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    AT&T; Offers Net Neutrality Concessions To Win Merger Approval

    Some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end

    AT&T; has offered concessions to the FCC to sweeten the pot for approval of its mega-merger with BellSouth, but some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end.

    The 20-page list of offers was delivered to the FCC late yesterday (Dec. 28) in the hope that the commission would vote on the merger before the end of the year.

    The merger talks have been stonewalled between the 2 Republican and 2 Democratic members of the commission who can vote. Robert McDowell, the fifth FCC commissioner, formally recused himself on the grounds that he once represented competitors of AT&T; as a lobbyist.

    Chief among the concessions was a promise to maintain standards of "net neutrality" on AT&T;'s broadband services for 30 months from the date of the merger approval.

    Net neutrality, the principle of maintaining free and equal access to all Internet content, was staunchly opposed by AT&T;, which wants to offer high-speed premium services and prioritize delivery of that content at the expense of its existing service.

    "[I]n the interest of facilitating the speediest possible approval of the merger by the Commission, Applicants agree to the attached merger commitments, which are significantly more extensive than those submitted on October 13," AT&T; said in its statement.

    Other concessions included a promise to reestablish 3,000 jobs in America that had been outsourced to other countries, and an offer of stand-alone DSL for $19.95 a month in BellSouth's territories.

    Consumer groups hailed the agreement as a victory that enables low-income neighborhoods to breach the digital divide, as well as for supporters of net neutrality overall.

    "This merger endangers long-term competition," said Consumers' Union vice president Gene Kimmelman. "But by making AT&T;'s high-speed Internet service available to consumers for less than $20 a month, the FCC could open the door for consumers to connect low-cost Internet telephone service to broadband and thereby pressure the market to keep delivering lower prices for all telecom services."

    Ben Scott, policy director of media watchdog Free Press, agreed.

    "Making Net Neutrality a condition of the largest merger in telecommunications history would set an important precedent," he said. "For free speech, democratic participation and economic innovation to thrive online, Net Neutrality must be the law."

    Bait And Switch?

    However, AT&T; may have pulled a fast one.

    In enumerating its net neutrality concession, AT&T; said that, "This commitment also does not apply to AT&T;/BellSouth's Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service."

    AT&T;'s push for IPTV is the cornerstone of its new UVerse high-speed Internet project, and the agreement may allow its UVerse rollout to sidestep its own net neutrality guarantee.

    Commenters at technology blog TechDirt noted that, "AT&T; promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths."

    The AT&T; peace offering comes on the heels of the FCC's decision to ease rules for telecom companies to offer video franchising in communities. The new rules eliminate requirements for companies to "build out" service to all parts of a town or region, and streamlines the approval process.

    Critics charged the new rules will empower telecoms like AT&T; to "cherry pick" by selling high-speed broadband and TV services only in the most affluent neighborhoods.

    AT&T; reiterated its commitment to deliver high-powered services like UVerse in the concession letter.

    "AT&T; is committed to providing, and has expended substantial resources to provide, a broad array of advanced video programming services in the AT&T; in-region territory," the company said.

    It remains to be seen if the concessions are enough to push the FCC to vote on the merger.

    AT&T Offers Net Neutrality Concessions To Win Merger Approval...
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    FCC Approves AT&T-BellSouth; Merger

    Late-Friday Vote Creates Telecom Giant Four Times Larger than Verizon

    As 2006 ticked to a close, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to deliver a Friday afternoon gift to mighty AT&T;, approving its $85 billion takeover of BellSouth, over the objections of consumer groups who said the merger delivered no benefits to consumers.

    Story continues below video

    It's a fondly-treasured Washington tradition to take actions likely to be unpopular with large segments of the electorate on a Friday afternoon, when they're least likely to be noticed. A Friday before a holiday weekend is even better.

    The commission's action followed last-minute concessions by AT&T; intended, although critics said some tricky legal language may end up costing consumers more in the end.

    It's the largest deal ever in U.S. telecommunications history. The new AT&T; will have a market capitalization of over $220 billion -- more than double that of Verizon. It will serve more than 70 million local phone customers in 22 states, as well as 10 million broadband users.

    Among other things, the merger gives AT&T; full control of Cingular Wireless, which it had operated as a joint venture with BellSouth. The company has said it will phase out the Cingular brand name, replacing it with the AT&T; brand.

    AT&T; also says it will aggressively roll out its new Internet video service in what was previously BellSouth territory. It plans to reach 19 million homes in its own 13-state region by the end of 2008.

    The 20-page list of concessions was delivered to the FCC late yesterday (Dec. 28) in the hope that the commission would vote on the merger before the end of the year.

    The merger talks had been stonewalled between the 2 Republican and 2 Democratic members of the commission who can vote. Robert McDowell, the fifth FCC commissioner, formally recused himself on the grounds that he once represented competitors of AT&T; as a lobbyist.

    Chief among the concessions was a promise to maintain standards of "net neutrality" on AT&T;'s broadband services for 30 months from the date of the merger approval.

    Net neutrality, the principle of maintaining free and equal access to all Internet content, was staunchly opposed by AT&T;, which wants to offer high-speed premium services and prioritize delivery of that content at the expense of its existing service.

    "[I]n the interest of facilitating the speediest possible approval of the merger by the Commission, Applicants agree to the attached merger commitments, which are significantly more extensive than those submitted on October 13," AT&T; said in its statement.

    Other concessions included a promise to reestablish 3,000 jobs in America that had been outsourced to other countries, and an offer of stand-alone DSL for $19.95 a month in BellSouth's territories.

    Consumer groups hailed the agreement as a victory that enables low-income neighborhoods to breach the digital divide, as well as for supporters of net neutrality overall.

    "This merger endangers long-term competition," said Consumers' Union vice president Gene Kimmelman. "But by making AT&T;'s high-speed Internet service available to consumers for less than $20 a month, the FCC could open the door for consumers to connect low-cost Internet telephone service to broadband and thereby pressure the market to keep delivering lower prices for all telecom services."

    Ben Scott, policy director of media watchdog Free Press, agreed.

    "Making Net Neutrality a condition of the largest merger in telecommunications history would set an important precedent," he said. "For free speech, democratic participation and economic innovation to thrive online, Net Neutrality must be the law."

    Bait And Switch?

    However, AT&T; may have pulled a fast one.

    In enumerating its net neutrality concession, AT&T; said that, "This commitment also does not apply to AT&T;/BellSouth's Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service."

    AT&T;'s push for IPTV is the cornerstone of its new UVerse high-speed Internet project, and the agreement may allow its UVerse rollout to sidestep its own net neutrality guarantee.

    Commenters at technology blog TechDirt noted that, "AT&T; promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths."

    The AT&T; peace offering comes on the heels of the FCC's decision to ease rules for telecom companies to offer video franchising in communities. The new rules eliminate requirements for companies to "build out" service to all parts of a town or region, and streamlines the approval process.

    Critics charged the new rules will empower telecoms like AT&T; to "cherry pick" by selling high-speed broadband and TV services only in the most affluent neighborhoods.

    AT&T; reiterated its commitment to deliver high-powered services like UVerse in the concession letter.

    "AT&T; is committed to providing, and has expended substantial resources to provide, a broad array of advanced video programming services in the AT&T; in-region territory," the company said.

    FCC Approves AT&T-BellSouth Merger...
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    Women May Be Able to Take a Break From Osteoporosis Drug

    Women in study stopped for five years without problems

    Most postmenopausal women who took the osteoporosis drug alendronate for 5 years and then stopped did not have an increased risk for nonvertebral fractures in the next 5 years, suggesting the medication has a lasting effect, according to a study in the current issue of JAMA.

    Osteoporosis, common among postmenopausal women, is characterized by increased bone turnover (when aging bone is broken down faster than it can be replaced), progressive loss of bone mass and increased fracture risk.

    Bisphosphonates are the most commonly used medications for postmenopausal osteoporosis. Alendronate, a potent bisphosphonate, decreases bone turnover, increases bone mineral density (BMD), and decreases vertebral, nonspine, and hip fracture risk in women with osteoporosis.

    Treatment for osteoporosis often continues indefinitely, but few studies have examined the effects of using bisphosphonates longer than 5 years or the effects of stopping treatment after 5 years. Some studies have suggested that stopping treatment after several years might result in continued effectiveness because of a residual effect of the drug, but the magnitude and duration of this remains uncertain.

    The Fracture Intervention Trial (FIT), a randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled trial, examined the effect of daily alendronate on BMD and fracture risk in postmenopausal women with low BMD. Average follow-up during treatment was 3.8 years, with optional open-label treatment continuation after trial completion.

    In the article, Dennis M. Black, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues report data from the FIT Long-term Extension (FLEX), which was designed to evaluate the effects on BMD of either continuation of alendronate, 5 or 10 mg/d for a total of 10 years, or discontinuation after approximately 5 years.

    The researchers found that compared with continuing alendronate, switching to placebo for 5 years resulted in declines in BMD at the total hip (-2.4 percent) and spine (-3.7 percent), but average levels remained at or above pretreatment levels 10 years earlier.

    Similarly, those discontinuing alendronate had increased serum markers of bone turnover compared with continuing alendronate, but after 5 years without therapy, bone marker levels remained somewhat below pretreatment levels 10 years earlier.

    After 5 years, the cumulative risk of nonvertebral fractures was not significantly different between those continuing (19 percent) and discontinuing (18.9 percent) alendronate. Among those who continued, there was a 55 percent lower risk of clinically recognized vertebral fractures.

    " the BMD and bone marker changes suggest some residual effect from 5 years of alendronate treatment that is evident for at least 5 years after discontinuation," the authors write.

    "We conclude that continuation of alendronate for 10 years maintains bone mass and reduces bone remodeling compared with discontinuation after 5 years. The results confirm the safety of alendronate for up to 10 years including no increased fracture risk with long-term alendronate use.

    However, even among those who discontinued therapy after 5 years, BMD remained at or above baseline values 10 years earlier and bone turnover was still somewhat reduced. Discontinuation did not increase the risk of nonvertebral fractures or x-ray-detected vertebral fractures over the next 5 years, but the risk of clinically diagnosed vertebral fractures was significantly increased among those who discontinued.

    "These results suggest that for many women, discontinuation of alendronate after 5 years for up to 5 more years does not significantly increase fracture risk, but women at high risk of clinical vertebral fractures, such as those with vertebral fracture or very low BMD, may benefit by continuing beyond 5 years," the researchers write.

    Women May Be Able to Take a Break From Osteoporosis Drug...
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      Study: Pet Owners Less Healthy

      You might think pet owners are peppy and active but it doesn't look that way

      A common perception is that the pet owner is a young person who is full of action, exercises a lot, and actively plays with a pet, particularly a dog. But a new study finds the reality is different.

      The University of Turku in Finland studied whether pet ownership was associated with health among Finns aged 20-54.

      At the total population level, pet ownership was most common among those 40 years of age or older, those whose lives are established and who are settled down as well as among those who live in single-family houses and who are in steady relationships.

      Pet ownership was slightly more often associated with a low rather than high social standing or education. Four of five people working in agriculture had a pet, while 41% of those in other occupations did.

      The study found that pet owners are part of the population group that based on their age or low socio-economic standing has plenty of different kinds of illness or disease-related risk factors, including a greater Body Mass Index (BMI) than the rest. In this study, they smoked slightly more often and exercised less often than those not having pets.

      Dog owners did exercise more than those not having a dog, but it did not have an effect on the BMI. Pet owners in general had hobbies associated with hunting or moving about in nature more often than the rest.

      Perceived health of pet owners was weak more often than that of those not having a pet. Illnesses, such as high blood pressure, blood pressure disease, diabetes, ulcer, sciatica, migraine, depression, and panic attacks were more common among them.

      Researchers said that socio-demographic background factors and risk factors explained the differences between the two groups.

      Motivating middle aged people, those belonging to lower social groups, and those living in the countryside to move about with their pets would likely have an impact on their health and reduction of illnesses.

      It may be assumed that exercising as a separate pursuit is an unlikely part of their free time activities in the way it is among more highly educated town people, the study found.

      The findings were published in PLoS ONE, the new international online publication of the Public Library of Science.

      Study: Pet Owners Less Healthy...
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      Parents Still Clueless About Child Safety Seats

      December 28, 2006
      A study comes to the hardly surprising conclusion that parents are still confused by child safety seats.

      The new study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that too many parents are still not properly using the new safety LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) technology designed to better secure child safety seats to vehicles because of a lack of education about the system and how to use it.

      "LATCH was supposed to simplify child safety seat installation for parents and this study shows that isn't happening." said NHTSA Administrator Nicole R. Nason.

      LATCH is an installation system that was created to standardize the way child safety seats are attached to vehicles without having to use a seat belt. It consists of two lower attachments and an upper tether on a child safety seat that anchors and connects with lower anchors and a top tether built into a vehicle's back seat.

      When it became fully effective in September 2002, the agency had hoped LATCH would make child safety seats easier for parents to use.

      But the survey found that 40 percent of parents still rely on the vehicles' seat belts when installing their car seat. It also indicated many parents are unaware of the existence of or the importance of the tethers when securing the seat to the vehicle and only 55 percent of parents using the top tether.

      Nason said that as a result of the study, she intends to convene a meeting early next year of auto manufacturers, car seat manufacturers, retailers and consumer activists to discuss ways to make the safety system more efficient.

      "LATCH is an effective way to keep children restrained in a vehicle and safe in the event of a crash, and parents need to be better educated about it," said Nason. "We need to find a way to make the devices better known and easier to use."

      Parents Still Clueless About Child Safety Seats...
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      Gift Cards Becoming Currency For Criminals

      The $80-billion gift card market is a profitable one for retailers and banks and, some reports indicate, for criminals as well.

      Legitimate businesses make an estimated $8 billion or more on "dormancy" charges, service fees and abandoned cards, as consumers cheat themselves by failing to use their gift cards promptly.

      But that's just the most obvious source of profits. A number of reports claim that enterprising thieves are using gift cards for everything from fraudulent purchases to currency in transactions.

      Running The Numbers

      According to reports circulating recently, crooks will copy down the numbers of unclaimed gift cards hanging on store racks, wait for them to be activated, then use the gift cards to make online purchases.

      Law enforcement and the National Retail Federation mostly dismissed the scam as small-scale, noting that many store chains utilize additional protections before activating gift cards, such as keeping them behind the store counter or requiring scratch-off activation codes.

      According to unconfirmed reports, scammers simply go to stores or the vendor's Web site and enter the stolen numbers until one shows up with an unused balance.

      There's also the "grey market" of Internet auction sites, where stolen or bulk-purchased gift cards -- or card numbers -- can be resold for considerably more than their dollar value.

      The concern over gift card number copying has become so widespread that the Federal Trade Commission recently issued a consumer alert about it.

      Currency for Criminals

      A more disturbing scam involves criminal groups buying gift cards, preloading them with high dollar amounts, then exchanging them for drugs, guns, and so on.

      Crime crews favor using "open-ended" gift cards, such as those from banks and credit card issuers, due to the lack of preset spending limits.

      A report jointly issued by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP), the U.S. Justice Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) outlined the growing use of gift cards as criminal currency.

      According to the RCMP, criminals will come to drug buys or exchanges loaded with dozens of gift cards that can total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      The cards are especially attractive for international and cross-border trafficking because they circumvent the money reporting requirements for traveling between the United States and Canada, the RCMP said.

      What You Can Do

      Gift cards are enough of a scam as it is without buyers and retailers becoming pawns for criminals. Here are a few steps to ensure your card hasn't been misused:

      • Only buy cards from reputable stores and banks. Always ask for gift cards from behind the service counter. Don't buy cards off an open rack, and never from online auction sites of any kind.

      • Make sure the card hasn't been tampered with. Check any newly purchased gift card to ensure the "scratch-off" or removable activation label has not been removed. Check the balance regularly, and confirm it via phone with the card issuer before or after any transaction you make.

      • Stick with cash unless it's unavoidable. What's more tacky, really -- to give a friend or loved one a wad of cold hard cash, or a piece of plastic?

      After all, cash is a perfectly viable option if you don't know what to get someone for a gift, and it has much less in the way of hidden traps than your average gift card. Even bad gifts are generally better than gift cards -- at least there's regifting.

      Gift Cards Becoming Currency For Criminals...
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      Microsoft Extends Xbox 360 Warranty to One Year

      Company Finally Responds to Rising Tide of Consumer Outrage

      Belatedly responding to a wave of consumer outrage over problems with its Xbox 360, Microsoft Corp. says it is extending the warranty from 90 days to one year from the date of purchase in the United States and Canada.

      In a statement, Microsoft said the change in "these territories" would make the Xbox warranty consistent with "most of the world."

      Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, both released late in the year, have been stealing Xbox 360's thunder. The Wii became a last-minute "must-have" gift as consumers became enthralled by its unusual motion-sensitive controller despite a strap that proved unable to stand up to heavy use.

      The Xbox 360, on the other hand, infuriated consumers with problems ranging from overheating to unexpected shutdowns. The company stonewalled consumers and reporters for months, insisting the problems were overstated.

      In August, an insider from Electronic Arts, Inc. said the failure rate of Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console is actually ten times higher than what Microsoft spokespeople had admitted. Game Daily BIZ, a gaming industry publication, reported that the anonymous source tallied that of the 300 consoles EA has received, 30-50 percent of them have failed.

      The outpouring of complaints coupled with the nonresponsive answers provided by Edelman, Microsoft's public relations agency, earned the Xbox 360 a spot on's 12 Duds of Christmas list, keeping company with the likes of Kevin Trudeau, Martha Stewart and Girls Gone Wild.

      Microsoft finally responded late last week, announcing its new warranty policy Friday.

      "Customers who experience hardware issues with their Xbox 360 within one year of purchase can have their consoles repaired at no cost," the Microsoft statement said. The new warranty policy is retroactive, so consumers who may have already paid for an out-of-warranty Xbox 360 repair within one year of purchase will be eligible for reimbursement of their console repair charges.

      "Customers who have already paid out-of-warranty repair charges within their first year of ownership can expect reimbursement checks for the amount of their console repair in approximately 10 weeks," the company said. Microsoft said reimbursements will be automatically distributed, so customers need not contact Microsoft.

      The company said it has set up a Web site for customers who have questions or who experience hardware issues -- The site answers questions about warranty status and contains troubleshooting tips and support information.

      Microsoft Extends Xbox 360 Warranty to One Year...
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      Gift Cards an $8 Billion Gift to Retailers

      10 Percent of Cards' Value Never Redeemed

      Gift cards are a great gift, all right -- for the retailers who issue them. The National Retail Federation estimates that gift card sales will hit nearly $80 billion this year. About 10 percent of that amount -- $8 billion -- will stay right in retailers' pockets, thanks to fees, loopholes and consumer forgetfulness.

      Most consumers wouldn't think of paying for an item and leaving the store without it, but that's basically what happens with the 10 percent of gift card value that goes to waste each year.

      "We estimate the overall raw volume in gift cards this year to be (US)$80 billion," Brian Riley, senior analyst for bank cards with the Tower Group, told the E-Commerce Times. "Through dormancy fees and abandonment, unused funds will run about $8 billion."

      Home Depot and Best Buy each recently reported adding about $43 million to their bottom line from dormant cards.

      Despite that, as online shipping deadlines near, consumers stumped for gift-giving ideas are turning to the Internet to search for information on various branded gift cards, according to Hitwise, which tracks Internet search activity.

      Hitwise said the share of US Internet searches for "gift cards" surged 109 percent for the week ending December 16, 2006 versus the previous week as online shoppers looked for last-minute gift ideas. Some of the fastest-growing gift card related searches in that period were "american express gift cards," up 184 percent, "itunes gift card," up 69 percent, and "visa gift cards," up 19 percent.

      "For the second year now, weve seen a pattern of increased searches on gift cards as Christmas day approaches," said Bill Tancer general manager of global research at Hitwise. "This year branded credit and charge gift cards dominated top searches as gift givers opted for the most flexibility for their gift recipients."

      Cards Not All the Same

      There are two basic types of gift cards -- "open loop" cards carrying brands like Visa and MasterCard. They can be used at any establishment accepting that brand of card, and "closed loop" cards which must be used at a particular store, mall or group of retailers.

      Consumers have slightly more protection with the branded open loop cards because they are governed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which oversees banks, while closed loop cards are governed by state laws, which vary widely.

      Some states, for example, do not allow gift cards to expired, while others place limits on the "dormancy fees" that can be imposed if the card is not used in a specific period of time.

      Recipients' Attitudes

      Some cards tend to get used quickly, like fast-food and sit-down restaurant cards. But cards that must be used at a specific retailer often get set aside by consumers who are too busy to go shopping, have nothing they particularly want or -- in the case of many males -- simply hate going to stores.

      That's why Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel thinks even a bad gift is better than a gift card.

      "A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

      Additionally, consumers are frequently unaware that the cards can expire and run up fees. Often, they simply throw the card in a drawer and forget about it.

      There are even cases of recipients who don't use the card, thinking that they are saving money for the person who gave them the card.

      A editor gave an injured colleague a $600 Circuit City credit card so he could buy a new flat-screen TV to watch during his recuperation from a serious traffic accident but the recipient never used the card.

      "I thought you could use the money for something else," he explained months later when asked why he had not purchased the new TV.

      Many recipients lose the cards, not realizing that in most cases, losing the card is like losing cash. Since the cards are not registered, there is no way to get a replacement. Starbucks is a notable exception; it allows its gift cards to be registered so they can be replaced, minus a small fee, if lost or stolen.

      Gift Cards an $8 Billion Gift to Retailers...
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      FCC Plays Santa for AT&T;, Verizon

      Telecom-Backed Measure Bypasses Local Regulators

      As expected, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today voted to impose a new franchise system that makes it easier for AT&T; and Verizon to provide cable television service without seeking local government approval.

      By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the commission adopted the controversial measure, which gives local governments 90 days to decide whether to grant a new franchise to the telecom giants. It also eliminates a long-held policy that requires new entrants to provide service to all residents in an area.

      Critics said the measure was a political payback that would allow the telecom giants to "cherry-pick" neighborhoods, providing service in affluent areas while ignoring poorer areas or those more expensive to serve.

      "This is legislation disguised as regulation," said Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. He and Democrat Michael Copps voted against the measure.

      Adelstein ridiculed the telephone companies' argument that the local franchise process was an impediment to competition. He said there was not a single instance of a community failing to grant franchises to new entrants. FCC staff members admitted under questioning that he was correct.

      Nevertheless, chairman Kevin Martin hailed the new rule as providing "more competition through deregulation." Voting with Martin were fellow Republicans Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate.

      Martin insisted the new rules would help speed deployment of broadband Internet access. He said the telephone companies would be more likely to build new broadband networks if they were able to sell the full "triple play" of video, broadband and landline services.

      Martin and the telecoms have noted that there are at least 10,000 local communities with cable franchises in the U.S. and argued it would be too much trouble for the newcomers to submit to local regulation in all those localities, even though cable systems have done so since their founding.

      Opponents aren't likely to go away quietly. Local governments and the cable industry have indicated they will challenge the new rules in court, and Congress may weigh in as well.

      Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote Martin recently demanding to know what legislation granted the FCC the authority to essentially scrap a franchise system that has been in place for decades.

      Friends of AT&T; were quick to applaud the commission's action.

      "Consumers benefit whenever there is a second cable or wire into the home for cable or video service," said Samuel A. Simon, Chairman and founder of Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a Washington, D.C., organization that calls itself a consumer group.

      "It is clear that the incumbent cable operators have every incentive to delay competitive entry, and that they are using their influence at every level to achieve this goal," said Simon. "With these new rules, we believe consumers will now see a more rapid roll out of Verizon and AT&T; video services," he said.

      FCC Plays Santa for AT&T, Verizon...
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      Holiday Shoppers Running Up Debt

      Buy now, pay later. Much later, according to a new poll of holiday shoppers by Consumer Reports.

      According to the survey, 23% of Americans will not pay off their holiday debt until March or later, equaling $14.6 billion in interest-accruing debt.

      Over one-quarter of Americans (26%) use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season.

      "Credit cards can be hazardous to your holiday spending," said Tod Marks, senior editor, Consumer Reports. "With the average household saddled with $9,000 in credit debt already, anything that significantly adds to that impost could be potentially devastating. Cash forces you to be much more disciplined, purchasing only what you can afford."

      The Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll also finds:

      • Among those using credit cards to pay for holiday gifts, 17% or more plan on accumulating $1,000 or more in holiday charges.

      • With little more than two weeks to go until Christmas, re-gifting becomes an attractive option. A noteworthy proportion of consumers (13%) are planning on re-gifting. Men are more likely to re-gift (17%) than women (10%).

      • After the holidays, 16% of consumers plan on returning some of the gifts they received. Men (21%) are more likely than women (12%) to return some of their gifts.

      • Shoppers, on average, will buy about 15 gifts for the holidays-married women will buy the most (19); about 40% more than their husbands (13).

      • As of December 10th, with only weeks left in the holiday shopping season, one-third of Americans had not even begun their holiday shopping.

      • 30% or 62 million shoppers say that they won't finish their holiday shopping until December 23rd or later. More than 1 in 10 shoppers (11%) don't anticipate finishing their holiday shopping until the evening of December 24th.

      Holiday Shoppers Running Up Debt...
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      Organ and Tissue Facts

      One organ donor can help up to 50 people

      A few significant facts about organ donation: 

      • Every 14 minutes, a new name is added to the transplant waiting list.

      • Every day, 17 Americans will die because organs were not donated in time to save their lives.

      • One donor can save or enhance the quality of life for up to 50 people.

      • Tissues such as corneas, bone, skin and heart valves can be donated up to 24 hours after death occurs.

      • Organs can survive for only a limited time outside the body. Hearts and lungs must be transplanted within four hours. All other organs must be transplanted within 24 hours.

      • Transplantation is the only life-saving cure for end-stage organ failure. About 90% of all transplant recipients regain their health completely, and can return to work or school, marry and even have children.

      • Organ transplantation was first performed in the 1950's. (2004 was the 50th anniversary of the kidney transplant between identical twins Ronald and Richard Herrick in 1954.) New technologies and drugs have resulted in the increased success or heart, liver, kidney and lung transplants as well as pancreas and small intestine.

      Source: The Center for Donation and Transplant, Albany, New York.

      Organ and Tissue Facts: A few significant facts about organ donation. Including information on the transplant waiting list, how many lives a donor can save...
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      Transplant Timeline

      Milestones of organ transplantation

      Some of the milestones of organ transplantation: 

      1906 - First corneal transplant
      1908 - Skin allograft
      1918 - Blood transfusion
      1954 - Kidney transplanted from identical twin
      1962 - First kidney transplant from a deceased donor
      1966 - First kidney-pancreas transplant
      1968 - First heart-lung transplant
      1983 - FDA approves cyclosporin, providing increased survival and improved quality of life
      1983 - Single lung transplant
      1989 - Living-related lung transplant
      1968 - Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA)
      1969 - First organ procurement program to improve kidney matching
      1984 - National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA)
      1986 - UNOS gets contract to run organ database
      2000 - HHS Final Rule - established regulatory framework for OPTN

      Today, UNOS operates a nationwide 24/7 organ match and placement service, while OPTN maintains the national listing of all patients.

      Transplant Timeline: Milestones of organ transplantation. Includes the years of the main breakthrough milestones in organ transplantation....
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      "Angels From God:" Stories of Organ Donation

      Arresting stories tell both sides of the transplant drama

      In 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services convened the Women's Summit on Organ Donation in Washington, D.C. The conference brought together scientists, surgeons, volunteers, academics and researchers ... and also a few organ-donor families and recipients.

      Perhaps the two most arresting stories were told by two Washington-area women, both profoundly affected by organ donation. These are their stories, in their words:

      Suzanne Eckler, Gloria Brooks

      Suzanne: My husband Bobby kissed me good-bye on his way to work. Later that afternoon he suffered a massive brain aneurysm. He was only 59. That night we decided to donate his organs. I wasn't ready to let him go and felt that by donating his organs, somehow he would still be here.

      Gloria: I received a liver transplant in 1992. At the time I became ill I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in a demanding, stressful position. The cause of my illness was unknown. The doctors suspected a rare form of Hepatitis A that simply destroyed my liver. My kids, 6 and 9, were told I would not be returning home. My family was told I would probably not survive even with the transplant.

      Suzanne: It was November 18, 1992. Little did I ever think that morning was the last time I would see my husband alive. At 4:10 he called and said, "What are we going to do this evening?" I said, "Let's go out to eat." He said, "No, let's get a video and eat in."

      At 6:10, I got a phone call while at exercise class. They said my husband was at George Washington University Hospital. I thought, how could he be? He had never had a sick day in his life. He had just had his physical three weeks earlier and the doctor said that if all his patients were as healthy as Bobby, he'd be out of business.

      I thought it might be a stroke and that we'd make it through somehow. When I got to GW, the doctors said he had an aneurysm and had collapsed at work. The prognosis wasn't good.

      I walked into the room and he was heavily sedated -- motionless, with big pads on his eyes. I was speechless I didn't know what to say. A little later, a nurse asked me to leave. I knew something had happened.

      I went into the waiting area and watched the doctors and nurses scurry up and down. They called my husband's doctor "stat." My heart sank to the floor. Finally, a doctor walked towards me. He looked at me and said my husband had had another aneurysm.

      "There was nothing we could do, it destroyed his brain stem," he said. That doctor never stopped walking, never looked me in the eye, never took my hand. He just kept walking.

      Finally, a young nurse came up and took my hand. She asked if I had ever considered organ donation. I remembered a commercial from TV and the music that went with it. Bobby and I had never talked about organ donation. We'd never even talked about dying. He had just had his 59th birthday a few days before.

      I looked at my children and said, "Why don't we?" My son agreed but my daughter didn't.

      "No way," she said. "I don't want anybody cutting up my dad."

      "Oh, but just think -- it would mean that he would still be walking the earth in some way," I said, and she finally agreed.

      We stayed with him that night because they had to keep everything hooked up and going. The next morning, we met with the organ procurement person. A priest was there with us. There was a big long checklist and when we got to the liver, I said, "I don't think you'll want his liver -- my husband was a big party guy and it's probably not in very good shape."

      When we were finished, the priest hugged me. "I don't know if I could have done that," he said. All I could think of was that it was November and we would have to get through the holidays somehow.

      Several weeks dragged by and we hadn't heard anything. We got a letter from the eye bank. It said his corneas had been transplanted into two women who had been blind but now had sight again.

      A week before Christmas, we got a letter and a pin. It said his kidneys had been successfully transplanted into two gentlemen and his liver had been transplanted into a young woman with two young children who had been very near death.

      I cried and cried. It was the best present I could have gotten.

      My husband left me with two fabulous children. They were very interested in what was happening. So I wrote to the transplant consortium and got very close to them. I learned a little about the person who had received Bobby's liver. My daughter wanted to write to the recipients and let them know a little about her dad. We checked with the consortium and got their approval.

      When we got the response from the young woman who had received Bobby's liver, it was more like a book than a letter. It was one of the warmest, most touching things I have ever read. I put it down and said, "Thank you, God."

      We had become active in the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium and after awhile, they put out a brochure with my husband's story. It also had "Gloria's story." I read it and knew that it was "my" Gloria.

      A few months later we were at a consortium meeting at a local church and a ray of light was coming through a stained glass window and shining down on a young woman with cornrows. Gloria had told us she wore her hair in cornrows and I just knew that it was her. Later, I introduced myself and we both just fell apart.

      It was so powerful. It really became real to me that my husband still walks the earth. He impacted the lives of five people and they impacted the lives of many more. It was definitely the best decision I ever made.

      Gloria has been very close to our family ever since. When my daughter was married, it was Gloria who danced with her for the daddy's dance.

      Gloria: My story also began in November 1992. I was working at the EPA. My job was demanding and very stressful. When I became ill, I didn't realize it at first because I had never been really sick.

      When my liver started to fail, I was just extra tired, not in pain. I didn't consider myself sick. My energy level just kept falling.

      I went to my HMO and told them I needed a B12 shot or something. They took blood tests and said they suspected a low-grade Hepatitis A. The doctor said it wasn't a big deal but told me not to go back to work. "Go home and get some rest," he said.

      So I went home. The next thing I remember, I woke up 6 to 8 weeks later in the hospital. They told me that when I went home and lay down, as the doctor had told me to do, I went into a coma. Nobody knew what was wrong. Initially, I was taken to the emergency room, then transferred to another hospital.

      I wound up at Washington Hospital Center. They said we know she is having liver failure but it's so acute there's nothing we can do. They said I wouldn't live through the night.

      A nurse approached my husband and told him they were doing liver transplants at Howard University Hospital and maybe I could go there. Howard was very responsive. They came over and got me and started extensive lab work. They said my liver had completely failed. All my organs had started to shut down and without a transplant by the next morning, I would be dead.

      After a brain scan, the doctors said I would probably be a vegetable, even with a transplant. They said it would be a waste of a liver.

      "If she's a vegetable I will take the vegetable home," my husband said. The next morning, my family came to the hospital expecting to have the life support turned off because the doctors said I was brain-dead. Then they got a notice of a potential donor. They did another brain scan, then a third one and that time they found minimal activity, enough to proceed. Meanwhile, my children were called in by the hospital chaplain who told them their mother would pass away and would never come home again. There was simply nothing to prepare them for that.

      Well, on the 19th they did the transplant. It was touch-and-go. Everything shut down during surgery. I was in total organ failure. My kidneys had to be stimulated and I had a stroke on my right side during the surgery.

      So when I woke up 6 to 8 weeks later, I was partly paralyzed and there were tubes everywhere. Now, when all of this started it was November, so I'm thinking about getting out of the hospital and getting my family's Thanksgiving turkey. Then there are all these people telling me I have another liver.

      When I fully realized I couldn't move my right side, I became very confused. One of the doctors brought in a blackboard and was telling me all the medicines I would have to take for the rest o my life. I'd never even taken a vitamin up to that time, so it took a while for it all to sink in.

      At that point, I realized that if I had someone else's liver, then that meant that someone else had died. So many attitude changed from defiance to guilt, sorrow, confusion. I became very hard to deal with. Ask my husband. He is gray now. He wasn't gray when I went to sleep. He had aged 10 years in a few weeks. My children were afraid to approach me.

      Then I said, oh my God someone else's family is going through the same thing, only worse. Their loved one never woke up at all.

      So why, I asked, am I still living and someone else is gone? Who would do this for a complete stranger? This plagued me for a long time. I got adjusted to the meds, I had to have physical therapy for the paralysis, and I was in danger of rejection for at least a year. Any infection, I could die. It was just one thing after another.

      My life changed 360 degrees, just like that.

      I became involved with the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium and was active with them in making people aware of organ and tissue donation. It was the same program Suzie referred to.

      I went to a donor appreciation ceremony, but I didn't know "my" family would be there. I had been corresponding with Melissa (the daughter). I remember when WRTC asked my permission to send me Melissa's letter. I thought, why do they need my permission after what they've done for me?

      Melissa was very candid. She said she was not in favor of cutting up her daddy and having people take his organs, and I understood that. But if there was some other little girl that maybe her daddy could somehow save from the pain she was feeling, it would be worth it for her.

      I cried continuously. I read it over and over. It took me a while to write back because I was just learning to write again. So it took me a while to write that book.

      I told her if one little girl could not feel that pain that she was feeling, that one little girl was saved. I have two children. My daughter was a Thanksgiving baby and she was 6 at that time. For the rest of her life, her birthday and Thanksgiving would have been the day that her mother died. It would never be a day of celebration. So I told her that you did do that for some little girl, you saved that little girl.

      I felt that Melissa was with me all the time. I knew at the ceremony that the room was full of donor families and I just wanted to be there with them. When I recognized them, the cloud of guilt that I had been feeling was released from me.

      Suzie embraced me so and it made me feel that it was OK for me to continue to live. I had felt so bad that she had lost her husband and I was walking around with his liver. But when she gave me her permission to be OK, ever since then I have been.

      My pledge to her is that I will always take care of this liver so I can pass it along to somebody else someday. When she asked me to represent Bobby at Melissa's wedding, I was so proud and honored.

      When I got there -- to Melissa's wedding -- I can't even tell you what happened. When I'm in the room with the Ecklers I don't ever see anybody else.

      Melissa didn't know I was there until it was time for the father-daughter dance and I stepped over to her. I can't tell you what song it was, how long the dance lasted, all I can tell you is I felt like I was on Cloud 9 holding that child to me. When we embraced each other, it made everything OK.

      It's not great to be a liver transplant recipient. There's so much to focus on but when I see the Ecklers, all those problems go away. I feel extremely blessed because it has allowed me to know people that, to me, are angels from God.

      These people think with their hearts. Their love and acceptance of me is unconditional and I felt that from the moment I met them.

      My children now are 18 and 21 and I am so blessed to be here and to have people like Suzie in my life.

      Tina Sauerhammer, M.D.

      Ms. Sauerhammer, 22, was Miss Wisconsin and was the 2nd runner-up in the Miss America contest.

      When I was 7 my father was diagnosed with Wagner's Disease, an autoimmune disorder. Five years ago, he developed renal failure. He was on dialysis three times a week and had no quality of life. It took a financial toll as well. He had to retire at 40.

      My father waited for four years for a kidney transplant. After all that waiting, he passed away because no organ became available.

      When I first competed for the Miss Wisconsin title, one of the nights my parents were at the competition supporting me, they missed a possible organ donation because he was at the pageant and didn't get the phone call in time.

      So I saw this as a way to get the message out. My goal was to become Miss America to give organ donation a national platform. Even though I didn't get the title, I got to share my father's story on national television and many people have told me they have signed up as organ donors as a result.

      My father died on his 45th birthday. When I heard Suzanne and Gloria, it really touched my heart. He won't be there for my father-daughter dance but this has been wonderful because I've been able to share his story. Even though he's not here with me I know there are lives out there being saved because of our efforts.

      The conference brought together scientists, surgeons, volunteers, academics and researchers ... and also a few organ-donor families and recipients....
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      Bad Gift Better Than Gift Card, Says Philosopher

      If you're about to run out and pick up a gift card for that last hard-to-shop-for person on your list, you may want to consider trying to buy a bad gift instead. So says Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel.

      Whatever you do, don't buy a gift card, he advises.

      Gimbel says he discourages last-minute shoppers from purchasing gift cards because they primarily serve as an easy way out when the shopper is stumped for ideas.

      "To avoid giving bad gifts, people have turned more and more to gift cards," Gimbel said. "More stylish than the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic versions are gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does this really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No."

      Especially at this time of year, Gimbel says people need to remember why they are giving a gift. People are often fearful that despite their good intentions, a loved one will be disappointed with their gift, so they opt instead to buy a gift card with a predetermined monetary value that allows the recipient to "get what they want."

      "Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift," Gimbel said. "A good gift is also something that the recipient will use to make their life better and something someone wants."

      "There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, 'How did you know?' A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy," he said.

      Gimbel's advice? Shoot to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up to be a bad one.

      "A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

      "The gift card is about the giver, not about the recipient. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you -- even if the people close to you do not really know you," Gimbel said.

      "When you give a gift that plays to someone's personality, the gift says, 'I don't quite get it, but I know it's important to you and I want you to know I am happy to try to nurture that aspect of your life.'"

      Bad Gift Better Than Gift Card, Says Philosopher...
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      Times Says Eli Lilly Camouflaged Drug Side Effects

      Did Eli Lilly sweep concerns about its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa under the rug?

      Did Eli Lilly sweep concerns about its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa under the rug? The New York Times claims it did, though the company insists it did not.

      In a weekend story, the Times cited hundreds of internal company documents and emails suggesting that Lilly spent ten years trying to gloss over the drug's side effects.

      The documents, which the Times said it received from a lawyer representing patients who took the drug, seem to suggest the company withheld important information from doctors about Zyprexa's links to obesity and its tendency to raise blood sugar.

      Zyprexa is a top money-maker for Lilly, with sales of $4.2 billion last year. More than two million people worldwide took the drug in 2005.

      "We believe it is critical to physicians and patients that Lilly state some important and relevant facts about our lifesaving medication Zyprexa that are missing from the New York Times article," said Steven Paul, M.D., Lilly's executive vice president of science and technology.

      "First, contrary to incorrect statements in the Times article, Lilly has conducted more than 23 years of research on Zyprexa. And in the last ten years that the drug has been on the market, Lilly, government bodies such as the National Institute of Mental Health, and competitors -- in numerous studies that sought to show a causal link to Zyprexa and diabetes -- have not found that Zyprexa causes diabetes."

      Zyprexa was approved by the FDA in 1996 and the company said it has been used by more than 20 million people worldwide.

      The drug is widely prescribed to deal with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The company insists the drug is of enormous benefit to when accompanied by appropriate labeling regarding benefits and risks.

      "From the day that Zyprexa was approved, the labeling provided to physicians identified the potentially clinically-significant weight gain that was observed in more than half of all patients treated long-term with Zyprexa, as well as the diabetes-related adverse events observed in clinical trials," Paul said.

      Times Says Eli Lilly Camouflaged Drug Side Effects...
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      Whether Zip or Flex, Car Sharing Is On the Rise

      Owning a car in a city can be an aggravating, annoying and troublesome headache. After all, there's almost no parking and insurance is usually at least double. Fender benders, even when the car is parked, happen weekly and at some point, the car will be vandalized, stolen or otherwise rendered completely unusable or charred.

      But luckily, with the advent of shared car companies, urbanites no longer have to worry about all that car craziness.

      Zipcar and its rival, Flexcar, are companies that work on the premise of shared cars. Essentially, there are cars parked throughout various cities that members can rent up to a few minutes before they need one. The rental includes the car, fuel, insurance and the peace of mind that there is a parking spot waiting for the user when he or she returns the car.

      The rental for both companies is an hourly rate of $9 or $65 daily before taxes. Although it seems like a lot of money, in reality the majority of city dwellers will save money using these companies, assuming they use public transportation for the bulk of their daily in-town errands.

      I had a car when I first moved to D.C. and the best decision I've made this year, other than taking a job with, was to sell my jalopy.

      I am a disc jockey on the weekends and use Zipcar to haul my equipment. I also occasionally use Zipcar to cover stories for outside the D.C. area. But other than that, I use public transportation or taxis to get around the city.

      Cheaper Than Insurance

      In a typical month I rent a Zipcar three times, usually for a whole day each time. During that same month I'll spend about $60 on public transportation. So that means I spend a little more than $270 per month on all my transportation after D.C.'s 10 percent sales tax. That's less than the $400 per month I was quoted for car insurance, not to mention car payments, depreciation, maintenance, fuel, a parking pass, registration and time wasted circling the block looking for a place to park, not to mention the parking tickets that are as unavoidable as pollen and as expensive as a round of allergy shots.

      It's very simple to join. All I did was go online, fill out a registration form, pay $25 for a registration fee (which is usually waived), and then pay a $50 per year membership fee.

      Within two days I received a confirmation e-mail saying I could either pick up my member card at their downtown office or have them mail it to me. The next day I was off and driving.

      Renting the car is a cinch as well. Most members go online to do it, but rentals can also be made by phone. I've used both but prefer to do it online because it's quicker. All I do is go to the website, put in my login info and I'm right into the rental screen.

      From there I choose a nearby car. There are about 10 that are less than a block from my apartment and about 30 that are a short walk away. If I want to pick up a car from my office, there are about five within a few blocks.

      I have lots of options when it comes to the vehicle I want: economy, hybrid, sporty, van, hatchback, convertible, SUV and pickup truck. There are many modern makes and models. The majority of cars are priced at the base rate of $9 per hour. But a few of the sporty cars, such as the Volvo S40, Mini and BMW 325 cost between $11 per hour and $13.

      After I've found the car I want, I put in when I will be picking it up and when I will be returning it. From there it stores my reservation. If I need to change or cancel the reservation, I can do so up to a few minutes before.

      Once I'm ready to drive, I walk up to the car, place my magnetized membership card next to a card reader located on the windshield and the car unlocks. Should the car need to be refueled while I'm driving, I pull up to any electronic gas pump and pay using a credit card located in the driver side sun visor. As a courtesy rule, we never leave the next driver with less than a quarter of a tank.

      When I'm ready to return the car, I park it where I picked it up, place my card back over the reader and it locks. If I need to get back in the car, I can unlock it at any time until my time is up.

      Should I need more time on my rental, I can call in and extend it or use my laptop to do so. However, if the car is already scheduled to be rented by another individual after me, then it's imperative to get the car back because it's $50 per each half hour that the car is late. That happened to me once. I was an hour late and man did it hurt when my I got my credit card statement.

      If I'm ever the individual on the other end of that mishap (it hasn't happened to me yet), I can call into Zipcar and have the rental transferred to another nearby vehicle or get a refund.

      Catching On

      Many urbanites are catching onto the fiscal and stress-related benefits of sharing cars rather than owning them. Flexcar has "tens of thousands" of members and experienced a 100 percent growth last year, said John Williams, Flexcar spokesman.

      Zipcar's spokesperson could not be reached for comment. However, a recent survey conducted by Zipcar and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revealed a decrease in car ownership while 53 percent of those surveyed said that joining Zipcar has delayed their decision to buy a new car

      When it comes to choosing which company to join, check their websites. Both have comparable services and prices, but chances are, one has more cars in your neighborhood. I chose Zipcar because there are five cars in the alley behind my apartment and many more within a block or two. Flexcar, which was the first to serve D.C., has eight within about seven blocks.

      It's worth nothing that the companies are not in all the same cities. Flexcar is found exclusively in many West Coast cities, while Zipcar is in many East Coast cities and London.

      For city dwellers, car sharing is a must-have. The few friends I have who own cars, either need them because they work in one of the rare D.C. areas that are not served by public transportation, or, in most cases, simply out of pride. They say they can't imagine life without a car. Well, I can't imagine wasting money on one.

      Whether Zip or Flex, Car Sharing Is On the Rise...
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      Pie in the Sky? Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics

      Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics

      Ever feel like stepping off a really big cliff -- like, say, the Grand Canyon? A $30 million structure, funded entirely by a Las Vegas businessman, will make that possible by St. Patrick's Day.

      David Jin, who hails from Shanghai, suggested the pie-in-the-sky idea to the Hualapai tribe 10 years ago and offered to pay for it himself. Though the Native Americans will own it, Jin's take isn't bad: half the money from the sale of $25 tickets for the next 25 years.

      Jin, who already brings Chinese visitors onto the Hualapai reservation, believes the appropriately-named Skywalk will greatly increase the annual average of 345,000 visitors who come to the tribe's corner of the canyon. From there, visitors can gaze toward Grand Canyon National Park, which draws 4.1 million visitors annually and has occasional problems with crowd control.

      The entrance to the national park lies 90 miles east of the Skywalk construction site.

      Built to survive winds of 100 miles per hour, Skywalk will be capable of holding hundreds of people at once; built-in shock absorbers will keep it from gyrating. Though open to the sky, the structure will feature glass walls and a glass floor that will allow unprecedented views of the canyon floor, 4,000 feet below.

      The mighty Colorado River will be little more than a brown ribbon from the horseshoe-shaped overlook, which stretches 70 feet beyond the canyon's edge but features steel support beams buried 46 feet deep into the limestone ledge.

      The distance from the canyon floor to the base of the futuristic Skywalk is more than double the height of the tallest buildings on the planet. That should be enough to seduce curious sightseers but is also enough to ruffle the feathers of tribal elders who say construction violates sacred land.

      Hualapai archaeological and burial sites dot the vicinity of the Skywalk and may be the reason some workers on the project suffer from nightmares, according to local critics. Tribal legend contends that the original Hualapai emerged from the earth of the Grand Canyon.

      The canyon that giveth also taketh away: a seven-month attempt to run a casino collapsed in 1995 and the tribe's river rafting and horseback riding concessions can't compete with those within the national park.

      Even a publicity stunt by daredevil Robby Knievel, who jumped a side canyon in his motorcycle, didn't provide the impetus needed to overcome poverty and unemployment on among the Hualapai. More than a third of the tribe's 2,200 members don't earn enough income per year to peek above the poverty line.

      Competing for gamblers with Las Vegas, two-and-a-half hours away, may have been a bad gamble but supporters are betting on a different outcome for Skywalk -- something no one else offers. Paving the 21-mile reservation entrance road would help.

      A transparent structure invisible from the national park, the Skywalk project has no complaints from the Grand Canyon Trust. And it has a world of potential, offering views unavailable from any vantage point in the national park. Construction time will be just under two years when Skywalk opens in March. The project is expected to increase employment and raise revenues that the tribe can spend on health, education, and welfare for its members.

      Pie in the Sky? Grand Canyon Skywalk Not for Acrophobics...
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      Timeshare Tips for Travelers

      Most Americans know next-to-nothing about timeshares

      Travel-savvy consumers need to consider timeshares as a viable alternative to rising hotel bills. So says Lisa Schreier, author of "Timeshare Vacations for Dummies" and "Surviving a Timeshare Presentation."

      Most Americans know next-to-nothing about timeshares, she says, and are therefore afraid to investigate. The Orlando-based author lists nine things potential buyers should know:

      1. If things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Avoid salesmen who use the words "free," "perfect," "always," and/or "never."

      2. Don't believe the hype. Location is key; people interested in trading for different locations in peak season (i.e. the French Alps in the winter, Hilton Head in the summer) need to own a timeshare in an area with year-round high demand, such as Las Vegas or Orlando.

      3. Never assume anything. Most timeshares are deeded in perpetuity, others are not, and some operate on a "points-based" system that is not inflation-proof. Ask questions and don't be afraid to say "no."

      4. Keep an open mind. If you are going to a timeshare presentation for the gift (usually dinner, cash, or theme park tickets) and because you are required to go in order to receive the discounted hotel room, allow the salesperson to do his or her job.

      5. Don't purchase a timeshare as a real-estate investment. Even if the timeshare is deeded, it should not be considered a financial investment but an investment in your future vacations.

      6. Do your homework ahead of time. Have some general ideas about timeshare and be truthful about how much you spend for vacation accommodations.

      7. Don't cave in to high-pressure sales techniques. Make sure you understand the product and/or resort and be sure you would use it if you bought it.

      8. Focus on the long-term; you will not be saving money in the short term. Hotel rates will rise every year, while your timeshare cost is generally locked in.

      9. Compare apples to apples when considering cost and value. Even if you don't save money over the long term, you will be having a better vacation in a two-bedroom villa at a quality resort as opposed to a hotel room measuring 400 square feet. According to Schreier, the average cost of a two-bedroom timeshare in 2006 was $15,500. Renting a $200 hotel room for one week would cost $1400 even before taxes were added, the timeshare would pay for itself in less than 10 years, depending upon how fast the hotel rates increased.

      "Go back two or three years and determine how much you spent for your hotel, motel, or condo," says Schreier, "and don't forget the hidden room tax.

      "On top of that, you can't trade hotel rooms but you can trade timeshares. Most, if not all, timeshare resorts allow you to exchange or trade off to other member resorts."

      Timeshare Tips for Travelers...
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      Poll: Obesity Top Health Issue for Kids

      Obesity or being overweight is seen as the most important health issue for U.S. children, according to a new poll commissioned by Research America and the Endocrine Society.

      More than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) named obesity as the top health issue for kids, followed by lack of health care/insurance (16 percent) and nutrition/unhealthy diet (9 percent).

      Americans are divided on whether addressing obesity is an individual or societal issue.

      According to the poll, 52 percent think obesity is a public health issue that society should help solve; 46 percent say it is a private issue that people should deal with on their own.

      When asked who should be responsible in addressing obesity, Americans say it should be an individual and community effort. They say responsibility to help address obesity lies to some or a great extent with parents (98 percent agree), individuals (96 percent), schools (87 percent), health care providers (84 percent), the food industry (81 percent) and government (67 percent).

      More than half (57 percent) of Americans say most adults in the United States are overweight or obese, and more than a third (35 percent) say most children are. Perceptions are close to reality: 66 percent of American adults (ages 20 to 74) are overweight or obese, although only about 17 percent of children (ages 2 to 19) are, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

      "Clearly, Americans recognize the obesity epidemic facing this country and our children," said Dr. Leonard Wartofsky, president of the Endocrine Society.

      "However, the poll shows that the public thinks we should address obesity as a public health issue to bolster the actions of individuals and families. Health care professionals and researchers need to help convey the importance of a stronger public health response to this epidemic."

      When asked about the most important health issue for all ages, 24 percent cited health insurance/health care costs, followed by cancer (15 percent), access to health care (11 percent) and obesity/nutrition (9 percent).

      Other key findings in the poll include:

      • Most Americans (92 percent) say their school required participation in physical education (PE) when they were children;

      • 68 percent think PE is now required daily in elementary school, when actually less than one-fourth of the nation's elementary schools provide daily physical education (U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics);

      • 81 percent say it is important for the U.S. government to invest in obesity research, and 84 percent say it is important to invest in public health and prevention programs to help reduce obesity among Americans; and

      • 67 percent would be willing to pay $1 per week more in taxes if they were certain the money would fund research to improve health.

      "Research is the answer to many of the health issues we face, including obesity," said Mary Woolley, Research America president. "Americans understand that and clearly want adequate funding for research that can improve their health and the health of their families."

      Poll: Obesity Top Health Issue for Kids...
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      Dietary Supplements Must Report Adverse Reactions

      A measure enacted by Congress requires dietary supplement manufacturers to begin gathering and reporting information about adverse reactions to their products.

      Manufacturers will have to list an address or telephone number on product labels that consumers can use to report serious adverse reactions, and companies will have to promptly turn over such information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

      The new requirement will also apply to over-the-counter drugs.

      Congress approved the Dietary Supplement and Nonprescription Drug Consumer Protection Act last week, and the bipartisan legislation is expected to be signed by President Bush.

      "Making it simple for consumers to report adverse reactions and requiring companies to turn those reports over to the FDA will make it easier for the FDA to protect the public from hazards," stated Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). "Under the previous voluntary system, the FDA received less than one percent of all reports of adverse reactions to dietary supplements."

      "We hope that Congress now provides sufficient funding so that the FDA can quickly respond to reports of adverse reactions and promptly remove hazardous products from the marketplace," Silverglade said.

      Dietary Supplements Must Report Adverse Reactions...
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      Deceased Cat Invited to be Student Ambassador

      People to People Contacts "Parents of Earl Gray"

      First the parents of two deceased children received letters from the marketing company for a non-profit group founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower stating their teenagers were named for the organization's Student Ambassador educational trips overseas.

      Now the "parents" of a deceased cat received that same letter from the organization. Yes, a deceased cat.

      The "Parents of Earl Gray" received a letter -- dated October 4, 2006 -- stating their "son" was eligible for a trip to Europe and "named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing."

      Earl was the couple's all white, one-eyed, cat. He died ten years ago and is buried in the couple's back yard. He was 14 years old.

      "Earl was a smart cat," muses his owner, Susan G. of Cabot, Arkansas. "And as an all white cat he might have fit right in going bobsledding in Austria.

      "We've gotten a few laughs from this," she says, adding this is second letter she and her husband have received from the organization in the past two years. "But then I thought of all the real people who are getting these letters and knew how excited their kids would be. And then I read about the parents who'd lost a child and received one of these letters. That just broke my heart."

      How Does It Happen?

      Susan wonders how Earl's name wound up on the organization's mailing list. She and her husband don't have any children. And no one in their family is named Earl.

      "We've been scratching our heads over this," she says. "The only thing we've ever ordered in Earl's name was a pair of panty hose, but that was 12 years ago. How on earth does a cat who ordered a pair of panty hose 12 years ago end up on this mailing list?"

      Susan says she contacted to warn parents about the organization's marketing tactics.

      "After reading your reports, it seemed like everyone had come to the conclusion that the organization was buying a national student mailing list. But this went way beyond that list. I don't see how our deceased cat could be on this student listing."

      She adds: "If Earl was alive today, he'd be 24 years old. That's too old for this program."

      The non-profit organization behind these letters 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 organization's president and chief executive officer.

      We learned Eisenhower's non-profit group hires a for-profit company to market the Student Ambassador programs. That company is the Ambassadors Group, Inc., based in Spokane, Washington. It sends letters to students -- and at least one deceased cat -- on People To People letterhead.

      Jeffrey D. Thomas is president and CEO of the publicly-traded Ambassador Group, Inc. (EPAX). He also lists his title as CEO of People To People, which Eisenhower says he has contractual authority to do, even though it is not accurate.

      Under Fire In Iowa

      People To People came under fire in 2005 after an Iowa woman received a one of the organization's letter stating her son was named for a Student Ambassador trip overseas.

      The woman's son, however, died in 1993. He was seven weeks old.

      The Iowa Attorney General's office criticized People To People's 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."

      The Student Ambassador trips overseas cost an average of $5,000.

      In June, 2006, People To People agreed to modify its letter. It also donated $5,000 to the Iowa SIDS Foundation and $20,000 to Blank Children's Hospital.

      It Happens Again

      Then, learned the organization sent another letter to the parents of a deceased child. The second case happened in August 2006.

      Those parents live in New Port Richey, Florida, and received a letter stating their daughter was named for a Student Ambassador trip abroad.

      But their daughter died in 1992. She was 18 days old and suffered multiple birth defects.

      "It makes you very angry because it makes you wonder how they could do that to someone," the child's mother told WFTS in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida. "When they die you never forget, I mean, every day you think of themthere's no excuseit just re-opens the whole death all over again."

      The girl's father called the letter "tear-jerking" and said "it eats you up inside."

      Apologies and Promises

      After the Florida incident, Eisenhower said: "We all feel very badly that this has happened. This was a matter of human error. It was a mistake and we're trying to make it right. Our intent is to spread happiness -- not to hurt people." She also called the situation in Iowa "devastating."

      Thomas, the CEO of the Ambassador Group, agreed.

      "We've moved quickly to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said, adding his group is trying to work out a solution with the Florida family. "We've changed the letter's wording so that there will be no way people can misconstrue anything about how we came to get their child's name. Our letter won't say their child was named or nominated unless we can trace the source. The letter will talk about the benefits of the program."

      Thomas also said his company may fire the list service that provided the Florida child's name.

      "We've told them that unless we know where you're getting these names -- and can assure us they're not deceased children -- we're not interested in working with you."

      Thomas said the original letters went out as recently as October, 2006, because "they were already in the pipeline."

      He also said he's not aware of any other letters going to parents of deceased children.

      We tried to ask him about the letter sent to Earl, the deceased cat, but he didn't return our call.

      In the meantime, Earl's "mom" says parents should be wary of People To People's marketing tactics.

      "What a pack of lies this company is selling," Susan says. "It's unbelievable that Earl's name is still floating around, not to mention that someone figures he's in high school now and deserves a trip to Europe. I can't believe that People To People International is still in existence with tactics like this."

      Deceased Cat Invited to be Student Ambassador...
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      Massive Data Breach At UCLA Endangers 800,000

      Hackers have gained access to databases at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), making off with the personal information of 800,000 current and former students, employees, and faculty.

      The data breach is thought to be the largest of its kind at an American college or university.

      The breach first occurred in October 2005 but was not detected until November 2006, when it was blocked, according to a statement by UCLA's acting chancellor Norman Abrams.

      The stolen information varies in content, but in many cases includes names, addresses, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers.

      Despite the extraordinary duration of the hacker intrusion and the amount of information stolen, Abrams insisted there was no indication that the information had been used for identity theft or fraud as of yet.

      He did not say why, in his opinion, hackers would steal the data if they did not intend to use it.

      The hackers' attack involved targeting a single specific database using techniques to target Social Security numbers in particular, said UCLA's chief information officer Jim Davis.

      The database even contained information on applicants who did not attend UCLA as well as parents of applicants seeking financial aid, going back as far as a decade.

      Davis did not explain why the university had so much information and held it for so long.

      Universities are increasingly prime targets for data thieves due to the huge amounts of information they amass on their students, often collected and organized by Social Security number.

      College students also represent attractive targets for credit card fraud, since they have relatively unblemished credit histories and are swamped with solicitations for credit from the moment they step on campus.

      Ohio University formerly held the dubious honor of being "Data Breach Central" after a breach at one of its health centers was revealed to be the latest in a series of intrusions that exposed the personal information of hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and employees.

      The breaches led to the firings of two administrators in Ohio University's IT department, who contested the moves and blamed the university management for failing to implement security procedures they devised to prevent such breaches.

      Not long after the Ohio University breach, Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Connecticut, was hit with a hack attack. Like UCLA, Sacred Heart had been collecting data on applicants as well as attendees, and even students who filled out information at job fairs and exam testing services.

      Last year, San Diego resident Eric McCarty exploited a vulnerability in the University of Southern California's (USC) online application site to gain access to the applicant database. McCarty, a former network administrator, used his expertise to circumvent the database's password protection and copy an undisclosed number of students' Social Security numbers.

      McCarty was later arrested and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unauthorized computer access.

      Hackers have gained access to databases at the University of California-LA, making off with the personal information of 800,000 current and former students...
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      Chase Bank, Triligent, Settle Negative Option Fraud Charges

      Companies Must Make Restitution, Provide Renewal Notices to Consumers

      By Mark Huffman

      Sixteen states have reached agreement with Trilegiant Corporation and Chase Bank USA, settling a "negative option" fraud case in which the companies were charged with deceiving deceived consumers into paying for membership programs that offered supposed discounts on things like car and home repair, shopping, and other goods and services.

      The companies will pay $14.5 million, $8 million of which will go for consumer restitution. The companies also must reform their marketing practices under the settlement.

      "We alleged that Trilegiant mailed solicitations to consumers with small checks, typically for $2 to $10, that many consumers mistakenly thought were a rebate or some kind of reward," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, one of the state officials bringing the case.

      "But cashing the checks committed consumers to a 30-day 'trial offer' in some kind of membership program or buying club -- and then to monthly or annual charges if they didn't cancel."

      The states' investigation found that Trilegiant had agreements with Chase Bank to gain access to Chase's customers and market the membership programs. Trilegiant used Chase's name in mailings, and Chase reviewed and approved marketing materials, the states alleged.

      Trilegiant will pay $8.325 million for consumer restitution nationwide. Consumers will be eligible if they already have complained to Trilegiant or their state Attorney General, or if they file a complaint in the next nine months. Trilegiant and Chase also together will pay $6.1 million to the sixteen states.

      Miller advised consumers to examine credit card and mortgage statements for any billing notices from Trilegiant Corporation of Norwalk, CT, and to watch for mail from Trilegiant that might include notices of memberships and how to cancel.

      Consumers have been billed for annual membership fees ranging from $69.99 to $119.99, or monthly membership fees ranging from $6.99 to $9.99, depending on the particular program. If consumers didn't cancel the "free-trial-offer," fees were billed to credit card or loan statements.

      Membership programs went by various names, including AutoVantage Gold Service, AutoVantage Service, Buyers Advantage Service, CompleteHome Service, Just for Me, Pet Privileges Service, Shoppers Advantage Service, and Travelers Advantage Service.

      The Iowa Attorney General's Office said it has received around 79 complaints about the various solicitations since July 1, 2001, but far more Iowans may have complained directly to the companies -- or may not have noticed the unwanted billings at all. Complaints range from under $10 to over $800.

      Consumer Restitution

      Unfortunately, the settlement only applies to consumers who reside in one of the 12 states that joined the suit. Those states are:

      New Jersey
      North Carolina

      Residents of other states may wish to complain to their state attorney general and file a complaint with, which works with class-action attorneys on behalf of consumers.

      Consumers residing in those states who signed up for membership in a Trilegiant club through any bank or other company they did business with, and who were first charged membership fees on or after July 1, 2001, are eligible to receive restitution.

      All consumers who have complained already will receive full restitution.

      Trilegiant must send renewal notices to consumers who have active memberships, advising them that they have purchased the membership, and how to cancel the membership, if they wish.

      If there are not enough funds to make full restitution to all consumers who complain, then consumers who complain over the next ninth months will get a pro-rata share. (Restitution is not limited to Chase Bank and Chase Home Finance customers, but applies to all consumers who paid money to Trilegiant for memberships.)

      Consumers who are trying to find out if they unknowingly paid for a membership program should carefully examine their credit card or mortgage statements and also should monitor their mail for any notices from Trilegiant.

      Consumers also can also contact Trilegiant electronically via Trilegiant's Internet website, or by mail at:

      Trilegiant Corporation
      Attention: K. Buonagurato
      100 Connecticut Avenue
      Norwalk, CT 06850

      Tips for Avoding Scams

      Miller provided this advice to consumers to avoid being charged unexpectedly for memberships in buying clubs and similar plans, and incurring ongoing charges:

      • Be very wary of "free trial" offers that may result in charges if you dont cancel within the trial period.

      • Be very wary of checks that accompany solicitations. Cashing them usually results in charges to consumers credit cards or checking accounts.

      • If you do accept a "free trial" offer, watch carefully for the "confirmation" mailing that comes later and tells how the plan works and how you can cancel.

      • Carefully review all credit card bills and mortgage statements each month to make sure all charges were authorized and expected. Consumers who find an unauthorized or unknown charge should call and write their credit card or mortgage company and challenge the charge.

      Chase Bank, Triligent, Settle Negative Option Fraud Charges...
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      FDA, Taco Bell At Odds Over E. coli Source

      Taco Bell says it was onions, FDA says it wasn't

      Taco Bell says the strain of E. coli bacteria that sickened scores of restaurant patrons in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, came from green onions. The Food and Drug Administration says, no it didn't.

      Taco Bell identified the green onions as the probable source based on preliminary tests. It discarded the green onions at all 5,800 of its restaurants and on Sunday declared its restaurants were free of the bacteria, which can cause serious illness.

      But the FDA says its lab found no E. coli bacteria in the green onion samples supplied to it by Taco Bell. Its scientists say the reported link to scallions was actually a lab error.

      That means the source of the bacteria, assuming it is linked to the Mexican fast food chain, remains unknown.

      On Friday the FDA said that it was continuing to investigate the possibility that other food items served at the restaurants are the source of the pathogen.

      Taco Bell became the focus of the investigation last week after it became clear that most of the more than 60 people who got sick had eaten at one of the chain's restaurants.

      Taco Bell temporarily closed 18 stores in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and those that remained open reported a significant drop in business.

      Certain not to be helpful for business was an independent report Monday from New York health authorities, who said they found traces of E. coli bacteria in samples of white onion taken from a Taco Bell. However, they said it was not the virulent strain associated with the outbreak, and in fact was mostly harmless.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed at least 64 cases of illness from the serious strain of E. coli, known as O157.

      Infection with E. coli O157 causes diarrhea, often bloody. Although most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, some people can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a form of kidney failure.

      HUS is most likely to occur in young children and the elderly. The condition can lead to serious kidney damage and even death.

      FDA, Taco Bell At Odds Over E. coli Source...
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      Toys R Us Warranty Guaranteed to Disappoint

      "Buyer Protection Plan" Mostly Protects the Issuer's Bottom Line

      Most consumer advocates will tell you that extended warranties are, to borrow the words of John Nance Gardner, FDR's first vice president, "not worth a buc..

      Angry Xbox Owners Signing Recall Petition

      Parents are forced to rely on last year's Microsoft Xbox 360

      As Sony PlayStation 3s and Nintendo Wiis are becoming basically impossible to grab before the holidays, parents are forced to rely on last year's Microsoft Xbox 360. But many previous consumers, including a teenager with a long list of signatures, are urging consumers to avoid the troublesome game console.

      Darius Jahandarie, a 15-year-old from Storrs, Conn. has started an online petition to recall the Xbox 360. Microsoft has maintained that only three to five percent of 360s are failing. But after reading so many complaints and message board posts, Jahandarie concluded that that just wasn't true. So he started an online petition to Microsoft to recall the 360.

      "After spending a decent amount of time on the official Microsoft Xbox forums, I saw hordes of these "3 Lights of Dead" threads in the Technical Support section," Jahandarie wrote in an e-mail. "I decided to do some investigation on the matter," he said.

      "I found that Microsoft could be making millions of dollars off of broken Xboxs. So, I decided that it was necessary to do something about it, and started a petition to recall the faulty Xboxs."

      Jahandarie started the petition in August after one unnamed individual left this post on a message board:

      There have been about 8 million Xbox 360 consoles sold. So, let us fantasize that the failure rate that Microsoft gave us is in fact true, at 3%.

      3% of 8 million is 240,000 defective consoles.

      Let us say that half of these consoles have gone out of their warranty. Now, 120,000 defective consoles.

      Let us say that 75% of these people pay to get it fixed. 90,000 people with defect consoles paying Microsoft $129.

      $11,610,000 made strictly off of defective consoles using very low statistics in favor of Microsoft.

      When first found Jahandarie's petition about a month and a half ago, it had less than 100 signatures. As of this writing it has 557. has received about 370 complaints as of Dec. 5.

      "Every month I get more signatures," he wrote.

      But it's not enough. He plans to collect 5,000 before he officially sends the petition to Microsoft. He hopes media coverage will spur more frustrated 360 owners to sign.

      By the way, Jahandarie owns an Xbox 360 and as of this writing, it has not failed.

      Microsoft's Public Relations company, Edelman, which unfailingly refers to itself as "powerful," did not return our calls and Jahandarie said they have not responded to him.

      Consumers with faulty Xboxs are urged to file a complaint with and to sign Jahandarie's petition.

      Angry Xbox Owners Signing Recall Petition...
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      Virginia Man Has Mad Cow Disease

      Feds think the infection occurred in Saudi Arabia

      Health officials have confirmed that a Saudi-born man living in Virginia has a human form of mad cow disease. It's the third time such a case has been reported in the U.S., health officials said.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement on its website which said the man has variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, a brain-destroying illness believed to be caused by eating beef products from cattle infected with mad cow.

      This is a carefully diagnosed, brain-destroying illness that scientists believe is caused by eating beef products from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as BSE, or mad cow disease.

      "This U.S. case-patient was most likely infected from contaminated cattle products consumed as a child when living in Saudi Arabia," the CDC said. "The current patient has no history of donating blood and the public health investigation has identified no risk of transmission to U.S. residents from this patient."

      The disease may have first started to infect cattle when they were fed improperly processed remains of sheep, possibly sheep infected with scrapie. Although people are not known to have ever caught scrapie from eating sheep, the disease apparently can be transmitted to humans.

      There is no cure for mad cow disease, which is invariably fatal.

      Earlier this year, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Inspector General warned that beef inspectors aren't strictly following cattle screening rules, increasing the risk of mad cow disease in the nation's meat supply. The report said it found cases where rules covering the slaughter of cattle were being ignored.

      There have been three cases in which cattle were found infected with the disease, the latest last March in Alabama, where the carcass of a cow tested positive for the deadly disease.

      Immediately after the finding, Consumer's Union called on the federal government to take additional precautions to prevent Mad Cow Disease from getting into the human food chain, as it did in Britain, where it is blamed for at least 150 deaths.

      "It's unacceptable that the American public has been waiting for more than two years for the FDA to tighten its animal feed rules," said Jean Halloran, food policy expert at Consumers Union.

      "After the first case of mad cow was discovered in the United States in December 2003, then FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said that FDA would end the practices of feeding chicken coop floor wastes, restaurant wastes, and cows' blood to cattle, all of which FDA said at the time could potentially transmit the mad cow disease agent. However the agency never followed through."

      Virginia Man Has Mad Cow Disease...
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      Police Kill Unarmed Teen at Detroit Discount Store

      National Wholesale Liquidator Bans Unaccompanied Teens

      Hundreds of mourners turned out in Detroit for the funeral of Brandon Martell Moore, 16, shot to death by an off-duty police officer reported to be working as a security guard for National Wholesale Liquidators.

      Brandon Moore's grieving young friends, several of whom were with him when he was killed by a Detroit police officer, carry his body after his funeral service.

      Brandon Moore's friends and family gather around his photo after his funeral.
      Photos courtesy of The Michigan Citizen

      "He got good grades in school, was a focused young man who stayed out of trouble, and had a sense of purpose with regard to his basketball career," said the Rev. Edward Branch, Pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church, who conducted the service for the Osborn High School honor student and basketball player.

      The unarmed Moore was killed Nov. 26 by a Detroit police officer who shot him in the back as he ran from him. The officer also shot Moore's 14-year-old friend Johnathan Stanley, an Osborn football player, in the hand, after the young men were forced to leave a Detroit National Wholesale Liquidators store because of the chain's policy banning unaccompanied shoppers under 17, The Michigan Citizen reported.

      In fact, said the Citizen account, the youths were not in violation of the policy, as they were accompanied by Keith Henderson, 22, and Moore's brother John Moore, Jr., 19, who held his little brother in his arms as he died.

      The newspaper quoted Eddie Brown, 16, as saying the plain-clothes security guard ejected the youths and, when they disputed his action, struck one of them. He then allegedly pulled his gun and fired as the group turned and ran.

      Laron Hundley, 16, said the officer who shot Moore kicked him as he lay handcuffed on the ground after police arrested the entire group.

      Questions have been raised about whether the officer, who has not been publicly identified, was in compliance with Michigan state law, which requires security guards to wear uniforms. Detroit Second Deputy Chief James Tate said there were also questions about whether the officer was working for the chain at the time of the shooting.

      It's not the first such incident involving the discount chain's handling of minors.

      "They treated me like a piece of trash and threw me out," David of Flushing, NY, said in a complaint to "This is not the first time this has happened. This has also been happening to many of my friends."

      National Wholesale Liquidators is based in West Hempstead, N.Y.

      After the funeral, Moore's grieving cousin Frank Holloway said he wants the officer arrested.

      "He shot my little cousin in his back while he was running," said Holloway. "Even if there was a fight, he had no reason. I want him to pay for what he did, be a man and step up. Our family is suffering, and is going to be suffering for many days to come, but this cop will go on with his life. The community has to get together because something has to be done about this."

      Police Kill Unarmed Teen at Detroit Discount Store...
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      H&R; Block Doesn't Block Identity Theft

      Financial giant H&R Block's TaxCut software is designed to help users avoid nasty surprises when calculating their taxes. But many past and present customers of Block were surprised in a different way recently, as they received unsolicited copies of TaxCut in packages that prominently displayed their Social Security number (SSN) on the outside.

      The recipient's SSN is embedded in a string of numbers printed on the shipping label, and many confused individuals had received a notice about the error long before they received the package. Some haven't received any package at all. has received numerous complaints from readers who have been notified of this error by H&R Block. "I haven't received [the software], and I have no idea who has this package with my [SSN]," writes Madie from Alvin, TX.

      H&R Block has published a Web site -- -- detailing the error. As Sara from Brooklyn, New York points out, the description of the problem actually makes it worse, and may encourage identity thieves to decipher the SSN's embedded in the mailing information.

      "The Web site addresses a huge disparity in the mailing process used to send the software," she says. "The software, sent via third class mail, may not reach the 'consumer' until after the receipt of the letter notifying the consumer of the issue. This essentially advertises the mistake to the general public, and puts [everyone who receives] this software at risk."

      Sara received both an unsolicited copy of H&R's TaxCut software and the letter notifying her of the error. "Worst part -- I have not used H&R Block in at least 3 years."

      Unfortunately for Sara, 3 years is the amount of time tax preparers are required to keep information by the IRS. According to H&R Block, they only keep the information in "electronic form," which could easily lead to fraudulent attempts to access tax records if a thief was able to obtain a customer's SSN.

      Not only that, H&R Block explains exactly how the SSN is hidden in the package label in its warning: "The nine digits of your SSN were embedded in a long string of characters that made up the source code for the TaxCut mailing. Although you would recognize your own SSN in such a string, it was not formatted in a way that would make it stand out or make it obvious to others that it was an SSN."

      Although the possibility that identity thieves could pick out user SSNs from the random string is not great, it exists nonetheless.

      Enterprising fraudsters who might have received the CD by mistake could take the intended recipient's name and use one of the many public search engines to track them down and get more information on them.

      And because H&R Block mailed these CD's to their customers' last known addresses, there may be hundreds of them unaccounted for. As H&R Block admits they were targeting former customers -- who may have moved since last using the company's software -- the potential for abuse is great indeed.

      H&R Block Doesn't Block Identity Theft...
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      Cell Phone Use Not Linked to Cancer Risk

      The latest findings contradict earlier studies

      Long or short-term cell phone use is not associated with increased cancer risk, according to a study in current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

      The latest findings contradict the widely published analysis of two Swedish studies which reported an increased risk of brain tumors linked to use of wireless phones over more than 10 years.

      The widespread use of cell phones has raised concerns about health risks among users. Cell phone antennas emit electromagnetic fields that can penetrate into the human brain, and scientists have wondered if this might cause tumors in the head or neck.

      Joachim Schz, Ph.D., of the Danish Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Copenhagen, Denmark, and colleagues performed a study of 420,095 cell phone users who first subscribed between 1982 and 1995 and were followed through 2002 for cancer incidence.

      The authors did not observe an association between long or short-term cell phone use and brain tumors, salivary gland tumors, eye tumors, or leukemias.

      In cell phone users who had subscribed over 10 years, they found no link between cell phone use and brain tumor risk. They suggest that cell phone use is not linked to cancer risk.

      "The methods used suggest that the use of cellular telephones does not pose a substantial risk of brain tumors among short-term or long-term users," the authors write.

      Swedish Studies Raise Concerns

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in April that it would review the health effects of wireless phones after the Swedish analysis suggested long-term use may be linked to a risk of brain cancer. The findings were inconsistent with earlier studies and difficult to interpret, the FDA said.

      The Swedish study found that those who heavily used wireless phones had a 240 percent increased risk of a cancerous tumor on the side of the head where they used their phone. Researchers at the Swedish National Institute for Working Life compared data from 2,200 cancer patients and an equal number of healthy patients.

      Cell Phone Use Not Linked to Cancer Risk...
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      Ford's Lemons Leave Sour Taste in Consumers' Mouths

      Company's Turnaround Effort Omits a Key Constituency

      No one can say Ford doesn't get lots of publicity. Unfortunately, most of it is bad. The company expects to lose $10 billion this year and is trying to borrow $15 billion in operating cash as its "Way Forward" turns into a desperate dash for the exits.

      Wall Street may still be wondering about Ford's future, but two important constituent groups have already made up their mind -- customers and employees are running the other way.

      Ford had a 10 percent drop in sales in November compared to a year earlier, slipping behind Toyota for the second time this year.

      Perhaps most ominously, employees are fleeing like miners whose canary has died. A mind-boggling 38 percent of Ford's hourly workers have agreed to take buyouts, hoping to get out before the company caves in on them.

      Newspapers and TV tend to treat it as a business story, quoting financial analysts, politicians, union leaders and the usual collection of talking heads. Almost no one listens to consumers -- the lifeblood of the American economy. This is a major oversight, as no company that spurns, ignores or mistreats its customers will long survive, no matter how many friends it has on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.

      At, we hear from Ford owners every day ... and they are not happy. Their Ford cars and trucks are still spitting spark plugs, catching fire and locking up the ignition. In response, Ford stonewalls, federal safety regulators dawdle and dealers -- well, the dealers, as always, do whatever they can get by with.

      Consumers Revolt

      While Ford diddles with its finances and holds erudite discussions about its manufacturing processes, it is alienating huge segments of its customer base with shoddy products and an astonishingly cavalier response to consumer complaints. In the last 12 months, we have received four times more complaints about Ford products than about GM or DaimlerChrysler.

      No only are Ford complaints more frequent than complaints about other brands, the problems that spark the complaints are major -- ruined engines, disastrous fires and repeated ignition lock-ups being the most common.

      Thousands of Ford owners have suffered the ordeal of a spark plug being spit out of their engine, damaging the head and costing thousands of dollars to repair. Ford refuses to help, even if the car or truck is still under warranty.

      Many Ford dealers feign surprise at the sight of a spark plug blown out of its position in the cylinder head and profess to have never seen anything like the mess spread out before them.

      Those denials are blatantly false, disingenuous and misleading. Lies, in other words.

      "Ford has known of the spark plug blow-out problem for a long, long time," one angry Ford mechanic told us. "They even have a service bulletin regarding it. They insist they don't but they do."

      The mechanic also charged that Ford knowingly advises customers to opt for the most expensive repair procedure: "They also say the only way to fix it is to replace the heads and will not do it any other way. I have personally repaired three trucks in less than 30 minutes with a spark plug rethread kit."

      "This is a Ford scam. They are making millions off these repairs. The problem is that the spark plug holes have less than 3 threads new from the manufacturer and over time they strip and blow out," the mechanic told us.

      Following the Ford recommendation requires owners to replace both the cylinder head and the spark plugs. The cost varies depending upon dealer but is approximately $3,000.

      Ford Stonewalls, NHTSA Nods

      Publicly, Ford continues to stonewall the spark-plug-spitting problem and refuses to acknowledge any responsibility.

      The automaker has a powerful ally in the nation's No. 1 automobile safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

      NHTSA is backing up Ford by refusing to consider the issue beyond stating that their analysis of 474 complaints describing the incidents "found only a very few alleged any safety-related consequences. None of these showed any evidence of a serious safety consequence."

      NHTSA concluded its brief probe by saying, "In the need to allocate and prioritize limited resources to best accomplish the agency's safety mission, the petition (for a full-scale investigation possibly leading to a recall) is denied."

      Most of the complaints of spit spark plugs involve vehicles with Triton V-8 and V-10 engines in model years 1997 to 2002. This includes the Econoline vans, F-Series trucks, the Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, Crown Victoria and some models of the Mustang.

      Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety, characterized the NHTSA decision to take a pass on spit spark plugs as the agency at its worst.

      "They're waiting for accidents, deaths or injuries before ordering a safety recall," he said.

      Customers Feel Cheated

      Thousands of Ford customers feel cheated by the automaker and abandoned by their government safety regulator, NHTSA.

      Mike of Sarasota, Florida put it this way: "My Ford F350 pickup blew out a spark plug in cylinder number three. I spoke with a friend who works at a Ford dealership. I said you'll never guess what happened to my truck Bob. He said make you a bet. You blew out a spark plug."

      Mike got the usual treatment -- no help from Ford and an estimated repair cost of nearly $3,000.

      "I can't afford it. My truck is a 2003 with only 69,000 miles on it," he said.

      Jim blew a plug on a 2001 Excursion with 75,500 miles on it that he had just bought. The truck was still under the 30-day used vehicle warranty. "Our local Ford dealer blamed it on the spark plug threads and it cost over $3,000 to fix even with the warranty.

      In Buford, Georgia, where Chris had his engine repaired, the dealer had a hard time placing the blame on the spark plug.

      "The plugs were installed by a professional Ford Certified Mechanic using Motorcraft plugs recommended by Ford," Chris told us.

      Nevertheless, Chris is out $3,625 following the spark plug repair.

      Ford Truck Fires

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently ordered a major recall and another large investigation is still underway at the agency probing why so many Ford vehicles seem prone to catch fire.

      NHTSA is looking into complaints that models of the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute SUVs have inexplicably caught fire.

      The investigation involves more than 600,000 SUVs from the 2001-2003 model years. NHTSA has received eight complaints of engine fires around the antilock braking system's electronic control module.

      The newest investigation follows the massive recall of 6.7 million Ford vehicles in August because the cruise control switch might cause a potentially devastating fire that could spread throughout the engine compartment and set the vehicle ablaze.

      Despite the recalls and NHTSA investigations, Fords are still burning.

      In early October, a 1996 Ford F250 pickup truck erupted into flames after sitting parked for four days. The owner told he had scheduled an appointment with Ford for the speed deactivation switch recall three days later.

      The fire destroyed the truck and a 1994 Nissan Maxima sitting in the driveway. Ford replied that "the damage to the truck was too severe to determine if Ford was at fault" and denied any claim of liability.

      In November, a 2000 Ford Explorer caught fire along I-95 near Richmond. The owner said that the fire "appears to have started somewhere under the driver's side tire.

      "Someone traveling alongside me was constantly honking their horn and flashing their lights until they got my attention." she wrote us.

      The owner said that there had no previous work done on the Ford Explorer other than regular maintenance and the truck had been running fine.

      By the time the fire department reached her along the busy Interstate highway, "the truck is nothing but ashes, totaled."

      Another Ford owner in Dayton, Ohio, watched his F150 truck burn to the ground in his own driveway.

      "On October 6, 2006, my 1999 Ford F150 caught fire in my driveway. It was not running. According to the Dayton Fire Department and the forensic firm that inspected the vehicle, the fire originated at the master cylinder, the exact place that the Ford cruise control engineering defect is located." he wrote.

      The owner was in contact with Ford's legal department. He told that Ford is "refusing to make any accommodations for my losses."

      Here are some other examples of Ford products which have caught fire since the NHTSA order to recall 6.3 million Fords in August.

      • Amos in Houston, Texas: "On October 21, 2006, my 2000 Ford F150 crew cab pick up truck caught fire while parked in front of my daughter's apartment. The vehicle was destroyed."

      • David in Clovis, California, suffered a Ford fire in October. "My 2005 Ford F350 caught fire while parked in my driveway. Truck is totaled."

      • Jacob in San Jose, California: "My 1998 Ford Expedition XLT caught fire when parked in the lot at Georgio's restaurant after driving for about 20 minutes. The fire started in the engine compartment and burned a hole through the hood damaging everything forward of the firewall."

      • Patsy in Helotes, Texas lost her Explorer in August. "My 2000 Ford Explorer caught on fire sitting in my garage and burned down the garage and everything in it. I have good insurance but they will not pay for what burned in the car, all the landscaping that burned and a melted sprinkler system."

      • Jerry in Rayle, Georgia: "The truck was a 1994 F150. It had a recall on the cruise control. It was just sitting in the yard one day and we were fixing to go to town. When I looked out the window there was a flame coming out from under the hood."

      Ford Vans and Cars

      Other Fords have caught fire as well. On November 12 a Ford Crown Victoria caught fire in Richmond, Virginia, while sitting in a driveway. The owner had not driven his Ford for 12 hours.

      • Deb in Durham, North Carolina, lost her Ford Windstar. "My four children and I awakened to what sounded like gunshots being fired in our driveway. It was not gunshots, however, it was the sound of my 2000 Ford Windstar's tires exploding from the heat of the fire that had engulfed my vehicle while we all slept," she wrote.

      • Sheyed in Burnt Hills, New York: "My 1996 Ford Windstar caught on fire due to the speed control switch that is the subject of recalls in various other models. My wife and two young children were in the vehicle when it caught fire but they were close to home. They parked in the driveway and got out quickly. I was able to extinguish the fire before significant damage but it was quite frightening for them."

      • Martin in Brooklyn, New York lost a Taurus to fire. "My Ford 2001 Taurus caught fire, spontaneously, while I was parking the car in Manhattan. Right now the car is a total loss and is in storage near my house awaiting word from my insurance company as to how much they will pay for coverage.

      The Ford Focus

      The Ford Focus ignition switch is among the most bitter of lemons because the problem can recur. The switch is known to break again and again ... and sometimes even again. Consumers have complained for years, to no avail.

      Carrie in Grand Haven, Michigan "was stranded at a friend's house until the early hours of the morning."

      Joel in Oak Park, Illinois says he has seen it all before. "My 2000 Ford Focus ignition switch has failed and won't turn for the second time in 80,000 miles.

      Heather in Wahiawa, Hawaii summed up her problems with her car this way: "My 2000 Focus is a piece of junk. The ignition switched has been replaced three times and is jamming again. Ford continues to insist that I pay for these replacements," she wrote.

      Helene was "stranded in a seedy part of town unable to start my car" in Colorado. Dalila and her daughter were stranded in 101-degree heat in the summer while she was pregnant.

      In Kyle, Texas, Shelia found that the ignition in her Focus "would not turn and left me stranded. I live 50 miles from my cafe in Bastrop."

      The faulty ignition is the most nagging unresolved problem with the Focus. Many Focus consumers have even had a broken ignition repaired under the Ford warranty only to have to replace the locking mechanism themselves once the warranty has expired.

      The replacement cost can exceed $500 each time the lock fails -- a lot of money for something that's supposed to be an economy car.

      A California lawyer is suing Ford but the company insists that "based on our review of reports Ford has received, a technical service bulletin to help technicians repair an ignition cylinder problem is the appropriate action."

      Jeffrey Fazio thinks otherwise. His lawsuit on behalf of all California Ford Focus owners claims Ford knew about the problem before it began selling the Focus in the U.S. back in 1999.

      Fazio says that most of the failures do not occur until after the three-year, 36,000-mile warranty has expired. The lawsuit also accuses Ford of providing free repairs to some consumers whose warranties were expired, but not to others which would be a violation of California consumer protection laws.

      In El Cajon, California, Paul is thinking about the future when he thinks about the broken ignition switch in his Ford Focus and expresses his thoughts this way. "My warranty will cover it this time, but what about next time? Thank God we are going back to Toyota."

      What Can You Do?

      Now and then, a company in trouble will turn to its loyal customers for help, asking them to buy more of its products and recruit their friends and associates to do likewise, perhaps even offering to fix or replace any of its products that have proven to be defective.

      After all, it's a generally accepted principle of business that the cost of acquiring a new customer is much higher than the cost of keeping an existing one, but this is perhaps news to Ford, which seems to think it can magically reinvent itself without worrying about the millions of its customers who buy a new car or truck every few years.

      Thus, a prudent consumer might want to look elsewhere for a new vehicle. While no automaker is perfect, few can match Ford's record of ignoring major problems with its products.

      Those already stuck with a trouble-plagued Ford have several options, none of them very attractive:

      Keep good records Hang onto all your repair estimates and receipts as well as all the receipts for routine maintenance. Keep copies of all letters and emails you write to or receive from Ford, your dealer or others. If you have face-to-face or telephone conversations, write a memo outlining what was said.

      • Every state has an auto lemon law, though some are much tougher than others. Generally, they cover any recurring problem that the dealer has been unable to fix after three or more attempts. In most states, you need an attorney to pursue a lemon law complaint. Check our for more information.

      Consider small claims court For problems that don't exceed a few thousand dollars, small claims is usually the way to go. Consumers can sue their dealer or sue the manufacturer for the cost of repairing defects. You don't need a lawyer in most states. The maximum amount of your claim varies widely by states. Check our state-by-state guide for more information.

      Don't count on the feds As Hurricane Katrina showed, government can be -- and, in fact, usually is -- slow to act. By the time the feds get around to recalling your vehicle, it may have already incinerated itself or you may have pushed it over a cliff. Sadly, class action lawsuits against auto manufacturers are seldom successful because the companies have so much legal firepower they can outspend and outwait the plaintiffs.

      Complain loudly Complain to, NHTSA, your local newspaper and TV consumer reporters, the Better Business Bureau and other consumer sites. Don't go overboard -- be factual and succinct, avoid name-calling.

      Keep insurance up to date If your Ford incinerates itself, you'll need comprehensive coverage if you hope to get anything out of your auto insurance policy. If it sets fire to other vehicles, your garage or your house, your homeowner's policy should cover at least some of the damage. Don't expect Ford to voluntarily pay for anything.

      Injured? Get help If someone is seriously injured or killed by a Ford fire or other mishap, it's important to immediately contact the best-known personal injury lawyer in your area. Don't try to negotiate with Ford yourself; you must have an aggressive, competent trial lawyer representing you.

      Be safe Maybe Ford has fixed the problem of its vehicles exploding into flames while parked and unattended, but do you want to bet your life on it? Our advice: Leave Fords outside and well away from your house. Never leave children, pets or disabled adults alone in a Ford.

      A Winning Strategy?

      Ford may believe that its strategy of stiff-arming owners of defective vehicles is a home run. It has certainly been practicing it consistently, starting decades ago when it ignored the tendency of the Ford Pinto to burst into flames when hit from the rear.

      Since then, it has stonewalled complaints about Ford police cars' proclivity to catch fire. It ignored complaints about head gasket failures in the 3.8L V-6 engine used in the Windstar and other models. Only when a class action lawsuit was filed did the company agree to extend the warranty on some models, a solution that was accepted by the court but left many consumers without help of any kind.

      But Ford's not-our-problem, too-bad-for-you strategy may prove to be the classic example of the operation-successful, patient-died paradox. While disclaiming responsibility for its products' safety and utility, Ford may succeed in chasing off so many customers that it is no longer a viable business.

      That would be a real non-starter.

      Ford's Lemons Leave Sour Taste in Consumers' Mouths...
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      New Airport X-Ray Machines May See Too Much

      New scanners can see through clothes

      It used to be a joke: could Superman's X-ray vision see through Lois Lane's clothes?

      Now, for the first time, millions of air travelers may be asking themselves a similar question as they pass through airport security: new enhanced machines, though much more adept at finding hidden weapons, may also be revealing much more.

      That's why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), wrestling with potential privacy issues, has waited four years to introduce them. That time has come, albeit in a limited test: Phoenix Sky Harbor, the nation's eighth-busiest airport, will get the new "backscatter" machines by year's end and an airport-to-be-named-later will be added to the trial.

      At first, the new technology will only be used for passengers who need extra screening or are randomly selected. Those people will be allowed to choose either a pat-down from a TSA official or a scan from the machine, which will photograph them from the front and the back.

      In addition to finding more prohibited contraband, the machines have the potential to speed up the security process. That also makes them likely future replacements for the metal detectors now in use.

      But privacy issues have to be worked out first. The TSA says the machines are designed to blur body parts while still finding weapons with pinpoint accuracy. But there's also a concern that blurred images might make detection of non-metal weaponry, such as plastic explosives, more difficult.

      Backscatter machines, already used by Customs inspectors to search for drugs, are also being considered for big-city train and subway stations.

      Before widespread distribution of the technology, however, the TSA wants feedback from Phoenix -- from both security officers and passengers.

      The machine coming to the Arizona airport is made by American Science and Engineering of Massachusetts. The TSA is also testing a similar device that uses electromagnetic waves.

      New Airport X-Ray Machines May See Too Much...
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      IRS Scales Back Outsourcing Plans

      The mad push by the Internal Revenue Service to privatize or outsource the majority of its functions has slowed somewhat.

      The agency reports that it is planning to reduce a $103 million contract with IAP Worldwide Services, changing the plan to outsource its data collections from seven centers to just two.

      The IRS said that the outsourcing was reduced to ensure "to ensure that a sufficient number of employees with the required training and security clearances are in place to manage the files during the upcoming filing season."

      In addition, the IRS also announced that it was terminating a plan to outsource the technical support of over 100,000 of its computer workstations to a third party, according to Information Week.

      Federal IRS employees hailed the decisions and criticized the IRS for pushing so heavily to contract out the bulk of its duties.

      Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees' Union (NTEU), chided the agency for contracting with IAP despite the fact that IAP recently admitted it would not have five of the original seven data centers ready by the beginning of tax filing season.

      Kelley also criticized the agency for not performing better oversight of the contractors it works with, especially in terms of ensuring the privacy of individuals' Social Security numbers.

      "For an agency like the IRS, with such a poor record of contractor oversight, these actions are virtually open invitations to disaster for taxpayers," Kelley said.

      The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports warning that government agencies, particularly the IRS, have not been doing enough to protect Social Security numbers, due to differing internal rules and lack of oversight.

      The IRS was singled out for not providing better oversight and training for its contractor partners, as well as for employees with security-sensitive duties, according to the GAO. The watchdog office did note that the IRS made "significant progress" in remedying the issues.

      Debt Collection

      Of particular concern was the IRS' controversial plan to outsource some of its debt collection operations to private contractors.

      The practice has been criticized for being too costly to the IRS, and for opening up Americans to privacy risks and abuse from debt collectors who are not bound by government regulations.

      The GAO found that though the IRS had made progress in improving the rollout of the private collection program, it failed to properly account for its costs. The fees the debt collection agencies may charge could wipe out any cost savings from the program.

      The IRS has had no better luck with contracting out software upgrades. An attempt to upgrade the agency's "Electronic Fraud Detection System" was botched due to the contractors' failure to get the system rolled out on time, as well as repeated cost overruns and lack of oversight.

      The failure meant the IRS gave out as much as $318 million for fraudulent returns in 2005.

      A recent survey commissioned by the IRS Oversight Board found that 41 percent of taxpayers have contacted the IRS at least once in the past two years, and that 80 percent of the respondents rated the IRS' service as good or better than other government agencies.

      IRS Scales Back Outsourcing Plans...
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      Alternate Credit Scoring Gaining Support

      New methods would work better for those with "thin" histories

      The heavy reliance on credit scores to determine a person's "worthiness" for loans has led to the exclusion of many otherwise responsible citizens from the chance to purchase a home, a car, or any sort of collateral.

      "Thin credit" histories often trap consumers into accepting deals with higher interest rates and predatory terms, which disproportionately affects black and Hispanic borrowers.

      Now there is increasing support for the use of "alternate" credit scoring -- building a financial history through paying bills or other means besides using credit or debt -- to gauge a borrower's ability to handle their money.

      A recent study by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals found that one-third of the respondents couldn't get loans for their clients because they had little to no "traditional" credit records, and that many of their borrowers had to pay exorbitant rates as a result.

      If the mortgage and financial industries embraced alternative credit scoring as a means to encourage home ownership within the growing Hispanic market, it would inject as much as $200 billion in capital into a slumping industry, the report said.

      The Association joined a growing chorus of business professionals, lenders, and analysts calling for greater implementation of "alternate" credit scoring, utilizing payment of bills and rent to recalculate a borrower's overall "responsibility."

      Alternate credit scoring is already practiced by many businesses, after a fashion. Many utilities regularly report customer payment data to the major credit bureaus. If a customer misses a single bill payment under the principle of "universal default," their credit scores could drop and their borrowing interest rates would rise accordingly.

      The town of Havelock, North Carolina recently introduced a new policy that grades customers' utility payment deposit on their paying history, a trend being repeated across the state.

      Havelock's finance director, Lee Tillman, said the new system would reward customers that pay regularly and on time, while recovering losses from customers who do not.

      "Thin credit" advocates are pushing for credit reporting agencies and businesses to regularly document positive payment data on a wider level, in the hopes that it will grant more consumers the chance to enjoy the benefits of property ownership without taking on heavy debt.

      Leading "alternative" credit bureau PRBC (Payment Reporting Builds Credit) recently obtained a patent for the system it uses to track and record monthly bill payments and develop credit files from the information.

      PRBC chairman Michael Nathans said the move "recognizes PRBC's technologyfor storing and scoring that data to produce a report indicating the payer's creditworthiness, specifically their willingness and ability to make timely payments."

      Corey Stone, PRBC's CEO, also touted the value of credit scoring as a way for banks and insurers to lure otherwise ignored customer groups to use their products.

      "It gives banks and credit unions a new way to help their customers build credit and secure their financial futures, while supporting higher depositor retention and cross-selling with the institution's credit and insurance products," he said.

      "Thin credit" histories often trap consumers into accepting deals with higher interest rates and predatory terms, which disproportionately affects black an...
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      Payday Lenders Fleece Consumers for $4.2 Billion A Year

      Average Borrower Pays Back $793 For a $325 Loan

      Consumers who borrow money from so-called "payday lenders" end up paying $4.2 billion in excessive fees, according to a new report from the Center for Responsible Lending.

      The group's study finds that across the nation payday borrowers are paying more in interest, at annual rates of 400 percent, than the amount of the loan they originally borrowed. "Americans who think they're getting a two-week loan and end up trapped in debt," the report says.

      Story continues below video

      Efforts to reform the industry aren't working, the group claims. It says lenders still collect 90 percent of their revenue from borrowers who cannot pay off their loans when due, rather than from one-time users dealing with short-term financial emergencies.

      The significance of that statistic hits home, it says, when you consider the payday loan industry now exceeds $28 billion a year.

      The group said it used data collected by state regulators, financial records released by payday lenders, and assessments by third-party analysts, to update its 2003 quantification of the cost of predatory payday lending to American families.

      Among the report's findings:

      • Ninety percent (90%) of payday lending revenues are based on fees stripped from trapped borrowers, virtually unchanged from our 2003 findings. The typical payday borrower pays back $793 for a $325 loan.

      • Predatory payday lending now costs American families $4.2 billion per year in excessive fees.

      • States that ban payday lending save their citizens an estimated $1.4 billion in predatory payday lending fees every year.

      "Payday loans sink borrowers into quicksand-like debt," said Michael D. Calhoun, CRL president. "Borrowers end up paying more in interest -- at rates of 400 percent -- than the amount they originally borrowed. But by addressing payday lending squarely with a 36-percent APR cap, state lawmakers can get working Americans back on solid financial ground."

      Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP said his organization is committed to fighting abusive financial practices like payday lending.

      "This is hard-earned cash being siphoned out of the wallets of working people," said Bond. "This $4.2 billion is much-needed monthly benefits being squeezed out of the pocketbooks of retired and disabled folks. This $4.2 billion should be helping people stay firmly put in the middle class, rather than keeping them trapped in the quicksand of poverty."

      Payday loans are marketed as short-term cash advances on the borrower's next paycheck. But previous research has found -- and this study confirms -- the industry depends on repeat business or "flipped" loans. In fact, 90 cents of every dollar payday lenders make comes from Americans caught in the debt trap -- those borrowers who are flipped into loan renewals five or more times per year.

      The new report finds the average payday borrower pays back $793 for a $325 loan.

      In spite of public scrutiny and recent attempts by state policymakers to reform the practice, repeat loans have only been eliminated in states that don't allow payday lending. These "safe" states -- Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia -- hold all lenders to their consumer loan laws, which usually include a double-digit interest rate cap.

      "We join with the Center for Responsible Lending in calling for laws in every state in the nation that will protect the earnings of working people," said Jean Ann Fox, director of Consumer Protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

      "In states that enforce reasonable limits on annual interest rates, payday lending is simply not a problem." Congress recently adopted this approach when the Pentagon sought protections for their troops from payday lenders. The Defense Authorization bill President Bush signed in September included a 36-percent interest rate cap on consumer loans to military families.

      Payday Lenders Fleece Consumers for $4.2 Billion A Year...
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      People to People Does It Again

      Letter Invites Long-Dead Child to be an "Ambassador" for $5,000

      It's happened again. For at least the second time in less than a year, the marketing company for a non-profit organization -- founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- has sent a letter to the parents of a deceased child stating their teenager was named for an educational trip overseas.

      This time, the parents live in New Port Richey, Florida.

      They received the letter in August, 2006, stating "a teacher, former Student Ambassador, or national academic listing," named their daughter for this honor.

      Their daughter, however, died in 1992. She was 18 days old and suffered multiple birth defects.

      "It Makes You Very Angry"

      "It makes you very angry because it makes you wonder how they could do that to someone," the child's mother told WFTS in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida. "When they die you never forget, I mean, every day you think of themthere's no excuse ... it just re-opens the whole death all over again."

      The girl's father called the letter "tear-jerking" and said "it eats you up inside."

      In September 2005, a mother in Iowa received a letter from the same organization stating her son was named for a Student Ambassador trip overseas.

      Her son, however, died in 1993. He was seven weeks old.

      Iowa Calls It Misleading

      The Iowa Attorney General's Office criticized the group's 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."

      Iowa officials discovered the organization also misled parents during its in-person presentations.

      "(Those) also convey the message that students are specially selected as an honor," said Iowa Assistant Attorney General Steve St. Clair. "And we found that representatives with whom our investigator had phone contact described the program in the same manner."

      In June, 2006, the organization agreed to modify its letter and presentations.

      But parents across the country told the organization continued to send its misleading letter -- and dupe students into believing they were hand-picked for expensive trips abroad. The trips cost an average of $5,000.

      Some parents received a letter as recently as October, 2006.

      Letters Come From People To People

      The non-profit organization behind these letters 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.

      "We all feel very badly that this has happened," Eisenhower said earlier this week of the letter sent the Florida parents. "This was a matter of human error. It was a mistake and we're trying to make it right. Our intent is to spread happiness -- not to hurt people."

      When asked what action her organization will take in the wake of the Florida incident, Eisenhower referred questions to the president and chief executive officer of the for-profit company that markets the Student Ambassador programs.

      Ambassador Group Responds

      That company is the Ambassadors Group, Inc., based in Spokane, Washington. It sends letters to students nationwide on People To People letterhead.

      Jeffrey D. Thomas is president and CEO of the publicly-traded Ambassador Group, Inc. (EPAX). He also lists his title as CEO of People To People, which Eisenhower says he has contractual authority to do.

      "We're trying to work out a solution with the family in Florida," Thomas said. He declined to elaborate. After the incident in Iowa, People To People donated $5,000 to the Iowa SIDS Foundation and $20,000 to Blank Children's Hospital.

      Thomas said a list service his company uses provided the name of the Florida child. But People To People, he said, may fire that service.

      "We've told them that unless we know where you're getting these names -- and can assure us they're not deceased children -- we're not interested in working with you," Thomas said, adding the list service uses multiply sources to gather names.

      Wording Of Letter Changed

      Thomas also said People To People has changed the wording of its letter.

      "We've moved quickly to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said. "We've changed the letter's wording so that there will be no way people can misconstrue anything about how we came to get their child's name. Our letter won't say their child was named or nominated unless we can trace the source. The letter will talk about the benefits of the program."

      He added: "This is devastating. And we're investigating how it happened. Our goal is to do the right thing and we're working to get this fixed."

      Thomas said the letters stating students were named by a "teacher, former Student Ambassador, or national academic listing," went out as recently as October, 2006, because "they were already in the pipeline."

      He also said he's not aware of any other letters going to parents who lost a child years ago.

      The parents in Florida hope that's true. They don't want another family to suffer like they did because of People To People's letter.

      "I want them to clean up their act," the girl's mother told WFTS. "It's just unfair to everyone."

      People to People Does It Again...
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