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Current Events in December 2006

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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...

    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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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, ConsumerAffairs.com 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...

    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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com, 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, www.trilegiant.com 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...

      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...

      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...

      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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. ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com and to sign Jahandarie's petition.

      Angry Xbox Owners Signing Recall Petition...

      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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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...

      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...

      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.

      ConsumerAffairs.com 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 -- www.taxcut.com/answers -- 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...

      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...

      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...

      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 ConsumerAffairs.com, 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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com, 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...

      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...