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Current Events in October 2006

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    Google Buys YouTube -- And So?

    What's It Mean to Your Average Surfer?

    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.

    Google Buys YouTube -- And So?...
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    Some Lettuce Recalled Over E. coli Concerns

    Another leafy green vegetable has an E. coli problem

    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).

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

      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.

      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...
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      Wal-Mart Expands Its Generic Drug Discounts

      $4 Pricing Will Go Nationwide

      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.

      Wal-Mart Expands Its Generic Drug Discounts...
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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 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."

      Walgreens, the country's largest pharmacy chain, is fighting to contain damage from two serious errors by its pharmacists, illustrating the larger problem ...
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      New Study: Side and Roof Airbags Save Lives

      IIHS study is more ammunition for safety advocates

      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.

      New Study: Side and Roof Airbags Save Lives...
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      Schwarzenegger Terminates Spychip Bill

      It's back to Square One for California privacy advocates.

      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.

      Schwarzenegger Terminates Spychip Bill...
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      Alarm Companies Alarmed Over Cell Phone Transition

      Switch to New Frequencies Could Leave Home Alarms Inoperable

      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.

      Alarm Companies Alarmed Over Cell Phone Transition...
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      Court Shuts Down Qchex

      Con Artists Used Service to Raid Consumers' Checking Accounts

      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.

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

      Florida Files "Cramming" Suit

      Unauthorized Charges on Phone Bills

      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.

      Florida Files 'Cramming' Suit...
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      Study: Aggressive Driving Negates Benefits of Safety Devices

      Airbags, ABS Encourage Careless Driving, Researchers Find

      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.

      Study: Aggressive Driving Negates Benefits of Safety Devices...
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      Doctors Agree: Drug Company Freebies Have Impact

      But doctors say other doctors are more influenced than they are

      When a pharmaceutical rep gives free medication samples to a doctor, does it influence the prescriptions that doctor writes? One in three doctors agree that it does, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

      However, doctors responding to the survey think other doctors are more likely to be influenced by incentives than they are.

      The research team surveyed 397 members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists about their relationships with the pharmaceutical industry. The members were part of a collaborative research network, representing each of the 10 districts covered by the College. Just over half of those surveyed responded.

      More than 90 percent of the respondents thought it was ethical to accept free samples of a new drug from a pharmaceutical company rep. Similarly, just over half thought it was ethical to accept a lucrative consultancy with a company if they were a "high volume" prescriber of one of that companys drugs.

      One in three agreed that their decision to prescribe a drug would probably be influenced by accepting the samples.

      But respondents felt that other doctors would be significantly more likely to accept the offer of a free lunch, an anatomical model emblazoned with a drugs name, or a consultancy than they would, even if offered without free samples. And they also felt that these free "gifts" would still influence the other doctors' prescribing decisions more than it would theirs.

      Most doctors said they distributed the free drug samples to their patients to help them out financially or for their convenience. Less than two thirds did so because they felt the drug in question was particularly effective.

      Almost two thirds of the respondents were aware of professional guidelines on the relationship between industry and the profession. But only one in three felt that the relationship should be more tightly regulated. Two fifths felt that it should not be restricted further.

      "The generally held view that accepting modest incentive items, such as drug samples is appropriate and primarily of benefit to patients needs to be reconsidered, both by doctors and by policy makers," say the authors. Guidelines need to do more to challenge this view, they add.

      Doctors Agree: Drug Company Freebies Have Impact. When a pharmaceutical rep gives free medication samples to a doctor, does it influence the prescriptions ...
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      Consumers Concerned About Carbon Monoxide in Meat

      The chemical is used to make meat look redder

      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.

      Consumers Concerned About Carbon Monoxide in Meat...
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