1. News
  2. 2006
  3. October

Current Events in October 2006

Browse Current Events by year


Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thanks for subscribing.

    You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    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

    EPA Finds Prius #1 in Gas Mileage...

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

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

    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.

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

    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

    FBI Warns Online Jobseekers Of Identity Theft...

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thanks for subscribing.

      You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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.

      How Loud Should Your iPod Be?...

      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 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.

      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...

      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.

      Nursing Home Operators Indicted on Fraud Charges...

      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 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."

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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."

      New Scam Targets MySpace Users...

      "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.

      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.

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

      Credit Card Fees Rise, Disclosure Statements Inadequate

      GAO Report Finds More "Hidden" Fees, Rising Penalties

      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.

      Credit Card Fees Rise, Disclosure Statements Inadequate...

      Is Toyota's Quality Slipping?

      Surveys, Consumer Complaints Suggest It May Be

      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."

      Is Toyota's Quality Slipping?...

      Smoking Bans Going Global

      Travelers can find smoking bans on almost every continent

      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."

      Smoking Bans Going Global...