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Super Bowl Boosts TV Sales

A Big Game Needs a Big Screen

Super Bowl Boosts TV Sales...

Consumers will be seeing the Super Bowl action more clearly this year as the high-def buying frenzy continues.

According to the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association's (RAMA) 2007 Super Bowl Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, more consumers plan to take advantage of retailers' promotions of high-definition televisions for game day.

In fact, 2.5 million consumers plan to purchase a new TV for Super Bowl Sunday, up from the 1.7 million who said they would last year.

The survey found that consumers plan on spending an average of $56.04 on Super Bowl-related merchandise, up from last year's $36.78. Total spending for the February 4 Super Bowl is expected to reach $8.7 billion.

"The Super Bowl is more than just a game -- it's a chance for companies to attract new customers by being creative, and often outlandish, in their advertisements," said RAMA Executive Director Mike Gatti. "After an incredibly promotional holiday season, consumers can expect big sales on Super Bowl-related merchandise until game day."

According to the survey, 69.7 percent of consumers plan to celebrate the Super Bowl, compared with 65.9 percent last year. Of those that will be celebrating, 69.3 percent will be purchasing food and beverages and 6.3 percent will buy team apparel and accessories. In anticipation of the big day, 1.3 million consumers plan to buy new furniture, including new home entertainment centers.

The survey also found that more people plan on throwing a party this year than last year (12.8% vs. 9.8%), and more people will be attending those parties (26.8% vs. 24.3% in 2006). Additionally, 9.2 million people plan to watch the game from a restaurant or bar.

"The interest in this year's Super Bowl is higher than in many other years, so retailers have an opportunity to win big with sales of electronics, team apparel, and food," stated Phil Rist, Vice President of Strategy at BIGresearch. "As the price of flat-screen televisions continues to decrease, they are becoming more affordable for average consumers, which is contributing to an increase in TV sales."

While Americans say the game itself is still the most important part of the Super Bowl (32.1%), more than 40 million consumers (18.1%) said they will tune in because of the commercials. The 18-24 (22.2%) and 25-34 (26.3%) year-old age groups will be most likely to pay attention to the advertisements, compared with last year when 18.5 percent and 19.3 percent respectively said the commercials were most important.

 

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Super Bowl Attracts Super Scams

Watch out for shady, last-minute deals

Super Bowl Attracts Super Scams...

With the Chicago Bears and the neighboring Indianapolis Colts set to square off Sunday in Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is urging fans of both teams purchasing tickets and making frantic travel to exercise caution and not be fooled by shady, last-minute deals.

"With both regional fan favorites, the Bears and the Colts, in the Super Bowl, Illinois and Indiana consumers need to be on guard against fraudulent ticket and travel scams," Madigan said. She offered the following tips and information regarding ticket sales and travel arrangement.

Tickets

Fans attempting to purchase tickets online from a third party run the risk of receiving a counterfeit ticket or no ticket at all. Consumers should follow several rules in responding to sellers offering ticket deals:

• If dealing with a ticket broker, determine whether the broker is a member of the National Association of Ticket Brokers -- -- and the Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org. Both organizations have membership standards that promote ethical business conduct.

• If dealing with an Illinois ticket broker, consumers can contact the Illinois Secretary of State's Index Department in Springfield to ensure that the broker is properly registered. Illinois law requires ticket brokers meet certain requirements such as having a toll-free phone number and maintaining a consumer rebate fund.

• Avoid paying cash for tickets on hand from a stranger in the event the tickets may be counterfeit. Consumers should deal only with a seller who accepts credit card payments or other secure payment methods. Consumers are urged not to buy tickets from an unsecured website. Consumers should also be wary of online escrow sites, especially those recommended by a seller. If an escrow site is suggested, the consumer should independently investigate whether the site is legitimate.

• Consumers should be aware that tickets to many of the parties held in conjunction with the Super Bowl are by "invitation only" and cannot be re-sold. Tickets to such an event may be counterfeit.

• Most importantly, consumers should never wire any payment to a seller for any reason. Buyers are sometimes told that they will receive Super Bowl tickets after wiring money to an unknown seller. In many cases, the consumer will end up being a victim of fraud.

"Right now, both teams are preparing their game plans," Madigan said. "There's no reason why fans shouldn't do the same and prepare themselves against unscrupulous ticket and travel vendors."

Travel

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation has established rules for Super Bowl travel package promoters. These rules require that tour operators who market Super Bowl packages that include tickets to the game must have either already purchased the tickets or have a written contract for the tickets before advertising a package.

This "Truth in Ticketing" rule also requires that companies pay full refunds to consumers when they sell a travel package that includes game tickets, but fail to provide the game tickets. These refunds must cover the full price paid for the package, including airfare and hotel rooms.

The rule also allows consumers to obtain full refunds if promoters increase the price of the package by more than 10 percent after consumers have paid, and no price increases are allowed during the last 10 days before the departure date.

Fans are reminded to purchase travel packages from providers they have used in the past or ask family or friends to recommend a company that they trust. Madigan said fans should be skeptical if they cannot reach a person on the phone to answer questions or if the company does not give its street address

"As with game preparation, Super Bowl travelers need to protect themselves by checking all the "Xs and Os" before purchasing travel packages," Madigan continued. These include:

• Making sure that tickets to Sunday's game are included in the travel package.

• Getting all information about the travel package in writing and carefully read and fully understand all of the terms and conditions of the travel package before purchasing the trip, including the total price as well as any cancellation and change penalties.

• Purchasing the trip with a credit card will give consumers the ability to dispute a charge if the promoter does not provide what is contracted for.

• Being careful of mail, fax and telephone solicitations offering travel packages to the Super Bowl.

• Calling the travel promoter a few days prior to the departure date to confirm reservations.

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Teen Clubs May Not Be As Safe As Parents Think

An "Inside Edition" Hidden Camera Investigation

Nightclubs are hosting special events dubbed as "teen nights" that are promoted as a way for teenagers to indulge in clean and safe fun and where no alcoho...

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Honda Recalls ATV to Fix Ball Joints

Honda Recalls ATV to Fix Ball Joints...

January 31, 2007
American Honda Motor Corp. is recalling about 11,000 all-terrain vehicles because of a problem with the ball joints. The recall is for model year 2006 TRX450ER/R ATVs.

The front suspension arm ball joints could have been contaminated during production, resulting in rapid wear of one or more of the ball joints and possible ball joint separation. If the ball joint separation occurs while riding, the operator could lose control of the ATV.

American Honda Motor Corp. has received seven warranty claims about this problem. No injuries have been reported.

The recall involves 2006 model year TRX450ER and TRX450R ATVs. They are adult-sized ATVs designed for use by riders age 16 and older. The ATVs are available in red or black. The TRX450ER and TRX450R model names are located on the front cowling just below the handlebars and the name Honda is printed on the seat.

The units were sold by Honda dealers nationwide from September 2005 through December 2006 for between $6,600 and $7,000.

Consumers should stop using these recalled ATVs until the repair has been completed. Call any Honda ATV dealer to make an appointment to have the ATV repaired. The dealer will inspect and repair your ATV, if necessary. Registered owners of the recalled ATVs have been sent direct notice.

Consumer Contact: For more information, consumers can call Honda toll-free at (866) 784-1870 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at www.powersports.honda.com.

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

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School Cafeterias Even Worse than You Thought

Students at Risk of Deadly Food-Borne Pathogens, Report Warns

Ask any kid what they think of their school cafeteria. Then ask the scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The answers are lik...

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Smokers Win Atlantic City Gamble

Fear of irate smokers is about to trump common sense in Atlantic City

Smokers Win Atlantic City Gamble...

Fear of irate smokers is about to trump common sense in Atlantic City.

Faced with a chance to clear the air of deadly tobacco smoke in local casinos, the city council succumbed to pressure from the pro-smoking casino industry and passed a preliminary measure that will limit but not eliminate smoking.

If approved in final form in early February, smoking will be permitted on 25 per cent of Atlantic City casino floors.

That's a greater percentage the number of adults (over age 21) who still smoke in the United States.

New Jerseyans already enjoy smokefree bars and casinos and enjoy the support of anti-tobacco Gov. Jon Corzine and the state legislature.

Because casinos were exempt from the original statewide bill, the matter was left to the City Council of Atlantic City. When the casino industry argued that 3,400 jobs and 20 per cent of its revenues would be jeopardized by a smoking ban, the council accepted a compromise that called for a 75 per cent ban.

The Jersey-based Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP) and other opponents objected, citing the recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General that passive tobacco smoke is carcinogenic even in limited quantities.

Regina Carlson, founder and executive director of the group, said breathing in a nonsmoking section offers no protection from smoke that happens to seep into that area.

Atlantic City Councilman Dennis Mason disagreed, stating that new casino smoking areas would be walled off from floor to ceiling and topped by ventilation systems that suck smoke out of the air.

Experts on the issue, as well as scientific studies, have shown such ventilation systems to be inadequate. In addition, air recirculated by heating and cooling systems would be filled with the secondhand tobacco smoke found deadly to nonsmokers.

Potential loss of jobs and revenues -- cited by bars and restaurants in big cities considering smoking bans -- have not materialized. In fact, both New York and Los Angeles reported gains in jobs, revenues, and customers because nonsmokers unable or unwilling to appear previously became new patrons.

Though 16 states and hundreds of municipalities have banned smoking in public places, most gambling venues have managed to wriggle free of such regulations. Some, like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in otherwise-smokefree Connecticut, stand on Native American land not bound by state jurisdiction.

Las Vegas showrooms have gone smokefree but not the city's fabled casinos. A smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos would be the largest in any American gambling destination.



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Food Makes You Sexy - Fact or Fiction?

"Love foods" may taste great but do they tickle your libido?

Food Makes You Sexy - Fact or Fiction?...

With Valentine's Day around the corner, many may look to food as a way to rekindle the libido. But is this merely wishful thinking?

Like red wine, so-called love foods -- chocolate, oysters, cucumbers, strawberries and cream, licorice, alcohol -- may taste great, but will these foods tickle your libido as much as your taste buds?

According to Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director and founder of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, there are some foods that can keep individuals in good sexual health, but as far as supposed aphrodisiacs are concerned there is no scientific evidence that they do the trick.

"The reputed sexual effects of so-called aphrodisiacs are based in folklore, not fact, and there is no scientific proof that any food or beverage can treat sexual dysfunction or increase desire," says Cheskin. "In health, there are some food recipes that promise to spice up your food and love life, but the ingredients do not lead to better chances of sexual intercourse."

Cheskin does point out that chocolate contains certain interesting chemicals, such as phenylethylamine (also known as the "love-chemical"), that do stimulate the brain. They are found in high amounts in people who are in love, which is how we get the idea that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

"However, eating chocolate does not raise levels of phenylethylamine in your brain and increase your libido," says Cheskin. "Candy may be dandy, but it doesn't enhance your chance for romance."

Healthier alternatives to chocolate, with the same sweet taste, are fruits like pineapple, bananas and strawberries, which contain plenty of vitamins and are high in antioxidants.

"The health value of fruit may not be sexy, but they are at least healthy," stresses Cheskin.

Oysters are another food with a reputation for increasing the libido. Cheskin calls oysters "good food" because they are low in fat and high in protein, vitamins and minerals and because they contain some nutrients that are important for the production of hormones that can improve fertility.

"There is no proof that oysters have an aphrodisiac effect," he says, "but they are good for your sexual health and your overall health."

Part of good sex health is having a good body weight because being overweight can contribute to a decreased libido and fertility. For those who want to increase their libido, Cheskin says the best approach is "to exercise and eat the right foods."



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Congress Targets Credit Card Companies For Reform

Congress Targets Credit Card Companies For Reform...


After years of having its way with American consumers, the multibillion-dollar credit card business may soon face greater oversight and tighter reins.

"I would like to put the credit card industry, issuing banks and card associations on notice," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

"If you currently engage in any business practice that you would be ashamed to discuss before this Committee, I would strongly encourage you to cease and desist that practice."

The committee recently heard testimony from experts on both sides of the credit card reform debate, including Harvard Law professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren.

Warren was a staunch foe of the new bankruptcy law, which makes it much harder for consumers to discharge credit card debt.

"A growing number of card issuers increase their profits by loading their credit cards with tricks and traps so that they can catch consumers who stumble or mistake those traps for treasure and find themselves caught in a snare from which they cannot escape," Warren said in her testimony.

"The credit card market is broken, and consumers pay a steep price in this non-functioning market. But it doesn't have to be this way."

Big Fees, Big Business

Witnesses cited a number of instances in which the credit card industry makes its profit through penalizing its customers. Chief among them was the practice of levying fees for just about every transaction -- even charging interest on balances already paid.

Travis Plunkett, director of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), pointed out that penalty fees for late payments have not only risen in volume, but "have become primarily a revenue enhancer for credit card issuers," he said.

Credit card companies charge fees for things such as paying bills over the phone, which can cost the consumer an average of $5 to $15 per transaction.

Plunkett and several other witnesses referenced a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found credit card fees had tripled in the past ten years, from an average of $13 in 1995 to $34 in 2005.

The report found a 110 percent increase in charging "overlimit fees," when a customer carries a balance higher than their credit limit.

"These monthly fees are charged every month a consumer carries a credit balance higher than their credit limit," Plunkett said. "Critics of this practice argue that issuers should not assess a penalty fee when they can simply enforce the credit limit if they wish to prevent consumers from exceeding it."

In Plain English

Another big target was the complexity of credit card disclosure statements. Prof. Warren noted that the average disclosure statement grew from one page in the late 1980's to "more than 30 pages of incomprehensible text."

"Anyone who has ever tried to read a credit card agreement knows that the terms are simply incomprehensible," Warren said. "The inserts sent along with monthly bills to amend the card agreements are filled with language even a lawyer would have difficulty parsing."

MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam-Weston recently discussed the practice of not even disclosing the card's actual interest rate until the applicant has been approved for it.

This could lead to cardholders playing "Russian roulette" when selecting a credit card, as they might end up agreeing to an interest rate of 30 percent or higher without their knowledge.

"If you have a good credit history, you should get a good rate, not one that's been inflated to cover the risks of others who haven't been as responsible," she said in a recent column.

The Interchange Wars

Another hidden fee that traps consumers is one they never hear about at all -- the "interchange fee" that retailers pay to process transactions made with credit cards.

Merchants have been waging war with the credit and banking industries to disclose and standardize these fees, which they say amount to a "hidden tax" on consumers.

In his opening statement, Dodd specifically targeted interchange fees as "opaque" costs which "are passed on, in part or whole, to consumers who have no knowledge or understanding that a fee is even a part of the cost of bread or milk, or any other consumer product."

Dodd noted that interchange fees net between $30 and $40 billion for the credit industry annually.

The Merchants Payments Coalition, a trade association of businesses opposed to interchange fees, hailed Dodd's statement.

"The credit card companies have long profited from placing hidden fees and practices on unsuspecting merchants and consumers," they said in a statement. "The interchange fee is the biggest fee consumers have never heard of and accounts for more than the total of all other consumer fees such as late fees and over-the-limit fees."

Over the Top

Most of all, the expert witnesses emphasized the willingness of banks to lend to just about anyone as a prime reason for the explosion in consumer credit card debt.

Travis Plunkett noted that as consumers cut down on their total credit card balances, the industry responds with ever-more-aggressive marketing, usually through direct mail solicitations.

"CardTrak estimates that each household receives nearly 50 credit card solicitations in the mail each year," Plunkett said. "Issuers have increased the number of mailed credit card offerings by six-fold since 1990, from just over 1.1 billion to a record 6.06 billion in 2005. The number of solicitations mailed by issuers in 2006 likely exceeded this amount."

Robert Manning, Rochester Institute of Technology Professor and author of Credit Card Nation, pointed to the expansion of lending to lower-income households as one reason why overall credit card profits -- and consumer debt -- is booming.

In Manning's view, the more that lower-income families were ensnared in credit debt, the more their debt could be used to finance larger lending moves for wealthier customers.

"To make the assumption of debt more attractive to these households -- and to entice them into carrying debt for longer periods -- creditors lowered minimum payment balances from around five percent of principal to just over two percent," Manning said.

"More than one-quarter of the lowest income families spent over 40 percent of their income on debt repayment in 2001 ... [the] 'democratization of credit' has had serious negative consequences for many Americans, putting them one unexpected financial emergency away from bankruptcy."

Hope On The Horizon

The hearing put credit card issuers on notice that change may be on the way. Dodd introduced legislation in the previous Congress that would ban certain penalty fees and mandate clearer disclosure of credit card terms and is expected to introduce a tougher version of the bill this year.

Still, Prof. Warren warned that Congress has a limited window of opportunity in which to act.

With the continuing slump of housing sales causing more defaults and foreclosures, and job growth continually shaky, consumers need help from their debt.

"Americans benefit from markets that work," Warren said. "If Congress repairs the busted credit card market, then Americans -- consumers and businesses alike -- will benefit as well."

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TJX Sued for Loss of Consumer Data

Data Breach Resulting in Wave of Fraudulent Transactions

TJX Sued for Loss of Consumer Data...

While banks and retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada report a growing number of illicit transactions, a class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of consumers exposed to identity theft as a result of hackers penetrating the computer network of TJX Companies, Inc., corporate owner of the T.J. Maxx and Marshalls chains.

The suit, filed in federal district court in Massachusetts, charges that TJX was negligent for failing to maintain adequate computer data security of customer credit and debit card data.

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"As a result of TJX's actions, customer information was stolen from TJX's computer network that handles a wide range of financial information for millions of customers, including credit cards, debit cards linked to checking accounts, and transactions for returned merchandise," said the attorneys filing the suit.

The suit castigates the company for being tardy in releasing news of the data loss to affected consumers.

Although TJX discovered the data breach in mid-December, 2006, it did not publicly announce the intrusion until one month later. That delay prevented consumers from taking measures to protect their accounts, the lawsuit charges.

TJX has said that consumers who patronized TJX stores in 2003 and from mid-May through December 2006 may be affected by the theft.

"Because of TJX's actions, hundreds of thousands or even millions of its customers have had their personal financial information compromised, have had their privacy rights violated, have been exposed to the risk of fraud and identity theft, and have otherwise suffered damages," a statement released by Berger & Montague, PC, and Stern Shapiro Weissberg & Garin, LLP,the law firms representing the plaintiffs, charged.

Fraudfest

Alarm over the computer break-in has been growing as incidents of apparent fraud mount.

More than 60 of the 205 banks in Massachusetts have begun reissuing cards after being contacted by credit card companies about compromised cards, the Massachusetts Bankers Association (MBA) said. In Vermont, one bank had to reissue cards to 1,600 customers because of the compromise, according to press reports.

The MBA said fraudulent transactions have been reported in at least three states as well as Hong Kong and Sweden.

The MBA noted, however, that credit card and bank fraud does not necessarily mean the data thieves have stolen someone's identity; they may merely gained access to credit card numbers.

TJX has set up a toll-free number (866-484-6978) for customers who have questions, and is also taking information on its Web site.

Banks, Congress Irate

Banks, who bear the brunt of the expense when data breaches occur, are beginning to press for Congressional action that would make Visa and Mastercard bear more of the responsibility for identifying the source of data leaks and taking preventive action.

"It is critical that the card associations -- Visa, Mastercard, etc. -- and public officials carefully evaluate whether the source of the breach should be identified quickly and be held liable for a data breach, particularly if the information being stored is in violation of card-network rules," MBA CEO Danial Forte said.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, said the TJX breach was "further evidence of the need for a provision that Democrats pushed for in last year's debate over data security.

"Those institutions where breaches have occurred must be identified and they must bear responsibility," he said.

 

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Sunday Times Reports Widespread Shill Bidding on eBay

Sunday Times Reports Widespread Shill Bidding on eBay...

 


A newspaper report finds many dealers on auction site Ebay artificially driving up bids, forcing consumers to pay more for offered items than they should.

The Sunday Times of London said it undertook an extensive investigation and found so called "shill" bidding is widespread across the popular site.

Among the evidence the newspaper presented to its readers was a transcript of a taped conversation with one of Britain's major eBay dealers, who admitted that he used associates to bid up prices of his offerings.

The investigation also reportedly found businesses placing bids themselves, using false identities.

The Times notes that eBay's policies strictly forbid bidding on your own items, but points out the rule is hard to enforce. A recent rule change designed to protect users' privacy drops an extra curtain around bidders' identities, making it hard to know just exactly who is bidding on what.

The Times quotes Eftis Paraskevaides, an eBay "Titanium PowerSeller" as claiming shill bidding is commonplace on eBay.

Paraskevaides said he would occasionally ask a business associate to place a high bid if he was offering something really expensive, and was concerned it might go too cheaply.

He also claimed to be immune to eBay disciplinary action because he generated so much money for the Web site.

"Are they going to ban somebody who's making them the best part of 15 grand a month?" he asked the Times undercover reporter. "No," he said.

The Times reported Paraskevaides disavowed his comments, after being told he had been talking to a reporter.

A spokesman for eBay told the Times he expects that the company will launch an investigation into Paraskevaides and charges of shill bidding.

Auctionbytes.com reported last year that a German company was offering a shill bidding service to help sellers drive up their prices.

 

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"Medical Vacations" - A Good Idea?

Cancer Surgery in India, Dental Work in Costa Rica

An estimated half a million Americans are going to take a "medical vacation" this year because they either can't afford to undergo the treatment they need ...

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Nightmare On the Runway

Stranded Airline Passengers Organize after Holiday Delays

Nightmare On the Runway...


A horrifying experience for one planeload of passengers may turn out to be a blessing for all air travelers.

American Airlines flight 1348, bound from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth on Dec. 29 sat on an Austin runway for nearly nine hours while fierce but slow-moving thunderstorms pounded the state of Texas.

Food, water, and patience were soon in short supply, along with working toilets.

But passengers had plenty of time to prepare the groundwork for a new Congressional lobbying group called the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. With consumer-conscious Democrats controlling both houses, passage of legislation seems more likely than it did in 1999.

That was the year the airline industry adopted a voluntary standard that effectively killed a bill created after a Northwest plane was stranded on the tarmac for many hours.

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Furious passengers from the latest fiasco insist the voluntary standard is worthless. They've started a website called www.flyersrights.org/index.php.

"Enough is enough," said American passenger Kate Hanni in a Jan. 22 press release published by the coalition. "This is not the first time, nor it is likely to be the last, that this kind of degrading treatment is visited on passengers.

"Thousands of legitimate complaints by travelers mistreated by the airlines are regularly dismissed or inadequately addressed by the industry," she fumed.

Now that the legacy carriers are making money again, they do not figure to retain the sympathy of lawmakers who voted them generous subsidies and immunity from lawsuits after their airplanes were used in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In fact, carriers could be in for a rude awakening after legislators collect all the testimony from passengers trapped in grounded planes on New Year's weekend.

Flight 1348, for example, was an hour late leaving San Francisco because of a mechanical problem. Had that delay not occurred, it could have reached DFW before the bad weather arrived. Instead, the MD-80 was diverted to Austin as one of 85 American flights diverted from Dallas that day.

Not until 12 hours after departure from San Francisco could passengers disembark.

American flight 37 from Zurich to Dallas suffered a similar fate, landing at the airport in Tulsa, which did not have the appropriate customs and immigration personnel to clear passengers for entry into the U.S.

By the time the flight finally reached Dallas after a 10-hour wait on the Tulsa tarmac, the Zurich passengers had been on board for 22 hours.

AA flight 1682 from Oklahoma City pushed back from the gate at 2:07 p.m. and sat on the tarmac for eight hours and two minutes before it was cancelled and sent back to the gate.

Austin airport authorities, overwhelmed when 14 planes landed unexpectedly, managed to move flights headed for Chicago or St. Louis but didn't do much for Dallas planes other than deliver food and drinks. The only passengers allowed off flight 1348 were 20 passengers whose final destinations were Austin or San Antonio. Luggage retrieval posed additional problems.

Passengers remaining in their seats claim they suffered from hunger, thirst, unsanitary conditions, and anxiety caused by unfulfilled promises from the captain plus the frustration of watching other planes come and go from the four American gates at the Austin airport.

Witnesses said a woman complained her diabetes medication was packed in her luggage -- the result of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines limiting liquids in carry-ons -- while a smoker ran out of Nicorette gum. They added that hungry babies screamed incessantly.

Fifteen of the stranded passengers from AA flight 1348 explained their complaints in a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The proposed Passenger Bill of Rights would require that airlines:

• Establish procedures for returning passengers to gates during delays so that no plane sits on the tarmac longer than three hours;

• Provide passengers with food, water, sanitary facilities, and medical needs during delays that exceed three hours;

• Publish updated lists of flights delayed at least a half-hour 40 per cent of the time in any given month;

• Compensate bumped passengers or those delayed by cancellations or postponements of more than 12 hours by a refund worth 150 percent of the ticket price;

• Create a passenger review committee, including consumers, with the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.

Though it admitted no wrongdoing, Northwest settled a class-action lawsuit by paying $7.1 million in compensation to more than 7,000 storm-stranded passengers who sat on the Detroit tarmac on Jan. 3, 1999. That action is likely to be used as a precedent in any litigation arising from the American case.

Northwest now refuses to let passengers sit on airport tarmacs more than three hours.

For its part, American apologizes to stranded passengers and sent them vouchers valid for future flights.

According to AA spokesman Tim Wagner, "We have examined our reaction to the weather that day and we have reemphasized areas of our procedures that will help ensure that the situation never happens again."

Industry-wide, flight delays and reports of lost bags have both climbed steadily over the last four years. Staff and service cuts, coupled with congestion in the air and on the ground, have been major contributing factors. In addition, federal rules limit the number of hours flight crews work per day, sometimes making it impossible for delayed flights to take off because the crews have exceeded their allotted time.



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Apple Technology Featured in Big Apple Hotel

Outfitting hotel rooms with 21st century technology is one way to stay ahead of the competition

Apple Technology Featured in Big Apple Hotel...

Outfitting hotel rooms with 21st century technology is one way to stay ahead of the competition, judging by new developments at the Westin New York at Times Square.

Located in the core of the Big Apple, the upscale property is marking the fifth anniversary of Apple's iPod by providing guests with digital music devices and services.

The hotel has even created a new position -- playlist concierge -- to cater to visitors seeking mood-soothing tunes while on the road.

Technology upgrades at the Westin have made it possible for guests to download musical favorites on Apple iHome H5 units provided by the hotel or Apple iPod docking stations that work with a Bose Wave Radio.

The new technology has been installed in rooms classified as superior deluxe, executive club level, and junior suites. Spa-inspired guestrooms have it as well.

The hotel features 124 executive club rooms equipped with Apple iMac G5 computers with wireless mouse and keyboard -- making music easy to download.

Musical choices range from Beethoven to Barry Manilow, with special playlists bearing such titles as Relax, Broadway, and New York, NY.



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Antidepressants Similar in Effectiveness, But Side Effects Differ

Six in 10 experience at least one side effect,

Antidepressants Similar in Effectiveness, But Side Effects Differ...

Today's most commonly prescribed antidepressants are similar in effectiveness to each other but differ when it comes to possible side effects, according to an analysis released by HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The findings, based on a review of nearly 300 published studies of second-generation antidepressants, show that about six in 10 adult patients get some relief from the drugs. About six in 10 also experience at least one side effect, ranging from nausea to sexual dysfunction.

Patients who don't respond to one of the drugs often try another medication within the same class. About one in four of those patients recover, according to the review. Overall, current evidence on the drugs is insufficient for clinicians to predict which medications will work best for individual patients.

Second-generation antidepressants, which include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), are often prescribed because first-generation antidepressants (such as tricyclic antidepressants, or TCAs) can cause intolerable side effects and carry high risks.

"Second-generation antidepressants provide hope for many of the millions of Americans who struggle with depression," said AHRQ Director Carolyn M. Clancy, MD. "But often trying to find the right drug is trial and error, and in many cases relief is temporary or comes with serious side effects. It's clear we need more evidence to help patients and their doctors make the best choices."

Authors of the new Comparative Effectiveness Review analyzed the benefits and risks of a dozen second-generation antidepressants: bupropion (sold as Wellbutrin), citalopram (Celexa), duloxetine (Cymbalta), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (formerly sold as Luvox), mirtazapine (Remeron), nefazodone (formerly Serzone), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), trazodone (formerly Desyrel), and venlafaxine (Effexor).

Many of these drugs are also sold in generic form.

The analysis, which examined only adult use of second-generation antidepressants, drew on 293 published studies. Of those, 187 were judged to be of good or fair quality. The analysis compared the drugs' benefits and risks in the treatment of major depressive disorder, dysthymia (a chronic, less-severe form of depression), and subsyndromal depression (an acute mood disorder that is less severe than major depression).

Each of the disorders can be disabling. Major depressive disorder affects more than 16 percent of U.S. adults at least once during a lifetime, the review noted. In 2000, the economic burden of depressive disorders was estimated to be $83.1 billion. More than 30 percent of these costs are for direct medical expenses, such as doctors' fees, hospital bills and medications.

The new analysis, produced by AHRQ's Effective Health Care program, was completed by the Agency's RTI International-University of North Carolina Evidence-based Practice Center. Evidence reviewed by the authors suggests:

• In general, the various second-generation antidepressants have similar rates of effectiveness. In controlled studies, about 38 percent of patients saw no improvement and 54 percent had only partial improvement.

• According to the National Institute of Mental Health's Sequenced Treatment Alternative to Relieve Depression (STAR-D) trial, a substantial number (between about 25 percent and 33 percent) of patients will improve with the addition or substitution of a different drug.

• On average, 61 percent of patients taking second-generation antidepressants experience at least one side effect. The most common are nausea and vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, headache and sleeplessness.

• Venlafaxine, an SNRI, is associated with a higher incidence of nausea and vomiting than SSRIs. That drug is also more likely than SSRIs to be discontinued due to adverse events.

• Sertraline is more likely to cause diarrhea than bupropion, citalopram, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, mirtazapine, nefazodone, paroxetine, or venlafaxine. Mirtazapine leads to higher weight gains than fluoxetine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, or trazodone. Trazodone is associated with higher rates of sleeplessness than bupropion, fluoxetine, mirtazapine, paroxetine, or venlafaxine.

• Paroxetine and venlafaxine have the highest rates of discontinuation. Fluoxetine has the lowest.

• Second-generation antidepressants work at different rates. Seven studies funded by the maker of mirtazapine showed that the drug works faster than citalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine, or sertraline.

• Bupropion is less likely to cause sexual dysfunction than fluoxetine, paroxetine, or sertaline. Paroxetine has higher rates of sexual dysfunction than fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, nefazodone, or sertraline.

"As with all medications, second-generation antidepressants should be used after careful consideration of benefits and risks," Dr. Clancy said. "It's up to clinicians and patients to work closely together so the best possible results are achieved."

 



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Prius Shuts Down in the Snow, Reader Complains

Toyota Calls Automatic Power Reduction a Safety Feature

Prius Shuts Down in the Snow, Reader Complains...

The Toyota Prius is known to occasionally shut down its hybrid engine system for no apparent reason, wear tires quickly and unevenly, even drain a battery dry when parked for an extended period.

But here's one of the oddest Prius stories on file at ConsumerAffairs.com:

"When my car is on any kind of slick surface that causes one of the front wheels to slip, ALL power to the drive system is stopped," wrote Christopher of Reston, Virginia.

Christopher said he first experienced the problem with his Prius "on a sloped gravel driveway in July but discounted it as a temporary thing."

Then the snow fell.

"This past weekend I was on a snow-covered road with about an 8- to 10-degree grade. Driving at 20 miles per hour, one tire began to slip on the snow and the car came to a stop. The wheels then refused to engage, because one would slip a little, regardless of throttle position," he wrote.

Christopher tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he "had cable style tire chains and installed them properly on the front wheels and tried again. Still, a tire would slip on the 4 or 5 inches between the cables and the car would refuse to move."

Ultimately, he said, the only way to get the car up the remainder of the hill was to get out and push while his son put a foot gently on the throttle.

His Toyota service manager told Christopher that he was able to duplicate the symptoms on a level snow covered surface and apparently achieved the same results with two other Prius cars that were in the dealership fleet.

But after reporting the problem to Toyota, the service manager told Christopher that the Prius was operating as designed.

Christopher said that he "will consider this vehicle unsafe for road use under any snow or ice conditions and frankly feel that if all Prius vehicles are designed to do this someone ought to look into the situation to try to force Toyota to modify the design."

Not a Safety Problem

Toyota spokesman Bill Kwon agrees that the traction control systems in the Prius could impact performance in snow conditions but says that is not a safety problem.

"Prius has TRAC (traction control) as standard equipment," he said. "The purpose of traction control is to helps prevent wheel spin and minimize slippage of the drive wheels by applying brakes and/or reducing engine power."

Kwon points out that an 8 to 10 degree grade "is a fairly steep grade and combined with snow would cause a loss of traction which will activate the traction control system and therefore reduce or cut power."

"A vehicle without TRAC in those conditions," Kwon adds. "would probably just start spinning in place and eventually spin out of control. In my opinion, it's better to have the vehicle stop then to have the wheels spinning and out of control."

 

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Illinois Sues Nationwide Debt Collector, Arrow Financial

Firm Uses Unfair Tactics, Deceptive Practices, State Charges

Illinois Sues Nationwide Debt Collector, Arrow Financial...

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court alleging that a debt collector used unfair tactics and deceptive practices to collect money from consumers.

Madigan's lawsuit names Arrow Financial Services, LLC, of Niles, Illinois. Madigan sued another collectiona agency, Leading Edge Recovery Solutions, earlier this month.

Arrow is a debt buyer and attempts to collect monies ranging from approximately $100 to over $10,000 per debt from consumers nationwide.

Since 1999, Madigan's Consumer Fraud Bureau has received 669 consumer complaints against Arrow.

Madigan's lawsuit charges Arrow with multiple violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The suit specifically alleges that Arrow attempts to collect on time-barred debts over ten years old, attempts to collect on debts that have been discharged in bankruptcy or that have been settled, engages in abusive practices in an attempt to collect, such as using profanity, attempts to obtain payment without proof of debt, refuses or fails to provide proof of debt, illegally contacts consumers' family members and workplace, and withdraws money without authorization from consumers' bank accounts.

Madigan's suit contains a number of specific examples of consumer complaints concerning Arrow's conduct.

For example, according to Madigan's lawsuit, Arrow allegedly contacted one Franklin Park, Ill., consumer through the mail, informing him that he owes approximately $600 on a Montgomery Ward account that he had cancelled ten years ago.

Soon thereafter, the consumer allegedly began receiving calls and notices regarding the debt approximately once a week for several months at a time.

When the consumer explained to Arrow that he had cancelled the credit card ten years ago and did not owe any debt, Arrow responded that if he once owned the credit card, then he was obliged to pay for the debt. The consumer disputed the debt and asked for written proof. In response, Arrow threatened to sue the consumer and never provided any evidence of the debt allegedly owed.

Arrow's conduct has come to the attention of other state enforcement offices.

In November 2005, the Minnesota Department of Commerce imposed against Arrow Financial Services, LLC, a $125,000 fine, the largest civil penalty ever imposed against a collection agency licensed in Minnesota.

As part of this process, Arrow was required to implement a compliance program to:

(1) designate a compliance officer in charge of all regulatory compliance matters,

(2) implement a training program for all Arrow debt collectors, which includes the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Minnesota debt collection laws,

(3) require Arrow debt collectors to sign a statement in which they acknowledge training completion, which includes debt collection law, and

(4) establish written policies and procedures for screening debt collector applicants and conduct criminal background checks.

"Consumers should not be harassed or intimidated by unscrupulous debt collectors. We are focused on protecting Illinois consumers and others affected by businesses that use unfair and deceptive debt collection tactics," Madigan said.

Madigan's lawsuit asks the court to prohibit Arrow from engaging in deceptive debt collection activities and further violating Illinois' consumer protection laws. The lawsuit seeks a civil penalty of $50,000 and additional penalties of $50,000 for each violation found to have been committed with intent to defraud.

Finally, Madigan's lawsuit asks the court to order Arrow to pay restitution to consumers and to pay all costs for prosecution and investigation of this case.

Illinois Consumers who believe they have been the victim of unfair or deceptive debt collection practices or another consumer fraud can download a complaint form at www.IllinoisAttorneyGeneral.gov/consumers or call the Attorney General's Consumer Fraud Hotline at one of the following numbers:

Chicago: 1-800-386-5438; TTY: 1-800-964-3013
Springfield: 1-800-243-0618; TTY: 1-877-844-5461
Carbondale: 1-800-243-0607; TTY: 1-877-675-9339
Spanish Language Hotline: 1-866-310-8398

Consumers can get tips to protect themselves against unfair or deceptive debt collection practices on Madigan's website at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/debtcollection.html.

 

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Verizon Wireless Raises Text Message Rate

Remember When a Text Message Was Just a Dime?

Verizon Wireless Raises Text Message Rate...

The ten-cent text message may be going the way of the 25-cent phone call.

Verizon Wireless has just announced a 33 percent increase in its text message rate, raising the price to sending or receiving a message from a dime to $.15.

The increase applies to customers without a text message plan and follows a similar move by Sprint/Nextel and AT&T;/Cingular. Customers with text plans are not affected.

Verizon says nearly half of its customers use text messaging features but it's unclear how many have monthly plans and how many pay as they go.

Text messaging costs can easily push up the monthly cost of owning a cell phone and have been a frequent source of friction in households with teenagers.

Text messages are transmitted on the same system that voice calls, but instead of getting a call, customers receive a printed message on their phone's screen. Since most phones lack keyboards, customers type their messages by multi-tapping on a phone's number pad to choose letters.

Though in theory anyone could be an adept text messager, teens and young adults have been the quickest adopters of this somewhat cumbersome means of communicating.

 

 

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Nationwide, Aetna Customer Data Stolen

In addition to the Nationwide data tapes, the thieves made off with backup data tapes containing information on the medical claims of 130,000 Aetna custome...

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A Good Night's Sleep Essential to Heart Health

Sleep apnea a known risk factor for serious disorders

A Good Night's Sleep Essential to Heart Health...

A health diet, plenty of exercise and staying away from cigarettes are all important to maintaining a healthy heart. But so is getting a good night's sleep, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

According to Lawrence Epstein, MD, AASM past president, medical director of Sleep Health Centers and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, treating sleep disorders and getting an adequate amount of sleep are pillars of good cardiovascular health.

"Sleep apnea is a known risk factor for the development of hypertension, heart disease and stroke," said Epstein.

"Also, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to change metabolic function in a way that promotes weight gain and diabetes, two risk factors for heart disease." Dr. Epstein's remarks support recent studies that link sleep apnea to cardiovascular disease.

A study published in the December 1, 2006, issue of the journal SLEEP, showed that daytime sleepiness brought on by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may subtly impair cardiac function. Patients with OSA commonly complain of daytime sleepiness because of the fact that OSA causes their bodies to stop breathing during sleep the night before and can disturb sleep numerous times.

Further, data from the "Sleep Heart Health Study" show that people with sleep apnea have a 45 percent greater risk for hypertension, a major predictor for cardiovascular disease, than people without the sleep disorder.

Ralph Downey III, PhD, of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif., says he is amazed at the high percentage of patients who have both sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.

Research has built a compelling case that those with sleep-disordered breathing are at increased risk for hypertension, said Downey, adding that there is also a well-established connection between sleep apnea and heart failure.

"It makes not only scientific sense that such a relationship exists, but common sense as well," said Downey. "If someone were to suffocate you with a pillow several hundred times a night, you would call the police. In the case of patients with sleep apnea, the airway blocks off due to obstruction and they stop breathing for 10 seconds to a minute, which is repeated hundreds of times in a night."

Dennis H. Nicholson, MD, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in Pomona, Calif., says that more public education needs to be done in order to reach out to as many people as possible about cardiovascular disease, and notes that a good night's sleep is critical to maintaining good health.

"Public education is an important and often neglected component in the overall strategy to improve sleep, cardiovascular outcomes and general well being," said Nicholson, who added that reaching out to people about the importance of sleep may result in a decline in the number of reported cardiovascular diseases.

 



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Illinois Sues Text-Message Spammers

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a federal lawsuit against an alleged text-message spammer accused of flooding consumers' cell phones with unso...

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Consumers Must Act Fast in Data Theft Cases

Consumers Must Act Fast in Data Theft Cases...

January 23, 2007
With the threat of identity theft multiplying each time a data-laden laptop is lost or stolen, many states are tightening rules on notifying consumers. But suppose a company or government agency notifies you that your Social Security number, credit card information or other sensitive data has been compromised.

What happens next? How do you protect yourself?

"Consumers who get word that their information may have been compromised should notify the three credit bureaus, consider placing a freeze on their credit, and continue checking their credit frequently," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

North Carolina has an online "victims' tool kit -- noscamnc.gov/toolkit.html -- with instructions on how to freeze your credit, a sample letter to request a credit freeze, the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft Affidavit, and other documents.

Cooper has just dealt with the issue, since a North Carolina Department of Revenue laptop containing information about approximately 26,000 consumers and 7,700 businesses was stolen last month.

North Carolina had recently enacted a new law requiring speedy notification in such cases. But Cooper says consumers remain vulnerable until they take action to protect themselves.

"Consumers who get one of these notices can act fast to protect their good names," Cooper said.

Under North Carolina's new law, state and local government as well as businesses must notify consumers if a security breach may have compromised their personal information and potentially placed them at greater risk of identity theft.

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Tested by Fire: American Express Travelers Cheques

Travelers Cheques Lost in Fire; Family Goes Hungry

They're touted as the world's safest currency. And guaranteed to be replaced "quickly and easily" if they're lost or stolen -- usually within 24 hours....


They're touted as the world's safest currency. And guaranteed to be replaced "quickly and easily" if they're lost or stolen -- usually within 24 hours.

That's why a rural Kansas man bought thousands of dollars worth of American Express Travelers Cheques last year.

But the company, he says, refused to honor its guarantee. And that broken promise left him -- and his young family -- in dire financial straits after they lost $9,500 in Travelers Cheques during a house fire last June.

"I specifically chose to buy Travelers Cheques because the company guarantees them if they're lost or stolen," says Mark M. of Coffeyville, Kansas. "But now they've denied my claim because they say there's unsubstantiated evidence that there was a loss.

"This has caused great anguish for my family," adds the unemployed electrician who has a wife and 14-month-old twin daughters. "We've really had to struggle financially. I've even had to sell parts off my wife's van to pay for diapers for our twin girls."

Story continues below video

Mark says he's angry and confused with the way American Express handled his claim.

"I called the company about a week after the fire," he says, adding the cheques burned when flames licked under the top of the opened metal box where he stored them.

ConsumerAffairs.com obtained a copy of the Coffeyville Fire Department's report, which ruled the blaze accidental. "We stayed in a motel for three or four days and then I was going back and forth to make the house livable."

No Refund

Mark says he sent American Express all the documents it requested, including proof that he bought the cheques, the serial numbers of the ones that burned, a copy of the fire department's report, and a claim form.

But he didn't receive a refund within 24 hours -- as the company promises.

In fact, he didn't hear from American Express for several weeks.

"About a month went by and I heard nothing from them," Mark says, adding he purchased the cheques in March, 2006, when he closed his bank account. He says he didn't want to carry around that much cash or deposit the funds in another bank.

"Then I finally spoke to a lady who said, 'We're going to talk about refunding $500.'"

Mark says he tried to explain to the American Express representative that he lost $9,500 -- not $500. But his comments, he says, fell on deaf ears.

"I couldn't reason with her. And then by her mannerism she indicated that the company would not approve my claim at all ... that's what I started to fear."

Claim Denied

In September -- three months after the fire -- Mark received a letter from American Express stating the company "extensively reviewed your claim ... and based upon our investigation of the information furnished by you, there is insufficient substantiation that your Cheques were lost/stolen from you. Under these circumstances, we regret that we must deny your claim."

Shocked and upset by the company's response, Mark contacted the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for assistance. "But that didn't do any good."

American Express, he says, just sent him two more letters in response to his BBB complaint.

The final letter arrived in December -- approximately six months after the fire -- and stated: "We show that our Claims Review department sent you a letter on September 28, 2006, regarding your claim ... at this time, we consider this matter closed."

Mark says he's outraged by the company's response -- and failure to honor its guarantee.

"This has been very stressful for me and my family. I've had a heck of a time finding a job. I'm so broke I can't even afford a postage stamp," he said.

In late December, 2006, Mark contacted ConsumerAffairs.com.

"I am in a dire financial situation and I need that money," he told us. We immediately contacted American Express.

Companies Denies the Denial

Rob Sherman, director of Public Affairs and Communications for American Express Travelers Cheques and Prepaid Services, told us he couldn't discuss the specifics of Mark's case.

He did say, however, that American Express had not -- as the earlier letters stated -- denied Mark's claim. He said the company was still investigating.

Within days after our call, American Express agreed to give Mark a $6,950 refund.

Mark says his family couldn't have received better news.

"I'm failing to convey in words my gratitude to you all," he says. "You made the difference. There were times where we didn't have enough money for gas so I could go out and search for work.

"This money is going to allow me and my family to go on about our lives instead of waiting. I'm happy this is all over and I thank you so very much."

Why did American Express change its decision after we contacted the company?

And how did it reach that $6,950 refund amount?

The company's Rob Sherman again told us he couldn't discuss the specifics of Mark's case. But he added: "We continued to look at the circumstances and made this decision on the refund."

Sherman says his company usually issues refunds within 24 hours after the cheques are reported lost or stolen.

A Rare Case?

"But in rare cases, like this one, we have to look more fully at the claim," he says. "Those are regrettable instances, but we have to make sure we're doing everything according to our policy. I regret this was a frustrating situation for this consumer."

When asked what procedures American Express follows when investigating cases of lost or stolen cheques, Sherman told us: "We ask consumers to notify us as soon as possible once their cheques are missing. We gather information from the consumer, including some circumstances about the loss, and in a vast majority of these claims, a refund is issued usually in 24 hours. But again, it all depends on the circumstances."

American Express, he says, has internal procedures that immediately "flag" stolen or lost Travelers Cheques.

"We record the serial numbers of those cheques in our system and then merchants or banks -- points of transactions -- have authorization systems where they can check those numbers," Sherman explains. "And they would be able to identify that these cheques -- with these serial numbers -- are no longer valid and have been reported as lost or stolen."

Sherman says his company tracks the cheques -- by their serial numbers -- to see where they've been used and who passed them. He refused to say if any of the cheques Mark reported as lost were ever used.

Consumers, he says, can avoid delays or problems if their Travelers Cheques are lost or stolen if they:

• Become familiar with the terms and conditions of the cheques' use. That information is available on the company's Web site, www.americanexpress.com;

• Sign the top of the cheques when they purchase them;

• Keep the serial numbers of the cheques in a separate location -- not with the cheques;

• Keep track of how many cheques they've spent and where they've used them;

• Immediately file a report if the cheques are lost or stolen

"It's in everyone's best interest if we can issue a refund in 24 hours," Sherman says, adding Travelers Cheques never expire. "We regret when we can't do that and those cases are rare."

Little Comfort

His words, however, give Mark little comfort. He says he's lost faith in American Express and its promises.

"I bought my Travelers Cheques under the pretense that if they were lost or stolen, I'd get a refund relatively soon," Mark says. "But the service I received from the company was very bad.

"I'll never buy Travelers Cheques again."

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LeanRx.Net Lightens Consumers Wallets

LeanRx.Net Lightens Consumers Wallets...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

January 22, 2007
Consumers hoping to lose weight through diet supplements like Hoodia are being victimized by a company using spam emails to promote its wares. Consumers accuse LeanRx.Net of charging their accounts for $100 or more in products they didn't order.

"I ordered a free sample of Hoodia, and all I had to do is pay shipping and handling and I paid it with a debit card -- dumb me. I paid $4.95 in June of 2006," Shirley, of Cardington, OH, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "But there was a $99.99 charge to Bumfathoodia, which caused several of my checks to bounce."

Shirley's story is similar to others received at ConsumerAffairs.com in the last two months. A number of consumers have recounted their unsuccessful efforts to get in touch with LeanRX.Net.

"I tried calling the above 800 number to cancel my order because I never receive anything," said Debra of Colorado Springs CO. "When I called it was an automated answering machine telling me to enter my credit card number. I wasn't about to do that so I just stayed on the line. The automated voice finally said that if I needed customer service to visit their website at leanrx.net."

But Debra and others who have gone to LeanRx.Net have found not a Web site but only a message reading "Content is being updated to better serve you in the New Year."

In the meantime, LeanRx.Net has consumers' credit and debit account information and can -- and, some say, does -- place charges anytime it wants. Some consumers say their accounts have been charged $70 to $80 twice in one month.

Security experts warn consumers to never respond to sales pitches that come in spam email, saying in most cases such appeals are scams. They say any online purchase should be made with a company you trust, or have checked out.

Hoodia has been used in folk medicine in southern Africa to treat minor illnesses. Since the 1990s its active ingredient, P57, has been touted as an appetite suppressant.

However, it has not received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and one pharmaceutical company doing research on P57 expressed concern about potential side effects.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Why Doesn't Every Smoker Get Emphysema?

Researchers Say It Takes Genes, Viruses and Cigarettes

The infection could "reprogram" the cells of the lung's air passages and sacs, and the reprogrammed cells could react badly if the same person took up ciga...

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Parents Warned about Modeling Scams

Parents Warned about Modeling Scams...


Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is warning parents about model and talent search agencies which promise children fame and fortune but may disguise significant fees often associated with the offers. The advisory was issued in anticipation of an upcoming event advertised in the Tallahassee Area.

"Offers like these are a classic example of something that is too good to be true," Attorney General McCollum said. "I urge parents to thoroughly research the prospective talent agencies before signing any contracts. A bit of effort ahead of time can often safeguard against disappointment and loss of resources in the long run."

Talent agencies often tempt individuals with the promise of meeting film directors, producers, model agents, and ad agencies at various "free" events.

Unfortunately, many parents find that nothing happens at the "free evaluation" because the actual evaluation, which is attended by casting agents and other talent scouts, takes place in a different location, frequently out of state. Those events come with a heavy access fees in addition to lodging, transportation, and other additional costs.

McCollum offered the following tips to consider before signing up with a talent agent or agency:

• Research a company's background and compare it with other talent scouting agencies before signing contracts or paying required fees.

• Never pay large fees required up-front. Fraudulent companies will often charge a significant fee to place photographs on a website.

• Be aware that most legitimate agencies do not advertise in newspapers, solicit through the mail, or "scout" for talent in malls and other public places.

• Make sure to get any agreement in writing.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Complaint of the Day: Phony Magazine Subscription Renewals

Complaint of the Day

Complaint of the Day: Phony Magazine Subscription Renewals...

Magazine subscriptions are tricky things. Even legitimate companies try to lure you into renewing early, afraid you might drop it. But watch out -- scam artists pretending to be calling to renew your subscription will try to get you to send them money, as Sikes, of Roswell, Georgia, recently discovered when United Magazine Service called with a special offer on a two year magazine subscription renewal.

"The telemarketer for United Magazine Service was quite pushy and wanted a credit card number or a bank account number in order for me to take advantage of the offer," Sikes told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"I did receive a letter which stated that I could receive a further deduction of $4.00 if I mailed the check in by a certain date. The letter was quite legitimate looking with all kinds of info, cancellation policy, customer service phone number etc. So, I mailed a check. My check was cashed."

"I have now discovered that my magazine company was never contacted, never sent a notice of renewal, and have on file that another customer had filed a complaint about United Magazine Service."

This scam is being run under a variety of different names and companies, making it harder for law enforcement to track them down. Sometimes the scammers pretend to be from a collection agency, collecting money on behalf of the magazine.

In most cases, the magazines are clueless that this is happening. But somehow these renegade companies are obtaining consumers names, telephone numbers, and the magazines they subscribe to.

Have you had a similar experience? Tell us your story here.

 

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Record Companies, Congress Take On Satellite Radio

Industry, Government Collude to Squash Consumers

Record Companies, Congress Take On Satellite Radio...

Music fans frustrated with the cookie-cutter formats and heavy advertising of traditional radio have turned to satellite stations such as XM and Sirius in greater numbers over the last few years.

But new legislation introduced in Congress, as well as lawsuits by the recording industry lobby, may chill listeners' attempts to record the music they're enjoying.

A U.S. District Court Judge ruled on Jan. 19th that major record labels may proceed with a suit against XM Satellite radio, alleging that XM supports the marketing of music players that can record satellite radio streams, and turn them into MP3s.

Although XM's lawyers argued that recording satellite radio streams is no different from recording songs off broadcast radio stations, Judge Diane Batts disagreed.

Batts' ruling held that XM was acting as both a broadcaster and distributor of music licensed from record companies, even though it only paid to be a broadcaster.

"It is manifestly apparent that the use of a radio-cassette player to record songs played over free radio does not threaten the market for copyrighted works as does the use of a recorder which stores songs from private radio broadcasts on a subscription fee basis," she said."

Although the RIAA was pleased by the ruling, XM said it was confident that the lawsuit would fail, pointing to the fact that the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act explicitly allows listeners to record broadcast content for private use.

"At this stage of the proceeding, the court's ruling is required to be based on the false characterizations set forth in the plaintiffs' complaint," XM said in a statement. "The real facts strongly support our view that the lawsuit is barred by the Audio Home Recording Act. We look forward to making our case in court."

Senate PERFORMS For Record Lobby

However, a Senate bill would severely restrict listeners' rights to record music from satellite radio broadcasts.

The "Platform Equality and Remedies for Rights Holders in Music" (PERFORM) Act would mandate that all satellite, cable, and Internet broadcasters incorporate content protection technology to prevent copying of specific artists' songs, though they could still record by time period or station.

The PERFORM Act also would mandate that nontraditional music broadcasters pay "fair market value" fees for the music they license for broadcast.

Given that satellite and Internet radio broadcasters already pay high fees, the new legislation would make it difficult for any new independent broadcasters to enter the marketplace and might hamper the survival of current broadcasters.

The PERFORM Act was originally introduced in the previous Congress but languished, despite the support of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

Frist's former chief of staff, Mitch Bainwol, is now President of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the chief lobbying group for the recording industry.

Even without Frist's support, the original supporters of the PERFORM Act, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) placated the RIAA by reintroducing the bill.

"New radio services are allowing users to do more than simply listen to music," Feinstein said. "What was once a passive listening experience has turned into a forum where users can record, manipulate, collect and create personalized music libraries."

But not everyone on Capitol Hill has lined up for the record industry and against everyday consumers.

Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) recently introduced a bill that would prevent the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) from mandating that electronics manufacturers include copy-protection technology in their products.

"The FCC seems to be under the belief that it should occasionally impose technology mandates," Sununu said in a statement. "Whether well-intentioned or not, the FCC has no business interfering in private industry to satisfy select special interests or to impose its own views."

Of course, if Congress imposes those views, it's a different story.

Bad Day For Blue Space

As is often the case when big business and big government collide, the voice of the little guy is drowned out.

In the case of independent radio broadcasters such as Chris Gerard, the drowning out may be literal if the PERFORM Act passes or the XM lawsuit succeeds.

Gerard, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, operates an Internet radio station, BlueSpaceRadio.com. In his view, legislation or lawsuits against Internet or satellite radio will only drive more entrepreneurs out of the market. Gerard called the PERFORM Act "a waste of time."

"It's too cumbersome for folks to sit around and record from satellite or internet radio," Gerard told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I can't imagine a single sale has been lost to people ripping streams from internet or satellite radio, when there are much easier ways to rip off music."

Gerard makes very little money from his Internet radio broadcasts, and pays high fees to license and provide the content through his station. He does it for "only for the love of music and to interact with other music fans."

"The RIAA is trying to stop a flood with a toothpick, and the only thing they are accomplishing is putting people like me out of business," Gerard said.

"Making it too expensive for me and hundreds of others like me to operate will not help the music industry. It will result once again in fewer choices for music fans."

 

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Look For Early iPhone Price Cuts

Apple Has Plenty of Room to Cut Retail Price

Look For Early iPhone Price Cuts...

Would you pay $499 for Apple's new iPhone? Apple is betting you will, but if not the computer maker has plenty of room to make you a deal. In fact, iSuppli, a market research firm, predicts Apple will quickly cut iPhone's price.

The reason is simple. According to iSuppli, Apple will take advantage of the "must-have" buzz surrounding its new gadget to try and get at least $499 for it, but would have a 50 percent gross profit margin at that price. Price cuts, they say, are inevitable.

"iSuppli estimates the 4Gbyte version of the Apple iPhone will carry a $229.85 hardware and manufacturing cost and a $245.83 total expense, yielding a 50.7 percent margin on each unit sold at the $499 retail price," said Andrew Rassweiler, teardown services manager and senior analyst for iSuppli.

"Meanwhile, the 8GByte Apple iPhone will sport a $264.85 hardware cost and a $280.83 total expense, amounting to a 53.1 percent margin at the $599 retail price."

For Apple, such a strong hardware profit is par for the course, with the company having achieved margins of 45 percent and more in products including the iMac and iPod nano, according to iSuppli. However, because Apple is facing extensive competition in the music-phone market, the company may need to cut into its margins to reduce pricing in the future.

"With a 50 percent gross margin, Apple is setting itself up for aggressive price declines going forward," said Jagdish Rebello, PhD, director and principal analyst with iSuppli.

Apple faces a bevy of competitors in music phones, with 835 models expected to be introduced by various competitors in 2007. iSuppli estimates that 14 music-enabled mobile phones with features that compete closely with the Apple iPhone already are shipping from manufacturers including Nokia, Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and LG.

Shipments of music-enabled mobile phones will rise to 618.1 million units in 2007, up 39.9 percent from 441.7 million units in 2006, iSuppli predicts. By 2010, the company estimates that shipments of such phones will increase to 1 billion units.

 

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CARFAX Settles Class Actions

Agrees to Include Prominent Warning that its Reports May Not Be Complete

CARFAX Settles Class Actions...

Car buyers who purchased a CARFAX vehicle-history report before Oct. 27, 2006, would be entitled to additional, free reports or other benefits under a proposed settlement of a nationwide class-action lawsuit against the company.

The suit charged that CARFAX misled consumers into believing that its reports contain complete information about vehicle histories. The settlement provides that CARFAX must include a prominent warning in its marketing materials that its reports may not be complete.

Consumers can fill out an online claim form to be included in the settlement. Final court approval of the settlement is scheduled for April 27.

The proposed settlement would conclude nine cases alleging that the the Fairfax, Va., company violated states' consumer-protection laws "by not properly disclosing terms and conditions for, and limitations of, CARFAX Vehicle History Reports," according to a notice mailed to customers.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, consumers who bought CARFAX reports could get free or reduced-price CARFAX reports or they could choose to have CARFAX pay part of the cost of having cars inspected for signs of past problems.

The settlement covers all former CARFAX customers unless they opt out in writing by March 13. Those who accept the settlement would give up their right to sue CARFAX for past problems.

Kansas attorney Bernard Brown called the settlement "worse than no settlement at all" and said it is little more than a marketing tool for CARFAX. He said claimants should get cash instead of vouchers for additional CARFAX reports.

Other attorneys said the settlement might be the best consumers could hope for, especially since the company is governed by Virginia law, which is very hostile to class actions.

In agreeing to settle the case, CARFAX denied any wrongdoing.

Company "Overstated" Its Capabilities

One of the other attorneys suing the company was David A. McLaughlin of Tennessee. He said the company failed to disclose that it does not access records from more than 20 states, and the information consumers buy is often "incomplete, inaccurate and unreliable."

When he filed his lawsuit, McLaughlin says his investigation revealed that CARFAX overstated what it could do for consumers.

"The problem I had with CARFAX from the very beginning was that it claimed it could tell consumers if a vehicle had been in a major accident," he says. "But CARFAX doesn't say what a major accident is, and few accidents result in titling events (changing or branding the title).

He adds: "If you think of every policing agency, in every county in America, and all the municipalities in the country, and then add them up, how many of those agencies track accidents by vehicle identification numbers (VIN) numbers? How many enter that data into a computer or report it to CARFAX? Some police agencies are still writing reports by hand."

CARFAX acknowledges it only receives police reports from "selected states."

McLaughlin also says CARFAX doesn't receive accident information from insurance companies -- perhaps the biggest data pool of wrecked vehicles.

Would he rely on CARFAX when buying a used car?

"I would never close a deal based on a CARFAX report," he says. "Unless there's been a huge shift in how it gathers its data nationwide, I'd presume it has the same shortcomings it did when we started all this."

McLaughlin's 2003 suit charged that auto dealer Mid-South Motors purchased a 1995 BMW 525i from another wholesaler in 2002 after buying a CARFAX report that showed no "salvage" brands and no police accident or damage disclosure records.

A subsequent check of a database maintained by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) revealed that the BMW had been declared a "total loss" three separate times after accidents in New York, Florida and Georgia that were reflected in police accident records, according to court documents.

 

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Cigarette Companies Raised Nicotine Level, Researchers Find

Higher nicotine level raises habituation level

Cigarette Companies Raised Nicotine Level, Researchers Find...

A reanalysis major brand name cigarettes sold in Massachusetts from 1997 to 2005 has confirmed that manufacturers have steadily increased the levels of nicotine, the primary addictive agent in cigarettes.

The independent analysis, based on data submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) by the manufacturers, found that increases in smoke nicotine yield per cigarette averaged 1.6 percent each year, or about 11 percent over a seven-year period (1998-2005).

In addition to confirming the magnitude of the increase, first reported in August, 2006 by MDPH, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) extended the analysis to:

• Ascertain how manufacturers accomplished the increase -- not only by intensifying the concentration of nicotine in the tobacco but also by modifying several design features of cigarettes to increase the number of puffs per cigarette. The end result is a product that is potentially more addictive.

• Examine all market categories -- finding that smoke nicotine yields were increased in the cigarettes of each of the four major manufacturers and across all the major cigarette market categories (e.g. mentholated, non-mentholated, full-flavor, light, ultralight).

The analysis was performed by a research team from the Tobacco Control Research Program at HSPH led by program director Gregory Connolly, professor of the practice of public health, and Howard Koh, associate dean for public health practice at HSPH and a former commissioner of public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1997-2003). The other co-investigators were HSPH researchers Hillel R. Alpert and Geoffrey Ferris Wayne.

"Cigarettes are finely-tuned drug delivery devices, designed to perpetuate a tobacco pandemic," said Howard Koh, associate dean for public health practice at HSPH and a former commissioner of public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"Yet precise information about these products remains shrouded in secrecy, hidden from the public. Policy actions today requiring the tobacco industry to disclose critical information about nicotine and product design could protect the next generation from the tragedy of addiction."

"Our findings call into serious question whether the tobacco industry has changed at all in its pursuit of addicting smokers since signing the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 with the State Attorneys General," Connolly said.

"Our analysis shows that the companies have been subtly increasing the drug nicotine year by year in their cigarettes, without any warning to consumers, since the settlement. Scrutiny by the Attorneys General is imperative. Proposed federal legislation has been filed by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Ma.) that would address this abuse and bring the tobacco industry under the rules that regulate other manufacturers of drugs."

Beginning in 1997, Massachusetts regulations have required an annual report to be filed with the MDPH by all manufacturers of cigarettes sold in Massachusetts. The reported data include machine-based measures of nicotine yield as well as measures of cigarette design related to nicotine delivery.

The Tobacco Research Program at HSPH obtained from the MDPH a complete set of brand-specific data from 1997 to 2005 and analyzed trends in smoke nicotine yield.

The discovery of an 11 percent increase in nicotine content, said Connolly, confirms recent statements by the US District Court for the District of Columbia that manufacturers have the ability to manipulate addictive additives, and, he said, "it underscores the need for continued surveillance of nicotine delivery in products created by an unregulated industry."

In an opinion in US vs. Philip Morris USA et. al., Judge Gladys Kessler wrote that tobacco companies "can and do control the level of nicotine delivered in order to create and sustain addiction" and further, that the "goal to ensure that their products deliver sufficient nicotine to create and sustain addiction influences their selection and combination of design parameters."

Cigarette smoking causes an estimated 438,000 premature deaths (or about 1 of every 5 deaths) annually in the U.S., and approximately 900,000 persons become addicted to smoking each year.

In conclusion, according to the HSPH researchers, the extended analysis of MDPH data has demonstrated its potential to reveal undisclosed hazards to human health.

They suggest that MDPH amend its unique reporting requirements to include more information about cigarette and smokeless tobacco product design features that affect nicotine delivery -- as well as testing of a sample of brands for the actual delivery of nicotine to the body.

 



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Hackers Hit T.J.Maxx, Marshalls

Customer Data Exposed in Major Data Breach

Hackers Hit T.J.Maxx, Marshalls...

TJX Companies Inc., the corporate parent of retail chains T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, was hit with an "unauthorized intrusion" that exposed customers' credit and debit card data to the hacker, the company said today.

TJX, based in Framingham, Massachusetts, detected the hack in mid-December 2006. The company claimed it did not have a full estimate of the number of customers affected, or what the potential financial fallout may be.

The TJX breach may be responsible for warnings issued by Visa to banks throughout Massachusetts, as well as a wave of reissues of ATM and debit cards to customers.

The hack itself involved the compromise of credit and debit card data from sales at TJX store chains in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico through 2003, and again in the latter half of 2006. TJX said it is investigating the possibility that the breach may extend to its retail chains in the U.K. and Ireland.

According to a press release, TJX has identified "a limited number of credit card and debit card holders whose information was removed from its system," and is providing this information to credit card issuers.

TJX also informed the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies, as well as contacting IBM and General Dynamics to assist it with improving its security procedures and preventing further breaches.

The company has also set up a toll-free number (866-484-6978) for customers who have questions, and is also taking information on its Web site.

"We are deeply concerned about this event and the difficulties it may cause our customers," Ben Cammarata, chairman and acting CEO of TJX, said. "We want to assure our customers that this issue has the highest priority."

Analysts were dismissive of the long-term effects of the breach, saying it would not significantly hurt the company's earnings, and that their biggest concern was making sure customers' concerns were addressed.

Jefferies analyst Timothy Allen said that TJX should offer customers "personal phone calls" or "discount coupons" to ease their worries.

Long-Term Repercussions

Jeffries' advice aside, the effects of data breaches such as the TJX attack can often remain hidden for months, or never be detected at all.

Citibank customers are still puzzling over a massive data breach in March 2006 that caused thousands of Visa-branded Citibank cards to be canceled and reissued. Although the breach was traced to a third-party payment processor, neither Visa nor Citibank ever came completely clean with the details of the event.

Infamous payment processor CardSystems was at the center of a huge data breach that exposed the account information of 40 million Visa and MasterCard users, resulting in the loss of 260,000 users' data. CardSystems was eventually shut down and sold to Pay By Touch, a California-based biometrics payment processor.

Some speculated that the CardSystems breach may have been connected to a wave of unauthorized "spam charges" that flooded people's credit and debit cards in late 2005. No culprit was ever found.

Even if consumers act smartly by canceling their cards and putting fraud alerts on their accounts, it won't always solve the problem. Smart hackers will take stolen credit card information and encode it on blank cards, such as hotel key cards, and then use the "clone" cards to make purchases too small to be detected as fraudulent.

Debit cards are also much more vulnerable to fraud than credit cards. Federal law limits consumer liability for a fraudulent transaction to no more than $50, and many banks will waive any fraudulent charges instantly. There is no equivalent law for debit cards, however, and though banks will often negate fraudulent debit charges as well, it's no sure thing.

The end result is that consumers are often left completely in the dark when data breaches occur, wondering if they dodged a bullet, or if the inconvenience and frustration of fraud is simply waiting to hit them at a later date.

 

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Poor Americans Missing Billions in Earned-Income Tax Benefits

ACORN Offers Free Tax Service to Low-Income Families

Poor Americans Missing Billions in Earned-Income Benefits...

     
A new report finds that more than 3.8 million low-income working households nationwide may have missed out on the Earned Income Tax Credits they were entitled to.

The report, from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) also examines the prevalence of Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs) and the amount of money siphoned off through this predatory practice.

Research by the General Accounting Office (GAO) and IRS indicates that between 15 to 25 percent of households who have earned the EITC do not claim their credit. Based on a 15 percent unclaimed rate, low-wage working families did not cash in on more than $7 billion in EITC dollars.

For example, in Atlanta approximately 13,900 low-income working households missed out on over $28.5 million in EITC refunds to which they are entitled. The report also shows that approximately 34,900 EITC recipients -- 44% of the households in Atlanta who received the EITC -- paid for a RAL in 2005 in order to get their refund, costing them more than $4.5 million in RAL fees.

During the coming tax season, ACORN said it will conduct a grassroots door-to-door outreach campaign to help more families claim their EITC benefits.

ACORN will also open a free tax preparation center to enable families to keep more of the money they earned by not spending it on tax preparation and RALs. The tax service started this week at ACORN office nationwide through the end of tax season.

The ACORN Tax Center can electronically file current-year taxes and also provide fast refunds for those taxpayers who would like their refunds direct-deposited into their bank account, usually in as few as 10 days.

The Tax Center is part of the IRS's VITA program (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance). ACORN is operating 90 tax centers across the country.

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New MySpace Security Measures May Be Too Late

Lawsuits, Legal Challenges Against Murdoch Site Mount

New MySpace Security Measures May Be Too Late...

As lawsuits and legal challenges pile up, Rupert Murdoch's MySpace is rushing to install a tool that lets parents keep track of what their kids are up to on the popular social networking site.

In the latest lawsuit, four families claim their underage daughters were solicited online and sexually abused by adult MySpace users. The families -- from New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina -- have filed separate suits in Los Angeles Superior Court, their attorneys said.

"In our view, MySpace waited entirely too long to attempt to institute meaningful security measures that effectively increase the safety of their underage users," said one of the attorneys, Jason A. Itkin, of Arnold & Itkin, LLP.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has organized a coalition of 33 states pressing for better security on the popular site, was also skeptical.

"MySpace's 'Zephyr' software is a shortsighted and ineffective response to a towering danger to kids. Children can easily evade the software's purported protections by creating profiles from computers outside the home. This software does noting to stop predators or protect kids from inappropriate material," Blumenthal said.

"Predators will continue to prey on children using MySpace until the web site and its parent company implement real age verification. I and my fellow attorneys general will continue to demand that MySpace institute age verification, safeguarding kids against explicit sexual material and adults seeking sex. MySpace needs to stop making excuses and introduce age verification, as well as increase its minimum age to 16," Blumenthal added.

"Age verification for users 18 and older using publicly available data is easy and effective. MySpace can confirm the ages of younger users by requiring information from a parent or guardian," he said.

Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns the Fox television network, bought MySpace in 2005 for $650 million. It has long promised to upgrade security but so far has done little to protect the children it lures to the site.

"Blaming the families of abuse victims who were solicited online, as some have done, is a cynical excuse that ignores the fact that social networking sites can lead to heinous abuse by Internet predators. It is now clear that MySpace recognizes that serious security problems exist," said attorney Adam J. Loewy, of Barry & Loewy LLP,

The lawyers said the plaintiffs include a 15-year-old girl from Texas who was lured to a meeting, drugged and assaulted in 2006 by an adult MySpace user, who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Texas after pleading guilty to sexual assault.

The new security tool is codenamed "Zephyr" and it will alert parents to the username, age and location that their child lists on their personal MySpace pages, MySpace said. There's no word when the safeguards will be in place.

The tool doesn't let Mom or Dad see everything, for fear kids would ditch the service entirely and hook up with one of the many other competing sites. Thus, parents will not be able to see their kids' password-protected profiles or any communications they have with friends.

The key to Zephyr's effectiveness is that it will enable parents to determine whether their child is being truthful about his or her age.

"Many of our safety features are built around age and it's important that people honestly reflect their accurate age while on our site," said Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer.

Legal Troubles

MySpace is racing to catch up to a mounting number of lawsuits by private individuals and actions by state attorneys general.

The plaintiffs in the Los Angeles lawsuits include:

• A 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl, "Julie Doe II," who was lured to a meeting by an adult MySpace user, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted in 2006. The adult MySpace user is awaiting trial on 12 charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

• A 15-year-old Texas girl, "Julie Doe III," who was lured to a meeting, drugged and assaulted in 2006 by an adult MySpace user. Houston police officers and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents located the girl. The adult MySpace user later pled guilty to sexual assault and is serving a 10-year sentence in a Texas penitentiary.

• A 14-year-old New York girl, "Julie Doe IV," was lured to a meeting by an adult MySpace user, severely intoxicated with alcohol and illicit drugs forced upon her, and then sexually assaulted by the adult MySpace user and his adult friend. The men later were charged with felony sexual assault and/or felony rape by New York authorities. The friend of the adult MySpace user pled guilty and is now in a New York penitentiary. The adult MySpace user is awaiting trial.

• Two South Carolina sisters, 14-year-old "Julie Doe V" and 15-year-old "Julie Doe VI," who were lured to a meeting, severely intoxicated by alcohol and illicit drugs, and sexually assaulted and raped by two adult MySpace users. Both men were arrested by South Carolina authorities and are awaiting criminal prosecution.

 

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Verizon Cuts Off Northern New England

Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine Set Adrift

Verizon Cuts Off Northern New England...

January 18, 2007
Verizon is planning to say good-bye to Northern New England, selling off its 1.6 million phone lines in those states to FairPoint Communications, a Charlotte, N.C., company that currently has about 252,000 customers in rural areas of 18 states.

Verizon says the deal would enable it to concentrate on developing its wireless networks, shedding its "plain old telephone service" -- or POTS, as it's known in the telephone business -- and the billing, regulatory and maintenance headaches that accompany it.

Critics said the company was washing its hands of rural areas and noted that only 62 percent of Verizon's customers in the three states had access to DSL service.

In fact, FairPoint has a better record than Verizon in deploying DSL in rural areas. The company said that more than 80% of its customers have access to DSL, and 23% of those use the service.

Verizon is spending about $18 billion to build the nation's fastest fiber optics network in urban sectors of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and, with its British partner VodaFone, spending heavily to keep Verizon Wireless competitive.

Shortly after the FairPoint deal was announced, Verizon Wireless issued a press release touring its latest 29 new cell sites across Maine's Hancock, Knox, Oxford, Sagadahoc, Waldo, and York counties. In 2006 the company built and activated 100 new cell sites across the Pine Tree State.

In 2006, the company invested nearly $318 million in New England to stay ahead of growing demand for Verizon Wireless voice and data services, the company said.

"Reliable networks are not built overnight," commented Ken Dixon, New England president of Verizon Wireless. "Building 100 sites in one year, in one state, illustrates our strong focus and commitment to make the nation's most reliable wireless network even better."

The FairPoint deal would allow Verizon to transfer $1.7 billion worth of debt to the new company, a so-called "spin merger" that helps reduce the tax consequences of the sale.

FairPoint pledged that it would add about 600 jobs to the Verizon workforce, which currently totals about 3,000 in the three states.

Both Verizon and AT&T; are trying to move away from land-line telephone service in favor of wireless, Internet broadband and cable-style video. They have also been unloading their directories businesses and shedding overseas holdings.

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House Approves Cutting Student Loan Interest Rates

But Measure Faces Dim Prospects in the Senate

House Approves Cutting Student Loan Interest Rates...


The House passed a bill today that would cut interest rates in half for student loans, but the measure is expected to face a shaky outcome in the Senate and an even harder time in the White House.

H.R.5 passed by a 356-71 vote. It would incrementally trim the current student loan interest rate of 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent by 2011. The bill applies to the federally subsidized Stafford loan, which the government awards to about 5 million low income students annually.

The reduction would cost the government approximately $6 billion, which would be recouped through cuts in five subsidies to major lenders who underwrite the student loans.

Proponents of the bill laud its cost-saving potential. A recent study found that H.R.5 could potentially save student borrowers as much as $4,420 over the life of their loan.

Some Republicans in the House voted for the measure even though the official GOP line is that the bill is misdirected because it does nothing to address the actual cost of college. Republicans argue that the $6 billion recouped from lenders and banks should be used to bolster the federal Pell Grant program.

In a heated House Rules Committee meeting last night, a Republican minority went back and forth with Democrats over the practicality of H.R.5.

"This bill addresses neither of the most important factors, which are access and affordability," Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) said. "Not one additional student will be able to go to college because of this bill."

Republicans, who boosted the Pell Grant program under their reign, believe that continuing to fund higher Pell Grants, rather than encouraging students to increase their debt, would better address the problem.

"It's like a foregone conclusion that you can't get through college without student loans," McKeon said. "And that's scary."

Republicans and Democrats agreed that the real problem is the overwhelming increase in tuition, especially when juxtaposed with the rising salaries of college administrators.

According to a recent report by the Chronicle of Higher Education, many college presidents' salaries have soared in recent years -- many of them rocketing past the $1 million mark.

At a meeting last month, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who authored H.R.5, offered no solution to that problem but promised, "We're going to have some discussions."

The White House echoed the sentiments of the Republicans in the House and it's doubtful President George Bush will sign the bill.

"The Administration opposes H.R.5," according to a White House press release. "Reducing student loan interest rates would direct Federal subsidies to college graduates, not to students and their families who are struggling to meet current and future educational expenses. College graduates have higher lifetime earnings, and can already take advantage of flexible repayment options available under current law and reduce the effective interest rate they pay through the existing tax deduction for student loan interest."

The lenders and banks who will be faced with paying for the $6 billion difference warned the White House in a letter last week that should the bill become law, they would have to hike their fees to cover the lost subsidies.

"Cuts of this magnitude cannot be absorbed by the nation's loan providers without compromising the kinds of benefits and services now provided to college students and their families," the letter states.

The Democrats, who have pumped out five bills in about two weeks, started weighing on Republicans at last night's House Rules meeting which covered H.R.5 among other Democratic issues.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) called Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), "ethically challenged" for refusing to allow amendments to the Democrats' first six bills, which are being rushed.

The Democratic majority demanded he rescind his comments. Sessions ignored them and instead heralded the efforts of ex-Majority Leader, Tom Delay, who was indicted last year.

After minutes of bickering, Sessions finally agreed to have his comments struck from the official record.

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Tax Refund Loans Gouge Taxpayers

Return Engagement

Tax Refund Loans Gouge Taxpayers...


Some of America's most cash-strapped taxpayers -- those from low- and moderate-income families -- spent nearly $1 billion in the latest year recorded for what is almost always an unnecessary product: the so-called "refund anticipation loan" at income tax time.

With another tax season gearing up, consumer advocates at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) are warning taxpayers to steer clear of refund anticipation loans (RALs), one of the most avoidable tax-time expenses.

New figures reveal that RALs drained about $960 million in loan fees, plus over $100 million in other fees, from the wallets of nearly 9.6 million American taxpayers in 2005.

"Taxpayers can save themselves over a billion dollars by just saying no' to quick tax refund loans," says NCLC staff attorney Chi Chi Wu. "These loans take a chunk out of your hard earned tax refund, and they expose you to the risk of unmanageable debt if your refund doesn't arrive as expected."

RALs Examined

RALs are extremely high-cost bank loans secured by the taxpayer's expected refund -- loans that last about 7-14 days until the actual IRS refund repays the loan. That's the first indicator of just how unnecessary most RALs are: Most taxpayers could have their refund in two weeks or less even without the costly loan.

"Taxpayers who want quick refunds can get them in two weeks or less by using electronic filing and having refunds directly deposited into their own bank accounts," says Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for CFA, "That's a quick refund, and it's also free."

RALs cost from about $30 to over $125 in loan fees. Some tax preparers also charge a separate fee, often called an "application" or "document preparation" fee, of about $40. The effective annual interest rate (APR) for a RAL can range from about 40% to over 500%.

If application fees are charged and included in the calculation, the effective APRs range from about 57% to over 1,100%.

Consumer use of RALs dipped significantly in 2005, but remains at high levels. Using the most recent data available from the IRS, NCLC and CFA calculate that approximately 9.6 million taxpayers received RALs in the 2005 tax-filing season (for tax year 2004). For that year alone, about 1 in 13 tax returns involved a RAL.

Although high, these 9.6 million RALs represent a significant decline from the 12.4 million RALs reported for 2004 (for tax year 2003). The reasons for this decline are not certain, but may include increased public scrutiny around RALs, better consumer awareness, and improved data reporting requirements by IRS.

150% Interest

This year, a RAL for an average refund of around $2,500 will cost about $100 at some tax preparers, translating into an effective APR of 150%. However, H&R; Block has lowered the fee for RALs in that range by 40%, to $60.

Block has reported that these RALs bear an APR of 36%; however, that figure does not include the fee for the temporary "refund account" in its calculation, which if included about doubles the APR.

A RAL loan fee is in addition to tax preparation fees averaging $150 and, in some cases, an application fee of about $40. H&R; Block does not charge an application fee, but some other franchise offices of commercial chains, as well as independent tax preparers, may charge a fee. A RAL for $2,500 will bear an effective APR of about 200%, based on $100 RAL loan fee and $40 application fee.

Tax preparers and their bank partners also offer an "instant" same day RAL for an additional fee, from $20 to $55. In addition, the industry has been pitching "holiday" and "pay stub" RALs, which are made prior to the tax filing season, before taxpayers receive their IRS Form W-2s and can file their returns.

Pay stub RALs are made in January using the year-end pay stub information, while holiday RALs are made by tax preparers during November and December.

The National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Federation issued a report in November 2006 on these products.

Better Alternatives

Taxpayers tempted by RALs should considered cheaper and better alternatives. For example, both the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and AARP's TaxAide offer free tax preparation for low-income taxpayers. The IRS Free File program is available for taxpayers who earn $52,000 or less, and RALs are no longer marketed through that program (www.irs.gov).

Some of the free tax preparation programs can also help taxpayers open bank accounts, which allow them to take advantage of the speed of a direct-deposited refund using electronic filing.

This year the IRS is allowing taxpayers to electronically deposit their tax refunds in up to three accounts with Form 8888. Refunds can be split by depositing into both checking and savings accounts. H&R; Block has unveiled a new electronic debit-card based bank account in which customers can direct deposit refunds, a less expensive option than a RAL.

Risks of RALs

In addition to their high costs, RALs can be a risky proposition. A RAL must be repaid even if the taxpayer's refund is denied, is smaller than expected, or frozen (something that the National Taxpayer Advocate has noted happens to hundreds of thousands of taxpayers, particularly Earned Income Tax Credit recipients).

If the taxpayer cannot pay back the RAL, the lender may send the account to a debt collector. The unpaid RAL will also show up as a black mark on the taxpayer's credit record. If the taxpayer applies for a RAL or other refund financial product from a commercial preparer next year, she may find that her next year's refund gets grabbed to repay this year's unpaid RAL debt.

The California Attorney General's Office recently reached a settlement that required Jackson Hewitt to reform its procedures surrounding this form of debt collection, as well as with respect to other practices, and to pay $4 million in consumer refunds and $1 million in penalties and costs.

Information from tax returns will be shared with the lending bank when consumers apply for refund anticipation loans. As long as a taxpayer signs the right form, IRS rules permit tax return information to be shared with a third party.

The IRS held public hearings in April 2006 on proposed changes to its privacy rules but has not issued new rules for this tax season.

"Tax returns are a financial data goldmine for marketers," said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for Consumer Federation of America. "Look closely at every form that requires your signature to stop tax preparers from using your information for purposes other than filing the tax return."

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Feds Warn Consumers About Counterfeit Check Scams

Feds Warn Consumers About Counterfeit Check Scams...


Cashier's, or bank checks, are considered so safe and reliable many consider them to be as good as money. And that may be why a growing number of criminals are counterfeiting them, to ensnare unsuspecting victims in their schemes.

In response to these scams, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has issued an advisory, outlining ways consumers can avoid becoming victims of scams involving cashier's checks.

In most of these cases, individuals receive a cashier's check and are asked to deposit the check into their account, wait until funds become available and then wire some part of the funds from their account to a third party, often in a foreign country.

Although the amount of a cashier's check quickly becomes "available" for withdrawal by the consumer after the consumer deposits the check, these funds do not belong to the consumer if the check proves to be fraudulent. It may take weeks to discover that a cashier's check is fraudulent.

In the meantime, the consumer may have irrevocably wired the funds to a scam artist or otherwise used the fundsonly to find out later, when the fraud is detectedthat the consumer owes the bank the full amount of the cashier's check that had been deposited.

A cashier's check is an instrument issued and sold by a bank, and is a direct obligation of the bank. For decades, cashier's checks have been used as a trusted form of payment to consumers for goods and services.

There are a number of known scams involving cashier's checks, many involving an unexpected windfall.

In one, the victim is advised that he has won a foreign lottery and that the proceeds will be sent to him once the taxes or fees are paid. A cashier's check is provided to cover those charges, and the victim is asked to deposit the check, wait until it clears and then wire funds to cover the taxes and fees. In most cases, the wire transfer is directed to an account in a foreign bank.

Although funds represented by the cashier's check may be made available to the customer the next business day, and funds availability may be referred to as a check "clearing," funds availability is not a determination that the check is legitimate. Fraudulent checks can be very difficult to detect, and it may take several weeks for a fraudulent check to be returned to the customer's bank.

When the check is returned, the bank reverses the deposit and withdraws the funds from the customer's account. Wire transfers, however, represent an instantaneous and irreversible transfer of funds. If the individual has already wired money to a third party, those funds cannot be recovered by the bank.

While it can be very difficult for consumers to know if a cashier's check is fraudulent, the OCC guidance details a number of specific steps consumers can take to protect themselves, including these:

• Try to know the people with whom you do business. When possible, verify information about the buyer from an independent third party such as a telephone directory. Be cautious about accepting checks even a cashier's check from people that you do not know, especially since it may be difficult to pursue a remedy if the transaction goes wrong.

• When you use the Internet to sell goods or services, consider other options such as escrow services or online payment systems rather than payment by a cashier's check.

• If you do accept a cashier's check for payment, never accept a check for more than your selling price if you are expected to pay the excess to someone else. Ask yourself why the buyer would be willing to trust you, who may be a perfect stranger, with funds that properly belong to a third party.

• A cashier's check is less risky than other types of checks only if the item is genuine. If you can, ask for a cashier's check drawn on a bank with a branch in your area.

• If you want to find out whether a check is genuine, call or visit the bank on which the check is written. That bank will be in a better position to tell you whether the check is one they issued and is genuine.

• Know the difference between funds being available for withdrawal from your account and a check having finally cleared. Your bank may be required by law to make funds available to you even if the check has not yet cleared. However, it could take several weeks to know if the check will clear or not.

More Scam Alerts ...

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7UP Drops "All Natural" Claim

7UP Drops 'All Natural' Claim...


Cadbury-Schweppes says it will no longer market 7UP as "All Natural." Rather, the company says it will highlight ingredients "for which there is no debate" over whether they are natural, which will obviously exclude the controversial factory-made sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) will drop a planned lawsuit against the company now that the misleading "all natural" claims will be halted. CSPI notified Cadbury-Schweppes of the possibility of a lawsuit in May and has discussed labeling issues with the company off and on since then.

"We are pleased that Cadbury-Schweppes has fixed what was a flawed and deceptive marketing campaign and that this issue was resolved without our actually suing," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "We look forward to seeing exactly which words the company uses to describe its ingredients on labels and on marketing materials, but trust they won't imply that high-fructose corn syrup is 'natural.'"

High-fructose corn syrup is nutritionally similar to natural table sugar, which comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. But in to contrast to table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is made through a complex chemical industrial process in which corn starch molecules are enzymatically reassembled into glucose and fructose molecules.

CSPI's litigation unit has encouraged several major food companies, including Quaker, Frito-Lay, Procter & Gamble, Tropicana, and Pinnacle Foods, to halt deceptive labeling or marketing practices. KFC stopped using partially hydrogenated oils after being sued by CSPI, and Cadbury-Schweppes and other soda manufacturers avoided a CSPI-led lawsuit by agreeing to phase sugary sodas out of schools.

In coming weeks and months CSPI may file previously announced lawsuits against Coca-Cola and Nestl (over Enviga, a deceptively labeled green tea drink positioned as a weight-loss aid) and Kellogg and Viacom (for marketing junk foods to young children).



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Floaters in the Eye

The Healthy Geezer

Healthy Geezer is a new column. It is devoted to the health questions of "geezers," all of us lovable & quirky seniors who are wondering what is going on w...


The Healthy Geezer is a new column. It is devoted to the health questions of "geezers," all of us lovable and quirky seniors who are wondering what is going on with these bodies of ours. It is written by me, Fred Cicetti, a first-class geezer over 60 who's been writing about health issues for more years than I want to talk about. The column is in a question-and-answer format. If you want to ask a question, just write me at fredcicetti@gmail.com.

Okay, here's the first question:

Q. I've been noticing this thing in my eye. At first I thought it was an eyelash. Then I realized the thing was actually in my eye. One of my friends told me it's a "floater," and not to worry. What exactly is a "floater" and should I see a doctor?

A.To allay any fears you may have, I should tell you that floaters are usually nothing to worry about. I have them myself. More than 7 in 10 people experience floaters. Now for some biology.

The lens in the front of your eye focuses light on the retina in the back of your eye. The lens is like the one in a camera, and the retina is like film. The space between the lens and retina is filled with the "vitreous," a clear gel that helps to maintain the shape of the eye.

Floaters occur when the vitreous slowly shrinks over time. As the vitreous changes, it becomes stringy, and the strands can cast shadows on the retina. These strands are the floaters. They can look like specks, filaments, rings, dots, cobwebs or other shapes. Floaters are the most vivid when you are looking at the sky or a white surface such as a ceiling. They move as your eyes move and seem to dart away when you try to look at them directly.

In most cases, floaters are just annoying. When you discover them, they are very distracting. But, in time, they usually settle below the line of sight. Most people who have visible floaters gradually develop the ability to make them "disappear" by ignoring them.

When people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may pull away from the retina, causing "posterior vitreous detachment." It is a common cause of floaters, and it is more likely in people who are diabetics, nearsighted, had eye surgery, or suffered inflammation inside the eye.

These vitreous detachments are often accompanied by light flashes. The flashes can be a warning sign of a detached retina. Flashes are also caused by head trauma that makes you "see stars." Sometimes light flashes appear to be little lightning bolts or waves. This type of flash is usually caused by a blood-vessel spasm in the brain, which is called a migraine. These flashes can happen without a headache and they are called an "ophthalmic migraine."

If your floaters are just bothersome, eye doctors will tell you to ignore them. In rare cases, a bunch of floaters can hamper sight. Then a "vitrectomy" may be necessary. A vitrectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the vitreous gel with its floaters. A salt solution replaces the vitreous. The vitreous is mostly water, so patients who undergo the procedure don't notice a difference. However, this is a risky procedure, so most eye surgeons won't recommend it unless the floaters are a major impediment.

Many new floaters can sometimes appear suddenly. When this happens, it usually is not sight-threatening and requires no treatment. However, a sudden increase in floaters could mean that a part of the retina has pulled away from its normal position at the back wall of the eye. A detached retina is a serious condition and demands emergency treatment to prevent permanent impairment or even blindness.

What should you do when you notice your first floater? It's a good time to get that eye examination you've been putting off.

All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti



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Pacifiers May Reduce SIDS Risk

But Infants Should Be Weaned from Them by Age 2

Contrary to popular belief, there are some positive effects that result from sucking on pacifiers," says Jane Soxman, DDS, author of the study and Diplomat...

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Dieting In America At All Time Low

Despite the growing evidence that America is packing on the pounds and the often-voiced health concerns about obesity, research suggests Americans aren't a...


Despite the growing evidence that America is packing on the pounds and the often-voiced health concerns about obesity, research suggests Americans aren't all that concerned.

In fact, a new report by the NPD Group shows dieting in the U.S. to be at an all-time low.

According to the group's 21st annual "Eating Patterns in America" report, even with those extra pounds, dieting has fallen out of favor, driven in large part by aging Baby Boomers, who are less likely than previous generations to follow a doctor-recommended diet.

While 60% of adults still say they would like to lose 20 pounds, NPD's research reveals that the percent of adults on a diet last year was at the lowest level in at least 16 years.

In 1990, a typical week throughout the year found that 35 percent of women and 26 percent of men were on a diet. Last year, those levels dropped to 26 percent of women and 19 percent of men on some kind of diet.

"Dieting is at an all-time low, despite more Americans being overweight than ever before," said Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group and author of its 21st Annual Eating Patterns in America report.

NPD data shows that as Americans grow older, they are more likely to diet. The peak years for dieting are 55-64, which many Baby Boomers are now entering. However, individuals entering into this age group are less likely to be following a doctor supervised diet than previous generations. They are still using diets, but diets of their choice rather than one recommended or supervised by a doctor.

"It is not unusual for this Baby Boomer generation to set their own rules as to how they deal with dieting issues," Balzer said. "This is a time in life where health issues begin to creep into our lives and in the past, doctors provided advice that was followed on changing eating habits. It appears people in this age group today are either not getting -- or not listening to -- their doctor's advice. In fact, the number one diet in America is one that is called 'my own.'"

NPD Group compiles the annual report for the food and beverage industry, which uses it to to examine how Americans are really eating and drinking.

The report takes an in-depth look at the in-home and away-from-home food and beverage consumption habits, including trends in diet and nutrition, and concerns about health and food safety.



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Zombie Computers Clog the Web with Spam

What's the Source of All That Spam? It Could Be You

Email inboxes are being clogged with what seems like a huge increase in unwanted spam messages. Consumers may wonder where all these messages could be comi...

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"National Security Letters" Used To Get Examine Americans' Financial Records

White House Defends Practice, Critics Call It Illegal

National Security Letters Used To Get Examine Americans' Financial Records...


Besides wiretapping civilians' phones and going through Americans' mail, now the Pentagon and CIA can demand access to your bank transactions and credit reports at any time, in the name of "national security."

The New York Times reported on January 14th that both agencies were using powers granted them by the PATRIOT Act to request investigations into financial transactions or activities they deem "suspicious."

Both agencies are barred by law from any domestic law enforcement activity.

Vice-President Dick Cheney defended the practice as necessary to fight terrorism, but critics said the letters violate civil liberties and could be used to keep tabs on individuals with no connections to terrorist groups.

Caroline Frederickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) legislative office in Washington, said the practice "raises a host of questions that need to be answered."

"What is the legal basis for the government's action?" Fredrickson asked in a statement. "What safeguards are in place to protect basic privacy rights? How often have the Pentagon and CIA used this claimed authority ... and was compliance truly "voluntary" or effectively coerced?"

Bank Secrecy

The traditional basis for government investigation of financial transactions was to stop money laundering for organized crime.

In 1970, the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) gave the Treasury Department the power to demand "suspicious activity reports" on individuals from financial institutions.

No targeted individual is ever aware that the reports are created or distributed, and traditionally the reports are provided with very little oversight.

The information is shared across multiple government agencies, all of which participate in the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).

The passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001 gave FinCEN even more power to enforce the BSA, leading critics to charge that the Act was being used to spy on innocent citizens with no real justification, and that customers with Arabic names or ethnic origins were being unfairly targeted as possible terrorists.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the IRS for not providing adequate security protection for personal information it provides to FinCEN. According to the GAO report, the IRS could access personal identifying information such as names and Social Security numbers, with little or no security protection.

Turf War

Although use of the BSA to generate national security letters is legal, the actions of the Pentagon and the CIA are more questionable.

ABC News reported that the FBI continues to issue the vast majority of these letters, with the CIA doing so in much more limited circumstances.

Although none of the defense agencies involved would comment about the number of letters they issue, the Times reported that the Defense Department may have issued letters for as many as 500 investigations in the last few years.

While the Pentagon and CIA may be seen as horning in on the traditional turf of the FBI, Vice President Cheney, a staunch supporter of centralizing intelligence efforts through military agencies, claimed that "the Department of Defense has a legitimate authority in this area."

In an interview on FOX News on Jan. 14th, Cheney said, "This is an authority that goes back three or four decades ... It's a perfectly legitimate activity. There's nothing wrong with it or illegal. It doesn't violate people's civil rights."

Cheney's assurances aside, many observers were troubled by what seems to be a usurpation of domestic investigatory power by the military, amounting to even more surveillance of Americans without judicial oversight.

Law professor Daniel Solove analyzed the various statutes that empower the FBI to issue national security letters, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Solove believed that the letters issued by the Pentagon and the CIA might not be "true" national security letters, but that financial firms would be intimidated enough to comply regardless.

"[I]t would be quite problematic if the letters were issued under the guise of an NSL and failed to indicate that cooperation was voluntary," Solove said on his blog. "On the facts given, we have no idea what these particular letters said or looked like."

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AT&T Trashes Cingular Brand

Dilberts Take the Wheel

AT&T Trashes Cingular Brand...

What's in a name? If the name is AT&T, a lot of corporate ego, that's what.

Cingular Wireless, which used to be called Cellular One, is now owned by AT&T;, which has been called a lot of things, and is getting a new name -- "Wireless from AT&T.;" That's not to be confused with the old AT&T; Wireless service that was purchased by Cingular back in 2004.

Confused? Wait, it gets worse.

It's all a result of the merger and acquisition game -- AT&T; has owned part of Cingular since being acquired by co-parent company SBC Communications. Now AT&T; has just merged with Cingular's other parent, BellSouth.

The AT&T; name just seems to stick with this crowd. When SBC, formerly Southwestern Bell, bought AT&T; a few years ago, it planned to continue calling itself SBC. But after sleeping on it a few nights, inspiration struck and SBC changed its name to -- you guessed it -- AT&T.;

Like a black hole, AT&T; goes around sucking other telephone companies into its maw and renaming them. Let's see, there was Ameritech, Pacific Telesis, SNET and probably a few others we've forgotten about.

Never mind that SBC and BellSouth during their few decades of freedom from AT&T; spent an estimated $4 billion -- that's $4 billion -- building the Cingular brand, which is regarded by everyone except aging white men who work for AT&T; as a much cooler name than AT&T.; After all, didn't AT&T; Wireless have a reputation for having a clunky network and poor customer service?

Didn't Cingular just do a deal with Apple to provide the network for the iPhone? Didn't Cingular ingratiate itself with every teen-ager in the Western world by sponsoring "American Idol" and counting all those votes for Bucky, Kellie, Taylor and Katharine?

Haven't expensive branding consultant laughed aloud at the idea of trashing a world-class brand like Cingular in favor of a stodgy old scandal-ridden 1970s-sounding moniker like AT&T;?

Doesn't matter.

Starting Monday, Cingular stores will start changing their signs, stationery and uniforms; new ads will start appearing with AT&T;'s blue-globe-of-death logo instead of Cingular's cheery Big Orange motif.

The rationable offered by AT&T;'s dilberts is that consumers will now flock to AT&T; stores to buy more than just cell phones. Oh yes, they'll also be in hot pursuit of high-speed Interent, local telephone service and all those other cutting-edge AT&T; services.

Will it happen? Stay on the line to find out.

 

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Retailers Fret Over "Swipeless" Credit Cards

Retailers Fret Over 'Swipeless' Credit Cards...


It was a lot of hype and glory at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, with mobile phones, digital music players, and souped-up hard drives struggling to be noticed above the iPhone din.

But largely overlooked were new developments in the credit card interchange fee struggle between merchants and the credit card companies, not to mention retailers' concerns over new "swipeless" credit/debit card technology.

At the "Photography Fights Back" retailer panel session, photo store owner Mitch Goldstone dissected the fees business owners have to pay for credit card transactions.

Goldstone blasted the system as antiquated and costly to merchants.

"It's no coincidence that U.S. consumers pay the highest rates as they are the most active card users," Goldstone said.

"It made sense in the 60s, 70s and maybe even the 80s when paper transactions and human interactions and approvals were the norm. Today, the same transactions are approved and funds delivered within seconds, therefore there is no need or rationale for the fee," he said.

Goldstone is one of the plaintiffs in lawsuits filed by merchant associations challenging the interchange fees levied by Visa, MasterCard and their partner banks.

The costs for these transactions are so high that any profit the merchant makes is often wiped out, particularly for small items such as food and drinks.

Merchants say they are often forced to raise prices on all goods as a result, even when customers pay with cash and don't incur the fees.

In a recent holiday ad blitz, the Merchants' Payment Coalition derided credit card companies for the "hidden tax" that interchange fees levy on retailers and consumers, comparing them to the Grinch when it came to "stealing Christmas."

"I grew up believing that if anyone stole Christmas it was the Grinch," said one radio ad."But it turns out the credit card companies stole Christmas by taking a bite out of every present you bought with their cards."

No Swipe, No Profit?

Another development at CES that may give merchants cause for concern was Visa's announcement of a mobile payment platform that will enable shoppers to use their cell phones as credit cards.

The platform, developed in tandem with Nokia, would enable consumers to swipe cell phones enabled with a special microchip over a reader, then process their payments by pushing a button.

Visa advertised the new platform as the latest in its "contactless" payments initiative, wherein shoppers would use cards or other items to make credit purchases without "swiping" their cards or signing receipts.

Merchants are concerned about contactless payment technology, for fear that it would encourage "micropayments" -- buying small goods with credit cards. They say the transaction fees would erase any profit they would otherwise make on small sales.

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Suit Charges Nothing Natural About "All Natural" Capri Sun

Not much fruit in what seems to be fruit juice, suit claims

Suit Charges Nothing Natural About ...

Kraft Foods, the maker of Capri Sun -- foil pouches filled with a solution of water, high-fructose corn syrup, and small amounts of juice -- is being sued by a Florida woman for deceptively marketing the product as "All Natural."

The suit contends that the company's deceptive marketing tricks consumers into thinking the product is healthier than it actually is, perhaps encouraging some people to confuse the almost juice-less drink with real fruit juice.

Though high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is no more harmful than other sugars, it is a plainly man-made ingredient, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which, alongside the Florida law firm of Varnell & Warwick, is representing the plaintiff in the class action suit.

"When I saw 'All Natural' on the label, that sounded healthier than soda," said Linda Rex, a Boynton Beach, Fla., grandmother and the plaintiff in the suit, who purchased Capri Sun for a young relative visiting from Ireland. "But when I got home and got out my glasses, I threw it in the garbage when I realized it contained high-fructose corn syrup and was nearly identical to soda."

It may sound like it comes from corn in the same way sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, but HFCS is created by a complex industrial process performed in refineries using centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns, backed-bed reactors and other high-tech equipment. Starch is extracted from corn and then converted by acids or enzymes to glucose. Then some of the glucose is further converted by enzymes into fructose.

HFCS has only been widely used in food since the 1980s. CSPI says that while the glucose and fructose in HFCS are identical to naturally occurring glucose and fructose, the fact that chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in their production disqualifies them from being called natural. For instance, while a scientist might be able to produce sugar by rearranging the molecules of any number of things that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it clearly wouldn't be "natural" sugar.

"Though Capri Sun claims to be 'All Natural,' its main flavoring would more accurately be called Fresh from the Factory,'" said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.

"Let's put it this way: Unless you and your chemist friends are prepared to undertake a little Manhattan Project in your kitchen, you won't be brewing any high-fructose corn syrup from scratch anytime soon. How typical of a tobacco company, though, to call something like HFCS 'All Natural.'"

Kraft's parent company, Altria Group, also owns Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Basic, and Parliament brand cigarettes. Altria soon may seek to spin off Kraft, according to press reports.

Capri Sun is typically sold in boxes of 10 foil pouches. Both the boxes and the pouches use the words "All Natural," but only the boxes disclose the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in the fine print of the ingredients list. Kraft also makes Capri Sun "All Natural Fruit Rolls," which similarly contain HFCS.

The suit, filed in state court in Palm Beach County alleges that the "All Natural" claims are in direct violation of that state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, and asks the court to order Kraft to drop the false statements.

This isn't the first time CSPI has challenged a food manufacturer for passing off HFCS as "all natural." In May, CSPI notified soda-giant Cadbury Schweppes that it would file a lawsuit against the company for rebranding 7UP as "100% Natural," despite the fact that it includes the factory-made sweetener.

CSPI agreed to a request from Cadbury to discuss settlement possibilities before a lawsuit is filed. Those discussions are continuing, but CSPI is likely to sue if the company doesn't agree to changes in the near future.

Also, several years ago CSPI filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration about an "all natural" product with artificial ingredients -- a line of Ben & Jerry's ice creams -- but the agency yawningly responded that it had "other priorities."

"It's a shame that a major company like Kraft tries to deceive consumers on food labels, and it's a greater shame still that the FDA lets them get away with it," said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. "We look forward to hearing Kraft's lawyers defend their company's behavior in court."

 



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Transmission Failures Plague BMW Owners

Ultimate driving machines, but not in reverse

BMW owners faces thousands of dollars in transmission repair bills while the highly profitable automaker refuses to accept any responsibility for the mount...

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Judge Rules Against State Farm in Katrina Case

Gulf Coast property owners who lost nearly everything during Hurricane Katrina 16 months ago have won a victory in court. A U.S. District Judge has sided w...


Gulf Coast property owners who lost nearly everything during Hurricane Katrina 16 months ago have won a victory in court. A U.S. District Judge has sided with a property owner, who sued his insurance company over its refusal to pay damage claims.

Judge L.T. Senter, Jr. ordered State Farm Fire & Casualty to pay $223,292 in damages to a Biloxi couple, who suffered the loss of their home in the devastating storm. The judge declined to award punitive damages in the case, but said the jury may choose to do so.

In an unusual move, the judge issued a directed verdict from the bench, then ordered a recess. He sent the jury to the jury room to begin deliberating punitive damages.

Norman and Genevieve Broussard say they lost their home when a tornado spawned by the massive hurricane slammed into it, leaving only a concrete slab.

The insurance company refused to pay, saying the home was destroyed by Katrina's storm surge, and that the policy did not cover water damage.

Attorneys for the property owners accused State Farm of breaching their contract, trying to "chisel" their way out of legitimate obligations. In addition to covering the replacement cost of their home, the plaintiffs are also seeking $5 million in punitive damages.

"We are surprised and disappointed by the court's ruling," said State Farm spokesman Phil Supple. "The expert testimony supported a different result. After the conclusion of this case, we will evaluate our next steps in this lawsuit."

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House Votes to Allow Stem Cell Research

But Support Lacking in the Senate and White House

House Votes to Allow Stem Cell Research...

The House today moved one step closer to allowing federally funded stem cell research, potentially yielding cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases as well as many other disorders and traumas.

 
 

Stem cell research has been under fire from anti-abortion forces and the Bush administration because it requires the termination of embryos that are a byproduct of in vitro fertilization.

House Democrats argue that the passage of their bill, H.R. 3, could potentially save many more lives than the number of embryos that would be used for the research.

"We have a moral obligation to save the lives of the 100 million Americans whose diseases could be cured by stem cell research," Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said during today's debates.

The measure would allow the use of "excess" stem cells supplied by fertility clinics. According to the text of the bill, the embryos used in research would only be used if "it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded."

However, representatives who apposed H.R.3 also claimed that stem cell research can be performed from stem cells found in adult bone marrow and other parts of the body. But scientists salivate for the chance to use embryonic stem cells because it is generally believed that those stem cells are far more effective and can be used more broadly.

Despite the bipartisan 253-172 vote in support of the bill in the House, it's not likely to become law.

President Bush vetoed a similar bill in July 2006 and initially made most embryonic stem cell research illegal in 2001. It's not likely there are enough votes to override a veto this year and the closely-divided Senate is unlikely to pass a similar measure.

"The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 3, which would use Federal taxpayer dollars to support and encourage the destruction of human life for research," according to a White House statement released this morning.

Some Republicans are beginning to stray from the party line.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a normally strict conservative, said, "I have voted 100 percent Pro-Life except for two stem cell issues ... If we can use this research to save more lives, especially when the embryos are being discarded as trash, I can't see any reason why this research can't be performed."



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FreeCreditReport.com Can Get Expensive

Opt-out credit reports can run up big bills quickly

FreeCreditReport.com Can Get Expensive...

At the beginning of a new year, many consumers check their credit reports, taking advantage of the federal law that allows them once a year to access reports from all three credit reporting agencies at no charge, using www.annualcreditreport.com.

However, it's not always all that easy.

Many consumers seeking their free credit report apparently go instead to a commercial service -- FreeCreditReport.com, which is currently advertising on TV with youth-oriented commercials.

Despite its name, the credit monitoring service which comes with the credit report is not actually free, as Martin, of Hollywood, Florida, discovered late last year.

"I went to check out the freecreditreport.com site," Martin told ConsumerAffairs.com. There was supposed to be no charge; I am still being charged by Freecreditreport. My bank account is totally screwed up and overdrawn."

Fib, a recent immigrant to the U.S. living in San Francisco is a good example of a confused consumer. He says he went to FreeCreditReport.com from Edmunds.com, where he was researching an automobile purchase.

"Being very new to the Americans' credit history checking, I thought that free credit report is allowed by government once in 12 months. I signed up and thought I was signing up for this FREE credit report which I see each time I login. When billing comes, my credit card was charged for several months."

Opt out

Connie, a consumer in Woodbury, Minnesota, said she was also tricked into signing up for the not-so-free service, and faults the company for using "a deceptive method" to sign up customers. The problem, she says, could be resolved by a few simple changes on the FreeCreditReport.com Web site.

"It is an opt-out set-up so that if you request the free report and you fail to call and opt out before the 30 day free trial ends, you are stuck with the service until you do cancel," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I told them they could just as easily set up their website to be an opt in process so a consumer purposefully makes the decision to sign up for the service or not.

"Their kind of deceptive service depends upon customers like me who missed the information that was buried in the material prior to asking for the free report. I guess in the end, nothing is never really free...you end up paying one way or another."

Responding to criticism, FreeCreditReport.com says it does its best to make a clear distinction between its commercial service and the government's free credit report program.

It does provide a report at no charge, but it's up to the consumer to take a proactive step to avoid being charged for its monitoring service a practice known as "negative option" marketing.

"When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple Advantage Credit Monitoring," the company states in a prominent position on its Web site. "If you don't cancel your membership within the 30-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership.

Long history

The company is a subsidiary of Experian, one of the three credit reporting agencies. It was established in 1995, long before Congress enacted the law allowing for a free credit report each year.

In August 2005, Experian settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceptively marketed 'free credit reports' by not adequately disclosing that consumers automatically would be signed up for a credit report monitoring service and charged $79.95 if they didn't cancel within 30 days, in violation of federal law.

That case involved Consumerinfo.com, Inc., doing business as Experian Consumer Direct, another subsidiary of Experian.

 

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Simple Blood Test Might Warn Heart Attack & Stroke Victims

Victims usually have little or no warning

Simple Blood Test Might Warn Heart Attack & Stroke Victims...

Most victims of heart attack or stroke have little or no warning before they suffer a potentially fatal attack. But researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association say a simple blood test might identify those likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke.

The research team says it linked the risk to the presence of a biomarker called NT-proBNP in the blood.

Patients with the highest level of the substance were up to eight times more likely to die or experience serious heart-related illness than those with the lowest levels of NT-proBNP.

Patients with the highest levels of NT-proBNP tended to be older and had other high risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They were also more likely to be on strong medication such as beta-blockers and statins, according to the study.

NT-proBNP stands for N-terminal prohormone Brain-type Natriuretic Peptide. It has previously been identified as a biomarker for heart failure, but this study has found it to be a predictor of other, serious cardiac-related illness.

Coronary Heart Disease is the single leading cause of death among Americans, according to the American Heart Association. One in five deaths is caused by CHD. More than one million heart attacks are reported every year.

 



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FTC Charges Express Consolidation Misleads Consumers

Debt consolidation doesn't do much for consumers, agency charges

FTC Charges Express Consolidation Misleads Consumers...

A nationwide debt consolidation business violated federal law by misleading and illegally telemarketing millions of consumers, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The company operates under the names Express Consolidation, Express Consolidation Inc., and Consumer Credit Consolidation Inc.

According to the FTC's complaint, the scheme, which bills itself as "America's Premier Debt Consolidation Company" is violating the FTC Act and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), led by a Florida attorney who is using a sham nonprofit company to violate telemarketing rules that exempt legitimate nonprofit entities.

According to the complaint, the defendants have violated the FTC Act and the TSR by falsely claiming:

• that they are a nonprofit entity;
•that the only cost for their services is a monthly administrative fee that is less than $49 and/or that there is no application fee;
•that their services will result in estimated savings of a specified amount, typically several thousand dollars; and
•that their services will reduce the consumer's monthly payment or total debt, or will improve their credit rating.

In fact, the complaint states, in addition to a monthly administrative fee, the defendants charge a fee equal to the monthly payment, which is collected from the consumer's first payment; they overstate the estimated savings, if any; their services do not necessarily reduce the consumer's monthly payment or total debt; and they do not provide any service to improve, or prevent deterioration of, a customer's credit record, history, or rating.

The complaint contends that the defendants also violated the TSR by failing to disclose the program's total costs, and by telling consumers that certain payments are refundable without disclosing all the limitations of the program's refund policy.

The defendants' other alleged TSR violations are calling telephone numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry, calling consumers who have stated they do not wish to receive such calls from the defendants, failing to pay the fee to access the Registry, and "abandoning calls."

According to the complaint, the defendants have used computerized telemarketing services for "voice broadcasting," the delivery of recorded messages to telephone answering machines and voice mail services. The TSR requires that such calls answered by a person be connected to a live representative within two seconds.

This restriction on abandoning calls by hanging up or playing a recording when someone answers applies to calls selling goods or services, and calls for charitable contributions.

As noted in the complaint, one telemarketer the defendants used is The Broadcast Team (TBT). TBT was sued by the U. S. Department of Justice in December 2005 at the FTC's request for TSR violations. According to the complaint, TBT caused almost 11 million abandoned calls on the defendants' behalf.

Urging consumers to contact the defendants, one recorded message delivered to answering machines stated, "We are a nonprofit agency that can consolidate your credit cards, lower your monthly payments dramatically, and reduce your interest rates down to as low as 1.5 percent."

The defendants also use mail and Web sites -- www.expressconsolidation.org and www.expressconsolidation.com -- to get consumers to contact them, the complaint alleges. Once consumers provide information about their debts, defendants' agents give consumers a specific monthly payment they would have to make to cover payments to creditors and the program's fee. These total monthly payments are typically several hundred dollars.

Besides the companies, the defendants include attorney Randall L. Leshin, Randall L. Leshin, P.A., and Maureen A. Gaviola.

 

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Toyota Agrees to Sludge Settlement for Consumers

Class Action Suit Brings Relief to 3.5 Million Toyota, Lexus Owners

The agreement will allow consumers whose claims have been denied by Toyota to submit those claims to a third-party mediator at no cost for binding arbitrat...

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BlueHippo Sounds Tempting? Read This First

There are better ways to get an inexpensive computer

BlueHippo lures consumers with its lack of a credit check and "guaranteed approval." However, there are other, fiscally superior, options that also do not ...

BlueHippo lures thousands of consumers with its lack of a credit check and "guaranteed approval." However, there are other, fiscally superior, options that also do not require a credit check.

For about $500 to $600 at any number of reputable retailers, mail-order and Internet outlets, you can get a complete computer package with a monitor and printer. Individuals will find it useful and it's a necessity for families with children. A computer is an essential research tool for school and for such crucial tasks as finding a job.

BlueHippo sells computers to people who have bad credit by putting them on a layaway plan. The consumer does not actually get the computer until they have paid nearly the full value of the machine. Even after the consumer finally gets the computer, BlueHippo continues charging for it.

It doesn't have to be this way. Instead of doing BlueHippo's $2,000 layaway plan, you could just as easily get a computer by doing your own layaway plan.

If you need a new computer but have credit problems, layaway is a great option. To do it, open a new checking account at your bank, which most banks will do for free or very little. Then, every week, instead of giving BlueHippo $40, deposit $40 into that account. Most banks will even automatically make those deposits for you from another account if you want.

After just four months there will be $640 plus whatever interest may have accrued. That should be plenty to buy a new basic computer package.

If you're on a tight budget, you may also want to consider buying a used or refurbished computer. There are lots of used computers on websites such as Craigslist.org. You can find excellent buys at Dell's online outlet.

Many local computer stores will also sell used computers and can usually provide good advice based on the consumer's needs. Besides Dell, Newegg.com, CDW.com and Overstock.com are good sources for refurbished or overstocked computers.

Once you have saved enough money, do as much research as possible. See what other consumers are saying about various manufacturers on our computer complaint page. Also be sure to shop around to see what the going rates for certain specifications are.

Here are a few guidelines on what to look for in a personal computer (PC):

1. If you need a computer to take out of the home, then get a laptop. If not, get a desktop. Desktops are cheaper, faster and easier to fix and to upgrade.

2. If you're on a budget you probably should avoid Apple computers since they are generally far more expensive than personal computers that run on Windows software. The Apple warranty is also slim to non-existent in many cases.

3. When buying a PC with an Intel processor, make sure it has at least a Pentium 4, Centrino or Celeron processor. If it has an AMD processor make sure it is at least an Athlon XP. Don't be sold by processor speed. More megahertz does not mean more speed. For example, a Pentium 3 with more megahertz than a Pentium 4 will not be perceptibly faster.

4. A computer should have at least 256 Megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM). That's a minimum, most of today's programs run better with 512 MB of RAM. Adding RAM is by far the cheapest way to make a computer run more efficiently and thus, faster. Basically, a computer can't have too much.

5. Computers must have an updated operating system to run many of today's programs. So make sure the PC is utilizing any version of Windows XP because Microsoft no longer supports its older operating systems. Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Vista, which the company hopes to release in late January, is not necessary. Only the highest-end computers will take advantage of Vista's capabilities. For most computers, it will slow them down because it requires about double the RAM of XP.

6. A computer needs a pretty spacious hard drive. Like RAM, this is a fairly inexpensive way to keep the computer running efficiently. Consumers should avoid a computer with less than 40 gigabytes of hard drive space.

7. The cheapest monitor is usually the best one for the price. Standard cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors -- basically the big cumbersome ones -- have an excellent picture, are cheap and have long lives. They may be heavy, but a CRT won't weigh down your checkbook like a new liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor will.

8. For word processing, any version of Microsoft Word 2002 or newer should be adequate. Better yet, don't buy your word processing and spreadsheet progams. Google now offers free online word processing and spreadsheets. (Go to More Google Products" and choose "Docs & Spreadsheets"). You can buy Star Office online for about $70. It's comparable to Microsoft's products and a lot cheaper.

The computer market is as fluid as any, but with the above specifications, a computer should be able to perform basic tasks for years. There's no need to go deep into debt by paying more for less to the BlueHippos of the world.

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The BlueHippo Foundation -- What Has It Accomplished?

Evidence suggests that foundation hasn't done much

The BlueHippo Foundation -- What Has It Accomplished?...

While BlueHippo has profited handsomely from charging poor Americans top dollar for cheap products, the company's nonprofit arm, the BlueHippo Foundation, has touted all the great things it is doing to help close the gap of today's "digital divide" and to help the same people who fall victim to company's policies.

Joseph Rensin, BlueHippo's founder and CEO started the BlueHippo Foundation in May 2006 to "help brighten the futures and fortunes of America's children through improved financial literacy and a narrowing of the digital divide," according to the foundation's website.

BlueHippo has released a handful of press releases gloating about the scholarships it offers and about the foundation's "partnership" with the Boys and Girls Club of America. But specifics on actual donations are vague. It's also not clear whether the foundation is an actual 501(c)(3) nonprofit and if it is, its financial records will not be available to the public until at least June 2007.

The BlueHippo Foundation website, which is riddled with grammatical errors, claims two times that the company has a partnership with The Boys and Girls Club of America and proudly displays the club's logo.

"Through a newly formed partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America, the BlueHippo Foundation is helping to narrow the America's digital divide [sic] by donating computers and equipment to Clubs in areas where access to advanced technologies may not be readily available," the website states.

A letter from BlueHippo CEO Rensin that appears on the website mentions the partnership.

But Brian Hill, a spokesman for the Boys and Girls Club of America said he had never heard of the BlueHippo Foundation.

"We don't currently have a national relationship with BlueHippo," Hill said.

"They probably made a few donations to some local Boys and Girls Clubs, put our logo on their website and are now claiming to have a partnership," Hill said after looking at the foundation's website. "We're going to have to get them to update their site."

Hill was right. Although BlueHippo vowed to engage in a variety of philanthropic activities "over the coming months," according to a press release, the BlueHippo Foundation has made only two donations to local Boy and Girls Clubs over more than six months.

Although the lengthy press releases are vague on any details regarding any actual donations, through research, ConsumerAffairs.com determined that to this day, the BlueHippo Foundation has donated a total of seven computers. Assuming the computers are a little nicer than the ones the company sells, the BlueHippo Foundation has donated approximately $6,000 worth of computer equipment.

The first donation, on July 27, 2006, was "the creation of three new computer labs for area chapters of the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of America," according to the lead in a press release.

Deeper in the correlating press release, one discovers that the computer labs actually already existed. The press release gives almost no specifics on the donation or what Boys and Girls Clubs actually received the donation.

ConsumerAffairs.com called all the D.C.-area Boys and Girls Clubs and determined that by "three new computer labs," BlueHippo actually meant "two new computers" to three Boys and Girls Clubs, according to those clubs' directors.

The second and final donation, according to the press releases was "computer equipment" donated to a Boys and Girls Club in McKeesport, Pa. on Oct. 5, 2006. The computer equipment was included in an auction. Although the press release is 257 words, there is no mention of what the "computer equipment" was or how much it fetched in the auction.

In reality, that "computer equipment" was in fact, one Gateway computer that fetched $600 in the auction according to Tom Maglicco, the club's director.

BlueHippo also has said that the BlueHippo Foundation will offer scholarships to "two Maryland community college students to assist in their study of computer science or mathematics," according to a press release.

So far it's unclear whether anyone has received any money through this scholarship.

The "scholarship" link on the foundation's website transfers to a page that has stated for at least three months that, "the BlueHippo Foundation will be offering dozens of scholarships to cover the tuition for students attending community colleges across the country. ... Details will be released in the near future."

Big Spender

The BlueHippo Foundation is not the first philanthropic endeavor for BlueHippo Funding.

While The Baltimore Sun was investigating BlueHippo in 2004, Rensin said he was donating money to the Baltimore Zoo. Before The Sun's article came out on Feb. 15, 2004, the website promised that some of the proceeds from sales would go straight to the zoo.

"We just write them a check," Rensin said in The Sun article. "We bundle them up and pay them once a quarter."

The day after The Sun's interview with Rensin, the newspaper called the zoo and zoo officials said they had received a payment that morning for $1,002. It was the first contact they had had with BlueHippo.

ConsumerAffairs.com called the zoo last month and zoo spokeswoman Lainie Contreras would not say how much BlueHippo had donated but verified that the zoo has only received one donation from the company.

Trouble Follows BlueHippo's Founder

 

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BlueHippo Funding: The Pitch

An Expensive Way to Buy a Cheap Computer

BlueHippo Funding purports on countless TV advertisements to be the friend to those in need -- to those who otherwise could not afford a new computer or ne...

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Mayo Clinic Study Endorses Concept Behind Nintendo's Wii

Mayo Clinic Study Endorses Concept Behind Nintendo's Wii...


Playing video games has never been considered exercise, but researchers at the Mayo Clinic have issued a study expressing tacit approval for the concept behind Nintendo's new Wii video game console.

The researchers concluded that, if kids are going to spend hours playing video games, it's better for them to play games that require them to move, rather than just sit on the couch.

The study is published in the current issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.

"We know if kids play video games that require movement, they burn more energy than they would while sitting and playing traditional screen games. That's pretty obvious even without our data," says Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, Ph.D., Mayo obesity researcher and study leader.

"The point is that children -- very focused on screen games -- can be made healthier if activity is a required part of the game."

The research does not mention the Wii by name, but Nintendo marketers will no doubt be quick to seize on its findings. The Wii, introduced in November, uses a motion sensitive wireless controller, requiring players to simulate swinging a tennis racquet or rolling a bowling ball.

Players have been so active in playing the games that Nintendo has been forced to recall the controllers to add sturdier straps, to keep players from flinging the controllers across the room.

The study is the first to scientifically measure the energy spent playing video games. While the study's scope is small -- only 25 children the research team says it was conducted with great accuracy. Fifteen children were of normal weight for their height and frame; 10 were mildly obese.

Both groups were tested while sitting and watching television, playing a traditional video game, playing two types of activity-required video games, and watching television while walking on a treadmill.

The results showed that sitting while watching television and playing traditional video games expended the same amount of energy. When participants played with the first activity-oriented video game, one that uses a camera to virtually "place" them in the game where they catch balls and other objects, their energy expenditure tripled.

The result was the same for the lean and mildly obese children. Walking on a treadmill while watching TV also tripled expenditure for the lean group, but showed a nearly fivefold increase for the mildly obese group.

While using a dance video game, both groups burned the most calories, but it was considerably more for the obese group -- just over six times more than sitting still.

The researchers say children now average eight hours a day in front of a TV screen, either playing video games or watching TV. The study suggests requiring activity in more video and computer games is one potential approach for reversing the obesity trend. Despite the small sample in this study, the researchers said they consider the findings robust and say that they warrant further studies in randomized trials.

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Illinois Sues Debt Collector

Accuses company of intimidating, misleading consumers

llinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against a Chicago debt collection agency for allegedly using unfair tactics, intimidation and mis...

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against a Chicago debt collection agency for allegedly using unfair tactics, intimidation and misrepresentations to convince consumers to make payments when, in some instances, the consumers never owed the money.

The lawsuit names Leading Edge Recovery Solutions, L.L.C., as the defendant. Leading Edge Recovery Solutions, an Illinois limited liability corporation based in Chicago, collects debts on behalf of various entities, including credit card and installment debts.

Madigan's Consumer Protection Division has received 53 complaints against Leading Edge Recovery Solutions. According to these complaints, consumers made payments ranging from $300.00 up to $2,900.00 and, in some instances, Leading Edge Recovery Solutions deducted payments directly from consumers' bank accounts without the consumers' authorization.

"Based on the numerous consumer complaints that we have received, Leading Edge Recovery Solutions and its representatives have harassed and intimidated consumers in Illinois and throughout the United States to obtain payments on alleged debts," Madigan said.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges that Leading Edge Recovery Solutions has attempted to collect on debts that are as much as 20 years old and, in some cases, are not even owed by consumers. When consumers have responded to contacts from Leading Edge Recovery Solutions by requesting proof that they actually owe the debt, the company has failed to provide such proof.

Madigan alleges that as part of its collection efforts, Leading Edge Recovery Solutions sent collection letters and contacted consumers by telephone, often using abusive language or improperly contacting consumers at their places of employment.

The complaint specifically alleges that representatives of Leading Edge Recovery Solutions made numerous misrepresentations during their collection efforts, including:

• That they are attorneys and that the company would file a lawsuit if the debt is not paid;

• That the company would file a lien against the consumer's property if the debt is not paid;

• That the consumer could be arrested or imprisoned for failing to pay the debt;

• That the consumer's wages would be garnished if the debt was not paid; and

• That the company would take other actions that would have an adverse impact on the consumer's credit report if the debt is not paid.

Madigan's lawsuit asks the court to prohibit Leading Edge Recovery Solutions from engaging in the business of collecting or attempting to collect on debts, and from further violating Illinois' consumer protection laws. The lawsuit seeks civil penalties and requests that the court order Leading Edge Recovery Solutions to pay restitution to consumers.

 

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Experts Offer Tips on Teenage Binge Drinking

Experts Offer Tips on Teenage Binge Drinking...


The New York University Child Study Center is recommending five (5) tips to help reduce teenage drinking, in light of a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC study, published in the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics, found that 45 percent of the teenagers responding to a survey reported consuming alcohol in the past month, and 64 percent of the students who drank said they were binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more alcoholic drinks in a row.

The CDC report also found that binge drinking is strongly associated with sexual activity, violence, and other risky behaviors.

"Contrary to popular belief, parents remain the greatest influence over their children's behavior," said Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., Director of the Parenting Institute and the Thriving Teens Project at the NYU Child Study Center.

"Though media and peers play a role, parental influence is critical and there are ways parents can maximize that influence to reduce the likelihood that their children will engage in binge drinking," he said.

Dr. Gallagher offers these tips for parents:

• Clearly state what actions you expect your teen to take when confronted with substance use. Teens who know what their parents expect from them are much less likely to use substances, including alcohol.

• Talk about the alcohol use that your children observe. Parents need to make it clear how they want their children to handle substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. Children need to have controlled exposure to learn the rules of acceptable use.

• Help your teen find leisure activities and places for leisure activities that are substance-free. Then, keep track of where, with whom, and what your teen is doing after school and during other free times.

• Limit the access your children have to substances. Teens use substances that are available. They report that they sneak alcohol from home stocks, take cigarettes from relatives, and obtain marijuana from people that they know well.

• Inform teens about the honest dangers that are associated with alcohol use and abuse. Although teens are not highly influenced by such information, some discussion of negative consequences has some impact on the decisions they make. Especially emphasize how alcohol clouds one's judgment and makes one more likely to be harmed in other ways.

For more information on teenage substance use and abuse, visit www.AboutOurKids.org.



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Hi-Def DVD Battle May Be Over

Blu-ray wrests the crown from HD-DVD

Hi-Def DVD Battle May Be Over...

When two technologies compete for dominance, one usually wins, eventually, while the other loses. Remember the Betamax?

But history may not repeat itself when it comes to high-definition DVDs because hardware makers have agreed to produce machines that will play DVD movies in both formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

The two technologies have been fighting for market share, trying to outdo one another in offering the high-resolution playback that consumers purchasing new HDTV sets expect.

But the war may be over. LG Electronics is expected to provide a glimpse of its new dual-format DVD player at the Consumer Electronics Show later this month. Other hardware makers have indicated they will follow suit.

While regular DVDs work on the new sets, DVD players specifically designed for HD are able to reproduce programs with the sharp pictures of Hi-Def. They also provide more features.

But HDTV set makers have fretted over the bitter war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray, fearing a repeat of the early 1980s standoff between RCA's VHS video format and Sony's Beta. It was not until VHS vanquished Beta that the video industry really took off.

Set manufacturers are likely to see the new machines as welcome news, removing one more excuse consumers might offer for delaying a purchase. The new dual-format players will have optical drives and integrated circuits necessary for both HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

The new players won't be cheap, though. Industry insiders say consumers should brace for price tags almost as steep as the TV sets themselves.

 

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Bush Gives Himself Authority to Search the Mail

"Signing Statement" Added to Mundane Bill Gives White House Unprecedented Power

Bush Gives Himself Authority to Search the Mail...

By Joseph S. Enoch
ConsumerAffairs.com

January 4, 2007
While most of Congress was preparing for the holiday season, President George Bush quietly asserted his authority by giving the government the right to search your mail without a warrant.

While signing the mostly mundane Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act into law Dec. 20, Bush added a "signing statement" that awarded him a vague authority to open individuals' mail under emergency circumstances.

That signing statement contradicts existing laws and statements found within the text of the law he had just signed, experts said.

"Despite the President's statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people's mail without a warrant," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told the New York Daily News.

According to the statement:

"The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010(e) of the Act, which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."

The news of this unprecedented authority comes one year after Bush got his hand slapped for tapping Americans' phones.

The White House is saying that this authority is nothing new.

"In certain circumstances -- such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' -- the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore told the Daily News.

But experts fear Bush could use this reaffirmed authority to read endless stacks of U.S. mail.

"You have to be concerned," a senior U.S. official told the Daily News. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known,"

A "signing statement" is the loose authority for the President to add provisions to a bill when he signs it into law. The practice has come under particular criticism during Bush's two terms because he has used it more than 130 times and his statements have received more than 750 formal challenges.

One other recent controversial signing statement was added to the McCain Detainee Amendment. In the statement, Bush essentially gave himself the authority to determine what is considered torture.

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Hybrid Sales Drop with Gas Prices

But Auto Executives Believe the Hybrid Age Is Upon Us

Hybrid Sales Drop with Gas Prices...


Declining gasoline prices as well as disappearing federal tax credits are hammering hybrid sales in general and Prius sales in particular, although automotive executives worldwide believe that long-term consumer buying habits have been changed forever by the recent spate of high gas prices.

Not long ago consumers waited months for a Prius but now many Toyota dealers are advertising several Prius models in stock. In some cities, Toyota is offering to lease the hybrids for 36 months at less than $300 a month.

After rising for most of the year, hybrid sales fell to 19,000 in November from nearly 32,000 in August when gas prices across the country hit $3 a gallon.

Gasoline prices have declined 24 percent since August and hybrid sales have declined 31 percent.

In California, the country's largest hybrid market, changing consumer attitudes toward hybrids are influenced by more than just gasoline prices and tax credits. Uncertainty in California over the availability of HOV lane stickers for new hybrids is an additional factor slowing sales for the Prius as well as other hybrids.

The federal tax credit available to buyers of the Prius was cut in half late in 2006. Until then, the Prius enjoyed the largest hybrid credit, $3,150. The credit shrank to $1,575 on October 1.

Despite dropping sales, prices for the Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid have remained virtually unchanged. The average price paid for a Prius, less any cash rebates, was $26,281 in November compared with $26,076 in August.

The Industry View

Toyota executives predict Prius sales will rebound. The Japanese automaker expects U.S. hybrid sales to climb by 50 percent in 2007 to nearly 300,000, in part because of larger supplies of the Prius and the hybrid Camry.

Most automakers agree with Toyota and continue to ramp up for increased hybrid production in spite of the recent sales slump. General Motors just announced it has awarded lithium-ion battery development contracts to two suppliers for the upcoming Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid.

A recent survey by KPMG LLP, the U.S. audit, tax and advisory firm, confirms that auto executives believe that we've entered the hybrid age.

The survey, based on interviews with 150 senior executives at vehicle manufacturers and suppliers worldwide, found that executives continue to believe that fuel efficiency and quality are the primary consumer preferences when purchasing a new car, 89 percent and 88 percent respectively.

Last year, 87 percent of executives said quality was the leading factor, and 84 percent said it was fuel efficiency.

"High gas prices, which are permanently etched on consumers' minds, have had dramatic implications for auto manufacturers who lack quality, fuel efficient products to satisfy demand," said Daron Gifford, National Automotive Industry leader, KPMG LLP.

For the second consecutive year, industry executives said they believe the most popular vehicles over the next five years will be hybrids, cited by 83 percent of respondents, and low-cost cars, according to 64 percent of respondents. Last year, 88 percent of executives said hybrids would be the most popular, while 79 percent cited cars.

Overall, 64 percent of executives said they expect cars to increase global market share over the next five years, outpacing larger vehicles, such as minivans, which were cited as a growth model by only 33 percent of executives.

Meanwhile, just 28 percent said SUVs would be gaining share. Fifty-five percent of executives also expect market share for crossovers to increase, while 42 percent predicted market share for luxury vehicles would increase.

"Gasoline prices have shifted the model mix in executives' minds, and future winners in the global automotive marketplace will have to find ways to combine ingenious cost-efficiencies with startling design creativity," said Gifford.

In breaking the categories down into a regional view:

• 95 percent of North American executives said they were more likely to see a rise in hybrid sales over the next five years, while 67 percent of North American executives predicted crossovers.

• 89 percent of European executives were optimistic on the sale of low-cost vehicles, and 57 percent forecasted luxury vehicles sales would increase.

• 37 percent of Asian executives are more confident about the sales of large pick-up trucks, while 72 percent expected car sales to rise.

This year, 71 percent of executives believe hybrids will become a U.S. market force, with between 200,000 and 500,000 cars being sold compared with 200,000 sold in 2006.

"The hybrid mantra is that the breed cannot fail, given consumer demand and its relatively minuscule production numbers," said Gifford.

Additional key findings include:

• 90 percent of executives believe consumers will hold on to their new cars for three to seven years.

• 94 percent of executives consider product quality as the most important industry issue in 2006, while 89 percent named cost reduction.

• 66 percent of executives cited innovations in manufacturing as the greatest source of cost savings for vehicle manufacturers, followed by materials innovation and outsourcing to countries like China and Eastern Europe according to 61 percent of executives respectively.

• 48 percent of executives named new models and 43 percent determined that new technologies are the areas where manufacturers will increase investment.

In the KPMG survey, the executives interviewed represented vehicle manufacturers and suppliers in Canada, United States, England, France, Germany, Sweden, India, China, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

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Experts Concerned about Tamiflu Overuse

Widespread use of Tamiflu could have a very unwelcome side effect

Experts Concerned about Tamiflu Overuse...

Should Avian flu jump to the human population and create a pandemic, health officials are counting on the antiviral Tamiflu as a major defense.

But increasingly, public health officials are concerned that widespread use of Tamiflu could have a very unwelcome side effect -- development of drug-resistant strains of the virus in wild birds.

British researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford have released findings in the January 2007 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) that demonstrate how Tamiflu's persistence in wastewater and river water could affect the waterfowl that drink from those water sources.

Since the World Health Organization's first warning of an avian flu pandemic two years ago, nations worldwide have been stockpiling Tamiflu for treatment and outbreak prevention. The drug, which minimizes flu symptoms and duration, inhibits the movement of the influenza virus from the cells it infects, and also helps uninfected people avoid contracting the flu.

However, Tamiflu's active agent, the metabolite oseltamivir carboxylate (OC) would be excreted into sewers for several weeks during a pandemic and is expected to withstand biodegradation.

According to the researchers in the current study, once birds drink OC-laced water from catchments receiving treated wastewater, they could produce Tamiflu-resistant strains and pass them on to other birds who share the same waters.

The investigators analyzed 11 waterway catchments in the United States and 5 in England using a metabolic pathway prediction system to determine the potential biodegradability of OC. They also measured wastewater discharges into the catchments.

They estimated the number of clinically infected people in each catchment area treated with a full 5-day course of Tamiflu with 100% compliance, assuming that 80% of the ingested Tamiflu was released into sewer systems as OC and that all of the OC entering each catchment was flushed out in one day.

Their estimates showed a maximum concentration well above that required for development of resistance in vitro for 62 consecutive days in the arid Lower Colorado River catchment area.

Overall, the researchers say that because of the lower population density for many of the U.S. catchments, peak concentrations of OC in a pandemic would be approximately 10 times less than the concentrations in British rivers.

All but one of the American catchments studied are larger than those in Britain and, with the exception of the Lower Colorado River flow area, have more available dilution per person in each given population.

There were no specific ecotoxicological risks from Tamiflu identified at the time the drug was submitted for approval to the European Medicines Agency. The authors, however, suggest that the ecotoxicological risk associated with Tamiflu use needs to be reassessed in light of the hundreds of millions of courses that would be consumed globally during a pandemic.

The authors warn that, with the release of the uniquely structured, biochemically resistant OC antiviral into river water, "the range of OC concentrations predicted . . . will have uncharacterized ecotoxicological consequences." They call for more detailed water contamination modeling, especially in high-risk areas of the world such as Southeast Asian countries, where there is more frequent human-to-waterfowl contact and where future use of Tamiflu would be significant.

They also recommend development of methods to minimize the release of OC into wastewater systems, such as biological and chemical pretreatment in the toilet.



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Child Car Seats Not Up to the Challenge

Consumer Reports Tests Find Critical Shortcomings in Infant Seats

Child Car Seats Not Up to the Challenge...


Consumer Reports crash-tested rear-facing infant car seats at the speeds most cars are tested at and found that most of the seats failed disastrously. The findings are reported in the February 2007 issue.

Cars and car seats can't be sold in the U.S. unless they can adequately protect occupants in a 30-mph frontal crash. But most cars are also tested in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) consumer information program in crashes at higher speeds, 35 mph for frontal crashes and 38-mph side crashes. Child car seats aren't.

Most of the infant seats failed when Consumer Reports crash-tested them at those higher speeds.

The infant seats twisted violently or flew off their bases, in one case hurling a test dummy 30 feet across the lab. CR does, however, remind parents that any car seat is better than no seat at all.

All states and the District of Columbia require infants to be secured in car seats when traveling in passenger vehicles. Still, 572 infants under 1 year old were killed in traffic accidents from 2001 to 2005, with side crashes accounting for 151 of those deaths, or 26 percent, NHTSA data show.

Here are some highlights of CR's findings:

• Of 12 infant seats tested, only two performed well enough to be recommended by Consumer Reports: the Baby Trend Flex-Loc and the Graco SnugRide with EPS.

• Nine infant seats provided poor protection in some or all of the tests, even though they meet the federal safety standard. One seat, the Evenflo Discovery, didn't even meet that standard. CR is urging federal officials to order a recall of that seat.

• Many infant seats sold in Europe undergo more rigorous testing than do models sold in the U.S. Indeed, when CR crash-tested an infant seat purchased in England, the Britax Cosy Tot, it was the best in the tests. An infant seat sold in the U.S. by the same manufacturer, the Companion, failed CU's tests.

• CR's findings offer added evidence of problems with LATCH, the federally-mandated attachment system for child car seats. Many car seats performed worse with LATCH than with vehicle safety belts. And LATCH attachments aren't always easy to use.

Consumer Reports' new tests are tougher than the federal car-seat standard because a significant performance gap exists between vehicles and the car seats they carry.

"It's unconscionable that infant seats, which are designed to protect the most vulnerable children, aren't routinely tested the same as new cars," said Don Mays, senior director of Product Safety & Consumer Science for Consumer Reports.

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, believes that the government should bring the safety testing for car seats in line with tests that are conducted on most new cars.

The federal New Car Assessment Program tests most cars and minivans, some pickups and SUVs, in 35-mph frontal crashes and 38-mph side crashes. Scores in the form of "star" ratings are widely publicized, and as a result carmakers have improved the crash protection of vehicles. There has been no such incentive for the makers of child car seats sold in the U.S.

In 2000, Congress mandated under the TREAD Act that NHTSA establish a consumer information program for child car seats incorporating ratings no later than November 2001.

NHTSA concluded that the most effective consumer information system is one that gives the consumer a combination of information about ease of use and dynamic performance through higher-speed crash-test sled testing or an in-vehicle testing program.

To date, NHTSA has not started providing dynamic crash protection ratings for car seats as part of its consumer information program. Currently, the agency's car seat information program includes ease-of-use ratings in the form of letter grades as well as tips and advice for parents.

The infant seats evaluated by CR are rear-facing carriers that snap in and out of a base. The base connects to the car by means of the vehicle's safety belts or LATCH attachments. (LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, includes belts that hook the base to metal anchors in the car.)

Consumer Reports crash-tested multiple samples of each infant seat. In some tests, CR used vehicle safety belts to secure the base; in other tests CR used LATCH attachments. The tests mimic a crash in a Ford Explorer SUV, a popular family vehicle. The Toyota Camry sedan crumples similarly, especially in a side crash, so CR would expect comparable results for some sedans.

CR used a test dummy weighing the maximum claimed weight for each seat. That's 30 pounds for the Graco SafeSeat and 22 pounds for the others.

In CR's 35-mph front-impact test, seven car seats failed. They separated from their bases, rotated too far, or would have inflicted grave injuries, as measured by CR's test dummy, whose sensors record the severity of impact. CR retested these to see whether they passed the 30-mph federal minimum standard. All passed except the Evenflo Discovery.

When Consumer Reports performed side-impact tests at 38 mph, eight models failed. Four of the seats flew out of their bases.

Three seats failed all of CR's more stringent crash tests: the Evenflo Discovery, the Graco Safe Seat, and the Britax, formerly the top- rated seat based on earlier tests that mirrored the federal standard.

Most other tested seats passed either the front- or side-crash test in some configuration, though only the Baby Trend Flex-Loc and the Graco SnugRide with EPS passed every test CR performed and therefore, garnered CR's recommendation.

Some Britax Companion seats were recalled in October because carriers were assembled incorrectly; CR tested a later model. The Evenflo Discovery, which CR is deeming Not Acceptable and believe should be recalled, was the subject of a NHTSA investigation in 2004 after the agency received seven reports about the carrier separating from its base. Evenflo received 52 reports, six involving fatalities, NHTSA says.

The agency could not identify a safety defect and closed the investigation.

The Eddie Bauer Comfort infant seat also had problems, specifically in the fit-to-vehicle test. CR's trained safety-seat installers could not get one of two different bases supplied with the seat to fit securely when tested in five different vehicles.

Because of that test result CR is judging the seat Not Acceptable and wants the problematic base to be recalled. The seat also performed poorly in the side-crash test when using the problematic base. The car seat (also called the Caress Comfort) is being discontinued though it is still being sold.

CR has learned that the manufacturer of the Eddie Bauer Comfort will supply an improved base through a "customer satisfaction program", but only to those consumers who know to complain to the company about improper fit. CR is crash-testing the seat with the better-fitting base. Results will be posted at www.ConsumerReports.org.

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Starbucks Cuts Trans Fats

Starbucks Cuts Trans Fats...

 


Another food retailer says it is enlisting in the battle against trans fats. Starbucks Coffee said that effective immediately, it will stop using the artery-clogging ingredient in its muffins, donuts and other pastries.

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The trans fat ban will only affect half the chain's U.S. stores in the near term, with the rest of the stores joining the ban later in the year.

Trans fats are vegetable oils that have been processed to turn them into solids. They are often used in baked goods, not to enhance taste but to provide texture. Large scale food producers favor them because they are also cheaper.

Beginning Wednesday, Starbucks stores in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, will have zero trans fats in their food.

Starbucks joins a growing number of food chains that are bowing to pressure from health advocates to stop using trans fats.

Wendy's has switched to a non-hydrogenated oil that will be used in its restaurants. McDonalds has announced no specific date, but is known to be experimenting with alternative oils.

All restaurant chains will soon have to come up with alternatives. New York City has approved a ban on trans fats in its 22,000 restaurants and several other large cities are considering such a ban.

Health advocates have warned for years against eating food with trans fat. They say the re-engineered oils raise LDL, the so-called "bad" cholesterol, and lowers HDL, the "good" cholesterol.

Studies have shown that consuming as little five grams of trans fat a day over several years leads to a number of cardiovascular ailments, increasing the liklihood of developing heart disease by 25 percent.

 



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Toyota Says Sweat Detector Stops Drunk Drivers

Toyota system analyzes sweat on the palms of the driver's hands

Toyota joins Volvo in developing computerized systems to prevent drunk driving. The Volvo system requires the driver to blow into a tube to detect alcohol ...

Soon to be the world's number one carmaker, Japanese auto giant Toyota plans to develop a system that it says will prevent a vehicle from starting after detecting that the driver is drunk.

The Toyota system analyzes sweat on the palms of the driver's hands to assess blood alcohol content and does not allow the vehicle to be started if the reading is above programmed safety limits.

The system can detect abnormal steering and whether the driver's pupils are out of focus as well as the sweat sensors in the steering wheel to determine the level of alcohol in the driver's bloodstream.

If any of these symptoms are detected the car will not turn on or will slow to a stop.

The automaker said the system could be available as soon as 2009.

Toyota joins Volvo in developing computerized systems to prevent drunk driving. The Volvo system requires the driver to blow into a tube to detect alcohol in the breath.

Toyota rival Nissan Motor is also working on measures to prevent drunk driving.

The research announcements follow a record of drunken driving in Japan which included 14,000 intoxicated driving accidents in 2005 that killed 707 people, according to the National Police Agency.

Japan is considering increasing the penalty for driving under the influence to up to a maximum five years in prison from the current three years and doubling the fine to $8,500.

 

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Jackson Hewitt Pays $5 Million to Settle California Charges

High-Cost Tax Refund Loans Marketed to Low-Income Customers

Jackson Hewitt Pays $5 Million to Settle California Charges...


Jackson Hewitt, Inc. will pay $5 million, including $4 million in consumer restitution, to settle a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

The suit alleged that the nation's second-largest tax preparation firm violated state and federal laws in marketing high-cost refund anticipation loans (RALs) mainly to low-income customers.

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"Jackson Hewitt made a lot of money by pushing customers to take out expensive loans rather than encouraging them to wait a couple of weeks to get their refunds from the IRS for free," said Lockyer. "In the process they deceived consumers and took money from low-income families who can least afford it. They even charged people extra for being poor.

"This settlement benefits consumers by holding Jackson Hewitt accountable for its conduct, prohibiting the unfair practices we targeted in our lawsuit and requiring the firm to conduct itself in a manner that could set the industry standard," Lockyer said.

The complaint alleges Jackson Hewitt violated 13 state and federal laws or rules that regulate debt collection practices, and prohibit unfair business practices, false or deceptive advertising, and unauthorized use or sharing of individuals' tax return information.

The settlement requires Jackson Hewitt to pay $4 million in restitution to customers who purchased same-day "Money Now!" loans, "Accelerated Check Refunds (ACR)," and other RAL products that, according to Lockyer's lawsuit, Jackson Hewitt illegally promoted.

The $4 million will provide up to $30 per RAL purchased from 2001 to 2004, up to $15 for each additional financial product bought from Jackson Hewitt, and restitution to consumers victimized by the debt collection scheme.

In addition to the restitution, Jackson Hewitt will pay $500,000 in civil penalties and another $500,000 to reimburse the Attorney General's Office for its investigation costs.

As described in the complaint, RALs are loans provided to taxpayers, secured by their expected tax refund. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules prohibit Jackson Hewitt from providing loans itself, so the company contracted with banks for that purpose.

But Jackson Hewitt provided clients the loan applications, filled out the applications, sent the applications to the banks, and distributed the loan checks to customers. Jackson Hewitt's partner banks from 2001-04, the period covered by the lawsuit, were Santa Barbara Bank and Trust (now Pacific Capital Bank) and Household Finance (now HSBC).

In a typical case, Jackson Hewitt's RAL program worked like this: After calculating a customer's taxes and determining their refund amount, a Jackson Hewitt tax preparer signed up the customer for a RAL. If the bank approved the application, Jackson Hewitt ultimately provided the customer a check not for the full tax refund amount, but for the estimated refund, minus various fees Jackson Hewitt charged the customer. Depending on the amount of refund, those fees forced some consumers to pay the equivalent of annual interest exceeding 200 percent.

Additionally, Jackson Hewitt's marketing of RALs was deceptive in a number of ways, according to the complaint. Advertisements portrayed RALs as refunds or "Money Now," instead of loans, the complaint alleges, and omitted information that would have informed consumers the products actually were loans.

Jackson Hewitt also misled consumers by stating or implying RALs provided a faster way to get money at tax time than waiting to receive a refund from the IRS, according to the complaint. In fact, consumers who filed tax returns electronically could receive a direct deposit refund from the IRS just as quickly as they could get money from Jackson Hewitt through purchasing one of the firm's high-cost loan products.

From 2001 through 2004, California customers bought more than 200,000 RALs and other financial products from Jackson Hewitt, generating millions of dollars in income for the firm.

To indicate how Jackson Hewitt's RAL program targeted the working poor, the complaint notes most of the firm's customers are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), established by the federal government to provide financial help to low-income families. EITC recipients, however, account for just 20 percent of all taxpayers.

Not only did Jackson Hewitt steer EITC recipients into expensive RAL products, the firm also charged them an additional fee ($10) to buy the products, the complaint alleges.

Jackson Hewitt also participated in a deceptive debt collection scheme under the banner of its RAL program, the complaint alleges.

RAL customers were liable for paying fees and paying back the borrowed money if their anticipated refund did not materialize, for whatever reason. If a customer allegedly owed that debt, Jackson Hewitt would give them a RAL application when they come to Jackson Hewitt in a subsequent year to get their taxes prepared.

What Jackson Hewitt did not adequately tell such customers is that when they signed the RAL application, they agreed to automatic collection on the purported debt, which they may not have even owed. The banks denied these RAL applications, and the customers' anticipated refund was used to pay off the alleged debt, plus a fee.

"Jackson Hewitt customers believed to owe debt from a prior year have been offered an application for a loan in the amount of their refund, but instead have found themselves in the midst of a debt collection process," the complaint alleges.

Additionally, according to the complaint, Jackson Hewitt violated state and federal law by using or sharing customers' tax-return information without their written consent. Jackson Hewitt engaged in these illegal practices to market RALs and collect on debts, the complaint alleges.

The Jackson Hewitt settlement is the second major development in Lockyer's enforcement crackdown on RALs. He filed suit against H&R; Block in February 2006, and the case remains pending in San Francisco County Superior Court.

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Worst Diets of 2006

Lose Weight With These? Fat Chance

"There are countless products out there that promise quick weight loss. Most of them are total scams that make your wallet thinner, but not your body....

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No Easy Way Out Of Credit Card Debt

No Easy Way Out Of Credit Card Debt...


For millions of consumers, the dawning of a new year brings a credit hangover, one that lasts a lot longer than the kind caused by over indulging on New Years Eve. Consumers, already in debt, normally run up even larger bills preparing for the holidays, and evidence suggests this past year was no exception.

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According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 23 percent 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 use credit cards most often when holiday shopping, contributing to the $63.6 billion charged on credit cards throughout the shopping season.

"With the average household saddled with $9,000 in credit debt already, anything that significantly adds to that impost could be potentially devastating," said Tod Marks, senior editor, Consumer Reports.

Marks and other financial experts prescribe discipline and a systematic approach to personal finances as the best way to eliminate debt. It starts with setting some goals for the new year.

"Without your financial goals, you don't really have the proper motivation to get out there and save. Without a plan, you aren't getting anywhere. If you don't set financial goals, you may never see financial independence," advises Martin Lukac, with RateEmpire.com, a consumer banking marketplace.

To get out of debt, financial experts suggest a four pronged approach:

Analysis look at what you own, what interest rate you are paying, and when you would like to be able to retire the debt.

Budget eliminating or reducing your debt will not happen without some sacrifice. Unless you come into a windfall of cash, the money to pay off the debt will have to come from your current cash flow. Look for places were you can save money from your current expenses and be disciplined about applying that savings toward paying off your debts.

Be Bold It never hurts to ask for a little help. Call your credit card company and see if you can obtain a lower rate. This time of year lots of people shop for new cards, and credit card companies are mindful of that. If they refuse you, then become one of those people shopping for a lower rate card and transfer your balance.

Raise CashLook for possessions that you can sell and generate cash. Use the cash to make a large payment on one of your credit cards.

Financial experts caution that there is no easy, painless way to get out of debt. For that reason, it is wise to be highly skeptical of the advertised claims of some so-called debt counselors. Numerous complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com tell of situations where paying large fees and following the advice of a debt counselor actually made the situation worse.

What if you are starting the new year in serious financial trouble, made worse by a binge of holiday credit card spending?

The U.S. military, which is dealing with the growing credit management problems among its enlisted ranks, urges an honest confrontation of the problem. Contact your creditors and let them know you are having difficulty. Many will be willing to work with you, and long as they get regular payments.

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Rep. Frank Promises Hearings On Credit Bureaus

Consumers Complain of Delays in Correcting, Updating Credit Reports

Rep. Frank Promises Hearings On Credit Bureaus...

Observers had predicted that reforming the credit industry would be a prime objective of the new Democratic Congress, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is taking up the challenge.

Frank, the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, says he will hold hearings in 2007 on how the credit bureaus can improve their reporting and error-correcting procedures.

ConsumerAffairs.com receives a constant stream of complaints from irate customers regarding credit bureaus' inability -- or unwillingness -- to protect the personal information of the very people they claim to assist.

"It took me over three months of letters, emails and calls to no avail," said Georgia of Lodi NJ in a recent complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "The workers at Experian read from script and do NOTHING to help one out.

"They've listed accounts that have been closed since 1998 and have inaccurate addresses on my credit report. My credit is as pristine as possible and would like to keep it that way, but cannot trust Experian," she said.

Rep. Frank's pledge followed a Boston Globe article spotlighting the difficulties consumers have in trying to correct mistakes in their credit reports.

"We will have some hearings about how to fix this," Frank told the Globe. He said that laws mandating free credit reports for all Americans were not enough, especially if the procedures to correct errors were difficult and time-consuming.

Frank and his Senate counterpart, Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), incoming chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, have already promised to target the mortgage industry and pass new protections against predatory lending.

Profiting From Fear

Errors in credit reporting can cost consumers jobs and loans, as well as leading to identity theft and fraud. Each of the three credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union -- has a laborious process for correcting errors that requires sending extensive documentation to prove the information is inaccurate or out of date.

The credit agencies generally blame the lenders for reporting inaccurate data, and for only reporting negative information, such as delinquencies, bankruptcies, or liens.

But the sale of credit reports continues to be a billion-dollar business for the credit bureaus, which collect buy information from lenders and sell it cheaply to lenders and other business clients while charging consumers three or four times as much to view their own information.

Consumers can spend years and thousands of dollars trying to clean up innaccurate credit reports, even those that are mixed up with others' information, being denied jobs, loans, and places to live all the while.

Worse yet, the "fraud monitoring" services credit agencies offer to protect against identity theft often don't work. They don't detect Social Security number theft, for example, which leads only to a new file being opened under the new account holder's name.

The three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union-- all offer comprehensive, and expensive, "identity protection" packages, which claim to insure the user from damages incurred by misuse of their personal data and issue notifications of fraud to creditors and other agencies who view consumers' credit on a regular basis.

Yet many Americans find themselves threatened with collection or unable to obtain credit due to a credit bureau's mistakes. The major CRA's consistently fail to report accurate information, change credit ratings based on erroneous data, and often "mix up" customers' information, resulting in innocent consumers being harrassed or penalized for actions they did not commit.

Moreover, as Consumers Union pointed out in 2005, "When a company improperly breaches a consumer's sensitive information, the onus is on that consumer -- the victim -- to fix the problem." Customers have to contact the credit bureau and attempt to prove that they were not responsible for the actions committed using their identity, a process made more difficult by the lack of direct contact options most credit bureaus provide.

A recent New York Timesarticle detailed the failings of credit monitoring services, including the admission by credit agency spokespersons that they fail to detect SSN-based fraud, even as credit monitoring rakes in $900 million a year for the agencies that offer it.

 

 

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Wisconsin Mails Tax Forms With Exposed Social Security Numbers

Wisconsin Mails Tax Forms With Exposed Social Security Numbers...


The hope that 2006 might end without yet another breach of personal information was dashed when 170,000 Wisconsin taxpayers were notified that their tax forms were being mailed out with Social Security numbers visibly printed on the front.

Wisconsin's Department of Revenue stated that taxpayers who had filed returns in 2005 using the paper Form 1 were affected. Those who filed their forms with professional tax preparers, filed different forms, or e-filed were not in danger, the department said.

The mistake was blamed on a "computer error."

The tax agency said it would notify all potentially affected taxpayers, and also notified the postal service to locate and return as many of the forms as possible.

Department spokeswoman Meredith Helgerson said that they could not estimate how many of the labels made it through the mail.

Helgerson said the agency and the postal service would take advantage of the four-day holiday due to New Year's and the day of mourning for former President Gerald Ford -- with the resultant lack of mail delivery -- to find and collect all of the mislabeled forms.

Wisconsin's Revenue Department had mailed forms out with Social Security numbers visible on them for years, until the state legislature and former governor Tommy Thompson pressured the department to use special identifier numbers instead.

Thompson, also a former Secretary of Health and Human Services, ironically went on to become a chief advocate of the usage of radio frequency identifier (RFID) tags, or "spychips," in medical patients and soldiers.

Clear and Present Danger

The chief concern was that criminals would steal the forms from unopened mailboxes and use the Social Security numbers for identity theft.

Social Security number-based identity theft is particularly difficult to detect and prevent, as criminals can mix and match names and numbers to create new identities and open credit accounts without being noticed.

Credit reporting agencies simply open new credit files for accounts using the same number, and don't notify the original or new account holders. SSN-based fraud can go undetected for years until the original account holder receives bills belonging to the thief.

It's extremely difficult to change a Social Security number once it's assigned, and even if the accountholder gets a new one, the account is often linked to the old account to ensure the recipient receives their Social Security benefits.

The Wisconsin incident is not the first time in recent months a printing mixup has led to potential risk of identity theft.

In November 2006, a contractor working for the Chicago public school system accidentally sent out the personal data of 1,740 employees and retirees as part of a mass mailing of health insurance benefit plan information.

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