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Sen. Clinton Targets Child Identity Theft

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) says she will add protection against the theft of children's identities to new legislation she is introducing to prevent debit ...


Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) says she will add protection against the theft of children's identities to new legislation she is introducing to prevent debit card fraud.

Identity thieves are increasingly turning to pilfering the information of young children in order to pull off their scams, Clinton said. The dangerous tactic uses children's personal data to open up new credit accounts and rack up thousands in debt.

Clinton said she knew of a case where a thief used a seven-year-old's identity to purchase a $40,000 houseboat.

The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center estimates that as many as 500,000 American children may have been victimized by fraud or identity theft in 2005. The Federal Trade Commission says the number is closer to 400,000.

Children and young adults are prime targets for identity thieves as they may have unblemished credit records, or no credit records at all.

Common tactics include parents using childrens' Social Security numbers to open up new credit accounts, and "dumpster diving" thieves stealing credit offers mistakenly sent to children too young to make use of them.

Victims often remain ignorant of their identities being misused until they start receiving collection notices for unpaid bills on accounts they don't recognize, as well as pre-approved credit offers.

Under her legislation, credit card companies would have to verify the age of any new applicant for credit before approving or denying the claim. Companies that failed to verify applicants' ages would be fined.

The new legislation is part of Clinton's "Debit and Check Card Consumer Protection Act of 2006." The bill would extend the anti-fraud protections for credit cards to debit and check cards, including the limitation of liability for fraudulent purchases to $50.

Under current liability law, consumers whose debit cards are used fraudulently can be liable for as much as $500 if the fraud isn't reported in two business days or less. Many banks and credit unions extend zero-liability protection to debit card users, but the practice varies according to the bank or credit union in question.

Debit card users would also have the right to "charge back" purchases made with their cards if they were dissatisfied with the merchandise under Clinton's bill.

What You Can Do

• Keep your child's Social Security card and information locked up in a safe or strongbox. Do not carry it or share it with anyone outside the household.

• Ask to have your child's Social Security number obscured or removed from insurance or medical documents.

• Don't give your child's Social Security number to them until they're old enough to understand what it is and why they need it.

• Check both yours and your child's credit reports regularly for any signs of fraud or unidentified accounts.

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Pittsburgh Man Arrested in MySpace Sex Case

Dustin Pawlicki sent a series of sexually graphic email messages to a 14-year old whom he located by browsing through personal profiles on the MySpace webs...

Agents from the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Child Predator Unit have arrested a Pittsburgh man accused of using the MySpace social networking website to sexually proposition a 14-year old girl. The same suspect was also charged with possessing illegal child pornography on his computer.

According to the criminal charges, Dustin Pawlicki sent a series of sexually graphic email messages to a 14-year old whom he located by browsing through personal profiles on the MySpace website.

After learning that the girl was from Allegheny County, Pawlicki allegedly proposed that they meet for the purpose of having sex.

Attorney General Tom Corbett explained that while Pawlicki was allegedly communicating online with the 14-year-old girl, he was free on bail following an earlier "Internet child sex sting" by the Attorney General's Child Predator Unit.

On June 14, 2006 agents arrested Pawlicki after he traveled to North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, to have sex with an undercover agent that he believed was a 13-year old girl.

Corbett noted that as conditions for his release on bail following the June arrest, Pawlicki was specifically ordered not to have any contact a minor and not to use a computer.

According to the criminal charges, Pawlicki visited the MySpace site and contacted the 14-year old girl four times between Aug. 29 and Sept. 15, 2006. Pawlicki allegedly contacted the girl using a computer at an electronics store in the mall where he worked.

Pawlicki was charged with criminal solicitation to have unlawful contact with a minor, a second-degree felony punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine, along with criminal use of a computer, a third-degree felony punishable by up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Corbett said that Pawlicki also has been charged with possession of illegal child pornography, based on a search of a computer that was seized following his June 2006 arrest.

A detailed analysis of that computer by the Attorney General's Computer Forensics Unit identified two items of suspected illegal child pornography -- both videos allegedly depicting children under the age of 18 either nude or engaging in sexual activity.

Pawlicki is charged with one count of sexual abuse of children related to the suspected child pornography discovered on his computer. That charge is a third-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Pawlicki currently is awaiting trial on the criminal charges filed against him on June 14, 2006, including criminal solicitation of unlawful contact with a minor, criminal use of a computer and criminal attempted obscene performances.

 

 

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Worried About Outliving Your Assets?

Longer Lifespans Increase the Risk of Outliving Your Money

Worried About Outliving Your Assets?...

This is one of those "good news, bad news" stories. The good news is that overall we're living longer. The bad news is that some of us are going to run out of money before we die.

This is increasingly becoming a concern for baby boomers just entering their retirement years. In fact, there's even a financial term for it -- "longevity risk" and it refers to the risk of outliving our money.

You have to figure that if the finance experts have a name for a problem, then they probably also have a solution. Recently, a pair of investment gurus were awarded a patent for inventing a system that directly addresses the challenge of outliving our assets.

Moshe Milevsky, from York University in Toronto and Peng Chen, president of the investment advisory company Ibbotson Associates were issued U.S. Patent 7,120,01 for coming up with a system that takes longevity risk into account when recommending investment strategies to those looking to finance their retirement.

The system considers three basic risk assessments when making asset and product allocation decisions in retirement:

• financial market risk,
• inflation risk, and
• longevity risk.

This model integrates all of these risks and provides a solution to help investors have a comfortable retirement.

How It Works

Here's more or less how the Milevsky-Chen invention works. Keep in mind the goal is to provide retirement income while hedging longevity and financial risk. It's sort of like your own personal hedge fund that includes a hedge against a long and healthy life.

The first thing you have to consider is how to manage your financial risk. One of the best ways to do that is through diversification and asset allocation -- not keeping all your eggs in one basket. That way you spread the risk around.

Here's where it gets a little tricky: If you diversify a lot and minimize the risk too much, your money is going to be safer but it's not likely to grow much either. So you need to keep enough risk in your investment portfolio to grow your money at a rate that will cover what you have to live on.

Putting it another way, stocks tend to be riskier than bonds but also offer great growth potential, so in most cases you want to make sure you put more of your money into stocks than bonds.

Next is dealing with longevity risk. One way to do that is to do what insurance companies do. They spread the risk of living a long time across a pool of assets to come up with an annuity, which will pay you so much income annually for each year of your life.

Milevsky and Chen figured out that by combining an annuity with an investment portfolio, you can at least lower the probability of running out of money before you die.

Annuities Aren't Cheap

Where does the money to buy that annuity come from? It comes from your assets. The key question is how much then do you need to purchase an annuity that provides an income that lasts a lifetime, or at least your lifetime?

That depends on a number of things. Do you want to leave an inheritance or are you, as they say, taking it all with you? Are you wealthy enough that you don't even have to worry about money? If that's the case, then why are you even reading this article? Do you expect to live a long time? Don't we all? And finally, how much does the annuity cost?

You may have to buy the annuity from an insurance company, and they don't give them away. There are costs involved.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, today's workers can expect to receive only one-third of their retirement income from Social Security and traditional company pension plans. That means the bulk of your retirement money has to come from somewhere else and that somewhere else is personal savings, unless you're planning on winning the Australia lottery or getting money from a Nigerian prince.

So how much do you need to save by the time you retire? There are a lot of "guestimates" but the low end number seems to be around $450,000. Anything lower than that and it becomes a real struggle. To live really comfortably, you need close to $1 million in savings.

Let's say you were smart and by the time you and your spouse retired at age 65, you've saved $1 million. To cover living expenses beyond what you get from Social Security and pensions you'll still need an extra $50,000 a year to live comfortably.

So what do you do? You could invest that $1 million into a portfolio of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds. Unfortunately, if that's all you do, there's a 10 percent chance you'll run out of money by the time you reach age 84, a 25 percent chance by age 87, a 50 percent chance by age 92.

If you live to a 100, there's a 90 percent chance you'll be broke before you die. You may think that by that time you won't care but don't count on it.

Now, let's use the Milevsky-Chen model. You would take $400,000 of that money and buy an annuity or maybe even a mix of annuities. This model provides for a combination that includes a portfolio of stocks and bonds and fixed and variable annuities.

It is this combination that hedges the longevity risk as well as any financial market risk. In fact, if you follow the Chen and Milvesky system there's only a 10 percent chance of running out of money at age 92.

Longevity Insurance

Insurance companies have started coming up with policies to address this issue as well. You can now buy something called "longevity insurance." For example, MetLife has a retirement income insurance policy that for $30,000 would pay a 65-year-old male retiree lifetime monthly payments of $2,200, or $1,250 with a death benefit, starting at age 85.

The main drawback here is that you have to live to 85 to reap the benefits. As I said before, they just don't give it away.

Best thing you can do to prepare for retirement is to start saving as early as possible. If you're already a boomer and you haven't put away $500,000 in savings, you may have to take other action, such as selling your house and moving to a less expensive location or getting a reverse mortgage.

The Milevsky-Chen model may not work for everyone, but then nothing does. At least they're taking the issue of "longevity risk" seriously, and you should too.

 

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Denver DA Probes LimeWire; Peer-to-Peer Software Enables Identity Theft, Cops Claim

Peer-to-Peer Software Enables Identity Theft, Cops Claim

Denver DA Probes LimeWire; Peer-to-Peer Software Enables Identity Theft, Cops Claim...


Denver authorities are warning consumers of an alleged identity theft scam involving the use of LimeWire, a popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing program that lets users send music, videos, and documents to each other over the Web.

The warning came after a search of a LimeWire user's apartment turned up documents belonging to local businesses on the user's hard drive.

Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's office said that the investigation turned up 75 documents belonging to businesses "from all over the country" that the suspect using LimeWire. One arrest had been made and three more suspects were being sought for questioning, Kimbrough said.

Details were scarce as to the nature of the investigation and how the program was "exploited." Denver authorities noted that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an alert warning consumers of the dangers of using file-sharing programs.

"Computer users might consider uninstalling and deleting file-sharing software from their computers and consider having their computers screened by a reputable computer professional," Kimbrough said.

But is this all there is to it?

Peer-To-Peer Perils

LimeWire's P2P service works by enabling users who have downloaded LimeWire to remotely search each other's hard drives and upload or download files that they want.

The user enables the folders they want to open to other LimeWire users for sharing.

For example, if a LimeWire user sets up their computer's "My Documents" folder for sharing, other LimeWire users can access that folder for something they may want.

If a LimeWire user was storing sensitive business documents in a folder enabled for sharing, other users could easily avail themselves of the information without any special exploitation of the program. The program has to be active and running for files to be shared.

Without knowledge of the particulars of the investigation, it can only be speculated that an unscrupulous user may have found other users' personal information and business documents in their shared folders.

Many P2P service users will leave applications like LimeWire running for hours or even overnight when downloading multiple files, so documents could be uploaded with no one being the wiser.

LimeWire is one of the largest remaining P2P file-sharing programs active, as many of its contemporaries have been litigated into oblivion for copyright violation, or become legitimate (and less successful) for-pay download services, such as Napster.

The Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA) has sued LimeWire on charges that it "induces" users to engage in illegal file-sharing, based on the Supreme Court decision of MGM vs. Grokster.

In Grokster, the Court ruled that P2P services could be used to "induce" copyright infringement, which the RIAA took as carte blanche to sue any file-sharing service that didn't comply with its terms.

In response, LimeWire sued the RIAA in September for what it called violations of antitrust law.

"This case is but one part of a much larger modern conspiracy to destroy all innovation that content owners cannot control and that disrupts their historical business models," the company said in its suit.

What You Can Do

Whether or not you believe file-sharing is identity theft, or that sharing files via P2P is copyright infringement, the reality is that allowing unknown users to have access to your personal computer files is very dangerous if you don't have protective measures set up. These can include the following:

• Only set up a file-sharing program if you have up-to-date antivirus software and firewalls running. Scan any uploaded files for viruses or other nasty tricks before putting them in your folders.

• Don't use any file-sharing program that installs additional files onto your machine. Many services come bundled with spyware and adware programs that can cause irreparable harm to your machine. Consider using a "premium" paid model rather than a basic "free" model, as the latter often has many unexpectedand unwantedadditions when you download it.

• Don't enable any directory or folder for sharing that exposes private documents to other users. If you want to share documents, music and images, set up specific folders to open up to your P2P service, and move the files you want to share into those folders only.

• Turn off any file-sharing application if you're not using it. This can be trickier than it sounds, as many programs will continue to run in the background even if you've exited from active use. Make sure to enable your program's settings to shut off completely when you want it to.

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Scammers Dust Off The Old "Pump & Dump"

Scammers Dust Off The Old ...


With the Dow at 12,000 and real estate values sinking faster than the Titanic, many investors are taking another look at the stock market. And scammers have dusted off an old chestnut to take advantage of unsophisticated investors.

As long as there have been stocks, there have been stock touters -- those who seek to drive up the price of shares that they happen to own in hopes of selling at a huge profit.

Also called the "pump and dump," this scheme leaves many small investors holding the bag when the scammers sell and the share prices plunge.

Using spam emails, these scammers are sending out millions of messages each day breathlessly extolling the virtue of some obscure company. In nearly every case the company itself is clueless that it is part of a scam. It's chosen because its stock is selling for pennies a share, making it easy for the scammer to acquire a huge number of shares with a minimal investment.

Does the scam work? Apparently it does.

Texhoma Energy was touted in a recent spam email, resulting in a significant increase in the stock's value. According to the Chicago Tribune, 53,000 shares of Texhoma stock were traded on October 16. The next day the volume jumped to more than one million.

Two day later it jumped to more than five million, as the spam emails began to hit inboxes and prompt victims to place orders.

The scammers, of course, sell at the stock's high point and other investors soon join them as the price begins to fall. Pretty soon the stock is back to selling at a nickel a share and those who jumped on the bandwagon have lost significant amounts of money.

The best way to avoid this scam> Don't take investment advice from an anonymous email.

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Court Orders Guidant To Release Documents

Judge Grants Public Citizen Motion to Unseal Pricing Data

The pacemaker manufacturer Guidant must make public judicial records from a case involving the pricing of its products in response to a Public Citizen moti...

The pacemaker manufacturer Guidant must make public judicial records from a case involving the pricing of its products in response to a Public Citizen motion to unseal the documents, according to a federal judge's ruling.

The sealed summary judgment records were from the recently settled Cardiac Pacemakers v. Aspen II Holding Co., in which two subsidiaries of Guidant that produce and sell controversial cardiac rhythm management devices sued the health care consulting company Aspen Health Care Metrics for publishing information about the prices of Guidant's pacemakers.

Guidant had defended the filing of the papers supporting summary judgment under seal but provided no documentation of a need for secrecy.

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, argued before Judge Donovan Frank of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota that the information was highly important to the public interest and should be unsealed.

Frank ruled Tuesday that Guidant must release all of the summary judgment briefs and most of the supporting affidavits, while allowing most of the supporting exhibits to remain sealed for reasons that he did not sufficiently explain.

In its motion, Public Citizen asserted that Guidant's efforts to suppress publication of its products' prices hinders efforts at maintaining price transparency and threatens to foster the artificial elevation of prices, possibly limiting public access to affordable health care.

Guidant's attempts to keep court records secret also deny other hospitals, purchasing organizations and health care industry actors who are subject to Guidant's lawsuit threats access to vital information to better prepare their own defense.

"This is a partial win for health care consumers over corporate secrecy," said Levy. "Unfortunately, although Judge Frank has ordered the release of a significant amount of material, the methods he has used -- extensive in chambers review without requiring Guidant to make a public showing of evidence of its need for confidentiality -- sets a poor precedent for future cases. An appeal may be necessary to ensure that future cases are handled correctly."

 



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New Jersey Sues Rite Aid for Consumer Fraud

The States complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the Weights and Measures Act due to improper price scanning by at least 76 store locations....

The State of New Jersey is suing Rite Aid, charging the drug store chain sold expired merchandise, including non-prescription drugs, infant formula and baby food, and charged consumers prices in excess of those listed on the shelf.

The complaint seeks civil penalties, consumer restitution and an order directing the defendants to remove and destroy all expired non-prescription drugs, infant formula or baby food from any Rite Aid store in the state.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and the Weights and Measures Act, and violated the terms of prior agreements with the Division.

"It is unconscionable that a store would sell expired merchandise -- especially infant formula, baby food and nonprescription medications -- to unsuspecting consumers who rely on these products for the care and welfare of their loved ones," said Attorney General Stuart Rabner.

"The behavior of these stores is even more egregious because they had previously agreed not to engage in any such violations and cease and desist from selling expired products."

During the period of August 14, 2006 through October 3, 2006, the Division, including the Office of Weights and Measures and the Office of Consumer Protection, investigated approximately 104 Rite Aid stores. The defendants currently operate approximately 159 Rite Aid stores in New Jersey.

The state alleges it found the following violations:

• the sale of expired merchandise at approximately 42 retail stores;

• unconscionable commercial practices, false promises and/or misrepresentations;

• failure to post a refund policy or obscuring the posted refund policy at approximately 31 retail stores;

• charging consumers prices that exceed the price posted at the point of display;

• violation of an October 2001 assurance of voluntary compliance (AVC) by defendants; and

• violation of a November 2001 consent order and a June 2005 consent order by Rite Aid NJ

The States complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the Weights and Measures Act due to improper price scanning by at least 76 store locations.

 



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Study: Cell Phone Users Have Lower Sperm Counts

Researchers warn that your sperm cell count may drop as your cell phone usage rises.

Study: Cell Phone Users Have Lower Sperm Counts...

Researchers warn that your sperm cell count may drop as your cell phone usage rises.

A study presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in New Orleans showed a drop in sperm count and quality with increased usage of mobile phones. The study covered 361 men attending a fertility clinic.

Results of tests on the men's sperm showed significant declines in four standard measures of sperm quality, including count, viability, motility and shape, with a definite link to the average amount of time spent using their phones daily.

The researchers found those men who used a phone for four or more hours a day had fewer sperm and those they had moved less well and were of poorer quality. Those who said they did not use cell phones at all had the highest average sperm counts and their sperm was of the highest quality seen.

The study was conducted by Ashok Agarwal and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. Agarwal stressed that while the research did not conclusively prove that mobile phones were damaging fertility, it certainly suggested that more research was needed.

According to Agarwal, mobile phone radiation may harm sperm by damaging DNA, disrupting cells that produce testosterone in the testes, or shrinking the tubules where sperm are created.

Recent research in Hungary concluded that men who carry mobile phones in their pockets risk damaging their sperm count.

Last year the chair of the UK Health Protection Agency, Sir William Stewart, warned that children under eight should not be using mobile phones because there was still no certainty about the long-term health impact.

 



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ChoicePoint Names a "Consumer Advocate"

Latest Attempt to Restore the Company's Good Name

ChoicePoint Names a 'Consumer Advocate'...


ChoicePoint, whose name has become synonymous with "data breach," has created a new "Consumer Advocate" position in hopes of cleaning up its image.

The job is designed to address, as ChoicePoint president Doug Curling put it, "the need for us to be more transparent to the consumer and more receptive to their concerns."

The first individual to hold the position is Katherine Bryant, a longtime legal counsel to ChoicePoint whose expertise includes dealing with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). FCRA is the chief federal law that governs usage of personal data by credit bureaus and data clearinghouses such as ChoicePoint.

Bryant is on the board of directors of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). NAPBS' ostensible purpose is to provide guidance for ethical conduct and compliance with FCRA and state laws for credit reporting.

ChoicePoint has been on a public relations blitz ever since it sold 145,000 individual consumer record to a Nigerian criminal ring posing as a legitimate business. California law compelled the Alpharetta, GA-based data broker to disclose the theft.

Since that disclosure, dozens of companies and government agencies have confessed to data breaches, hacks by outside parties, and losses of equipment such as laptop thefts.

ChoicePoint itself found more cases of unauthorized data access in September 2005, including evidence of police and private investigators in Florida viewing individuals' records without permission.

ChoicePoint ponied up a total of $15 million in fines to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in January 2006 as part of a settlement agreement regarding the data breach. Part of the settlement involved the company taking on stringent new measures to assure consumer privacy, and to submit to frequent audits to ensure it was staying above-board.

The $15 million collected by the FTC has yet to be disbursed to any of the actual victims affected by the original ChoicePoint data breach.

The bad publicity and loss of business following the data breach has put choicePoint's stock into take a nosedive. ChoicePoint is selling off many of its smaller data businesses in order to buy back its stock and smother cries from unhappy shareholders.

The Motley Fool's Rich Smith said it was a case of "a corporate midlife crisis [ChoicePoint is] trying to decide what it wants to be after it has already grown up."

Even with the public problems, ChoicePoint continues to enjoy hefty success in many areas.

The company recently closed a deal with the FBI for a five-year, $12 million contract for technology and data services. Several Senators and consumer advocates criticized the deal as a sop to the company, and irresponsible in light of the data breaches that happened on its watch.

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Stars Urged to Rethink "Bud.TV"

Stars Urged to Rethink Bud.TV...

October 23, 2006
Several top Hollywood stars are being urged to reconsider their participation in Bud.TV -- an online video entertainment web site being developed by Anheuser-Busch.

Sixty health, safety and child-protection organizations are urging Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Kevin Spacey and Vince Vaughn to insist that the beer company at least verify the ages of visitors to the site, and to reconsider their participation with the venture in the first place.

According to published reports, Anheuser-Busch intends to feature programming developed by production companies associated with those film artists as well as user-generated videos when the site premiers in February 2007.

Bud.TV will target the young people who use video sites like YouTube and social networking sites like MySpace.

"The main reason that we're doing this is that we need to connect to these new beer consumers," Anheuser-Busch executive Tony Ponturo told the Associated Press.

"Willie Sutton robbed banks because 'that's where the money is,'" said George A. Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"Anheuser-Busch trolls the Internet because that's where the young people are. There they can reach out to kids, free from parental interference and government regulators. These actors should rethink whether they want their appeal to young people to be exploited by Anheuser-Busch."

According to research estimates, underage consumers drink as much as 20 percent of all the alcohol consumed in America, and each day 7,000 kids in the U.S. under the age of 16 take their first drink. People who begin drinking by 15 years of age are four times as likely to become alcohol dependent as those who wait until age 21.

Currently, web sites run by Anheuser-Busch and other alcohol producers merely ask visitors to assert that they are of legal drinking age to enter the site.

According to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University, 13 percent of visits to alcohol-branded sites were initiated by underage consumers and 34 percent of in-depth visitors to Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light site were younger than the minimum legal drinking age.

The groups urged the Hollywood stars to insist that Anheuser-Busch go beyond the honor system and adopt age-verification technologies to help exclude young children. They also asked the stars to reconsider whether the beer site is an appropriate vehicle for the distribution of their creative works.

Underage drinking is a major factor in the three leading causes of teenage death in the United States: car crashes, homicides, and suicides. Some 5,000 persons under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes, and growing evidence suggests that youthful drinking may result in long-term brain damage, as well as a significantly increased risk of alcohol dependence in adulthood.

One of the stars participating in the Bud.TV project, Ben Affleck, was treated for alcoholism in 2001.

Besides CSPI, other signers of the letters to Affleck, Damon, Spacey, and Vaughn include the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, National Association of Teen Institutes, National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and the American Osteopathic Association.



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Charity Scams Increase As Holidays Approach

Some so-called "charities" are outright scams that pocket all the funds people contribute

Charity Scams Increase As Holidays Approach...

As we near the end of the year, many people will give generously to charities and good causes -- but increasingly these donations never reach the people who need help. Some so-called "charities" are outright scams that pocket all the funds people contribute.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says even seemingly legitimate charities use professional fundraisers that eat up 80 to 90 percent of the donations in "fundraising expenses," so almost nothing is left for true charity.

"Fraudulent and questionable charities cheat donors, hurt legitimate charitable organizations that rely on donations - and shortchange people who truly need help," Miller said.

How to protect yourself from falling for a fraudulent charity?

• Ask questions. Reputable charities welcome questions. Ask how much of your donation goes for the charitable purpose, and exactly how your contribution will be used. Ask if the caller is a professional fundraiser.

• Ask phone solicitors to send written information. Check out the charity before you make a decision. Be suspicious if they refuse to send solid information. Check them out at the national Better Business Bureau "wise giving" site - www.give.org.

• Don't be fooled by "look-alike" names. Some scams use names that sound impressive and are designed to resemble well-respected organizations.

• Be very wary of calls from supposed "law enforcement" or "firefighter" charities. Contact your local sheriff or police department to check out claims that a donation "will be used locally." Ask for information in writing before you agree to give. Ask if the caller is a paid professional fundraiser, and ask how much of your gift will go to the charitable purpose and be used in your community.

• Don't give your credit card or checking account numbers over the phone to someone you don't know.

Most foolproof is to give directly to a known charity of your choice. That's always the best option. Check your telephone directory for a charity's local office and contact the office.

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Automakers Lobby to Weaken Roof Strength Proposal

Automakers Lobby to Weaken Roof Strength Proposal...

By Joe Benton
ConsumerAffairs.com

October 23, 2006
Automakers in Washington are working feverishly to convince the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to scale back proposed regulations calling for stronger vehicle roofs.

NHTSA has proposed increasing roof strength standards more than 50 percent to 2-1/2 times vehicle weight in an effort to reduce deaths and injuries in rollover crashes. The agency wants the new roof standard to maintain sufficient headroom for an average sized adult male.

The price tag for the stronger roofs could reach above $100 million in additional costs for vehicle research and redesign. The regulation would, for the first time, include bigger sport utility vehicles and pickups.

The auto industry is wary of design changes that could make vehicles heavier or less aerodynamic, affecting fuel economy and emissions. They also believe greater seat belt use may be more helpful than stronger roofs.

About 60 percent of the people killed in rollovers are not wearing seat belts according to safety figures.

Both U.S. and foreign automakers have sent their Washington representatives to NHTSA in an effort to win their argument with regulators and weaken the the proposed roof strength regulations.

"Our bottom line is ensuring that any changes or any rule that comes out has sound science behind it," said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Rollover crashes account for roughly 10,000 fatalities annually or a quarter of all U.S. traffic deaths according to NHTSA statistics and roughly 600 deaths and 800 injuries are caused by head contact with a collapsed roof in a rollover.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety charge that the automakers are trying to dilute what safety advocates believe to be an "already weak" NHTSA initiative.

Regulators face a Congressional requirement to complete the roof crush regulation by July 2008.

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Consumers Revolt Against Hotel Surcharges

Some Hotels Levy Phone Charges Even If You Don't Make Any Calls

Thanks primarily to the proliferation of personal cell phones, consumers are staging a successful revolt against hotel surcharges on the use of telephone l...

Thanks primarily to the proliferation of personal cell phones, consumers are staging a successful revolt against hotel surcharges on the use of telephone lines.

Some refuse to book rooms in properties that do not include free Internet access or free local calls, while others express outrage at hoteliers that impose heavy charges for minibars, telephones, or Internet connections.

The biggest consumer gripe is directed at hotels that charge for calls that are allegedly "toll-free," such as 800 numbers for airlines or car rental companies.

Though widely considered a scam by the traveling public, hotel phone charges were once a huge source of revenue. In some places, they still are: the Sheraton Waikiki charges $9.44 for the first minute and $1.50 for each additional minute, while New York's Waldorf Astoria charges $9.99 per minute and up to 99 cents for additional minutes on international calls (and $1.95 for up to 60 minutes on domestic calls).

Fees for daily Internet access range from $13 (Sheraton Waikiki) to $10.95 (Houston InterContinental) and $9.95 (Seattle Grand Hyatt, Albuquerque Hyatt Regency, New Orleans Sheraton, Waldorf Astoria, and more).

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, three of every four hotels allows free local calls and nine out of ten offer Internet access (not all of it free).

Clever guests can often find a way to circumvent such charges. Bringing a laptop to a lounge or lobby, or connecting to a wireless router from a nearby source (such as a neighboring hotel) often works when using the laptop in the room isn't free.

Ironically, upscale properties are more likely to impose phone-line charges than inexpensive or moderately-priced hotels. The reason is simple: there are so many lesser-priced hotels that many of them need to offer amenities designed to woo customers.

Although cell phone reception is often spotty in high-rise hotels, it is relatively simple to find a nearby location -- such as a pool deck or open-air patio -- with better service.

Travelers heading overseas can also avoid hotel-room phones by renting international cellphones for their trips.

Using the Internet for phone calls is also a growing trend, since programs like Skype provide free or discounted calls via the computer.

To compensate for the loss of revenue caused by widespread cell phone use, some hotels are adding a "phone use fee" to guest room bills. That fee is applied automatically whenever a room phone is activated -- even if it is never used or used only to call the front desk.

It may not be long before big-league baseball managers call the bullpen on cellphones too.

 



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Soldiers Pinned Down by Predatory Payday Loans

Thousands of soldiers are being denied overseas active duty because of severe debt

Soldiers Pinned Down by Predatory Payday Loans...

Adding to the many issues facing the American military today, thousands of soldiers are being denied overseas active duty because of severe debt and financial problems.

The chief culprit appears to be high-interest predatory lending, which will be at least partly reined in by new Congressional legislation.

The Navy, Marines, and Air Force have reported a steady increase in soldiers who have lost security clearances due to severe financial problems, according to an Associated Press report.

The numbers rose from 284 in 2002 to over 2,600 in 2006 between the three branches, with every indication that the trend is continuing.

The Army, responsible for the vast majority of forces currently engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, refused to share its records of clearance loss with the AP.

Although reasons for soldiers' increasing indebtedness ranged from low pay to financial irresponsibility, high-interest "payday loans" were first on the list. Payday lenders entice borrowers into drawing advances on their next paycheck, at extremely high interest rates.

Some payday lenders charge interest of 15 percent on a two-week loan, which averages out to a yearly annual percentage rate (APR) of 390 percent.

Because of the generally low military pay and usurious interest rates, many military personnel fall deeply into debt with just a single payday loan.

Military members and their families are particular targets of predatory lenders, as they receive a steady income, but their pay is so low that any unexpected expense may require them to take out loans, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

A Skinflint Congress

Last year the Department of Defense issued a warning that predatory lending was keeping troops from being effective in the field, as they were distracted by their financial problems.

The military stepped up its financial counseling services to urge personnel not to spend any bonuses or advances exorbitantly, and to avoid payday loan centers.

The continuing problems with predatory lenders led President Bush to sign legislation on October 19 that would cap the APR of payday loans at 36 percent nationwide.

Congress also authorized a 2.2 percent pay raise for armed forces personnel before adjourning for the election season. The pay raise was criticized as minuscule, given the added costs soldiers and their families have to deal with in times of war.

States Take Action

States are also taking action against predatory lenders for both military and civilian residents.

California's Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed a $2 million lawsuit against local payday lender Fast Cash for suing borrowers for triple the amount of the loan if they had insufficient funds available when they wrote checks to pay it off.

North Carolina recently finalized a series of agreements with lenders to change their practices, leading many of the companies to leave the state. State Attorney General Roy Cooper called it "the end of predatory lending" in North Carolina.

The Center for Responsible Lending estimated that payday loans cost American families upwards of $3.4 billion annually.

In congratulating Congress and President Bush for passing the new legislation for soldiers and their families, CRL President Michael Calhoun urged them to "extend these protections to all of America's working families."

 

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Too Little Sleep May Contribute To Childhood Obesity

Too Little Sleep May Contribute To Childhood Obesity...

October 20, 2006
Soaring levels of obesity might be linked to children sleeping fewer hours at night than they used to, according to a British researcher writing in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Dr. Shahrad Taheri of the University of Bristol, blames the increasing availability of computers, mobile phones, TVs and other gadgets on the diminishing nightly quota of sleep, and suggests they should be banned from childrens bedrooms.

Taheri cites the emerging body of research on the impacts on the body of a fall in the nightly quota of sleep, which reflects circumstances in real life, rather than sustained sleep deprivation, which tends to be more extreme.

This research shows that shorter sleep duration disturbs normal metabolism, which may contribute to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Even two to three nights of shortened sleep can have profound effects, the laboratory data suggest.

One study indicated that insufficient sleep at the age of 30 months was associated with obesity at the age of 7, suggesting that this could program the part of the brain regulating appetite and energy expenditure. But it is also a problem for teenagers in whom the need for sleep increases during this critical developmental period, Taheri said.

Another piece of research shows that levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat tissue when energy stores are low, were more than 15% lower in those sleeping five hours compared with those clocking up 8. Similarly, ghrelin, a hormone released by the stomach to signal hunger was almost 15% higher in those with a five hour sleep quota.

Taheri says sleep loss also disturbs other hormones, including insulin, cortisol (stress hormone), and growth hormone, and that hormonal changes could boost the desire for carlorie rich foods.

And poor sleep sets up a vicious cycle. It leads to fatigue, which leads to reduced levels of physical activity.which leads to lower energy expenditure..which leads to obesity, which itself leads to poor sleep, he adds.

"Sleep is probably not the only answer to the obesity pandemic, but its effect should be taken seriously, as even small changes in energy balance are beneficial," Taheri said.

"Good sleep could be promoted by removal of gadget distractions from bedrooms and restricting their use."



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Spring Lake, NJ, Offers Solitude, History

The town even has a lake -- explaining its name -- that covers 16 acres, has a maximum depth of 8 feet, and thrives on a constant diet of fresh water from ...

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Visa Publishes Interchange Fees For Credit Cards

The fees are often called a "hidden tax on consumers"

Visa Publishes Interchange Fees For Credit Cards...

Visa has taken the unusual step of publishing a list of "interchange fees" it charges merchants to process their credit and debit cards when customers make transactions with plastic.

The fees are often called a "hidden tax on consumers," as they can drive up the price of goods and services without consumers' knowledge.

It's these interchange fees that have led a coalition of merchants and retailers to sue Visa, MasterCard, and their partner banks, over what the merchants call collusive price-fixing.

The interchange fee list, available as a PDF report, is a bewildering array of "performance thresholds" and "reimbursement fees" that seems to require a degree in calculus to understand.

The basic gist is that different cards and different purchases end up costing merchants different fees to process, ranging from 1 to 2 percent of the transaction plus change.

When you factor in the billions of credit and debit transactions that go on in the world daily, 1 percent of a purchase can add up to millions in revenue for banks and card companies. It can also wipe out the retailer's profit from a transaction.

In order to make a profit, merchants will often raise prices on their goods and services, even for those who pay exclusively with cash.

The Merchant Payments Coalition, the group representing retail and restaurant chains, hailed the move but said that it wasn't enough to simply reveal the fees, and that more transparency was needed in the business.

"The report shows a bewildering array of rates for different cards, merchants and types of transactions, which emphasizes the opacity of interchange," said MPC chairman Mallory Duncan.

Duncan also noted the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the poor disclosure of credit card fees to consumers, saying it was "no surprise" that merchant fees would be similarly hard to understand.

Although Visa had originally claimed it would not publish its interchange fee rates, the world's largest credit card company reversed course after chief rival MasterCard agreed to do so in an attempt to appease the merchants suing the company.

Visa recently announced its own initial public stock offering, after eyeing the success of MasterCard's debut on the market. The MasterCard IPO is chiefly designed to build a "war chest" of funds to pay for litigation and settlements in the merchant lawsuits, thereby shifting the risk to investors rather than the member banks that formerly owned MasterCard.

Mitch Goldstone, one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action merchant lawsuits, said on his blog that Visa and MasterCard should post the exact interchange fee of each transaction on the customer's receipt.

"Without this honest and straightforward posting, this hidden tax will continue to feed Visa and MasterCards' member banks with thirty billion dollars each year," Goldstone said.

 

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Anti-Aging Supplement DHEA Doesn't Work, Study Finds

Two-Year Double-Blind Mayo Clinic Study Finds No Effect

Anti-Aging Supplement DHEA Doesn't Work, Study Finds...

A widely-used antiaging supplement has no effect on muscle strength, peak endurance, muscle mass, fat mass and glucose tolerance in elderly men and women, Mayo Clinic researchers report.

The findings from their two-year study appear in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The findings should debunk the belief that dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), sold extensively as an antiaging supplement in health and grocery stores, can reverse age-related alterations in body composition and function, says the study's lead author K. Sreekumaran Nair, M.D., Mayo Clinic endocrinologist.

"For almost two years we restored DHEA in older men and women to the high normal levels that are usually observed in young people, but found no beneficial effects on age-related changes in body composition and function," Dr. Nair said.

"No beneficial effects on quality of life were observed. There's no evidence based on this study that DHEA has an antiaging effect," he said.

The double-blind study involved 87 men and 57 women who were followed for two years. Participants showed no change in several markers of aging -- body composition, physical performance, insulin sensitivity or quality of life.

Mayo Clinic's findings contradict some of the previous reports on DHEA. Dr. Nair said many former studies were done over shorter periods of time and didn't involve a large enough group of subjects.

Mayo's study also was strengthened because it was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial. DHEA was administered only to people with low DHEA and testosterone levels.

Nair said he advises elderly people to stop using DHEA because it is unlikely to offer any antiaging effect. The report is likely to be controversial, as antiaging supplements drive sales in the health food industry.

DHEA has been promoted as an antiaging supplement, say the study's authors, in part because high levels of DHEA have been associated with longevity in humans and nonhuman primates. But studies involving rodents aren't applicable to humans, as rodents have very low levels of DHEA, the authors say.

The study also involved administering low-dose testosterone to elderly men who had low testosterone. The authors found testosterone offered minimal beneficial effects on bone density, and far less than those offered by many current accepted therapies.

Investigators found no negative side effects, although they caution that the study was conducted only in men without prostate problems.

In an accompanying editorial, Paul Stewart, M.D., of the University of Birmingham, Ala., said the search for eternal youth will continue. But in light of the Mayo findings, he suggests DHEA should no longer be accepted as a food supplement and should instead be treated as a regulated drug.

"Appropriate regulation would dispel much of the quackery associated with this elusive hormone," Dr. Stewart writes.

 



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FBI Warns Online Jobseekers Of Identity Theft

FBI Warns Online Jobseekers Of Identity Theft...


The Internet makes it easier to look for a new job. By posting your resume on a number of popular jobs sites, it's easier for employers to find you.

Unfortunately, it's also easier for identity thieves to find you.

The FBI says it increasingly receives reports of job seekers being contacted by criminals out to steal their identity. Posing as a potential employer, the scammer requests more information, including sensitive data like social security number and date of birth.

Many people fall victim to this scam because they think the request is legitimate, and the information is needed for a background check. Instead, the information is used to open credit card accounts and lines of credit in the victim's name.

If you're going to go job hunting online, the FBI has some advice.

• Don't give out a Social Security number until you're sure of the identity of the person making the request.

• Don't agree to a background check until after an interview in person.

• Never set up a direct deposit until officially hired, and

• When applying online, target specific employers and don't blanket the web with resumes. J. Mark Huffman www.NorthernNeckToday.com Office (804) 453-3552 Home (804) 453-9339 Cell - (804)-456-0052 FAX - (804) 453-3556

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EPA Finds Prius #1 in Gas Mileage

EPA Finds Prius #1 in Gas Mileage...


The Toyota Prius is the #1 gas saver on the road according to the government's new top 10 fuel economy list. Of the ten most efficient vehicles, five were made by Toyota.

The 2007 Prius tops the list with 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Many Prius owners, however have disputed the government mileage numbers from previous years and have reported to ConsumerAffairs.com that average fuel economy for the hybrid is approximately 43 miles to a gallon.

The Honda Civic Hybrid rolled into second place on the list with 49 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway.

The government mileage numbers are compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy based on information from manufacturers. Fuel economy estimates are determined by averaging numbers from specific government tests.

"By fueling consumers with better information, the EPA is helping American motorists conserve their money while preserving our environment," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

The Ford Escape is the most fuel-efficient sport utility vehicle on the list. The Escape Hybrid front-wheel drive was fourth with 36 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Twelve vehicles were listed in the top ten and seven of those vehicles were either Toyota or Honda models.

Twelve vehicles were listed because two of them, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid four-wheel drive and the Kia Rio, are virtually the same as vehicles made by Ford and Hyundai, respectively.

The new Toyota Camry Hybrid was third on the list with 40 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

The four-wheel drive Escape Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, were tied for 10th place with 32 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Five vehicles in the top tent were not hybrids. They are Toyota Yaris, the Honda Fit, Toyota Corolla, the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio.

The Ford Ranger two-wheel drive was the most fuel-efficient pickup, with 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

The Hyundai Sonata with a manual transmission was the top large car averaging 24 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway

The Dodge Caravan two-wheel drive was the top minivan, with 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee four-wheel drive was the least fuel-efficient SUV with 12 mpg in the city and 15 mpg on the highway.

Here's the list:
1. Toyota Prius Hybrid
2. Honda Civic Hybrid
3. Toyota Camry Hybrid
4. Ford Excape Hybrid with FWD
5. Toyota Yaris with Manual Transmission
6. Toyota Yaris with Automatic Transmission
7. Honda Fit with Manual Transmission
8. Toyota Corolla with Manual Transmission
9. Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio with Manual Transmission
10. Ford Escape Hybrid with 4WD and Mercury Mariner with 4WD

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New Bankruptcy Law, One Year Later

The strict new rules and expensive requirements have caused frustration for debtors, lawyers, and judges alike

New Bankruptcy Law, One Year Later...

It was a year ago today that the most sweeping changes to bankruptcy law in American history took effect.

Though the financial industry and their friends in Congress applauded the new law as cracking down on deadbeats, the strict new rules and expensive requirements have caused frustration for debtors, lawyers, and judges alike.

Not only that, the law is failing at its stated purpose of reducing bankruptcy filings. Reports from around the country indicate that filings for bankruptcy are starting to approach levels consistent with petitions under the old law, and the lack of available studies is preventing a comprehensive answer as to whether or not the trend will continue.

Under the new law, individual petitioners have to jump through many more hoops to file for Chapter 7.

Petitioners have to pass a "means test" to determine if they are so destitute that they cannot pay any of their bills. The test has been criticized as inflexible, as it paints people suffering from medical debt or job loss in the same corner as someone who's maxed out their credit cards or stolen money.

If a petitioner can't pass the means test, they are shunted to Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which requires them to pay off at least some of their debts in a reorganization plan.

The petitioner must also take mandatory credit counseling offered by a government-sanctioned nonprofit agency, a move many deride as wasteful and unnecessary.

The new law also requires more work on the part of bankruptcy lawyers, with more forms to fill out and interviews to conduct. This has led many lawyers to stop doing bankruptcies and others to charge higher fees, leading to fears that which has led some to fear consumers will be driven away from filing for bankruptcy due to the sheer cost involved.

Return Of The Bad Times

Supporters of the new bankruptcy law claimed that there would be a precipitous drop in filings after the law was enacted, as those trying to evade their debts through liquidation would find the process too difficult to pursue.

Initially, that seemed to be the case, as filings dropped to slightly over 100,000 in the first quarter of 2006, as opposed to over 600,000 in the last quarter of 2005 and a year-round total of over 1.6 million.

But the statistics were measured against an abnormal spike in bankruptcies, as debtors rushed to get their petitions in before the new law took effect. Now bankruptcy lawyers and courts are noticing a slow rise in filings around the country.

The Gulf Coast is showing a steady climb in bankruptcy filings, particularly in states hardest hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Homeowners struck by the storms and receiving no assistance from their insurance companies are looking to file Chapter 13 in order to prevent foreclosure on their properties and get some financial relief.

House Judiciary Committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a staunch supporter of the new laws, infamously refused to hold hearings in order to waive portions of the new bankruptcy laws to provide relief for Katrina victims.

The Justice Department's Trustee division, which oversees national bankruptcy laws, agreed to temporarily waive some of the toughest provisions of the law for victims of the hurricane, but creditors have since resumed demanding payment for damaged or destroyed properties in the Gulf.

Debtors' Prison

Even without the hurricane damage compounding matters, Alabama bankruptcy lawyer Brad Botes said that consumers are still drowning in high credit card debt, spiking home interest rates, and out-of-control home equity loans.

Although supporters of the law claimed that it was designed to weed out "frivolous" petitions, numerous analyses have been published that indicate the leading causes of bankruptcy are heavy medical debt, loss of a job, or the credit card crunch, or -- often -- all three.

A February 2005 study by the Health Affairs medical journal found that the costs of illness and medical expenses accounted for half of the 1,458,000 personal bankruptcies in 2001.

A February 2006 study by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) challenged the assertion that the majority of filers for bankruptcy were "deadbeats."

In surveying credit counseling agencies for information on why petitioners were filing after the law, NACBA found 79 percent of those seeking credit counseling prior to filing bankruptcy were doing so due to circumstances beyond their control, such as job loss, home loss, serious medical illness, and so on.

"[T]he sweeping federal bankruptcy law changes...are doing little more than imposing new costs and paperwork burdens on tens of thousands of already distressed Americans, the vast majority of whom are being forced into bankruptcy due to financial circumstances beyond their control," the report said.

 

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How Loud Should Your iPod Be?

How Loud Should Your iPod Be?...


How loud should your iPod be? Hearing specialists suggest most iPod users need to dial it back a bit, to prevent hearing loss.

Audiologist Brian Fligor of Boston's Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School and colleagues worry that individuals listening to their music amidst noisy surroundings are much more likely to raise the volume to risky levels.

The research team estimates that a typical person could safely listen to the iPod for 4.6 hours at 70 percent of full volume using the supplied earphones without greatly increasing the risk of hearing loss.

However, listening to music at full volume through the iPod for more than 5 minutes per day through its stock earphones, they say, could increase the risk of hearing loss in a typical person. These guidelines apply in general to other music players, such as the Sandisk Sansa and the Creative Zen Micro, which they found to produce similar volume levels.

In a separate study, Fligor, along with Terri Ives, of PCO School of Audiology, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania and Cory Portnuff of the University of Colorado observed the listening habits of 100 doctoral students listening to iPods through earphones.

When the students were in a quiet environment, they found that only 6 percent of them turned their players to risky sound levels. When in a noisy environment, a dramatically higher 80% of the students listened to the music at risky levels.

When they used an "in-the-ear" earphone designed to block out background noise, only 20 percent exceeded sound levels considered to be risky. This suggests, Fligor says, that seeking out quiet environments and using "isolator" earphones designed to block out background noise help listeners avoid the tendency to play music at sound levels that can pose risks to their hearing.

"Portable music players are not the only hearing hazard to which kids are exposed," says University of Northern Colorado audiologist Deanna Meinke. "Parents and teachers have to look across exposures for all noisy and loud activities."

Noise-induced hearing loss, she says, can be caused by two types of noise. Sudden bursts, such as firearms and fireworks, can immediately cause hearing loss in children, who are often reluctant to report such exposures to their parents.

The other type is continuous exposure to loud noise, which can damage the ears over time. Sources of continuous noise, she says, including motorized recreational vehicles, loud sporting events, power tools, farming equipment, and amplified music.

For continuous noise exposure such as music, the "level and duration of exposure are important," she says. "It takes repeated exposures over many years to cause a gradual onset of noise-induced hearing loss in both children and adults, Meinke said.

Since people have many possible encounters with loud sounds, she says, it's important to use safe listening strategies when possible; move away from the noise, turn down the volume or wear properly fitting hearing protection.



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New York Fines CVS for Sweepstakes Violations

The CVS Corporation has agreed to pay $152,000 in civil penalties after violating a previous settlement with New York authorities related to sweepstakes of...

 

The CVS Corporation has agreed to pay $152,000 in civil penalties after violating a previous settlement with New York authorities related to sweepstakes offers.

The drug chain settled allegations that its sweepstakes failed to provide an in-store method of entering the sweepstakes for consumers who did not make a purchase.

CVS, based in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, conducted a recent sweepstakes offering customers a chance to win a $1,000 CVS/pharmacy Gift Card every week during NASCAR racing season. Consumers who visited a CVS store and purchased Nicorette, NicoDerm or Commit, using their CVS ExtraCare Card were automatically entered in the sweepstakes.

However, CVS did not make entry forms available at all its stores for consumers who did not purchase these products and did not inform shoppers how to enter the sweepstakes without a purchase.

"State law requires that consumers, regardless of whether they make a purchase, should have equal access and opportunity to enter and win sweepstake offers," New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said.

The settlement with CVS follows a prior settlement in June 2004 in which CVS agreed to resolve similar allegations related to its "Trip of a Lifetime" sweepstakes with the grand prize trip to Oahu, Hawaii.

The current settle requires CVS to make additional changes to the way it conducts sweepstakes to prevent future violations. In addition to the reforms required by the 2004 settlement, including making entry forms available at participating retail locations, conspicuously posting sweepstakes rules, and ensuring staff knows how to direct consumers to non-purchase methods of entry, CVS will:

• Institute a continuing training and compliance program for management and other personnel regarding the placement of signs and entry forms in CVS stores during a sweepstakes promotion period;

• Adopt procedures to assure that signs and entry forms are properly displayed throughout the sweepstakes promotion period;

• Provide a copy of the settlement document to all sponsors when it engages in any game, contest, sweepstakes or promotion; and

• Provide a copy of the settlement document to all advertising staff to assure that all advertising used in connection with any game, contest, sweepstakes or promotion sets forth with equal prominence an alternate non-purchase method of entry.

 



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Nursing Home Operators Indicted on Fraud Charges

Nursing Home Operators Indicted on Fraud Charges...


A Massachusetts grand jury has indicted three people on charges of massive fraud in the operation of five nursing homes in the state.

Brothers Joel K. Logan, of Norwell, and Todd Logan of Braintree, Massachusetts are charged with patient neglect, Medicaid Fraud, theft of nursing home patients' personal funds, conspiracy to steal those funds, and with embezzlement of employee wage deductions intended for funding 401(k) retirement contributions, and life and disability insurance premiums.

Their nephew, Gregory J. Logan, of Kingston, Massachusetts, who served as the administrator for one of the nursing homes, has also been charged with conspiracy and with embezzlement of residents' funds.

The indictments follow a three-year investigation conducted by the state's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the Fair Labor and Business Practices Division, both part of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Business and Labor Protection Bureau, along with assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration.

A Norfolk County Grand Jury returned a total of 26 indictments against Joel, Todd, and Gregory Logan, and the former nursing home facilities. The facilities involved include: Elihu White Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, formerly of Braintree, Pond Meadow Healthcare Facility, Inc., formerly of Weymouth, Atrium Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, formerly of Middleborough, Logan Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, formerly of Braintree, and Crestview Healthcare Facility, Inc., formerly of Quincy.

The charges stem from allegations that, during January 2001 through June 2003, the Logans, and their corporations, diverted funds received under the state's Medicaid program for their own personal use while failing to provide basic goods and services which, as Medicaid providers, they were required to provide to the facilities' residents.

State officials said the investigation determined that the facilities frequently experienced shortages of food, medicine, linens, and personal hygiene items, interruption of pest control services, and accumulation of medical waste, due to nonpayment of vendors, while at the same time the defendants used the nursing home facilities' assets to fund various personal expenditures, including horse racing activities and luxury boat payments.

The Medicaid Fraud Unit's investigation additionally determined that on multiple occasions during May 10, 2002 through January 10, 2003, Joel, Todd and Gregory Logan removed a total of $82,000 from the Patients Needs Accounts ("PNA") for three of the homes, Pond Meadow, Elihu White, and Logan Nursing & Rehabilitation, for purposes unrelated to the residents' own use. PNA accounts are statutorily regulated accounts held in trust for the sole personal use and benefit of nursing home residents.

Massachusetts Medicaid regulations specify that a nursing home facility may not use PNA funds for any purposes other than the personal use of the nursing home residents, under any circumstances.

The indictments also allege that during July 2002, and during November 2002 through June 2003, Joel and Todd Logan failed to remit approximately $55,000 in deductions withheld from employee wages for the purpose of funding the employer-sponsored 401(k) Plan, a type of investment plan where eligible employees may establish individual retirement accounts.

In total, approximately 25 plan participants were affected, excluding approximately 20 Logan family members and corporate insiders. Additionally, during August 30, 2002 through June 6, 2003, the indictments charge that Joel and Todd Logan failed to remit $22,583.64 in employee wage withholding intended to fund short-term disability policies through Colonial Life Insurance, and individual life insurance policies with Boston Mutual.

Four of the nursing homes were forced into receivership during June 2003, and the fifth nursing home, Crestview, went into receivership a year later, during July 2004, based on allegations of financial mismanagement. Each of the nursing homes was either sold-off to other nursing home operators or were closed by the court-appointed receiver.

The indictments come on the heels of $560,000 in judgments obtained by the Attorney General's Office in June against four of the nursing home owners for contempt penalties, receivership costs, and attorneys' fees incurred in investigating and prosecuting a contempt case.

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Software Glitch Slows Some 2007 Camrys

Acceleration an uncertain quality

The Toyota Camry is still the best selling car in America but a growing number of Camry consumers are puzzled over the car's performance and unsure about T...

The Toyota Camry is still the best selling car in America but a growing number of Camry consumers are puzzled over the car's performance and unsure about Toyota quality.

A software problem, it seems, is slowing the new Camry when the driver mashes the gas pedal.

Bonnie in Milburn, New Jersey described the problem in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com this way:

"We got a new 2007 Camry in August. From day one the car does not shift properly. It hesitates and sometimes when you push the accelerator it hesitates and it does not budge but then jerks. It can be dangerous if you think you have enough time to cross a street and car does not move."

Bonnie has taken her leased Camry back to her Toyota dealership three times.

"I am so fed up with this car. I don't want anymore," she said.

Internet chat rooms recently have swelled with similar consumer complaints prompting Toyota engineers to examine the 2007 Camry engine and powertrain in search of why the best-selling car in America loses power at times when power may be most needed.

The answer seems to be that the new Camry has a drive-by-wire system that remembers how a driver accelerates. So in response to an unexpected demand from consumers like Bonnie trying to navigate the busy roads of New Jersey, the Camry engine and transmissions may tend to hesitate.

That is because when an easy-going driver demands immediate power the software that controls the four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission can be momentarily confused, causing the Camry to bog down.

A service bulletin from Toyota is on the way to dealers with an software modification that is described as "easily accomplished according to a company spokesman. The dealership can tailor the engine and transmission software however a Camry owner wants, according to the company, but dealers will make the modification only if owners report a problem.

There is no 2007 Toyota Camry recall, at least not now.

Camry sales remain robust despite these performance difficulties. The 2007 car went on sale in March and supplies remain tight. Sales of the Camry in September were up 3.9 percent over the same month last year and Camry assembly plants are running at full capacity.

Camrys built after October 1 carry new software that does not slow engine and transmission performance, according to the company. Toyota says it doesn't know how many consumers driving the 2007 version of the best-selling car in America are riding around with the old software.

 

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Lottery Scam Victim: "No One Cares"

Elderly man lost $300,000, gets lots of advice but not much help

If criminals robbed a bank and made off with $300,000, chances are that law enforcement officials would spring into action, making every effort to track do...

If criminals robbed a bank and made off with $300,000, chances are that law enforcement officials would spring into action, making every effort to track down the thieves. But when a scammer steals $300,000 from an individual, the attitude is a little different.

"Basically, everyone has told us they're sorry, but there's nothing they can do," said Cynthia Blevins of Arkansas City, Kansas, whose elderly father lost $300,000 to the Canadian Lottery Scam over a four-year period.

Blevins started with her local police department and worked her way up to the FBI. She said she got plenty of sympathy and advice about avoiding scams in the future, but no help. She said she contacted the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas Attorney General's Office, the FBI field office in Wichita and FBI headquarters in Washington.

"They all said 'sorry, it's not our jurisdiction,'" Blevens told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Since the scam appeared to originate in Canada, Blevens contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a Canadian non-profit group called Phone Busters. Both, she said, were much more responsive than U.S. agencies.

"They responded immediately and they would contact us from time to time, to see if scammers had contacted us again," Blevins said. "The RCMP said they didn't usually open files on individual cases, but because of the amount of money stolen from my father, they were making an exception."

With little help from her country, Blevins began her own investigation.

As a first step she enrolled her father on the National Do Not Call list and installed Caller ID on his telephone. Using a feature from her telephone provider, she blocked all calls unless they were identified.

One day a man called from Canada seeking more money, identifying himself as "Mr. P." Using commonly available Internet tools, Blevins entered the man's phone number and found the name and address in Canada. The last name did indeed begin with P.

"I immediately sent his name and address to Phone Busters. We never heard any more from that individual," Blevins said.

Blevins cannot afford to relax her guard in her war on scammers. Once someone has been victimized, especially to the tune of $300,000, they continue to be targets. In the scam world, it's known as "reloading." Often the scam is presented as a way to help the victim retrieve their lost money.

"We got a call from a man who said he was with the New York Attorney General's office, and that he could help my father get his money back, but that it would require a fee of $1,400," Blevins said.

Caller ID indicated the imposter was indeed calling from New York. The number showed an area code for the Bronx while the display indicated the call had been placed from Dot Com Hotel, located in lower Manhattan.

"When I emailed this information to the New York Attorney General's Office, they responded that no one by that name worked in their office. But they didn't show much interest," Blevins said.

After three years of fighting to protect her father from scammers and to retrieve his stolen money, Cynthia Blevins is growing frustrated with the efforts of U.S. law enforcement.

She doesn't want to be told again "sorry, it's not in our jurisdiction." Instead, she says she would like her own country to show at least as much interest as the Canadian Government in helping an American citizen.

"If you look on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Web site, you'll see that they have caught a lot of scammers up there, and they make these people pay restitution. I think my father deserves that."

 

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New Scam Targets MySpace Users

New Scam Targets MySpace Users...

If you get a spam email directing you to download new music at the social networking site MySpace.com, watch out. Its all a new phishing scam, according to security experts at Sophos, an IT security firm.

The company is warning that the aggressively distributed spam campaign uses the name of the popular MySpace site in an attempt to trick people into revealing sensitive information.

The emails have been spammed out to hundreds of thousands of computer users around the globe in the last week, luring them into clicking on links to a website posing as an online music store.

The subject headings of the spam emails typically read: "New message from (name) on MySpace sent on (date) (time)." Using the guise of a MySpace contact email, the spammers heighten the chances of potential victims opening the email. The message in the email then informs the user, 'You've got a new song from (name) on MySpace!', and invites them to click on a link to hear "your MySpace music."

However, rather than taking users to the MySpace website, it directs them to a site claiming to sell MP3 music, and encourages them to pay to download music. The site, which only had its domain name registered on October 5 and claims to be based in Lappeenranta in Finland, has no affiliation with the social networking website.

"By making the headlines nearly everyday the MySpace brand has quickly become a household name, with 43 million users now signed up. As a result, it was only a matter of time before spammers jumped on its popularity for illegal purposes," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

"This email has been so aggressively spammed out that many of its recipients are not even MySpace users, so common sense should tell them the email is unsolicited and is to be deleted. Anyone who follows the links expecting to get free music, however, is risking handing their email address, credit card numbers and other private information into the hands of spammers."

 

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Hotel Key Cards: Identity Theft Risk or Not?

"Mythbusters" Aside, the Answer's Not Clear-Cut

"The cards simply contain a flag indicating that the guest has a credit card on file with the resort and is authorized to charge purchases to his room," ex...

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"Convenience Checks" Carry a Heavy Price Tag

You Pay Very Dearly for the Convenience

"Convenience checks" -- those allegedly free checks that enable you to spend money that's borrowed from your line of credit -- are anything but....


"Convenience checks" -- those allegedly free checks that enable you to spend money that's borrowed from your line of credit -- are anything but.

Even the most tempting offer is laden with hidden fees and traps that make the risk far greater than the reward.

Most alarming, convenience checks start accruing interest on the balance immediately from the time it's drawn -- unlike credit card charges, which are interest-free if you pay them off before the due date.

Some card issuers may charge hefty fees just to issue the check -- often as much as 2 to 5 percent of the check amount. As the interest rate information is often not listed on the check itself, cardholders will have to talk to their bank to get the fine print.

Worse yet, if your card has an existing balance, any payments you make will be applied to the lower balance first, at your current interest rate, before they are applied to the convenience check balance.

That means the balance will continue to accrue unpaid interest as long as you use the card to make purchases.

Scott T., of Los Angeles, wrote ConsumerAffairs.com asking if his drawing an advance check from his card meant he'd just been scammed.

"I thought that I had no other charges on the card that month, but I was wrong," he said. "I had about $200 in other charges."

"So, when the statement came in I sent the credit card company two checks, with instructions to apply one to the $200 in charges that month and the other ($1000) to the cash advance," Scott said.

"The paperwork that came with the interest free check said that the card issuer generally applies the money received to the lowest interest-generating balance first, but 'generally' is not the same word as 'always.'"

Emily Davidson, who writes for the Creditbloggers.com money and finance blog, looked into Scott's predicament.

"The [bank] representative told me that it is their policy to apply all payments to the balance with the lower APR before the paying off any balance with a higher APR," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I believe that most issuers have the same policy. It sounds like your reader is going to have to pay back all $10,000 before he can pay off the $200."

"This case really demonstrates what a terrible trap those paper 'checks' can be," Davidson said. "Any sort of late payment or default will usually cancel the 0% promotional rate and will often cause you be to charged back-dated interest."

The Motley Fool's Marko Djuranovic crunched the numbers on what a $10,000 convenience check from his credit line might cost him in an article last year.

According to Djuranovic's calculations, after all the hidden fees, accumulated interest, and minimum payments due, he'd have to pay at least 38 percent of the total borrowed amount back within two years, or risk accumulating charges pushing his balance to $12,000 or higher.

Djuranovic had been thinking of using the convenience check to make a short-term investment, hoping for a quick profit but his calculations scotched that idea.

"This negates the point of my original idea as there is no remotely reasonable rate of return that can fulfill that promise," he said. "I don't mind a little risk, but I'm not crazy!"

More Hidden Danger

But excessive fees and high interest rates aren't the only peril that comes with convenience checks. Because it's a blank check written to you from your bank, if it falls out of your hands, identity thieves can use the check to treat themselves to anything they want -- with your money.

Although some lenders such as American Express require a check holder to call in to activate the check, many others do not. And the federal laws that protect credit card users from fraud don't always extend to convenience checks.

Credit analysts recommend shredding and destroying any convenience checks you receive in the mail, to avoid "dumpster divers" piecing together your identity and using your credit line to go on a shopping spree.

Given the expenses, the hidden traps, and the dangers that can come with "convenience checks," it seems safer to call them "inconvenience checks."

If you need cash, find it somewhere else. Otherwise, you'll be paying a very high price for a the supposed convenience.

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How Much Caffeine In That Cup Of Decaf?

Study: Almost all decaffeinated coffee contains some caffeine.

"If someone drinks five to 10 cups of decaffeinated coffee, the dose of caffeine could easily reach the level present in a cup or two of caffeinated coffee...

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Credit Card Fees Rise, Disclosure Statements Inadequate

GAO Report Finds More "Hidden" Fees, Rising Penalties

Credit Card Fees Rise, Disclosure Statements Inadequate...


If you're overwhelmed by the numerous and mysterious fees that appear on your credit card statement, and the statement is so incomprehensible that it might as well be written in hieroglyphics, you're not alone.

"Unfair or confusing credit card practices take advantage of working families," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who commissioned a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found credit card fees and interest rates are rising while disclosure statements remain largely inpenetrable.

"This report shines a needed spotlight on excessive credit card fees, unfair interest rates, and inadequate disclosure practices that ought to be stopped," Levin said.

The published the report after surveying six of the major banks in the United States, which account for 80 percent of the nation's total credit card debt. The banks included J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Capital One.

"Although credit card issuers are required to provide cardholders with information aimed at facilitating informed use of credit and enhancing consumers' ability to compare the costs and terms of credit, we found that these disclosures have serious weaknesses that likely reduced consumers' ability to understand the costs of using credit cards," the GAO reported.

Among the report's findings:

• Credit card charges in the United States exceed $1 trillion dollars as of 2005, with an estimated 691 million cards issued to American citizens. Total American household debt, including credit card debt, came to $830 billion by the end of 2005.

• Penalty fees for actions such as late payments have more than doubled in the last ten years, from $13 in 1995 to as much as $34 in 2005.

• Card issuers now charge a variety of "hidden" or additional fees, such as charging for payments made over the phone, cash advances, and balance transfers. These fees can range from $10 to $31, depending on the transaction.

• Exceedingly high interest rates -- often as much as 30 percent -- are charged when customers miss a payment.

• Although half of Americans can only read at an eighth-grade level or below, the average credit card statement and disclosure information is written at a high-school level. Important information such as late fees or actions that could change their interest rate was often hard to locate and printed in small type, or scattered throughout the form.

In addition, the report found that many lenders will charge borrowers interest on balances already paid, by calculating the interest against the total debt on their card in the monthly billing cycle. This tactic, called "trailing interest," is often compounded by banks charging late fees on the unpaid interest.

Cardholders who take advantage of "convenience checks," checks written against the card's account balance, often find themselves paying additional interest charges and overlimit charges if they already have a balance on the card.

Convenience checks' terms are often not disclosed in the solicitation, and check holders have to call the bank to find out what the conditions really are.

The banks surveyed in the report claimed that the penalties and fees came as a result of issuing cards to "riskier" customers.

By pricing interest rates according to the borrower's "credit quality," the banks could offer cards to those who would otherwise have no access to credit, while retaining the lowest interest rates and most favorable terms for their "best" customers.

The banks also claimed that 80 percent of their cardholders had interest rates of 20 percent or less on their cards, with half of the active account holders paying their balances in full.

The data provided to the GAO by the banks indicated that a "small minority" of cardholders -- 35 percent -- were affected by late fees and interest hikes, but comprehensive data on the percentage of Americans paying penalty fees was unavailable.

The GAO concluded that there still was not enough comprehensive data to effectively link high interest rates and late fees to consumer debt, including filing for bankruptcy. While banks were seeing lower revenues from higher cardholder payoffs, this may be offset by increased gains from late fees and penalties.

The GAO recommended that all credit card disclosures be written in easily understood English, with clear emphasis on all actions that could lead to increases in interest rates and fees, as well as the fees themselves.

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Is Toyota's Quality Slipping?

Surveys, Consumer Complaints Suggest It May Be

Is Toyota's Quality Slipping?...

Is Toyota's quality slipping? The company lost ground in an annual vehicle value survey. While many consumers still give the Japanese automaker high marks, some analysts are suggesting the auto giant is growing too fast in its pursuit of General Motors.

San Diego-based Strategic Vision surveyed more than 64,000 people who purchased new vehicles from October 2005 to March 2006. Consumers were surveyed after 90 days of ownership and asked if they thought they got their moneys worth.

Toyota, which had seven segment winners in 2005, took only three categories in the new study and has been moving slower than other brands when it comes to innovation, according to an auto industry analyst.

As Toyota executives struggle with their corporate image, Jennifer in Bardstown Kentucky is struggling with the foul smell pouring out of her new Toyota.

"We purchased a 2006 Toyota Avalon, we noticed when we drove it that there was a rotten egg smell to it when you accelerated or went up hills," she wrote ConsumerAffairs.com.

"This was first dismissed by the dealership as a new car smell. However about 3 weeks later we could not start the car on the first try. This does not occur all the time but does occur at least once a week. It will also cause the motor to shake violently before it starts. Every time I have taken it in to the dealership I have been told it cannot be fixed because they cannot duplicate the problem." Jennifer said.

So Jennifer and her husband took matters in their on hands in a effort to fight back, much to the dismay and anger of their Toyota dealer.

"We went in there today to get some rattling corrected in the window and had (written) on the back window about the car being a lemon. This upset them and the service manager told us to remove it or he would call the police."

During the period of the Strategic Vision value survey, Toyota car and truck buyers complained to ConsumerAffairs.com of oil leaks, poor workmanship,design, strange odors and gasoline mileage as the automaker dealt with a surge in recalls attributed to cost-cutting efforts that use the same parts on more models.

Calisandria in San Leandro told us, "I was sold a car that has an oil leak which the service department cannot find."

"I bought this car, and by the time I got home smoke was coming out from under the hood. I parked the car where there are no oil spots on the ground. The next morning I go to check to see if there are any oil spots. There are about 4 spots on the ground," she wrote.

The recent surge in recalls at Toyota peaked in July when the automaker recalled about 400,000 SUVs in the U.S., its single biggest market. The spate of recalls has led some analysts to suggest a decline may well be under way at Toyota.

"Toyota has become the recall king, something the company never had to wrestle with in the past as it won most of the JD Powers and other car quality surveys," wrote Wall Street analyst Douglas A. McIntyre. But, as the company's market share has ballooned in the U.S., Toyota had to ramp up production for North America and quality seems to have suffered," he wrote.

Other industry analysts warn that Toyota may be becoming complacent as the company attempts to overtake General Motors as the world's largest car company. They cite the Strategic Vision survey as new evidence that growth may be undermining quality at Toyota.

Perception Is Reality

A ConsumerAffairs.com reader in Portland, Oregon, agrees with that assessment of the Japanese automaker.

"Perception is reality in auto industry and with such perception I bought Camry but the reality is it is a lemon." she wrote.

From Sacramento, Donna complained about the fit and finish of her new Toyota. "My 2006 Corolla has irregular paint drips along an inch strip between 5 and 7 inches up on car doors. I asked a record be made of the paint irregularities in case this leads to any early paint deterioration."

"I had noted other cars (at the dealership) had varying degrees of the drip strip immediately below the dip in the door. I received the ridiculous explanation from the service manager that this was 'orange peel & they can't help that the customer doesn't like where the manufacturer put it.'"

Art in Florida is fed up with his 2006 Toyota Tundra truck.

"I have never paid so much for a truck and got so little. From the 20-inch tires to the seats that have been lowered so nothing can be stored under them. I hate this truck."

Finally, Deborah in Louisville is finding her new Prius to be a big-time disappointment.

"I feel there was false advertising by Toyota in stating there was 50 miles per gallon on the highway and 60 miles per hour in the city driving my Toyota Prius hybrid. They jacked up the price $8,000 from sticker stating it was a car hard to come buy and that was their price and I would actually save money on gas."

Not so, says Deborah.

"After six months of tracking, the best mileage I ever got was 43 miles per gallon. Most often my mileage is between 30-36 miles per gallon which is no better than cars I have had in the past."

 

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CARFAX: Not Always All the Facts

Title Search Service Not the Last Word on a Vehicle's History

That's what Lee W. of San Bernardino, California thought his 1998 Corvette had when he bought the sports car two years ago. It's also why he paid $18,000 f...

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How To Contact CARFAX

Don't bother picking up the phone

CARFAX says its representatives are online from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday, and will answer consumers' e-mails within eight business hours....

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Smoking Bans Going Global

Travelers can find smoking bans on almost every continent

Smoking Bans Going Global...

Though getting rid of passive tobacco smoke in public places is far from a done deal, travelers can find smoking bans on almost every continent.

In North America, many states have finally banned smoking from bars and restaurants but the vast majority have not. Nor have most European countries, though Ireland, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Norway, and Sweden have enacted restrictions and France is trying to follow.

A French parliamentary panel has recommended that smoking be banned in cafes, offices, schools, restuarants, airports, train stations, and other enclosed public places by next fall. Now it's up the government to say yea or nay.

The Health Ministry definitely favors the ban, warning that smoking kills 66,000 Frenchmen prematurely every year. But changing the prevailing laissez-fair attitude may not be difficult in a country where dogs are routinely allowed into restaurants.

Bermuda has banned smoking in bars and restuarants too. Even South America is getting into the act, with Uruguay the first country on that continent to enact a smoking ban in enclosed public places.

In Bhutan, anti-smoking laws can only be described as draconian. It is not only illegal to smoke in public there or to sell tobacco but fines are equivalent to the average worker's salary for two months.

In the United States, 16 states have smoking bans for restaurants, with 10 extending those bans to bars and taverns. Arkansas and Oklahoma have enacted new laws to protect consumers and Puerto Rico, a would-be state, has given its law teeth: it bans smoking in private cars with children under age 13, perhaps anticipating a recent study that demonstrated the dangers of the practice!

According to the North American Travel Journalists Association, travel writers who care about public health, and particularly the health of travelers, can speed legislation by including information about smoking restrictions -- whether public or private -- in their articles. They can also help win public consent for such legislation as the pending California law that would impose fines on motorists who fling cigarette butts out of car windows.

Proposed fines are so steep that they may be more than the price of the car: $3,400 for first offenders and $20,400 for anyone cited three times or more. The Southern California sponsor means business!

Also in health-conscious California, communities are starting to consider bills that would ban smoking in outdoor public places such as parks and beaches.

That would please a Washington-based lobbying group called Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), now in its 38th year; the California-based Americans for Nonsmokers Rights (ANR); and Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP). All have aggressively promoted enactment of anti-smoking legislation.

The latest ASH newsletter states: "Restrictions on smlking to guarantee smokefree air for nonsmokers are spreading and are proving to be very effective and well-received."

 



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Craftmatic Settles WV Fraud Charges

State responds to large number of consumer complaints

Investigators were told that Craftmatic salesmen would knock on an elderly consumer's door, gain entry to their home, and stay there for several hours, oft...

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Google Buys YouTube -- And So?

What's It Mean to Your Average Surfer?

Google Buys YouTube -- And So?...

It was the shot heard 'round the technology world as search engine king Google announced it was buying video sharing site YouTube to the tune of $1.6 billion in stock.

Both companies' CEOs touted the move as a way to take advantage of the others' strengths -- Google can utilize YouTube's huge popularity and massive potential advertising base, and YouTube can swim in their new corporate parent's deep financial pockets.

But what does it mean to you, the everyday user who uses Google to search for information, or use YouTube's endless selection of video clips to waste time at work?

The chief concerns of YouTube fans are that Google may start charging viewers to watch or share content they could formerly access for free, and that major media conglomerates might be more tempted to sue YouTube users for violating copyright when posting content such as music videos, film clips, and so on.

This would drive many fans on to the next "cool" or free site, much as file-sharing site Napster was litigated into becoming a for-pay (and much less popular) service.

YouTube CEO Chad Hurley assured skeptics that the company would continue to operate independently, and without any major changes.

In a video posted on YouTube, Hurley said that "we are gonna stay committed to providing the bestmost innovative service, and developing new tools and technologies for you to keep having fun on our site."

As part of the strategy to avoid the predicted mountain of copyright lawsuits, YouTube announced it had cut a deal with CBS to enable sharing of CBS News clips in exchange for a cut of advertising revenue. Google announced a similar deal with Sony BMG for its own Google Video service, a deal which may be extended to YouTube.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen also talked up the company's new "flagging" technology, which purportedly enables identification of copyrighted content for quick and easy removal.

Although companies such as Universal have complained about the heavy sharing of "unauthorized" content on YouTube, the company has been able to avoid potential lawsuits by promptly complying with requests to remove videos, and because it simply didn't have the money to be a worthwhile lawsuit target. With Google's ten-league pockets backing them, that may change.

Advertising is going to be key for making money from the massive joint venture.

YouTube fans are accustomed to accessing the site's purported 100 million-plus videos for free, and without a subscription system to make money from the content, the company is going to rely on getting users to click on ads in order to generate revenue.

Critics complained about the $1.6 billion price tag for the sale, saying that YouTube had yet to find a way to make money from its video hosting, and that the sale was reminiscent of the late-90's "dot-com boom," which eventually led to a huge bust and the shuttering of many businesses.

As a sign that Google is hedging its bets, the company claimed that its own Google Video service would stay active, though YouTube users would not have to sign up with Google in order to continue using YouTube.

Google recently suffered a minor embarrassment when hackers took advantage of a flaw in the company's Blogger service to post an unauthorized entry to the company's own blog. The hackers claimed the company was canceling a "click-to-call" advertising service developed in conjunction with sometime Google ally eBay.

For now, it seems that YouTube fans have nothing to fear, and can continue to enjoy the hordes of dancing monkeys, sleeping kittens, and stupid human tricks that make up the bulk of the site's video content.

As to what may come in the future, both companies are wisely choosing to wait and see what presents itself.

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Some Lettuce Recalled Over E. coli Concerns

Another leafy green vegetable has an E. coli problem

Some Lettuce Recalled Over E. coli Concerns: First spinach, now lettuce. Another leafy green vegetable is being recalled over E. coli bacteria concerns....

First spinach, now lettuce. Another leafy green vegetable is being recalled over E. coli bacteria concerns.

Nunes Co., a California lettuce grower that distributes its product nationwide, has issued a recall for lettuce because of concerns it might be tainted with E. Coli bacteria. So far, there have been no reports that any consumers have become ill. Like the grower at the center of the spinach recall, Nunes' operation is located in California's Salinas Valley.

Company officials said they issued the recalled based on water tests that revealed what they called "generic E. coli" in the water used in irrigation. They stressed that no bacteria has been found in the lettuce itself.

The recall covers lettuce purchased in grocery stores Oct. 3-6 in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Since it was also sold to distributors in those states, chances are it was also sold to restaurants.

The FDA said it was aware of the voluntary recall but was not yet involved. The agency is currently one of four U.S. Government agencies investigating the spinach contamination. The FBI is also conducting a criminal probe, since food producers are criminally liable for the safety and integrity of their products.

ConsumerAffairs.com's medical advisor, Dr. Henry Fishman, said E. coli causes diarrhea, often with bloody stools, accompanied by cramps and abdominal pain.

E. Coli infections are not rare. Every year there are an estimated 73,000 cases and 61 deaths.

In fact, we have E. coli in our intestines, Fishman said. It helps turn our food into useful vitamins. However, this particular strain of the Enterobacteriaceae family is a particularly dangerous form of the bacteria. It is the same strain that was found in Jack in the Box meat in 1993 in Washington state. That strain infected 700 people and killed four.

Fishman said cooking food kills E. coli. However, boiling the spinach, compared to broiling hamburger meat, may not be enough.

Most healthy consumers should be able to fight the bacteria on their own by hydrating well, Fishman said. Antibiotics are generally not effective. Those who fall ill should should drink lots of fluids and seek medical attention promptly.

Although most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, some people can develop a form of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).



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Study Finds Bias in Drug Studies

Reviews of drugs that are supported by the pharmaceutical industry should be read with skepticism

Study Finds Bias in Drug Studies: Tests and reviews of drugs that are supported by the pharmaceutical industry should perhaps be read with more than a hint...

Tests and reviews of drugs that are supported by the pharmaceutical industry should perhaps be read with more than a hint of skepticism. So advises a new study in the British Medical Journal, which finds these industry supported reviews are more likely to reach favorable conclusion on drugs, than independent reviews.

According to the authors, bias in drug trials is common and often favors the trial sponsor's product. To balance this effect, independent reviews -- which can have a more critical and systematic approach -- are essential to ensure doctors and other health professionals have the information they need.

The authors, based in Denmark, compared the results of 24 pairs of reviews conducted by different people on the same drugs.

Compared to reviews supported by the pharmaceutical industry, reviews undertaken by the Cochrane Collaboration -- an independent body -- were of a higher quality and were more likely to address the potential for bias in the review.

Of seven industry-supported reviews, all recommended the experimental drug without reservation, while none of the corresponding Cochrane reviews reached the same conclusion.

Six of the eight Cochrane reviews analyzed had reservations about the quality or relevance of the trials or their findings and two of them noted that the effect decreased with increasing number of patients in the trial. Seven mentioned higher cost of the experimental drug as a problem.

In contrast, none of the industry-supported reviews mentioned higher cost as a problem, and two claimed that the experimental drug was cost-effective.

The researchers also found that the reviews with not-for-profit support or no support had cautious conclusions similar to the Cochrane reviews.

The authors conclude that industry-supported reviews should be read with caution. They also want greater transparency, including the inclusion of more information on methodology and the estimated effects of the drugs, in order to allow readers to judge the reliability of drug reviews.



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Wal-Mart Expands Its Generic Drug Discounts

$4 Pricing Will Go Nationwide

Wal-Mart Expands Its Generic Drug Discounts...

Wal-Mart says it is expanding its program to sell 300 generic prescription drugs for $4 because of the enthusiastic reception in the Tampa Bay area it was kicked off last month.

The company originally said it would expand the program to all of Florida by early next year if demand justified it. Now it says it will go statewide with the cut-rate pricing today while expanding the list of drugs to 314 and hopes to take the program nationwide by the end of the year.

The list has been expanded to include medicines such as the oncology drug Megestrol and Lovastatin, which is used to treat cholesterol. The list of $4 prescription medications now represents nearly 30 percent of prescriptions currently dispensed in the 235 Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies throughout Florida, the company said.

"This program makes everyone at Wal-Mart proud. It enables us to respond to the needs of our customers who have struggled far too long with the high cost of prescriptions," said Wal-Mart President and CEO Lee Scott.

Target has said it would match the discounts at its stores. Walgreen, the nation's pharmacy chain, has said it will not cut prices, noting that nearly all of its customers are enrolled in prescription drug coverage.

Bill Simon, executive vice president of the Professional Services Division for Wal-Mart, said the response in the Tampa Bay, Fla. test market has been considerable, with 36,000 new prescriptions filled in the ten days after the September 21, 2006 launch.

For specific medications, the company estimates the following approximate savings to Florida Wal-Mart and Sams Club customers and members under the program, based on current average retail prices from myfloridarx.com:

• Fluoxetine (20 mg), an antidepressant: about $210,000 monthly and $2.5 million annually on this medication.

• Lisinopril (10 mg), used to treat high blood pressure: about $150,000 monthly and $1.8 million annually on this medication.

• Atenolol (25 mg), a beta blocker: about $75,000 monthly and $900,000 annually on this medication.

The prescriptions included in the program represent many of the most commonly prescribed medications in a wide range of therapeutic categories. Generics contain the same high quality active ingredients as their brand-name counterparts and are equally effective but cost significantly less. Wal-Mart continues to use the same suppliers as before the launch of the $4 generic prescription program.

Not everyone welcomes Wal-Mart's price cutting. Critics call it a marketing move, designed to draw more pharmacy business away from independently owned drug stores. They say generic drugs are already cheap and aren't nearly the burden name-brand drugs are.

Despite the critics, Wal-Mart's cost-cutting has spurred other actions that have injected new life into the retail drug market.

Although complaining bitterly, locally-owned pharmacies are beginning to shave prices on their generics while other major chains study Wal-Mart's action.

Congress, frightened by seniors' anger over the complex Medicare Part D program, has decided to allow consumers to buy drugs in Canada and bring them home. And the U.S. Customs Service has announced it will stop seizing prescription drugs being mailed to individuals from Canadian pharmacies.

 



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U-Haul Gets Hauled Into Court

Refueling Charges Challenged

U-Haul charged him a $20 "fueling fee" plus another $2 a gallon for gas needed to top off the tank, pointing to his rental contract that spelled out the ch...

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Schwarzenegger Terminates Spychip Bill

Schwarzenegger Terminates Spychip Bill...

October 5, 2006
It's back to Square One for California privacy advocates hoping to restrict the use of "spychip" technology in the state, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill passed by the General Assembly.

Schwarzenegger said the measure might contradict forthcoming federal guidance for technology used in government identification, specifically relating to the REAL ID act, which mandates national standards for verifying the identity of driver's license applicants.

The so-called spychip technology -- technical known as radio frequency identification (RFID) (RFID) -- is a leading contender for use in nationally-readable ID cards.

"I am concerned that the bill's provisions are overbroad and may unduly burden the numerous beneficial new applications of contactless technology," Schwarzenegger said in his veto statement.

The bill, sponsored by state Senator Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto), would have implemented multiple safeguards into any machines capable of reading RFID-tagged cards, provided information on the locations of RFID tag machine readers throughout the state, and ensured consumers had control of how their information was transmitted.

With RFID technology, any product -- or person, for that matter -- can be tracked and catalogued. It's the potential to track humans that has alarmed many privacy advocates.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hoped that passage of the California law would trigger other states to pursue similar measures. Privacy advocates such as Liz McIntyre criticized Schwarzenegger's veto as an example of "his admiration for paternalistic power."

"He's in the cat bird seat now, but his perspective might change if he becomes the tracked rather than the person doing the tracking, "McIntyre told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"It's a shame he had the opportunity to protect what's left of California citizens' privacy, but chose instead to terminate the bill."

McIntyre and partner Katherine Albrecht have led the charge for more public awareness of the usage of RFID tags, or "spychips," in public life.

Their book of the same name details many examples of government and business pushing the use of RFID tagging for everything from jeans to medical patients.

McIntyre and Albrecht also head CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering), which opposes the usage of "loyalty cards" and collecting information on shoppers' buying habits.

The duo had previously brought attention to Levi Strauss and Co.'s attempts to test RFID tracking chips imbedded in men's jeans at stores in Mexico. Levi Strauss refused to disclose the location of the tests, possibly fearing a consumer backlash and boycott.

In spite of the criticism, government agencies and businesses are pushing ahead with various RFID initiatives. Leading RFID technology designer VeriChip has been petitioning the Pentagon to "tag" all military personnel with chips containing their personal health information.

Hackers and security analysts have repeatedly demonstrated that RFID chips can be "read" and copied easily, enabling thieves to make off with any information stored therein, but to no avail.

If RFID tags make it into the new REAL ID driver's licenses, that will be one more item on the list for a program with estimated costs running in the hundreds of millions.

Critics of the plan say that the initiative is one step closer to a national ID card, as well as a potential gold mine for identity thieves who will take advantage of the massive project to harvest information from unsuspecting Americans.

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Walgreens Cases Spotlight Problem of Rx Errors

Thousands of deaths blamed on pharmacy errors each year

Walgreens, the country's largest pharmacy chain, is fighting to contain damage from two serious errors by its pharmacists, illustrating the larger problem ...

Walgreens, the country's largest pharmacy chain, is fighting to contain damage from two serious errors by its pharmacists, illustrating the larger problem of pharmacy errors that are blamed for thousands of deaths each year.

Walgreens has been ordered to pay $31.3 million to the estate of Leonard Kulisek, 79. He suffered a slow and painful death after a drug-abusing pharmacist in Schaumburg, Ill., gave him diabetes medication instead of the gout medicine that had been prescribed.

Two days later Kulisek slipped into a coma and had to start dialysis. Months later, he suffered a stroke and his health continued to spiral downward until November 2002, when he made the decision to stop dialysis and die.

The pharmacist, James Wilmes, admitted that he was addicted to prescription pain killers and that he had stolen over 86,000 pills over an eight-year period, according to court testimony.

Walgreens admitted the error but argued that it was not responsible for Kulisek's death because medical records proved he already suffered from kidney problems.

David Axelrod, attorney for Kulisek's estate conceded that Kulisek had mild kidney problems but said the diabetes medication was "the bullet that sent Len Kulisek downhill."

The jury agreed with Axelrod.

"The only way we could hope to change the system in the future was to hurt them financially," said jury forewoman Lisa Barrington after the verdict was announced Friday.

In the second case, Michael Wells, of Milford Village, Mich. had surgery on his prostate in late October 2003. His surgeon, Kenneth Kernan, prescribed an antibiotic to fight off any post-surgery infection. Instead, an unnamed pharmacist at Walgreens filled his prescription with Diuril, a diuretic.

Five days went by and Wells was having intense leg cramps. After some research on the Internet he discovered that he had been given the wrong medication. He went back to Walgreens and the pharmacist admitted that he or she had made an error.

The next day, Wells developed a major infection in his surgical wound. A doctor who examined Wells that day said it was almost definitely a result of the pharmacist's error.

Wells spent the next several months fighting the infection with the help of three doctors. The infection spread across much of his lower body and he continues to suffer from its effects.

Attorney Douglas Peters filed suit against Walgreens in February 2006.

Not Unusual

Although these two cases have attracted national attention, they are just a few of the millions of errors committed by pharmacists ispharmacies each year.

A 2004 study by Betsy Flynn, professor at Auburn University, estimates that American pharmacists make 56 million prescription errors a year.

The Institute of Medicine published a study in 1999 that estimates that 48,000 to 99,000 people die each year in America due to medical errors.

Errors "Rare," Walgreens Claims

"Pharmacy errors are very rare, but when they happen we take them very seriously," Carol Hively, Walgreens spokeswoman told ConsumerAffairs.com in an e-mail. "No pharmacist wants to make an error."

"We have a multi-step prescription filling process, with numerous safety checks in each step, to reduce the chance of human error," Hively wrote.

Hively suggested consumers get familiar with their medication so they can take an active role in decreasing the risk that they are killed by their pharmacist's error.

"We encourage patients to become knowledgeable about their medications and know what their medications are and what they look like," Hively wrote. "To that end, Walgreens includes on the patient information sheet a picture showing the shape of the pill and any markings on it. This is a valuable reference tool patients can use to check their medicine when they're home or after they may have put the pills in another container."

 



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New Study: Side and Roof Airbags Save Lives

IIHS study is more ammunition for safety advocates

New Study: Side and Roof Airbags Save Lives...

Side and roof airbags can save your life as they drop and inflate providing head protection in serious side crashes -- and they provide even more protection when cars are struck by larger SUVs and pickups, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"We found lower fatality risks across the board among older and younger drivers, male and female drivers, and drivers of both small cars and larger passenger vehicles," said Anne McCartt, Institute vice president for research and an author of the study.

The IIHS report is more evidence for advocates demanding that the auto industry and the government accelerate efforts to incorporate head protection in more vehicles. Safety advocates have urged regulators and the industry to make the technology standard as soon as possible.

The overall research findings echo those of a 2003 Institute study of side airbag effectiveness in cars. The auto industry agreed then to equip all vehicles with side airbags with head protection as a standard feature by 2009.

"Once every passenger vehicle on the road has side airbags that include head protection for the front-seat occupants we can save as many as 2,000 lives per year," said McCartt.

In 2004, 2.7 million passenger vehicles were involved in side-impact crashes, according to police reports cited by the researchers and more than 9,000 people were killed.

IIHS researchers concluded side airbags that protect the torso reduced deaths by 26 percent in side-impact crashes. The same study also found that deaths declined by an estimated 37 percent when the vehicle was also equipped with side airbags that protect the head.

"Head protecting side airbags reduce driver fatality risk when cars are struck by SUVs and pickups, not just other cars," McCartt said.

Side airbag technology is relatively new and is included in about 80 percent of new cars and SUVs as standard or optional equipment.

The airbags vary by design. Some descend from the vehicle roof to protect the heads of occupants in both front and back seats. Combination side airbags inflate from the vehicle seat or sometimes the door. These protect occupants' torsos and heads too.

Pickup trucks aren't matching the pattern of rapidly being equipped with side airbags. Head-protecting bags are standard in only one 2006 model pickup. Fewer than half of all pickups have side airbags at all, standard or optional.

 

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Alarm Companies Alarmed Over Cell Phone Transition

Switch to New Frequencies Could Leave Home Alarms Inoperable

Alarm Companies Alarmed Over Cell Phone Transition...

The sun is setting on the United States' first national cellular phone technology, known as Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS).

While for most this means farewell to a cell phone the size and weight of a brick, for others it could mean interference with hearing aids, an ineffective home alarm system or no cell phone reception in rural areas.

Under an FCC docket known as 01-108, cell phone companies will no longer be required to offer AMPS service starting in February 2008. Although the docket was introduced in 2002, some businesses are still complaining that there is not enough time to upgrade to newer technology. Some consumers are complaining they will lose their cell phone service.

Larger cell phone companies like Verizon Wireless have presumably wanted to ditch the AMPS service for many years because it amounts to an extra cost with no corresponding increase in business.

When the FCC mandated AMPS in the early 1980s, it was a way to lower the price of cell phones and cellular network service by standardizing the technology and forcing competition in every market.

The frequency bandwidth for cell phones in each market was divided into two equal parts. Then, two companies would bid on those halves.

By standardizing the technology, a consumer could travel around the country and still get service by "roaming" in another company's service area. It also allowed consumers to keep the same phone while switching service.

But today, it seems like the only person still using AMPS technology is Zack Morris on "Saved by the Bell" reruns. What were once some of the most coveted frequencies by telecommunications companies in the '80s are now some of their biggest financial drains.

"We conclude that it imposes costs and impedes spectral efficiency," states the FCC docket.

"We continue to consider the existence of a nationwide, compatible service to be a major goal for the cellular service. However, given the current competitive state of mobile telephony, we conclude that consumers will continue to have the ability to roam outside of their home markets even in the absence of the analog requirement."

Alarms Sound

Today's digital cell phones use higher frequencies which mean they have a shorter range. But the upside is that, coupled with digital technology, the more modern service can handle a larger volume of simultaneous calls with improved voice quality.

It also means consumers can transfer data, such as e-mails, text messages and videos. Almost every cell phone customer in the U.S. uses the newer digital service.

Jeff Nelson, spokesman for Verizon Wireless said he didn't know exactly how many people still rely on AMPS but insisted, "It's a very, very small percentage of customers."

Many alarm systems in the U.S. send warning messages to fire, police and hospital emergency workers using AMPS. Although the FCC released the docket in 2002, the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) claims their member companies need more time to upgrade their existing AMPS systems to digital alarms.

"We are talking to the FCC in the hopes of getting an extension," NBFAA Executive Director Merlin Guilbeau said in a prepared statement.

But with 16 months until the sunset of this technology, there is no plan for an extension, said FCC spokeswoman Chelsea Fallon.

ADT, the country's largest security system company is sending a formal request for an extension to the AMPS sunset to the FCC tomorrow.

"While we understand the need to migrate to digital services, doing so in the deadline timeframe is unrealistic given the lack of adequate equipment supply from manufacturers. This limits the ability of security companies to begin the aggressive scheduling of swap-out installations required to meet the 2008 deadline." Phillip McVey, vice president, Business Operations, ADT North America, said in a prepared statement.

Although a handful of companies already offer digital alarm service, on a nationwide scale, it might not work, ADT claimed. The FCC had no comment on ADT's letter.

"While mobile phones are offered to consumers in multiple digital technologies, the manufacturers of alarm equipment offer only GSM products," according to the ADT statement. "There are areas of the United States where GSM service will not function and products on other digital technologies, such as CDMA, are required but not yet available."

However, a quick look at a large GSM map such as Cingular's coverage map versus that of Verizon's (CDMA), will show that few places have that have GSM, do not have CDMA.

Another concern is that there is not enough equipment or manpower to upgrade many of these systems by 2008.

"There are three-quarters of a million to a million systems that use this system (AMPS)," NBFAA president George Gunmann said.

With Congress in recess, it may be a while before any decision is made, Gunman said.

"We have been telling our members that they need to be prepared to have all their alarms be digital very soon," said NBFAA spokesman Jason Smith.

Hear Me Now?

Other industries have better adapted to the five-year sunset. The higher frequency broadcast of modern cell phones tends to interfere with hearing aids while AMPS does not.

"Some people describe it as a Bumble Bee buzzing in their ear," said Pam Mason, spokeswoman for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "Others say it sounds like a motor boat."

According to VerizonWireless.com, "a hearing aid operates by using a microphone to pick up sound waves in the air and converts the sound waves to electrical signals. The signals are then amplified as needed and converted back to audible sounds for the user to hear. The hearing aid's microphone, however, does not always work well in conjunction with audio devices like headsets and telephone handsets. The acoustic connection made between the audio device and the hearing aid is poor and creates distortions in the sound. In addition, the surrounding noise in the area of the user is often picked up by the hearing aid and interferes with the desired audio."

Mason said there have been great strides to fix this problem. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has worked with both manufacturers of cell phones and hearing aids to offer a solution for those customers with hearing deficiencies.

Cell phones and hearing aids now label their "M rating." The M rating tells how well that particular device will cancel interference while using a modern cell phone. For both cell phones and hearing aids, customers should make sure they both have an M rating of at least three.

Mason said customers should make sure the combined M rating of the two products is at least six. For example, she said if a customer has a hearing aid with an M rating of two, he or she should buy a cell phone with an M rating of at least four.

Many of the cell phones listed on Verizon's website have an M rating of three or four. Regardless of the listed M rating, Mason said customers should go to the store to try out the cell phone before buying it.

Mason said thanks to the M rating system, the termination of AMPS should not affect consumers with hearing aids.

Remote Areas

The final group that might be affected by this change is consumers in very remote areas. Since AMPS has significantly more range, areas such as the entire Gulf of Mexico and the Appalachian Mountains can have service.

However, industry professionals don't believe that this voluntary sunset will dramatically change service for customers in rural regions.

According to the FCC docket, "With the introduction of digital services by PCS (Personal Communications Service) providers, cellular licensees are likely to find it competitively necessary to install or expand their digital network, regardless of whether or not the analog requirement is retained."

Most of the regional rural carriers offer both AMPS and digital service already, Tim Raven, executive director of the Rural Cellular Association, said.

"It is inevitable that the rural areas will become all-digital," Raven said. "The problem is that some customers like their old analog phones and our companies want to cater to their needs."

Although it would seem to be financially smart for the large cell phone companies to disconnect the AMPS service as soon as possible, Nelson, speaking for Verizon Wireless, said he does not know when or if Verizon plans to shut down AMPS.

"I know we have not notified customers yet," he said.

Nelson said it's possible the company will give customers in rural areas cell phones that work with both analog and digital signals and wean them off the AMPS service gradually.

In short, this has been a slow, five-year sunset for an aging technology and although in some areas it may still exist for years to come, for most consumers that ringing sound will be coming from their shiny new digital cell phones.

 

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Court Shuts Down Qchex

Con Artists Used Service to Raid Consumers' Checking Accounts

Qchex, an Internet-based check creation and delivery service, was temporarily shut down after allegations that it has enabled fraudsters to raid consumers'...

A federal court has temporarily shut down Qchex, an Internet-based check creation and delivery service after allegations that it has enabled fraudsters to raid consumers' checking accounts.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the Federal Trade Commission charged that Qchex creates and sends checks drawn on any bank account identified by a Qchex customer without verifying that the customer has authority to write checks drawn on that account.

As a result, con artists have used the Qchex service to draw checks on bank accounts that belong to others.

According to the FTC, Qchex's practices have harmed both innocent account holders whose bank accounts have been debited, and individuals and businesses who received fraudulent Qchex checks as payment for goods and services.

The agency alleges the practices violate federal law, and has asked the court to order a permanent halt to the illegal operation, and to order the defendants to give up their ill-gotten gains.

According to the FTC's court filings, before September 2005, Qchex offered and sold its online check services without making any effort at all to verify that someone ordering a check on an identified account actually had authorization to write checks to be drawn on that account.

Indeed, Qchex would create and deliver checks for a customer even when the customer's name was different from the name on the checking account and different from the name on the credit card account the customer used to pay for the check service.

In September 2005, Qchex implemented -- and then subsequently abandoned -- a series of verification plans that the FTC alleges were haphazard and ineffective.

The FTC charged that Qchex's failure to verify customers' authority to write checks on identified accounts injured account holders by causing funds to be withdrawn from their bank accounts without their knowledge or authorization, and causing them to incur the time, trouble, and costs of closing accounts, opening new accounts, and buying new checks.

Some account holders whose accounts were debited without their authorization tried to contact Qchex to tell the company it was processing checks on the wrong account, but they could not locate a working phone number for Qchex.

In some cases where account holders did reach Qchex to notify the company that checks were being illegally drawn on their accounts, Qchex ignored them and continued to create and deliver checks on their accounts. The FTC has received hundreds of consumer complaints about the company.

The FTC complaint states that in many cases scammers used a Qchex check to pay individuals or businesses for goods or services. The unwitting individual or business receiving such a check deposited it, and, because the check initially cleared, provided the goods or services to the scammers. But when the unauthorized check ultimately bounced, the amount of the check was debited from the recipient's account.

Scammers also used Qchex checks in overpayment schemes, in which the scammer overpaid an unsuspecting third party for items or services and asked that third party to wire back the difference between the price of the item or service and the amount of the bogus Qchex check. The checks initially cleared, so these recipients of Qchex checks wired the excess funds as requested. But again, when an unauthorized check ultimately bounced, the amount of the previously deposited Qchex check was debited from the victim's account.

The FTC charges that the defendants' conduct constitutes unfair practices that violate the FTC Act. The agency will seek a permanent halt to the business practices and an order requiring that the defendants give up their ill-gotten gains.

Defendants named in this case are Neovi, Inc., doing business as Neovi Data Corporation and Qchex.com; G7 Productivity Systems, Inc., doing business as Qchex.com; and their principals, James M. Danforth and Thomas Villwock. The defendants are based in San Diego, California.

 

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"Trailing Interest" Snags Bank Of America Customers

Paid in full? Doesn't matter. You may still be charged "trailing interest"

"Even if you pay your BoA card in full, you next statement will contain an interest charge - even if you made no further purchases," said Joe of Clarks Sum...

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Florida Files "Cramming" Suit

Unauthorized Charges on Phone Bills

Florida Files 'Cramming' Suit...

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has filed suit against an Internet service company for improperly tacking unauthorized charges onto consumers' phone bills.

In addition, Crist has joined Florida's Public Counsel Harold McLean in filing a petition with the Public Service Commission demanding that Verizon, BellSouth and Embarq be held responsible for charges placed on phone bills and calling for full reimbursement for affected consumers.

Crist's Economic Crimes Division launched an investigation this May after charges for Plantation-based Email Discount Network, LLC, an online shopping service, appeared on phone bills from several different telephone carriers.

The $12.95 and $14.95 charges are examples of "cramming," a billing practice that charges for extra services without the customer's knowledge.

According to records reviewed by Crist's office, at least 70 customers have been billed for the charges every month for a year. Florida consumers may have lost a combined total of nearly $200,000 to the company. Investigators estimate that more than 258,000 customers were charged nationwide, including more than 20,000 Floridians.

Other Internet service companies with the same owners as Email Discount Network are still under investigation and could have more than a million affected customers, according to officials.

"Phone companies shouldn't bill consumers for services they never agreed to pay for," said Crist. "We will continue to protect our consumers from any company that might try to take advantage of them and hold those companies accountable."

Investigators spoke with victims of the scam, none of whom were aware of signing up for the service. Email Discount Network charged many consumers after they signed up to receive coupons or took online surveys. The company failed to clearly inform the consumers that this would result in charges on their phone bills.

Some of the victims did not even have computers, or were out of town when they supposedly signed up. In light of this scam, Crist encouraged consumers to carefully read their phone bills to catch repeated charges before they add up to large sums of lost money.

In their petition filed with the Public Service, Crist and McLean assert that under Florida law, phone companies should not have included the charges from Email Discount Network. The petition also calls for complete reimbursement for any affected Floridians.

 

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Your Next Home: Custom or Modular?

Factory-Assembled Homes Surpassing Stick-Built

In the past, any home that was built in a factory and not on site, was considered inferior, humble, unsafe and perhaps recalled images from the film "Deliv...

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Study: Aggressive Driving Negates Benefits of Safety Devices

Airbags, ABS Encourage Careless Driving, Researchers Find

Study: Aggressive Driving Negates Benefits of Safety Devices...

Researchers have determined that airbags and antilock braking systems do not reduce the likelihood of accidents or injuries because they may encourage more aggressive driving, thwarting the potential benefits of such safety features.

The behavior responsible for this seeming paradox is called the offset hypotheses, which predicts that consumers adapt to innovations meant to improve safety by becoming less vigilant about safety, said Fred Mannering, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University.

"When antilock brakes were first introduced, insurance companies noticed that the accident rates for those cars increased," he said. "We decided to see whether the offset hypothesis could explain this phenomenon."

The researchers analyzed motor vehicle data from the state of Washington over a five-year period beginning in 1992.

"We used that time period because that's when airbags started getting introduced very rapidly, and we wanted to track the same drivers over that time frame to see whether the new safety features reduced their accident and injury rate," Mannering said. "Our findings suggest that the offset hypothesis is occurring and that it is sufficient to counter the modest technological benefits of airbags and antilock brakes."

A research paper detailing the study's findings was published earlier this year in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. The paper was written by Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Vikram Maheshri, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley; and Mannering.

The researchers used a series of mathematical equations in "probit models" to calculate accident probabilities based on the motor vehicle data and actual driving records.

Using the data, the model enabled researchers to calculate the probabilities of whether drivers in different age and demographic categories would be involved in an accident. The models showed that the safety systems did not affect the probability of having an accident or injury.

The study represents the first attempt to test the offset hypothesis using "disaggregate data," or following the same households over time instead of using more general "aggregate" data from the population at large.

"By using disaggregate data, we have added to the credibility that our findings actually reflect offsetting behavior," Mannering said. "And the 2005 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fatality data released last month indicate that fatalities per mile driven in the United States have actually increased, which adds some aggregate validation of our findings."

The researchers tracked 1,307 drivers who had a total of 614 accidents, 16 of which resulted in injury, from 1992 through 1996. Of these drivers, 271 switched from a vehicle without an airbag to a vehicle with an airbag at some point during the same period, and 270 also made the switch to antilock brakes.

Because many of the households tracked over the five-year period never purchased cars with the safety features, the study contained an inherent "control group," Mannering said. "So our sample of drivers has a complete mix of people, with and without safety features, in each of the years we study," he added.

Claims of safety benefits for airbags and antilock brakes assume that motorists drive the same way regardless of whether their cars are equipped with the safety features.

"However, if you drive a car without these safety features and then you get behind the wheel of a newer car, you see the difference immediately," said Mannering, who owns a vintage MG sports car and a newer vehicle equipped with many of the latest safety technologies.

"The contrast is dramatic. When I'm driving the MG, I definitely make a special effort not to tailgate or accelerate quickly when roads are slick because I don't have the antilock brakes, traction control and the other advanced safety features of the newer car," he noted.

The researchers used Washington state data because Mannering was a researcher at the University of Washington at the time. "There are no indications that Washington state drivers are unrepresentative of U.S. drivers in general," he said.

Mannering said the offset hypothesis will continue to be an issue in the future with the introduction of even more advanced safety features, such as electronic stability packages designed to prevent rollover accidents.

 

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Consumers Concerned About Carbon Monoxide in Meat

The chemical is used to make meat look redder

Consumers Concerned About Carbon Monoxide in Meat...

Three out of four consumers were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the practice of adding carbon monoxide to meat to make the meat appear bright red for up to several weeks longer than untreated meat, according to a new survey conducted for the Consumer Federation of America.

In addition, 78 percent of consumers said that the practice of treating red meat with carbon monoxide is deceptive and 68 percent would strongly support a law to make it mandatory that meat treated with carbon monoxide be labeled, according to the survey of 1,019 men and women administered for CFA by the Opinion Research Corporation.

"Consumers are quite simply concerned about the addition of carbon monoxide to meat packaging," said Chris Waldrop, Deputy Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. "In fact, most consumers find the practice deceptive. The FDA needs to halt this practice immediately."

Adding carbon monoxide to meat packaging increases the meat packers' profit by reducing the number of times meat is repackaged. Adding a small amount of CO to prepackaged red meat makes the meat appear bright red for up to several weeks longer than untreated meat.

CFA has written to the Food and Drug Administration in support of a citizen's petition filed by Kalsec, Inc. in November 2005, asking FDA to prohibit this use of carbon monoxide in the packaging of fresh meat.

"It is clear that the FDA failed to consider the consumer deception inherent in this practice," Waldrop added. "The agency simply ceded to industry pressure without adequately considering the impact on consumers."

Most consumers are concerned about the practice of adding CO to color meat and believe this practice to be deceptive, according to the survey.

• Sixty-three percent (63%) agreed with the statement "the freshness of meat is directly related to the color of the meat." By extending the bright red color of meat for several weeks longer than untreated meat, carbon monoxide masks the true color of the meat and consumers are unable to accurately determine if the meat is fresh.

• Three out of four consumers (75%) are very concerned or somewhat concerned about the practice of adding CO to meat to make the meat appear bright red for up to several weeks longer than untreated meat.

• Three out of four consumers (74%) also replied that CO-treated meat such as ground beef should not be allowed to have a 28-day shelf life, as required by the Federal government. The typical shelf life for prepackaged meat that has not been treated with CO is 10 to 12 days.

• In addition, over three-fourths of consumers (78%) said that the practice of treating red meat with CO is deceptive.

• Moreover, 68% of consumers would strongly support a law to make it mandatory that meat treated with CO be labeled.

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