIDE) AIR BAGS MAY NOT INFLATE PROPERLY.
Consequence:
IN THE EVENT OF A CRASH, THE PASSENGER MAY NOT BE ADEQUATELY RESTRAINED, INCREASING THE RISK OF PERSONAL INJURY.
Remedy:
DEALERS WILL REPLACE THE AIR BAG MODULE ON THE PASSENGER SIDE.
Notes:
OWNER NOTIFICATION BEGAN APRIL 5, 1999. OWNERS WHO TAKE THEIR VEHICLES TO AN AUTHORIZED DEALER ON AN AGREED UPON SERVICE DATE AND DO NOT RECEIVE THE FREE REMEDY WITHIN A REASONABLE TIME SHOULD CONTACT CHRYSLER AT 1-800-992-1997. ALSO CONTACT THE NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION'S AUTO SAFETY HOTLINE AT 1-888-DASH-2-DOT (1-888-327-4236).

We also learned NHTSA recalled 85,154 of Honda's 2005 model-year Odyssey minivans because some had corrosion problems that could "cause a delay in, or loss of, frontal airbag deployment, which can increase the risk of injury in a frontal crash."

This is a copy of NHTSA's recall summary on that vehicle:

Recalls Summary
Make / Models : Model/Build Years:
HONDA / ODYSSEY 2005
Recall Number: 05V344000
Summary:
THE FRONTAL AIR BAG SYSTEM HAS TWO EXTERNAL IMPACT SENSORS. ON CERTAIN MINI VANS SOME SENSORS WERE INSUFFICIENTLY SEALED DURING MANUFACTURING. IF WATER ENTERS A SENSOR, CORROSION CAN OCCUR. CORRODED SENSORS COULD SHORT CIRCUIT INTERNALLY. IF SENSORS FAIL, THE SRS WARNING LAMP ON THE INSTRUMENT PANEL WILL TURN ON AND REMAIN ILLUMINATED.
Consequence:
FRONT IMPACT SENSOR FAILURE COULD CAUSE A DELAY IN, OR LOSS OF, FRONTAL AIR BAG DEPLOYMENT, WHICH CAN INCREASE THE RISK OF INJURY IN A FRONTAL CRASH.
Remedy:
DEALERS WILL REPLACE THE FRONT IMPACT SENSORS. THE RECALL BEGAN ON AUGUST 30, 2005. OWNERS MAY CONTACT HONDA AT 1-800-999-1009.
Notes:
HONDA RECALL NO P80. CUSTOMERS MAY ALSO CONTACT THE NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION'S VEHICLE SAFETY HOTLINE AT 1-888-327-4236; (TTY: 1-800-424-9153); OR GO TO HTTP://WWW.SAFERCAR.GOV.

Consumers can file complaints about possible safety defects with their vehicles on NHTSA's Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov. They can also call the agency's Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 to report any problems. NHTSA says consumers need to have their vehicle's VIN (vehicle information number) handy when they contact the agency.

Consumers should also report their experience to ConsumerAffairs.com, which investigates consumer grievances and shares its complaint database with class-actiion attorneys, law enforcement agencies and media outlets.

Consumers can also check for any recalls or safety defects with their vehicles -- or find out its crash and rollover ratings -- on NHTSA's Web site.

"We're trying to do all we can to make vehicles safer," NHTSA's director of office of data acquisition says, adding 17 million vehicles are sold each year. "We want to hear from consumers who think their vehicles aren't safe. We want to know -- and investigate -- what's working and what's not working. After all, our kids drive cars and we want every vehicle out there to be as safe as possible."

So does Chad, the chiropractor involved in the head-on collision.

"I remember after my accident the tow truck driver came around and told me the airbag didn't go off. Then he said: 'I see this happen all the time in Fords.' If this is such a common problem, I'd like to know why Ford hadn't done anything about it. Maybe it's a bad design. This was the top of the line Expedition. It was supposed to be a safe vehicle."

When we interviewed Chad, he hadn't contacted NHTSA about the Expedition's airbags failing to deploy in his accident.

He now plans to make that call.

 

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Certified Dangerous: Used Cars' Airbags

Many "Certified" Used Cars are Rebuilt Wrecks with Bogus Titles

Certified Dangerous: Used Cars' Airbags...


A grieving mother -- haunted by her 16-year-old son's death on a dark, two-lane road in Hoke County, North Carolina -- repeatedly visited the crash scene.

She combed the area for clues into the 2004 death of her son -- a national honor student who volunteered at a nursing home.

"I became a Crime Scene Investigator," Diane W. of Fayetteville, North Carolina, recalls. "Nobody was giving me any answers. I had to find out what happened -- why my son died."

What she discovered shattered her faith in a safety feature she believed would protect her son in a serious accident.

Now she's convinced that safety feature -- one the federal government has required in all passenger vehicles since 1998 -- failed to protect her son and contributed to his death.

October 22, 2004

To understand how she reached that conclusion you have to journey back to the night of October 22, 2004.

Diane's husband and son, Torian, went on their regular, Friday night outing to shoot pool and swap stories.

"My husband was driving and my son was in the passenger's seat," Diane says, adding they were in the family's 2002 Ford Explorer. "A dog suddenly came running out and my husband swerved to miss him. His front tire got stuck on the soft shoulder of the road and the Explorer flipped eight times."

Diane learned the Explorer rolled to the right and landed first on Torian's side.

Startling Discovery

Diane then made another discovery -- one she's still struggling to understand. The side airbag -- the one she believed gave her family added protection in rollover accidents -- did not deploy on Torian's side.

Torian and the wreckage of his Ford Explorer

"The death certificate says my son died of severe head trauma," says Diane, who took Torian out of the body bag to inspect his injuries. "The right side of his head took the brunt of the accident. His skull was pushed in ... when I identified him, I could see on his skull where his head took the brunt of the accident."

Diane is convinced her son -- a 5'9", 300-pound football player who dreamed of being an architect -- would be alive if the side airbag had deployed.

"That would have saved his life because his head wouldn't have taken the brunt of the accident and the injuries wouldn't have been so massive," she says, adding the Explorer had six airbags and only the one on the driver's side deployed in the accident. Her husband survived the crash, but has a permanent shoulder disability. "When we bought that vehicle, our main concern was having airbags. We wanted a safe vehicle."

Similar Concerns

A five-month ConsumerAffairs.com investigation reveals the problem of airbags not deploying in serious accidents like the one that claimed Diane's son is not an isolated instance.

We examined more than 160 complaints from consumers nationwide who echoed Diane's concerns and say their airbags failed to deploy and protect them in an accident.

Most of the accidents were the type that drivers expect will cause their airbags to deploy: head-on collisions, rollovers, and broadside crashes. Few were minor fender-benders.

Many consumers suffered serious and life-changing injuries when their airbags failed to deploy.

Others lost loved ones.

During our investigation, we interviewed more than 60 consumers -- from Hawaii to New Jersey -- about their accidents.

Many told us authorities who responded to their crash scenes -- paramedics, firefighters, state troopers and tow truck drivers -- expressed concerns about their airbags' failure to deploy.

Our investigation found these accident happened in cars, trucks, minivans, and SUV's made by Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi, Kia, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Honda. One happened in a rental car.

Some occurred in new vehicles, even though national car experts say airbags in new vehicles rarely fail to deploy when needed because of the systems' advanced technology. They also say airbags aren't designed to deploy in every accident. And only a crash scene investigator -- someone who has inspected the vehicle, the accident site, and all the data -- can determine if an airbag should have deployed in a particular wreck.

Many accidents we examined also happened in older, one-owner, models.

But the majority of the complaints we received about airbags failing to deploy in different accidents involved used vehicles. We also discovered the accidents in which consumers suffered the most serious injuries -- or lost a loved one -- happened in used vehicles.

Diane's son, for example, died in a used Ford Explorer.

Certified Dangerous

Her complaint -- and the scores of others we investigated -- led us into a seedy world where unscrupulous individuals haphazardly rebuild severely damaged vehicles and then sell them as safe and "certified" used cars, trucks, minivans, and SUV's.

We learned these unsavory "rebuilders" often disable the airbags when they put the wrecks back together. And in some cases, they don't even bother to replace the deployed airbags.

A rebuilder stuffed a used airbag back into the steering wheel on this retitled wreck.

These shady rebuilders conceal all signs of previous damage to the vehicles -- and their titles. Unsuspecting consumers who buy them have no idea they're getting a rebuilt wreck -- until it's too late.

"I'm here to tell you there are a whole lot of these cases where the airbags aren't deploying in rebuilt wrecks," says nationally recognized consumer attorney Bernard Brown of Kansas City, Missouri. His specialty is car fraud and he's represented clients who've been duped by car dealers selling rebuilt wrecks and vehicles with rolled-back odometers.

"Unlike Ford, GM, Honda, and other car makers, there are no safety standards that protect consumers from these rebuilders," he said.

During our interview with Brown, we reviewed some of the complaints we received about airbags failing to deploy in different accidents -- specifically those in which consumers suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one.

"Are those used vehicles?" Brown immediately asked. "I would suspect that's what you have ... that would be at the top of my list."

Brown was right.

The accidents we discussed with him all happened in used vehicles.

Does that mean our consumers unknowingly purchased rebuilt wrecks? Our investigation reveals many of their vehicles had problems that are typical -- and telltale signs -- of rebuilt wrecks: airbags not deploying in serious accidents and seat belts not holding occupants in place.

But the consumers we interviewed didn't have a car expert -- someone specifically trained to identify previous damage -- inspect their vehicles after the accidents. And their vehicles have since been repaired, totaled, or crushed.

Consumer experts also say reports that list a vehicle's history, like Carfax, don't always reveal previous damage.

Fiance Dies In Head-On Collision

During our investigation, we interviewed a woman whose 26-year-old fiance died in a head-on collision.

Alicia S. of Mountain View, Arkansas, says her fiance, Ricardo, was driving a used 1998 Dodge Neon.

The car's airbags didn't deploy when he hit a tree.

"The accident occurred at night on a single lane, paved road in Arkansas," Alicia says, adding Ricardo had just started working for a company that raised chickens. He was driving from one chicken house to another when the accident occurred. "Ricardo had three co-workers in the car when he fell asleep at the wheel. He left the road and struck a tree head-on. The airbag on the passenger's side deployed, but the driver's side did not.

"His cause of death is listed as blunt force trauma to the chest," Alicia says, adding Ricardo's co-workers survived the crash. "If the airbag had deployed, he would be alive because he might not have had the chest trauma that killed him. That's what the state troopers told me. They also said they couldn't believe his airbag didn't deploy."

Single Mom Suffers Head Injury

Beth R. of Albany, Oregon dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But that dream vanished when she sustained a head injury in a roll-over accident.

The single mom went from a straight "A" college student to someone who can no longer solve simple problems.

Her accident happened in a used 2000 Dodge Neon. Its airbags didn't deploy, either.

"I was driving a few miles under the speed limit, on a straight flat road in Albany, on my way to college" she says of the January 18, 2005, accident. "As I approached an upcoming wide turn, I took my foot off the gas. When I did, the rear of the vehicle began to fishtail. I had the knee-jerk response to brake. The car immediately began to do 360's and eventually rolled over several times until I ended up crashing head first into an irrigation ditch.

"My head hit the windshield," adds Beth, who is still going through rehabilitation. "I physically walked away from the accident, but my brain no longer has the same capacity. If the airbags had deployed, I would not have the injuries I have. The airbags not deploying took away the remainder of what I thought was going to be a great life."

Pregnant Woman Injured

Shantel C. of Henderson, Nevada, was eight months pregnant when she was injured in a head-on collision.

Her baby is fine, but she's still struggling with debilitating headaches.

She was driving a used 1999 Chevrolet Camaro. And its airbags didn't deploy in the accident.

"I was hit head-on by a guy doing 50 mph," Shantel says of the January, 2006, accident.

"Thankfully, I was wearing my seatbelt and my baby is all right. But I did do some nerve damage when my head smacked into the windshield, and I'm now working with a neurologist.

"My dad said the airbags should have deployed," she adds. "He's been in the towing business for 35 years and has seen a lot of accidents. My car had two front airbags and you could see that both sensors were hit. When we called the dealership, though, they told us: 'Even if the airbags are faulty, it's not our fault you got in a crash, and next time watch where you are driving.' And then they hung up."

Car Dealers Assured Consumers

Shantel and other consumers we interviewed say the main reason they bought their vehicles is because they had airbags. Those airbags, they say, gave them an added sense of safety.

So did the dealerships, which assured them the airbags -- and their used vehicles -- were in perfect condition.

"We were told the car had gone through an inspection and had never been in an accident," Shantel says. "We specifically asked about the airbags because we wanted that protection. We had them run a Carfax report (which checks the vehicle's history) and we were told everything checked out."

ConsumerAffairs.com also ran a Carfax report on Shantel's Camaro, and confirmed it doesn't list any previous damage.

The report also shows Shantel's Camaro now has a junk title the state of Nevada issued two months after her accident -- in March, 2006.

Remember Diane, who lost her son in a rollover accident? Her husband, Willy, says the dealership convinced his family the Explorer was in mint condition.

"They gave us a checklist of everything on the vehicle and said it all checked out fine. That's why I went to a dealer ... I thought they were reliable."

Willy, however, recalls one comment the dealership made that -- in retrospect -- makes him question the Explorer's history.

"They said the vehicle had all new airbags. At the time, I really didn't get the concept of what that meant or why the car would even need new airbags. I didn't think about that until later."

ConsumerAffairs.com ran a Carfax report on Willy's Explorer, which shows the SUV was a previously leased vehicle and its airbags have never deployed. The report also shows the SUV had a clean title when an auto auction sold it as a fleet vehicle in April 2004.

Willy bought the Explorer one month later.

The Carfax report also reveals Willy's Explorer is now flagged as a "salvage" vehicle -- one that's apparently back on the road. We learned the Explorer was registered as a lease vehicle on March 15, 2005.

When Alicia and her fiance bought their used Neon, the dealership said it had examined the car and found no problems.

"They said the car had been inspected, the airbags had been checked out, and everything was fine," Alicia recalls. "Having airbags was important to Ricardo. He asked the dealer if everything worked and he was told the car was fine."

But Alicia later made a troubling discovery -- one that also makes her question the car's history.

"We ran the car's VIN (vehicle identification number) after the wreck and it came back to a completely different person ... someone other than the name (listed as the previous owner) on the title."

That doesn't surprise Ira Rheingold, general counsel for the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

"This is a typical thing where folks buy a used car and they don't know what has happened to the vehicle," says Rheingold, whose non-profit group is comprised of attorneys and consumer advocates. "On a federal level, there is very limited protection for consumers. There is no national data base and people often times buy a vehicle and they don't know its real history."

Next: Insurers and the Rebuilt Wreck Scam

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FCC Clears the Way for AT&T-BellSouth; Merger

Merger will create the world's single largest telecommunications company

FCC Clears the Way for AT&T-BellSouth Merger...

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Kevin Martin is planning to endorse the merger of two of Ma Bell's biggest children without any conditions, insiders report.

The AT&T-BellSouth; merger will create the world's single largest telecommunications company and cost $67 billion to complete.

Martin has recommended that the merger be placed on the FCC's agenda for its next formal meeting, scheduled for Oct. 14th. Martin's request is unusual in that the Justice Department has yet to complete its review of the proposed merger for potential harm to consumers and competition.

Spokespersons for both AT&T; and BellSouth predictably hailed the move and urged a speedy approval for the massive telco merger.

Consumer groups such as Consumers Union criticized it as too hasty and not fully recognizing the potential price hikes such a merger could create.

The merger would give AT&T; full control of Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest wireless service provider, and extend AT&T; chair Ed Whitacre's reach into the South, BellSouth's largest market.

ConsumerAffairs.com receives a regular stream of complaints from disgruntled former AT&T; customers regarding Cingular's billing practices, customer service, and product reliability.

Although Martin proposed the merger unconditionally, sources say that the other FCC commissioners may want to weigh in on the merger rather than offer rubber-stamp approval.

The newest appointee to the FCC, Republican Robert McDowell, was a lobbyist with COMPTEL, a telecommunications association that represented competitors to AT&T;, and may have to recuse himself from the case as a result.

Without McDowell assuring a Republican majority vote on the FCC panel, the Democrat members of the FCC may push for conditions such as ensuring the new merged company respects the rules of "net neutrality," the right to access all content on the Internet freely and equally.

Similar restrictions were placed on the approval of other mega-mergers such as Verizon and MCI, which Martin also wanted approved without conditions.

The FCC circulated a memo asking for public comment on the net neutrality issue, leading observers to say that the move was designed to prevent the issue from impeding the specific AT&T-BellSouth; deal by making it an "industry-wide" issue.

Martin, a close ally of the Bush administration and former Special Assistant to the President, has echoed the White House's stance on net neutrality by saying no serious net neutrality protections are needed.

During his tenure as FCC chief, the agency has focused the bulk of its attention on indecency issues on television, levying record fines on television networks for profanity, displays of sexual activity and so forth.

During Martin's tenure, the FCC moved to grant telecommunications companies exclusive use of their phone lines, freeing them from having to share them with independent Internet services such as Earthlink.

When one Internet company challenged the move, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the FCC's position that Internet providers were "information services," not "communication services," and didn't have to ensure competition.

The ruling led to the current battle over net neutrality, as the major telcos want to roll out high-speed "triple play" products that combine voice, phone, and Internet access in one, along with special subscription television programming, in order to compete with cable companies.

Supporters of net neutrality fear that Internet content providers such as Google, YouTube, MySpace may be charged extra fees to ensure timely delivery of their services. Major sites already pay millions of dollars for Internet bandwidth.

The FCC recently challenged BellSouth and Verizon over the issue of mysterious new fees they were charging consumers. Both companies had recently won relief from having to pay into the Universal Service Fund (USF), designed to fund broadband and other telecom development in low-income and rural parts of the country.

But rather than lower their prices on their DSL offerings to consumers, the telcos started charging "regulatory cost recovery fees" which almost precisely matched the old USF fees. The move set off a firestorm from angry subscribers and consumer groups, leading the FCC to threaten an inquiry. Both companies quickly backed off, at least for now.

The FCC's move came as a surprise to observers, given its generally pro-telco environment under Martin. Some observers suggested the fee issue might be revisited after the upcoming elections. Some said that Martin's move was designed to keep the rapacious natures of the telcos in check temporarily, so as not to endanger the massive mega-merger of Ma Bell's offspring.

 

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Airbag Safety Tips

The NHTSA says frontal airbags have saved thousands of lives since the federal government started to require this safety feature on all passenger vehicles ...


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says frontal airbags have saved thousands of lives since the federal government started to require this safety feature on all passenger vehicles in 1998.

Frontal airbags, however, deploy with tremendous force, NHTSA says. And that explosive power -- generally at a speed of up to 100 mph -- can cause serious or fatal injuries to children and small adults who sit too close to the steering wheel or dashboard.

To prevent airbag-related injuries, NHTSA and other safety groups recommend:

• Children 12 and under, and smaller adults -- especially senior citizens -- ride in the back seat. They should always wear their seat belts;

• Infants should never ride in the front seat of any vehicle that has a frontal airbag on the passenger side;

• Small children should ride in a child safety seat that is approved for their age and size. They should always ride in the back seats. NHTSA says the safest position for a child safety seat is in the middle of the back seat;

• Drivers should sit as far back as possible from the steering wheel. There should be at least 10 inches from the driver's breastbone to the center of the steering wheel;

• All occupants should wear their shoulder harness and lap belts. NHTSA say the combination of frontal airbags and lap/shoulder belts reduces the risk of serious head injury in an accident by 85 percent.

On/Off switches for airbag systems are available, but NHTSA only allows consumers to install those devices if:

• They have a medical condition that puts them at risk;

• They can't adjust the driver's seat to keep them at least 10 inches from the steering wheel;

• They can't avoid situations where a child 12 or under rides in the front seat.

Before consumers install an on/off switch, NHTSA advices they:

• Discuss their medical condition with a physician to confirm the device is appropriate;

• Get more space between themselves and the steering wheel by moving the seat farther back or adjusting the angle of the seatback. Pedal extenders are available for some vehicles;

• Remember that children are safer in the back seat, with or without an airbag. Studies show that in more than 70% of accidents in which a child in the front seat was killed, a vacant seat in the back was available;

• Contact their carmaker to see if an on/off switch is available for their vehicle. They're not on all models.

Consumers also need permission from NHTSA to install an airbag on/off switch. Forms are available on NHTSA's Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov. Consumers can also call NHTSA to request a form. The number is 1-888-327-4236.

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TSA Backs Off Registered Traveler Fee Hike

Screening companies complained loudly about proposed $70 fee

TSA Backs Off Registered Traveler Fee Hike...

Registered Traveler is back in the saddle again.

After a strong protest from companies planning to promote the advance-screening program -- designed to speed members through airport security lines -- the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has dropped to plans to impose a $70 fee to offset the salaries of additional screeners.

Backers of the program say such hires are not needed.

The TSA backed down after a lengthy meeting with company officials who claimed the projected $200 annual fee would be too steep for millions of potential applicants.

The fee, primarily for an anti-terrorism background check, is now $30 -- plus whatever individual companies will charge passengers who enroll. The typical company fee is in the neighborhood of $80.

An additional $20 surcharge is possible if the TSA decides to tack on a criminal background check as well as the anti-terrorism check. Even if it does, the $130 total is much more affordable than $200.

Registered Traveler, operating as a pilot program in Orlando for more than a year, has nearly two dozen airports anxious to add the system. Many of them hope to do so before year's end.

Companies operating the program, such as the New York-based Verified Identity Pass, will issue ID cards bearing fingerprints of members. New technology, now in the testing stages, will determine whether passengers can pass through security without doffing coats and shoes -- which will also speed up the process.

Another possible breakthrough is an on-site fingerprint sample, designed to detect explosives residue on the hands of passengers.

Last week's meeting at TSA headquarters in Arlington, Va. included Kip Hawley, the agency's chief executive, and executives of companies that complained about its proposed fee hike.

Public complaints about higher prices also contributed to the TSA's decision to rescind the rate hike, according to participants at the meeting.



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Airbags in Used Cars -- How To Protect Yourself

How To Protect Yourself

Bill Brauch, director of the consumer protection division for the Iowa attorney general's office, says consumers should always be wary when they buy a used...


Bill Brauch, director of the consumer protection division for the Iowa attorney general's office, says consumers should always be wary when they buy a used car.

"Most reputable car dealers don't want these rebuilt wrecks on their lots," he says. "But a lot of used car dealers are hard up for inventory and they may step over the line because of economic pressures and sell something they should not sell."

Brauch and other consumer experts say before you buy a used car, you should always:

• Check the vehicle's history. Companies like Carfax can research a vehicle's title, but experts warn their databases are "seriously deficient in protecting consumers from flooded and rebuilt wrecked cars" because information about those vehicles is often not entered into those systems;

• Get the vehicle inspected by an independent body shop, which can check for previous damage;

• Get the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic;

• Be wary of companies that sell "certified" used cars. "People need to know these so-called certified cars are such a boondoggle and the name means nothing," says Shahan.

CFA's attorney Rachel Weintraub adds: "Unscrupulous dealers may sell certified used cars ... without representing that the cars have been salvaged. Certified used cars are sold at a premium to consumers because of the more rigorous inspection required. However, sometimes the inspections either knowingly or unknowingly fail to identify a salvaged vehicle.

Consumers are hit extra hard by having paid a premium for what they thought was a more thorough inspection, but then end up with an unsafe car (and one) with a warranty that is void due to prior damage." Some car makers won't honor the warranty on a vehicle that has previous damage;

• Find out if the vehicle has been recalled for safety problems. That information is available on The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov;

• Check the vehicle's crash test results with the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS). Its Web site is: www.iihs.org. The IIHS is a nonprofit research and communications group funded by auto insurers. You can also find crash test results and rollover ratings on NHTSA's Web site;

• Check for signs of previous damage, including mold, paint that doesn't match the rest of the vehicle, frayed safety belts, fenders and doors that don't align, silt in the trunk, and uneven tire tread;

• Check the airbag indicator light on the dash board. (It's sometimes marked "SRS" for supplemental restraint system). If the light doesn't come on, it could mean the airbag system isn't working. Car experts say the airbag warning light in most vehicles comes on when you start the car and stays on for a few seconds. If the light stays on longer, there could be a problem with the airbag system.

• Inspect the airbag cover to be sure it's original and not a replacement. Most original covers are marked "SRS" or "S/R"; most replacement covers have no marking. Some unscrupulous companies sell replacement airbags covers on the Internet;

• Find out if there are complaints about the car dealer. Check with your attorney general's office, local district attorney's office, or other consumer protection agencies and publications, including ConsumerAffairs.com. You can also report companies that knowingly sell rebuilt wrecks to these agencies.

Consumers we interviewed say education is the best way to protect yourself from getting seriously injured -- or losing a loved one -- in a vehicle that doesn't have working airbags.

"My message to other consumers is to get as much information as you can about a vehicle before you buy," says Diane, who lost her teenage son, Torian, in a rollover accident. "Find out how the vehicle did in crash tests. Find out if the airbags work and if they'll protect you in a roll-over accident. Find out if the seat belts work and will hold you if you're in a wreck. All this is especially important if you have kids."

Her husband, Willy, agrees.

"We never want what happened to us to happen to anyone else."

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A Short History of the Airbag

Hetrick designed the system to reduce injuries during emergency braking and frontal collisions, according to a story in American Heritage about his inventi...

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A Baffling Airbag Case

A Baffling Airbag Case...


For the past five months, ConsumerAffairs.com has investigated complaints about airbags failing to deploy in serious accidents.

Many consumers we interviewed suffered debilitating injuries in these accidents. And they blame those injuries on their airbags' failure to deploy.

We examined more than 160 complaints about this problem and discovered:

• The consumers who suffered the most serious injuries and even deaths drove used cars -- ones that might be rebuilt wrecks;

• The airbags in newer vehicles rarely fail to deploy when they're supposed to protect consumers. Advance technology, experts say, has made airbags smarter and safer;

• Consumers often have misconceptions about airbags, including when they should deploy. Air bags, for example, are not designed to deploy in every accident. Certain criteria must be met. They're also not designed to replace seat belts. Seat belts are the primary restraint system in a vehicle and car and safety experts say motorist should always wear them;

• Only a crash scene investigator -- someone who has examined the vehicle, the accident site, and all the data -- can determine if an airbag failed to deploy when it should have gone off.

But we discovered one case where even a crash scene investigator couldn't determine why the airbags didn't deploy in a consumer's accident.

Andrea P. of Helotes, Texas, was in a head-on collision in her 1995 Chevy Z710 extended-cab pickup. She suffered a head injury, had to have staples put in her skull, and still has chronic headaches and neck pain.

"I was heading home from work and came upon a green light," Andrea recalls of the August, 2005, accident. "A car was coming in the opposite direct and turned in front of me and hit me head-on. I was going about 45 mph. My vehicle then re-directed itself and hit another vehicle -- again head-on. So I hit two other vehicles, head-on, and my airbags never deployed."

She adds: "I think my injuries would be less serious if the airbags had deployed. The seat belt stopped me, but not enough to stop my head from hitting something inside the car."

Andrea contacted General Motors after her accident, and the car maker sent an investigator to inspect her truck and other crash data.

"He looked at the truck and took some 200 pictures of the pickup," she says, adding she knew the truck's previous owner and is certain it had never been wrecked. "He also said GM has a computer in its cars that will tell you if there's a problem with the airbags. He checked my truck and said the computer showed the airbag system was operable and the airbags had deployed."

The bottom line?

"When he finished, the investigator told me there's no reason why the airbags should not have gone off in my accident."

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Hotel Bathtubs Down the Drain

Large, walk-in showers replacing tubs

Hotel Bathtubs Down the Drain...

Consumers who like to collect their thoughts in hotel bathrubs had better request one in advance.

Hotels are ripping out tubs and replacing them with larger, walk-in showers often featuring better showerheads and curved curtainrods that provide more room.

For hotels, the reasons for the change are economic.

Showers consume less water than baths. Removing bathtubs lowers hotel insurance premiums. Shower stalls are easier to clean than bathtubs. And fancier shower stalls justify room rate increases

Installing walk-in showers in hotel rooms costs about

• 5,000 but hotels are convinced the cost is worth it -- especially if they wish to stay competitive in a hot market.

Occupancy levels are up 11 per cent over the past two years and are projected to increase further.

Hotels are not only hoping to provide more comfortable bathrooms but more luxurious ones. Here's how some of them are proceeding:

• The Park Hyatt of Washington, DC doubled the size of its bathrooms

• Suites at Manhattan's Shoreham have new walk-in showers

• Some of the suites at The Inn at Perry Cabin, in St. Michael's, Md., have bathrooms bigger than the typical hotel room

• Gansevoort, set for a spring opening in Miami's South Beach, will have bathrooms that measure 9 x 10 feet, twice the size of the typical hotel bathroom

• Bathrooms at the Renaissance Shaumburg, near Chicago, and Washington's St. Regis have mirrors with built-in TV monitors

• Marriott hotel bathrooms have new multi-streaming showerheads

• New Embassy Suites and Staybridge Suites will have walk-in showers.

Among other physical changes to hotel bathrooms are the installation of double vanities and even permanent fixtures for sprays, fragrances, and gels typically found in small plastic containers.

The idea, hoteliers insist, is to give customers a bathroom experience as good or better than what they have at home. Hotel advertisements will soon be promoting that theme.

 



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Target Matches Wal-Mart's $4 Generic Rx Price

Walgreens Sits It Out, Small Pharmacies Rattled

Target Matches Wal-Mart's $4 Generic Rx Price...

One step behind rival Wal-Mart, Target says it will also sell generic prescription drugs for $4 -- setting off what's likely to be a chain reaction that creates a completely new and cheaper pricing structure for America's off-patent medicines.

Target said that it would match Wal-Mart's prices in the Tampa, Fla., area, where Wal-Mart began offering the cut-rate prices Friday. The Minneapolis-based company didn't say whether it would match the $4 price elsewhere.

Another major competitor, Walgreens, is so far on the sidelines.

"We have no plans to do a program similar to Wal-Mart's," said spokesman Michael Polzin. He noted Wal-Mart's program covers only a fraction of the 2,000 generics Walgreens and others sell.

What's more, 95 percent of Walgreens customers have insurance, and for the 291 medications Wal-Mart is selling for $4, the average co-pay of $5.30 for nonseniors and $3.18 for seniors with Medicare Part D, Polzin said.

Wal-Mart has said it will expand the $4 price on nearly 300 generics to all of Florida by January 2007 and, if it proves successful in Florida, extend the program to other parts of the country.

The news was unsettling to small pharmacists, already facing tough competition from large grocery and pharmacy chains, as well as difficulties grappling with the new Medicare Part D program for prescription drugs.

But for retirees and others struggling to pay for prescription drugs, the news was greeted as a life-saver.

"Holy moley, this is phenomenal," Barbara Waks, an Aventura, Fla., resident told the Miami Herald. For her drugs, she has been insisting on brand names, either begging doctors for samples or purchasing them from Canada. "But now that I hear this I'm going to see if I can substitute generics," she said.

The Herald cited one example of the new savings: Enalapril, a frequently used blood-pressure medication, costs $18.09 at most CVS pharmacies, $19.49 at Target, $21.95 at Publix, $25.99 at many Walgreens and $45.29 at Friendly Drugs of West Hollywood, according to MyFloridaRX.com, a state-operated website.

Wal-Mart's price at a Pompano Beach store is currently listed as $18.54. It will be less than a fourth of that in January. The new $4 enalapril will even be cheaper than the price at CanadianDrug store.com, which charges $9.36, the newspaper said.

WakeUpWalMart.com, an anti-company site run by a union, criticized Wal-Mart for not including generic Zocor in its bargains and noted that, while the company had boasted it was lowering prices on nearly 300 generics, the company's list showed "only 124 separate medicines," many in multiple doses.

Still, of the top 10 selling generics in 2005, Wal-Mart and now Target will be offering six of them for $4.

"Each day in our pharmacies we see customers struggle with the cost of prescription drugs," said Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. "By cutting the cost of many generics to $4, we are helping to ensure that our customers and associates get the medicines they need at a price they can afford. That's a real solution for our nation's working families."

The Alliance for Retired Americans applauded the action.

"The federal government should look to its friends at Wal-Mart and see that negotiating bulk discounts on prescription drugs can reduce the cost to consumers," said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance.

The company said the $4 price will be available to both the insured and the uninsured alike. The generic drugs included in the program are used to treat and manage conditions including allergies, cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Some antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and prescription vitamins are also included, the company said.

Should the program prove successful in Florida, company officials say they expect to expand it to other states during 2007.

"Competition and market forces have been absent from our healthcare system, and that has hurt working families tremendously," Scott said. "We are excited to take the lead in doing what we do best driving costs out of the system and passing those savings to our customers and associates."

The announcement comes at a time of growing frustration with the new Medicare Part D drug benefit, that features a so-called "donut hole" of liability.

The program covers drug costs up to a certain level, then provides additional coverage at a higher level. Consumers whose drug costs fall between those two points receive little or no benefit.

Wal-Mart officials say their generic drug program will help alleviate a major challenge for seniors who have fallen into the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in their Medicare Part D prescription drug plans and now find themselves responsible for paying 100 percent of their prescription medicine costs.

"Fifty-bucks for a year's supply of prescription drugs is a pretty darn good deal for consumers," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an outspoken proponent of giving people access to lower-cost prescriptions. "Because Wal-Mart has the ability to shape the market, maybe other retailers will follow suit."

 



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Seniors Bemoan "Donut Day" - Medicare Drug Coverage Stops for Millions

Medicare Drug Coverage Stops for Millions

Seniors Bemoan...


Today is "Donut Hole Day," when the average Medicare enrollee falls into Medicare Part D's donut hole, the gap in coverage for those beneficiaries with annual drug costs between $2,250 and $5,100.

 

As a result, millions of seniors caught in the donut hole will go to the pharmacy this fall and be forced to pay thousands of dollars for prescriptions.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a report this week saying that about 7 million Americans in stand-alone prescription drug plans are at risk of falling into the donut hole. This is in addition to the nearly 6 million Americans with Medicare Advantage plans, most of which are also at risk of falling into the donut hole.

Their report estimated that 88 percent of the Medicare beneficiaries with stand-alone coverage ended up with plans that contained a gap.

The day did not go unnoticed. Seniors groups, consumer organizations and Democrats issued statements and held rallies. Wal-Mart unveiled a plan to cut the price of generic drugs to $4 at its pharmacies in the Tampa area, expanding by January to all of Florida.

Seniors have complained about the provision since the new drug program was enacted but the complaints are getting louder now that millions of Americans find themselves suddenly with no drug coverage.

"This costly, confusing and corrupt prescription drug plan written by and for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies exemplifies the conservative ideology of governance -- outsource essential government services to corporate cronies and pass the bill on to the taxpayers," said Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), joined Hickey in a conference call with reporters urging Congress to fix the harmful coverage gap.

"Seniors in Michigan and around the country are stunned to learn they are falling into Medicare's donut hole -- a gap in coverage that will have them scrambling to pay thousands of dollars for prescriptions they thought would be covered," said Stabenow.

"It didn't have to be this way, but unfortunately, this Medicare prescription drug program was created for the drug companies and not for seniors."

The Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA) held events through the country to highlight the day and rally seniors to ask Congress to eliminate the donut hole.

Many seniors and persons with disabilities were unaware of the donut hole when they enrolled in the new Part D plans, said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance. Even if they were aware, it would have cost nearly $40 more per month for a plan without a coverage gap.

Since the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan was passed in 2003, there have been three amendments introduced in the House of Representatives and one amendment introduced in the Senate authorizing Medicare to use its bulk purchasing power to negotiate the price of drugs, thereby reducing the cost of the program and providing Congress with the funds to fill in the gap in coverage. All four amendments have been rejected along partisan lines.

"Because the drug companies' interests were put ahead of seniors, taxpayers are paying a Cadillac price for a Pinto prescription drug benefit for seniors. Part D must be fixed to provide a real prescription drug benefit that puts seniors first," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United.

 

 

 

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Gas Price Fall Aids Republicans

Polls Find Widespread Mistrust Among Consumers

Gas Price Fall Aids Republicans...

Gasoline prices have fallen below $2 a gallon in limited areas of the country with the lowest price for regular self serve found in Covington, Kentucky at $1.94.

Regular self-serve gasoline is now selling for $2.50 or less in 33 states with the national average for a gallon of regular sitting at $2.44.

One month ago a gallon of regular averaged $2.59 and one year ago $2.69.

A recent public opinion survey indicates widespread mistrust throughout the country over gasoline prices. The USA Today poll found that 42 percent of the people responding to the survey believe the Bush administration is deliberately manipulating the price of gasoline so that prices will fall before the November elections.

Almost 53 percent disagreed with the idea that there is a relationship between declining gasoline prices and the upcoming election.

Pollsters and statisticians following gas prices and Bush's ratings insist there is a relationship, however. As gas prices have gone up over the past year the President's approval ratings have gone down. Recently, as gas prices fell, his ratings went up.

Here is a look at some gas prices from around the country in the weekly ConsumerAffairs.com Gas Price Round Up.

California: Southern California entered its fifth straight week of rapid gas price declines, with most areas seeing drops of more than one cent per day, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California's Weekend Gas Watch.

The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $2.86, which is 9.8 cents lower than last week, 34 cents lower than last month and eight cents lower than last year.

In San Diego, the price is $2.79, 12 cents below last week's price, 42 cents below last month and 19 cents below last year.

On the Central Coast, the average price is $3.08, down 9.8 cents from last week, 31 cents below last month and three cents higher than last year. In the Inland Empire, the average price is $2.84, down 12.8 cents from last week, 39 cents below last month and 13 cents lower than last year.

"The world oil market has seen prices plummet by more than 20 percent since July, as supply continues to be plentiful and no significant disruptions have occurred so far," said Auto Club spokesperson Carol Thorp. "In most Southern California cities, motorists are actually paying less for gasoline than at this time last year."

Texas: Retail gas prices in Texas are on a downward trend that has extended into week seven, according to the AAA Texas Weekend Gas Watch. The statewide average price for gasoline of self-serve gasoline is $2.33 a gallon. That is about 12 cents less than a week ago.

Motorists in Corpus Christi are seeing prices closer to $2 a gallon at $2.14, a nine cent weekly drop. The highest average on the survey is in El Paso at $2.55 a gallon, also a decrease of nine cents.

"The continued drop in crude oil and gasoline prices over the past few weeks can be attributed to a cooling of international tensions, a drop in demand and an unusually quiet 2006 hurricane season," said AAA Texas spokesperson Rose Rougeau. "Crude prices have declined more than 20% from a record $78.40 a barrel on July 14th to $60 a barrel this week."

Iowa: Some drivers in Iowa received a pleasant surprise as gas prices fell below under $2.

Many stations are selling the ethanol-blend for $1.99. The last time gas prices were under the $2 mark was May 2005, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Energy experts say prices could fall a bit more, but not much. They're likely to go up a bit again, but are expected to stay in the lower $2 range.

Ohio: A welcome surprise could be in store for Ohio drivers used to paying nearly $3 for a gallon of gas. The price is headed as low as $1.99 according to some experts.

A survey by the AAA said the average price for regular gasoline tin the state is $2.20. Ohio trails only Missouri as having the lowest average price in the nation, the AAA report says.

Some drivers in Trumbull County were pleasantly surprised when a BP station was selling regular gas for $1.99 a gallon. The price was set to mark the station's anniversary, however, and the price was raised later today to $2.19.

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High-Speed Internet Overtakes Dial-Up in Market Share

56% of residential customers subscribe to high-speed service

High-Speed Internet Overtakes Dial-Up in Market Share...

As the cost of high-speed Internet service declines and connection speeds become more important, high-speed service overtakes dial-up in market share for the first time, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Internet Service Provider (ISP) Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

The study finds that 56 percent of residential ISP customers subscribe to high-speed Internet service -- an increase of 11 percentage points from 2005. Correspondingly, market share of dial-up service has dropped from 55 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2006.

This trend is expected to continue, as the intent to switch service providers among dial-up customers has increased by 3 percentage points from 2005 to 21 percent in 2006, while switching intent among high-speed customers has essentially remained flat since 2003 at 11 percent.

The average amount subscribers report spending per month for high-speed Internet service has steadily decreased since 2004 -- down by $1.99 to $42.13 in 2006. During the same time period, the average amount dial-up service subscribers report spending has also declined; however, the drop is less significant -- falling $0.69 from 2004 to $18.45 per month in 2006.

"Although high-speed Internet service is still considerably more expensive than dial-up, bundling high-speed with other products, such as telephone and video service, has made it an increasingly attractive option for many customers," said Steve Kirkeby, executive director of telecommunications and technology research at J.D. Power and Associates.

"This is not to say that dial-up services are completely out of the picture, as dial-up still holds a significant portion of the market. More specifically, customers are often willing to pay more for faster Internet speeds, provided they are getting other services for less. Our research shows that customers are increasingly expecting offerings and incentives that recognize their loyalty, and high-speed Internet is a critical piece of the most attractive bundled offers," he added.

The study, now in its ninth year, measures customer satisfaction with high-speed and dial-up Internet service providers based on seven factors. They are: performance and reliability; cost of service; image; customer service/technical support; billing; e-mail services; and offerings and promotions.

Included in the study for the first time, WideOpenWest! (WOW!) ranks highest in satisfying high-speed Internet customers. WOW! receives the highest ratings from customers in performance and reliability, image, customer service, billing, cost of service and offerings and promotions.

Bright House Networks Road Runner follows WOW! in the rankings and performs well in the billing, performance and reliability, and image factors. BellSouth ranks third in the segment.

Across all providers, the study finds that DSL subscribers are significantly more satisfied than their counterparts who use cable modems to access the Internet. Aggressive pricing by traditional telephone companies has led to cost of service being the largest gap in satisfaction between DSL and cable subscribers.

Despite the discrepancy in overall satisfaction scores, cable modem penetration continues to climb, with 32 percent of all households subscribing to Internet service -- up from 28 percent in 2005. DSL subscriptions are up as well, climbing from 16 percent of the market in 2005 to 23 percent in 2006.

PeoplePC, a California based national provider of dial-up Internet service, also makes its debut in the study, and ranks highest among providers in the dial-up Internet service segment. PeoplePC receives the highest ratings from customers in four factors: cost of service, billing, e-mail services, and offerings and promotions.

BellSouth follows PeoplePC in the segment rankings and performs particularly well in customer service. EarthLink ranks third in the segment.

The study also finds several other key Internet usage patterns:

• Seventy-eight percent of households subscribe to an ISP -- up 9 percentage points from 2005

• High-speed subscribers spend an average of 22.6 personal hours per week on the Internet

• Dial-up subscribers average 22.2 personal hours per week online -- up 3 percent from 2005

• Data transfer speed is particularly important to both high speed and dial-up subscribers.

The 2006 ISP Residential Customer Satisfaction Study is based on responses from 10,787 residential customers of Internet service providers nationwide.

 

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Wal-Mart Cuts Generic Rx Prices To $4 In Florida

Wal-Mart Cuts Generic Rx Prices To $4 In Florida...


Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, has announced that it will make nearly 300 generic drugs available for only $4 per prescription for up to a 30-day supply at commonly prescribed dosages.

The program, to be launched on September 22, will be available to customers and associates of the 65 Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies in the Tampa Bay area, and will be expanded to the entire state of Florida in January 2007.

"Each day in our pharmacies we see customers struggle with the cost of prescription drugs," said Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. "By cutting the cost of many generics to $4, we are helping to ensure that our customers and associates get the medicines they need at a price they can afford. That's a real solution for our nation's working families."

The Alliance for Retired Americans applauded the action.

"The federal government should look to its friends at Wal-Mart and see that negotiating bulk discounts on prescription drugs can reduce the cost to consumers," said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance.

However, Coyle added, "This action by Wal-Mart in no way absolves it of its many failures as a responsible employer. For example, three-quarters of a million Wal-Mart workers are uninsured or are on public health care. Wal-Mart passes on to taxpayers $1.2 billion in health care costs each year."

The company said the $4 price will be available to both the insured and the uninsured alike. The generic drugs included in the program are used to treat and manage conditions including allergies, cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Some antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and prescription vitamins are also included, the company said.

Should the program prove successful in Florida, company officials say they expect to expand it to other states during 2007.

"Competition and market forces have been absent from our healthcare system, and that has hurt working families tremendously," Scott said. "We are excited to take the lead in doing what we do best driving costs out of the system and passing those savings to our customers and associates."

The announcement comes at a time of growing frustration with the new Medicare Part D drug benefit, that features a so-called "donut hole" of liability.

The program covers drug costs up to a certain level, then provides additional coverage at a higher level. Consumers whose drug costs fall between those two points receive little or no benefit.

Wal-Mart officials say their generic drug program will help alleviate a major challenge for seniors who have fallen into the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in their Medicare Part D prescription drug plans and now find themselves responsible for paying 100 percent of their prescription medicine costs.

"Fifty-bucks for a year's supply of prescription drugs is a pretty darn good deal for consumers," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an outspoken proponent of giving people access to lower-cost prescriptions. "Because Wal-Mart has the ability to shape the market, maybe other retailers will follow suit."



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Tax Credit for Toyota Hybrids Begins to Fade Away October 1

Tax Credit for Toyota Hybrids Begins to Fade Away October 1...

September 21, 2006
The tax credit for buying a Toyota hybrid vehicle will begin to fade away October 1.

Federal law requires that the tax credit for buying a hybrid vehicle begins to phase out during the second calendar quarter after the quarter in which the company sells its 60,000th hybrid.

Toyota reports its cumulative sales of qualified vehicles to retail dealers has reached the 60,000-vehicle limit during the calendar quarter ending June 30, 2006, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Vehicles purchased before Oct. 1, 2006, qualify for the full credit. For Toyota hybrid vehicles bought on or after October 1, 2006, and on or before March 31, 2007, the credit is 50 percent of the otherwise allowable credit amount.

Taxpayers buying vehicles on or after April 1, 2007, and on or before September 30, 2007, can only get 25 percent of the credit.

Here are the credit amounts for Oct. 1, 2006 March 31, 2007:

  • 2005 Prius $1,575
  • 2006 Prius $1,575
  • 2006 Highlander 4WD Hybrid $1,300
  • 2006 Highlander 2WD Hybrid $1,300
  • 2006 Lexus RX400h 2WD $1,100
  • 2006 Lexus RX400h 4WD $1,100
  • 2007 Camry Hybrid $1,300
  • 2007 Lexus GS 450h $775

Here are the credit amounts for April 1, 2007 September 30, 2007:

  • 2005 Prius -- $787.50
  • 2006 Prius -- $787.50
  • Highlander 4WD Hybrid -- $650
  • 2006 Highlander 2WD Hybrid -- $650
  • 2006 Lexus RX400h 2WD -- $550
  • 2006 Lexus RX400h 4WD -- $550
  • Camry Hybrid -- $650
  • Lexus GS 450h -- $387.50

Beginning October 1, 2007, taxpayers who buy a Toyota hybrid cannot claim the related tax credit.

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People to People "Clarifies" Its Invitation Policy

Non-Profit Program Has a For-Profit Connection

People to People 'Clarifies' Its Invitation Policy...

 


People to People International, which organizes international study tours, says it regrets any "misunderstanding" caused by recent complaints about the invitations it sends to parents of students targeted for 20-day $5,000 international study tours.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Attorney General asked People to People to modify its practices after the parents of a child who died in 1993 received a letter saying their long-dead son had been "recommended" for the study-abroad program.

"We conveyed our concern to People to People that parents who are induced to believe that their child was selected on merit are potentially misled, and may be improperly manipulated into making substantial expenditures they might otherwise decline to make," Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said.

People to People said it would make the changes, but consumers around the country complain that they are continuing to receive the solicitations, which many find misleading.

"I have received a very misleading letter from the company, it basically has the same language as Iowa letter to deceased boy's parents ... It states that Michelle will advance as a young leader because of this program. It appears to be government sponsored. Apparently, it is not," said Christine of Elmsford, N.Y., in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

The program does appear to have a government tie-in. George W. Bush is People to People's honorary chairman and past honorary chairmen include all former presidents dating back to the group's founder, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But the money for the student travel comes out of the parents' pockets -- around $5,000 for a typical 20-day tour, according to Miller.

People to People did not return three telephone calls from a reporter seeking comment earlier this month, but followed up with a letter saying it wanted to "offer some details about our invitation letters."

"Regrettably, from time to time, we have mailed a letter to a family in error," said a missive on People to People letterhead signed by Jeffrey D. Thomas, who represented himself as Chief Executive Officer.

But in fact, Mary Jean Eisenhower is the President/Chief Executive Officer of People to People, the Kansas City-based not-for-profit founded by her grandfather. Thomas is the CEO of a publicly-traded for-profit company, Ambassadors Group, headquartered in Spokane, Washington.

Although details of the relationship between the two are not obvious, Ambassadors Group apparently is licensed to use the People to People name. Travel arrangements are handled by private agencies.

The company should have no trouble finding travel agents. Its chairman is John A. Ueberroth, former chairman of Hawaiian Airlines and past president of Carlson Travel Group.

In its latest earnings report, Ambassadors Group had net income of $18.5 million for the second quarter of 2006, compared to $15.2 million a year earlier. Gross "program receipts," revenue from programs the company runs for People to People and others, increased 21 percent to $98.7 million.

People to People, by contrast, reported total revenue of $4.7 million for all of 2005, of which about $1.8 million came from "special projects" and $908,000 from "student programs," according to its tax return.

Mary Jean Eisenhower was paid $157,628 in 2005, according to the People to People tax return. Thomas was paid $2,075,879, not counting stock options valued at about $14,683,861, according to public records.

Invitations

In his letter, Thomas said his group gets names of prospective students from three sources:

• Direct student recommendations from teachers. These include the more than 3,000 teachers who travel as chaperones on the tours and "thousands of teachers that support our programs by recommending some of their outstanding students to us."

• Recommendations from past participants. "Many students and their parents provide recoommendations for future delegates," Thomas said.

• National academic listings. "We work with the same groups that colleges and universities use to identify potential undergraduates. Part of this group comes from the College Board ..."

The Iowa Attorney General's Office complained that in-person presentations to families who receive the invitation letter also convey the message that students are specially selected as an honor, and People to People representatives describe the program similarly over the telephone.

Although the company agreed to tone down its representations, recent complaints from consumers cast doubt upon that pledge.

"On 9-7-06, I received through US postal mail service, a letter from People to People International stating my daughter had been selected to participant in an international exchange student program and that 'she had been named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing,'" said Beth of Lincolnton NC in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

"I called the phone number provided on the letter on 9-13-06 to inquire as to exactly which source nominated my child. I was told by the representative, Amelia Adams, that "unfortunately, the space where a person is suppose to fill in their name has been left blank, therefore she is unable to provide that information," Beth said.

 

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Rising Costs Imperil Registered Traveler Program

TSA fees of $100 or more could kill the program

Rising Costs Imperil Registered Traveler Program...

Costs could kill a program designed to whisk air passengers through VIP security lanes.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, background checks that would clear consumers for the Registered Traveler program could add more than $100 onto the $80 annual fee companies typically charge to join the program.

That would push the total to $200, a figure that might discourage many potential passengers from joining.

Already operating in Orlando, Registered Traveler had been expected to expand to 20 additional airports. All have applied to TSA for permission to run the program.

But that was before the agency announced it needed to tack on fees of $70 to cover screener salaries, $30 for anti-terrorism checks of each potential member, and possibly an additional $20 for criminal background checks.

Those figures contradict the $30 anti-terrorism check the TSA proposed in 2005.

The key stumbling block appears to be the $70 fee for screener salaries, since backers insist the agency does not need to hire new or additional screeners to cover Registered Traveler lanes.

That's the position of Manhattan attorney Stephen Brill, who charges $80 a head for membership in Verified Identity Pass - the concept he created under Registered Traveler guidelines. Equally unhappy is Larry Zmunda of Unisys, a Pennsylvania firm also hoping to convince consumers to sign up for Registered Traveler. He calls the proposed price "a huge blow."

Congress is also complaining.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat whose committee is responsible for Registered Traveler, admitted the new figures could jeopardize the program. He said the projected $200 total tops anything that was ever considered previously.

California Republican Dan Lungren agreed, noting that the TSA will have to justify its request for the $100 surcharge. Lungren's subcommittee oversees the agency.

Using taxpayer dollars to reduce the price won't work unless the TSA backs off its stance that Registered Traveler is a private-sector program positioned only as an option for passengers.

Even support from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff may not help; if the higher price stands, millions of potential members may be dissuaded from joining.



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Toshiba Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries

Company says there have been no fires or overheating issues

Toshiba Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries...

Toshiba says it is recalling 340,000 batteries used in some of its laptop computers, becoming the third computer maker to recall Sony-made batteries.

The batteries are being recalled because of a number of problems, none of which are directly related to overheating, company officials said.

Earlier, Dell Computer and Apple recalled nearly six million Sony lithium ion batteries between them, because of problems with overheating that may, in some cases, lead to fire.

Toshiba has reported no such mishaps linked to its Sony batteries. Instead, the batteries have quickly run out of power and suffered other unnamed operational defects.

"We have found no evidence that the problem reported by Dell and Apple in their recalls applies to our notebook PCs," Toshiba said in a statement. "Sony has confirmed to us that there is no such problem as cited in the recalls of Dell and Apple with the battery packs supplied to Toshiba."

The company said in a statement on its Web site that it and Sony jointly investigated the problem to make sure that it was not related to overheating. It said it found that the system design and the protection system of Toshiba notebook PCs differ from those of Dell and Apple.

Most of the recalled batteries are in computers sold in the United States, according to Toshiba.

The problems have been reported in some of the battery packs for Dynabook and Satellite laptop models produced by Toshiba from March through May this year. The company said replacement batteries will be provided affected consumers at no charge.

 

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Toyota Closing In On GM for No. 1 Title

Japanese Ramp Up as U.S. Automakers Cut Back

Toyota Closing In On GM for No. 1 Title...

The race for the title of world's No. 1 automaker is pretty well decided. Though General Motors still holds a shaky lead, it is losing traction and Toyota, having already left Ford and Chrysler in its dust, is closing in fast.

In fact, the only remaining question is when Toyota flashes past ailing GM.

Fueled by healthy earnings and strong sales, the Japanese automaker is boosting overseas production by 40 percent to 5 million vehicles by 2008 and planning for higher production in North America as well.

The news from Toyota follows the Ford decision to cut thousands of jobs and close two plants to cut costs. At the same time DaimlerChrysler announced plans to cut U.S. production through the rest of 2006. GM announced similar plans earlier this year.

So while the U.S. Big 3 are closing plants, letting workers go, and trimming production amid weak sales, Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota and Honda Motor Co., are posting record earnings and cranking up output to keep up with demand.

In North America alone, the world's largest auto market, Toyota plans to raise production by 20 percent to 1.84 million. The automaker also expects to raise production for the first time above 1 million vehicles in Asia In China, Toyota intends to quadruple production from 2005 levels to 600,000 units.

In all, Toyota is on track to produce 9.1 million vehicles in 2008.

The Big 3, which rely more on light trucks for profits than their foreign competitors, have been hurt by declining sales of pickups as customers switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

They are also struggling with the need to reduce the cost of big pay and benefits packages for workers and retirees.

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Study: Exercise May Help Pulmonary Hypertension Patients

It has been thought that exercise is dangerous for such patients

Study: Exercise May Help Pulmonary Hypertension Patients...

Appropriate amounts of exercise offer psychological and physical benefits for patients with severe pulmonary hypertension -- an abnormal "high blood pressure" in the blood vessels that supply the lungs, according to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

"It is commonly believed that exercise training may be dangerous for pulmonary hypertension (PH) patients, because increasing pressure on the pulmonary arteries may worsen right-sided heart failure," said Ekkehard Grnig, M.D., senior author of the study and associate professor at University Hospital Heidelberg in Heidelberg, Germany.

"Patients should exercise, but only in certain amounts, in addition to taking medicine. All training should be started with supervision in a hospital."

Pulmonary hypertension is a life-threatening disease that restricts physical capacity, lowers quality of life and has a poor prognosis because the heart's upper right chamber loses its ability to pump blood to the lungs.

Although treatment of PH is advancing, researchers say adverse effects occur with the medications that treat it. Most patients continue to have symptoms, reduced physical abilities and reduced quality of life despite excellent medical treatment. Reduced exercise ability in PH is associated with depression and anxiety disorders, Grnig said.

Researchers evaluated the effects of exercise and respiratory training in 30 patients (21 female), average age 50, with severe chronic PH who were stable for at least three months. Patients were randomly assigned to either a control group or a primary training group and evaluated before the study, at week three and at week 15.

The control group received a common rehabilitation program, while the primary training group participated in an additional low-dose exercise program, supervised by physicians and physiotherapists, seven days a week. The daily training consisted of:

• 1025 minutes of interval bicycle training

• 60 minutes of walking

• 30 minutes of dumbbell-training

• 30 minutes of respiratory training (stretching, breathing techniques and yoga)

"Mental training helped patients realize in the early stages of exercise if they were exceeding their physical abilities. Patients often wanted to do more than they should," Grnig said.

Researchers conducted the study in the hospital for the first three weeks. For the last 12 weeks, researchers developed home-training programs for primary training group patients, supervised by phone every two weeks. After the first 15-week study period was completed, patients in the control group were invited to re-enter the study and participate in the same exercise training program as the primary training group.

All training group patients tolerated the exercise well and had no adverse events such as progression of symptoms of PH or right-sided heart failure.

"With low-dose exercise training, patients had better uptake of oxygen, which made the heart work less and allowed them to exercise more and feel better," Grnig said.

The average increase in walking-distance observed in this study was 96 meters (314.96 feet) after 15 weeks, similar to the effect of the medication specific for PH. Low-dose exercise and respiratory training significantly improved exercise capacity, quality of life, functional class and peak oxygen consumption, Grnig said.

Researchers found that the six-minute walking distance of the primary training group showed a significant increase compared with the control group after three weeks of treatment, and also after 15 weeks. Patients in the secondary training group also showed a significant increase in their six-minute walking distance after three weeks.

Grnig and colleagues said that the results show exercise training in patients with severe PH is beneficial psychologically and physically.

"Low-dose respiratory and exercise training may add to an optimized medical therapy. Nevertheless, for safety reasons exercise training should be started in the hospital and closely monitored in an outpatient setting. Cooperation between specialized centers for PH, rehabilitation clinics and general practitioners is necessary," said Grnig.

 



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A New Wrinkle: Botox Users May Become "Addicted"

Could Botox be addictive? A new study suggests the anti-wrinkle treatment may be

A New Wrinkle: Botox Users May Become Addicted...

Could Botox be addictive? A new study suggests the anti-wrinkle treatment, a growing favorite among baby boomers, might be so appealing that its users can't stop at one or two treatments.

A psychologist and plastic surgeon compiled the research, finding that four in ten people who use Botox have a compulsion to do so on a regular basis, to keep their more youthful appearance.

Botox is injected into the facial area, almost instantly smoothing out creases in the forehead and around the eyes. The problem is, its effects are not permanent.

After a period of months, the treatment begins to wear off, meaning the wrinkles begin to reappear. Some doctors report that patients return before the treatment has worn off, demanding additional injections. The typical Botox treatment lasts four to six months.

Dr Carter Singh, a psychologist at Britain's Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, and plastic surgeon Martin Kelly, of London Plastic Surgery Associates, recently presented their full findings at the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons conference in London.

The purpose of the study is to help plastic surgeons to spot the signs of "Botox addiction".

In the study, more than 50 percent of Boxox users said they felt they were unable to control their youthful appearance without getting additional Botox injections. They said getting the treatments made them feel younger too.

So far, there are no known detrimental health effects of prolonged Botox use and to date there have been no safety issues associated with the treatments. However, the study points out that there have been no studies of possible side effects.

Botox gets its name from a toxic nerve poison, the same bacteria that causes botulism.

Approved for the treatment of two eye muscle disorders in 1989, the Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for cosmetic uses in April 2002.

Botox works by blocking signals from the nerves to the muscles. The muscle injected with Botox can no longer contract, causing wrinkles to relax and disappear.

 



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Debt Free Agrees to West Virginia Refunds

More than 1,000 consumers will get refunds

Debt Free Agrees to West Virginia Refunds...

The State of West Virginia has reached a settlement with an Arizona-based credit counseling agency it accused of unlawfully charging state residents. Attorney General Darrell McGraw said the settlement with Debt Free will result in $300,000 in refunds to more than 1,000 consumers.

McGraw announced the settlement with Help Ministries Incorporated, which does business as Debt Free, a credit counseling agency based in Mesa, Arizona. Debt Free's primary service consisted of arranging monthly payment plans known as "debt management plans" to assist consumers facing dire financial circumstances.

West Virginia law caps the allowable fee for administering debt management plans at 7% of the monthly payment amount. However, McGraw said Debt Free previously charged monthly service fees in excess of 7% as well as a one-time "set-up" fee that was not distributed to creditors.

Debt Free also charged several other fees not permitted by West Virginia law, including a monthly fee for funds handling, a fee for "credit education," and an administrative fee of $20.00 for failed electronic debits.

McGraw's settlement with Debt Free marks the third such settlement that McGraw's office has reached with credit counseling companies in the last twelve months.

McGraw's office previously entered into settlements with Debt Management Credit Counseling Corp., of Boca Raton, Florida, and Cambridge Counseling Credit Corp. of Agawam, Massachusetts.

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Maine Train: A New Way to See Fall Foliage

Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads?

Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads? The Maine Eastern Railroad recommends a ride on the 57-mile stretch between Brunswick ...

Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads? The Maine Eastern Railroad recommends a ride on the 57-mile stretch between Brunswick and Rockland.

Scheduled to operate through the end of October, the line might stay in service longer if leaves are still on the trees. That happened in 2005.

The uncertain nature of nature creates challenges for Juanita Roberts, reservations manager for the passenger excursion line. Bookings are up and the phone rings constantly, she said, but she is doing her best to estimate when foliage will peak while making sure not to overbook the train.

The combination of fall foliage, coastal scenery, and a train ride makes the Maine Eastern an attractive alternative to jostling for space on country roads.

"What's better than watching the world go by from the comfort of an overstuffed, reclining seat?" she said. "The train is the most stress-free way to travel."

According to Maine's official fall foliage website, which updates conditions every Wednesday through Oct. 18, autumn colors will start to appear by the weekend of Sept. 23-24 and reach their peak between the second and third weeks of October.

This year's wet weather has helped, with above-average rainfall reported throughout the spring and in early summer and cooler-than-normal temperatures in August. Those conditions have produced a healthy tree canopy in each of the state's seven foliage tracking zones.

State forest and park rangers predict particularly vivid colors in Zone 1, covering mid-coast and south coastal Maine. At the moment, however, fall foliage is only 30 per cent of projected color in zones that cover all of extreme northern Maine and the western mountains.

There are 52 native species of leaf-producing trees in the state.

For further information, see www.mainefoliage.com or contact Maine Eastern Railroad (Tel. 866-MERAILS, 207-596-6725, www.maineeasternrailroad.com).


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U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access

Lack of Competition Leaves U.S. 16th Among Industrialized Nations

U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access...

The constant refrain of major telecommunications and cable companies is that there's "heavy competition" for the Internet user's dollar.

But "heavy competition" doesn't mean being able to choose only between Comcast and Verizon, and a newly published report reminds us that the United States still lags far behind the rest of the world in providing affordable broadband to its citizens.

"Broadband Reality Check II," an update to a report published last year by Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and media policy group Free Press, found that the United States continues to promote duopolies between major telecom and cable providers as real competition, that the level of Americans' access to the Internet can be severely restricted by income level and geographic area, and that the FCC uses misleading statistics to claim that competition is healthy for consumers.

"America appears to be a land of broadband haves and have-nots, where rural and low-income citizens are left behind in the information economy," the report stated. "This situation is the result of failed policy and a lack of imagination and vision from our policymakers."

Among the report's findings:

• The United States continues to rank 16th among industrialized nations for broadband development and penetration. Not only that, but broadband customers in countries such as Japan and South Korea enjoy broadband speeds that are hundreds of times faster, and can enjoy "bundled" television, phone, and Internet services for $25-$35 dollars, roughly the same price as a standalone U.S. broadband connection.

• The U.S. broadband market is "essentially a series of regional duopolies," with the top four cable and telephone companies -- Comcast, Verizon, AT&T;, and Time Warner -- controlling over 83 percent of the entire broadband market, while buyouts and mergers of companies like AT&T; and BellSouth serve to reduce actual competitive markets even more.

• The FCC continues to use ZIP codes that register one broadband provider as proof that broadband penetration is comprehensive across the U.S. But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the ZIP code method didn't account for the lack of more than one provider in any given region.

• The GAO also found that rural households and families with incomes of less than $30,000 were four times less likely to have broadband Internet access than urban households or those with incomes $75,000 and higher. A full third of American households are still stuck with dial-up as their only choice for Internet access.

The report comes at a time when telecommunications issues are very much on the minds of lawmakers. The massive update to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had many provisions to address broadband access, most of which favored the duopoly system, and seemed ready to pass both the House and Senate.

But consumer groups and technology companies were angered over the lack of protection for "net neutrality," the right of any Internet user or content provider to access the Interent on an equal footing with others. They launched a massive grassroots campaign that drew media attention to the cozy state of affairs for the telcos and cable companies

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), author of the Senate's version of the telecom bill, recently acknowledged that the bill was "all but dead" and would have to be partitioned into individual bills to have any chance of passing.

One portion of both the House and Senate bills addresses the concept of publicly-funded municipal wireless networks, or "Municipal Wi-Fi" for short. Although many cities and towns are developing their own wireless systems for free or low-cost use, heavy telecom lobbying has pushed 15 states to ban any sort of initiatives for Wi-Fi.

Telecom companies such as AT&T; are determined to roll-out high-speed broadband networks and provide platforms for "TV over Internet" services such as MobiTV. The company favors tiered pricing models that will enable only the richest clients to pay for the best service.

Critics fear that without truly affordable broadband and equal access to content, the "digital divide" between rich and poor will continue to grow, and the middle-class users will be stuck in the "slow lane" of Internet access.

As the authors of the "Broadband Reality Check" put it, "Faith-based policy and wishful thinking will not bring broadband to rural areas, and the repeated use of misleading data will not help low-income consumers afford broadband."

 

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Wal-Mart Ending Its Layaway Program

Wal-Mart Ending Its Layaway Program...

A tradition of American retailing, the layaway plan, is fading away at the nation's largest retailer. Wal-Mart has announced it is phasing out its layaway program because of increasing costs and declining use.

With the layaway plan, consumers who cannot afford to pay the full price of a particular item may put it on "layaway," picking it up and paying for it at a later date, when they have the money.

Wal-Mart said it is exploring other financing options to take the place of its layaway program.

"Demand for layaway service has declined steadily as consumers turn to other options, such as online shopping, gift cards and no-cost credit alternatives," said Pat Curran, a spokesman for Wal-Mart.

The retail giant said consumers who apply for a new Discover or Wal-Mart credit card will get $20 cash back if they purchase at least $100 on their card on the same day.

The company said customers can also make zero-interest payments on merchandise up to 12 months if they have a Wal-Mart account.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart competitor Kmart said it has no intention of doing away with its layaway program.

Kmart senior vice president Don Germano told Reuters that the layaway program is offered as a convenience to customers who have purchased an item as a gift and want to keep it a secret.

"Layaway service is a way for gift-givers to keep presents away from prying eyes," Germano said.

 

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FDA Critic Blasts Merck's Vioxx Replacement

Critic claims the new drug, Arcoxia, may be as risky for the heart as Vioxx

FDA Critic Blasts Merck's Vioxx Replacement...

With its once profitable Vioxx banned from the marketplace, Merck & Co. has developed a new painkiller to compete with the arthritis drug Celebrex. But David Graham, a Food and Drug Administration insider, claims the new drug, Arcoxia, may be as risky for the heart as Vioxx.

Graham aired his concerns in an editorial posted on the Journal of the American Medical Association's website. In characteristically blunt language, Graham accused the pharmaceutical giant of engaging in "misdirection and disinformation presented in the guise of science."

An editor's note on the site says the FDA gave its permission for Graham to write the editorial, but only as a private citizen, not as an agency employee. The editorial and the two studies it accompanies will run in the Oct. 4 JAMA, the editors said.

Graham, who is a doctor and works in the FDA's Office of Drug Safety, created headlines in 2004 when he told a Senate committee that the agency was "virtually defenseless" in preventing a "tragedy and profound regulatory failure" such as Vioxx.

Vioxx, a COX-2 inhibitor, was withdrawn from the market two years ago after it was shown to increase the risk of heart attach and stroke. At the time, it was the nation's best selling prescription arthritis medications, taken by millions of consumers. It has since become the object of thousands of liability lawsuits.

Merck's new drug, Arcoxia, is also a COX-2 inhibitor, but the company says it presents a lower risk of dangerous side effects that other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen.

The FDA, however, has still not made a final decision about Arcoxia. It has asked Merck for more data about its safety and effectiveness. Merck is currently selling Arcoxia in 62 other countries.

 



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Good Reasons to Wear a Bike Helmet

Good Reasons to Wear a Bike Helmet...

Wearing a bicycle helmet could save your life. That's the conclusion of an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctors in Seattle studied nearly 1,000 people injured while riding bicycles. They found that the most severe head injuries occurred in young people, and that wearing a helmet makes a huge difference.

Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and of brain injury by 88 percent.

So, get yourself a helmet before you start bicycling. A good quality helmet weighs less than half a pound. It should have a hard outer shell, at least a half inch of tough foam padding.

You can pick up a good-quality helmet for $20 to $80. Bike helmets look a bit funny and may seem inconvenient. On the other hand, they could save your life. In a serious fall, helmets can prevent severe head injuries and are very important to your health.

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Ford to Challenge GM for Single-Year Loss Record

Ford expects to lose as much as $9 billion for the year

Ford to Challenge GM for Single Year Loss Record...

When it comes to corporate losses, Ford Motor Co. may well surpass General Motors Corp. this year. Ford now projects its worldwide automotive operations will lose nearly $6 billion and the company as a whole could lose as much as $9 billion once restructuring costs taken into account.

While General Motors holds the record, losing $10.6 billion in 2005, the depth of Ford's losses will increase depending on how many workers take advantage of the company buyout offers, thus placing a new record for losses by an automaker in a single year within Ford's reach.

The projected loss would be a nearly six-fold increase over Ford's $1 billion pretax global automotive loss last year and illustrates the depth of the automaker's problems in its core car and truck business.

The forecast is in stark contrast to Ford's pledge in 2002 that it would make $7 billion in pretax profit by 2006.

The loss projections became public as Ford's Board of Directors met to discuss the pace and scope of efforts to turn the company's fortunes around. The board is considering more job cuts and plant closures but they do not plan to eliminate any of the ford brands.

Ford's North American auto business accounts for most of the projected $6 billion pretax loss. North American automotive operations posted a pretax loss of $1.6 billion in 2005.

Ford has lost U.S. market share for 10 straight years.

Ford seems to be following the financial road map GM drew when the automaker posted a $10.6 billion loss in 2005. GM stock took a huge hit but the company put its financial problems behind it and is moving forward with its own restructuring plan in 2006.

Despite the losses, Ford will still have $17 billion in cash.

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Feds Order Electronic Stability Control on All Cars

Automakers Have Until 2012 to Comply

Feds Order Electronic Stability Control on All Cars...


Federal regulators will require new automobiles to be equipped with anti-rollover technology know as electronic stability control (ESC) by 2012.

 

Auto safety experts describe stability control systems as the single most important vehicle safety improvement since the seat belt. ESC reduces the risk of all single-vehicle crashes by more than 40 percent and fatal crashes by 56 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

ESC systems use automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to help the driver maintain control in situations where a vehicle without ESC would skid out of control and likely leave the road.

Nearly all rollover crashes occur after a vehicle leaves the road.

The proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule would require all manufacturers to begin equipping passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds with ESC starting with the 2009 model year and to have the system available as standard equipment on all vehicles by the 2012 model year or September 2011 when the model year begins.

NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives annually and prevent between 168,000 and 252,000 injuries. ESC will prevent between 4,200 and 5,400 of the more than 10,000 deaths that occur each year as a result of rollover crashes, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA also estimates that ESC systems required by the proposed regulation will cost $111 per vehicle on vehicles that already include ABS brakes.

Ford Motor Co. has announced that it would put stability control on its entire lineup by the end of 2009 and General Motors Corp. is planning to have the technology on all vehicles by 2010. Several automakers have made ESC standard equipment on SUVs.

Safety advocates have said the technology represents a crucial development in making cars, trucks and SUVs safer.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer oriented Public Citizen and a former administrator at NHTSA warns that it is difficult to predict how many lives ESC could save.

"Until you get it into production and onto vehicles, you dont know how large the numbers are going to be," Claybrook said.

NHTSA announced the new regulation after two years of testing on more than 50 vehicles. Congress gave NHTSA until 2009 to issue a final regulation.

"We will need time to ensure that nothing in this proposed rule would inhibit our members to keep adding this life-saving technology to more and more vehicles," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president at the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, which represents General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp.

NHTSA also must decide if it will permit off-road vehicles like Jeeps to have on/off switches for ESC. While the system helps prevent accidents, it also inhibits performance, especially for off-road vehicles.

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Student Travel Service Still Misleading Parents

Students "Recommended" for Study Abroad? Not Quite

The nonprofit sends letters to families nationwide saying their student "has been recommended for the honor by a teacher, former student ambassador or nati...

 


Despite having its wrist slapped by the Iowa attorney general, consumers complain that People to People International is still misleading families about how their children are "selected" for study-aboard programs.

People to People is a nonprofit study-abroad program for children kindergarten through 12th grade. The nonprofit sends letters to families nationwide saying their student "has been recommended for the honor by a teacher, former student ambassador or national academic listing."

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said this was misleading after his office received a complaint from an Iowa mother who received a letter (image below) saying her son, who died in 1993 at seven weeks of age, had been "recommended."

"We understand a student generally must pay about $5,000 to go on one of the trips abroad," Miller said in a prepared statement. "We conveyed our concern to People to People that parents who are induced to believe that their child was selected on merit are potentially misled, and may be improperly manipulated into making substantial expenditures they might otherwise decline to make."

As a result, People to People agreed to take out the offending sentence in their letters to Iowans and they also donated $20,000 to Blank Children's Hospital and $5,000 to the Iowa SIDS Foundation -- charities supported by the family of the child who died in 1993.

However, People to People apparently feels no real remorse.

"I received a letter today (9/9/2006) from People to People International that my 10-year-old son had been invited to travel and study in Australia in 2007," wrote Cherie of Hemlock, N.Y. "It stated that he has been named for the honor by a teacher, former student ambassador or national academic listing.

"I read your article about the mother whose deceased child received the same honor and that People to People agreed to revise their letters," Cherie continued. "People to People sent my son the same letter -- it has not been revised. ... I feel that People to People are deceiving us by saying that our children have been named for the honor when most likely they bought the name from a mailing list."

In a letter to People to People's lawyer, Miller's assistant attorney general, Steve St. Clair wrote, "We ultimately determined that one of the ways students are 'selected' to receive an invitation from People to People is through a comprehensive national listing of persons projected to be students within a targeted age range. This explains why the mother of the infant who died a dozen years ago received an invitation, even though her child was never a student, let alone an 'outstanding' student recommended for an 'honor.'"

"We thought it was misleading," said Bob Brammer, Miller's spokesperson. Brammer said he hopes that media coverage will force People to People to end their misleading practices in other states.

"What happened in Iowa is happening elsewhere," Brammer said.

People to People did not return three phone calls seeking comment about its practices.

To help stop People to People's misleading practices, consumers who receive letters from the organization should contact their state's attorney general and file a complaint with ConsumerAffairs.com. All complaints are reviewed by class action attorneys and are furnished to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors upon request.

 

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Lower Mortality Found Among Japanese Green Tea Drinkers

Another study found that drinking tea is a healthier choice than almost any beverage

Lower Mortality Found Among Japanese Green Tea Drinkers...

Adults in Japan who consumed higher amounts of green tea had a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, according to a study in the current issue of JAMA. But there was no link between green tea consumption and a reduced risk of death due to cancer.

Just last month, a European study found that drinking tea is a healthier choice than almost any beverage, including pure water.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world aside from water, with three billion kilograms of tea produced each year worldwide. Because of the high rates of tea consumption in the global population, even small effects in humans could have large implications for public health.

Among teas, green tea polyphenols have been extensively studied as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer chemopreventive agents.

Although substantial evidence from in vitro and animal studies indicates that green tea preparations may impede CVD and carcinogenic processes, the possible protective role of green tea consumption against these diseases in humans remains unclear.

Shinichi Kuriyama, M.D., Ph.D., of the Tohoku University School of Public Policy, Sendai, Japan, and colleagues examined the association between green tea consumption and mortality (death rate) due to all causes, CVD, and cancer within a large population.

The study, initiated in 1994, included 40,530 adults (age 40 to 79 years) in northeastern Japan, where green tea is widely consumed. Within this region, 80 percent of the population drinks green tea and more than half of them consume 3 or more cups a day.

The participants, who had no history of stroke, coronary heart disease, or cancer at baseline, were followed for up to 11 years (1995-2005) for all-cause death and for up to 7 years (1995-2001) for cause-specific death.

Over 11 years of follow-up, 4,209 participants died, and over 7 years of follow-up, 892 participants died of cardiovascular disease and 1,134 participants died of cancer. The researchers found that green tea consumption was inversely associated with death due to all causes and due to cardiovascular disease.

Compared with participants who consumed less than 1 cup per day of green tea, those who consumed 5 or more cups per day had a risk of all-cause mortality and CVD mortality that was 16 percent lower (during 11 years of follow-up) and 26 percent lower (during 7 years of follow-up), respectively.

These inverse associations of all-cause and CVD mortality were stronger among women, although the inverse association for green tea consumption was observed in both sexes.

The researchers found there no significant association between green tea consumption and death from cancer. There were weak or neutral relationships between black tea or oolong tea and mortality.

"Clinical trials are ultimately necessary to confirm the protective effect of green tea on mortality," the authors write.

 



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Hackers Make Off With "Second Life" Data

The hackers made off with members' names, addresses, contact information, and "encrypted payment information," according to a statement posted on Linden La...


Players of the popular "virtual world" online roleplaying game "Second Life" got a nasty bit of real-life news when the company that owns the game was hit with a database hack affecting all 600,000-plus members of the community.

Linden Labs, creators of Second Life, announced that their payment database had been hacked on September 6th.

The hackers made off with members' names, addresses, contact information, and "encrypted payment information," according to a statement posted on Linden Labs' blog. The company claimed that no "unencrypted credit card information" had been stolen.

Linden Labs claimed to have shut down the hacker exploit as soon as it was discovered, and told members that they would need to reset their passwords by answering specific security questions.

Linden Labs did not specify how the hack was achieved, and TechCrunch's Marshall Kilpatrick theorized this might be due to the company wanting to avoid embarrassment, as well as future incidents using the same methods.

"The company was hesitant to disclose information about the breach, the data put at risk and the company's architecture for fear that such information could make future exploits easier to perform," he said.

Second Life is one of many massive multiplayer online games ("MMOGs") where players can create new identities, build online businesses, and engage in all manner of interesting behaviors, some of which the players might want kept private.

Much like the release of AOL's search data on its users, publicizing the account information stolen from Second Life could lead to all manner of embarrassing revelations as to what the players really get up to in the virtual world.

Second Life's breach could be particularly serious, due to the ease with which players can set up online businesses and sell items that can be converted into real-world dollars. Because "residents" of Second Life own the rights to their creations within the game, they can earn profits from hawking all sorts of wares within the online universe.

Blizzard Entertainment, makers of No.1 MMOG World of Warcraft, demonstrated the potential privacy dangers in online roleplaying games when they installed a monitoring program on players' computers called "The Warden." The program, designed to alert Blizzard to signs of cheating or abuse, enabled programmers to have access to almost any program on a player's machine.

Several World of Warcraft players were able to use yet another privacy-violating program, the infamous Sony rootkit, to circumvent "The Warden" and practically any other form of online monitoring.

In discussing the Second Life breach, AOL blogger Vladimir Cole said, "Gamers haven't been paying much attention to privacy of in-game communications. Given how intimate some of those communications have become, maybe it's time for more scrutiny of privacy protection measures taken by MMOG providers."

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Consumers Falling For Lottery Scams In Increasing Numbers

While elderly people lost the most money, lottery scams also tricked younger people

Consumers Falling For Lottery Scams In Increasing Numbers...

More than 400 New Yorkers have fallen victim to sweepstakes and lottery scams in the past seven months with losses ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $35,000, according to an analysis by the New York State Consumer Protection Board.

While elderly people lost the most money, lottery scams also tricked younger people into believing they had won a large cash prize from a foreign lottery or sweepstakes.

In each case, the victims sent money usually to Canada -- thinking they had to pay insurance or taxes before they could collect these bogus prizes.

"No legitimate contest makes you pay a fee to collect a prize," said CPB Chairperson and Executive Director Teresa A. Santiago. "For many of the elderly victims, the scam artists made multiple demands for cash, falsely claiming that more money was needed in order to pay for 'taxes' or insurance."

Sons and daughters have filed complaints after failing to convince their elderly parent that there was no prize.

"You can't win a contest that you didn't enter. But it's hard to convince someone that they are the victim of a scam, especially when the con artists have made numerous phone calls and formed a bond with the victim," Santiago said.

"Elderly victims will receive phone call after phone call or multiple letters and emails, each promising that the large cash prize will soon be delivered," said Santiago. "But there's always another delay and always a demand for another payment."

Another common scam involves the mailing of a bogus check.

The recipient is told to deposit the check in their bank and then wire a smaller amount back to the scam artists. Several days later, the bogus check bounces and the victim's money is gone.

Once someone loses money in a lottery scam, their name, address, phone numbers and other personal information are sold, leaving these consumers vulnerable to another scam.

Many people, especially senior citizens, have been victimized by more than one sweepstakes scam, according to the CPB.

"The only way you can win with these phony contests is to not respond to them," Santiago said.

 

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"Thin-Film" Batteries May Reduce Fire Danger

Recent Laptop Recalls Energize Battery Research

Thin-Film Batteries May Reduce Fire Danger...



A new, safer battery technology called thin-film, may be replacing the somewhat volatile lithium-ion battery. The recent Dell, Apple and Panasonic recalls of almost 6 million laptop batteries has had a catalytic affect on thin-film battery research.

Thin-film batteries have a solid lithium core compared to the liquid core of the lithium-ion batteries. That solid core makes them less vulnerable to overheating and they can be fully discharged and recharged well more than 10,000 times.

"In comparison, a typical Li-ion battery can only be cycled about 300-500 times without significant degradation in capacity," Infinite Power Solutions spokesman, Tim Bradow wrote in an e-mail.

Infinite Power Solutions (IPS), a battery company in Golden, Colo. announced yesterday that it has received $34.7 million in investments from private firms that will allow the company to begin production of thin-film batteries next year.

"This new capital will enable us to scale our technology, build state-of-the-art fabs, and ramp to high volume production," Raymond Johnson, president and CEO of IPS said in a prepared statement.

Lithium-ion batteries can generate a tremendous amount of heat while charging and can occasionally burst into flames under the right conditions. ConsumerAffairs.com reported on how the batteries in Dell laptops possibly caught a man's truck on fire and even burned another man's house down. Even the lithium-ion batteries in cell phones are suspect to overheating and fire. Thin-film batteries do not pose a fire hazard.

"Because they have a solid-state electrolyte, they will not freeze or boil," wrote Bradow. "Therefore, they continue to work at very cold temps (-50C) and will not rupture or explode at very high temps (>200C). They are fabricated in a vacuum environment, so they will not outgas in a high temp environment. They will not burn. In fact, even under a direct short circuit condition, the temperature of single cell only increases 1C. Therefore, it is impossible to over heat and start a fire."


However, analysts say it could be many years before thin-film could completely replace lithium-ion.

"There is not one piece of consumer or enterprise technology that can run on thin-film battery technology," Carmi Levy, senior research analyst with Infotech Research Group in London, Ontario told The New York Times. "Every piece of circuitry must be fully re-engineered. It is a Herculean engineering feat to switch over to this."

As a result, the thin-film industry is focusing on enterprise technology markets to begin with such as radio-frequency identity (RFID) tags, smart cards, military equipment, surgical devices such as pacemakers and temperature and pressure gauges in car tires.

"It will take time to ramp production and license our technology to others for high volume manufacturing," wrote Bradow.

Thin-film batteries are extremely versatile. They can be smaller than a postage stamp and about twice its thickness, can be manufactured in various shapes and can be attached directly to a microchip.

The batteries can also have a long charge life. After being charged they can go into a standby mode for months without leaking any power. That long life would be useful for many applications including implanted surgical devices and missiles that are stored in silos for years without any activity.

"The end user will not see the battery, nor will they need to because it never needs replacement, only recharging," wrote Bradow.

Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research in Lexington, Mass. has high hopes for the technology. She told the Times that with increasing cell phone sales and uses for RFID tags, the market for thin-film battery sales should approach 10 billion units by 2012.

Sony, Apple and Dell did not return phone calls for comment.

 

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Chase Trashes Tapes Containing Circuit City Customers' Data

Chase Trashes Tapes Containing Circuit City Customers' Data...

If it's Friday, it's time for another embarrassing case of companies losing data containing sensitive personal information. This time it's financial titan J.P. Morgan Chase, which tossed away five computer tapes containing data on holders of Circuit City credit cards, co-branded and sponsored by Chase.

Chase Card Services, the financial giant's credit card division, is currently notifying 2.6 million current and former Circuit City cardholders that "human error" caused the tapes to be mistakenly thrown out in late July.

Chase claims the tapes may have been destroyed and buried in a landfill, and is currently investigating to determine their ultimate fate.

In a public statement, Chase Card Services CEO Rich Srendicki expressed his regret at the mistake.

"We have found no evidence that the tapes or their contents have been accessed or misused. The privacy of our customers' personal information is of utmost importance to us, and we take the responsibility to safeguard this information very seriously," he said.

Chase discovered the incident during a regular systems audit in July, and had been monitoring affected accounts since then. Neither Srednicki nor other Chase officials revealed where the breach took place, or why the public and media were not notified until mid-September.

Nor was any information provided as to whether or not the data was encrypted or protected in any way.

Techworld's Chris Mellor called the Chase incident "an amazing display of incompetence."

Circuit City did not offer a statement regarding the loss, but a spokesman told Reuters that it was essentially Chase's problem.

"We certainly empathize with the affected cardholders, but this is a business that is administered by Chase," they said.

Although hackers and phishers represent serious threats to the safety of personal data, the number-one cause of identity theft and fraud is still the loss or theft of physical files or documents containing consumers' personal information.

Enterprising thieves "dumpster dive" for shredded credit card offers, laptop and desktop computers get stolen, and companies lose security tapes containing all manner of identifying information.

Blockbuster was criticized for tossing thousands of membership applications containing valuable personal information, including addresses and Social Security numbers, in trash bags on the sidewalk when it shuttered a New York City store in October 2005.

The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram-Gazette distributed the credit card information of over 240,000 subscribers to the public when they recycled internal reporting slips and packed them with their newspaper bundles.

And the list of consumers endangered by the theft of computers or storage devices containing sensitive, unencrypted, identifying personal data stretches into the tens of millions.

 

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TSA Sends Employee Data to the Wrong Addresses

TSA Sends Employee Data to the Wrong Addresses...


The error-prone Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says one of its contractors sent former employees' personal documents to the wrong addresses.

The agency said that Accenture, a global technology consulting firm that was contracted to the TSA, had mistakenly mailed nearly 1,200 former employees documents on other employees, including personal information such as names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and salary information.

The TSA notified affected former employees by mail in late August. Neither the TSA or Accenture offered a statement explaining or apologizing for the error, though the TSA counseled employees to put fraud alerts on their credit files.

Accenture, which bills itself as "delivering high performance," has high-level outsourcing relationships with many influential businesses and government agencies. The company recently won a high-profile partnership contract to automate data collection for the U.S. Census Bureau.

The mail mixup is the latest in a series of privacy-related snafus for the TSA. The agency came under fire when another contractor collected personal data on airline passengers to bolster the profiles in the TSA's "Secure Flight" screening program.

"Secure Flight" has been repeatedly delayed, most recently after a scathing Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found numerous vulnerabilities in the hardware and software systems powering the program.

The TSA's existing "terrorist watch lists" are riddled with errors and mistakes, leading many average air travelers to be detained at airport checkpoints simply for being included on the list.

TSA launched its "Registered Traveler" pilot program last year, enabling passengers to pay a fee and be "prescreened" by the TSA for potential risks in order to bypass long waits at the airport. The program has met with general public approval, but privacy advocates remain concerned as to what TSA may do with the data it's collecting from registrants.

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GM Extends Warranty to Five Years, 100,000 Miles

Automaker Hopes to Improve Image, Sell Quality

GM Extends Warranty to Five Years, 100,000 Miles...

General Motorsis increasing the powertrain warranty on all of its 2007 passenger vehicles to five years and 100,000 miles.

"At GM today, we believe in our cars and trucks," GM CEO Rick Wagoner Wagoner said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is."

The increase, from the previous warranty of three years and 36,000 miles begins immediately and covers 900 engine, transmission and driveline components.

"This isn't going to be cheap, but we think it's going to be more effective for where we are today," GM CEO Rick Wagoner said at a press conference. "We think it's manageable within the cost conditions we've laid out."

GM sales continue to struggle as the company fights an image of poor vehicle quality aas well as the customer perception that many import brands, particularly from Japan, are better built. The automaker is counting on the expanded warranty to help ease that perceived quality gap between GM vehicles and those of its rivals.

GM will also expand its roadside assistance and courtesy vehicle programs and the new warranties carry deductibles and can be transferred.

The powertrain warranty will be in addition to the current three-year, 36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper guarantees. Buick, Cadillac, Hummer and Saab currently carry four-year, 50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper coverage.

In July, Ford Motor Co. extended its powertrain warranties by up to two years on 2007 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models.

GM currently offers a 36-month, 36,000 mile warranty on most of its vehicles.

Some Korean automakers such as Hyundai, which has also faced consumer perception problems, offers a 5-year, 60,000 warranty on just about all parts of its vehicles, along with a 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty on its powertrain.

 

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Health Care Agencies Violate Patients' Privacy

GAO: 40% of Insurers, Medicare/Medicaid Offices Lost Data

Health Care Agencies Violate Patients' Privacy...


As the federal government pushes harder for electronic sharing and storage of medical records, privacy and security advocates have been raising concerns about the potential for data breaches and misuse and a new government report supports those fears.

A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that privacy breaches have been rampant among state, national, and military health care agency contractors since 2004.

According to the GAO report, 40 percent of health insurance contractors and state Medicare/Medicaid offices experienced data breaches in the last two years.

The report also found that vendors contracted to provide health technology needs heavily outsourced their work to other contractors, many of whom may have been outside the United States.

Although the agencies surveyed rarely outsourced their work offshore directly, "[s]ome federal contractors and state Medicaid agencies did not always know whether their domestic vendors engaged in further transfers of personal health information domestically or offshore. Others indicated that they did not have mechanisms in place to obtain such information," the report said.

Among the report's findings:

• One privacy breach occurred in 2004 when a vendor tasked to collect data from patient surveys in California outsourced the task to another vendor, who designed the survey in such a way that patients could see others' personal information. An offshore vendor for another project blackmailed the agency with threats of disclosing patients' personal information unless they received payment for their transcription services.

• The agencies overseeing the Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE military health programs have differing requirements for reporting privacy breaches. While the TRICARE Management Agency (TMA) required notification of privacy breaches from all of its contractors, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) did not require it from Medicare Advantage plan contractors or state Medicaid agencies. In comments appended to the report, CMS concurred with the findings and detailed its plans to improve practices.

• The GAO recommended that the agencies extend their privacy practices to all contractors and subcontractors, and perform regular monitoring and oversight of every vendor they use to ensure compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the 1974 Privacy Act, both of which regulate government agencies' collection of personal and medical data.

"We believe that federal contractors and state Medicaid agencies should be held accountable for how well personal health information, held by them or disclosed to their vendors, is protected," the report concluded.

It's not the first time the GAO has taken government agencies to task for failing to secure Americans' personal data in their operations.

A September 2005 report found that while agencies such as the IRS and FBI had authorized some data privacy regulations, none of the agencies surveyed had fully implemented all of the necessary rules to ensure privacy needs were met.

A January 2006 report found that government agencies had vastly different requirements for the handling of Social Security numbers by contract vendors the agencies outsourced business to. This led to "gaps in oversight," and potential dangers for data breaches.

In the wake of the massive Veterans' Administration data breach stemming from the theft of a laptop, government agencies have said they are scrambling to lock down data and institute new privacy and security safeguards. But the number of reported breaches indicates there is still much more work to be done.



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Scamster Ran Identity Theft Scheme From Prison

Michigan Inmate Used Stolen IDs to Bogus Tax Refunds

Scamster Ran Identity Theft Scheme From Prison: Dale Morris, 42, was convicted of maintaining a sophisticated criminal enterprise that he orchestrated from...


The digital age enables telecommuting by all kinds of knowledge workers -- unfortunately including those enaged in criminal enterprises.

An inmate at the Hiawatha Correctional Facility in Kinross, Michigan, was sentenced to 5 to 20 years in the Chippewa County Circuit Court by 50th Circuit Court Judge Nicholas Lambros, according to Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Dale Morris, 42, was convicted of maintaining a sophisticated criminal enterprise that he orchestrated from his Michigan prison cell. Morris' scheme enlisted the help of two fellow Michigan inmates, Darius Moye and Richard Custer, their mothers, Mary Moye of Georgia and Linda Custer of Detroit, David Bullard of Inkster, and Sherry Drake of Detroit.

The scheme involved the attempted use of thousands of stolen names and social security numbers, including several hundred stolen from the St. John's Medical System in Detroit, to defraud Michigan taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of State tax dollars. The hospital records were later seized in Georgia in Ms. Moye's home.

"The sheer brazenness of this criminal enterprise is incredible," Cox said. "It just goes to show that law enforcement always has to be vigilant."

Morris, in prison as a 4th Habitual Offender (convicted of 3 prior felony convictions), was the ringleader of the scheme to obtain Homestead Property Tax refunds that were intended for low income renters.

While in prison, Morris' directed his co-conspirators to file hundreds of false homestead property tax claims with the Michigan Department of Treasury. These fraudulent filings, which used stolen names and social security numbers, claimed to be low-income renters in Detroit.

Hundreds of Michigan Treasury check "refunds" were in the process of being sent to various addresses in Detroit, many of which were non-existent, but all had a change of address form filed with the U.S. Post Office directing the checks to a Livonia P.O. Box. The P.O. Box was rented by Exarch Management Consultants -- which was incorporated by Morris while he was in prison.

U.S. postal carriers noticed the large number of Treasury checks going to the Livonia P.O. Box and alerted authorities. The Michigan State Police, U.S. Postal Inspectors, and the Michigan Attorney General's Office unraveled the scheme quickly and charged all participants with maintaining a continuing criminal enterprise, a 20-year felony, and filing false tax claims, a 5-year felony.

When the defendants were arrested, thousands of additional tax claims were in the process of being filed. Had this fraud continued, the defendants would have defrauded the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Salads Not Just Rabbit Food; Study Confirms Salad's Nutritional Benefits

Study Confirms Salad's Nutritional Benefits

Salads Not Just Rabbit Food; Study Confirms Salad's Nutritional Benefits...


Researchers at UCLA and Louisiana State University say it's fine to go ahead and indulge at the salad bar because "rabbit food" is nutritious for people, too.

Their new study of dietary data on more than 17,500 men and women finds consumption of salad and raw vegetables correlates with higher concentrations of folic acid, vitamins C and E, lycopene and alpha and beta carotene in the bloodstream.

Published in the September edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the study also suggests that each serving of salad consumed correlates with a 165 percent higher likelihood of meeting recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for vitamin C in women and 119 percent greater likelihood in men.

The study is the first to examine the relationship between normal salad consumption and nutrient levels in the bloodstream, and also the first to examine the dietary adequacy of salad consumption using the latest nutritional guidelines of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings blunt concerns about the human body's ability to absorb nutrients from raw vegetables, as well as concern that the structure and characteristics of some plants undercut nutritional value.

"The consistently higher levels of certain nutrients in the bloodstream of salad-eaters suggest these important components of a healthy diet are being well-absorbed from salad," said Lenore Arab, visiting professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and co-author of the study with L. Joseph Su, assistant professor at the LSU School of Public Health.

"The findings endorse consumption of salad and raw vegetables as an effective strategy for increasing intake of important nutrients. Unfortunately, we also found daily salad consumption is not the norm in any group, and is even less prevalent among African Americans," Arab said.

"We have so many food choices in this county. Increasing vegetable consumption is a wise strategy for composing a nutrient rich diet," she added. "In fact, our findings suggest that eating just one serving of salad or raw vegetables per day significantly boosts the likelihood of meeting the recommended daily intake of certain nutrients."

The study examined the relationship between reported salad consumption and blood serum nutrient levels, as well as dietary adequacy in pre- and post-menopausal women and men of comparable ages.

Salad consumption was based on reported intake of salad, raw vegetables and salad dressing. Laboratory measurements determined levels of nutrients in blood serum. Associations between salad consumption and serum nutrient levels were determined using statistical regression models. Measurements were adjusted to account for age, exercise, anti-cholesterol medication, smoking and other variables.



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Fast Food and Your Kids

Ronald McDonald, the fast food company's "chief happiness officer," as he's known, is now at the forefront of a campaign to teach kids about healthy eating...


Fast Food and Your KidsI was watching television the other day and rubbed my eyes when on came Ronald McDonald juggling fruit and riding a skateboard. The fast food company's "chief happiness officer," as he's known, is now at the forefront of a campaign to teach kids about healthy eating.

"He's encouraging children to get up on their feet and start moving. So if he is going to teach this, Ronald has to start moving himself," a spokesperson from McDonald's recently explained.

Soon after I learned that new to the McDonald's menu is an Asian salad made of orange-glazed chicken, snow peas, red peppers, mandarin oranges, almonds and green soy beans. And adults who order the menu are given a 15-minute DVD on the benefits of a daily yoga practice.

I think it was about then that I broke down in hysterical laughter. A fast food chain teaching healthy living? What's next -- George Bush promoting renewable energy resources?

Yet it seems that McDonald's, along with Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken (they call themselves KFC so you forget about the "fried" part) and Pizza Hut have all jumped on the healthy eating bandwagon. The message has finally gotten through to the American public that eating large doses of saturated fat, salt and sugar might actually be bad for you.

A Reluctant Move

It has to be said that the move towards healthier eating has been a reluctant one on the part of the fast food corporations. Having survived scandals in the past about allegations of promoting slash and burn policies in the Brazilian rainforests for the cultivation of beef and soya, for a while all was well on the US fast food front. A burger, shake and fries to go were all part of the indisputable American way.

Then along came Morgan Spurlock of "Super Size Me" and spoiled the party by spending an entire month eating nothing but items from the McDonald's menu.

In less than a month Spurlock gained 27 pounds and was warned by his doctor that his liver was "turning into pate." For the first time in the history of America's original fast food chain, consumers were presented with the evidence of what they were letting themselves in for when they went for a Big Mac and fries.

Spurlock himself was inspired by the lawsuits of recent years where obese citizens had begun to sue fast food chains, claiming that their deceptive menus, absence of nutritional information and lack of healthy alternatives forced them into becoming dangerously overweight.

The fast food chains can handle this kind of attention-seeking litigation but they've been fast to get with the times by introducing new, healthier salads and fruit options on their menus.

KFC went one step further by turning the argument on its head and claimed that eating fried chicken was actually part of a healthy lifestyle. After all, in your average chicken breast there are only 3 grams of fat.

KFC was eventually embarrassed into pulling the ads, though, after public health organizations pointed out that very few customers ate their chicken without the skin, breadcrumbs and sauces.

Obesity Pandemic

For all of that, obesity rates in America continue to soar (an increase of 75% in the last ten years alone) and there's little doubt that fast food plays an important role in the epidemic.

Burger and pizza outlets are clustered in close concentration around schools, low income housing, even hospitals -- go figure. In fact, the lack of choice has moved some, like New York City Councilman Joel Rivera, to demand that fast food restaurants be thinned out to make way for healthier options.

But what about all the new menus? Surely now consumers have the choice to eat healthily if they want to? No one is forcing the public to supersize their burgers and fries when they could be snacking on a fresh salad, right?

Sadly, just calling an item on the menu a "salad" doesn't make it automatically healthy. Check out Burger King's Chicken Caeser Salad with croutons and Parmasan cheese -- it comes in at 27 grams of fat, 70mg of cholesterol and 18 grams of salt (that's about your recommended daily limit).

Still, leave it to McDonald's to lead the way in deceptive menus: their Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch salad comes in at 51 grams of fat, 85 mg of cholesterol and 15.7 grams of salt. One wonders whether the medical staff would let Ronald McDonald into the emergency room in his clown outfit when he keels over with cardiac arrest.

And while there are now slices of fruit available on many McDonald's menus, not everyone has quite got the idea that a bit of apple doesn't repair the damage done by a double cheeseburger.

I was in an airport recently in South Carolina and had to blink as I saw 2 ladies in their 50's request to be shuttled across to their entrance gate as they were too overweight to walk there. Of course, the ride left their hands free to open the dressings on their takeaway salads.

That the new salads are mostly health disasters should come as no great surprise when one considers the history of fast food corporations, McDonald's in particular.

In 1990 McDonald's finally owned up to using beef flavoring to cook their fries and ended up paying $10 million to vegetarian organizations, Hindu and Sikh groups, whose religious values were explicitly violated by the hidden ingredient.

In fact, though McDonald's was finally pushed into listing the ingredients and dietary values of their food, they haven't been all that good at it. While they originally claimed their fries only contained 6 grams of trans-fat (fat treated with hydrogen and thought to increase the risk of heart disease), they were eventually forced to admit that the real numbers were 8 grams per serving.

In either case, the American government considers trans fat so dangerous that it recommends a maximum of 2 grams a day.

It should of course come as no big surprise from a company that once argued in court that they were allowed to call their food nutritious because it "contained nutrients." When asked to name a food that didn't contain any nutrients they hesitantly suggested "black tea."

Still, head to McDonald's website and you'll be overwhelmed by their concern for healthy lifestyles. They're sponsoring the Fifa soccer world cup, organising Olympic fun runs and encouraging kids to "get active." The theory presumably being that if you burn off enough calories by hopping about then you can afford to digest a Big Mac.

Oprah's Trainer

And if that wasn't enough, then they're proud to announce they have Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer on board whose values of "honesty, responsibility, commitment and inner strength" are all you need to get healthy. Note he doesn't recommend that you try any of the chicken salads along the way.

For an anthropological experiment I went down to a McDonald's one day and ordered a small iced tea, the safest item on the menu. Around 25% of Americans eat fast food every day and I wanted to understand why. The seats were comfortable but not too comfortable, proving a welcoming feel but encouraging you not too linger too long. The prices were low, the service was fast and everywhere there were happy customers eating fried food.

Why do we eat food that is so evidently bad for us?

The answer is simple: It tastes good.

We're encouraged by television from an early age to develop a brand loyalty and we just don't understand how bad fast food is for us. The food is processed and packaged in such a way that most of the flavor is irradicated and so is then pumped full of chemical flavoring from plants in New Jersey to make every burger and fries taste the same. In your average burger there are strips of beef from dozens of cows from many different regions. How much weirder could food get?

Fast Food Nation

We're about to find out. An adaptation of Eric Schlosser's ground-breaking book "Fast Food Nation" is about to hit the cinemas, based around workers at Mikey's, a thinly-disguised model for McDonald's. Expect the beef tallow to hit the fan soon. Chemical flavoring, environmental damage, exploitation of workers and animals are just a few of the charges the film raises.

And, just as fast food chains target kids, there's now a book, "Chew On This," to help children understand just what the menu holds for them.

"The food you eat ... helps determine whether you'll be short or tall, weak or strong, thin or fat. It helps determine whether you will enjoy a long, healthy life or die young.

"So why is it that most people don't think about fast food or know much about it?

"The simple answer is this: the companies that sell fast food don't want you to think about it. They don't want you to know where it comes from or how it's made. They just want you to buy it."

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Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.

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