1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2007
  4. January

Current Events in January 2007

Browse Current Events by year


Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    Minnesota Charges Allianz Life Sold Unsuitable Annuities to Seniors

    The state of Minnesota has filed a lawsuit against Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America for selling deferred annuities to senior citizens that were unsuitable for seniors' financial needs.

    The suit also claims that the insurance company did not adequately disclose that seniors could have their limited savings tied up for as long as 15 years, could not cash in their annuities early without paying hefty surrender penalties, and that payments advertised as "immediate" bonuses were not payable for up to 15 years.

    "Allianz and its agents aggressively marketed deferred annuities to seniors without regard to the suitability of the sale and without disclosing that seniors' limited savings could be tied up for years," Attorney General Lori Swanson said.

    "It is wrong for a company to mislead seniors into tying up their retirement savings in unsuitable investments in order to generate commissions," she said.

    Swanson noted that the sale of unsuitable, long-term annuities to senior citizens using aggressive and deceptive sales tactics has recently drawn significant national attention. She said her office was reviewing other companies' annuities sales practices for evidence of unsuitable sales and/or deceptive marketing.

    Swanson said that Allianz agents often lured seniors to attend "estate planning" or "wealth management" seminars, the real purpose of which was to sell Allianz annuities to the seniors who attended. Swanson said Allianz also lured seniors to purchase the annuities by offering "immediate" bonus payments of five to ten percent of the principal of the annuity. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that Allianz does not pay the "immediate" bonus for as long as 15 years.

    The lawsuit contends that, after luring seniors in the above fashion, Allianz agents often:

    • Failed to ensure that the annuity was a suitable investment for the particular senior. Minnesota law requires an agent to ensure that an annuity is suitable for the purchaser's financial needs. Allianz's deferred annuities are often unsuitable investments for seniors because the circumstances of many seniors requires them to have current income or access to liquid funds to pay living expenses, nursing home expenses, or medical costs. With Allianz's deferred annuities, seniors could see their savings tied up for as long as 15 years.

    • Misled seniors regarding the terms of these "deferred" annuities. In a deferred annuity, after holding the annuity until its "maturity" date (often five to ten years), the senior cannot simply cash it in but rather must have the annuity payments spread out, or "annuitized," over another lengthy period of up to five to ten years.

    • Misled seniors regarding the hefty surrender penalties of up to 15 percent that apply if the senior withdraws more than a small portion of their money before the annuity "matures" (which sometimes exceeds the life expectancy of the senior.)

    Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America is based in Golden Valley, Minnesota and is owned by Allianz SE of Germany, the largest financial services company in the world. Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America has approximately $75 billion in assets and approximately $3.5 billion in net worth.

    Minnesota Charges Allianz Life Sold Unsuitable Annuities to Seniors...
    Read lessRead more

    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 ...

    Parents Warned about Modeling Scams...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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.

      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."

      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....
      Read lessRead more

      LeanRx.Net Lightens Consumers Wallets

      By Mark Huffman

      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 ...

      LeanRx.Net Lightens Consumers Wallets...
      Read lessRead more

      Complaint of the Day: Phony Magazine Subscription Renewals

      Complaint of the Day

      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.

      Complaint of the Day: Phony Magazine Subscription Renewals...
      Read lessRead more

      Record Companies, Congress Take On Satellite Radio

      Industry, Government Collude to Squash Consumers

      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."

      Record Companies, Congress Take On Satellite Radio...
      Read lessRead more

      CARFAX Settles Class Actions

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

      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.

      CARFAX Settles Class Actions...
      Read lessRead more

      Look For Early iPhone Price Cuts

      Apple Has Plenty of Room to Cut Retail Price

      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.

      Look For Early iPhone Price Cuts...
      Read lessRead more

      Hackers Hit T.J.Maxx, Marshalls

      Customer Data Exposed in Major Data Breach

      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.

      Hackers Hit T.J.Maxx, Marshalls...
      Read lessRead more

      Cigarette Companies Raised Nicotine Level, Researchers Find

      Higher nicotine level raises habituation level

      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.

      Cigarette Companies Raised Nicotine Level, Researchers Find...
      Read lessRead more

      New MySpace Security Measures May Be Too Late

      Lawsuits, Legal Challenges Against Murdoch Site Mount

      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.

      New MySpace Security Measures May Be Too Late...
      Read lessRead more

      Poor Americans Missing Billions in Earned-Income Tax Benefits

      ACORN Offers Free Tax Service to Low-Income Families

      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.

      Poor Americans Missing Billions in Earned-Income Benefits...
      Read lessRead more

      Verizon Cuts Off Northern New England

      Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine Set Adrift

      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.

      Verizon Cuts Off Northern New England...
      Read lessRead more

      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 ...

      Feds Warn Consumers About Counterfeit Check Scams...
      Read lessRead more

      Tax Refund Loans Gouge Taxpayers

      Return Engagement

      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."

      Tax Refund Loans Gouge Taxpayers...
      Read lessRead more

      House Approves Cutting Student Loan Interest Rates

      But Measure Faces Dim Prospects in the Senate

      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.

      House Approves Cutting Student Loan Interest Rates...
      Read lessRead more

      Tomato-Broccoli Combo Can Help Shrink Prostate Cancers

      So have a big salad and don't worry about it

      A new University of Illinois study shows that tomatoes and broccoli -- two vegetables known for their cancer-fighting qualities -- are better at shrinking prostate tumors when both are part of the daily diet than when they're eaten alone.

      "When tomatoes and broccoli are eaten together, we see an additive effect. We think it's because different bioactive compounds in each food work on different anti-cancer pathways," said University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor John Erdman.

      In a study published in the January 15 issue of Cancer Research, Erdman and doctoral candidate Kirstie Canene-Adams fed a diet containing 10 percent tomato powder and 10 percent broccoli powder to laboratory rats that had been implanted with prostate cancer cells.

      The powders were made from whole foods so the effects of eating the entire vegetable could be compared with consuming individual parts of them as a nutritional supplement.

      Other rats in the study received either tomato or broccoli powder alone; or a supplemental dose of lycopene, the red pigment in tomatoes thought to be the effective cancer-preventive agent in tomatoes; or finasteride, a drug prescribed for men with enlarged prostates. Another group of rats was castrated.

      After 22 weeks, the tumors were weighed. The tomato/broccoli combo outperformed all other diets in shrinking prostate tumors. Biopsies of tumors were evaluated at The Ohio State University, confirming that tumor cells in the tomato/broccoli-fed rats were not proliferating as rapidly. The only treatment that approached the tomato/broccoli diet's level of effectiveness was castration, said Erdman.

      "As nutritionists, it was very exciting to compare this drastic surgery to diet and see that tumor reduction was similar. Older men with slow-growing prostate cancer who have chosen watchful waiting over chemotherapy and radiation should seriously consider altering their diets to include more tomatoes and broccoli," said Canene-Adams.

      How much tomato and broccoli should a 55-year-old man concerned about prostate health eat in order to receive these benefits? The scientists did some conversions.

      "To get these effects, men should consume daily 1.4 cups of raw broccoli and 2.5 cups of fresh tomato, or 1 cup of tomato sauce, or cup of tomato paste. I think it's very doable for a man to eat a cup and a half of broccoli per day or put broccoli on a pizza with cup of tomato paste," said Canene-Adams.

      Erdman said the study showed that eating whole foods is better than consuming their components. "It's better to eat tomatoes than to take a lycopene supplement," he said. "And cooked tomatoes may be better than raw tomatoes. Chopping and heating make the cancer-fighting constituents of tomatoes and broccoli more bioavailable."

      "When tomatoes are cooked, for example, the water is removed and the healthful parts become more concentrated. That doesn't mean you should stay away from fresh produce. The lesson here, I think, is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables prepared in a variety of ways," Canene-Adams added.

      Another recent Erdman study shows that rats fed the tomato carotenoids phytofluene, lycopene, or a diet containing 10 percent tomato powder for four days had significantly reduced testosterone levels. "Most prostate cancer is hormone-sensitive, and reducing testosterone levels may be another way that eating tomatoes reduces prostate cancer growth," Erdman said.

      Tomato-Broccoli Combo Can Help Shrink Prostate Cancers...
      Read lessRead more

      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).

      7UP Drops 'All Natural' Claim...
      Read lessRead more