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Wireless Broadband Still Expensive, Service Still Spotty

Sprint Tops Our Test, Cingular Still Trying to Get Into the Race

Wireless Broadband Still Expensive, Service Still Spotty...


American consumers looking for broadband wireless service basically have three choices: Verizon, Sprint and Cingular. All three are fast, at least sometimes, all three are expensive and all three advertise unlimited downloads.

Over the past two years wireless providers have been developing and rolling out their national wireless Internet services. These services, which send and transmit data using cellular frequencies, are a portable wireless connection for laptops and cell phones that can, under the right conditions, reach broadband speeds.

Many of the latest cell phones, such as Blackberries and other PDAs, can connect to these services. But mostly, the services are used by laptops that are equipped with an easily-installed PCMIA card.

At ConsumerAffairs.com, we have been testing and using all three services for three months. What we learned is that each service has its advantages but overall, Sprint was the most likely to deliver a fast, usable signal. We subscribe and pay for both Verizon and Cingular services; Sprint provided us with a free test for three months.

All three services cost roughly the same: Cingular and Verizon are $60 per month with a qualifying voice plan or $80 per month alone. Sprint now offers its service for about $60 regardless of whether you have a voice plan.

Although Sprint did the best in our tests, none of these services is truly nationwide so it's best to perform thorough testing before committing to one plan. Because the service is so expensive, the companies will usually let you demo the product before committing. It's important to take advantage of that demo.

Be sure to check each company's wireless coverage map -- Verizon, Cingular and Sprint -- to make sure they can deliver a signal in the spots you're most likely to be. After all, at $80 a month, it's essential you get as much out of the service as possible.

The services all claim about 400-700 kilobytes per second downloading with bursts of more than 2 megabytes per second. Upload speeds flutter around 200 kb per second. So if you get a good signal in your home or office, this service could replace existing broadband connections such as DSL or cable.

However, it would not be wise to replace a standard broadband connection with a wireless one if you don't travel or work away from home or office. Wireless is slower than DSL or cable and costs about double those services. Wireless broadband is really intended for business people -- road warriors who need to be in touch 24/7.

At ConsumerAffairs.com, we're fairly typical business users. We use wireless broadband to connect from the U.S. Capitol and other points around Washington, D.C., as well as when traveling and as a back-up if the office T-1 goes down.

The Tests

Using the free ConsumerAffairs.com broadband test, we were able to test the services throughout various parts of the country.

In Washington, D.C., and in Manhattan, all three services tested well, reaching speeds close to, and in the case of Cingular, above 2 mb per second.

But outside those urban jungles, the services varied wildly. Sprint and Verizon, which use the faster and more reliable EVDO service, tested well in many rural locations.

Sprint in particular did well, surfing the web at about 400 kb per second in Reno, Nev., Scarsdale, N.Y., Indianapolis, Ind., Buffalo, N.Y., and even Uniontown, Pa., a town of about 14,000 people, located an hour south of Pittsburgh.

In most of those locations, Cingular had absolutely no signal. In Scarsdale and Indianapolis there were weak signals that yielded unbearably slow speeds and browsing times.

In our D.C. office Cingular reached the record download speed of 2.8 mb per second. However, using Cingular as a "nationwide" Internet provider is not practical and, as of this writing, Cingular's EDGE and 3G service simply can't compete with Verizon and Sprint's EVDO.

As far as services go, Sprint and Verizon were similar. Although Sprint is slowly unveiling a faster EVDO technology than Verizon, both performed well in various locations.

However, there is a catch with Verizon: it advertises its service as "unlimited," but in reality, if you download too much, as ConsumerAffairs.com found out, Verizon will cancel your account. It's a convenient way to end your contract but not so convenient if you're trying to do work away from the office.

Both Cingular and Sprint advertise their service as unlimited and representatives assured us that there are no limits on downloading. During our extensive tests of their service, this proved to be the case.

Another point to consider is the physical card you use to receive the service. Verizon and Sprint's cards are sturdy. But Cingular's card includes a required external antennae that is very flimsy. Although it has not broken during our testing period, it seems like it's only a matter of time.

Big Bucks

For most consumers, the current generation of wireless broadband is too expensive, too unreliable and too slow to be practical. There are enough Wi-Fi hotspots to satisfy most occasional travelers and wireless broadband is not really a suitable substitute for a hard-wired DSL or cable connection.

For dedicated business travelers who absolutely, positively need to be in touch and are willing to pay the big bucks, our tests give the nod to Sprint, with Verizon second and Cingular still trying to get into the race.

Long-Term Verizon Test

As he has recounted at great length, our somewhat irascible editor-in-chief, James R. Hood, has been using Verizon's wireless broadband service almost since the day it was introduced in the Washington, D.C., area. His first review -- in July 2005 -- pronounced it "the most shiftless, unreliable service we have ever paid good money for."

"At about $90 a month, it's far from cheap but we found it to work so poorly it would be overpriced at any price," Hood fumed.

Since then, however, the price has come down and service has improved notably as Verizon equips more and more of its towers with the EVDO technology, Hood reports.

Here are Hood's crude notes from his various travels over the last year. Like a comet, he tends to go to the same places, thus limiting the scope somewhat.

Gangbusters

  • On the runway at Dulles Airport -- We worked for hours while waiting out a band of thunderstorms.
  • High atop the Park Lane Hotel in New York City -- Signals so strong and speeds so high we hated to leave despite room service prices that could feed a family of 12 for a year or more in much of the world.

So-so

  • Garden City, Long Island, New York -- Big bucks abound but it's not the best spot for laptop addicts.
  • The North Fork of Eastern Long Island, New York -- Actually, this ever-narrower little sand spit is so remote, it's surprising the service works as well as it does here. It's slow but steady.
  • Evanston, Illinois -- Like Garden City, an upscale suburb has to make do with slow speeds and intermittent signals.
  • Ocean Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA -- Too much ocean in the coverage pattern, maybe?
  • Long Beach Airport, Long Beach, CA -- Fortunately, JetBlue has its airport Wi-Fi working well now.
  • Chevy Chase, MD -- Works fine here if you don't mind standing on the sidwalk. The signal drops out completely in most high-rise buildings.

Really Rotten

  • Fairfax, VA -- Must be all the Beltway Bandits sucking up the bandwidth. Even when signal strength is what they used to call "5x5," connectivity tends to be poor.
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Glass Tables a Serious Safety Hazard

If Glass Is Not Tempered, Breakage Can Be Life-Threatening

Glass Tables a Serious Safety Hazard...


In an instant, Kori Saunders thought her soccer playing days at the University of Nebraska were over. After sitting on the corner of a friend's glass coffee table while playing Nintendo, she heard a loud popping noise and all of a sudden, the glass shattered.

As Kori fell, a large glass shard punctured her kidney and chipped her vertebrae. She was told she would never walk again.

Jason Black, a professional opera singer, was told he'd never speak again after a heavy glass table he was carrying fell and shattered, severing both jugular veins, and almost decapitating him as his wife watched in horror.

"With this accident and all the blood, and just the shrieking sound of the glass it was so loud, I just, I really didn't think he was going to make it," Jason's wife told the syndicated TV news show Inside Edition.

Glass tables are stylish and popular, but are they safe? What many people might not know is that some glass tables are safer than others and you can't tell by looking at them.

Inside Edition conducted a demonstration by breaking two types of glass: regular and "safety glass," known as tempered glass in the industry. When regular glass is broken it breaks into very large shards of sharp glass that could very easily cut somebody.

However, according to Consumer Reports product safety director Don Mays who conducted the demonstration with Inside Edition, when tempered glass breaks, it breaks into small pieces that aren't likely to cause serious injury.

Mays says accidents could be dramatically reduced if all glass furniture sold in the U.S. was required to be made of safety glass.

"The European Union requires that glass table tops be made of safety glass. In the United States, no such law exists," Mays said.

Both Kori Saunders and Jason Black have recovered fully. But they both say Americans have a right to know just how safe their furniture is.

ConsumerAffairs.com hears regularly from consumers whose glass patio tables have imploded and consumers complain of getting small pieces of glass in their feet and hands. But, though annoying, this kind of breakage is typical of tempered glass and is not likely to cause life-threatening injury.

Hard to Tell

But as Inside Edition found, it's not always easy to find out if you are actually buying tempered glass.

Inside Edition's Matt Meagher took hidden cameras to two different Bombay furniture stores. Salespeople at both assured Meagher that a particular tabletop was made from tempered glass.

To find out if this was true, Meagher purchased the tabletop and broke the top to see how the glass broke. The result was large, dangerous shards of regular glass.

A spokeswoman for Bombay told Inside Edition the chain would try to prevent similar incidents.

"You have told us that our sales associates represented this glass as tempered and if so the sales associates were incorrect about this particular piece of glass we are taking immediate action to provide additional information to our sales associate throughout the country in an attempt to avoid similar incidents in the future," a Baombay spokesperson said.

What Can You Do?

As Inside Edition reported, glass tops are attracgtive but can be very dangerous. The safest course of action -- especially for families with small children -- is to avoid glass-topped furniture entirely.

If you have a table that requires a clear top, any mirror or glass shop can provide you with glass that is guaranteed tempered. Better yet, while your children are small, have the glass shop cut clear plexiglass to replace the glass tops. Sure, it may scratch but it won't shatter and cause serious injury.

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Study Eyes Payments for Living Organ Donors

Modest payments might encourage more donations

Study Eyes Payments for Living Organ Donors...

More than 80,000 people in the United States are on waiting lists for organ transplants. Some will have to wait for the death of a matching donor, but more and more people are receiving organs from living donors.

Last year nearly 7,000 people donated a kidney, segment of the liver or lobe of a lung to help someone in need of a transplant. In fact at some major transplant centers -- like Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children's Hospital at Washington University Medical Center -- the number of transplants involving living organ donors now exceeds the number of transplants using organs from deceased donors.

In an effort to close the gap between organ supply and demand, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, the University of Michigan and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons are studying ways to reimburse living donors for some of their out-of-pocket expenses when they choose to donate an organ.

"One of the barriers to living organ donation is the financial barrier," says Barry A. Hong, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Washington University and one of the study's principal investigators.

"When a relative or friend agrees to donate, they might need an airline ticket or have to pay for lodging or medical tests. Much of that is not covered by insurance, so when someone volunteers to be a donor, they may have significant out-of-pocket expenses."

The current study, funded by an $8 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, will identify and reimburse potential living donors who face financial hardship from those expenses. The investigators hope both to determine whether a system of reimbursement is desirable and by covering some of those out-of-pocket costs to make between 300 and 400 organs available for transplantation that would not have been in the pool otherwise.

"Paying people to donate remains illegal, and that's not what we're doing here," Hong says. "This is a social justice issue. If people come from higher income brackets, they can more easily afford the expenses associated with donation. We hope to ensure that financial issues don't prevent living donors from giving patients in need access to life-saving organs."

In a related study, Hong and his co-investigators also are taking a close look at the health of living organ donors in the months and years following a transplant.

Studying living lung and kidney donors, the researchers want to ensure that those donors aren't experiencing any serious, long-term problems. This is the first large-scale, government-sponsored study to look at organ donor health following transplantation.

"In some sense, transplant centers have never really thought of living donors as our patients," Hong says. "When you don't think of them as patients, you don't follow up with them. Some donors might be followed for a month or six months or even a year, but after that, we really don't know much about them. We just don't know whether being generous and donating an organ might have conferred some extra burden on these people."

When a person donates a kidney, for instance, what happens if later in life they develop kidney disease themselves? And do living donors change their risk of health problems in the years after the transplant? No one really knows. But Hong hopes that learning the answer might provide more incentive for potential living donors.

"The government and the transplant community want to find every reasonable way to put more organs into the pool," he said.

"One way might involve removing economic disincentives for living donors. Another way might be giving people better long-term information about donor outcomes. If we can assure donors that they won't have to spend thousands of dollars and that they won't increase their risk of problems down the road, more people might want to donate. That could make more organs available for the people currently waiting for a life-saving transplant."

 



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Honey Baked Recalls Hams, Turkeys

Just in time for the holidays ... listeria scare forces recall

Honey Baked Recalls Hams, Turkeys...

Just in time for the holiday season, one of its busiest times of the year, HoneyBaked Foods, Inc., of Toledo, Ohio has recalled nearly 47,000 pounds of booked ham and turkey products. The company notified USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service the meat may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

The company has set up a section on its Website -- www.honeybaked.com/ReCallNotification.asp where consumers can check to see if products sold in their area are affected. The following products are subject to recall:

• 6- to 11-pound packages of "SLICED & GLAZED FULLY COOKED HALF HAM." Each package bears the establishment number "EST. 15875" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each label also bears a package code between "6261" and "6310."

• 12- to 16- pound packages of "SLICED & GLAZED FULLY COOKED WHOLE HAM." Each package bears the establishment number "EST. 15875" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each label also bears a package code between "6261" and "6310."

• 3-pound approximate weight packages of "SLICED AND GLAZED COOKED BONELESS TURKEY BREAST." Each package bears the establishment number "P-15875" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each label also bears the product code "30505 02099", as well as a package code between "6248" and "6258."

• 3-pound approximate weight packages of "SLICED AND GLAZED FULLY COOKED SMOKED BONELESS TURKEY BREAST."

Each package bears the establishment number "P-15875" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each label also bears the product code "30504 02099", as well as a package code between "6248" and "6258."

The ham and turkey products were produced between September 5 and November 13, and were sold at the company's retail stores and kiosks in the Toledo, Ohio, region, as well as through internet and telephone catalogue sales nationwide. HoneyBaked Foods Inc. has contacted catalogue sale customers who purchased products subject to recall.

The problem was discovered through the company's microbiological testing. FSIS has received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease.

Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis. However, listeriosis can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea. Listeriosis can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact company Customer Service Hotline at (800) 461-3998.

 



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Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors

Maybe memorizing lists isn't as worthless as we thought

Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors...

A new study offers older adults a simple way to combat memory loss: memorization.

Researchers found that seniors who engaged in an intensive period of rote learning followed by an equally long rest period exhibited improved memory and verbal recall, according to a study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"We didnt see an immediate improvement following the intensive memorization period," said Jonathan McNulty, B.Sc., H.Dip., of Diagnostic Imaging at the School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College Dublin in Ireland. "However, after a six-week rest, the volunteers manifested both metabolic changes in the brain and improved memory performance."

As people age, they often begin to experience forgetfulness and may have difficulty learning new material. Approximately 40 percent of people over age 60 have some kind of memory difficulty.

Mild, age-related memory loss is caused by the loss of brain cells over time, along with changes in brain chemistry. The researchers studied how repeated cognitive exercise impacts memory and recall, as well as the health of brain cells involved in memory.

The study involved 24 healthy older adults between the ages of 55 and 70. The volunteers engaged in six weeks of intensive rote learning, memorizing a newspaper article or poem of 500 words, followed by six weeks of rest.

An extensive battery of learning and memory tests was administered before and after the six-week learning period. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a special type of magnetic resonance imaging, was performed on half of the volunteers before and after the intensive learning session, and again six weeks later.

MRS was used to measure changes in N-acetylaspartate, creatine and choline, three metabolites in the brain that are related to memory performance and neural cell health.

At the end of the six-week learning session, no changes in the brain metabolism or memory performance were observed. But following the rest period, all of the volunteers experienced improvements in their verbal and episodic memory -- they were better able to remember and repeat a short story and a list of words and to recall events that occurred earlier in the day or week.

These behavioral changes correlated with metabolic changes identified by MRS in the left posterior hippocampus, a memory-related brain structure.

"Unlike other studies on memory involving specific training regimes, memorizing is an everyday activity that anyone can undertake," said co-author Richard Roche, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at National University of Ireland in Maynooth. "The brain is like a muscle that should be exercised through the retirement years as a defense against dementia, cognitive lapses and memory failure."

 



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Copyright Office "Unlocks" Cell Phones

CD Root Kit Rules Loosened

Copyright Office Unlocks Cell Phones...

Of the many ways cell phone carriers gouge consumers, one of the most egregious is making it impossible to take your phone with you when you switch to a new provider.

Moving your phone between carriers has been considered an infringement of the old carrier's property rights, so customers were forced to turn in or junk their old phones, and pay all sorts of extra fees to get a new phone along with their new plan.

But beginning in December, U.S. copyright law provides an exemption for consumers who want to "unlock" their cellphones and take them along when switching providers.

The exemption was one of six announced as part of regular revisions to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), the 800-pound-gorilla of technology-related copyright law in the U.S.

The ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office stated that the "software lock" preventing customers from using the same phone with different carriers "appears to be limited to restricting the owner's use of the mobile handset to support a business model, rather than to protect access to a copyrighted work itself."

"The underlying activity sought to be performed by the owner of the handset is to allow the handset to do what it was manufactured to do -- lawfully connect to any carrier. This is a noninfringing activity by the user," said Chief Register Marybeth Peters.

Wireless carriers typically lure customers with the promise of rebates and instant savings for new phones, but only if they sign multi-year contracts with heavy termination fees. The new phone also often comes with a "handset activation fee," which negates much of the customers' savings.

Unlocked phones that are not attached to any carrier are often prohibitively expensive, sometimes costing double what they would with a new carrier contract.

Selling unlocked cellphones on auction sites such as eBay has been a booming "grey market," and has earned the wrath of the wireless industry. Wireless lobby association CTIA and prepaid phone company TracFone both submitted unsolicited statements opposing the exemption.

The Register's office criticized CTIA and TracFone for not submitting their statements in the time allowed.

"Not only would acceptance of the late filings wreak havoc on the decisionmaking process, but it also would be fundamentally unfair to the parties who have made timely submissions, and in particular to the proponents of the exemption."

The exemption for unlocked cellphones will last three years, until the next time the Copyright Office reexamines the DMCA for potential new exemptions.

Supporters of the exemptions are pinning their hopes on the new Democratic Congress supporting legislation to reform the DMCA and make the exemptions permanent, although the Democratic record of appeasing the telecommunications industry is not less unseemly than the GOP's.

Rootkit Revisions

An other major ruling enables security researchers to circumvent copy-protected audio CDs -- but only to test, investigate, and/or fix any security flaws.

The revision came about as a result of the Sony rootkit scandal, when the company sold CDs that contained software designed to prevent copying the content, but also caused the user's computer to be vulnerable to hackers, and possibly causing catastrophic damage to the computer if removed.

Under the terms of the DMCA, any attempt to circumvent the rootkit or disable it would technically be considered a breach of Sony's copyright, and could be punished with fines or even criminal prosecution.

Although Sony eventually agreed to a settlement for the many class-action suits filed against it in the rootkit case, many legal questions remained unresolved.

In making her recommendation to exempt security researchers, Peters pointed out that the damage from rootkits was not only a consumer issue, but a national security issue, noting that the Department of Homeland Security had issued warnings about the Sony rootkit.

"[I]t could be argued that research into and correction of security flaws in access controls ultimately will have a positive impact on the market for or value of copyrighted works, to the extent that it results in the marketing of copies of copyrighted works that do not pose computer security risks for consumers," Peters said.

 

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Michigan Credit Card Mystery Deepens

Is It the Newest "Worst Hack Ever?"

Wesco was urging customers to contact their financial institutions to correct any inaccurate or fraudulent transactions, raising fears of a new wave of cre...

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Polly Pocket Dolls With Magnets Recalled

Polly Pocket Dolls With Magnets Recalled...

November 22, 2006
Reports of at least three serious injuries have prompted the recall of more than 2 million Mattel's Polly Pocket Magnetic Play Sets.

Tiny magnets inside the dolls and accessories can fall out undetected by parents and caregivers. The magnets can be swallowed, aspirated by young children or placed by a child in their nose or ears.

When more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforation, infection or blockage, which can be fatal. Aspiration to the lungs requires immediate surgery. Magnets placed in the nose or ears can cause swelling and be difficult to remove.

CPSC is aware of 170 reports of the small magnets coming out of these recalled toys.

There were three reports of serious injuries to children who swallowed more than one magnet. All three suffered intestinal perforations that required surgery. A 2-year-old child was hospitalized for seven days and a 7-year-old child was hospitalized for 12 days. An 8-year-old child was also hospitalized.

The recalled Polly Pocket play sets contain plastic dolls and accessories that have small magnets. The magnets measure 1/8 inch in diameter and are imbedded in the hands and feet of some dolls, and in the plastic clothing, hair pieces and other accessories to help the pieces attach to the doll or to the doll's house. The model number is printed on the bottom of the largest pieces on some of the play sets.

Recalled toy More images below

Contact Mattel if you cannot find a model number on your product to determine if it is part of the recall. Polly Pocket magnetic play sets currently on store shelves are not included in this recall.

Polly Pocket Magnetic Play SetsItem Number
Polly Pocket!™ Polly Place™ Hangin? Out House™B2632
Polly Pocket!™ Polly Place™ Treetop Clubhouse™B3158
Polly Pocket!™ Spa Day™B3201
Polly Totally!™ Polly Place™ Totally Tiki Diner™B7118
Polly Pocket!™ Quik-Clik™ BoutiqueG8605
Polly Pocket!™ Quik-Clik™ City Pretty PlaysetH1537
Polly Pocket!™ Quik-Clik™ Sporty Style PlaysetH1538
Polly Pocket!™ Totally Zen™ PlaysetH3211

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Consumers Warned About Oprah Scam

Consumers should be on the lookout for unsolicited e-mails purporting to offer a special invitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show to attend a show taping....


Consumers should be on the lookout for unsolicited e-mails purporting to offer a special invitation from The Oprah Winfrey Show to attend a show taping.

The e-mails are part of a scam designed to defraud money or gain personal information from consumers.

"Phishing" scams, which attempt to obtain consumers' personal and financial information through fake e-mails, are becoming more frequent and creative, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "An unsolicited e-mail purportedly sent by a third party that requests information such as the consumer's Social Security number and credit and bank account information is a scam," Madigan said.

Common "phishing" scams involve authentic-looking e-mails that ask the consumer to respond or direct the consumer to a Web site designed to look just like the site of the alleged sender. Once redirected to that site, the consumer is asked for sensitive account information to "update" or "validate" his/her account information for some urgent reason.

In this case, e-mail recipients are asked to submit personal information and told they will receive tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show after verification of certain financial information and/or the wiring of money to an unknown third party.

However, according to Harpo Productions, Inc., The Oprah Winfrey Show does not sell tickets or ticket travel packages to fans. Consumers should disregard any e-mail that purportedly comes from The Oprah Winfrey Show offering show-taping tickets for a fee.

"With the large number of Oprah's fans worldwide, we are concerned that their excitement at the opportunity to attend a taping of her TV show may result in fans responding to this unauthorized offer," Madigan said. "Consumers should be alarmed whenever unsolicited e-mails ask them to divulge personal or financial information."

Recipients of "phishing" emails are urged not to respond. Madigan said Illinois consumers who have sent money or divulged personal information can contact her office's Consumer Fraud Hotline at 1-800-386-5438 (TTY: 1-800-964-3013). The Spanish-language Hotline number is 1-866-310-8398.

Consumers outside of Illinois can file a consumer complaint by downloading the complaint form at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/conscomp.pdf. In addition, Madigan said out-of-state consumers should report the occurrence to local authorities, their state Attorney General's Office and monitor their financial accounts for any suspicious activity.

More Scam Alerts ...

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FDA's Breast Implant Decision Shows 'Double Standard,' Critics Charge

"Most defective medical device ever ..." says Public Citizen

FDA's Breast Implant Decision Shows 'Double Standard,' Critics Charge...

Critics are assailing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision to allow the marketing of silicone gel-filled breast implants made by two companies. Public Citizen labeled them the "most defective medical device ever approved by the FDA."

"It is a terrible reminder of the double standard for women versus men that the FDA has not approved silicone gel testicular implants because of the inadequacy of clinical trials on these devices," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, Director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

The FDA approved implants manufactured by manufactured by Allergan Corp. (formerly Inamed Corp.), Irvine, Calif., and Mentor Corp., Santa Barbara, Calif., for breast reconstruction in women of all ages and breast augmentation in women ages 22 and older.

"FDA has reviewed an extensive amount of data from clinical trials of women studied for up to four years, as well as a wealth of other information to determine the benefits and risks of these products," said Daniel Schultz, M.D., Director, Center for Devices and Radiological Health, FDA.

"The extensive body of scientific evidence provides reasonable assurance of the benefits and risks of these devices. This information is available in the product labeling and will enable women and their physicians to make informed decisions."

The FDA will continue to monitor the devices by requiring each company to conduct a large postapproval study following about 40,000 women for 10 years after receiving breast implants.

Public Citizen has opposed the use of silicone gel breast implants since the fall of 1988, when it petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban them after receiving what it said numerous documents from FDA scientists concerned about their safety.

"In terms of adverse safety and health information known at the time of approval -- such as high rates of rupture, the need for repeat surgery and clear evidence of lymph node infiltration and damage by leaked silicone -- silicone gel breast implants are the most defective medical device ever approved by the FDA," Wolfe said.

"The approval makes a mockery of the legal standard that requires 'reasonable assurance of safety,'" he said.

FDA said its decision was based on a thorough review of each company's clinical and preclinical studies, a review of studies by independent scientific bodies and deliberations of advisory panels of outside experts that heard public comment from hundreds of stakeholders.

In addition, FDA conducted inspections of each company's manufacturing facilities to determine that they comply with FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices. Some of the complications reported in the core studies included hardening of the area around the implant, breast pain, change in nipple sensation, implant rupture and the need for additional surgery.

However, FDA said the majority of women in the studies reported being satisfied with their implants.

FDA approved the silicone gel-filled breast implants with a number of conditions, including requiring each company to: conduct a large postapproval study; continue its core study through 10 years; conduct a focus group study of the patient labeling; continue laboratory studies to further characterize types of device failure; and track each implant in the event, for example, that health professionals and patients need to be notified of updated product information.

The postapproval studies will continue to gather information about the safety and effectiveness of the implants. Information will be collected about rates of local complications, rates of connective tissue disease and its signs and symptoms, rates of neurological disease and its signs and symptoms, potential effects on offspring of women with breast implants, potential effects on reproduction and lactation, rates of cancer, rates of suicide, potential interference of breast implants with mammography, and MRI compliance and rupture rates.

Wolfe said Public Citizen will also remain interested. "We will certainly be urging thorough Congressional investigations and hearings on this lack of assertion of regulatory authority by (FDA)," he said.



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Heinz Warns Customers Of Lottery Scam

Got a check from H.J. Heinz? Be skeptical

Heinz Warns Customers Of Lottery Scam...

If you should receive a letter announcing you've won a Canadian lottery, along with a check from the food giant H. J. Heinz, the company wants you to throw it away.

Heinz says it has learned of a lottery scam being run by a group called the Metropolitan Lottery Commission that involves consumers receiving a fake Heinz check.

The scammers instruct victims to wire nearly $3,000 to an agency at a Nova Scotia address to cover so called clearance fees for their fictitious lottery winnings.

"The fake Heinz check is not legally valid and should not be deposited. Additionally, the fake check illegally uses the Heinz name and trademarks," the company said in a statement.

Heinz said it has reported the fraud to the U.S. Attorney General's Office in Pittsburgh and is encouraging anyone who receives such a letter to contact local authorities in their area.

More Scam Alerts ...

 

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Penalty Fees, Interest Rate Hikes, and Misleading Contracts Await Credit Card Shoppers

Penalty Fees, Interest Rate Hikes, and Misleading Contracts Await Credit Card Shoppers...


With the holiday shopping season upon us, Consumers Union is warning shoppers about the increasing number of credit card traps that can trip up consumers and lead to spiraling debt.

"You can find yourself buried in debt if you aren't careful to avoid the credit card gotchas," said Michelle Jun, Staff Attorney for Consumers Union. "Too many credit cards are designed to get you in debt and keep you there."

Consumers enjoy few protections when it comes to credit cards, according to Consumers Union, and there are an increasing number of ways they can be penalized with fees or get stuck with higher interest rates:

Universal default: Your interest rate can skyrocket if your credit score declines because of your behavior with other creditors even if you always pay your credit card on time and never miss a payment. Some card issuers will raise your rate if you inquire about a car loan or open a new credit card.

Change of terms: Credit card terms keep changing. Read the fine print and chances are you'll find this disclosure: "We reserve the right to change the terms (including the APRs) at any time for any reason." A fixed rate is fixed until the bank gives you at least 15 days notice that it isn't. If you want to keep your account open, you'll pay the higher new rate on your existing balance.

Teaser rates: That low rate you signed up for expires suddenly and you end up paying more. A temptingly low introductory rate can climb to 30 percent or more.

Minimum payment: If you pay the minimum payment every month, you'll end up paying a lot more than what you charged and you could be on the hook for a very long time.

On time payment: Card issuers are systematically mailing statements closer to the due date, giving customers less turnaround time. You can be hit with a late fee even if the payment is mailed on time. The average fee for a late payment has more than doubled in the past decade.

Double cycle billing: Finance charges are usually calculated using the average daily balance. If you alternate between paying off and carrying a balance, you'll end up paying more interest.

Cash advance/convenience checks: The interest rates on these are higher than your credit card.

Penalty interest and fees: Late payments can raise your interest from 7 percent to 27 percent! Rather than rejecting charges that exceed your credit card limit, issuers today often let them go through but then charge a hefty fee

• as high as $39.

Fees, fees, and more fees: As if the penalties weren't enough, you pay more fees for paying by phone or charging abroad. You may have to pay a fee to receive what used to be free year- end summary statements.

Balance transfer switcheroo: Transferring a balance from an account with a high APR to another one with a lower interest rate could come at a high cost. Any payments you make are typically applied first to the lowest rate balance. So while the credit card company uses your payment to quickly pay off that 0 percent transfer balance, you are piling up interest on purchases, at say, 18 percent. Multiple balance transfers will hurt your credit score.

A recent report by the General Accountability Office (GAO) found that there are many types of credit card fees, and that they have risen much faster than inflation. It also finds that current fee disclosures are difficult to understand, bury important information, and often fail to convey to cardholders when late fees would be charged and what actions could result in penalty interest rates.

The report found that 35 percent of active credit cardholders of the six largest issuers were charged at least one penalty fee in 2005, averaging $33.64.

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ATM, Bank Card Security Getting Worse

Vulnerabilities Identified but Fixes Aren't So Easy

The ATM is such a ubiquitous staple of life now that we don't even think about the process of putting the bank card in and taking money out anymore....

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People to People: How Selective Is It?

People to People International has impeccable credentials and some very impressive stationery

The solicitation has also irked a Texas couple, who say they received one of the letters addressed to a name that closely resembled a deceased family membe...


People to People International has impeccable credentials and some very impressive stationery. Its honorary chairs start with its founder, the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower and include nearly every President since then, up to and including George W. Bush. 

President Eisenhower wanted the organization to further peace and understanding through international student exchange programs, and by most standards, it has succeeded admirably, operating for decades to nearly universal praise and commendation.

But more recently, the organization has come under fire for its recruiting methods. Its letter to prospective student "ambassadors" give the impression the student has been specially chosen when, in fact, many of the names come from lists the organization purchased.

Questions were raised earlier this year when the organization sent an invitation to an Iowa child who had been dead for years. The state's attorney general investigated and People to People agreed to modify its practices.

But has it?

Lisa Wade McCormick spent weeks investigating People to People's operation and interviewing students, parents and the organization's president, President Eisenhower's granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower.

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People to People: Ambassadors or Tourists?

Kids told they're specially chosen to be a "Student Ambassador"

People to People: Ambassadors or Tourists?...

The letter convinced the 15-year-old she was specially chosen.

It made her believe a non-profit organization founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower had hand-picked her to be a Student Ambassador for an educational trip overseas.

"My daughter thought she was so special when she received a letter saying she was nominated for this trip," says Regina G. of Brooklyn, New York. "She was ecstatic. She was on Cloud Nine thinking that someone nominated her."

The letter had the same effect on a 15-year-old Linden, New Jersey, girl.

"We went to the mailbox together and when she saw the letter and opened it, she was ecstatic," says Crystal B., the teenager's mom. "I was ecstatic, too. The letter made it seem like something was being bestowed on you for all your hard work. And I've always told my daughter that if you do well and work hard, you'll be rewarded. That's what we thought this was."

And why wouldn't they?

The letter Crystal -- and thousands of other parents -- received from the organization stated their children were eligible for these "educational exploration programs ... and named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador, or national academic listing."

But parents across the country say the letter is a misleading marketing gimmick designed to lure them into sending their children on oversea trips that cost thousands of dollars.

Complaints Nationwide

In the past two months, ConsumerAffairs.com has received nearly 30 complaints from parents nationwide about the organization's marketing tactics and its letter. On the other hand, those who actually take the overseas seem relatively content; as of this writing, we've received only one complaint from a parent whose child was disappointed with her journey.

Parents we interviewed are outraged by the deceptive tactics the organization -- founded to promote world peace -- used to market its educational programs abroad.

Parents say the letter, which arrives in an official-looking envelope that touts the organization's ties to eight United States Presidents, duped their children into believing they were specially chosen for these trips.

Many say their children's classmates received the same letter -- even students who struggle academically.

They also learned the organization bought their child's name from a company that compiles and sells the names of students nationwide.

"Why Did They Lie To Me?"

"I'm really angry they lied to me," says Tracie Y. of Niagara Falls, New York, whose ten-year-old son received an invitation to travel overseas. "These are kids we're talking about and you have to be honest with them.

"When I got the letter, I thought this was a good thing and that it was legitimate," she adds. "I was ready to take out a second mortgage on my house so my son could go on this trip. His dream has always been to go to France, and he thought this was his opportunity. His hopes were totally up. When he found out that everyone got this letter, my son asked 'why did they lie?'"

Trouble In Iowa

He's not the only one asking that question.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Attorney General's Office criticized the group's marketing letter, saying it misled parents into "believing that their child was selected on merit when that is not the case, and that parents may be manipulated into making substantial expenditures they might otherwise decline to make."

That action came after an Iowa mother -- whose infant son died in 1993 -- received a letter in September, 2005, stating a teacher, former Student Ambassador, or national academic listing named her child for a 20-day trip to Europe.

"The letter raised concerns that parents were being led to believe that their child had been chosen for an honor based on recommendations or academic performance, criteria that could not possibly have applied to the infant who died years ago at seven weeks of age," Assistant Attorney General Steve St. Clair wrote in a letter to the group's attorney.

Iowa officials also discovered the misleading tactics didn't end with the letter.

"We later learned that in-person presentations to families who received the invitation letter also convey the message that students are specially selected as an honor," St. Clair wrote. "And we found that representatives with whom our investigator had phone contact described the program in the same manner."

The Attorney General's Office did not take issue with the merits of the Student Ambassador trips aboard. Its investigation only focused on the organization's letter and its marketing tactics.

Earlier this summer, the organization agreed to modify its letter and presentations.

Parents Say Organization Continues To Deceive Students

But parents who contacted ConsumerAffairs.com say the organization continues to deceive students and exploit their dreams to travel abroad.

Tricia W. of Barnegat, New Jersey, says her daughter received one of the organization's letters on October 2, 2006. "My daughter opened the letter and she was ecstatic," Tricia says. "She thought it was spectacular that someone thought all these lovely things about her."

But her excitement soon turned to heartbreak.

"When I informed my daughter of the complaints I'd read about the organization, she was devastated," Tricia says, adding her 14-year-old daughter suffers from depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. "She was very upset because she was led to believe she was specially chosen for this trip overseas. It made her feel special to get this invitation. And it was hard to explain to her that she still is special, and that in no way does this misleading letter mean she's not.

"It's awful what they're doing to children."

Other parents agree.

"It's misleading and it's wrong," says Crystal B. of Linden, New Jersey, whose teenage daughter received a letter from the organization in September, 2006. "The initial excitement my daughter felt when she received the letter was just like getting free tickets to Walt Disney World.

"When I told my daughter what I'd learned about the organization, she was completely crushed. She really wanted to do this and we'd talked about how we could raise the money. This is a scam. Anything with a hidden agenda is a scam and this letter had a hidden agenda."

Regina G. of Brooklyn, New York, is appalled by the organization's marketing tactics.

"This is fraud," she says, adding her teenage daughter received an invitation from the organization in September, 2006. "Here I was getting ready to collect funds so my daughter could go on this trip and then I find out it's garbage. How dare they do this.

"When I found out this letter was nothing but trickery, it was devastating -- to me as a parent and to my child."

Complaints Across the Country

Parents across the country, whose children received one of the organization's letters in the past two months, echo Regina's outrage and concerns.

Consider these comments they shared during interviews with ConsumerAffairs.com:

• Anna S. of Indianapolis, Indiana: "My 14-year-old son received a letter stating he was nominated to go on a trip to Australia. He's a bright kid and thought he'd done something special. He was very disappointed when I told him that I went online and found out this organization was a sham."

• Pam V. of Sheboygan, Wisconsin: "I was ready to send my 15-year-old twin boys to a foreign country with an organization that I was led to believe nominated them based on their achievements. Knowing this is not true, I wonder if the organization has misled me regarding other issues as well -- including safety and the screening of leaders. I think they've become an expensive travel agency for what they're charging. It's not worth it."

• Becki W. of Selah, Washington: "It's very misleading and emotionally harmful to kids. I thought it was legitimate because it had a list of all the past presidents who were associated with the organization. But as I thought about it more, no one said why my (14-year-old) daughter was nominated. If they're just trying to sell parents on these overseas trips for their kids, they need to be more aboveboard in their approach."

• Patricia S. of New Windsor, New York: "It's pretty deceptive to say your child is nominated to go on these overseas trips when they've gotten their name from a list. I learned this was just a marketing technique. I don't know if the programs are any good, but the trips should definitely not be presented like they're some honor. Parents need to be wary and investigate the organization fully."

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People To People's CEO "Mortified" by Recruiting Letter

People to People: "Ambassadors" or Tourists?

People To People's CEO...

The non-profit organization behind the "you've been chosen" recruiting letter inviting students to be "ambassadors" on one of its international tours is People To People International, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded in 1956.

People To People International is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri. President Eisenhower's granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower, is the group's president and chief executive officer.

She recently sat down with ConsumerAffairs.com to discuss parents' concerns about the organization's marketing tactics and the problems in Iowa.

"I was mortified when that happened," Eisenhower says of the letter sent to the woman who lost an infant son. "I've lost a baby so I know how devastating that is.

"What happened in Iowa was an unfortunate mistake caused by a mailing list," she adds, pointing out the Attorney General's Office did not file any charges against her organization. "It was human error, and it unfortunately caused people to doubt our mission. We are sincerely sorry people feel misled or hurt. Believe me, nobody wants to dupe anybody."

Eisenhower says her organization donated $5,000 to the Iowa SIDS Foundation and $20,000 to Blank Children's Hospital in honor of the baby who died.

Wording Of The Letter Changed

People To People has also changed the wording of its letter, Eisenhower says.

"It now says 'you're invited' to go on a trip and talks more about People To People," she says, adding the changes were made to all the letters -- not just the ones sent Iowa parents.

Those revisions, however, didn't go into effect until mid-October. Eisenhower says the original letters were already processed and couldn't be pulled. That's why parents received invitations stating their children were "named" for the Student Ambassador Program as recently as early October.

Eisenhower also apologized to every student who believes the organization deceived them -- or made them think they weren't special. "I feel awful that the letter made any child feel that way. They are special."

Eisenhower says her organization is "very selective" about the students invited to take one of its trips. And invitations are only sent to academic achievers.

"The mailing list we use contains the names of good academic students and students who are receptive to learning about other cultures," she says. "The kids then go through a screening process, they write essays, and they put in a certain amount of community service. These are very special kids we pick."

How Does People To People Get Names?

Eisenhower says the names of potential student ambassadors are generated from three sources:

• A mailing list compiled by the American Student List company;
• Nominations from parents and teachers; and
• Nominations from individuals who've traveled with the organization.

Private individuals can also nominate students on the organization's Web site.

But ConsumerAffairs.com discovered People To People's Web site doesn't ask for any supporting information about the student -- or their qualifications for the program. It doesn't even ask for the name of the person making the nomination.

ConsumerAffairs.com reporter Joseph Enoch nominated himself to be a People To People Student Ambassador.

Enoch soon received letters stating he was recommended for the Student Ambassador program and the organization had identified him "as a remarkable and motivated student."

Eisenhower says she was unaware the organization's Web site didn't ask for background information on student nominees.

"There should be a place on there that says why this student is being nominated," she says. "I will talk our Web site people about this immediately."

Ties To The Ambassador Group, Inc.

During our interview, Eisenhower described the relationship between her non-profit organization and the for-profit company that markets the trips and makes all the travel arrangements.

That company is the Ambassadors Group, Inc., which sent the letters to students nationwide on People To People letterhead.

The publicly-traded company (EPAX ) is based in Spokane, Washington. It describes itself as a "leading educational travel company that organizes and promotes international and domestic educational travel and sports programs for youths, athletes and professionals."

A majority of those programs are marketed under the People To People name, including:

• People To People Student Ambassador Programs,
• People To People Sports Ambassador Program,
• People To People Ambassador programs (for adults);
• People To People Leadership Summits.

Eisenhower says her organization has partnered with the Ambassador Group since 1963. "We've had a long, legitimate relationship with them," she says. "They're more than a travel agency. They do all our logistics."

The Ambassador Group also puts money into People To People International's coffers. Revenue generated from the trips it markets goes into People To People International's operating budget.

People To People International's Tax Return

ConsumerAffairs.com reviewed People To People International's tax records for 2005. Those records listed its total revenue at $4.7 million dollars. Of that amount, records show the organization received:
• $940, 657 from Student Programs;
• $701,983 from Adult programs,
• $1,867,274, from what is listed as "other programs,"
• $712,499 from membership dues; and
• $45,154 from licensing fees.

Eisenhower says private donations to her organization are tax-deductible and do not go into the operating budget. She says 100 percent of any donation goes to the specific program named by the donor.

Tax records also reveal Eisenhower's annual salary is $157,628 plus $24,042 in other benefits.

That's substantially less than her counterpart at the for-profit Ambassador Group. Jeffery Thomas is the company's president and CEO, and stock information listed on Reuters.com reveals his annual salary is $1,203,673 plus $872,206 in other compensation.

Cost And Safety Concerns

What about the cost of the Student Ambassador overseas trips?

Parents repeatedly asked ConsumerAffairs.com why the trips are so expensive and if they're worth the money? The average price for a 20-day trip is about $5,000, which Eisenhower agrees is high.

"But these are academic programs and students can receive school credit for going on these trips," she says. "There's an educational aspect to the programs, and because of that content the price is a little higher."

Eisenhower assures parents the trips are worth the money. She says students go to places they might never have the opportunity to visit and many meet foreign dignitaries.

How do students pay for these trips abroad?

"We encourage kids to hold fundraisers like car washes and bake sales," Eisenhower says. "Some kids also write to corporations and request donations, but if they're going on one of our ambassador programs those donations are not tax deductible (because the Ambassador Group is for-profit organization).

"We also have scholarships that students can apply for," she adds. "And we pay 100 percent of the cost for students to go to our Peace Camps."

Safety Measures To Protect Students

Parents also wondered what safety measures are in place to protect their children in a foreign country. And they questioned whether background checks are done on the adults who supervise the students.

Eisenhower says safety is the organization's top priority.

Teacher leaders, she says, are specially trained how to handle a crisis overseas, including a terrorist threat.

"We had students in London when the terrorists bombed the subways last summer," Eisenhower says. "I was in Belfast and immediately went to London. We quickly updated our Web site and called every parent to let them know their children were safe.

"We pride ourselves on our safety measures," she adds. "We have a very good safety net in place. Only two people cancelled trips after that terrorist bombing. That shows you how much trust parents have in our ambassador programs. It puts them at ease."

The organization also screens everyone who travels with the students, Eisenhower says. "Most of the student leaders are teachers who've already undergone background checks."

First Complaints In The Organization's History

Eisenhower says these complaints are the first ones leveled against People To People International during its 50-year-history.

She said she takes each one seriously. And personally.

"I know something like this would be very upsetting to my grandfather," she says, adding he founded the organization to create world peace -- not controversy -- by bringing people from diverse cultures together. "And that's so upsetting to me.

"I'm just mortified this has happened. We are sincerely sorry and we've taken measures to correct these problems. I hope that in spite of all of this, people will still want to marry us."

Some parents applaud Eisenhower for listening to their concerns and those raised by their children.

But Tracie Y. of Niagara Falls, New York, says Eisenhower's comments haven't swayed her views.

"People To People shot my son's hopes of going overseas down the tubes," Tracie says. "I was lied to and I don't take being lied to lightly. If they lied to me about this, then they lied to me that I can trust them with my child.

"I don't want anything to do with them again."

Next: Parents Object to Student Lists

 

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Payday Lenders Move Online, Try to Bypass State Laws

States are largely powerless to stop them

Payday Lenders Move Online, Try to Bypass State Laws...

Consumer advocates have long campaigned against financial companies offering payday loans, car title loans, and other loans targeted to low-income or poor-credit consumers. While these outfits were once limited to shabby storefronts, they've now moved into cyberspace, exploiting anyone who has access to a computer.

A number of states have passed laws trying to regulate payday lenders, who charge their customers exorbitant interest rates, by forbidding them from doing business in their states. The online lenders, however, seek out clever loopholes.

"All aspects and transactions on this site will be deemed to have taken place in our office in the State of Delaware, regardless of where you may be viewing or accessing this site," reads the disclosure language on APPLE Fast Cash Personal Loans' Web site. "Borrower is responsible for complying with any local statutory obligations that may exist in their state or area with respect to any transactions with APPLE Fast Cash Personal Loans."

Recently West Virginia Attorney General McGraw filed suit to enforce investigative subpoenas against 14 Internet payday lenders and to enjoin their usurious lending activities in his state.

McGraw also announced that his office has reached formal settlement agreements with 18 other Internet payday lenders in which they promised to permanently discontinue their payday loans here and to refund all unlawful fees and charges collected from West Virginia consumers. McGraw said the latter agreement will result in tens of thousands of refunds and canceled debts for hundreds of West Virginia consumers.

McGraw said the 14 Internet lenders made "payday loans" to consumers in their homes via interactive web sites and have claimed that states, including West Virginia, cannot regulate their lending activities. The state, he says, sees it differently. The defendants require payment of interest with Annual Percent Rates ("APR") ranging from 600 to 800 percent APR. The State of West Virginia has a maximum allowable rate of 18 percent APR for consumer loans.

The companies sued by McGraw's office include the following:

• Apple Fast Cash Personal Loans - Wilmington, DE
• Cash Advance Network, Inc. - Carson City, NV
• Cash Advance USA - Miami, FL
• Cash Advance Marketing d/b/a Cash Back Values - Carson City, NV
• Cash Net - Salt Lake City, UT
• American Interweb Marketing d/b/a CASHRebateOnLine.com Carson City, NV
• Leads Global, Inc. d/b/a Cash Today Limited and d/b/a Cash2day4you.com - Reno, NV
• GECC d/b/a Cashdirectnow.com - Rapid City, SD
• Americash Hotline d/b/a Direct CashExpress - Wilmington, DE
• Magnum Cash Advance, Inc. - Wilmington, DE
• Ambassador Financial Services d/b/a Nationwide Cash - Espanola, MN
• PayDay OK d/b/a PayDay Select - Ruidiso, NM
• Quik Payday.com Financial Solutions - Logan, UT
• USA Cash Center - Rapid City, SD

The companies that have signed formal settlement agreements with McGraw's office include:

• AnyDay Cash.com of Holiday, UT;
• Checkexpress.com d/b/a Paydayloantoday.com of Las Vegas, NV;
• CNC Funding of Euless, TX
• Elite Cash Advance of Salt Lake City, UT
• FSM Processing, Inc. of Las Vegas, NV
• Get Cash 911.com of San Diego, CA
• PayDay Advance Plus, Inc. of Los Angeles, CA
• Sordi, Inc. d/b/a Checks for Cash of Rockford, IL
• Star Light Financial of Del Ray Beach, FL
• VIP Cash of Las Vegas, NV

At least eight other companies have furnished written confirmation that they will sign similar formal agreements with the attorney general.

 

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Fast Facts About People to People International

People to People: "Ambassadors" or Tourists?

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded People To People International (PTPI) on September 11, 1956. It was called the President's People to People Pro...


• U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded People To People International (PTPI) on September 11, 1956. It was called the President's People to People Program.

• President Eisenhower started the organization to "enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures."

• President Eisenhower's granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower, is the organization's president and chief executive officer;

• PTPI moved its headquarters to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1961. It also has offices in Berlin, Germany and San Diego, California;

• PTIP is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization;

• President George W. Bush is PTPI's honorary chairman. Past Honorary Chairmen included former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Regan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy.

• Walt Disney, Joyce C. Hall, Bob Hope, Charles M. Schulz, Rafer Johnson, and other leaders representing countries around the world have worked with PTPI.

• PTPI is represented in 135 countries and has more than 80,000 families and individuals involved in the organization.

• PTPI has a variety of worldwide educational, cultural, and humanitarian exchange programs, including Adult, University and Student Chapters; Adult Professional Programs; Peace Camp, Global Peace Initiatives; Humanitarian and Educational Initiatives; Global Landmine Initiative; Sports Ambassador Program; Student Ambassador Program; Student Scholarships and Loans; and Worldwide Conferences.

• PTPI administers Operation Iraqi Children (http://www.operationiraqichildren.org/), an organization founded by Gary Sinise and Laura Hillenbrand. This program has distributed more than 200,000 school supply kits to the Iraqi children.

• PTPI has worked to eradicate landmines around the world since 2002.

• PTPI is celebrating 50 years of Peace through Understanding, which started in 2005 and culminate at the organization's 2006 Worldwide Conference in Sydney, Australia

- Source: People To People International

 

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Not Everyone's Happy with People to People Trips

People to People: "Ambassadors" or Tourists?

People to People: True or False?...

Nearly 100 percent of students who go on a People To People Student Ambassador trip say they'd recommend the program, according to Mary Eisenhower, the organization's president. She says her organization surveys students at the end of their educational trips overseas.

"And 95 percent say 'Yes, they'd recommend' them to their friends," Eisenhower says. "I've seen these programs work. And they work beautifully."

The Iowa Attorney General's Office criticized the organization's marketing tactics earlier this year, saying they misled parents into believing their children were specially chosen for the Student Ambassador trips abroad.

That action came after an Iowa mother -- whose infant son died in 1993 -- received a letter from the organization last year, stating her child was named for a Student Ambassador trip abroad.

Eisenhower says she was "mortified" when she learned about the letter going to a parent who lost a child. She apologized for that action, calling it "human error."

Her organization also donated $25,000 to charity in honor of the boy who died. And she says People To People recently changed the wording of its marketing letter.

Iowa officials, however, never questioned the merits of the Student Ambassador trips.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received one complaint about the Student Ambassador trips since September.

Christy E. of Arlington, Texas, says the organization misrepresented the experience her 17-year-old daughter would have on a 20-day trip to Europe.

"People To People acted like they (the kids) were representatives of America, and there was a lot of emphasis on the way they acted," Christy says. "But when they got over there, most of the things they did were touristy things that anybody could do. We were disappointed because the places listed on the travel itinerary were replaced with not so well-known destinations at the last minute because of 'scheduling issues.'"

Christy says her daughter, for example:
• Didn't meet members of Parliament, as promised;
• Was only in Dublin long enough to check into a motel and grab two meals;
• Went to Waterford, but didn't go to the Waterford museum.

"They did tell us things could change once the kids got to Europe," Christy says. "But these were big things. If you say you're going to London and you'll get to go to Parliament -- and then the closest you get to Parliament is seeing it from the London Eye (the big Ferris wheel) -- that's misleading."

Christy also had concerns with the group leader on the trip. "She was new and I was not happy with the work they were supposed to do to get ready for this trip."

Her daughter, she says, also lost 12 pounds on the trip. "That's because the food was bad. And for the first two months after she got back, every time I'd make potatoes, she said couldn't eat them because that's all she ate on the trip."

Would she recommend the Student Ambassador program?

"As parent, no, I wouldn't," Christy says. "It's not worth the money. I bet I could find a good travel agency that could book a 20-day trip to Europe like this, and it would be a lot less expensive (she paid $4800), and they would get me hooked up with people who lived there.

"I've been contacted four times by People To People to come and recommend the program to other parents," she adds. "And I've declined all four times. I've also asked to be taken off their list."

What about her daughter?

"While she said she would love to go back to the UK, she would never want to go with a People To People group again," Christy says.

"She's been contacted ten times by People To People to sign up for another trip, and twice to write recommendations for them. She's declined on both and we finally had to request they take us off their contact list to stop the calls and emails."

 

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Parents Object to People to People's Use of Student Lists

People to People: "Ambassadors" or Tourists?

Parents Object to People to People's Use of Student Lists...

Tracie Y. of Niagara Falls, New York, is outraged by the marketing tactics a non-profit organization -- founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- used to promote its educational trips overseas.

The organization sent Tracie's ten-year-old son an invitation to participate in one of its trips and claimed he was specially chosen for this honor.

But Tracie says no one nominated her son. She learned the organization bought his name from a list service -- an action she says violated his privacy.

"I think something should be done so kids' names aren't being sold," says Tracie, who contacted legislative officials in New York about this issue. "What happens if some whacked-out person buys a list with the names of kids on it?

"It bothers me that all this information is out there about my ten-year old son. His information should be private."

Other parents, whose children received the same invitation for these overseas trips, share Tracie's concerns.

"I think it's bad that they're selling lists that have the names of kids on them," says Regina G. of Brooklyn, New York. "They're infringing on my personal life by buying this mailing list."

Patricia S. of New Windsor, New York, agrees.

"It's concerning to me that someone is selling my son's name," she says, adding he's only ten.

The non-profit organization behind the letters is People To People International, based in Kansas City, Missouri. It uses the Ambassador Group -- a for-profit company based in Spokane, Washington -- to market its trips and send invitations to students nationwide.

We learned the Ambassador Group buys the names of prospective students from a national list service -- the American Student List.

Tracie says People To People initially refused to disclose that information.

"When I called People To People and asked them how they got my son's name, they blew me off," she says. "That's how this all got started. They were avoiding my questions and not answering me."

Tracie says the organization finally sent her a letter stating: "We receive the names of potential Student Ambassadors through a variety of sources ... in (your son's) case we received his name from a student listing organization, specifically American Student List."

Tracie and other parents say People To People should disclose -- in its letters -- that it buys students' names from a national list service. Instead, the letter states students are nominated by a teacher, former Student Ambassador, or national academic listing.

"Why didn't they just say they got my son's name from a mailing list?" Tracie asks. "Their letter should specifically state 'you were chosen from a mailing list.'"

Mary Jean Eisenhower, president and chief executive officer of People To People International, apologized to parents and students upset with her organization's letter.

She says People To People recently changed the letter's wording. It now states children are 'invited' to participate in one of the Student Ambassador programs.

Of its ties to the Ambassador Group, Eisenhower says "we've had a long, legitimate relationship with them."

Eisenhower also says the Ambassador Group is selective about the names of students it buys from the list service. The company's mailing list, Eisenhower says, contains the names of academic achievers and students who are receptive to learning about other cultures.

But Tracie says People To People -- and other organizations -- should be prohibited from buying any child's name.

"I don't believe there should be a mailing list that has the names of children on it," she says. "I believe children's information should be private.

"This whole experience has really opened my eyes about how companies are buying the names of our children. And that shouldn't happen. These are just kids."

Next: Not Everyone's Happy with People to People Trips

 

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Hedge Fund Managers Sued for Fraud in Mutual Fund Timing

Defendants Secretly "Piggy-Backed" Trades to Evade Detection, NY Charges

Hedge Fund Managers Sued for Fraud in Mutual Fund Timing...

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has filed a lawsuit against a leading hedge fund and others for engaging in a fraudulent mutual fund market-timing scheme that damaged long-term investors.

The defendants -- Samaritan Asset Management Services, Inc., Johnson Capital Management, Inc., and their principals, Edward T. Owens and Michael A. Johnson are accused of engaging in a deceptive practice known in the industry as "flying under the radar" of monitoring systems established by mutual funds to detect market timing.

Most egregiously, the defendants allegedly disguised their timing activities from the various targeted mutual fund families by attaching or "piggybacking" their trades on the investment accounts of retirement plans that were customers of Security Trust Company (STC), a trust company and national banking association located in Arizona.

One way that STC and Johnson Capital evaded the scrutiny of mutual funds was to purposely vary the amounts of the trades. On Oct. 22, 2001, for example, an STC employee sent an e-mail advising Johnson Capital to employ this device as means to conceal its market timing activity.

"When trading the piggy back accounts, try to adjust the buy and sell amounts. Meaning, do not complete the sell trades for the same amount as the buy trade from the previous day. Same with [exchanges], do not use the same amount--vary each in and out trade. ... This will assist us in trying not to bring attention to the trading."

The lawsuit seeks to enjoin the defendants from conducting deceptive timing in mutual funds and restitution of monies obtained by their fraudulent acts.

As a result of a related investigation, Grant Seeger, the CEO of STC pleaded guilty in 2005 in New York County Supreme Court to second degree grand larceny, a class C felony, and to a violation of the Martin Act, a class E felony.

STC President William Kenyon pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Martin Act.

 

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Rent-A-Center Pays $7 Million to Settle California Complaints

Nation's largest furniture renter pays big penalty

Rent-A-Center Pays $7 Million to Settle California Complaints...

The nation's largest rent-to-own business, Rent-A-Center, Inc. (RAC), will pay more than $7 million in restitution to thousands of California customers under a settlement with Attorney General Bill Lockyer. The settlement, finalized today by the San Francisco County Superior Court, resolves a consumer protection lawsuit brought by Lockyer.

"Our economic system is not driven solely by the profit motive," said Lockyer. "To function properly, businesses must deal fairly and honestly with consumers. Rent-A-Center flouted this fundamental principle, violated state law and harmed consumers. This settlement not only will provide restitution to thousands of victims, but also ensure the company reforms its business practices to conform with the law."

The settlement resolves a lawsuit, filed simultaneously with the settlement, that alleged RAC failed to disclose the true cost of its rent-to-own program to California consumers. Additionally, RAC engaged in deceptive advertising in marketing and selling memberships in its "Preferred Customer Club," according to the complaint.

The settlement requires RAC to make full or partial refunds to thousands of California consumers who bought Club memberships, or who rented or purchased electronic merchandise, appliances, or computer systems from RAC on or after November 1, 2004. Lockyer's office estimated the restitution will total more than $7 million. RAC also will pay $750,000 in civil penalties.

San Francisco County Superior Judge Peter J. Busch on Thursday approved the settlement. The court today formally entered the judgment reflecting the settlement.

RAC rents and sells new and used household merchandise, including televisions, computers, furniture and appliances.

Customers typically sign a self-renewing weekly or monthly lease for the rented merchandise. The lease agreements include an option to purchase, either by continuing to pay rent for a specified period of time, or by early payment of some specified portion of the remaining lease payments.

Lockyer's complaint alleged RAC, in violation of state law, engaged in unfair competition and illegally misrepresented the cash price of certain merchandise.

The complaint also alleged RAC misrepresented the benefits and terms of its Club membership in numerous ways. The misrepresentations included: falsely claiming to provide an extended warranty, insurance, or service contract for rental merchandise; and telling consumers they would receive up to $500 in grocery discounts, without adequately disclosing that to obtain the maximum discounts consumers had to pay RAC more than $100 in additional fees.

Aside from the monetary payments, the settlement imposes reforms of RAC's business practices. These "injunctive relief" provisions include:

• requiring RAC to comply with California's Karnette Rental-Purchase Act in all rent-to-own transactions;

• prohibiting RAC from charging prices that exceed the maximum amount allowed by law; and

• requiring RAC to clearly disclose all terms of its Club membership, including any costs, benefits, services, features, discounts and cancellation rights.

In addition to the $7 million in restitution, RAC will deposit more than $7 million into a special consumer protection trust fund. The additional $7 million comes from a prior, private lawsuit brought against RAC, and represents restitution funds left undistributed to consumers in that case.

The $7 million deposited into the special fund will be used solely to enforce consumer protection laws, and to protect California consumers in the areas of consumer lending and finance, debt collection, and the sale and lease of consumer goods or services.

RAC is based in Plano, Texas and operates 2,880 stores in all 50 states. In 2005, the company's revenues totaled $2.34 billion.

 

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KB Home Executives Quit Over Stock Options Probe

KB Home faces yet another scandal

KB Home faces yet another scandal. Its CEO and several officers resigned or were fired over an investigation into whether the company falsified its account...

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NWNT: Crammed With Good Intentions

The Cram Artists

Cramming: What It Is, How It Works...

Northwest Nevada Telco is one of the smaller players in the major leagues of cramming, the shady means by which questionable charges are "crammed" onto consumers' phone bills. Congress created the problem -- presumably inadvertently -- through a provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It has since shown no interest in correcting it.

When cramming charges appear on a customer's bill, they are usually accompanied by a company name and phone number. When the customer calls that number they are taken to a company such as Northwest Nevada Telco (NWNT). Basically, NWNT and similar companies work on behalf of their client, the crammer, to convince the consumer that the charge is legitimate.

NWNT also offers other services for cramming companies such as adult chat lines, billing services and, until recently, computer auto-dialers.

An auto-dialer, sometimes called a stealth dialer, is a computer program that uses an individual's phone-connected modem to call an Internet service provider (ISP). With the connection provided by the program, the user could access specific Internet sites, usually pornographic, and then have per-minute charges placed on their phone bills.

Although there is nothing illegal about offering services through an auto-dialer, it becomes illegal when the device dials the ISP without the consumer's consent and then starts racking up charges. In one case, notorious crammer One Call programmed the dialer to call on its own, possibly while the user was asleep or away from the computer.

Clean Hands

In an interview, Jack Lawless, the owner of NWNT, insisted that his company has not done anything illegal. That's what everyone else in the long line of cram artists claims.

In all the cases against cramming companies, the local exchange carriers (LEC), such as Verizon and Bellsouth are rarely called to the stand. Neither are the companies that provide the so-called services (the company who designed and sold the auto dialer), the third-party billing companies such as ZPDI and ILD (the companies who place the charges) and the companies that provide the customer service (where the 800 number associated with the charge is answered).

What makes NWNT an interesting case is that it is several of those "other" companies rolled into one humble office building in Reno, Nevada.

How It Works

To help put this in perspective, we will continue with the One Call example. Until recently, NWNT sold auto dialers. Since the contract that exists between One Call and NWNT is not a public document, we'll say for the sake of simplicity that One Call purchased and used NWNT's dialer program.

The next step, according to a recent settlement against One Call and the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate, is that the consumer would accidentally download the dialer after clicking on a popup on the Internet. Then, without the consumer's consent or knowledge, the dialer would "hijack" the user's phone line-connected modem and start making long distance phone calls that usually carried a hefty per-minute charge.

One Call then sends its monthly charges to NWNT or another third-party billing company such as ILD or ZPDI.

The third-party billing companies, such as NWNT, have contracts with the LECs, such as Verizon, in which NWNT pays Verizon for the right to charge on Verizon's monthly bills. So then NWNT tells Verizon how much money to charge to a certain phone number according to what One Call tells NWNT.

It also normally takes a couple of months for the charge to appear on the consumer's bill, Lawless said. So an individual's computer could be making expensive phone calls for months before he or she would discover it.

Lawless said it takes months for the charges to appear because of the LEC's long billing periods and the long line of companies involved.

Once the cramming charges, such as those made by One Call, finally appear on the consumer's bill, they are often labeled as something innocuous such as, "Voicemail" or "Internet Access." There is also an 800 number. Many consumers, presumably, ignore the charge, which is usually small to begin with.

But oftentimes, the cramming company, according to NWNT ex-employees, would start multiplying the amount of the charge should a user ignore it or not notice it the first time around.

The Trail Leads to NWNT

So eventually, the user would call the accompanying 800 number. In that case, a company, sometimes NWNT, would answer the phone. According to the scripts customer service representatives (CSRs) at NWNT had to follow, they would then try to convince the consumer the charges were legitimate and try to retain the charge.

If the CSR is successful, the retained charge goes straight into One Call's account after the bill is paid.

However, according to the scripts, if a customer threatens to inform authorities, the CSR is to issue a credit. In that case, the customer is informed to pay the charge so they don't damage their credit and wait a few months for the credit to arrive.

Meanwhile, in those few months, One Call has had the use of the funds from consumers who many months before accidentally clicked on the wrong link. Even if One Call is brought into court and forced to give all the money back that it stole, it would get to keep the interest.

Everybody's Legal

Thus, there are many companies involved, each of them claiming to be operating legally, each aiding and abetting the process of cramming.

Selling an auto-dialer is not illegal, nor is signing contracts with third-party billing companies. But almost everyone in the landline phone industry appears to make a lot of money off the whole tawdry scam of illegal phone bill charges.

Since many Internet users have done away with modems in favor of other broadband connectors, auto-dialers have almost become obsolete. But cramming is still a huge industry.

ConsumerAffairs.com receives numerous complaints every day from consumers who have been "crammed." But because of the complex chain of companies and the relatively small amount of each individual transaction, prosecutors are slow to pick up the scent.

Even when companies are caught by state and federal authorities, they are not sent to prison or forced into bankruptcy. Usually, they are required to refund some of their ill-gotten gains and made to promise to play nicely in the future.

NWNT's Lawless, like others in the cramming business, insists he is a legitimate businessman, even though his company has held contracts with some of the most infamous cramming companies in the industry's 10-year history.

Lawless claimed he has canceled contracts with companies he thought were crammers but, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, would not share their names. He did share an e-mail he sent to one company, Opticom, expressing his disapproval of the scripts Opticom wanted NWNT's CSRs to follow.

Either way, Lawless insisted he and his company have done nothing illegal. It's not his job to police what his clients do, he said.

A Slothful Congress

While it may not be Lawless' job to police his clients' activities, it is the government's job to protect consumers from crammers, something it has seldom done. It was Congress that created the cramming industry through a clause in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The measure was supposed to increase competition but instead it opened the floodgates for millions of dollars in shameful scams against hard-working Americans.

Terry Lane, outgoing spokesman for the Republican-controlled House Committee on Energy and Commerce suggested that cramming is not that big a problem and that Republicans have been fighting hard for other consumer telecom issues.

"I'm not aware of any hearings in the future and we didn't have any hearings in the past year or two," Lane said.

In a previous ConsumerAffairs.com article on cramming, published in June 2006, many of the House members -- both Republican and Democrat -- who created the problem simply refused to discuss it.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) all failed to return repeated phone calls. All three sit on the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

The new Democratic Congress which will take over in January may be more willing to face the problem and possibly do something about it, though that is far from certain. The telecom industry plays Congress like a harp, and both Democrats and Republicans sing along lustily.

"Democratic leadership in the telecommunications policy will undoubtedly bring a renewed focus to consumer protection in choice and empowerment, all of which cramming would certainly be a part," said Markey's spokesman, Israel Klein.

For the time being though, companies can still make big profits by providing non-existent and unrequested "services" to the everyday consumer, usually without much or any federal or state interference.

Even if Congress bestirs itself to plug the cramming loophole, the criminal mind will find new ways to steal consumers' money.

One of NWNT's newer clients is www.powerpluscard.com, a Web site that claims to give anyone, regardless of employment status, a credit card with a "guaranteed $10,500 credit line.

One currently-employed NWNT CSR told ConsumerAffairs.com that people call all the time and scream at her about how they have been ripped off by Powerpluscard.com. She said she believes the Web site advertises something other than what is disclosed in the fine print.

It might not be cramming, but good luck to anyone who chooses to apply. You may want to keep NWNT's phone number handy.

Next: You've Been Crammed -- Now What?

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New Cell Phones Target Seniors

Big buttons, simple controls aimed at older users

Advertisements for cell phone companies and the features they offer make one thing abundantly clear - mobile communications are primarily designed for, and...

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Car Fire Reports Increasing

Feds Have Only One Active Investigation Underway

Within 5 minutes of parking his Pontiac Grand Prix, Todd's car, pictured at right, lit up a suburban Virginia roadside in roaring orange flames as the car ...

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Christmas Returns to Wal-Mart

Christmas Returns to Wal-Mart...

Wal-Mart is welcoming "Christmas" back to its stores this year after being blasted by its customers last year for its avoidance of the word.

"This year, more than ever, our shoppers will see and hear more about Christmas," said John Fleming, executive vice president of marketing.

The world's largest retailer said it has produced a Christmas-specific television advertisement scheduled to break next week. Also, Wal-Mart will feature a series of television advertisements with a key charitable partner, the Salvation Army, that mention Christmas.

In stores, Wal-Mart's specific references to Christmas include:

• "The Christmas Shop", previously known as "The Holiday Shop" -- the location for shoppers' Christmas decorating needs.

• "Days 'til Christmas" signing will provide a countdown for customers.

• Gift card designs -- Customers will see Santa and "Merry Christmas" gift cards

• A number of seasonal merchandise selections renamed from 'Holiday' and labeled with 'Christmas' -- at an increase of over 60% from last year.

• Christmas carols ringing out in stores throughout the holiday season.

• Encouraging employees at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to greet customers utilizing various glad tidings inclusive of, but not limited to, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah and Feliz Navidad, to name a few.

• The company's Website, Walmart.com, will include dedicated pages for Christmas and other holidays, including Hanukkah and Kwanza.

• SAM'S CLUB membership magazines, including the upcoming December/January 06 Source Magazine, reference specific holidays, Christmas and others.

 

 

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"Grandparents Scam" Exposed

Con Artists Pretend to be Grandchildren in Trouble

The con man who convinced Edward and Irene Kellerman of Fairlawn, Ohio, that he was their beloved grandson Brian is still on the run. They wired him $3,000...

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Post-Election Gas Prices on the Rise

Prices edging up after falling about $1 a gallon

Post-Election Gas Prices on the Rise...

The elections are over for two more years and gasoline prices seem to be headed back up again.

Conspiracy theorists will say, "I told you so."

Gas prices had fallen roughly $1 a gallon since toying with a new record high in late spring but now the average price is of a gallon of regular is edging back up.

Almost 42 percent of American consumers are convinced the Bush administration used its influence to drive gas prices down in advance of the elections, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The poll also reported that Democrats were far more likely to believe the gas price conspiracy theory than Republicans.

Oil industry executives ridiculed the story as rubbish, adding more weight to the conspiracy in many consumers' minds. The oilmen pointed instead to supply and demand theory as the primary explanation for the price declines.

Theories aside, gasoline prices are inching higher and the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded now stands at $2.22, up 2 cents this week according to AAA of Heathrow, Florida.

The average prices for midgrade and premium unleaded gasoline are also up 2 cents a gallon. Midgrade sells for an average of $2.35 a gallon and premium sells for an average of $2.44 a gallon.

The most expensive gallon of regular is on sale in Las Vegas for $3.35. The cheapest gallon of regular is found in Verona, Virginia as $1.89.

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

California: Gas prices were up in most local areas this week, ending a record-breaking 11 weeks of price drops that averaged more than a penny a day and took prices 30 percent below their all-time high, according to the Automobile club of Southern California.

The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $2.42, which is 1.5 cents higher than last week, 22 cents lower than last month, and 27 cents lower than last year.

On the Central Coast, the average price is $2.67, down 2.3 cents from last week, 23 cents below last month, and 12 cents lower than last year.

In the Inland Empire, the average price is $2.42, up 2.8 cents from last week, 17 cents below last month, and 28 cents lower than last year.

This is the second straight week that the national gas price average has risen, and oil industry analysts expected the increase sometime in November because of OPEC's decision to cut back on crude oil production, the Auto Club said.

Texas: Gasoline prices in the state showed a mixed bag of results as averages in some Texas cities moved slightly higher and others moved slightly lower, according to the AAA Texas Weekend Gas Watch.

The current Texas statewide average price for self-serve regular gasoline is $2.08 a gallon, about a penny less than last week.

Motorists in Corpus Christi are seeing some of the lowest averages in the state at $2.00 a gallon -- up a penny since the week before. The highest prices this week can be found in the Austin-San Marcos area at $2.15 a gallon -- down a penny.

"Gasoline prices in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston headed downward this week after adding a penny or two to their averages last week," said AAA Texas spokesperson Rose Rougeau. "It appears gasoline prices may be leveling off since there have not been any major price gains or losses in the past couple of weeks."

The national average for regular self-serve gasoline is about the same as last week's average $2.21 a gallon. AAA Texas Weekend Gas Watch monitors the average price of gasoline in Texas.

Florida: Gasoline prices around Tallahassee have crept upward recently. AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report noted that the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas is $2.18 in the Tallahassee area.

The average price for regular unleaded gasoline throughout Florida is $2.23. The most expensive gallon sells in West Palm Beach for $2.32 and cheapest gallon is found in Tampa for $2.16.

The demand for heating fuel could cause prices to rise again in the coming winter months, said Gregg Laskoski, a spokesman for AAA Auto Club South in Tampa. "One of the key factors here is still the weather. Weather forecasters are predicting colder-than-usual weather in the Northeast."

Last week, U.S. crude inventories increased by 400,000 barrels to 334.7 million barrels, but gasoline inventories dropped by 600,000 barrels to 204 million barrels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

There are still ample U.S. oil supplies -- above the average for this time of year. However, oil prices remain buoyed by some OPEC ministers saying another production cut may be in order, strong demand and weather forecasters predicting a colder-than-normal winter in some parts of the U.S.

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Irradiation Could Reduce Food-Borne Illness

The procedure kills bacteria without affecting nutritional value food, supporters say

Irradiation Could Reduce Food-Borne Illness...

Hamburgers, apple cider, petting zoos and even spinach have been blamed for E. coli outbreaks in recent years. It doesn't have to be that way, says Dennis G. Maki, M.D., writing in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Irradiation of high-risk foods after processing could greatly reduce the incidence of all bacterial foodborne disease and save hundreds of lives each year, Maki argues.

"Irradiation kills or markedly reduces counts of food pathogens without impairing the nutritional value of the food or making it toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive," according to Maki, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

In the latest major E. coli outbreak, 199 persons in 26 states were sickened by fresh spinach or spinach-containing products from commercial brands processed by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, California. At least 103 of them developed acute renal failure and three died.

It was, said Maki, at least the 26th reported outbreak of E. coli infection traced to contaminated leafy green vegetables since 1993.

But the problem of food-borne illness extends beyond the widely publicized mass outbreaks. Magi said that during each day of the spinach E. coli outbreak, "there were at least 5 to 10 times as many cases of endemic Shiga toxinproducing E. coli infection throughout the country as there were outbreak cases."

Agencies charged with food safety -- the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- have ratcheted up their surveillance efforts. But after some initial success, the rate of decline in food-borne illness has leveled off over the last decade, according to Maki.

The use of industrial farming techniques make it much harder to ensure the safety of meat and produce, Maki said.

"During my childhood in 1950s rural Wisconsin, when I ate a hamburger at home, the ground beef had been produced locally from cuts taken from several sides of beef purchased by the neighborhood grocer from a local farmer, who probably raised no more than 25 pasture-fed cows on a 150-acre farm," he recalled.

"Today, virtually all beef consumed in North America is produced on a vast industrial scale, starting with a herd of tens of thousands of grain-fed cattle, raised in the final months before slaughter in the constrained environment of a feedlot, with the beef cuts from hundreds of cows to several thousand contributing to a single lot of more than 100,000 pounds of ground beef, shipped to many hundreds of supermarkets in multiple states."

There has been a decline in E. coli contamination of ground beef but produce is another matter.

"Although most reported infections with Shiga toxinproducing E. coli are linked to undercooked ground beef, nearly 25% of outbreaks stem from contamination of commercial produce that is eaten uncooked lettuce, spinach, cabbage, sprouts, or tomatoes," Maki said.

Irradiation Already Approved

Irradiation of food is already approved in the United States for most perishable foods and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, CDC, FDA, USDA, American Medical Association, and European Commission Scientific Committee on Food.

But, says Maki, intense opposition from antinuclear activitists has blocked widespread use of the technology.

"A number of food products are already commonly irradiated, with no evidence of harmful effects, and for decades, we have sterilized hundreds of millions of implanted medical devices through irradiation each year," Maki said.

The CDC has estimated that irradiation of high-risk foods could prevent up to a million cases of bacterial foodborne disease that result in the hospitalization of more than 50,000 persons and kill many hundreds each year in North America.

"I believe it is time to overcome our irrational fears and act to ensure the safety of our food," Maki concluded.



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Victimized Twice: Hurricane Victims Scammed by Unscrupulous Contractors

Investigative TV Report Documents Rip-Offs of New Orleans Homeowners

Victimized Twice: Hurricane Victims Scammed by Unscrupulous Contractors...

In a hidden camera investigation airing today, syndicated TV news show "Inside Edition" finds dozens of New Orleans residents who say they have been victimized twice -- once by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and again by a contractor who took thousands of dollars up front to repair their homes and never finished, or in some cases, even started the work.

Newlyweds Felicia and Robert Lombard paid more than $48,000 to a construction company called Dynasty Distributors to totally rebuild their Katrina-ravaged home, money they planned on using for their wedding.

"They haven't done anything in here ... It's just excuse after excuse after excuse, and never once did they even try to attempt to call us," Felicia Lombard told Senior Investigative Correspondent Matt Meagher.

The Lombards say Dynasty did a small amount of work and never returned. In the Inside Edition report, they showed piles of termite-infested debris they say the company buried under their house, which remains uninhabitable.

"It's disgusting ... it's mind boggling that someone can be that low," says Cynthia Albert, an official with the New Orleans Better Business Bureau. She says contracting complaints have skyrocketed since Hurricane Katrina and that many companies are preying on homeowners.

"There are a lot of bad companies out there and they just want to separate you from your money," Albert says.

More Victims

Inside Edition also spoke with dozens of other people who say Dynasty Distributors victimized them, too.

Ron Evans says he paid Dynasty nearly $15,000 of his insurance money to raise his house and repair his floor. The company never returned to do the work, and Evans' insurance money is now gone. He and his family are forced to live in a cramped trailer on the front lawn of his ruined home.

Dr. George Gilmore says he paid Dynasty $135,000 to totally renovate his washed-out chiropractic offices. But, Gilmore tells Meagher, after completing only half the work, the company stopped showing up.

"We've been ripped off," says Gilmore.

Another local resident, Paul Blanchard, says he paid Dynasty $19,000 to make his home level after Hurricane Katrina. The work was so bad, Blanchard says, the house is now leaning severely. Doors don't shut, floors are slanted, and guests feel queasy inside. Blanchard tells Meagher he "wasted" his money.

All of the customers Inside Edition spoke with said they have tried unsuccessfully for months to get Dynasty Distributors to show up and finish their projects or even to return their repeated phone calls.

For the report, Inside Edition rigged a house with hidden cameras and Meagher, posing as a homeowner looking to rebuild a Katrina-ravaged house, made an appointment with a Dynasty representative to get an estimate.

Dynasty Vice President George Vincent, shown in the report surveying the house and making calculations, seemed ready to take on this big job, despite all the customers who claim the company left them hanging. Inside Edition also learned that Dynasty had no license to bid on or perform such a large job. When Meagher revealed himself as a reporter to Vincent, Vincent left the house and drove off without a word.

Vincent also didn't want to talk to the group of angry Dynasty customers Inside Edition had gathered at the house to confront Vincent.

Meagher also tracked down Dynasty Distributors owner Joe Martino. Martino, who lives in a pricey gated community and drives a $65,000 Lexus, told Meagher he was too sick for an interview and would be at doctors' appointments all day. But instead, Meagher found him at a local topless bar, where he refused to answer any questions.

Late last week, the Louisiana Attorney General issued a temporary restraining order against Dynasty Distributors and Joe Martino, calling their actions unethical and unscrupulous. Officials are hoping they can recover some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars these homeowners have lost.

According to Cynthia Albert of the BBB, Dynasty Distributor's practices are adding insult to injury for an already-downtrodden population.

"Our people here can't be victimized anymore but they are," she says. "This is going to go on for a very long time."

 

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No Link Between Low-Carb Diet And Heart Disease

Harvard Study Finds Fat Content More Important than Carbs

No Link Between Low-Carb Diet And Heart Disease...


Advocates of low-carbohydrate diets, such as the popular Atkins diet, claim that those diets may help prevent obesity and coronary heart disease. A new Harvard study suggests that's true only if other dietary components aren't high in animal fat.

The long-term safety of high-carb diets has been debated for years, particularly because they encourage the consumption of animal products, which are high in saturated fats and cholesterol and could potentially increase the risk of heart disease.

Prevailing dietary recommendations have advocated the opposite approach -- recommending diets that are low in fat and high in carbohydrates as the best way to manage weight and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In the first study to look at the long-term effects of low-carbohydrate diets, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found no evidence of an association between low-carb diets and an increased risk of heart disease in women.

Their findings did suggest, however, an association between low-carb diets high in vegetable sources of fat and protein and a low risk of heart disease.

"This study suggests that neither a low-fat dietary pattern nor a typical low-carbohydrate dietary pattern is ideal with regards to risk of heart disease; both have similar risks. However, if a diet moderately lower in carbohydrates is followed, with a focus on vegetable sources of fat and protein, there may be a benefit for heart disease," said Tom Halton, a former doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.

The study appears in the November 9, 2006, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers looked at data collected over a 20-year period from 82,802 women in the Nurses' Health Study, a long-term study that began in 1976. Study participants were divided into 10 categories according to their overall diet score, which was measured by calculating fat, protein and carbohydrate intake as a percentage of energy.

The scores ranged from 0 (the lowest fat and protein intake and highest carbohydrate intake) to 30 (the highest fat and protein intake and lowest carbohydrate intake). A higher score meant a person followed a low-carbohydrate diet more closely; that score was called the "low-carbohydrate-diet score."

Halton and his colleagues also created two additional low-carbohydrate-diet scores. The first calculated percentages of energy from carbohydrate, animal protein and animal fat. The second calculated percentages of energy from carbohydrate, vegetable protein and vegetable fat.

The researchers documented 1,994 cases of coronary heart disease over the study period.

The results showed that a low-carbohydrate score was not associated with risk of heart disease in women. There was no evidence that the relationship was modified as a result of physical activity levels, body-mass index, or the presence or absence of hypertension, diabetes, or hypercholesterolemia.

Total amounts of fat or carbohydrate did not appear to have an appreciable relationship with risk of heart disease. However, types of fat and carbohydrates do make a difference. Vegetable fat was associated a lower risk of risk of heart disease, whereas higher dietary glycemic load (reflecting the amount of refined carbohydrates that can rapidly elevate blood sugar levels) -- typical of a high-carb diet -- was strongly associated with increased risk. The authors found that, when vegetable sources of fat and protein were chosen instead of animal sources, the low-carbohydrate-diet score was associated with a 30% lower risk of heart disease.

"This study doesn't mean that you should load your plate with steak and bacon," said Hu. "One likely explanation that we did not see increased risk of heart disease with low-carbohydrate diets is that the adverse effects of animal products might be counterbalanced by reducing refined carbohydrates. The quality of fat and carbohydrate is more important than quantity. A heart-healthy diet should embrace healthy types of fat and carbohydrates."

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.



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Balcony Railings a Hidden Danger to Children

"Grandfathered" Railings Enable Children to Fall to their Deaths

Hazardous balcony railings in homes and hotels are a continuing menace to children, according to a report airing today on the nationally syndicated "Inside...

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Bank Of America/MBNA Merger Produces More Problems

Many problems bubbling away under the surface

Bank Of America/MBNA Merger Produces More Problems...

To hear employees and consultants tell it, the takeover of MBNA by Bank of America went so smoothly and beautifully that many were forced to break into song. But a closer look indicates that there are many problems bubbling under the surface, and dragging customers down with them.

Tom from Santa Clara, Calif., wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com to tell us that his MBNA credit card suddenly stopped working after his account was picked up by Bank of America.

"I have been embarrassed by having my credit card denied in a restaurant and a doctor's office," he said. "Luckily they accepted American Express or I would be washing dishes now."

Tom called Bank of America, and they confirmed his card was good and he had available credit. "There is a system-wide problem with their credit card process and they have no idea when it will be fixed," he said.

Another irate customer lost both his Bank of America debit card and several checks to hungry new ATMs put in place since the merger.

"I put my debit card in a BofA ATM machine and it promptly ate it, refusing to regurgitate either card or money," they wrote. "It was one of BofA's new ATM machines, the ones that supposedly take check deposits. I have tried to deposit numerous checks using the new machines but with zero success."

Bank Of America's even having problems in its home base of Charlotte, North Carolina.

One frustrated customer told the Charlotte Observer that two weeks after the merger, she can't print statements from her online account.

The glitches come as Bank of America merges its massive credit card operation with MBNA's own system, a transfer the company has called a "rousing success."

Part of the process involves issuing new Bank of America-brand cards to MBNA customers as their cards expire, a process that may account for the failure of some MBNA cards to process.

Bank of America has chosen to use MBNA's own account managing system, and take the process in-house, rather than outsource account management to third party companies as it has done in the past.

The buyout of MBNA has filled Bank of America's coffers considerably, with the bank reporting increased earnings of 41 percent for the third quarter, due chiefly to increased lending and higher credit card fee collections from MBNA customers.

Fees Fly High

Bank of America was one of the six major banks cited in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that found credit card late fees and penalties were increasing at a fast clip, and disclosures explaining credit terms were increasingly hard to interpret.

The bank is looking at increased adoption of "contactless" payment cards, which don't require signatures or swipes through card readers. Like many of its competitors, Bank of America is hoping that contactless cards will encourage customers to use plastic for small transactions, such as buying gas or food.

Merchants generally oppose the promotion of "micropayments," claiming that the high interchange fees they pay to process credit transactions wipes out any profit they make, forcing them to raise prices in order to recoup costs.

Privacy advocates and researchers have found numerous flaws in contactless credit cards, such as the ability of identity thieves to build readers that could hack the data contained in the RFID chip embedded in the card.

And yet, despite all the perils, Bank of America is pressing on, just as it did with its consumption of MBNA. Let's hope that, at least, the next series of glitches doesn't inspire another round of song.

 

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Tattoos May Have Hidden Health Consequences

Researchers Find Toxic Chemicals Used in Some Inks

People come in knowing about hepatitis and AIDS and these days tattoo artists are careful about ensuring that the needles are sterile. But they don't expec...

Everyone knows that non-sterile tattoo needles can lead to AIDS and hepatitis. However, according to research by Ronald Petruso, lecturer of chemistry at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, PA, there are other, overlooked, risks of getting a tattoo.

For the past year and a half, Petruso has been collaborating with Jani Ingram of Northern Arizona University in studying the toxicology of tattoo pigments. As television shows such as "Miami Ink" and "Inked" gain in popularity, Petruso and Ingram wanted to delve into a topic that doesn't get that much press in an industry that that the government doesn't control.

"It's not federally regulated and you don't need a license in order to practice. But it should be because since these pigments are going under the skin, they're being used as drugs," Petruso said.

"The number of people with tattoos is growing and still we don't see much aired in newspapers, broadcast news, or the rest of the media about possible dangers outside of AIDS and hepatitis. We just wanted to look into the situation and see where the research takes us and see if we can make people more vigilant about the risks."

At Northern Arizona, Ingram has found traces of lead in tattoo pigments. Meanwhile, at Delaware Valley, Petruso with the help of two students found carcinogenic substances in a common tattoo pigment.

The shocking detail about this finding was that the carcinogenic pigment was manufactured at Sun Chemical in Cincinnati, with no intended use for tattoos.

"When we told Sun Chemical about our findings they were very concerned about this because this is not what they design their products for. The pigments they make are used by auto manufacturers for making paint," he said.

"The real implication of this finding is that some tattoo pigments are being exchanged under the table. Sun Chemical said that if they found out the source of who's misusing their products, they would go after them and sue them."

"There are so many tattoo parlors out there that you don't have any idea where they're buying their supplies. People come in knowing about hepatitis and AIDS and these days tattoo artists are careful about ensuring that the needles are sterile. But they don't expect to see other problems. They have no idea of the chemicals present in those pigments, and that's the situation that needs to be addressed," Petruso said.

 



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Starbucks Data Loss No Laughing Matter

Company Loses Laptops Containing 60,000 Employees' Information

Starbucks Data Loss No Laughing Matter...

Starbucks sees itself as pretty clever. After all, it has seduced an entire generation of Americans into paying ten times more than the previously prevailing price of a cup of coffee. Now it's trying to laugh off the loss of confidential data on 60,000 employees.

The company recently reported the theft of four laptop computers but pooh-poohed the notion that anyone would, you know, do anything with the stolen data.

The disappearance, which was first noticed on Sept. 6th, was not reported to the public until Nov. 4th.

Company spokesperson Valerie O'Neil made light of the incident, telling Associated Press she didn't know of any secret coffee recipes stored on the computers.

According to the company, the four "retired" laptops contained personal information on 60,000 American "partners" (employees), and 80 Canadian partners of the Seattle-based coffee chain.

The laptops' information dated prior to December 2003, before the company claimed to have changed its procedures for storing personal data and strengthened its privacy requirements.

The data contained on the laptops included names and Social Security numbers.

The company is sending letters to all potentially affected employees, and has set up a toll-free 1-800 number to answer any questions. Starbucks has also said it is offering free credit monitoring from Equifax for anyone affected.

No Laughing Matter

The threat is no joke to anyone affected by the data breach, however. If the information stored on the missing laptop is ever accessed, smart thieves will wait weeks or months before attempting to use it themselves.

Many criminal rings don't even bother attempting to steal money from identity theft victims anymore. Instead, they may take the identity data and encode it in "clone" cards, which they then use for small purchases that don't trigger fraud alerts.

Hotel key cards, for instance, have increasingly been the target of choice for criminals wanting to use stolen data without being detected.

The mass cancellation of debit cards from numerous chains in early 2006, starting with Citibank, was attributed to identity thieves stealing information, encoding it on blank cards, then making withdrawals from customers' accounts that triggered fraud alerts.

The prevalence of exposed data due to laptop theft and disappearance continues to be one of the major contributors to identity theft. Thousands of Americans are at risk every time a computer or storage device disappears or gets stolen.

The risk is often compounded by the devices having little or no security protection, or storing information that violates company policy.

Most recently, an employee of General Electric had a laptop containing data on 50,000 current and former employees stolen from a locked hotel room. The theft is as yet unsolved.

 

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Hotel Check-In Desks Check Out

Hotels are trying to be more "personal"

Hotel Check-In Desks Check Out...

Hotel check-in desks are following the buffalo nickel and Sunday doubleheader into the dustbin of history.

In an effort to appear more customer-friendly -- especially to the rising base of young Generation X and Generation Y travelers -- hotels are trying to give the often-tedious check-in process a more personal touch.

The result is properties with check-in "stations," often individual pods staffed by an agent with a computer, plus expanded job descriptions that allow employees to provide not only check-in services but such concierge-type duties as restaurant recommendations.

By removing long desks that some guests considered imposing, hotels are not only saving space but saving face -- or at least putting on a friendlier one that they had previously.

Already, there are more pods and more concierge-type services at many Hyatts. Westin, an upscale property that switched to pods, even has a 5-and-10 rule that encourages employees to spend at least five minutes with guests and walk 10 steps with them -- perhaps pointing them in the direction of an elevator.

InterContinental's Indigo brand, designed for the boutique market, has staffers greet guests, provide directions, or find waiting spaces in hotel lobbies. Like the Holiday Inn, which has initiated the change at more than a half-dozen properties, the check-in desk is semicircular -- as opposed to the rectangular models guests considered to be barriers.

Embassy Suites tries to have one pod per 50 rooms and has increased lobby space (often up to 40%) by removing the old-style front desk. Wyndham will do the same thing late next year.

Coming soon are an open-air desk from Marriott, which plans to introduce it in New York by 2008, and employees trained to read guest body language -- and do whatever it takes to make them feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Underlying the industry-wide change is a desire to sell more food and drink -- possibly by expanding lobby bars and cajoling guests into lingering in lobbies longer.

Switching to pods doesn't always speed the check-in process but often makes it more personal and more inviting, according to both hotel executives and guests. Both agree that happy guests often become repeat guests.

 



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Author Finds Sport In Tricking Scammers

Engaging the scammers wastes their time, amuses author

Millions of computer users regularly receive spam emails asking for help moving vast fortunes to the U.S. and offering the recipient a piece of the action ...

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Smoking Linked to Complications in Prostate Cancer Treatment

Poorer outcomes seen in smokers

Smoking Linked to Complications in Prostate Cancer Treatment...

Smoking has been found to contribute to poorer outcomes for people treated for many kinds of cancer and now, researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center have associated smoking and acute side-effects following radiation therapy for prostate cancer.

The study was presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology in Philadelphia.

For the study, researchers analyzed the impact of smoking on gastrointestinal (GI) and genitourinary (GU) side effects for 1,194 patients with prostate cancer treated at Fox Chase Cancer Center with 3D conformal radiation therapy between 1991 and 2001.

Smoking information collected prior to treatment included status as a current smoker, ex-smoker or non-smoker. Patients treated with androgen deprivation prior to or during treatment were excluded.

"Our patients who smoked during treatment reported having more acute gastrointestinal side-effects such as diarrhea," said Niraj Pahlajani, M.D., lead author on the study and a resident in the radiation oncology department at Fox Chase.

"Fortunately, smoking didn't appear to impact long-term GI side effects or genitourinary side-effects. These results underscore the importance of smoking cessation prior to radiation therapy," the authors said.

Smoking had been implicated in earlier studies with an increased risk of radiation-related side effects in cancers of the head and neck, cervix, lung and breast.

 



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Court Pulls Blinds On See Clearly Method

So-called natural vision improvement method doesn't work, state charges

An Iowa court has ordered Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc., to immediately stop selling its so-called natural vision improvement kit called the "See C...

An Iowa court has ordered Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc., to immediately stop selling its so-called natural vision improvement kit called the "See Clearly Method." The court also ordered the company to pay $200,000 for consumer restitution.

The court order resolves a consumer fraud lawsuit filed last year by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, which alleged that the company could not substantiate claims that the "See Clearly Method" improved people's vision so much that they would no longer need glasses or contact lenses.

The "See Clearly Method" was a kit of manuals, charts, videos and audio-tapes demonstrating eye exercises and other techniques, such as focusing eyes using special charts or props, facing a bright light with eyes closed at a distance of a few inches, covering eyes with hands for sustained periods, and applying hot and cold wash cloths over closed eyes.

The company sold tens of thousands of the kits for about $350 apiece.

"The company made dramatic claims for its product that it could not substantiate," Miller said.

"They represented that consumers who used the method could quickly and easily free themselves of having to wear glasses or contact lenses. They used illegal tactics including exaggerated claims of effectiveness, false implications of scientific validity, and misleading consumer testimonials in advertising," he said.

"We also alleged that a so-called 'risk-free' 30-day trial period was deceptively presented and ended up forcing many consumers to pay hundreds of dollars apiece for a product that they wanted to return because it did not help them," Miller said.

Polk County District Court Judge Don C. Nickerson entered a consent judgment resolving the Attorney General's lawsuit. The order was agreed to by Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc. (VIT) and the individual defendants: Cliff Rose, David E. Sykes, David W. Muris, and Gary Korf. The defendants denied violations of the Consumer Fraud Act.

VIT and all defendants must comply with numerous orders under the Consent Judgment:

• VIT must stop all sales of the "See Clearly Method" as of Nov.1, and cease business altogether by December 22, 2006, or as soon thereafter as possible.

• VIT paid $200,000 yesterday into a fund the Attorney General can use for restitution to consumers, and paid $20,000 to Iowa's Consumer Fraud Elderly Victim Fund.

• VIT must remove all negative credit reports lodged against consumers since the marketing of the "See Clearly Method" began about six years ago.

• VIT and all defendants are prohibited from numerous deceptive practices alleged by the Attorney General, including failing to substantiate claims, abusing testimonials in advertising, and making misleading claims.

"It is particularly important that a company be able to substantiate that its product works when there are so many challenges to the principles and techniques supposedly under girding the claims," Miller said. "Iowa law requires a seller to be able to substantiate such ambitious claims, but this company could not do so."

 



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Bank, ATM Fees Continue To Rise

Bank, ATM Fees Continue To Rise...


If you're noticing extra money being drained from your account every time you use an ATM, it's not an illusion. The fees banks charge for using ATMs, and for many other commonplace transactions, are indeed on the rise.

Bankrate.com released its "Fall Checking Account Pricing Study" on Oct. 30th. The principal findings of the study included a spike in ATM fees to an average of $1.64 per transaction, an increase from $1.60 in the spring of 2006, and $1.54 in fall 2005.

Fees for bounced checks, or what the industry calls "non-sufficient funds (NSF)," also hit an all-time high. Bouncing a check can cost a customer an average of $27.40 per failed transaction, an increase of 36 cents from the survey conducted in the spring of 2006.

Bouncing more than a few checks can not only get a customer's bank account closed, but they can be reported to the ChexSystems database clearinghouse for NSF activity.

Once a customer is reported to ChexSystems, it becomes nearly impossible to open new credit or bank accounts, and it takes as long as five years to remove oneself from the database.

The news is grim even if you're not wasting money with bank fees. The average balance required to maintain an interest-bearing checking account rose to $2,600, but the actual interest earned averaged only 0.34 percent a year.

Big Bucks

Banks are making huge money off fees, with profits expected to top $55 billion this year alone.

Although banks are imposing fees on all manner of transactions, the largest slice of the pie still comes from credit card fees, which provided banks $24 billion in income this year alone.

Part of banks' increasing reliance on punitive fees comes from the slowdown in investing that has been accompanying the steady hike in interest lending rates.

As consumers and homeowners grow more gun-shy about taking out expensive new loans, banks lose money and need to recoup.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a study that found punitive fees for credit cards were at an all-time high, and the disclosures explaining them to consumers were often poorly written and hard to decipher.

What You Can Do

Whether it's getting jerked with surprise credit card fees or just watching your money be siphoned away through ATM surcharges, you have options on how to get the most bang for your buck.

Shop for a better deal. Banks are frantically pursuing new customers, and even the most cursory Internet search can yield comparisons on what checking account lets you keep the most of your money. Negotiate with your bank to see if they'll cut you a deal, and don't hesitate to take another bank's offer if yours isn't willing to keep your business.

Consider credit unions. Credit unions generally offer better banking terms, including low or no ATM surcharges, reimbursement for ATM fees outside your network, better lending rates for credit cards, and higher rates for interest-bearing accounts. The National Credit Union Association can help you find a credit union you're qualified to join.

Make your money grow. Rather than waste money with an expensive interest checking account, set up a simple free checking account and divert your extra money to a high-yield savings account or money market account. Many banks will find ways to charge users of free checking accounts for check images or online bill paying, so research carefully to avoid any pitfalls.

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NutriSystem Leaves a Bad Taste in Many Mouths

Consumers Complain of Salty Food, Too Many Substitutions

NutriSystem works by giving a person all the food they need. The point is that it's easy to follow the diet because all the food a customer would need is p...

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Consumerists Want FTC Probe of Online Advertising

Consumerists Want FTC Probe of Online Advertising...


Web surfers and shoppers don't just have phishing scams and identity theft to worry about. Now they have to worry about ads that are actually targeted to their interests.

Industries track visitors to Web sites, categorizing every click of the mouse and unique "hit" on a site in an effort to target advertising pitches and get surfers buying their products.

Now two consumerist groups are demanding that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) take action against companies that collect data on visitors through online advertising.

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) filed a 50-page brief with the FTC, urging the agency to focus greater scrutiny on and possibly tighten regulation of online advertising.

"The emergence of this on-line tracking and profiling system has snuck up on both consumers and policymakers and is much more than a privacy issue," PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski said in a statement. "Its effect has been to put enormous amounts of consumer information into the hands of sellers, leaving buyer-consumers at risk of unfair pricing schemes and with fewer choices than the Internet is touted to provide."

The report analyzes five specific techniques advertisers and marketers use to lure "window shopping" surfers into becoming repeat customers: User tracking, data mining, behavioral marketing, audience segmentation, and industry consolidation.

"Audience segmentation," for example, involves advertisers and analysts sifting through data gleaned from Web surfers' visits and breaking them down into categories for easier marketing. Different categories include "family planners," "coupon clippers," and so on.

The brief investigated techniques used to track visits to Web sites, such as using specific "pixels" to deliver data back to observers when portions of sites are clicked on.

The report quoted extensively from filings belonging to business software company Omniture, which collects multiple levels of customer information and builds profiles from anonymous data records of Web site visits.

Omniture stated in a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) that complying with laws that require explicit consent for information gathering would cost it money and business.

"Even if our customers succeeded in developing new procedures, they might be unable to convince Internet users to agree to the collection and use of the users' information," the company said. "This would negatively impact our revenues, growth and potential for expanding our business and could cause our stock price to decline."

Microsoft's Watching You

Although the report also targeted the advertising and privacy practices of such Web giants as Google and Yahoo, it reserved its heaviest criticism for Microsoft, which the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester said was "rewriting the rules that govern the online marketplace."

Chester cited Microsoft's "AdCenter" digital advertising initiative, which harvests and categorizes user data from Microsoft's many services, ranging from its interactive Xbox Live online game platform, to its MSN Spaces blogging community, to Hotmail and its 30 million-plus e-mail subscribers.

The report claimed that Microsoft was using data gleaned from its services without users' knowledge to deliver "targeted and personalized advertising" in the hopes of turning users into customers, a plan Chester called "deceptive and unfair."

The consumer groups' appeal to the FTC was timed to coincide with "Techade," a series of hearings set for Nov. 6th-8th in Washington, D.C. that deal with the changes in marketing technologies and how the Internet presents both opportunity and danger to consumers.

Chester said that the FTC has largely ignored its duties as an advocate for consumers and needs to step up its efforts to regulate collection of individuals' data. "The public interest matters...[It] is the FTC's responsibility to protect and promote that vital perspective, by issuing injunctions against the most egregious of the new invasive advertising practices."

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California Class Action Throws Cold Water on Whirlpool

Gas Water Heaters Fail Frequently, Company Does Nothing to Correct the Problem

California Class Action Throws Cold Water on Whirlpool...


Whirlpool gas water heater customers in California may be getting some relief from their involuntary cold showers if a pending class action lawsuit is successful. Meanwhile, it appears Whirlpool has done nothing to fix the malfunctioning heater since ConsumerAffairs.com first reported on it in May.

Attorney Richard Doherty filed a motion seeking class certification in the California last month against Whirlpool and the gas water heater's manufacturer, American Water Heater Company (AWHC).

The trial date is set for August 21, 2007. The lawyers in the case said they may try similar Whirlpool/AWHC class action suits in other states depending on the success of thie California case.

Over 160 complaints in the ConsumerAffairs.com database tell a similar story:

"I purchased a new 50-gallon Flame Lock water heater with a 12-year warranty," Rick Carlton of Orange, Calif. said. "Seven weeks later, I had no hot water and was told that the thermocouple had gone bad."

Even repairmen have grown tired of these water heaters.

"I am a service tech who quite often works on Whirlpool water heaters," wrote Rob of Springfield, Ohio. "I'd say about 95% of water heater service calls are for these junk heaters. We have lost several customers because of reoccurring problems every few months (and yes we clean bottom screen and do not over-tighten thermocouple). I highly recommend that you pass on these heaters, no matter how good their warranty looks, because chances are it will cost you more in the long run."

Indeed, if a consumer follows the directions in their water heater manual and the advice of Whirlpool's spokespeople, this can all be avoided. Unfortunately, if a consumer actually follows those same directions, they will spend around $600 in plumber visits and parts in one year -- well beyond the original price of the water heater.

"It would be cheaper for a consumer to buy a new water heater every year than to put up with the maintenance," said Doherty, of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, a Chicago law firm.

Corporate Double-Speak

Last May, Whirlpool spokeswoman Judy Lau said homeowners can prevent the thermocouple from malfunctioning by cleaning the flame-trap and combustion chamber every three months (story).

The water heater manual, however, does not specify how frequently this needs to be done. The manual simply suggests that, "At least annually, a visual inspection should be made of the venting and air supply system, piping systems, main burner, pilot burner, and flame-trap."

In May, Lau made it sound like cleaning the combustion chamber was a simple procedure that any customer could do on his or her own. However, the manual states that this 18-step process "should be performed by a qualified service technician."

"It should only take 5 to 10 minutes." Lau said.

Most consumers say it took their hired plumber well over an hour.

The procedure also requires that the gas be shut off and then turned back on. Messing with the gas can be extremely dangerous and customers should not be doing that, said Tony Burnworth, a contractor for Mann's Inc., a plumbing company in Huntington, Ind.

In almost every case the thermocouple "goes bad" within about six months.

"The thermocouple is a wire that goes between the gas valve and the pilot light," said Dan McKenzie, another Horwitz attorney. "Should the pilot light go out, the thermocouple sends a signal to the gas valve to turn off the gas."

The water heater has a couple of design flaws that eventually lead to the malfunctioning thermocouple, McKenzie said.

First, the heater has a concealed combustion chamber. The combustion chamber is where the pilot light ignites the gas that heats the water in the tank.

The combustion chamber has a vent at the bottom to fuel the ignitions and pilot light with oxygen That vent can easily become clogged with dust and lint. When that happens, the pilot light scavenges for oxygen. Where it ends up going is to the thermocouple.

This particular water heater has a special thermocouple that can melt in the middle, cutting the signal between the pilot light and the gas valve. So when the pilot light is searching for oxygen, it ends up melting that thermocouple in half, making the whole water heater useless without a replaced thermocouple.

To add to consumers' ire, they cannot replace the thermocouple with a standard one because it uses left-handed threading.

Supposedly this makes the water heater safer by only allowing the thermocouple that melts in the middle to be used. But unfortunately, this also means that this part can only be purchased through Whirlpool or Lowe's, the store that exclusively carries these water heaters.

A One-Time Fix

The warranty allows the customer to replace one part one time. So if a customer wants to get a warranted thermocouple, they have to wait for Whirlpool to ship it. If they don't want to wait about seven days for the part to ship, they have to go to Lowe's, pay about $15 and then get someone to install it.

McKenzie said AWHC offers a retrofit filter for this water heater that supposedly will increase the water heater's longevity while also making it easier to maintain.

However, there's almost no mention of it on the AWHC website and it's not on Lowes.com or Whirlpool.com. The only place it appears is on a bulletin snuggled in the AWHC website:

"An external filter is available that can be easily installed," states the bulletin. "This will greatly extend the run time of the water heater in a dirty environment and will allow for easy periodic external cleaning. Call our service assistance number found in your installation manual or on your water heater to request the filter and installation instructions."

ConsumerAffairs.com called AWHC more than 20 times over the past month but AWHC did not call back to verify the existence of this retrofit filter or to comment on the water heater's performance.

ConsumerAffairs.com called the Whirlpool Public Relations office again, over 20 times over the past month. Finally, Lau, their spokeswoman, called us back to say, "We are going to decline to comment on your story." When asked why, she responded, "Because that's the decision that we've made."

What To Do

Consumers who have had to pay for a service call, should follow the example of Rick Carlton.

After numerous e-mails and phone calls to Whirlpool went unanswered, he decided to mail copies of his receipts for the part and service to Whirlpool. Whirlpool eventually reimbursed him $132 for the service and part.

Burnworth said it is best to have a plumber select and install a residential water heater for three reasons:

• The plumber is trained to determine the proper gallon size and recovery rate based on family size.

• Plumbers are more aware of safety and ventilation requirements than most homeowners.

• Most plumbers will handle all warranty matters for the homeowner if repairs become necessary.

Consumers interested in the class action lawsuit in California should check back with ConsumerAffairs.com for occasional updates.

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GAO: IRS Needs More Oversight of Private Debt Collectors

The Internal Revenue Service's move to send delinquent tax cases to private companies for debt collection is raising eyebrows.

GAO: IRS Needs More Oversight of Private Debt Collectors...

The Internal Revenue Service's move to send delinquent tax cases to private companies for debt collection is raising eyebrows.

Critics have charged that the move would invite abuse of taxpayers by shady companies, as well as risk personal information being misused, and cost the government more than it would to collect taxes itself.

Now a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that though the IRS has made progress in administering the private debt collection (PDC) program, it has failed to adequately document the costs of the program and setting targets for its success.

"[If the IRS] waits too long, [it] risks not having critical information in a timely and cost-effective manner in order to answer important questions about whether the PDC program is producing desired results at acceptable costs and whether the program should be expanded," the report said.

The GAO conducted the analysis for the Senate Finance Committee, which has been critical of the PDC program. Ranking minority member Max Baucus (D-MT) said that "Tax collection is an inherent government function and the IRS ought to take care of it in-house."

Among the GAO's findings:

• The IRS has begun, but has not completed, accurately estimating the costs of the PDC program. It claimed that historical data for the program costs was not "historically tracked," requiring the agency to assemble the data from available sources.

• The IRS will implement procedures to protect taxpayers' rights when dealing with private debt collectors, including training for collectors, extensive background investigations, and "taxpayer surveys" to get feedback on the performances of private debt collectors.

• The IRS did not have specific information on how they would use feedback from the privatization program to decide whether or not to expand it.

The IRS has estimated that the first phase of the program may net the government between $55 million and $92 million, with costs for the program around $62 million.

However, the GAO found that the IRS' figures did not account for the fees the agencies will be collecting on the taxes they bring in, as much as 24 percent from the taxes themselves.

With the fee costs figured in, the revenue figure drops to a low end of $44.1 million, well below the program's cost threshold.

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said that he agreed with many of the findings of the GAO report, and that the IRS would be implementing many of their recommendations. Everson had recently admitted in Congressional testimony that it was less costly for IRS employees to pursue tax collection than it was to outsource it to private agencies.

The IRS has already come under fire for wasting millions in failed software upgrades that culminated in the agency dispensing $318 million in refunds for fake tax returns.

The concerns about information sharing also reminded privacy advocates of the IRS' plan to loosen the guidelines for tax preparers to sell their customers' information to third parties. Critics say that the plans could lead to increased cases of identity theft, fraud, and predatory lending.

Treasury employees and oversight organizations have accused the IRS of playing political favorites by reducing staff in areas that cover high-stakes cases such as business and corporate audits, while rewarding politically-connected companies with the contracts for the private debt collection program.

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